Humility and the Canon

Thursday , 16, February 2017 22 Comments

I want to talk about humility. And I know that’s going to seem like an odd thing, but the subject does come up extemporaneously even if it’s not a common choice for the subject of a blog post. And it does relate to several other things we spend a lot of time digging into around here, so please bear with me as I make my way to the point.

The thing that really gets me about it is that people act like it’s noteworthy or extraordinary. Honestly, I really can’t wrap my head around that. Humility is inevitable. It’s normal. It really is.

Consider Chuck Mangione, the mastermind behind the 1978 Billboard hit “Feels So Good.” Here’s what he had to say on the subject:

I keep telling people to look for the zen masters of music: the Dizzy Gillespies, and the Art Blakey’s, and the Cannonball Adderlies, and the John Coltranes, the Charlie Parkers…. I just consider myself a lucky kid who got a horn and likes to honk on it. So… there’s a lot of other people to check out.

I don’t know a single jazz musician that doesn’t talk like that. Mathematicians…? If you could get them to open up, I’d expect them to be the same way when it comes to Fermat, Euler, and Pascal. If you could find somebody big in computer programming right now, corner them– and then compare them to John McCarthy, the creator of Lisp. First they’ll be stunned, then they’ll be honored, then they’ll struggle to turn down the compliment without coming off as ungracious.

It’s an appreciation of a canon that makes people genuinely humble– and that’s one huge reason why the whole “don’t read anything before 1980” scene is going to have some particularly noxious side effects as things go on. It’s much more than the destruction of common reference points that makes it infinitely harder to convey rich ideas and imagery through easily invoked allusions. It’s an attack on entire generation’s capacity to even develop an essential virtue.

You can see this in the fantasy fans that only even know Brooks, Jordan, and Martin. But it’s much worse for the young protesters whose depth of literary exposure fails to go beyond Harry Potter. It shouldn’t be like this. And yes, I’ve seen it dismissed repeatedly I think I’ve heard every conceivable explanation for why older generations tend to resent the younger ones. People get nervous whenever this subject is broached and start cracking “get off my lawn” jokes, but something really significant is happening. Take a look a JD Cowan’s account of how he managed to dig himself out of this sort of thing:

Then I read someone named G.K. Chesterton and his book Orthodoxy. It fundamentally changed how I saw the world. He was the first person I’d ever read that made perfect sense. It was as if he was talking directly to me over a hundred years after writing that book. I’d never experienced anything like that before. Looking into him led me along an odd string of events to find a book called The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope which honestly might be the best book ever written. It had everything: action, adventure, comedy, romance, and it was fun. It made me realize that I’d missed so much, and I never even knew it.

But what really shifted the way I saw things was Mr. Chesterton as a person. He was friends with H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. He was a well known figure. He wrote scores of books, fiction and non-fiction, and he was highly respected even among those he opposed. He even wrote a pretty good play called “The Surprise” that earns its title.

That lead me to a very important question: Why had I never heard of him?

That is the question.

Every other field has the benefit of a canon. Can you imagine Mathematics or Computer Science or even Jazz leaving this sort of thing up to serendipity? It would destroy them. There’s no way around that. I suppose the case could be made that literature is different somehow. Regardless, science fiction authors’ penchant for slagging off on their pioneers and predecessors is more than a little tacky. The reactions to my rather mild pushback in that area are rather telling, I think:

On the other hand, Johnson takes it all so very seriously. In his concluding and judgemental rant he seems to treat the Appendix as an authoritative, sacred canon that defines which books of the period are worth taking a look at instead of just a list of titles that Gygax happened to read and enjoy.

Note where the sneer really takes root there: at the invocation of the sacred. It’s like the attitude is completely foreign to them.

The thing is, it isn’t to Chuck Mangione. And that’s a huge part of why he was able to make such a superlative recording.

  • Anthony says:

    Brilliant article!

