Saturday, June 14, 2008

Tolkien on America, democracy, and 'the West'

Here I am going to cite some of J.R.R. Tolkien's letters to illustrate the point of view I discussed here, in which America, far from being part of a Western Civilization whose great theme is democracy, is a different continent, fundamentally alien to a Europe, whose great theme is spirituality, rootedness, and hierarchy.

Here follows a florilegium of quotations, with a bit of commentary (references is to the letter number in the Humphrey Carpenter collection).

One theme in Tolkien's relations with America was his suspicion of American publishers, agents, and movie-makers, whom he tended to suspect of cultural illiteracy and sensationalism, although sometimes he was pleasantly surprised. Here is him trying to be diplomatic:

As for the illustrations [for the Hobbit]: I am divided between knowledge of my own inability and fear of what the American artists (doubtless of admirable skill) might produce . . . It might be advisable, rather than lose the American interest to let the Americans do what seems good to them -- as long as it was possible (I should like to add) to veto anything from or influenced by the Disney studios (for all whose works I have a heartfelt loathing). I have seem American illustrations that suggest that excellent things might be produced . . . (no. 13, May, 1937).

Or else being somewhat amused:

A backwash from the [Science Fiction Convention at which Tolkien received the International Fantasy Award] was a visit from an American film agent . . . who drove all the way in a taxi from London to see me last week, filling 76 Sandfield [Tolkien's home address] with strange men and stranger women -- I thought the taxi would never stop disgorging. But this Mr. Ackerman brought some astonishingly good pictures (Rackham rather than Disney) and some remarkable color photographs. . . . The Story Line or Scenario was, however, on a lower level. In fact bad. But it looks as if business might be done (no. 202, September, 1957).

A more usual theme is this:

The Americans are not as a rule at all amenable to criticism or correction; but I think their effort is so poor that I feel constrained to make some effort to improve it, though without much more hope of effect than in the case of the appalling jacket they produced for the Hobbit (no. 145, May, 1954).

And every once in a while, American artists and publishers lived up to his worst fears, as with the famous Barbara Remington cover pictured here, which went on to be smash success in the USA:

I wrote . . . a short hasty note . . . to this effect: I think the cover [of the new paperback edition of the Lord of the Rings] ugly; but I recognize that a main object of a paperback cover is to attract purchasers, and I suppose that you are better judges of what is attractive in USA than I am. I therefore will not into a debate about taste -- (meaning though I did not say so: horrible colours and foul lettering) -- but I must ask about this vignette: what has it got to do with the story? Where is this place? Why a lion* and emus? And what is the thing in the foreground with pink bulbs? . . . .

Mrs. _____ [a representative of Ballantine Co.] . . . rang me up. I had a longish conversation; but she seemed to me impermeable. . . . When I made the above points again, her voice rose several tones and she cried: 'But the man hadn't TIME to read the book!' (As if that settled it. A few minutes conversation with the 'man' and a glance at the American edition's pictures should have been sufficient.) With regard to the pink bulbs she said as if to one of complete obtusity: 'they are meant to suggest a Christmas Tree'. Why is such a woman let loose? I begin to feel that I am shut up in a madhouse (no. 277, September, 1965).

Of course sometimes he felt he was just defending England against ignorant American prejudice:

I found myself in a carriage occupied by an R.A.F. officer . . . , and a very nice young American Officer, New-Englander. I stood the hot-air they let off as long as I could; but when I heard the Yank burbling about 'Feudalism' and its results on English class-distinctions and social behavior, I opened a broad-side. The poor boob had not, of course, the faintest notions about 'Feudalism', or history at all -- being a chemical engineer. But you can't knock 'Feudalism' out of an American's head, any more than the 'Oxford Accent'. He was impressed I think when I said that an Englishman's relations with porters, butlers, and tradesmen had as much connection with 'Feudalism' as skyscrapers had with Red Indian wigwams, or taking off one's hat to a lady has with modern methods of collecting Income Tax; but I am not sure he was convinced. I did however get a dim notion into his head that the 'Oxford Accent' (by which he politely told me he meant mine) was not 'forced' and 'put on', but a natural one learned in the nursery -- and was moreover not feudal or aristocratic but a very middle-class bourgeois invention. After I told him that his 'accent' sounded to me like English after being wiped over with a dirty sponge, and generally suggested (falsely) to an English observer that, together with American slouch, it indicated a slovenly and ill-disciplined people -- well, we got quite friendly. We had some bad coffee in the refreshment room at Snow Hill and parted (no. 58, April, 1944).

