Wednesday, January 12, 2005

I spent a few minutes reading Guy Davenport about 20 years ago, when my roommate left a book of his essays on the kitchen table. One piece was on Tolkien, and in it Davenport describes a conversation he had with an old friend who was not a fan. His friend's reason was simple: "He made it all up." Davenport wrote that he never understood what his friend meant. I've never read anything else by Guy Davenport and I never will. 
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Max is generous. Brad DeLong says he'll miss Robert Heilbroner greatly, but it's clear he never understood him to begin with.

My anger again is not directed at economics or at science in general, but at those who put the cart before the horse, who try to predict and therefore control the future without understanding their relation to the past. Great literature as great art looks backwards; it's retrospective. The mythologies that modern writers of fantasy enjoy so much and try to emulate—and which in doing so they misunderstand entirely—are not products of intention. Their stock characters are not illustrations of ideas but as James Merrill would say are like stones worn smooth by time, the stories like a reduction on a flame.


If you can't tell the difference between the 19th century and the 15th, or how one cannot be used to represent the other—if you can't tell cloying sentimentality from moral seriousness—I don't know what to tell you.

2 comments:

John Emerson said...

I was thinking somewhat the same thing contrasting the fantasy of today (Tolkein, H. Potter, L. Snicket, of which I've read very little) with that of the medieval period. Somehow the recent stuff seems to be too cute and to flatter and comfort the reader too much.

Marie de France, Chretien, the various Arthurian legends, etc., describe a genuinely perilous, frightening world ruled by unknown, often malign forces, and within this world the good guys need both good luck and enormous heroism to win or even survive.

John Emerson, and I'm glad you didn't retire

John Emerson said...

I was thinking somewhat the same thing contrasting the fantasy of today (Tolkein, H. Potter, L. Snicket, of which I've read very little) with that of the medieval period. Somehow the recent stuff seems to be too cute and to flatter and comfort the reader too much.

Marie de France, Chretien, the various Arthurian legends, etc., describe a genuinely perilous, frightening world ruled by unknown, often malign forces, and within this world the good guys need both good luck and enormous heroism to win or even survive.