Sunday, January 10, 2016

a little lesson

Somewhat more than 25 years ago now, a tempest erupted in C.S. Lewis studies. A respected scholar, Kathryn Lindskoog, wrote an article and then a book (followed by more books and a magazine) charging that the likewise respected and prolifically-publishing literary executor of the Lewis estate, Walter Hooper, had engaged in malfeasance, exaggerating the extent of his own relationship with Lewis, insinuating himself into the position of literary executor, sponsoring false and misleading accounts of Lewis's life and beliefs, tinkering with Lewis's texts, and - most staggeringly - publishing a forgery as Lewis's work and lying about its provenance.

My own reaction to this was that Lindskoog proved her case on some of the charges, particularly the first, but that some of the others were flimsy at best. The forgery claim, for one: a manuscript in Lewis's handwriting existed, but she said it must have been forged, and her main evidence that the story wasn't by Lewis was that it wasn't very good, a terrible argument to make regarding an abandoned incomplete piece by a prolific and inconsistent author. On the other hand, for the provenance Lindskoog showed that it was Hooper's story that was full of holes. And some of the bad smell she detected around other things was evident to me too.

The counter-argument by Hooper's supporters was that Lindskoog had lost her marbles and sent around unjust charges willy-nilly, and she didn't help by being a poor advocate for her own case, failing to distinguish facts from speculations, and rambling terribly. That she was, in their words, a nut did not seem beyond possibility.

During the height of this, I was the editor of the Mythopoeic Society's bulletin, so I had to engage with the topic. I tried to maintain a judicious distance, pointing out both the strengths and weaknesses in the charges (Hooper himself refrained from the fray, and his supporters published no full-length rebuttals, so there was less to respond to there).

What got me was this. During this controversy I received two - one from each side - submissions for publication, each intended to prove the case once and for all, and blow the other side entirely out of the water. But though both authors were sharp and insightful people, both their submissions struck me as very weak, failing to engage with the other side's strong points and not demonstrating their own points. To each submitter I wrote back, outlining what I felt was missing from their polemics and what they'd have to put in to actually prove their case.

I was trying to save them from the embarrassment and grief that would have resulted from publication of their weak arguments that would have led to the conclusion that they had nothing better, and more importantly to encourage them. If either of them really did have a solid argument that the other side was wrong, by all means I wanted to see it, but first they'd have to produce it.

But neither of them took it that way. Each of them assumed that I had completely fallen for the other side's false arguments and that I was beyond reasonable discussion. One of them wrote back denouncing me, and the other just gave up and never responded; I didn't find out until some time later how he'd taken it. At that point I gave up: the assumption that my desire for something better than weak arguments meant I must have fallen for the other side's weak arguments struck me as grotesque.

So now I've found myself similarly engaged in the Peter S. Beagle controversy. Two sides, each accusing the other of bad dealings, false charges, and trying to control Beagle's work and manipulate his person for its own illegitimate profit. Such independent knowledge as I have of the background supports cases for both sides. But when I read the cases, I see on both sides huge gaps in the argument and unexplained questions.

Should I write another post outlining what I don't understand and saying to both sides, "This is what you'll have to explain if you want me to believe your case"? No. Not if I take the Lewis controversy as my guide. If they're like the Lewis camps, I'd be wasting my time trying to get them to shore up their cases; they'd just take my questions as attacks and write me off as an enemy. And thereby they'd only make me think more poorly of them. And since, even to start with, both sides' attacks on the other are more vicious than anything that occurred during the Lewis wars, I don't have my hopes up that they'd be any different, and all I'd accomplish is to get myself shot at.

So I'm writing this instead, to explain why - despite my love for Beagle's work and my personal fondness for him - I'm not joining either camp of self-proclaimed Beagle defenders, at least until somebody actually produces something definitive.

No comments, because I don't want to tempt anybody.