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4.01.2004

Now is the Time on Sprockets When We Open a Hotel!

posted by:
wordwarp
Why Terrorism Works:
In line with Patrick’s previous link to the suicide bomber story:

This is a speech given by Alan Dershowitz at the First Parish Church in Cambridge, Mass in December 2002. It is titled “Why Terrorism Works,” based on the book of the same name. He makes the claim that Terrorism--which usually gets rewarded and is therefore successful—must, like piracy of the 17th and 18th centuries, be stopped by punishing it rather than rewarding it. Reasonable people can disagree on Dershowitz’s general theme or specific points. Nevertheless, it is well worth listening to.

But there is a question worth asking that emerges from Dershowitz’s presentation: If Terrorism could have been as successful for the Jews of Nazi Germany in the late 1930’s and 1940’s as it’s been for other groups in the 20th Century, that is, if Jews could have bombed residences in Munich and Bonn, or blown up Berlin buses and achieved their particular goals, should they have done it?

This question is not meant to equate the situation of Jews in Nazi Germany with Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza, the Kurds in Turkey or Iraq, or the Tibetans, all of which are mentioned by Dershowitz in his speech.

Note: Having not yet read his book "Why Terrorism Works," I do not know if he addresses this question in it or in any other of his lectures, articles or books.

-S. Schudy

The Name Game

A couple of significant news stories prompt a couple of insignigficant remarks.

The first is here. The sentence in question reads:

"Nothing should be read into the timing of this announcement," said Lieutenant Commander Flex Plexico, a Pentagon spokesman, of the planned radar sale.

That's Flex Plexico from the 21st century to you!

The second is here. Again, the bit of interest:

A Turkish interior ministry official said 37 people were detained in Turkey and 16 more were held in swoops in Italy, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, targeted at Turkey's Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C).

In a taped statement the People's Liberation Revolutionary Party-Front of Turkey said, "Splitters!"

Posted by Doug Brown
There is an interesting article over at news24. Hypocrisy at it's finest.

It also seems that not all French people are insane (Washington Times).

And lastly, IP is really going off the deep end. This is even worse than the attempted patent for the letter 'e'... this one got passed.

-Patrick, counting the days until David officially becomes evil

3.31.2004

Afternoon Constitutional

By way of contrast, here's the Iraqi Interim Constitution, complements of The Agonist. Striking by its absence is the sort of UN-speke that was scattered throughout the Afghan Constitution.

On the other hand, more problematic than the occasional rainbows & unicorns of the Afghan document is this sentence:

Article 7 (B) Iraq is a country of many nationalities, and the Arab people in Iraq are an inseparable part of the Arab nation.

Wow. Pan-Arab nationalism, right there in the constitution? Who do we thank for that? Bremer? Chalabi? Al-Sistani?

Posted by Doug Brown
Whistling in the Dark

John - I agree with your Tolkien comments, with a difference. However, I'm unable to articulate said difference because I already made my last comment on Tolkien below. So I'll just say that I'm persuaded, having never disagreed wholly with any of the points you raised, but it's the kind of agreement that says, "And yet . . ."

But if I were to break my word, this would become a Tolkien blog and the next thing you'd know we'd be hopping around in costumes. Not being one to give David such gratification, I will subside.

3.30.2004

Tolkien . . .
Further Notes On The Art Of Middle Earth

By John O'Connor

I have cited to the Christian symbolism in Tolkien, not because this is my interpretation or imagination, but because these are specific items which, in extensive reading and browsing, I have seen attributed to the author's intent, either by himself or by plausible others. If an author says, in writing, that he intended such-and-such a thing, I think it is safe to say he intended it.

Tolkien's collected letters and his authorized biography reveal and clarify his own intentions authoritatively, and in his own words. In his collected letters, for instance, he explains that the "lembas" is a communion reference. He was also on record as to the Christian-calendar aspect of the story, which has Frodo's trip take place in a single liturgical year. These are written records in which the artist explains his symbolic intent. They cannot be explained away.

