The pedant

Phil Ford

Susanna Clarke's fantasy novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell posits a parallel-universe England where magic — real magic, like raising the dead and traveling to Fairy lands — was done as a matter of course in the Middle Ages. The book begins in the time of the Napoleonic wars, when no-one has done any "practical magic" for at least two centuries. The only magicians left are "theoretical magicians," who study the history of magic but can do no magic themselves. The book begins with an account of a meeting of the Learned Society of York Magicians, an inbred crew of pedants who find themselves surprised and displeased when a new member asks why no-one can cast even the smallest spell anymore. The Learned Society doesn't know and doesn't want to know. Its members have no interest in seeing magic done; they wish only to read about it in books. When a real magician does appear, though, it is in the uninspiring form of the peevish and pedantic Mr. Norrell, a man who has devoted his entire life to collecting magical books and learning their secrets. (And crushing his rivals and depriving them of their books.) After he makes his powers known, he falls in with a couple of London society types who want him to become a magical celebrity, an idea that alarms him. They try to convince him that he could publish book reviews, but he doesn't like that idea either:

"Besides," said Mr. Norrell, "I really have no desire to write reviews of other people's books. Modern publications upon magic are the most pernicious things in the world, full of misinformation and wrong opinions."

"Then sir, you may say so. The ruder you are, the more the editors will be delighted."

"But it is my own opinions which I wish to make better known, not other people's."

"Ah, but, sir," said Lascelles, "it is precisely by passing judgments upon other people's work and pointing out their errors that readers can be made to understand your own opinions better. It is the easiest thing in the world to turn a review to one's own ends.One only need mention the book once or twice and for the rest of the  article one may develop one's theme just as one chuses. It is, I assure you, what every body does."

In passages like this Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is both a superb fantasy novel and satire of academia. Who hasn't had a professor like Mr. Norrell? He's a miser of ideas, a quarrelsome and petty man torn between his desire for renown and fear of sharing his knowledge. He takes a student (Jonathan Strange, an amateur who has somehow figured out how to do magic without consulting books), but their relationship sours because Norrell can never imagine a student being anything but a pale moon orbiting around his teacher's solar brilliance. He doesn't have the largeness of mind that could allow him to see that there are at least two sides to every question; instead, he insists on his own narrow views as the only possible correct ones and all competing views as heresies fit only for annihilation. Intellectual life is for him a battleground, and the only thing he can imagine doing is erecting towers and battlements and fortifications, so that, ideally, he need never even meet his opponents — they'll never even get in past the front door. 

I'm not writing this post with anyone in particular in mind — this is just a recognizable academic type. You are doubtless all thinking up your own examples of brilliant and deeply learned men and women who feel they own their areas of scholarly interest, and whose proprietary attitude leads them to sandbag their positions against all intruders — scholars of X who take every pain to ensure that no-one ever gets to say anything about X that they have not personally approved. (Also, the friction between "practical magicians" and "theoretical magicians" might strike just a little close to home for musicologists.) But then again, Susanna Clarke probably never intended her novel to be an academic burlesque in the style of David Lodge. Fantasy novels just lend themselves to these sorts of interpretations. Vladimir Jankélévitch wrote that music has "broad shoulders"  — you can hang just about any story or interpretation on it.* Fantasy has pretty broad shoulders, too. Tolkien was always annoyed at how his readers would turn Lord of the Rings into an allegory for this or that. Tolkien's contemporaries interpreted Mordor as Nazi Germany; the hippies, who were fond of Middle Earth, interpreted Sauron and his minions as the technocratic System facing down a peacful agrarian anarchism (i.e., the hippies themselves); and there's probably a book waiting to be written a decade from now about the meanings people took from the LotR movies after 9/11. Speaking of satires, here's a funny McSweeney's bit imagining Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky's LotR DVD commentary track. There was a lot of this kind of hermeneuticizin' floating around in those days.

And of course there's a cottage industry of Harry Potter hermeneutics. I don't love those books and I don't hate them. I've read the first four to my son, but he's lost interest for now, because Rowling manages, rather cleverly, to have each successive book mirror the psychology its main characters, so that the first one is basically a children's book and the last ones are all goth teen angst. (Nicholas can't relate to the goth teen angst. Yet.) Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea books, and Neil Gaiman's Sandman comix (to say nothing of Tolkien!) are all more satisfying to me as fantasy, maybe because they seem, I dunno, a bit more grown-up — they're better-written and imagine their invented worlds a bit more coherently. As it gets going, the Harry Potter series distends the interior logic of its invented world more and more as the special exceptions pile up — Rowling starts to indulge in narrative deus ex machinas in the form of new magical objects or hitherto unrevealed powers of said objects, which gives the whole thing the feel of a kid's game of make-believe. ("OK, when you died in that last battle you secretly had a magic horse that can make everybody live again, so now you come to life, but you're a good guy now, OK?") Who knows, maybe this is part of the charm. 

