52 Poems, Week 4: This Is Just to Say (Williams)
Miike Snow--"Sans Soleil" (live)

Sunday Night Journal, January 28, 2018

When I was young--not just younger than I am now, but actually young, around twenty or so--I placed something close to a moral value on aesthetic judgment. That is, if someone had what I deemed to be incorrect aesthetic judgment, I considered it a personal defect. If not an actual sin (though I would not have used that word), it certainly seemed to me evidence of something amiss. And chances were, I felt, pretty good that the person's judgment in many other areas would also be defective. I say "felt" deliberately, because it wasn't a conscious thought. But I did suspect that he or she was not altogether to be trusted, and might exhibit worse traits: dishonesty, for instance.

This was ridiculous, and once I became aware that I was doing it I tried to stop, and to squelch the idea that misjudging beauty--failing to appreciate the good, or liking the bad--had anything to do with misjudging virtue, with misjudging right and wrong. I had the same sort of tendency with truth, to suppose that correct (in my eyes) or incorrect aesthetic judgment was likely to be an indicator of whether the person's beliefs were true or false.

Ridiculous though this may have been with respect to specific persons, it was based on an accurate intuition: that beauty, goodness, and truth are flowers of one plant, aspects of one thing. But at least where beauty is concerned I was expecting too much. Truth is one, and if the appeal to "my truth" vs. "your truth" is taken as anything other than a truism about a certain inevitable degree of subjectivity in the perception of concrete situations it's nonsense. Goodness is similar, though trickier: it can't be in principle right for me to lie but wrong for you, though many personal and concrete factors may make one more or less culpable. 

Beauty is much trickier. I believe with all my mind and heart that beauty is an aspect of God, and has an objective core that is independent of personal taste and judgment. I believe that someone who claims that some bit of commercial pop is superior or even equal to an aria from Bach's St. Matthew Passion is objectively wrong, as wrong as if he insisted that 1 + 2 and 2 + 1 give different sums. Yet the materials of which any earthly, actual, incarnate beauty is made, and the ways they can be combined, are so various that there is vast room for individual preferences that have no necessary connection to whatever that essential objective core of beauty is. One person likes green better than blue, another likes blue better than green. But it is impossible to say that one color is objectively and impersonally more beautiful than the other. Similarly, there's a level of artistic achievement where individual taste can justly be decisive. I claim that Keats's poetry is objectively superior to the words of a Nikki Minaj song. But I wouldn't make that claim about Keats in general vs. Shelley in general. I like Keats better, but they are at least rough peers in absolute merit. And in preferring Keats I'm saying something closer to "I prefer green to blue" than to "I prefer Macbeth to CSI: Miami."

All this is on my mind because I'm re-reading The Lord of the Rings. Today I had lunch with three people who all said they didn't care for it, and I had to fight the urge to say "What is wrong with you?!?" (I did pronounce them excommunicated, but I was joking...more or less.) It's by no means the first time I've encountered this, and sometimes it's been people whose literary judgment I generally respect. I think first of my old friend Robert. When I first read The Lord of the Rings in my mid-twenties, and mentioned to Robert that I had, he said, skeptically, "Well, is it literature?" And I may have said a simple "yes," or I may have said nothing, but I remember feeling something more or less along the lines of: if this is not literature then nothing is. I don't think I encouraged him to read it, because I suspected he wouldn't like it and didn't want to hear a scornful dismissal of something that had instantly become very precious to me. (As far as I know he still had not read it when he died several years ago, so I never found out what he thought or would have thought.)

For the most part I've found that the people who have fairly sophisticated taste in literature and don't like The Lord of the Rings have a strong bias toward the naturalistic mode of the modern novel. If your expectation of what a novel should be is determined by, say, Flaubert, or Dostoevsky, or really almost any novelist, Tolkien's work may seem absurdly naive and childish. There are things in it that even I would describe as naive and childish, though I would leave off "absurdly." Many have complained of its lack of "realism": a valid complaint if your expectation is that a novel should deal with everyday material life just as it is. But to those of us who do respond to Tolkien's vision the criticism that it doesn't deal with "real life" is misguided by an unjustifiably narrow conception of what that phrase means, or of how it can be treated in art. Tolkien himself was certainly aware that everyone was not sympathetic to his aims and technique:

Some who have read the book, or at any rate reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing they evidently prefer.

(from the preface to the second edition)

I have for the most part learned to accept this diversity of sensibility, and to be tolerant of those who dislike Tolkien's work. I even, as noted, recognize the validity of some of their criticisms. But still there is that voice in my head that wants to get out and say "What is wrong with you?" The book is for me so deeply engrossing and affecting that it's genuinely difficult for me to understand how anyone could fail to find it, at absolute minimum, an engaging story. I try to understand, and not criticize, much less condemn. But I do recall that W. H. Auden said something to the effect that he would never entirely trust the literary judgment of anyone who didn't like it. (I read that years ago, and have not been able to find it again, so I suppose I could be misremembering it.) I wouldn't put it so strongly. I'd say only that it's the recognition of something that I can only think of as a blind spot. And I take that into account if we're discussing literature.