Tolkien's own published literary theory makes plain that he does not approve of authors being overly-clear with their readers. One complaint he has about allegory, in particular, is that it tends to diminish the literary nature of any given work, reducing its literary stature and shrinking it to propaganda or agitprop. In the 20th century, this problem was probably most common in socially committed or leftist literature; but Tolkien's complaint was a timeless one, and intended as such. Allegorical writing and allegorical reading, in his view, directly threaten literature by diminishing the pleasure of reading as such and by reducing the story to a mere message, or a mere vehicle for a message. (The process by which a person becomes corrupted into a ring-wraith is not unlike the process by which literature becomes corrupted into propaganda.)

Tolkien's seminal essay on Beowulf makes plain that Tolkien's ideal writer of allegory would not spell everything out for his audience. Quite the contrary. What made the Beowulf essay revolutionary in its day was its insistence on the literary value of the Beowulf poem as a piece of literature, and not simply as a mine from which data or meanings were to be extracted. Because Tolkien's Beowulf essay was written and published just as Tolkien was producing The Hobbit, it has much relevance, not merely to Tolkien as a reader of literature, but also to Tolkien as an author thinking out loud about his own crafty craft. He is very emphatic that an author is to sublimate whatever allegorical intentions he may have, and that the message should be subordinate to the art. (Poetry should instruct by pleasing.)

With the Beowulf essay in mind, and a few clear clues as to what is coded into the text, a hunt for symbolism becomes not only plausible but unavoidable.

Tolkien's other significant piece of literary theory came in his essay on fairy tales. Here he advances his theory of the "eucatastrophe" in literature. More important, though, he puts forward his theory of the gospels. According to Tolkien, the gospels are fairy tales. That is their literary genre. He means this as a high and serious compliment. The corollary, however, is that some fairy tales are thus the gospel.

I take this to be a Catholic way of interpreting the Christian religion, radically different from a fundamentalist approach. Fundamentalists of all varieties tend towards an idolatry of the text -- just as, in Catholicism, Catholic fundamentalists tend towards an idolatry of the church. Because Tolkien has an essentially Roman Catholic relationship to the gospel texts -- one which does not view them as an end in themselves -- he reads them differently and imagines them differently, as well. Seeing the gospels as fairy tales, he writes fairy tales which are gospels. All this is based on what is plainly stated in writing in his own literary theory and is not a projection onto the text of his stories.

Leo Strauss popularized the idea of code writing -- the idea that sometimes the message of a text must be deciphered rather than read. The Jewish experience of reading and writing under difficult circumstances and amidst untold persecution led Strauss to emphasize this way of interpreting, and it is an accepted fact that certain Jewish texts contain coded messages not intended for the general public, but only for the initiate.

In my opinion, there is a Straussian element in Tolkien's work As a patriot and nationalist, Tolkien wanted to create a mythology for England -- yet he was also a rock-ribbed Catholic. The challenge was to combine those two commitments. For many centuries, the self-definition of Englishness has not included Catholicism -- somewhat the reverse, actually. Tolkien does not hide his debt to English literature or to German mythology, but he does hide his Catholicism. It is there, but you must search for it.

Tolkien's Catholicism has important literary consequences. As noted, there is a crucifixion-and-resurrection in the narrative. However, this is not how salvation occurs. It turns out that the most important thing in the trilogy is an act of compassion, not an act of crucifixion. Specifically, Bilbo's act of compassion in not killing Gollum turns out to be the single deed which saves the whole world. The narrative underlines and emphasizes this moral, so it is difficult to miss.

Less emphatically, and with more subtlety, Tolkien has shifted the emphasis from crucifixion to compassion. It is not quite a heresy, but it is not exactly what a conservative Christian (Mel Gibson, for instance) would recognize as the essence of Christian salvation. One act of forbearance saves the entire world -- this is a Christian message, but it is not the Christian message. The shift is away from human sacrifice and towards two other things instead -- compassion and luck. This last idea, that the world might be saved by luck, is surely anathema to any orthodox Christian, Catholic or not. And yet it is hinted at in the text by a vigorously orthodox writer.

Strauss, anyone?

An Eastern comparison to Tolkien's cosmology is helpful, I think. In Asian religion, the figure of Kwan Yin is suspiciously like that of the Virgin Mary. She functions, like Mary, as the female face of the divine. Also like Mary, she is the incarnation of compassion. The difference between the Virgin Mary and a boddhisattva strikes me as small to the point of debatable. Gandalf, in particular, who as discussed is a kind of Christ figure, is also very like a boddhisattva. In his youth, as Olorin, he studies under a female spirit (this is from The Silmarillion) and from her he learns pity and patience. Gandalf is a Christ figure -- but he is also a Mary figure.