His World War II letters, however, reveal much darker fears about a militant Americo-cosmopolitanism and its threat, along with Russo-Bolshevism, to European civilization. After the Tehran summit of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, he wrote:

I must also admit that in the photograph our little cherub [Winston Churchill] actually looked the biggest ruffian present. Humph, well! I wonder (if we survive this war) if there will be any niche, even of sufferance, left for reactionary back numbers like me (and you). The bigger things get the smaller and duller and flatter the globe gets. It is going to be all one blasted little provincial suburb. When they have introduced American sanitation, morale-pep, feminism, and mass production throughout the Near East, Middle East, Far East, U.S.S.R., the Pampas, el Gran Chaco, the Danubian Basin, Equatorial Africa, Hirther Further and Inner Mumbo-land, Gondhwanaland, Lhasa, and the villages of darkest Berkshire, how happy we shall be. At any rate it ought to cut down travel there will be nowhere to go . . .

But seriously, I do find this Americo-cosmpolitanism very terrifying. Qua mind and spirit, and neglecting the piddling fears of the timid flesh which does not want to be shot or chopped by brutal and licentious soldiery (German or other), I am not really sure that its victory is going to be so much the better for the world as a whole and in the long run than the victory of ____. I don't suppose letters in [to the R.A.F., in which his son was serving] are censored. But if they are, or not, I need to you hardly add that them's the sentiments of a good many folk -- and no indication of lack of patriotism. For I love England (not Great Britain and certainly not the British Commonwealth (grr!)) . . . (no. 53, December, 1943).

. . . When it is all over, will ordinary people have any freedom left (or right) or will they have to fight for it, or will they be too tired to resist? The last rather seems the idea of some the Big Folk. Who for the most part viewed this war from the vantage point of large motor-cars. Too many are childless. But I suppose the one certain result of it all is a further growth in the great standardised amalgmations with their mass-produced notions and emotions. Music will give place to jiving: which as far as I can make out means holding a 'jam session' round a piano (an instrument properly intended to produce the sounds devised by, say, Chopin) and hitting it so hard it breaks. This delicately cultured amusement is said to be a 'fever' in the U.S.A. O God! O Montreal! O Minnesota! O Michigan! What kind of mass-manias the Soviets can produce remains for peace and prosperity and the removal of war-hypnotism to show. Not quite so dismal as the Western ones, perhaps (I hope). But one doesn't altogether wonder at a few smaller states still wanting to be 'neutral'; they are between the devil and the deep sea all right (and you can stick which D you like on to which side you like). . . . There lies some hope that, at least in our beloved land of England, propaganda defeats itself . . . (no. 77, July, 1944).

Exacerbating his gloom was the sense that World War II would soon be followed by an Americo-Russian war. After his son Christopher in the R.A.F. hoped to be transfered to the Fleet Air Arm in the Far East with the end of the war in Europe, he wrote:

It would not be easy for me to express to you the the measure of my loathing of the Third Service [i.e. the R.A.F.] -- which can nonetheless, and is for me, combined with admiration, gratitude, and above all pity, for the young men caught up in it. But it is the aeroplane of war that is the real villain. . . . My sentiments are more or less those that Frodo would have had if he discovered some Hobbit learning to ride Nazgul-birds, 'for the liberation of the Shire'. Though in this case, as I know nothing about British or American imperialism in the Far East that does not fill me with regret and disgust, I am afraid I am not even supported by a glimmer of patriotism in this remaining war. I would not subscribe a penny to it, let alone a son, were I a free man. It can only benefit America or Russia: prob. the latter. But at least the Americo-Russian War won't break out for a year yet (no. 100, May 1945).

In fact, however, the Americo-Russian war did not break out, and the imposition of Americo-cosmopolitanism on England was far less systematic than he feared. While his travails with obtuse American publicity agents continued, he found the defense of the West from Communism to be much more a meaningful struggle than he had hoped. Contrary to popular belief, he did not think that England had ended up like the Shire after the War of the Ring:

There is no special reference to England in the 'Shire' -- except that as an Englishman brought up in an 'almost rural' village . . . I take my models . . . from such 'life' as I know. But there is no post-war reference. I am not a 'socialist' in any sense . . . but I would not say we have to suffer the malice of Sharkey and his Ruffians here. Though the spirit of 'Isengard', if not of Mordor, is of course always cropping up. The present design of destroying Oxford in order to accommodate motor-cars is a case. But our chief adversary is a member of a 'Tory' government (no. 181, early 1956).

