Friday, February 8, 2013

The World Will Be Tlön: The Hobbit as Parallel Reality

There's some relevant background to this in my post on Star Trek and Doctor Who.

The vulgar modernist in me takes a very dim view of Tolkien's books. When Tolkien was born at the beginning of 1892; Virginia Woolf was nine years old, D.H. Lawrence was six and Siegfried Sassoon was five, T.S. Eliot was two, and Wilfred Owen would be conceived in a year and two months. 

All these writers found productive, or at least articulate, methods of responding to the trauma of World War I, the pollution of England's countryside, the unstoppable expansion of its cities, and the unending sense of sickness, confusion and dread that accompanied full-fledged industrial modernization. It's a task so large that it's almost inconceivable today, to internalize a social change that devastating and reproduce the sensation of it in print, so maybe we shouldn't blame Tolkien from shirking from it, but we can't deny that he shirked.

Rather than face modernization, whether it was with Lawrence's fury, Woolf's hope or Eliot's despondency, the ready-made modernist narrative is that Tolkien ran from it, not only in his writing but in all areas of his life. He worked in a pseudo-aristocratic writing circle in the age of Yaddo and Gertrude Stein, taught philology while structural linguistics was on the ascent, and continued to smoke a pipe and wear tweed until his death in the 1970s. But his writing, obviously, is where this sense of retreat comes through the strongest. 

Even today, when there's a growing number of fantasy writers who make most of their living not with books at all, but rather with "campaign settings"—readymade worlds to set Dungeons and Dragons games in—Tolkien stands as an ideal so absolute and singleminded that he's almost grotesque. Middle-earth is both more expansive and more minutely detailed than any other fantasy world any writer has ever described, even into the successions of its kings and the geography of its sunken continents. More than anything, it's the languages that really make it compelling—the obsessively detailed lexicons and grammars that make it seem like Tolkien was just studying a world that the rest of us couldn't see.

And when we zero in on it, I think that's the basic axiom of The Lord of the Rings, and of most fantasy fiction. The rationalized modern world we live in is dull, bereft of any sense of adventure; the fantasy novelist has to compensate for that by being aggressively irrelevant, by creating a world that feels authentic on its own, without needing to lean on industrial modernity. What the Platonic fantasy novel would do, if it were realized, is immerse the reader in a parallel reality, a world so cohesive and complete that the reader wouldn't need the modern world anymore. Tolkien's books come closest to this ideal—they're falsehoods so rigorous that they get uncannily close to truth.

But Bazin saw the impulse to immerse as the basic project of Western art, culminating in the invention of film, which according to him is not so much a technology as it is a progress towards realism, and Borges memorably discussed fantasy's impending eclipse of reality, even predicting the language fetishism of Tolkien's fans in his discussion of Tlön's bizarre language. These are two of our most perceptive critics of emergent postwar culture; if they deigned to analyze him, I suspect both men would paint Tolkien not as a reactionary, but as a closet progressive, a progressive whose modernism is buried in his subconscious, untouched by his antiquarian style and conservative themes.

So if Tolkien is a modern in search of a modern style, a vocabulary to suit the modern world on the order of Woolf's or Lawrence's, then the true Tolkien is Peter Jackson. Reprocessed by the Jackson-Boyens-Walsh screenwriting team and a Hollywood editor, bereft of the Anglo-Saxon quirks of Tolkien's prose, the books can become what they're becoming—warm crevices of spectacle to crawl inside. The Hobbit, which is almost unrecognizable in film form, is clear proof of this. The entire movie is laced with so many references to the earlier movies, so much production-design glitz, that the mise-en-scene overpowers the plot completely. The shabby script and hyperactive editing immerse us in the world at every moment. Everybody in the movie drops hints; every shot flies through a cohesive space; every brooch and ring and braid jumps out at us.

So The Hobbit might be a terrible movie by classical standards—by reactionary standards—but as an experience it's superlative, as an experience that goes beyond the aesthetic and becomes a Wagnerian wet dream. Tolkien's project hasn't been bastardized, it's been liberated, freed from its quaint flower-power trappings and left to become the all-consuming juggernaut it always wanted to be. Until we learn to critique a world, movies like The Hobbit are always going to evade us—we might as well be critiquing the Holodeck.

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