Monday, April 30, 2018

Poul Anderson and Old Norse Poetry in Translation

So, by dint of my work on Paul Edwin Zimmer's poetry, who once dubbed J.R.R. Tolkien and Poul Anderson as his "literary masters," I'm now delving into what Poul Anderson has done poetry-wise . . . .

. . . and this has proven to be quite an interesting task. I'm pretty much getting all my information on Anderson's poetry from the wonderful Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Database, and, while some of it has been reprinted in widely scattered -- and hard to find -- volumes of work, much of it first appeared, and continues to only appear, in the famous sff fanzine Amra. This was a great home for many 1960s sword and sorcery authors, including Lin Carter, L. Sprague DeCamp, and of course Anderson. So my weekend was spent basically interlibrary loaning hoards and hoards of Anderson poetry which appeared in the fanzine over the course of the decade.

Many of the poetry, intriguingly, is not original to Anderson; it's almost entirely translations from Old Norse (which largely echoes the alliterative metre of Old English). With any luck, it should start arriving within the week. Looking forward to it.

A recent excursion into C. S. Lewis

Looking for some light reading after doing some dense critical theory, I decided to wander over the local Bookman's and grab myself a number of C.S. Lewis books:
  • The Screwtape Letters
  • The Abolition of Man**
  • Mere Christianity.
My thoughts?

(1) Lewis is a remarkably clear writer, and his style is refreshingly pleasant.

(2) He may not be a genuine philosopher, but he's funny, he's charming, and he writes with an incredible honesty. He's someone who I'd really like if I ever had the chance to meet him -- and that's not something I often contemplate when reading an author. Quite the opposite, actually.

(3) On much of the practical advice that he gives, we're pretty simpatico. For example, he calls "gluttony" any situation where someone is overly picky about the food they eat. I might call it something else, but it's a tad too self-indulgent for my taste**** and also, if you're out in public, just plain bad manners. Likewise, Lewis was famously careless about the way he dressed, and that shows up in his advice about fashion.

Although, unlike Thoreau who also wrote markedly on fashion, Lewis takes an explicitly Christian take on the subject: "The aim [of fashion] is to guide each sex away from those members of the other with whom spiritually helpful, happy, and fertile marriages are most likely" (Screwtape 106). Maybe I've swallowed too much feminism, but having "marriage" be the ultimate goal of inter-gender relations seems a tad much.

(4) Sometimes Lewis has truly Straussian moments (although neither Leo Strauss nor Lewis had mostly likely ever heard of the other). For example, Screwtape: "The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase  in the writer's development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man's own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the 'present state of the question'. To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge -- to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behaviour -- this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded" (Screwtape 150-52).

(5) Still, he's about as anti-activist a writer as you can imagine. Check this out: "If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilisation, which may last for a thousand years, is more important than an individual. But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important but incomparably more important, for he is ever-lasting and the life of a state or a civilisation, compared with his, is only a moment" (Mere Christianity 75).

While I agree that individuals are more important, CSL's frequent & dismissive remarks about mass political activism (a la the French Revolution and the American Revolution) suggests how strongly he feel such political activism is "unimportant" in light of "higher" concerns. No wonder establishment lit crit hates him -- critical theory is basically nothing but political activism by other means. Lewis's views on this subject nearly appall me; if accepted, in my view, they're nearly fatal to the brand of Christian humanism he advocates.

**The Abolition of Man actually came up during my dissertation defense, so I'd been meaning to read it for awhile.

*** See what I did there?

Thursday, April 26, 2018

APR . . . . passed!

As an innovative program, one of the things that the U of A Writing Program has begun doing in recent years is an Annual Performance Review for Career-track Faculty (i.e., the group formerly known as lecturers and NTTs). This year being my first year, obviously this was my first APR. Since I was a member of the APR committee in the fall, I mostly knew what to expect and, despite hearing some horror-and-griping stories from older lecturers, the process was pretty manageable.

All in all, gathering together the various documents** took me . . . actually, I have no idea. Anywhere between 5-15 hours, I suppose. That's the benefit of doing bureaucratic work while avoiding harder writing tasks like composing an article -- the time just flies by.

Anyway, last Monday I had a post-APR meeting with one of the WP faculty . . . it's a nice gesture on their part and just a way to touch base with us Career-track faculty. Quite a positive experience, and it's a relief to know that I didn't flub my first big academic chance as a recent postdoc. We'll probably know by mid-May about contract renewals. No one's expecting any unexpected budget shortfalls, but let's keep our fingers crossed on that. 

*** These documents included a teaching reflection, a teaching improvements document, Teacher-course evaluations, sample student writing with instructor feedback, an observation, and a list of service activities. The last went especially smoothly, partly thanks to the two publications I had in November. Overall, for the service, I scored something like a 23 or a 25 when the maximum was only 5.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Discipline Wars

Back when I was an MA student and unsure of the future direction of my academic study, I was obsessed with a perceived divide between literary studies and philosophy. Critical theory and cultural studies seemed like a lot of hocus pocus to me, where good old-fashioned analytic philosophy had the methodological rigor to get the truth out of real questions.