Despite realism about the moral ambiguities, he was a convinced supporter of the anti-Communist side:

Of course in 'real life' causes are not so clear cut -- if only because human tyrants are seldom utterly corrupted into pure manifestations of evil will. As far as I can judge some seem to have been so corrupt, but even they must rule subjects only part of whom are equally corrupt, while many still need to have 'good motives', real or feigned, presented to them. As we see today . . . . There are also conflicts about important things or ideas. In such cases I am more impressed by the extreme importance of being on the right side, than I am disturbed by the revelation of the jungle of confused motives, private purposes, and individual actions (noble or base) in which the right and wrong in actual human conflicts are commonly involved. . . . .

He then explains that Sauron presented himself as a god to the Men in his service, and that his victory would involve extorting universal worship of him from all rational creatures.

So even if in desperation 'the West' had bred or hired hordes of orcs and had cruelly ravaged the lands of other Men as allies of Sauron, or merely to prevent them from aiding him, their Cause would have remained indefeasibly right. As does the Cause of those who oppose now the State-God and Marshal This or That as its High Priest, even if it is true (as it unfortunately is) that many of their deeds are wrong, even if it were true (as it is not) that the inhabitants of 'The West', except for a minority of wealthy bosses, live in fear and squalor, while the worshippers of the State-God live in peace and abundance and in mutual esteem and trust (no. 183, 1956).

Notice how 'The West' is now his referent, not England, or Europe.

But he still was not a 'democrat':

I am not a 'democrat' only because 'humility' and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the effort to mechanize and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power -- and then we get and are getting slavery (no. 186, April, 1956).

See also his tart comments about Greece as the homeland of democracy:

Mr. Eden in the house [parliament] the other day expressed pain at the occurrences in Greece 'the home of democracy'. Is he ignorant or insincere? Demokratia was not in Greek a word of approval but was nearly equivalent to 'mob-rule'; and he neglected to note that Greek Philosophers -- and far more is Greece the home of philosophy -- did not approve of it. And the great Greek states, esp. Athens at the time of its high art and power, were rather Dictatorships, if they were not military monarchies like Sparta! (no. 94, December, 1944).

Later on in the 1960s, the rise of Tolkien clubs in America, and their association with the counter-culture (part of which he approved of and part of which horrified him), disturbed him. After hearing about the creation of a 'New York Tolkien Society' from W.H. Auden who said he feared the members would all be lunatics, Tolkien replied:

Yes, I have heard about the Tolkien Society. Real lunatics don't join them, I think. But still such things fill me too with alarm and despondency (no. 275, August, 1965).

It is in this context that we have to read what is doubtless the most categorically negative thing Tolkien ever wrote about America. After discussing the touching news that his works were being treated as literature on the syllabus in Oxford, he continued:

Not a soil in which the fungus-growth of cults is likely to arise. The horrors of the American scene [of Tolkien mania] I will pass over, though they have given me great distress and labour. (They arise in an entirely different mental climate and soil, polluted and impoverished to a degree only paralleled by the lunatic destruction of the physical lands which Americans inhabit) . . . (no. 328, autumn, 1971).

But the "horrors of the American scene" always drove him more to pity than anger. After citing a letter from a 12 year old Pennsylvanian who had said his Hobbit was "the most wonderful book I have ever read" and said "Gee Whiz, I'm surprised that it's not more popular", Tolkien commented:

It's nice to find that little American boys really do say 'Gee Whiz'.

He added more seriously:

I find these letters which I still occasionally get [this was long before the Lord of the Rings had been published] . . . make me rather sad. What thousand grains of good human corn must fall on barren stony ground, if such a very small drop of water should be so intoxicating! (no. 87, October, 1944).

When on the back cover of the Ballantine edition in addition to his famous plea "Those who approve of courtesy (at least) to living authors will purchase it and no other", he added that this was especially designed for "those over the Water", this was what he meant: designed as a drop of water for those born into the polluted and impoverished mental and physical environment of America.

It is important to remember that Tolkien had never been to America in his life. His comments are thus particularly valuable as a source for studying stereotyped images of America among Englishmen of a certain age and cast of thought, although they are of course that much less valuable as a source for actual knowledge about America.

*There was originally a lion in the Barbara Remington cover picture, which was removed in later editions. As "Major Wooton" notes in the comments, the lion cover version is still available from dealers in Tolkieniana for a reasonable price.

