Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Max Lindenman on Finally Trying Tolkien: Tolkien as Catholic Assignment

Reading Max Lindenman never fails to give delight. I love that he's willing to struggle with reading Tolkien as a kind of Catholic assignment, one a convert to the Catholic church can't possibly fail to complete if he expects a decent grade in Catholic 101. And that he wonders whether Portnoy and other anti-heroes, who pointed a way for him through the wilderness of adolescence, taught him to bang his head against tradition, such that he--naturally!--became a Catholic in the period of JPII and BXVI so he could find a tradition to bang his head against.

Most of all, in his posting about struggling with Tolkien to which I've just linked, I like this:

"There are two novels," writes blogger Kung Fu Monkey, "that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs."

Reading Max's posting about Tolkien makes me ask myself what Tolkien might do for me if I read him now, in the twilight years of my life. It has been some years since I've read either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, though I once read both religiously every several years, from high school forward--but not quite with the fervor and dedication my Aunt Pauline gave to Gone with the Wind. Which she read yearly from adolescence forward. Because she was obliged to do so. And because the movie  aired yearly in her town and was a religious obligation that required lenten preparation akin to fasting and purging. 

It demanded, to be precise, the re-reading of a lengthy novel she could already recite from heart. Because Scarlett. And Rhett. Because religious experience to a red-haired Southern lady whose grandmother was born in Ireland.

As an ardent young convert to Catholicism in the 1960s, I probably did feel obliged to read Tolkien, though I think I'd probably have read him in any case, simply because what he had to offer seemed so alluring, regardless of its theological implications. He was there. He was in the air. And he was so much like so many other writers who had caught my attention in my formative years, people who transported me to other times, other places, other sets of possibility. 

He was quintessentially escapist, and God knows, we needed escape in the 1960s. I needed escape.

On my first reading of Tolkien, I was quite literally transported. I'll never forget the slog through Mordor's fires, as I burned with flu-induced fever and couldn't distinguish fact from fiction while I lay in bed reading-burning with utter attention to Tolkien's narrative. I did, too, I suppose, take Tolkien as an assignment, and perhaps a Catholic one for a callow convert, since I did one of my two term papers on Tolkien's work in my final years of high school. If it was written by or about Tolkien and available in the stacks of my high school library, I ferreted it out and turned it into fodder for my lengthy, well-documented term paper on Tolkien and the Catholic imagination underlying his novels.

The other term paper I did in that final year of high school was on Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. Which tells you something. If there was a novel or a non-fiction work on the reading list from which we were required to choose books for our periodic book reports in high-school English classes, I chose it, one Catholic assignment after another, from Brideshead Revisited to The Power and the Glory, The Seven Story Mountain, and Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua.

Now, all these years later, I'm not entirely sure why I bothered. I'm not sure why I bothered with trying to understand and fit into a tradition that never intended to make room for me in the first place, a tradition alien to me and intent on banging its Catholic head against my newly enchanted catholic soul, rather than the other way around.

To be honest, I've never sensed a great deal of catholicity in American Catholicism from the outset, from the time when I entered the Catholic church in the 1960s forward. What I find, instead, and have always found running through American Catholicism is an unyielding, obdurate, taken-for-granted American individualism that very easily and very quickly, seemingly with few pangs of conscience, writes off anyone who is different, refractory, difficult to embrace, stamped as doctrinally perverse, etc.

I don't find much catholic sensibility at all within American Catholicism, and never have done so. 

And so I wonder whether, in reading Tolkien today--perhaps as a Catholic assignment akin to the one Max Lindenman has given himself--I'd find that the apple has lost its enchantment. And now has a worm or two crawling out of its core. I wonder whether my experience on re-reading Tolkien now would be akin to my experience of trying to re-read C.S. Lewis a few years ago, and finding that the façade of enchantment that seemed so solid in my adolescent years is today riven by the deep clefts of Lewis's disdain for targeted others who fail to fit into his exceptionally parochial and idealized English pastoral fantasies. All those dark-skinned villains, and those cross-dressing, cigar-smoking women who scream dyke as they pull the world to pieces. All that evil vegetarianism and that evil concern with progressive education.

I wonder if struggling through Tolkien today would leave me every bit as frustrated as I feel when I read commentary about the new pope written by my fellow Catholics which gives me the impression that a jolly party is underway with Francis, but I somehow failed to get the invitation. Since one of the preconditions of the party is that same old precondition that has long been there for those who expect to be invited to Catholic (though not catholic) parties:

It's to accept the perpetual domination of the Catholic church by a clerical elite which may (?) be in the process of being refurbished and spiffed up by Pope Francis, but will remain exactly what it's always been when the refurbishing and spiffing are over and done with: an elite. A controlling elite, which insists on its indispensability in handing salvific truth down to the passive and mute sheep in the pews.

If that's what the new pope is about, and if this is what the party is celebrating, then I can understand why my invitation to the party has failed to arrive, since nothing about this particular celebration can really re-enchant the Catholic apple for me. Or disguise for me the worms that continue to crawl out of it with each new story I read about the ongoing cover-up of clerical abuse of minors or about gay teachers fired by Catholic schools.

The graphic: a page from Tolkien's manuscripts held by the Tolkien Library and on exhibit at the Bodleian Library.

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