Aphorism of the Day: The only certain thing about intelligence is that you have less of it than you think, and more of it than I credit you for.
The thing to remember about conceptual food fights like this is the way we congenitally mistake agreement for intelligence. They really are interesting case studies in just how bad humans are when it comes to theoretical debates. I mean, think about it, when was the last time you remember someone online saying, “Egad, I was entirely mistaken!”
We cannot help but game ambiguities to confirm our initial conclusions. When this becomes too difficult, we actually edit our memories and claim that we were really arguing something different. If you don’t believe me, check out the research yourself. I’ve caught myself doing this so very many times. I can only hope this isn’t what I’m doing here.
One of the ways to avoid doing this to cleave to the ‘principle of charity,’ to always take what seems to you to be the strongest interpretation of an opponent’s case before launching your critique. When Theo concluded with, “I am observing – not complaining – that modern fantasy is a literary failure and that the literary decline of the genre over the last fifty years is one of the many symptoms of a greater societal decline,” I read this as a kind of smokescreen meant to hide his retreating moral destroyers. After all, how can someone spend the bulk of an article talking morality, then say, ‘Yeah, but I’m really talking about aesthetics’?
My mistake. I’m not going to bother to rebut his rebuttal on a point by point basis, simply because of the tendency of everything to degenerate into an online cloud of he-said-she-said skirmishes, where no one can really remember who-said-what-when-or-whatever. (But… I… Can’t… Resist… Does he really think the greater number of inspirational books sold has any bearing whatsoever on the consensus among fantasy readers? I don’t get it). I will say, though, that my admissions of incomprehension were motivated by the fact that what I thought he was saying was just so damn, well, misinformed and confused.
Why did I think his aesthetic argument was too bad to be true?
My first reason was theoretical: when it comes to the Metaphysical Truth of Literature no one has a bloody clue. I’m guessing Theo thinks he knows, but I’m sure he would understand my skepticism. This is why I opt for a deflationary approach: what distinguishes literature from fiction more generally is simply what it does. Dune remains the greatest literary experience in my life. What’s literature? Any reading that leaves you changed in some way, as opposed to merely confirmed or satiated. Sounds like a good rule of thumb to me.
Now given our hardwired tendencies to universalize our values, and given the way language reifies experiences, we all talk about books as if they were semantic objects that 1) exist independently of our readings of them, and 2) possess essential value (which happily tends to correspond with our own idiosyncratic evaluations). This is why the vast majority of reviewers on Amazon and elsewhere always blame the book, and not themselves or their reading.
I think we can safely say that Theo is a ‘blame the book’ kind of guy. If so, then he needs only to conjure the knockdown argument that thousands of years of aesthetic argumentation hasn’t been able to provide… In the meantime, I’ll stick to my quick and dirty heuristic.
My second reason had to do with simple consistency. I just couldn’t find a way to ascribe a logically coherent position to Theo interpreting his argument through a literary lens. Despite his insistence that this is what he’s really complaining… er, observing about, he really doesn’t say much about how these modern works aesthetically fail, aside from several invocations of verisimilitude as a kind of literary rule.
But if verisimilitude is a literary criterion then Tolkien fails miserably on any number of accounts, which is indeed what many among the literati seem to think. Moral confusion is a fact of the human condition, so shouldn’t the more ‘faithful’ representations of moral confusion you find in modern fantasy count as a kind of literary triumph?
The same can be said for psychological realism, which for many literary readers and writers counts as a central criterion of the ‘literary.’ Human motives tend to be chaotic and troubling, so much so we like to edit out (and often unconsciously do) all the sordid things that ‘soil’ our character, like obsessive masturbation or gay encounters in toilet stalls. Tolkien fails on this account as well. His characters are as ‘flat’ as can be. They may be true of the way we want our ancient heros to be, fearless and sanitary, but they are anything but realistic depictions of actual ancient heroism, which was as muddied with terror and indecision as heroism today.
If verisimilitude is Theo’s golden criterion, then he seems to be using it awfully selectively. (He never does respond to my ‘moral realism’ point does he?)
But then, this is the point, isn’t it? Throwing ad hoc rationalizations at what is an otherwise inchoate sense of dissatisfaction. Arguing morality, then shifting the goal posts to aesthetics. Cooking up reasons to feed that oh-so hungry need to be right.
Just like everyone else–which is why these online debates become so intractable so quickly.
And convinced, just like everyone else, that “I am about as genuinely disinterested as it is possible to be and still be cognizant of the matter.”
Just observing the facts are you? Hmmmmmmmmmm. Funny how everyone not only agrees with themselves all the time, they’re always convinced that they are the fair one, the moral one, the intelligent one. I mean, how could it be that everyone thinks that?
When everyone is a walking plumb line, the only people who don’t seem crooked are those who remind them of themselves.
Me? I’m invested, as much as can be. And biased, the way every human walking is biased. I have my guesses, my cartoon conceptualizations, my bets. I’m trying to see my way past my bent yardstick, to see what arguments you have to offer, but Theo!
You do realize that Nietzsche is making fun of your mindset in those quotes, don’t you? Mocking. Deconstructing.
And yes, creating.