Thursday, January 25, 2007

Review of How Tradition Works

As I've learned, there are a lot of very weird things about publishing books (let's leave out, for the time being, publishers who refuse to incorporate an entire round of corrections an editor has made, telling that editor that they're sure all of those things were caught by the "team of professional copy-editors." They weren't. But anyway...).

The biggest weirdness, for me, is the lag. Not so much the waiting (i.e., I waited 11 months for a reader's report on Beowulf and the Critics, although that's frustrating, it's not so bad) but the lag between when you were doing the work and when anyone actually reads the work and responds to it.

For example, I began working on the ideas in How Tradition Works over a decade ago. I put them into their current form by the end of 2001 or the beginning of 2002. The book was published in May 2006. It's now January 2007 and the only reviews I have are on

This is all weird because it's difficult to move on to the next thing before you get feedback on the first one, but if you wait that long, well, it'll be years and years between books. I have tried to avoid this problem in several ways, including writing articles for journals like Modern Philology, Neophilologus, Oral Tradition and Anglo-Saxon England as well as doing editing (Tolkien Studies, Tolkien Encyclopedia) and other projects, and I've also just tried to plug on ahead on the new book, From Tradition to Culture, which has finally started rolling along. But I've felt a little stuck, because the new book builds on the old, and I want to incorporate criticism (and refute arguments if need be).

So I was very grateful when Squire of's Reading Room wrote a review of HTW. And I was even more grateful when, as you can see if you click on this link to the follow-up discussion, folks at TORN read his review and raised some very interesting points (and Squire then provided some additional information to them). This kind of feedback makes a big difference in changing the feeling that one labors in a vacuum versus working as part of an intellectual community (the other thing that made a big difference was that I used HTW in my senior seminar this year, and my brilliant students really helped me clarify my ideas still further). The proof (for me at least) is that now I've suddenly gotten un-stuck on a part of From Tradition to Culture, which all of a sudden is coming along nicely again.

With his permission, I've posted Squire's review here for anyone else to read, but I do recommend following the link above so that you can see the discussion. I'm not going to use the "blockquote" tag here, because that will make everything below format poorly, but everything in this post from this point on is by Squire:

//Most people here, if they’ve heard of Michael Drout, know him as a leading Tolkien scholar. He is the editor of Tolkien’s Beowulf lecture manuscript; he is the editor of the journal Tolkien Studies; and he is the editor of the recently issued J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia.

Fewer may know what his ‘day job’ is. He is professor of Old and Middle English at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. As such he teaches courses in Old English, Beowulf, and Chaucer to undergraduates. If you’ve read his article, “Tolkien’s Prose Style and its Literary and Rhetorical Effects” (Tolkien Studies, I, 2004), you know that his knowledge of Old English allows him to approach Tolkien in a way that few here on TORn have even considered learning.

Last year, as we in the Reading Room group were working on our contributions to the Encyclopedia under Drout’s editorship, I learned from Drout’s blog that he was simultaneously publishing another book. The title, How Tradition Works: A Meme-Based Cultural Poetics of the Anglo-Saxon Tenth Century (Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2006), was daunting, but I was intrigued. The cover showed a funny illustration of three medieval figures, seated on thrones, contemplating a long ribbon of Old English print that morphed into a DNA molecule and then bits of genetic code.

Drout swore that the book was aimed at an educated general audience, and I’ve always loved genetic code stuff, so I took a chance and read the book. This is my report to you about my expedition into some serious Medieval studies, and into the mind of Michael Drout.

The Big Picture

The big picture is that Drout is trying to cross-fertilize two academic disciplines that are about as far apart as you can imagine: medievalists and evolutionary biologists. To put it more generally, he is trying to re-insert the humanities, which in his opinion are lost in their intricate and abstract literary theories, into the intellectual mainstream that is dominated these days by the cutting-edge empirical hard sciences, quantitative disciplines that prove things and get results.

His vehicle is the meme. What is a meme? A meme is the “cultural” equivalent of a gene. If a gene is a molecular-scale entity that controls some aspect of an organism’s physical, bodily, development, then a meme is a highly discrete cultural act performed by humans: a word in a language, a way of cutting meat with a knife, a song always sung at birthdays. The essence of the meme is that it is transmitted: people learn cultural acts from other people.

