Saturday, December 21, 2002

How Not to Influence People (even Intellectuals)
This is so unfortunate, because the author is actually not a moron; he's a deservedly well-respected historian. Other bloggers have already pointed out the manifest inaccuracies and distortions in the article, so I want to try to figure out why an obviously intelligent person (ok, not from the article, but if you read his other work) would write something so stupid.

This is an important question, since self-described intellectuals really need to ask themselves "why do they hate us?" of, well, just about everybody. I think the scorn and contempt directed at intellectuals in general is a bad thing, but it's been partially earned by articles like this and by the behavior and statements of the most high profile intellectuals in the arts and humanities over the past many years. Scholars do have useful things to contribute (at least I think I do) to a better understanding and fuller enjoying of, say, The Lord of the Rings, but foolish categorical statements and the petty bashing of fandom makes it very hard for people to give scholars a chance to convince anyone outside their immediate cocoons.

The dumbest thing in Fernandez-Arnesto's article is this:"But unreconstructed myths are usually better. They spring from collective effort, from folk memory and from a shared subconscious. Reading them gives you satisfactions no fantasy can supply: contact with other cultures, insights into the past. They enhance your life by stimulating your understanding, for the arts of every civilisation are rooted in its myths."

No, no, no, no, no, no, no. There is no evidence whatsoever that myths "spring from collective effort." Every study of South Slavic guslari, every analysis of Beowulf or the works of Snorri shows exactly the opposite: epics are created by different individuals each adding a bit to the story. Different singers bring different geniuses to their songs. All myths are invented by inventors. Therefore the idea that some myths can give us actual "insights" into the past or "contact" with other cultures but fantasy cannot is a logical contradiction. It's all made up, and so the only thing separating fantasy from myth is time and popularity. In fact, some "genuine" epic literature is far more tedious than The Lord of the Rings could ever be accused of being. I love Njal's Saga, but 85% of the chapters begin "There was a man X. He was the son of Y who was the son of Z..." out to the fifth or sixth generation." I'm a crusty medievalist and like wading through such stuff, but it's hard to make an argument that by stripping away such material, Tolkien didn't make his material more palatable to the audience in the same way that a Homeric bard or a guslar would have adjusted his song to a particular audience's reactions.

Also, no one should print a line like "For the intellectuals in the audience, the only pleasure lies in observing a world created by cannibalising exotic cultures and eluding rational limitations." and expect not to be hated. I don't have quite as many degrees, honorary and otherwise, as Prof. F-A, but if I can't be also considered an "intellectual," then it's a very, very exclusive club indeed. So simply by my taking pleasure in the film (though not nearly as much as I take in the books), I have disproved his paragraph and called into question his general reliablity. In English we tell students "avoid sweeping generalizations: they're too easy to prove wrong." Maybe historians could learn from us.

Finally, I want to refer to a few of the comments on Andrea Harris' post. First, it doesn't matter, for the purpose of judging his fantasy literature, that Tolkien was a major scholar of Old Norse (he knew ON forward and backwards, but he published very little on it, btw). Either he created great art, or he didn't: his scholarly credentials can be used to argue for a disputed reading of a medieval text; they cannot justify his own art. Second, the idea that people reading fantasy literature is some kind of problem is absurd, but it springs from a reasonable premise: that we have not world enough and time to read everything good, so that every moment spent on fantasy is one not spent on Dante or Plato. True enough. But, as an economist would point out, the person who wants to argue this point needs to prove that fantasy is substituting itself for Plato rather than substituting itself for some other pleasure. Impossible to do. In my experience as a teacher of fantasy and of medieval literature, students who read fantasy can be drawn to other literatures and traditions, and they can expand their reading horizons (and fantasy is actually in and of itself good, anyway), thus being more likely to read Plato than if they had never encountered fantasy (I've lured quite a few students into Plato by mentioning the Ring of Gyges...)

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