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Monday, June 09, 2008

Here's a map to keep in mind when people in the Metroliner Corridor (Boston to Washington) tell other people to just shut up and accept that high gas prices are just what we need to save the environment. (There's an article with it here, but it's just in the nature of a caption.)

UPDATE: A longer post on the same thing, with links (best of all) to more cool maps, here (HT: Rod Dreher).

Saturday, June 07, 2008

One Small Catch in the General Downward Slide

Amazing! Some one uses the phrase "beg the question" and uses it correctly -- in a blog comments thread no less. Can you find it here?



"Europe" vs. "Western Civilization"

Has anyone here read Tintin in America? It's an absolutely fascinating compendium of 1930s European stereotypes of America. I was thinking of it lately, after reading Adam Tooze's magnificent Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, one of the most thought-provoking books in twentieth century history I have read in a long time.

Tooze's basic argument runs like this: Germany in the 1920s and 1930s was not Europe's most advanced economy, but a relatively poor, relatively backward economy in Europe -- and the Nazis knew it was. Britain and France on a per capita basis far outpaced Germany, and both had access to colonial resources and markets. Nazi Germany's bid for world conquest was a bid by a self-consciously weak country, directed in the last analysis, at the world superpower, which in 1918 was already recognized to be America. Nazi Germany thus shared with Stalin's Russia, Imperial Japan, and other ambitious but poor powers a need to control the economy, and direct its resources into favored sectors of heavy industry that could be easily fed into a war economy. And like those other economies, the Nazi economy planned from 1939 on for massive use of slave labor, and starvation of scores of millions: in this case, easterners.

Tooze's thesis recasts the relationship of the war in the East to the war in the West. Previous writers have argued that the war in the East, on Stalin's Russia, the ultimate aim of the Nazi war machine and that the war with England was, from the point of view of Hitler's strategy, a mistake. But Tooze shows that for the Nazis the ultimate threat was the terrifying economic power of America. Conquering Russia and killing scores of millions was necessary -- but primarily to give Germany and Europe the resources necessary for a fighting chance to resist American domination and make Europe once again the leading continent. Only war on Russia could secure a colonized continent for Germany, just as the United States had in America west of the Appalachians. What was the role of England in this? Hitler in his writings in the 1920s originally planned to try to get England to ally with him in his European-wide anti-American coalition. But when England refused to join in 1939, it was proof that Roosevelt and the Jews had finally gotten control of England and made it a satellite of America. From then on England was just a satellite of America.

Tooze's analogy between the German aims in Russia and the American colonization of the West highlights unsettling similarities between Nazi Germany and the American republics . To illustrate this, let me recall a scene from the movie Judgment at Nuremberg. The German defense lawyer (played by Montgomery Clift) defends the Nazi sterilization law by referring to similar opinions rendered by Oliver Wendell Holmes. (Actually that's an illustration of the thesis of this recent book.) But the movie pulls its punches, unfortunately. When it comes to Nazi miscegenation laws, the German defense lawyer never once refers to the similar laws polluting the books of many American states at the time. Likewise, it is shaming to realize how much what the Nazis were up to in Russia was modeled on the American dispossession of the American Indians. (As Tooze says, the only difference -- a big one in political economy terms -- was that American colonization was almost most privately run, while the Nazi colonization was state-run.)

This leads to strange question, though: why did Nazi Germany make so little common cause with racism in the United States? Why, for example, in a contest between non-white Japanese on one side and white Americans interning Japanese-Americans on a racial basis on the other did Hitler instinctively and whole-heartedly support the non-whites against the whites? Why was no attempt ever made by the Nazis to win the sympathies of Southern segregationists and Klansmen in America?

After reading Tooze's book, the answer I think is pretty plain: Nazism wasn't just about racism, it was also about Europeanism. In other words it was not just about making "Aryans" triumph over Jews, Roma, and other inferior races in Europe, it was also about making Europe as a continent triumph over rival continents. And by rival continents, the only one really in question was North America. One could even go so far as to say that the racism was instrumental to the "continentism"; that grinding inferior races in Europe into the dust was only a means to the end of keeping Europe the world's leading continent. What is so striking about this is how geography trumped race even in the strategy of the most justly notorious racists in history. How could this be?