I have explained before that Tolkien would probably accept the papal teaching that Mary is as important as Christ. This teaching is, as discussed, anathema to most Protestants, although Eastern Orthodox Christians would probably align more with Rome on this questions. (Mary wins two out of three, and has certainly won the popular vote. The electoral college is another matter.) If one interprets Mary as being the incarnation of compassion, then Tolkien's book is not merely written by a Catholic, it has a specifically Marian moral. An act of compassion by an ordinary creature is what saves Tolkien's world. This is a Marian lesson, taught by one of Mary's devotees, and it is beyond the purview of many conventional Christians, Catholic or Protestant.

This aspect of Tolkien's work is there for those who are meant to see it, but not for the general reader. If Mel Gibson were to make a movie out of Tolkien, he would focus on Gandalf at the bridge, or, with several hours of slo-mo, on Gollum biting off Frodo's finger. In that sense, Tolkien's book, like any great book, is a Rorschach test for the reader or potential film-maker. The recent movie trilogy left out Bombadil, for instance.

The whole book, of course, is a marriage novel. It could plausibly be titled, Sammy And Rosie Get Married. For those who prefer a military or church-militant view of the story, the marital dimensions of the epic might as well be written in a lost runic language.

joc
The Beginnings of Democracy?

I finally took a moment today to read through Afghanistan's new constitution. It's a pretty standard republican constitution. The usual three branches of government, a President and Vice-President, a bicameral legislation, and a Supreme Court. Of course, it's got the expected parts about the role of Islam in the state, which is probably handled as well as it could be. A few of the articles stood out on my first reading.

Article 3 reads: "In Afghanistan, no law can be contrary to the sacred religion of Islam and the values of this Constitution." I wonder if, by placing the Constitution parallel to the teachings of Islam, this was intended to set a limit to the interpretations of Islam that may be legislated.

According to Article 84, the upper legislative house (the "Meshrano Jirga") is to be appointed by the provincial and district councils, one per province or district, and one-third of its members by the president. Apparently this could be a body of flexible size (as, actually, could the lower house ("Wolesi Jirga") which is to have from 220 to 250 members.

Article 130 and 131, which pertain to the Supreme Court provides, problematically, for two systems of jurisprudence: a default to hanafi jurisprudence, with an exception for "personal matters involving members of the Shia sect," whose cases will be subject to, you guessed it, Shia jurisprudence.

Interesting fact: each page of the English translation refers the reader to the Pashto version as authoritative. Curiously like the warning at the front of my copy of Q'uran that only the Arabic version is inspired.

Last comment but one on Tolkien:

There are things in the recent LOTR movies that are (in the sexual sense) totally gay. Best example of this: when the glam-rock-Ziggy-Stardust-period-Bowie elf of Lorien says, "The dwarf breathes so loudly we could shoot him in the dark."

Last comment on Tolkien:

The motifs you highlight are archetypes so common that you could hardly write anything on the mythic scale that Tolkien aspired to without including them. There are certainly things in Rings that facilitate a Christian symbolic interpretation some of the dating, as you point out), but a) they are most often used subversively (e.g. Lorien, the "immaculate land" is fading and dying), and b) most of them depend for their existence on the imagination of the reader, I think, and not on that old bugbear authorial intention.

Posted by Doug Brown
Tolkien . . . The Lighter Side

Much as I revere Tolkien's books, there are parts of Lord Of The Rings that are (in the non-sexual sense) totally gay.

Hobbits. Dwarves. Elves.

Can Dorothy and the wizard be far behind?

--john o'connor

3.29.2004

Tolkien, Part Two

The Christian symbolism is in my opinion easy to miss, especially if one gets caught up in the very engaging story.

Nevertheless, it is increasingly clear that Tolkien intended to put allegorical symbols in.

