Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

Five-Minute Filigree

Just now I was thinking about what I should do in the thirty minutes I have before I take my mom to another doctor's appointment and wandered into my office to look at the bookshelves there. I pulled my German paperback edition of the first volume of Capital down, since I mean to at least partially reread it soon. But it was clearly too intense for such a short window of opportunity.

While I was retrieving it, I glanced over at the adjoining bookshelf that holds much of my collection in twentieth-century leftist thought. I saw books by Rudolph Rocker, Antonio Gramsci and, my personal favorite, Walter Benjamin. While I'd rather read them, especially in English, than tackle the small print and yellowed paper of my German edition of Marx's masterpiece, it felt like a betrayal and, what is more, one consistent with a disturbing tendency in post-1960s theory circles, where primary sources are neglected in favor of books kinda-sorta about them.

So I held on to the Marx and made it out into the kitchen when my thoughts drifted to Lord of the Rings, which I began rereading as part of a contest with my twelve-year-old. Given how little time I have, I told myself, it would make more sense to make a little headway in The Two Towers and return to Marx under more favorable circumstances. But then that plan also flooded me with guilt, since I would clearly be taking the easy way out.

Stumped, I decided that I should at least try to think about J.R.R. Tolkien in relation to Marxism before sitting down to read them. That got me thinking that I should try to read fantasy literature that directly influenced Tolkien, maybe something by George Macdonald, so that I could compare an approach to counter-factual worlds produced in a Victorian context to the one that Tolkien took with the Great Depression and World War II as a backdrop.

From there I started pondering the modernity of Lord of the Rings, the fact that, even though it's a deeply melancholic story that celebrates what is lost with Max Weber's Entzauberung der Welt, the prose is decidedly modern in feel, particularly when juxtaposed with The Silmarillion, where Tolkien was striving for lexical and syntactical "antiquing" akin to the sort Edmund Spenser deployed in The Faerie Queen.

And then I remembered Walter Benjamin, who was deeply preoccupied with our relation to the recent past and, in particular, the ways in which modernity can make less then a century's remove seem vaster somehow than the twenty-five hundred years that separate us from the pinnacle of classical Greek culture. In Lord of the Rings, I realized, the distant past is more present for the elves than what happened relatively recently.

Focusing on Tolkien's elves then reminded me of the insight that the genius of his fantasy world lies in the way it treats time, the fact that each species has a different lifespan and a concomitant idiosyncrasy of perception. If elves, dwarves, humans and hobbits and humans all lived more or less the same number of years, almost everything that is interesting in his work would disappear. In other words, to put this realization into language appropriate for someone of Tolkien's generation, the strength of his storytelling is a function of the relativity he introduces into the experience of time.

That brought me back to Benjamin, whose interest in the recent past went hand in hand with a mission to liberate leftist thinking from linear chronology and the unimaginative teleology to which it has unfortunately led. And then I had a flash of inspiration: both Benjamin and Tolkien were born in 1892. Surely, their interest in time and the way they thought about it had a lot to do with the period in which they grew up, when so many technological advances were radically transforming the texture of everyday life.

FInally, that realization made me think about how and why I am drawn to the work produced by intellectuals of their generation, those born sometime between the late 1880s and early 1900s. My father's parents were also born in the 1890s. And my paternal grandfather, like Tolkien and, in a different sense, Benjamin, was profoundly affected by World War I and its immediate aftermath. Could it be that my attraction to this period and the people who lived through it is bound up with an identification that, like genetic traits, skipped a generation?

Well, my time is up. Now I'm not going to read Marx, Tolkien or Benjamin until later in the day at the very earliest. But at least I got something written, which has been hard for me to do recently. It's a good exercise, reconstructing a train of thought in this manner, even if there's a danger that the mental associations that made it possible will be cauterized by the effort to capture them in words.
Tags: autobiography, family, fantasy, literature, theory

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