Here is where Tintin in America comes in. To understand European fear of North America, one needs to understand the European image of America. Tintin's America is a gangster paradise, a land of skyscrapers and anarchy, of grotesque slaughterhouses and industrialized food, drunken sheriffs enforcing Prohibition while citizens have fun at a lynching parties, a land where oil companies routinely dispossess Indians, where you can go to sleep in a prairie one day and wake up in a traffic-jammed metropolis the next. Now, this is Tintin, and it is all fairly light-hearted. (My personal favorite line is where Tintin as a celebrity has to turn down product endorsement offers, including this gem: "Join our new Islamo-Judeo-Buddhistic religion and earn the highest dividends in the world!") As Tintin leaves on a steamer back for Europe, he sighs, "Funny, and I was just starting to like the place." But make no mistake, America is not part of some "Western civilization" -- it is just as alien to Herge's European readers as Africa, the Soviet Union, or the Arab world and India, scenes for his immediately preceding and following Tintin volumes.

And it is not surprising therefore that in volume ten of the series, The Shooting Star, we see the following rivalry: pure-minded, impractical, yet lovable scholars from Belgium, Paris, Heidelberg, Stockholm, and Salamanca, are pitted against ruthless, gun-toting Americans, whose aims are set by their greedy financial backer Blumenstein. Now when I tell you that the book was written in 1941-42, you will understand why the lovable scholars are all from German-occupied or pro-German countries and why the financier has a hook nose, big lips, and no scruples when it comes to blood-sucking. Post-war editions scrubbed the American flag off the rival expedition's boat and the Jewish name off the financier, but the fact remains, this book links perfectly (and again in a light-hearted, non-didactic way) the stereotypes of Tintin in America with the European agenda of the Nazi party, as seen in Tooze's Wages of Destruction. Note that in Herge's unreflective viewpoint we see a strange co-existence of a morally-based dislike of America's dispossession of the Indians with an implicit approval of the Nazi-led mission to defeat America by conquest and colonization of Russia.

It is this European image of America, as found in Herge, combining monstrous economic growth and urbanization, lack of any state-imposed order, alienation from nature and a willingness to dispossess others purely for profit that makes sense of why Nazi racism could never make common cause with American racism. American racism existed within the context of a society which was categorically hostile to the traditional order of Europe which Nazism was defending. The social self-image of Nazi Germany, however delusional in practice, really was closer to that of militarist Japan than to America, no matter how pure "white" -- and determined to stay that way -- the majority of Americans then were.

Herge himself was no ideologist, just a trimmer spinning with the wind. In his 1958 The Red Sea Sharks, he reflects a new pro-American view by making the crew of an American cruiser the role of heroes rescuing Tintin and a cargo-load of Africans being sold as slaves. The American sailors are indeed called "cowboys" -- but only by chief slave-trader and aristocratic villain Rastapopoulos. In context it's a badge of honor.

What happened between Tintin in America and the Red Sea Sharks (and its superb sister volume The Calculus Affair)? Obviously the annihilation and discrediting of the Nazi ideal. But another way to see it is the acceptance by Europeans of the "Western Civilization" as a summing of their highest ideals to replace "Europe." What's the difference? Well obviously "Western Civ" includes America, and not just as a peripheral player either, but as a central part of the narrative. But the inclusion of America changes how the whole narrative works. In "Western Civ" the aim is democracy and individual rights. From Greek city states to the Magna Carta, to New England town meetings to today; or as David Gress put it, From Plato to NATO. Christian theocracy, feudalism, absolutism, fascism -- these were somehow aberrations in the narrative. The power of the "Western Civ" narrative is how it links a particular praxis (extensive social and economic ties between the Western European and American upper classes, dwarfing those either has with any other region), a particular policy (multilateral democracy promotion), and a particular understanding of history.

The problem is that this understanding of history was made plausible only by the annihilation of fascism as an alternate understanding of Europe's destiny in the modern era. In a purely historical reading, from Plato's racist and aristocratic Republic, to the Christian empire, to the feudal Carolingian monarchy, to absolutism, to fascism's peculiar synthesis of social mobility and corporatism under the leader-principle is at least an equally valid way of looking at European history. In this reading, hierarchy and leadership justified by enlightened reason, war as a testing of the soul, caste endogamy, and a dichotomy of free and unfree are the central messages of European civilization. (I've touched on a Swedish Christian version of it here.) Nazism served up this ideal in a way that its humane adherents such as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis detested and were willing to fight to destroy, but as they themselves recognized, this hierarchical ideal was recognizably in line with the ideals of the Greco-Roman and Germanic roots of European civilization. And just as recognizably to them, America was not.

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