Monday, August 15, 2016

Ouch -- just got the book on SRD

Michael D. C. Drout, my all-time favorite Tolkien scholar, once made a remark in one of his essays that a common reason articles get from Tolkien Studies is that they simply treat Tolkien as too perfect and infallible. That's something which makes a lot of sense to me -- the collateral damage of studying a major author is that you now know all the mean/rotten things that can be said about him or her. (I once took a class from a Hemingway scholar who told us not to worry about offending him if we hated Hemingway, since the prof  had already heard it all and could probably even help us out with mean things we hadn't even thought of yet.) Well, I think Christine Barkley's Stephen R. Donaldson and the Modern Epic Vision might be running afoul of some of those same problems of excessive praise Got the book this afternoon -- just 1/10th of the way through, and the book's still in the "Rah, rah, greatest author of all time" mode. Even worse, her clear passion for SRD is leading her into highly questionable assertions in nearly every paragraph.

To give a sense of what I mean, here's the first lines from her introduction:

"Stephen R. Donalson, in his 'Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever' series, stands at the pinnacle of 3,000 years of the best thought in Western civilization, poised to help modern literature out of its paralysis and back into purpose and meaning in the twenty-first century" (5).

Keep in mind, that's the first sentence in her introduction. A giant, broad, sweeping generalization about Western thought which culminates in SRD, who single-handedly is helping "modern literature" (another sweeping generalization) to recover purpose and meaning. Oh lawdy. I mean, I love SRD and all, but . . . . well.

Here's another:

"The willingness on our part to move away from a society based entirely on religion to one that embraces science and its resultant technological improvements is, in part, the cause of our economic success when compared to the rest of the world, especially those areas of the world still mired in either/or thinking" (7). 

Really now. HAVE we really actually moved away from a society based entirely on religion? That's a misstatement on the modern and the medieval periods both. And is she claiming that Africa's economic situation is the result of either/or thinking instead of, for example, a history of colonialism? And some of the most economically advanced countries of eastern Asia are heavily Taoist and Buddhist, which have beaten SRD to the punch of rejecting either/or thinking by a couple thousand years.

"Modern philosophy illustrated the power of changing a whole people's world view when Marx influenced our view of 'society' by lessening the importance of the individual and magnifying the supremacy of group dynamics" (15).

Well, the first modern philosopher is considered Descartes, not Marx, and Descartes is best known for introducing the subjective turn in philosophy -- which paves the way for modern individualism. And while Marx's importance cannot be overstated, his main field is economics -- and the 19th-century came up with a whole lot of other social sciences, few of which were directly influenced by Marx. Plus, why the hell is the world "society" is scare quotes?

I ordered this book really hoping to like it, since SRD really is a fantastic writer, but I'm no longer holding out much hope for this.


Other notes:

  • CB has a very author-centric approach. "This is what the author means, and that's what's important."
  • Correspondingly, a heavy reliance on SRD's Epic Fantasy in the Modern World, a short essay he wrote that basically outlines his authorial manifesto.
  • Also too easily accept's SRD's "eye of the paradox" idea, which CB often glosses as and/or types of thinking rather than either/or rationalistic types of thinking.

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