A physicist loose among the liberal arts

The Ideal Reader

Terry Eagleton doesn’t like his predecessors in the field of literary theory. I suspect this is because the word “theory” has so many definitions that it’s useless in this context, but more about that in a future post.  At the moment, I’d like to call attention to one of the daggers he sticks in the back of the Structuralists.

For the structuralists, the ‘ideal reader’ of a work was someone who would have at his or her disposal all of the codes which would render it exhaustively intelligible. The reader was thus just a kind of mirror—reflection of the work itself — someone who would understand it ‘as it was’. An ideal reader would need to be fully equipped with all the technical knowledge essential for deciphering the work, to be faultless in applying this knowledge, and free of any hampering restrictions. If this model was pressed to an extreme, he or she would have to be stateless, classless, ungendered, free of ethnic characteristics and without limiting cultural assumptions. It is true that one does not tend to meet many readers who fill this bill entirely satisfactorily, but the structuralists conceded that the ideal reader need not do anything so humdrum as actually exist.

Literary Theory, p.105

Submitted for your consideration:  We, here in the World Wide Web, and especially the teachers and students of the Mythgard Academy, are creating J.R.R. Tolkien’s ideal reader. Nowhere was it ever said that the reader had to be one person.  In fact, for most of history, that’s not what reading was.

Going down the list of criteria:

  • Equipped with technical knowledge? Check. At Tolkien conferences, I have met astronomers, botanists, classicists, doctors, economists, physicists (sorry, that’ll have to do for “F”), geographers, historians, idiosophers … And I’d bet a dollar there’s at least one zymurgist among us.
  • Faultless in applying our knowledge? Well, not at the first try, but we’re a group, and we point out faults and mend them together.
  • We are certainly stateless, in that we’ve got people from lots of countries within our ensemble.
  • We’re ungendered.  Groups don’t even have genders, per se.
  • Classless? In a purely Marxist sense, which is appropriate for Eagleton, we come mostly from the bourgeoisie, but I’m of solid proletarian stock. (I can’t be the only student who’s used both a manure fork and GoToWebinar within two hours, but I’m sure not all of us have.) In a more relevant American sense, there are several orders of magnitude of wealth between the students and the doctors and lawyers among us. Subjugation to class interests is not a problem.
  • Free of ethnic characteristics … maybe. I’ve never heard most of us mention their ethnicity. I know of seven or eight ethnicities, depending on whether you count Angles and Saxons as different. Anyway, though we’re reading books written with a specific ethnic purpose, everyone I’ve heard counts new ethnic perspectives as a win.
  • “Without limiting cultural assumptions.” This is one of those things that makes me wish that e-books came with a virtual author I could punch. We are all (1)reading books (2) written in the mid 20th Century (3) in English and (4) discussing them on the Internet. That’s a pretty narrow cultural slice. And the opinions of people who don’t do the first three things aren’t important to understanding the books.

Altogether, it is not true that I haven’t “met many readers who fill this bill.”  All the readers I’ve met, together, fill the bill quite well. So, a fig for the fatuous fulminations of Eagleton, to use George Starbuck’s excellent phrase.  We exist, and the new forms that the Academy are taking in the 21st Century are rendering Eagleton’s assertions obsolete.

Works Cited

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Anniversary Edition. Blackwell Publishing, 2008.


The Defence of Sidney


Sing along with LotR


  1. Joe, if you don’t already know it, I would suggest C.S. Lewis’ “An Experiment in Criticism.” But for all I know, it’s on your syllabus.

    Long ago I taught at Vassar for a couple of years, and I often sat in the coffee shop with two other professors. The one was a retirement age full professor of Classics, who cultivated a persona I could sum up as talks-like-Socrates-but-looks-like-GRRM-with-the-hat. The other was a young assistant professor in the French department, who had sprung full grown from the forehead of Derrida. Both of them were nice guys, but from decidedly different camps. We would sit there smoking and arguing.

    One day the French professor was instructing us in the finer points of French literary theory, saying things like “there are no facts: there are only texts.” Suddenly the Classics professor sighed and said: “Every 20 years the French reinvent the wheel, and the rest of us are supposed to stand agog.”

    • Joe

      Tom, you were just proven as right as it’s possible to be. This morning at work I was tracking down a reference about aviation law in Europe, and Google Scholar served me up the syllabus for a law-school course that seemed relevant. The first lecture begins:

      • Planet Earth is a minuscule point in the Universe.
      • Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie (Blaise Pascal, Les Pensées, transition n° 7/8)
      • Earth is a planet in the Solar System, which is itself a part of a galaxy called the Milky Way.
  2. Shawn M

    Thanks for this, Joe. It’s a nice reminder of the power of the Internet as a force for good, and the importance of a community of common interest. Tom wrote a blog post recently that made me reflect on how lucky I am to live in an age when I can connect with other readers (Tolkien- and otherwise) and learn new perspectives to synthesize with my own opinions about a work. Your post is making me think this is no accident, but the way it should be.

    Also, I’m not a zymurgist by education, but I can brew a mean ale or mead when I find the time; so we’re getting close.

    • Joe

      That counts. In my experience, yeast are the cats of the fungus kingdom, never doing what I want them to, knocking over jars, leaving funny smells in the house…

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