Wednesday, February 16, 2011

These degenerate times...

There's a new novel out by Joe Abercrombie; we're days away from the new Patrick Rothfuss (which has been delayed to an almost comic extent); and Scott Lynch is right there too. Don't forget that George R.R. Martin is about to go prime time on HBO. A good year for the good stuff all in all.

The backlash has started.

Leo Grin (the former proprietor of the Howardian website The Cimmerian ) has published an impassioned cry from the heart on Andrew Breitbart's Big Hollywood site. Heroic Fantasy seems an unlikely subject for the culture wars, but Grin, with whom I could not disagree more, does a very good job, writing of "postmodern blasphemies against our mythic heritage" and "cheap purveyors of civilizational graffiti." His best line:

Soiling the building blocks and well-known tropes of our treasured modern myths is no different than other artists taking a crucifix and dipping it in urine, covering it in ants, or smearing it with feces. In the end, it’s just another small, pathetic chapter in the decades-long slide of Western civilization into suicidal self-loathing. It’s a well-worn road: bored middle-class creatives (almost all of them college-educated liberals) living lives devoid of any greater purpose inevitably reach out for anything deemed sacred by the conservatives populating any artistic field. They co-opt the language, the plots, the characters, the cliches, the marketing, and proceed to deconstruct it all like a mad doctor performing an autopsy. Then, using cynicism, profanity, scatology, dark humor, and nihilism, they put it back together into a Frankenstein’s monster designed to shock, outrage, offend, and dishearten.
Abercrombie is Exhibit A and responds on his blog:
When it comes to an epic tale with moral clarity set in a supremely realised fantasy world,(Tolkien) pretty much knocked it out of the park. But that means there’s not much point in my writing it again, is there? Forgive me for saying so, but it feels as if folk have been writing Lord of the Rings again for a while now, and I think we could probably, you know, stop.

Surely the hallmark of western civilization is variety, richness, experimentation. If we all settled for repeating the same-old we’d still be stuck in the dark ages, no? We’d certainly have no Tolkien and Howard, who were bold enough to try to do new things with established forms, cook up new combinations of influences with their own stamp. Isn’t that what it’s all about? I don’t honestly see myself as nihilistic, really. Cynical, for sure. Surprising, I’d hope. Occasionally filthy, no doubt. Bankrupt, certainly not, thank you, baths in my literary sewer are in great demand as my new four book deal certifies. But it’s got nothing to do with tearing anything down, and certainly not with suicidal self-loathing. I see myself as working within a form. Experimenting with the same stuff Tolkien and Howard pioneered. Tweaking, commenting, examining, hopefully in the sort of way that Sergio Leone does with John Ford, and Clint Eastwood does with Sergio Leone. That’s how genre works, no? Darkness, despair, and lack of moral clarity in fantasy isn’t even anything radical. Look at Lovecraft. Look at Howard, for that matter.
And then, John C. Wright, fantasy writer and alumnus of my college, gets involved:
It is my judgment, shared of many ancients, that there are certain proper emotional reactions and relations one ought to have, and improper ones one ought not. A child raised to curse and despise his parents, trample the crucifix, burn the flag, abhor kittens and Christmas scenes and motherhood but adore torture porn and satanism and deformity, that child’s tastes are objectively perverse and false-to-facts. He has been trained to spew his mother’s milk and drink venom. Fair to him is foul, and foul is fair. In the same way that to say A is not-A is an offense against logic, to hate the lovely and love the hateful is an offense against aesthetics, a disconnection from reality.
Jeff Vandermeer has the story at the Amazon book blog.

I don't take blasphemy against myth (what a great phrase!) seriously enough to take this slugfest as seriously as it probably warrants, but I admire Grin and Wright for their passion and will accuse Wright (and maybe Grin) of harboring a sense of humor, to boot.


David Chute said...

Remember that Hegel quote? If not, it's here:

"Only a formal rectitude".

We're all more or less lapsed believers. At bottom we know that Grin and Wright are correct. We also know that the age of magic has passed.

Tulkinghorn said...

Wonderfully apt. Love to jump into the conversation with it, but realize that comment number 310 (at Grin's posting) probably wouldn't have much impact.

David Chute said...

Thinking of the Crowly books, obviously -- and perhaps for the first time really grasping their overriding metaphor. (I can be a little slow.)

Christian Lindke said...

"We also know that the age of magic has passed."

This was the very argument at the core of Tolkien's work. He was wrong, the deep embrace his own mythopoesis received is the first piece of evidence that his basic argument was flawed.

Mankind seeks magic. They yearn for the mythic and divine. St. Augustine wrote that we all have a God sized whole in our heart when writing of faith. One could equally say that we all have a child's need for wonder.

Moorcock would argue that by having his Sigfried survive in both the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings that it is Tolkien who betrayed our mythic heritage. By creating the possibility of Gondor returning to greatness under Aragorn's leadership, he abandons the loss central to the Nibelungenlied. Epics require the tragedy of loss to work. Not metaphorical loss, but real loss that can be transformed into metaphor.

If Achilles, the greatest of the Greeks, survives Troy, then what is lost? The invincible warrior, unjustly slighted, wins the day and becomes god not man. The hero must remain man for the mythic to be true.

The magic is in something beyond man -- whether God, honor, truth, or virtue -- being a part of the story.

Abercrombie's fiction is cynical, but not nihilistic.

Moorcock's fiction is dark, hopeless, filled with nihilists, yet also filled with Dreams of Tanelorn.

Lovecraft's fiction is dark and atheistic and seeks a new post-scientific mythic order and rekindle fear.

Howard seeks to rekindle the savage within.