Well, that perceived divide is no longer a big issue with me (the value of one and the limitations of the other have become more apparent), so it's somewhat amusing to see disciplinary rancor when it crops up. I'm currently reading a book called Fame by a professor of philosophy named Mark Howlands. He's talking about the Protagorean view that "man is the measure," by which one understanding of the phrase is that truth claims such as the earth's roundness are always relative to the observer. This, however, "is a truly asinine doctrine," he says, "that can find a home only in university English and cultural studies departments" (33). 

And as much as I"m not a big believer in certain intellectual trends within cultural studies, nowadays it's hard to score polemics points with me . . . and I'm annoyed at such a bad paraphrase of a complicated set of ideas.

Friday, April 6, 2018

First (Solicited) Book Review

Well, this was a peach . . . . Other day, I received a random email from a well-known Tolkienist entitled, "Book on Tolkien for JTR." Immediately I think, Whoa, he wants to review for Fafnir! Just a few days before, I posted a CfR for Fafnir that had five Tolkien books as among the available titles. I was surprised because established scholars don't usually engage in reviewing all that much . . . it's more something for motivated early career academics.All five of those books had been grabbed up within the first 24 hours, incidentally, and I was worried that I'd have to explain how his book had already been given away!

Anyway, turns out that he was actually offering me a chance to review a book for Journal of Tolkien Research, which tickled me pink for all sorts of reasons. I've done tons of book reviews before, but usually after seeing a CfR or soliciting a reviews editor. This was the first time someone had solicited me. Moving on up, as George Jefferson would say.

And we even had a nice e-mail exchange afterward. Apparently, we'll both be at the International Congress in Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in a month and, as someone who's had almost two decades of experience going to this conference, he told me all sorts of cool things about the conference. 

A Swi-IIIING and a Miss: Lit Crit Edition

So, in the wake of meeting Stephen R. Donaldson at the ICFA, he had -- as I mentioned -- given me his contact e-mail. I waited a week and a half or so before emailing him; since he seemed genuinely interested in my work, I also sent the longer version of my article on his feminism and the issue of gender violence, currently under the review. A very pleasant exchange followed, which warmed my cold bleak heart. I considered writing that article, at a time when I should have been transforming my dissertation into a book, as a sort of homage for a set of books that just haven't received enough of the right kind of attention, at least not for the virtues I've always seen in them. So it's quite nice that he appreciated my remarks. . . . although, granted, if he had been irked by anything, I suspect his natural courtesy would have prevented him from saying so.

Anyway, concerning this blog's title: Rollo May.

As I was doing background research, I did some reading on Rollo May, an American existential psychologist who was big around the 1960s an 1970s. In particular I was struck by the resonances between his 1972 book, Power and Innocense, and Lord Foul's Bane. I wondered, quite naturally, if there might have been some influence. Alas, it was not to be -- while SRD admitted to having heard the name, he had no idea why.

At any rate, just to preserve my brilliantly insightful (almost) connection for posterity, I'll include my May/SRD footnote here below:

As radical feminist therapist, Bonnie Burstow is in a good position to know. Among the social sciences, existentialism has seen its greatest influence in psychology—both emphasize the individual to an unusual degree. Indeed, when it comes to existential psychology, I suspect that the American psychologist Rollo May might have been a great unacknowledged influence on Donaldson. Although May’s best known for Love and Will (1969), his book Power and Innocence (1972) has a number of uncanny intellectual resemblances to Donaldson. Like Donaldson, May holds that power is “a fundamental aspect of the life process” (Power 20). Even more importantly, he critiques the notion, which he calls innocence and attributes to the Counterculture, that “removing all power and aggression from human behavior” would lead to a better society (39). As a Conscientious Objector who objected to the Vietnam War, May’s discussion of power and aggression would have greatly interested Donaldson. He employs May’s unusual definition of innocence, for example, in The Wounded Land, combining it with his own ideas on power and guilt. Speaking to Linden Avery, here is Dr. Berenford’s description of Thomas Covenant’s latest novel:

If you had a chance to read Or I Will Sell My Soul for Guilt, you'd find him arguing that innocence is a wonderful thing except for the fact that it’s impotent. Guilt is power. All effective people are guilty because the use of power is guilt, and only guilty people can be effective. Effective for good, mind you. Only the damned can be saved. (23)

Furthermore, May’s opening in Power and Innocence might have served as a mission statement for The Chronicles. “As a young man,” May says, “I held innocence in high esteem. I disliked power, both in theory and practice, and abhorred violence” (Power 13). Convalescing from tuberculosis, however, May explains that he soon realized from watching the “apparently innocent patients around me in the sanatorium that passively accepting their powerlessness in the face of the disease meant dying” (14). Ironically, Covenant initially learns powerlessness in a sanitorium—although his sanitorium treated leprosy rather than tuberculosis. Nonetheless, Covenant eventually comes to conclusions similar to May’s.