Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Return of Catherine R. Stimpson

The title says it all!

Every once in a while, you accidentally find yourself in the academic equivalent of that old celebrity game, "Dead or Alive?" Just scrolling through my newsfeed this morning, someone had reposted a piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books by a certain Catherine R. Stimpson. The article is entitled "The Nomadic Humanities."

As dedicated Tolkienists realize, way back in 1969 Stimpson helped form the vanguard of anti-Tolkien polemics by mainstream academics, granting her (in the process) the dubious distinction of having written a very bad, bad, terrible book on Tolkien.** Approaching ole' Tollers from a Marxist and feminist perspective, she finds him lacking in pretty much every respect. Reading Tolkien, she tells us, is "not like reading real books, like Alice in Wonderland and Finnegans Wake" (43, her emphasis). He is an "incorrigible nationalist" (8) with a "lucid and conventional theory of history" (11). Stimpson hated his prose so much that, unable to find a real example bad enough to express her dislike, made up the phrase "to an eyot he came," a sentence never actually penned by Tolkien.

Worse is her armchair diagnoses of Tolkien's mental and emotional states. It's truly god-awful -- even for 1960s pyschoanalytic criticism. Though admitting that the Inklings were "verbally eloquent," they "often stammered emotionally" (6). Behind Tolkien’s moral structure is “a regressive emotional pattern” (18), and even “more suggestive of Tolkien’s subtle contempt and hostility toward women is the atavistic tale of Shelob,” where Sam’s stabbing of her “oozes a distasteful, vengeful quality as the small, but brave, male figure really gets the enormous, stenching bitch-castrator” through his phallic sword-thrust through Shelob’s womb (19). It's the sort of stuff you really have to read to believe. Her opinions aren't bad because they're so clearly wrong -- they're bad because they're so personal and vituperative, culpable from her egregious lack of sympathy for a writer on whom she, as a reviewer, has a duty to attempt to understand.. 

So, needless to say, I had no idea that Professor Stimpson was still around, especially as her Tolkien book came out 47 years ago. So imagine my shock when I saw this recent article in LARB.

"The Nomadic Humanities" isn't that bad of an article, actually -- and Stimpson is certainly a fine prose stylist. She starts off with Edward Said, quickly establishes her leftist political sympathies, and then argues that a pan-world "humanities" can help us understand meaning-making practices across cultures, including interpretation and critical evaluation. Nice and bland, though fiercely sympathetic to every group outside of the dominant within western culture. All in all, I got no major issue with that. Yet, as with her Tolkien book, the political sympathies tend to override Stimpsons’s analytical rigor. A host of relatively meaningless buzzword and phrases intermingle with the genuinely engaging prose. 

Thus, near the end, she argues that a nomadic humanities can help forge those meanings of being human which are being constantly “rewritten and reanimated” –- an insipidly positive phrase that sounds progressive without actually saying all that much. She furthermore writes that a “nomadic humanities is comfortable with diversity and change,” which is fine, but it also “recognizes and respects the tensions between the necessities of being unsettling and being settled, being decentered and upright,” which is also fine except that it also avoids saying anything. (Negotiating tensions sounds great, but it’s also reflects the emptiness of political speeches that want to seem to say something without actually saying anything.) And, of course, the nomadic humanities “can wander into a satisfying, but never self-satisfied, fissured set of purposes and values on an Earth whose denizens can also probe the cosmos.”  I have no idea what "satisfying, but never self-satisfied, fissure set of purposes and values”actually means. It seems to be simply a clear endorsement of a certain political vantage point, which again I have no problem with, but which offends my instinctive desire for clarity and rigor.

Stimpson does try to apply this idea of the nomadic humanities to various writers, but the wishy-washiness of the original concept (and she seems like one of those academics who tries to make a virtue of wishy-washiness) renders the whole shebang suspect in my eyes. It does not seem as if she's changed much from her Tolkien-writing days. Or maybe I'm just one of those "most constricted of sensibilities [who] can ignore the narratives of birds and whales. . . . ”



**Stimpson, Catherine R. J.R.R. Tolkien. New York: Columbia UP, 1969. Print.


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