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Top Five: An eminent historian's favorite books
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squire
Valinor


Feb 28 2007, 12:06am

Post #1 of 39 (642 views)
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Top Five: An eminent historian's favorite books Can't Post

Perhaps you know of Eric Foner, the eminent historian from Columbia University? He wrote the book, as the saying goes, on the Reconstruction era -- a book that opened my eyes when I read it, since it contradicted everything I'd been taught in high school American history class.

He also plays the idealistic historian to John Sayles' cynical filmmaker, in a fascinating dialogue that prefaces the excellent book Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, ed. Carnes, 1996.

He is notably left in his sympathies, and specializes in African-American and working-class social history. He's no fanatic, though, and I would love to have time to read whatever books he might recommend.

Oh! No problem with that. Turns out he is featured in the "Periscope" feature of this week's Newsweek (3/5/07 issue, p. 16, available in doctors' offices everywhere) where he lists

"My Five Most Important Books":



1. The Making of the English Working Class, E. P. Thompson: "shows how history can be great, passionate writing."

2. Black Reconstruction in America, W. E. B. DuBois: "makes the emancipated slaves the central factor."

3. Waiting for the Barbarians, J. M. Coetze: "makes us wonder if we are the barbarians."

4. A History of the Siege of Lisbon, Jose Saramago: "a novel about how we distort history."

5. The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien: "for its underlying message that the struggle to destroy the evil also destroys the good."

Ha ha! Didn't expect that zinger at the end? I sure didn't. Nice company the Prof keeps these days, eh?

Do you agree with Foner's take on LotR's "underlying message"?

What "good" and "evil" might this historian of Reconstruction be thinking of?

Will this high-brow plug in Newsweek boost LotR sales even further, if that is even possible?




squire online:
RR Discussions: The Valaquenta, A Shortcut to Mushrooms, and Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit
Footeramas: The 3rd TORn Reading Room LotR Discussion; and "Tolkien would have LOVED it!"
squiretalk introduces the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: A Reader's Diary


Ataahua
Superuser / Moderator


Feb 28 2007, 12:46am

Post #2 of 39 (396 views)
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I'd say it's more a case of [In reply to] Can't Post

it being a mark of Evil that it harms and ultimately lessens Good - which makes it harder for good people to get rid of Evil, and when (if) Evil is finally gone, Good is then has to rebuild itself.

I love seeing acknowledgement of how good fiction enhances the human condition. :)

Celebrimbor: "Pretty rings..."
Dwarves: "Pretty rings..."
Men: "Pretty rings..."
Sauron: "Mine's better."

"Ah, how ironic, the addictive qualities of Sauron’s master weapon led to its own destruction. Which just goes to show, kids - if you want two small and noble souls to succeed on a mission of dire importance... send an evil-minded b*****d with them too." - Gandalf's Diaries, final par, by Ufthak.


Ataahua's stories


Annael
Half-elven


Feb 28 2007, 4:25am

Post #3 of 39 (339 views)
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interesting [In reply to] Can't Post

(puts Foner on to-read list)

I won't presume to assume what Foner means by his take on LOTR, but I don't think Tolkien would agree that the struggle to defeat evil destroys the good as well. As I understand (without sharing) Tolkien's view, it was that the battle against evil is constant, necessary, and for the most part hopeless - but not ultimately.

My own view on good and evil is that they are two sides of the same coin and you can't have one without the other.

Dorothy was a fool she could have stayed in Oz
She traded all that color for black and white
- Judy Collins


NARF and member of Deplorable Cultus since 1967


(This post was edited by Annael on Feb 28 2007, 4:26am)


Aerin
Grey Havens


Feb 28 2007, 4:41am

Post #4 of 39 (355 views)
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It seems to me [In reply to] Can't Post

that he must be thinking of how the destruction of the One Ring ends the power of the Three, and/or of how the quest to destroy the One destroys Frodo's ability to live in ME. Painful but necessary trade-offs.


RosieLass
Valinor


Feb 28 2007, 5:25am

Post #5 of 39 (364 views)
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That's too simplistic. [In reply to] Can't Post

And it's pretty cynical, too.

I would say the underlying message is that the good is worth fighting for, even if you sacrifice everything in the effort.