Of course a lot of people just hate fantasy novels anyway and aren't going to make distinctions between, say, Rowling and Clarke. For those people: yes, I know, it's very silly and wrong to like fantastic fiction. Now go crap in your hat. To the rest of you, I recommend Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell as a fine way to procrastinate on your term-end grading, and it makes a suitable gift for the literate fantasy non-haters in your lives. If any of you have read it, am I nuts, or is this really a novel about musicologists?   

Hat tip to Carolyn Abbate, in "Music—Drastic or Gnostic?"

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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7 Responses to The pedant

  1. Sulafaye says:

    That line of thinking makes the fate of Strange and Norrell take on a whole new light (or darkness, I suppose)! I would elaborate, but I hope all of your readers get a chance to pick up this book and I would hate to be responsible for a spoiler.

  2. Heather H says:

    Interestingly enough, this quote:
    “Ah, but, sir,” said Lascelles, “it is precisely by passing judgments upon other people’s work and pointing out their errors that readers can be made to understand your own opinions better. It is the easiest thing in the world to turn a review to one’s own ends.One only need mention the book once or twice and for the rest of the article one may develop one’s theme just as one chuses. It is, I assure you, what every body does.”
    is very similar to the thesis of “How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read”… which is supplying several new Favorite Quotes for my facebook page, and which should be on every graduate student’s holiday wish list.
    How I loved “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.” Thanks for the reminder that it’s time for a re-read!

  3. Lisa Hirsch says:

    That was about the most memorable book I read in 2005 – oh, how I love it!

  4. Jonathan says:

    I’ll consider this book a must-read. The fact that we can come up with stereotypical examples, does not erase all the accomplished performers who are musicologists. I sometimes think we buy into the clueless-pedant stereotype too easily, out of some kind of reflexive low self-image. When minorities internalize stereotypes, we note it and deplore it. Yeah, stereotypes come from somewhere, sure. I still think we may be a good couple of decades beyond the bad old days of this one, though.

  5. Phil Ford says:

    Hey Heather! Thanks for the recommendation — I’ve been hearing about that book too.
    Jonathan — I doubt it would ever be possible to get beyond the bad old days. It’s always the bad old days, because human nature doesn’t change. I think the impulse to hoard knowledge and defend it as a private possession — to treat it as a rivalrous rather than non-rivalrous good, to use econ jargon — is something that everyone in the biz feels in him/herself at some point or other. We just all make our own choice about whether or not to go over to the Dark Side. Some of the people in whom I’ve noticed this impulse to be particularly strong are young scholars. It’s not about age or generation. At one point the narrator of “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” remarks that while one imagines Norrell being old, his true age was beside the point: he was the sort of person who was old at seventeen.

  6. Jonathan says:

    Now I’m scared. I was once told, as an undergrad, that I was more like a faculty member than a student. Suddenly I can feel those literary crosshairs on my back…
    Of course, I knew (and satirized, mercilessly) those people; I just gravitated toward the Other Kind. Maybe being to a certain extent outside the loop all the way through (piano track rather than academic track, only to find a side entrance later) helped me in this; to the academics, I may not have been worth bullying. Or perhaps it wasn’t worth bullying someone who could defend himself! Of all the things I remember, though, superciliousness and snobbery and repression by authority figures and all that don’t register very high.
    I always suspected that when we follow our own agendas and play our OWN game hard, the static and crosstalk will necessarily diminish. That said, I may just have been incredibly lucky going through, with everyone I met, all my mentors etc.; so some of my schoolboys’-writing-book-maxims-type opinions (such as the above) might be like the rich man looking at the poor boy and saying, “Now, if you’ll just work a bit harder, lad…”

  7. Galen says:

    Jonathan Strange is indeed an extrordinary book. And I think it’s quite reasonable to read it as in part a satire of academia, or at least a satire of the academic/intellectual class.
    Since you mention Gaiman, if you haven’t read _American Gods_ you should do so. It’s amazing.

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