Saturday, July 2, 2016

Area 51 of Lit Crit: Three (!) Straussian Interpretations of Tolkien

So, way back when as I first started researching Tolkien, I thought, "Gee! I'll be the first guy ever to marry Tolkien and Leo Strauss together!" For those of you not in the know (or not interested in the history of political philosophy, rather), Strauss is a semi-well-known German-born political philosopher who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1940s. His main theme is the revival of classical political rationalism. All in all, though, he's an extremely cool writer to pair with someone like Tolkien.

Anyway, long story short,
it turns out I'm not as cutting edge as I thought. I've now uncovered three separate Strauss-influenced essays on Tolkien.

  • Brogan, Joseph V. “Tolkien On Res Publica.” Conference Papers—American Political Science Association (2003): 1-42. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 Jan. 2015.
  • Smith, Thomas W. “Tolkien’s Catholic Imagination: Mediation and Tradition.” Religion & Literature 38.2 (2006): 73-100. JSTOR. Web. 5 Dec. 2014
  • Herbert, Gary B. “Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil and the Platonic Ring of Gyges.” Extrapolation 26.2 (1985): 152-159. Print.

The first piece is only a published conference paper (although a keynote), and it's pretty clear his specialty is political science rather than Tolkien -- he virtually ignores the Anglo-Saxon component and tries reading LOTR as a re-writing of Plato's Republic. Still, it's cool to see a Staussian reading in action.

The second is a bit weightier but still fails drastically by reading LOTR as a clear moral allegory. The last one, the Herbert piece, I just found this morning. Pretty intriguing piece for a mid-1980s Tolkien article with no secondary research. What's especially interesting (or aggravating) is that all three articles never actually refer to Strauss. Anyone familiar with Strauss can instantly pick up the Straussian themes (we Straussians tend to use a very distinctive phraseology), but still, what's with these guys? Is this a conspiracy of silence? Esoteric writing gone amuck? How can you not be clear about your methodology, your assumptions, or your intellectual debts? 

Reminds me of another scholar, Gary Saul Morson, who does Russian comparative literature. I first encountered him from an article he wrote on liberal education that was a dead ringer for Allan Bloom's thesis in The Closing of the American Mind. Since Bloom's a Straussian and a half, I thought, "Huh!! Another Straussian!" But then I went through several of Morson's books, found tons of Strauss-like phrases and arguments, and. . . nothing. Nary a mention of Strauss in either the references or the index. 

Paul A. Cantor is the only literary critic I know of who seems ready to admit Straussian influences in print. So what is this? I know academy tends to read Strauss as a conservative (I don't, necessarily), but he does seem to be the Area 51 of literary criticism.

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