Children’s Interpretations of the Bible

Lot’s wife was a pillar of salt during the day, but a ball of fire during the night.

The greatest miracle in the Bible is when Joshua told his son to stand still and he obeyed him.

Christians have only one spouse. This is called monotony.


Foe
Lorien


Feb 28 2007, 6:21am

Post #6 of 39 (372 views)
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True, if evil ceases to exist... [In reply to] Can't Post

then good also ceases. What would we be left with then?

Email Foe!

Foe's LiveJournal!

Foe's Myspace!

YIM, AIM, MSN= foehelm


Atlas
Bree


Feb 28 2007, 7:45am

Post #7 of 39 (345 views)
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Such a brief notice won't affect much. [In reply to] Can't Post

I doubt Foner's recommendation will have much impact on sales of Tolkien. Sure, a couple people might be inclined to read it who would have not otherwise, but from a tiny mention in a weekly newsmagazine? He probably influences more people every day in his classes to read Tolkien than this small notice will.

If he thinks that's what Tolkien was trying to convey with LOTR, then he's wrong. That may be the lesson that Foner takes from it, but I would be shocked if that is what Tolkien would have wanted someone to learn from his book. Of course, he may well have expounded on Tolkien far more than Newsweek was able to include. Knowing Foner is a Marxist, I'm not really surprised by the "zinger".

"The grand scheme of God is inscrutable; the object of life is virtue, not pleasure; and obedience, not liberty, is the means of its attainment." ~Russell Kirk


Penthe
Gondor


Feb 28 2007, 10:01am

Post #8 of 39 (328 views)
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Tolkien's letter about 'orcs' in Britain [In reply to] Can't Post

I think that Tolkien was sometimes quite grim in his outlook, and did understand that taking on evil could compromise good. That (brief) interpretation certainly seems like a valid one to me.

But I don't think it is necessary comfortable to take that message home with us.


Curious
Half-elven

Feb 28 2007, 10:54am

Post #9 of 39 (352 views)
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This is exactly how LotR can win critical acceptance. [In reply to] Can't Post

Critics do not like mindless escapism, but Tolkien's escapism is defiant, not mindless. Tolkien's profound pessimism about the Primary World underlies the whole of Middle-earth, but so subtly that many critics have missed it. To be fair, many non-critics have missed it as well, because Tolkien went to great lengths to disguise it. One of the reasons LotR is so popular is that it can be all things to all people, and Tolkien made that happen by burying his own point of view.

Pan's Labyrinth is an example of a fantasy that hits us over the head with pessimism about the Primary World, and the critics love it. LotR demands a much closer reading to discover Tolkien's theory that history is a long decline. It helps that we now have access to The Silmarillion.

Charles Dickens was once dismissed as merely a popular writer. Decades after his death critics revived his reputation by noting the profound pessimism underlying his stories. Perhaps the same will happen with Tolkien some day.

But note that there is profound optimism in LotR as well. History may be a long decline, but ultimately Good will triumph. Victory is fleeting, but each reprieve foreshadows the final victory over Evil, not by Man, but by a Higher Power.


grammaboodawg
Immortal


Feb 28 2007, 11:00am

Post #10 of 39 (363 views)
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*knits eyebrows* Kinda simplistic, aint' it? [In reply to] Can't Post

While I'm delighted to see Tolkien's work holding the attention it rightly deserves, and I think it could boost sales a tad bit by those who need "reputable lists" before they inflict their minds with anything, I'm caught by the shallow definition of the overview. For me, the story is about selflessness, loyalty, courage unlooked for, and all kindreds/peoples coming together to fight an ultimate evil for the survival of the inhabitants of Middle-earth would be a more valid description. But that's me.

In regards to my comment about "reputable lists", I have many people around me that won't see a film or read a book unless they're given a thumb's up by the commercialized reviewers (Roger Ebert, Detroit News, etc.).


sample sample
Trust him... The Hobbit is coming!

"Barney Snow was here." ~Hug like a hobbit!~ "In my heaven..."