Gandalf's mishap in Moria is actually intended to be a death-and-resurrection number. This is easy to miss if you have read The Silmarillion, for that book makes clear that Gandalf and his kind can change shapes (ie, bodies) the way other people change clothes. (It is a mark of Sauron's slow decline that he eventually loses this power.) Knowing this, you might miss the resurrection symbolism of Gandalf's return -- the all-white clothes, the increased power, etc etc. Gandalf after Moria is a white rider on a white horse -- right out of Revelations, I would think. Tolkien wrote elsewhere (forget the exact cite) that, because he had imagined a world which was different from ours but subject to the same rules, that the death-and-resurrection aspect of Gandalf's fall was his world's version of Christ's d-and-r number in the Christian faith. In other words, once you find the author's intent from an extramural source, you can look back and see The Christian Symbol, which an innocent reader might miss. I missed this until I read Tolkien's commentary on this. Other readers I know picked up on it right away.

The symbolism is distinctive, original, and at times plain weird. For instance, the "lembas", the bread of the elves, is meant to be a symbol of (Catholic) communion. Tolkien was a Catholic rather than a Christian (one source of his differences with CS Lewis), and the symbolism runs to Catholic rather than to Protestant forms. For instance, there are many references to the Virgin Mary, both as an archetype and as a role model. The Elvish songs to Elbereth are more or less hymns to the Virgin Mary. Galadriel, who Tolkien actually viewed as a penitent, is not unrelated to the BVM archetype. Certainly the idea of Lorien, the immaculate land, relates to Catholic ideas of immaculateness. And yes, Galadriel is a penitent (this is explained in the Silmarillion) who, in declining Frodo's offer of the ring, earns the right to return to Valinor by boat at the end of the book.

This is easy to miss, unless you are clued in to the author's very intense Marian devotion. The ancestral Tolkiens had been given the choice, in Germany (if memory serves this was Frederick The Great), of becoming protestant or being exiled. They chose exile, and thus became English Catholics. Tolkien's own mother, who was of course English, was disinherited for marrying his father, who was Catholic. The motifs of exile and disinheritance are all over Tolkien's work once you know what to look for. Moreover, Tolkien appears to have been one of those Catholics who rate Mary very highly indeed. He had what is known as a special devotion to her. The papal pronouncement in the mid-20th-century, that Mary is co-mediatrix with Christ, would have seemed obviously true to Tolkien and like-minded others. To Protestants, of course, it is heresey or idolatry or both together.

Then there is the calendar aspect of the thing. Frodo's epic begins with one Christian date (I think it is Christmas, can't recall) and ends with another (the Old English date for Easter), so that everything happens in the same liturgical year. Unless you know what to watch for in the dates department, it is easy to miss this as well.

One plausible account I have read suggests that the kingdom which returns at the end of LOTR is a kind of icon or image of the Holy Roman Empire, reconstructed in some way in the future (or in an alternate world) so that Catholic unity becomes re-established. This may have been one way Tolkien, as a Catholic, viewed the Second Coming.

I would say that Tolkien divvies up the Christ-figure into three characters: Gandalf, Aragorn and Frodo. The three together constitute the Christ motif of the work. Gandalf is always presented in the iconic and visual terms which Germanic myth usually reserved for Odin -- who, perhaps not coincidentally, was also a crucified divinity. Aragorn is Christ in his aspect of returning king. Frodo is more the martyr aspect -- his departure at the end of the book is a symbolic death. So the Christ motif is there, but handled with much greater literary skill, subtlety and depth than CS Lewis could muster. I think this is one reason the LOTR story packs so much punch: the reader can feel the author's seriousness, without quite deciphering the allegory which has been coded into the work. This combination of skill and obscurity is, in literary terms, one of the best ways of achieving the effect of the sublime; the Ultimate Symbols are there, but not in plain sight.

I suspect that Tolkien's frustration with the way he was received and mis-read (as an allegory of WW2, as a proponent of psychedelic drugs, etc.) contributed to his refusal to make things plain. But there were good literary reasons to not make it any plainer. If you have ever read his essay on Beowulf, it is a masterpiece of deliberate obfuscation, designed in my opinion to hide his understanding of what Beowulf is about.








The Long Defeat

John -

Fighting words, those. I mean, I still read Shakepeare despite the Renaissance Fayre types. The sad fact is that other people are allowed to like things that we like, and that most of those people will be, um, disappointing.

I think Rings is a highly "moral" book, by which I mean that in it to be a good guy one must act morally. But if it's meant to be allegory, it's a complete failure. The closest it comes to allegory, really, is in terms of the two world wars. But even that falters in the end. As for a Christian allegory, the idea of Frodo as Christ figure doesn't have much that I can see to recommend it.