  • icewater says:

    This war against history and against any sort of authoritative canon in any given field isn’t even limited to genre/speculative fiction anymore. Recall all those articles about young student and their professors trying to expel Dante and Shakespeare, Ancient and Medieval philosophers and so on…
    JCW quoted this beneath one such article on VD’s blog, and it bears repeating:
    “Kill man’s sense of values. Kill his capacity to recognise greatness or to achieve it. Great men can’t be ruled. We don’t want any great men. Don’t deny conception of greatness. Destroy it from within. The great is the rare, the difficult, the exceptional. Set up standards of achievement open to all, to the least, to the most inept – and you stop the impetus to effort in men, great or small.”

    and I will add more, for it reveals much about their perpetual sneer and snark that is also evident there:

    “Then there’s another way. Kill by laughter. Laughter is an instrument of human joy. Learn to use it as a weapon of destruction. Turn it into a sneer. It’s simple. Tell them to laugh at everything. Tell them that a sense of humour is an unlimited virtue. Don’t let anything remain sacred in a man’s soul – and his soul won’t be sacred to him. Kill reverence and you’ve killed the hero in man. One doesn’t reverence with a giggle. He’ll obey and he’ll set no limits to obedience – anything goes – nothing is too serious.”

    • “JCW quoted this beneath one such article on VD’s blog”

      Let the record show that these words are not mine, but come from Ayn Rand. (Who, I should add, showed proper respect to Aristotle as one of the giants one whose shoulders she herself stands.)

      • icewater says:

        I guess I should have pointed that out. It’s one of her most well known and, unfortunately, most often quoted passages though. (I say “unfortunately”, as I wish that it wasn’t so damn relevant to us today)

  • keith says:

    GRRM, for all his failings, is the sort of man that is prone to drown hapless interviewer in endless talk about his influences or SFF he read as a kid in general. Same obviously isn’t true of many of his fans and successors.

    I’ve read much worse about your work btw, as did you in all likelihood. Though, I did click on the link before reading that last quote, so I guess that seeing hipstery name and hipstery cat picture prepared me. These people are ever predictable.

  • Rod Walker says:

    This is very true. The best education a writer can have is to read a lot of history and lot of classic books.

    Rod Walker would never have written “Alien Game” if he hadn’t read Richard Connell first.

  • Jack Amok says:

    In high school (graduated 1984), I was a total metal head. Judas Priest, Scorpions, Accept… but the first album I ever owned was Chuck Mangione’s Feels So Good, which I bought as a seventh grader on a 33 and played on a portable turntable. I can still hear all the songs on that album, not just the title track, but the others as well.

    Maybe 90% of everything is crap, but that still means 10% isn’t, and that leaves more than enough to appreciate, if you’re willing to accept something from before Current Year.

    • Andy says:

      Well, speaking of metal, it’s a very traditional-minded genre of music itself. It’s normal and even expected for younger bands to name their inspirations so everyone knows what to expect from their sound. Admittedly, it can get a little silly when they even start dressing like their idols (e.g., thrash bands wearing tight jeans and white high-tops a la Metallica and Megadeth circa 1986), but canon is huge in metal.

  • Well, now. One can certainly be critical of different canons and the power dynamics of canonization processes, and acknowledge at the same time that the canonized works do have merits and are worthy works of art.

    However, what my quoted comment says is simply that Appendix N is a list of works that Gygax happened to like and you seem to take that rather seriously.

    After all, it says: “The following authors were of particular inspiration to me.” Not: “These are absolutely the best works of fantasy of this time period and everything else is not as good” or anything like that.

    • Blume says:

      Prove it.

    • deuce says:

      Well, now, are you sure you even understand the original impetus for Jeffro’s exploration of App N? I may be wrong, but it seemed he was looking at the App from the perspective of how it shaped D&D. The whole “inspiration” thing you breezed past. Only then did Jeffro realize the intrinsic literary worth of the books in that “canon”. From there, he investigated just what happened when those texts were “read out” of or ignored in the general SFF canon.

      Johnson dug deeper. I suggest you do the same, unless power dynamics (or something) are holding you back. 😀

    • Jeffro says:

      I address the thrust of your comments in my next post which should be up in a few hours here. Thanks for responding.

  • Anthony M says:

    The Kitties post was a little annoying, but I’ve seen worse. I wouldn’t call it over the top.

    • Jeffro says:

      It’s just the most immediate example of the contempt for reverence that my critics reflexively embody. No, I don’t want to be too hard on them; they aren’t really thinking it through when they do it, they are merely programmed that way. The weight of my contempt is reserved for the people that implemented those subroutines.

      • Anthony M says:

        I mean, I don’t want to be too light on them either. It’s very obvious they read it with an immediate negative bias; they assumed in advance that you’d come across as a blowhard and read it into fairly tame statements you made. That the older works were offering something that modern works lack should, at least, be uncontroversial to those who read them.

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