TORn's Observations Lists


River Woman
The Shire

Feb 28 2007, 11:05am

Post #11 of 39 (314 views)
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Destroying evil will eventually destroy the good ... [In reply to] Can't Post

When you consider Tolkien's experiences in the trenches of Flanders during WWI, then it is possible that doing good by battling evil (allied troops against German troops) your are losing good or goodness. Tolkien and his comrades would have been on the 'good' side (yes, the German troops also believed they were on the good side, it is the anomaly of war) - yet they witnessed dreadful things; lived in horrendous conditions; and could have been ordered to sacrifice their lives for a few feet of mud.

When we kill another being, in whatever circumstances, then a small part of the good within us flees. For some people, the mere thought of killing means they have lost or are losing their elemental 'good' part. So I agree with Foner, destroying evil also destroys good. On a metaphysical level, it would have to, as evil cannot exist without good and vice versa. It is the Universal balance.

**** Far over the plain Éowyn saw the glitter of their spears, as she stood still, alone before the doors of the silent house. ***


a.s.
Valinor


Feb 28 2007, 11:45am

Post #12 of 39 (327 views)
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one modifier and one more sentence needed [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To

5. The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien: "for its underlying message that the struggle to destroy the evil also destroys the good."

Ha ha! Didn't expect that zinger at the end? I sure didn't. Nice company the Prof keeps these days, eh?

Do you agree with Foner's take on LotR's "underlying message"?



Yes, as far as it goes. But it needs to be continued: "The struggle to destroy the evil also destroys some of the good. However, while we believe that evil can't ultimately triumph over good, it's nevertheless our duty during the short span of history allotted to us to constantly strive against the evil even when we have no certain knowledge of success."

Otherwise, left alone as a bald statement that the fight to destroy evil also destroys the good, that statement is not the Tolkien philosophy or world view, which is pretty much summed up by Gandalf's "all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us".

a.s.

"an seileachan"

Everybody's wondering what and where they all came from.
Everybody's worried 'bout where they're gonna go when the whole thing's done.
No one knows for certain, and so it's all the same to me:
I think I'll just let the mystery be.
~~~~Iris DeMent


(This post was edited by a.s. on Feb 28 2007, 11:46am)


a.s.
Valinor


Feb 28 2007, 12:00pm

Post #13 of 39 (342 views)
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not Tolkien [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To
destroying evil also destroys good. On a metaphysical level, it would have to, as evil cannot exist without good and vice versa. It is the Universal balance.




Tolkien believed that evil cannot exist without good only because God created all things good, and evil is only a perversion of good. There is no "black/white" or "yin/yang" of good and evil, they are not opposing and equal forces. There is just good, and then perversion or denial or absence of good. There is no evil force fighting with a good force that has a hope of winning out over that good force. There is only a good force that allows evil to coexist, but over whom evil has no ultimate sway.

However, whatever it's nature and however it came to be, there is only one clear thing: there is evil. It exists. To quote Tolkien in Mythopoeia:

of Evil this
alone is dreadly certain: Evil is.


Evil cannot ever wholly triumph, according to Tolkien, because everything is governed by Providence (the will of God) which is ultimately good. Providence is unknown to men, who experience it as fate or destiny since they can't read the mind of God.

The fight in LOTR isn't "good vs evil", it is just men (and women, and elves and dwarves and hobbits) struggling to triumph over evil forces with reliance on unknown (and unknowable) Providence. Tolkien believed that was man's purpose, again to quote Mythopoeia:

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate,
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bare, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow's sway.


Blessed are the men of Noah's race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.


a.s.



"an seileachan"

Everybody's wondering what and where they all came from.
Everybody's worried 'bout where they're gonna go when the whole thing's done.
No one knows for certain, and so it's all the same to me:
I think I'll just let the mystery be.
~~~~Iris DeMent


FingonOfPittsburgh
Lorien


Feb 28 2007, 12:40pm

Post #14 of 39 (305 views)
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re [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To

I would say the underlying message is that the good is worth fighting for, even if you sacrifice everything in the effort.


Perfectly stated! It's amazing that a "scholar" would miss this. Well, no - no it's not really.


Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament... There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man's heart desires.