The argument by memetic proponents is that, just as genes are transmitted by reproduction, and are multiplied or diminished by the test of natural selection in the environment, so memes are transmitted by teaching or imitation and are multiplied and diminished by how well they serve the people who acquire them. Much of memetic theory is deliberately modeled on genetic theory, and a perfect storm of debate is now raging in certain circles about whether memes 1) exist; 2) have more than metaphorical meaning; and/or 3) explain everything about the development of human culture since apes stood up and used a stick to scratch their backs.

Drout the medieval language scholar confesses up front that he is a secret science-lover. His childhood ambition was to be a synthesist or a polymath, someone who can learn all current knowledge, and explain it to you. One of his heroes is the late Stephen Jay Gould (one of mine, too, another reason I took a chance on this book), whose lucid and erudite essays from Natural History are things of epistolary beauty. So although Drout primarily loves and studies medieval literature, he refuses to let that put him in some ghetto where other branches of the Arts and Sciences do not exist, or do not have value -- particularly when he perceives their value to his discipline, if only he can stretch his mind around non-literary concepts.

The upshot is that he has decided to try to apply memetic theory to the old problem of what “tradition” is in literature and culture. Derived from this is the more detailed problem of detecting, interpreting and explaining “influences” in literary works: examples of usage that recur in different artists’ works in different places or times that presumably show that one artist is “influenced” by another.

And since he is a specialist in 10th century English literature and culture, he naturally wants to use his own hoary old subdiscipline as an example of a how a literary-cultural memetic theory ought to work. (Thus the meaning of his subtitle: “A meme-based cultural poetics”.) He sets out to show how the very new theory of memetics can help us understand the patterns of cultural behavior, innovation, and tradition that are found in very old texts.

The Fine Grain: How Memes conserve Content, Style, and Aesthetics

So, how does he do this? First, Drout takes us on an exquisitely thorough background tour of modern memetic theory, and the history of the Benedictine monastic reform that transformed England in the 900s A.D. Then we get to the heart of the book: a sequence of six chapters of close analysis of Anglo-Saxon literature. They show the various ways that the language and behavior of the Benedictine reform, embodied in the Rule (an amazingly detailed proscription of exactly what Benedictine monks were to do with themselves for, literally, every minute of every day of every year, forever), spread out and infiltrated not just ecclesiastical but also secular life and culture in England.

And these chapters are hard. Drout admits that he had done much of the academic work here before he got interested in memetic theory, and that this book is a possibly “ungainly” post-facto integration of theory and scutlike field work in pure Anglo-Saxon studies. You don’t have to know Anglo-Saxon to read this book, but you’ll be skimming, or taking the author’s word on, propositions that Drout’s academic peers will be scanning for potentially fatal semantic or interpretational mistakes. My rusty Latin definitely helped me along at times; though, again, you don’t strictly need to know any dead languages to get the gist of the arguments.

He reviews the effect of the Rule itself on the idea of tradition: how the Rule “replicates” itself explicitly by requiring that it be regularly read aloud to the monks who live by it, a classic example of memetic “self-preservation”.

He analyzes the extant corpus of wills from the period, showing how their content, as measured by word-usage, was affected by the ideology of the Rule after it arrived in England.

He pauses to comment on how Oral Theory studies have shown the power of repetition in preserving texts and by extension traditional behaviors – he interprets oral-formulaic repetition of text as the “self-replication” of word-usage memes.

He moves on from content to style, taking up the problem of dating the Latin-to-Old English translation of Chrodegang’s Rule (a precursor to the Benedictine Rule); he shows how not just individual words but entire rhetorical formulations, considered as memes and meme-plexes, can be traced and linked to parallel stylistic usages in Benedictine-era documents, to place the Chrodegang translation squarely in the early 10th century.

