Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Michael Moorcock's "Epic Pooh" essay on Tolkien and the Inklings

Some 25 years ago I came across Michael Moorcock's essay focused on Tolkien in a collection of essays entitled Wizardry and Wild Romance (1987, Gollancz); and I have just been re-reading it.

It strikes me as an uncriticizably-bad essay - in the sense that it is an almost perfect example of that inversion of Good which is the hallmark of New Leftism in its post-sixties and politically correct form.

So, from Moorcock's perspective; virtue is wickedness, courage is cowardice, deep scholarship is criticized as populist, everything beautiful is named ugly, truth is put down as evasion - and all the opposites.

This is also the situation in Moorcock's fiction - it is a world of moral subversion, inversion and destruction; in which entropy is embraced and chaos is king (except that 'kings' are baddies).

I have, indeed, read a lot of Moorcock's books - at least twenty, probably more; at the time of my life when I embraced his nihilism. But, although I was always expecting to find evidence that Moorcock was (as so many journalists said) an important, perhaps great, writer; and although I kept trying book after book; I never could perceive it.

He seemed superficial and inept - in the sense that the books felt slapdash, pointless; and I could seldom understand what was actually going-on (this, I assume, was due to narrative inability, poor storytelling technique).

And I never re-read any of them - which is, for me, decisive; except for a comic James Bond parody called The Russian Intelligence, which made me laugh out loud.


But the Epic Pooh essay is well worth re-reading; not (I hasten to add) for its critical analysis nor its ludicrous pretense at objectivity of standards; and certainly not for its sprawling, hasty, lazy non-structure - but as a case study of the phenomenon of middle class disaffection.

Because Moorcock's main term of abuse is 'middle class' - yet of course he is himself middle class (far more so than I am). However, Moorcock is a characteristic part of the upper middle class; which is the bohemian artist, drop-out, liberated, sexual revolutionary, drink and drugs type middle class.

These drop-out upper middle class  types imagine themselves tougher, realer and more honest than the  lower middle class and the respectable skilled and semi-skilled working class (i.e. the kind from whom my own ancestors and relatives were drawn) - these are despised as smug/ pathetic/ infantile/ square/ repressed/ hypocritical (etc etc).

The bohemian middle class have a snobbish disdain amounting to disgust, directed against the old English hard-working and (mostly) clean-living 'bourgeoisie'; and always they side with tramps, prostitutes, muggers, thieves and beggars; their values are aristocratic: amoral and hedonistic; their gods are style and cool.


All through Epic Pooh, Moorcock is continually, swaggeringly advertising his own toughness in contrast with what he depicts as the the escapist timidity of Tolkien and co.

But Moorcock's idea of toughness is 'smoking behind the bike sheds' teenage rebel stuff; like getting expelled from his experimental private school, drinking to excess, taking drugs, advocating bizarre and promiscuous sex, going on 'demos', and participating in the rock music scene.

Against such indomitable modern heroism; what have the likes of Tolkien and CS Lewis to offer other than serving in the front line trenches during the first world war?


The irony is that Moorcock's brand of middle class moral rebelliousness is now the official ethics of mainstream bureaucracy and civil service; his transgressive sexual practices and orientations are now taught and advocated in primary schools; his once-edgy feminist privileging is now enforced by everybody including the Royal Mail, the Royal Mint, the Royal Society and the Royal Family; the 'revolutionaries' of the sixties are now the recipients of knighthoods and peerages.

Meanwhile, Tolkien is still excluded by the literary establishment, still maintains his devoted readership; Tolkien's values of Christianity and traditional morality cannot legally be expressed either in public or in private.


In his recent interviews, Moorcock apparently still romanticizes himself as a bold and dashing Robin Hood liberationist of 'the people'; indomitably fighting the overwhelming forces of repressive tradition, pervasive patriarchy, and hegemonic Christianity.

Pose is all. And all there is, is pose.



Nathaniel said...

Indeed, there is both a pervasive lie to the idea - yet perhaps some truth. The establishment always pretends it is the underdog and "rebelling", though it is, of course, in possession of power. However the truth lies in the true anti-Christian nature of all the rebellions and "progress". Perhaps those in rebellion realize that ultimately the rebellion is futile and self-destructive? That all worldly power is but transient and fleeting, while that which they hate is eternal?

pyrrhus said...

I also read several of Moorcock's fictional works years ago, and gave him up as hopeless....He is a sloppy and uninteresting writer.

Bruce Charlton said...

@p- I suppose it is only fair to state I have not read any of Moorcock's Sword and Sorcery genre; that was how he made his name, and they may well be better than the other stuff.

Anonymous said...

Aside from a pretty good takedown of Moorcock's critical shortcomings, it is also possible what you've highlighted here can shed some light on certain phenomena I've noticed in today's artistic discourse.

Consider the fact that today a 30-something with little aesthetic knowledge in either the history of fiction, film, or stage, and more important, an undeveloped imagination that is necessary to arrive at a proper artistic enjoyment can nonetheless be the de-facto commanding voice in terms of what is regarded as the best and brightest in art. I'm talking about kids whose taste starts at, say, Marvel or DC comics, and yet never displays a curiosity about any possible higher form of storytelling. This is the kind of person who would label, say, John Ford a racist, or the Marx Brothers as unfunny because it doesn't meet their limited "chronological Snob" worldview.

The result you get is a true anomaly: an audience member who is unable to work up an appreciation for entertainment, and is probably not able to get much from what little he claims to enjoy, and yet they still keep coming back, even when they know the result can only be disappointment due to their lack or inability from imaginative enjoyment, which is an "acquirement", not something given.

I don't know, but it could be that the kind of essay by writers like Moorcock (and perhaps critics like Pauline Kael?) helped kick-start a trend of what is now considered your typical Angry Fan Boy syndrome, what Andrew Keen perhaps meant when he coined the phrase "Cult of the Amateur".

Just some interesting food for thought.


Wade said...

"Against such indomitable modern heroism; what have the likes of Tolkien and CS Lewis to offer other than serving in the front line trenches during the first world war?"

I love the nonchalant delivery of this line. It really sums up the issue with Moorcock quite nicely. It made me laugh out loud.

Tucker said...

The very worst part of the entire thing, the line that betrays his worldview more than anything, is the jab about "hating hobbits".

Anonymous said...

Haven't tried it yet (or any Moorcock, ever), but ChrisC made me think of Lewis's Experiment in Criticism, and how it has room for comics (if people really like them) while not being impressed by rigid (so-called) 'theoreticians' of whatever sort (though I don't know he refers to 'theory' in criticizing such folk), and encouraging wide 'experimenting' in trying different things to see if you like them, and why.

David Llewellyn Dodds