Literary Serendipity (or ‘Finding two books talking to one another’)

A short, under-researched and frivolous note on these two quotes, which by complete chance I happened to read within a few hours of each other yesterday – a digested version: two Englishmen* have different ideas about war (seriously, it’s that groundbreaking):

“Of bliss and glad life there is little to be said before it ends, as works fair and wonderful, while still they endure for eyes to see, are their own record; and only when they are in peril or broken forever, do they pass into song.”

– J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

“The mental connexion between pessimism and a reactionary outlook is no doubt obvious enough. What is perhaps less obvious is just why the leading writers of the twenties were predominantly pessimistic. Why always the sense of decadence, the skulls and cactuses, the yearning after lost faith and impossible civilizations? Was it not, after all, because these people were writing in an exceptionally comfortable epoch? It is just in such times that ‘cosmic despair’ can flourish. People with empty bellies never despair of the universe, nor even think about the universe, for that matter.”

– George Orwell, Inside the Whale

It struck me that these two sentiments must have been committed to type within a few years of one another – Orwell was writing in 1940 as the true scale of the Second World War was being revealed; Tolkien, I was surprised to discover, may have begun drafting ‘The Silmarillion’ as early as 1914 (when an undergraduate), but returned to the manuscripts in earnest in the 1950s. As such, it seemed pertinent to compare these two conceptions of cultural production in a little more depth (and I promise it really is only a little – in fact, depth is most definitely an overstatement).

Orwell is describing the Joyce-Eliot generation and their overt desire to see beyond the ordinary, even if (as for Joyce) the ordinary is itself used as a tool of the metaphysical. This is contrasted with the works of Remarque, Hemingway et al, who – writing in times which might seem to demand metaphysical commentary (i.e. the First World War) – do not seek to go beyond the illustrative (Orwell is clearly in favour of the latter approach, without denigrating the former, and finds the aggregate of the ‘small picture’ views most effective).

Tolkien, in his history of the Eldar, is referring to the fact that despite their recent invention, runes were little used to record events during a period of peace and prosperity; only once war broke out did it seem germane to record a cultural legacy. In one respect, Orwell could be seen to concur, or at least to offer a reason why Tolkien’s hypothesis may be true: that in times of plenty, we do not choose to celebrate that plenty, but instead use the leisure that such plenty facilitates to consider matters of global, or universal, significance (this is basically the consensus view on how ‘culture’ came about).

At their hearts, though, I find the two statements contradictory. Orwell evidently feels that literature produced in times of hardship focuses on the minutiae, on the drudgery, and on the immediate. The message is, he says: “What the hell is all this about? God knows. All we can do is to endure.” For Tolkien, whose conception of the heroic is both deeply rooted and a good deal more romantic, the very nature of hardship brings reflection, and the weighing of what is important about one’s people. Both writers seem to agree that there is dignity in hardship, and that, as often as not, the best of human (or equivalent) spirit finds itself bubbling to the surface in such times. What interests me, however, is that for Tolkien this spirit is grandiose, universal and communal, whereas for Orwell it is honest, focused and profoundly humble – both, I suspect, would call this nobility, but the difference is striking.

Orwell refers obliquely throughout Inside the Whale to his own time as a combatant without ever quite mentioning it. His makes plain his view of war as an unromantic and grubby reality – even when referring to a conflict as outwardly ideological as the Spanish Civil War. Tolkien fought in the First World War, spending five months on the Western Front before being invalided home. According to biographer John Garth, Tolkien saw the trench experience as socially positive, forging bonds across class and regional lines. He seems to have retained a view of war rather commensurate with his expertise in Anglo-Saxon poetry – not naïve, but certainly idealized. Though his most famous creation would fit the Orwellian mould – for hobbits are surely honest and humble, even if their focus is sometimes knocked askew by Longbottom Leaf – the very nature of his universe is more classically heroic, and the fighting itself largely undertaken by elves and men (on the side of good, at least). Without this romantic view, his wonderful stories would lose their compelling heart. Both are writers I love, and finding conversations like this taking place on my bookshelf – conversations which ultimately may not be resolvable – is all part of the joy of reading. That such a conversation is relevant irrespective of time or place is doubly rewarding.

*Though neither was born in England

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Published in: on July 14, 2010 at 5:11 pm  Comments (2)  

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  1. The conversations that dead people trapped in paper have are thrilling.

    On the subject of hardship vs plenty and the kind of art and thought those things throw up… one interesting thing I discovered when I was researching a book on Samurai is that the concept of the “way of the warrior” (bushido) was only formalised in the Edo period, when things were mostly peaceful, the “decadent” samurai period, if you like. At that time they weren’t really doing much by way of samurai-ing, they were pretty much just civil servants by then.

    Perhaps when you’re doing something, living something, every day, you don’t need to conceptualise it in the same way. Or you don’t have time to. It just IS.

    But, when you think of WWI trench poetry, that does reflect and universalise and formalise experience. All that sitting about in the trenches or in sanitariums afterwards?

    • Yes, I think there might be something quite specific to the First World War that goes beyond generalisation – it was the ‘first’ of so many aspects of warfare (in a mass sense), but coincided with the end of the vestiges of nineteenth-century society and morality. Shock therapy doubtless had something to do with it too.

      Interesting about the samurai – European warfare’s great theorist, Clausewitz, was certainly an active soldier but did not begin writing until around a year after Napoleon had been defeated.


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