Finally, he tackles not just content and style, but aesthetics: the Exeter Book wisdom poems are metrical lists of proverbial dicta about medieval life, with a particular appeal to the aristocracy. Drout makes memetic connections between the underlying assumptions of the apparently secular wisdom poems and the spiritual ideology of the reform Benedictine Rule, showing how the reformers secured their position with the ruling class by projecting their monastic aesthetic into the non-monastic cultural life of literate England.

The Take-away

Whew. That was brutal. As I said, this is not a book for kids. The upshot is, Drout is trying to quantify what “tradition” is. He believes memetic theory does an end-run around a lot of literary hot air and theory about tradition, by postulating a logical and consistent assembly of many small repeated words, phrases and beliefs into larger and larger assemblages of cultural behavior, all with strong intrinsic tendencies toward “self-perpetuation”.

His literal argument is that the text of the Benedictine Rule, being both internally consistent, useful, and explicitly self-perpetuating, had a provable impact on its surrounding culture, creating an entire “era” that in retrospect constitutes a “tradition” within Anglo-Saxon history.

But by casting the entire argument in the meta-language of memetics, he is attempting to show that this specific case-study is itself replicable – that his theory is its own useful, functional, and transmittable meme-plex. Through this book, it can be “transmitted” to English departments across the land and re-engage any tired literary sub-specialty in a new theory that works not just for English but for the entire humanistic academy.

And let me conclude by saying this. I’ve radically simplified the sheer depth of this book. This is the product of literally years of hard clear thought and study. Drout’s passion for his topic is palpable. He writes fantastically well (as those who read his blog already know). If this book is hard and in places obscure, it’s also a wonderful intellectual excursion into a world that, without this author, I would probably never have gotten near. It reminded me in that sense of Hofstadter’s Goedel, Escher, Bach, a book that took me deeper into symbolic logic and recursion theory than I will ever go again -- but the memory of it as a sheer thrilling mind-adventure has never left me, after thirty years. Thirty years from now, I’m sure I will still remember the thrill of reading and understanding How Tradition Works.

P.S. What about Tolkien? Poor Tolkien? Well, Drout does work him in. Here’s part of his conclusion:

It is possible to imagine continuing such a program of research even further into the Middle Ages, perhaps going step by step through each century until we reached the present day, though I don’t know if there be world enough and time . . . I think it is more practical to try to investigate the idea of memetic “seeds” in both Victorian and twentieth-century culture, examining the ways that medieval and Anglo-Saxon memes are resurrected and how they shape the cultures in which they find themselves. Thus I can see the possibility of a memetic investigation of the pre-Raphaelites or the Gothic Revival in the nineteenth century and the development of fantasy literature, particularly the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, in the twentieth.
So there you are. Not perhaps exactly on topic, Reading Room-wise. But if Drout can do it, so can we:

A. What “memes” of traditional medieval literature do you find in The Lord of the Rings? Be specific.

B. To what degree have they been transmitted from the original texts, thanks to Tolkien’s nearly-unique acquaintance with original medieval literature? Or have they been transmitted via intermediary texts and traditions like Victorian Gothic and Romantic revivals, as Drout may be suggesting?

1 comment:

Agent Bones said...

Professor Drout,

As someone who has been a lifelong fan of Tolkien's LoR and Silmarillion work, and as a new fan of Beowulf, I am adding this book, 'How Tradition Works' to the top of my list of must-haves.

I have recently purchased and am part of the way through your Barnes and Noble lecture series, 'Of Sorcerors and Men' and am finding it immensely enjoyable and illuminating.

I will be looking into your other recorded lecture series as well.

I was particularly interested in you thoughts on what makes a book fantasy book, versus the other genres. I am facing that exact dilemma with my own current book project, a genre bending work of speculative fiction set in the 'present' but with all sorts of genre elements, including magick, horror, some science fiction.

I can also empathize with you desire for more timely feedback on your written work. Having worked (briefly and unsuccessfully) as an agent, I know all too well how long the publishing cycle can take, especially going through the traditional commercial publishing houses.

I look forward to getting and reading this new book, and I will gladly provide feedback and questions when I get it-rather soon, I would think!

Thanks for your good work.

Doug Pierce
aka Agent Bones