And anyway, I have my own blind spots. I don't much like the sort of static fiction in which a miserable person goes on being miserable. 

The last time I read The Lord of the Rings was at least twenty years ago. I would have read it again before now, but after seeing the movie versions I found that I didn't want to read it again while those images were still strongly present in my mind. As it happens the very first Sunday Night Journal, posted in January 2004, was about the movie of The Return of the King; you can read it here. As time went on my opinion of the movies diminished, until I hoped that I would never see them again. I find now that they've faded to a point where they aren't overly obtrusive.

The book is as good as I remember. My first reading of it was pretty hasty, compelled by the narrative. Others involved reading to my children, which of course had its distractions. Now I'm taking it very slowly, sometimes reading no more than a few pages a day, and enjoying it intensely. I'm also keeping handy Karen Fonstad's amazing and valuable Atlas of Middle Earth, which contains maps of all the major physical features and many events of Tolkien's entire sub-creation. His achievement in imagining this world was astonishing, even if you think it was a waste of time. An important part of this imagining is visual; Tolkien obviously saw this world very clearly and in a great deal of detail. Not having a very visual sort of mind myself, I find it all too easy to be confused by it, or to lose the clear sense of what is where, which is very important because it's above all the account of a journey. The book comes with a map, of course, or at least it used to, but the maps in the atlas are far more detailed, and moreover include the whole of Tolkien's world in time and space, not just the parts that are important to The Lord of the Rings

I've just finished the "Farewell to Lorien" chapter, much of which is almost unbearably moving to me. Maybe sometime I'll write a full appreciation of the book, though I should first dig out and re-read the one I wrote for Caelum et Terra twenty-plus years ago. At the moment I think I am, still, one of those other readers whom Tolkien notes along with the hostile reviewers: those who found it too short.


When I was visiting in north Alabama last week I hoped to see the phenomenon described by Janet in a comment recently, where a bare tree is turned to gold by the setting (or rising) sun. I never quite saw that, because there were buildings and trees that blocked the sun before it got quite to that point. I did however see this.



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I'm even more specific in my prejudice. I find it hard to believe that anyone could like Lewis's fiction more than Tolkien's.

Then there are some who prefer Charles Williams to either of them!

Are you saying that you are guilty of that tastecrime, Stu?

I guess I wouldn't be stunned by someone preferring Lewis's fiction to Tolkien's, but I would certainly raise an eyebrow. :-)

Do people like Lewis's fiction better? But then, I always think the difference between the two is difference between Protestantism and Catholicism, so maybe so.

I'm sorry you didn't get to see the golden trees, but that was a pretty nice thing to see.


It was indeed.

I can't recall having heard anyone express that opinion, but maybe I just suppressed it. That's a fair point about Protestantism and Catholicism.

I was introduced to Tolkien when I was 18 by a woman with whom I worked (my first job). She told us about her roommate who was reading this stupid book about little creatures who lived in holes in the ground called Hobbits. I wanted to read the book, but I didn't want her to know that I wanted to read it, and wasn't quite sure what the creatures were called, so I didn't read it then. Later, I was really happy to come across it.

Nowadays, I could just google it.


Not me. I have only read Tolkien's fiction (Hobbit & LOTR) and Mere Christianity by Lewis. Nothing else.

I can imagine someone preferring Williams to either of the others, on the grounds that he's more adult or something.

The Tolkien fad within the hippie scene was going strong when I was in college, but I didn't read him then. Partly because I thought it sounded a little silly, I think. Maybe partly just because it seemed a fad. I wonder now what I would have thought of it if I'd read it then.

In this post on this blog from 2015 on "Liberalism and Literature," I shared one of my blogposts on this subject. Maybe you remember it.

For the past few years (!) I've been reading The Lord of the Rings aloud to my kids, and it's given me a new appreciation for the books. The writing is better than I'd previously seen, and the story is, as you say, very moving at times. The feeling I get when in Lothlorien is one that very little modern literature evokes.

I am tempted by the same tendency to judge on the basis of aesthetic judgments.

It's a very unfashionable, un-20th-century prose style, and I really can understand people finding it too...something...naive among other things to be taken seriously. Children don't have that preconception, though. Offhand I can't think of anything in modern literature that gives me a feeling comparable to that of the Lothlorien chapters.

Robert, I had totally forgotten not only your post but my own. I'm glad you reminded me of it because I might well have written it again sometime, as the things I talked about there seem to be getting steadily worse. And I agree with your post, of course. As would both Tolkien and Lewis, I think.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)