--J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #43, to his son Michael


FingonOfPittsburgh
Lorien


Feb 28 2007, 12:56pm

Post #15 of 39 (309 views)
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re [In reply to] Can't Post

I don't agree at all with FOner's characterization of LotR's "underlying message." Some people find it too hard to swallow this fundamental truth that Tolkien held (and many of us hold): There are moral absolutes! There is good and there is evil. The two are necessarily at constant war. In order to overcome the evil, sometimes even the weakest, most innocent, most unaffected among us must take up arms and fight, even if it means the sacrifice of their own lives!

The modern reader has been led down the road of moral relativism, where things that were formerly held as evils are now considered acceptable as part of a new, enlightened worldview. Do people read Tolkien differently now than they did 50 years ago? I think so. There is much less black and white nowadays, and a lot more grey area. It's funny to see modern critics try to find redeeming qualities in Orcs ("......but they were once Elves! Can't they be redeemed?" NO!).

That's why a guy like this sees the battle against evil as a futile effort that will also destroy whatever is good in the world. (Perhaps rather than fighting evil, good should learn to peacefully coexist with it?) In fact, Tolkien would've believed that good can never, will never, be ultimately defeated. Foner's opinion reflects a desperation that a man like Tolkien would've never considered.


Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament... There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man's heart desires.

--J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter #43, to his son Michael


squire
Valinor


Feb 28 2007, 1:20pm

Post #16 of 39 (342 views)
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Is it Marxist to give LotR a pessimistic reading? [In reply to] Can't Post

I'm not sure being "left" is the same as being a "Marxist", but surely both outlooks are materialistic enough to call for the destruction of evil forces in society so that the good can finally flourish (of course what is good and evil about societies is where the left differs from the right). In other words, the left considers itself optimistic.

I think Foner as an individual may be left in sympathy, but as a student of history he seems to agree with Tolkien that Man, alone, cannot achieve the good simply by destroying the evil; as has been pointed out in this thread, any destruction is itself an evil. In Tolkien's case, his faith told him that Man's struggle towards goodness was doomed pending the final Redemption; Foner is silent (in his brief comment) on whether he agrees with Tolkien's faith-based response to their shared fundamental historic pessimism.

LotR is very pessimistic about the struggle against evil: as Tolkien points out through the voices of his own characters, the destruction of Sauron and the Ring prevents the final triumph of evil, but must still lead to the decline and disappearance of all that is wonderful about Middle-earth. All the races but Men face a fading or a departure at the end of the book, and the Fourth Age looks forward to a mundane future in our own world where morality is muted into tones of grey.

My take on Foner's comment is that he is thinking of the tragedy of Reconstruction, which he has studied deeply. In his interpretation, the war to end the evil of slavery also ended the northern whites' interest in the human rights of the slaves themselves, leading in one tragic decade to the Jim Crow regimes that oppressed the ex-slaves for another century.



squire online:
RR Discussions: The Valaquenta, A Shortcut to Mushrooms, and Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit
Footeramas: The 3rd TORn Reading Room LotR Discussion; and "Tolkien would have LOVED it!"
squiretalk introduces the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: A Reader's Diary


Adanedhel
Bree

Feb 28 2007, 1:50pm

Post #17 of 39 (300 views)
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If destroying evil [In reply to] Can't Post

destroys good then what would leaving evil alone do to good? You think it would leave good alone to coexist?



dernwyn
Forum Admin / Moderator


Feb 28 2007, 2:37pm

Post #18 of 39 (308 views)
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I also read it that way. [In reply to] Can't Post

Although the qualifier "some of" should have been put in there, as his line is ambiguous, and should be more definite that not all of the good was destroyed.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Still 'round the corner there may wait
A new road, or a secret gate...


Wynnie
Rohan


Feb 28 2007, 3:19pm

Post #19 of 39 (354 views)
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Here's a longer explanation [In reply to] Can't Post

of what he means, copied from this site:

excerpt from Reading and Writing History
From: Columbia University | By: Eric Foner


The next book, or collection of books, may surprise you, but it is J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Of course, this is a very popular series of books, but it played an important role in my life in two rather odd ways. When I was a graduate student studying for my comprehensive oral exams, I got a very useful piece of advice from one of my professors which I pass on to my students today. Of course, they ignore it, but it's this: Stop studying a week or two before the exam. Don't cram, don't overdo it; go out and read something that has nothing to do with history to relax your mind. So the weeks before I took my orals I read the three volumes of The Lord of the Rings.