Or, as a Christian, am I like the fish who doesn't see the water he's swimming in?

Posted by Doug Brown

3.28.2004

PRETTY FUNNY

One Hundred Albums You Should Remove from Your Collection Immediately. Any such list is incomplete without the Stone Roses' second album, Second Coming, The Most Pointless Album In Rock. But this one is a good start. Via Protein Wisdom. Posted by David O'Connor
With Fans Like These . . . .

Fans like the ones linked below are part of the reason I am no longer a die-hard Tolkien fan. It was fun when it seemed like my own imaginary world. But when all these other people got into the act, it lost something and began to be an embarassment. Plus I am older, which makes a difference.

Additionally it is increasingly clear, notwithstanding the author's disingenous claims to the contrary, that Lord Of The Rings is in fact a Christian allegory filled with implict and explicit symbols of the Christian faith. This caused me to lose interest in CS Lewis, and now it has spoiled some (not all) of Tolkien for me.

Tolkien is nowhere near as saccharine as Lewis (faint praise -- how could he be?) but I can't resist the impression that the LOTR story is "for my own good". This impression is less true of The Hobbit and much less present in the Silmarillion. I remain fond of the LOTR books, and do not regret the time I spent reading them, but I find that I can no longer do so.

Moreover, it is also clear that Der Herre Der Ringe is constructed out of some of the same archaic-Germanic materials that gave us the Wagner ring cycle. One of my favorite wisecracks about Tolkien's work came from an English writer who said it was a case of Wagner meets Winnie The Pooh. Quite a perceptive jest. Tolkien was quite sensitive to the comparison, and at one point, pressed about the comparison, said "Both rings are round." It's true that Tolkien's Catholicism was different from Wagner's what-do-you-call-it. But this is German mythology nevertheless.

I would argue that The Hobbit remains his greatest work, and (paradoxically) the one most available to the adult reader. It represents the best balance of his different interests and is the most finished of the books artistically. Much as I enjoy the tale of the fall of Sauron, the fall of Smaug is in many ways the better story.

Or maybe I am just a more simple-minded reader . . . . . . all those years of carrying the precious took their toll.

joc


Kissinger, the Cold War and al-Quaeda

This is taken from Henry Kissinger's 1957 book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, Chapter 10 in which he begins with the question "What is a Revolutionary?"

Time and again states appear which boldly proclaim that their purpose is to destroy the existing structure and to recast it completely. And time and again, the powers that are the declared victims stand by indifferent or inactive, while the balance of power is overturned. Indeed, they tend to explain away the efforts of the revolutionary power to upset the equilibrium as the expression of limited aims or specific grievances until they discover--sometimes too late and always at excessive cost--that the revolutionary power was perfectly sincere all along, that its call for a new order expressed its real aspirations. So it was when the French Revolution burst on an unbelieving Europe and when Hitler challenged the system of Versailles. So it has been with the relations of the rest of the world toward the Soviet bloc.

How was it possible that from positions of extreme weakness these powers could emerge as the most powerful states of Europe and that the most recent of these challeges, the U.S.S.R., can bid for the domination of the world less than a generation after a group of die-hards were trying to hold Moscow against enemies converging from all sides?

from Ch. 10, "The Strategy of Ambiguity--Sino-Soviet Strategic Thought"

I reference this quote as a potential analog to actions by al-Quaeda to generate this question: Is it possible that al-Quaeda could itself join the list of the French Revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, the Chinese Communists, the Iranian Revolutionaries as marginal revolutionary or terrorist groups who were able to take over state? Or is al-Quaeda unlikely to join these examples since, unlike the French, Soviets or Chinese, it began to attack foreign nations prior to its having established itself as a governing power in a state? (I use the term "state" instead of "nation-state" since al-Quaeda while primarily Arabic may further expand and attract other groups that despite the use of Arabic in the Qu'oran do not share traditional Arab language and culture.)
-S. Schudy
WHEN LOTR FANDOM GOES BAD

Res ipsa loquitor.

DOC
Kerry As Fangorn

It seems a bit unfair, Doug, to compare Kerry to a fictional piece of wood, when actual pieces as wood, such as Al Gore, are available.

DOC

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