Friday, December 2, 2016

3 1/2 Straussian readings of Tolkien!!!!

A while back I wrote that I've encountered three Leo Strauss-influenced articles on Tolkien. Well, looks like I've found another 1/2 of Strauss-influenced article. The "half" comes due to the fact that the author, Mary Keyes, isn't really a Straussian, at least not in any obvious way. She doesn't use any of the standard terminology (except the phrase "one's own") or ways of framing questions that appear frequently among Straussians, but there's a few half-clues.

  • She was a fellow presenter at the Tolkien and Political Science conference from 2003, where the keynote speaker was clearly a Straussian. (He's one of the people I mention in the link above.) So, some chance that Keyes has at least encountered Strauss.
  • She cites Allan Bloom's translation of The Republic and Harvey Mansfield's and Delba Winthrop's translation of Tocqueville; both Bloom and Mansfield are prominent Straussians.

How is Keyes's article? Well, let's just say that when political scientists delve into literary criticism, us English majors don't have to worry about finding new day jobs. That's not a slight on Keyes but simply a recognition that writing quality literary criticism is actually a pretty tough endeavor. For what it's worth, here's my (slightly edited) annotated of Keyes's article.

Keys, Mary M. “J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Or, There and Back Again: Recovering a Platonic-Aristotelian Politics of Friendship in Liberal Democracy.” Homer Simpson Ponders Politics: Popular Culture as Political Theory. Ed. Joseph J. Foy and Timothy M. Dale. Lexington, KY: U of Kentucky P, 2013. 203-232. Print.

Keys’s basic thesis is the “possibilities and problems of justice and friendship,” maybe even emphasizing the latter in the realm of politics in The Hobbit (203). Unfortunately, Keys falls short on making significant claims. The first half of the essay tries to answer why political science should concern itself with “fairy tales" (see footnote). These aren't actually real problems, imho, but she gets 10 pages out of them, and I suppose they might vaguely be of more interest to potentially skeptical political scientists than to people like me. Still, her responses to these questions overly rely on Tolkien's "On Fairy-stories," which is hardly likely to warm my heart. Tolkien's essay has a lot of virtues and it's certainly a must-read, but I've found it to be virtually useless in helping produce decent lit crit, so there's that. 

The middle section reflects "on Tolkien’s portrayal of property, justice, and friendship in The Hobbit” (204), but this simply amounts to noting where instances of these issues appear in the text—indeed, the hard question is how these broad issues could not appear in any text, given just a little ingenuity. Furthermore, she tends to simply italicize words to indicate that they have a relationship of some sort to political science.

The final section reflects on what the “recovery” of these issues could mean for liberal democracy. This is the section with the most potential -- but only lasts about 2 pages. She quotes Tocqueville to the effect that reading Greek and Latin literature, which is aristocratic in spirit, is healthy for a democracy (225). “Tocqueville likewise contrasts the tendency of aristocratic historians to focus on the roles of individual persons in shaping the course of events, on the one hand, with the common bent of democratic history to gloss over human agency and responsibility and identify the causes of particular events in mass movements, material processes, and sweeping social currents, on the other hand” (225). That's good stuff, and it's just led to me to buy Mansfield's translation of Tocqueville, but Keyes unfortunately doesn't expand on this topic any further. 

Some similarities and differences, though: “Both Tolkien and Tocqueville perceive humanity in terms of its potencies for greatness and for misery; moreover, both share in a fiery passion for human greatness” (226) but Tolkien is more apt to love common people like hobbits.

[1] I.e., it’s children’s literature, it’s about imaginary principalities, it’s a mental and emotional relaxation and escapism, and Tolkien himself seems apolitical.

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