In an odd sort of way, I later began to realize that this entire history that Tolkien invents gave me a lot of insight into the American Civil War: the contradictions of the American Civil War, and the way the Civil War, at least for the North, became this great struggle to emancipate the slaves and purge American society of the greatest evil that had existed up to that point. And also how the very war effort itself laid the foundation for the great industrial state of the late nineteenth century. Many workers and others in the North suffered great losses because of the war; some people enriched themselves enormously; others fell behind. The war changed the society very much even as it was mobilizing people for this great moral crusade.

The message in The Lord of the Rings is, in a way, that the struggle to destroy the evil also destroys the good. The very effort to mobilize against the evil unalterably changes what you're trying to defend. So at the very end of that trilogy, the heroes--Frodo the Hobbit, Gandalf and Elrond--sail away. They can't live in this world that they've created, because it's so different from what they started out to defend. It's a metaphor; Abraham Lincoln didn't sail away, he was killed, but the world after the Civil War was not Lincoln's America anymore. It was a very different world, in some ways better and in other ways much worse, and somehow the Tolkien book suggested that insight to me which I have used in a lot of my writings and teachings ever since. It had a greater influence on my writing of history than one might think from reading my books, even if it's never cited in the footnotes.


Owlamoo
ink drawing by JRRT

(This post was edited by Wynnie on Feb 28 2007, 3:22pm)


Annael
Half-elven


Feb 28 2007, 3:37pm

Post #20 of 39 (296 views)
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wholeness [In reply to] Can't Post

or Heaven . . .

Dorothy was a fool she could have stayed in Oz
She traded all that color for black and white
- Judy Collins


NARF and member of Deplorable Cultus since 1967


Annael
Half-elven


Feb 28 2007, 4:02pm

Post #21 of 39 (299 views)
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Very true [In reply to] Can't Post

I'm one of those who doesn't believe that good and evil are too entirely separate things. Oddly enough, I believe that because I do believe in God. How can evil be "outside" God? And if it is not outside God, how can it be entirely evil? Even Tolkien saw that Melkor's actions were always part of God's plan.

I like moral relativism. If one thinks evil is not separate, it becomes something one can actually do something about. For instance, if you think all criminals are just evil, then of course you will want to punish them and think you've done all that can be done. But the evidence is clear that many criminals were molested and abused as children. If we can prevent abuse, we may be able to preserve those people as good & useful citizens and prevent a lot of crime. An ounce of prevention rather than a pound of punishment sounds like a good idea to me. It doesn't allow one to stand apart and sneer, though; it requires one to take responsibility for others. (Which I kinda always thought Jesus said we ought to do, but that maybe because I read the Bible by myself without anyone telling me how to think about it.)

You know, people don't really disagree as much as our politicians and ministers would have us think (as it's in their interests to divide people each other, sadly). I doubt there's many people who think evil is something we don't have to battle. Where we disagree is how to go about it.

And that may explain also why I see Tolkien as pessimistic where you don't. "Fighting the long defeat" says Galadriel; I've always been struck by Tolkien's attitude that things were always better in the past and are only getting worse as time goes on. That's not how I feel. I think as a species we are, in fact, growing and changing for the better.

Dorothy was a fool she could have stayed in Oz
She traded all that color for black and white
- Judy Collins


NARF and member of Deplorable Cultus since 1967


(This post was edited by Annael on Feb 28 2007, 4:09pm)


Owlyross
Rohan


Feb 28 2007, 4:03pm

Post #22 of 39 (324 views)
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And that totally ties into the applicability of the text [In reply to] Can't Post

It's possible to read all sorts of things into the story of Lord of the Rings because (to go all Granny Weatherwax) it's a story about the big stuff. And before you get down to all the little things, it's the big stories that resonate through the ages, so that the person who reads them thiks that they are the first person to hear such a story, and they apply it to their own circumstances. But the story's always been there, and while it reflects the civil war to one person and the loss of good, it reflects religion to another and the importance of good, and it reflects the first world war and the theme of hope to another. And all of those people are right, because it reflects their world-view and that's what they read in the story.

"Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both."
Benjamin Franklin
The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.
Horace Walpole (1717 - 1797)


Annael
Half-elven


Feb 28 2007, 4:13pm

Post #23 of 39 (300 views)
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*laughs* [In reply to] Can't Post


Quote
it's a story about the big stuff. And before you get down to all the little things, it's the big stories that resonate through the ages, so that the person who reads them thiks that they are the first person to hear such a story, and they apply it to their own circumstances. But the story's always been there, and while it reflects the civil war to one person and the loss of good, it reflects religion to another and the importance of good, and it reflects the first world war and the theme of hope to another. And all of those people are right, because it reflects their world-view and that's what they read in the story.



I once wrote an essay several thousand words long that said no more than what you just managed to convey in one paragraph. Well said!

(And I love Granny.)

Dorothy was a fool she could have stayed in Oz
She traded all that color for black and white
- Judy Collins


NARF and member of Deplorable Cultus since 1967


Owlyross
Rohan


Feb 28 2007, 4:16pm

Post #24 of 39 (288 views)
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I work as a copy-editor/writer [In reply to] Can't Post

So brevity is my by-word Wink

"Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both."
Benjamin Franklin
The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.
Horace Walpole (1717 - 1797)


Atlas
Bree


Feb 28 2007, 4:43pm

Post #25 of 39 (300 views)
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Not at all. [In reply to] Can't Post

Of course being "left" is not the same as "Marxist". But Foner is not just "left". From reading about him and his work, I thought it was clear that he went beyond simply your average, run-of-the-mill leftist and was far enough to be called a Marxist. Though if that's too strong, perhaps we can agree on a compromise of "fellow-traveler"?

I find that I was insufficiently clear about why I was unsurprised by a Marxist saying something like that. It isn't because a Marxist is led to such a conclusion by his ideology, but because the delusions necessary to subscribe to Marxism seem to me likely to leave one open to other equally delusional ideas. I'd say the idea that the struggle against evil necessarily destroys good as well is pretty delusional.

He may well have been thinking of the Reconstruction, but without further evidence or comment I think it would even be as fair to postulate that he was thinking of how World War II both destroyed the Nazis and led to the Cold War which eventually resulted in the demise Soviet bloc. Since his feelings about the Soviet Union were positive, perhaps he views the struggle against evil to have resulted also in the destruction of the good. He may well, of course, not have been thinking about either situation and either guess is just that: a guess.

This really isn't the place for a discussion of Marxism, however, and since we're only tenuously connected to Tolkien at this point, I'll leave it here. Feel free to send me a PM or an e-mail if you want to talk about it further.


In Reply To
I'm not sure being "left" is the same as being a "Marxist", but surely both outlooks are materialistic enough to call for the destruction of evil forces in society so that the good can finally flourish (of course what is good and evil about societies is where the left differs from the right). In other words, the left considers itself optimistic.

I think Foner as an individual may be left in sympathy, but as a student of history he seems to agree with Tolkien that Man, alone, cannot achieve the good simply by destroying the evil; as has been pointed out in this thread, any destruction is itself an evil. In Tolkien's case, his faith told him that Man's struggle towards goodness was doomed pending the final Redemption; Foner is silent (in his brief comment) on whether he agrees with Tolkien's faith-based response to their shared fundamental historic pessimism.

LotR is very pessimistic about the struggle against evil: as Tolkien points out through the voices of his own characters, the destruction of Sauron and the Ring prevents the final triumph of evil, but must still lead to the decline and disappearance of all that is wonderful about Middle-earth. All the races but Men face a fading or a departure at the end of the book, and the Fourth Age looks forward to a mundane future in our own world where morality is muted into tones of grey.

My take on Foner's comment is that he is thinking of the tragedy of Reconstruction, which he has studied deeply. In his interpretation, the war to end the evil of slavery also ended the northern whites' interest in the human rights of the slaves themselves, leading in one tragic decade to the Jim Crow regimes that oppressed the ex-slaves for another century.


"The grand scheme of God is inscrutable; the object of life is virtue, not pleasure; and obedience, not liberty, is the means of its attainment." ~Russell Kirk

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