Anniversary of Superversive 2

We celebrate the first year of the superversive literary movement with the second half of last week’s essay by that brilliant essayist, Tom Simon.

This essay I think is one of his best, and since I think he is perhaps the best essayist since essayist since Montaigne, that is saying quite a bit. Of course, I happen to be particularly interested in this topic, and his essay makes clear to me a personal puzzle touching why a writer I once respected and read avidly now bores and offends me.

Here is a collection of his essays:


A collection of Mr. Simons excellent essays on Tolkien and our craft.

And here is the first part:

Let me quote a teaser:

Life, Carbon, and the Tao – Part Two


Tom Simon

What’s so special about the Tao?

Here I am using the term Tao the way C. S. Lewis used it in The Abolition of Man: meaning the basic principles of morality on which all civilized peoples have generally agreed. Here are some of the perennials: Don’t murder your neighbour, don’t steal from your neighbour, don’t mess around with your neighbour’s wife, don’t perjure yourself. Men have differed on the definition of neighbour, and some  of the wide variation in human cultures is accounted for by that  difference. Some peoples apply the Tao only to members of one’s own  tribe, or one’s own nation. Some try to apply it to every human being  without exception. And of course there are differences of detail, such  as whether a man should marry one wife or four. But every culture that  survives is based on the Tao, just as every life form is based on  carbon; and the reasons, at bottom, are similar.

What the Tao does is to establish a minimum basis for safe dealings  between human beings. If, every time you went into Starbucks, you had to  seriously question whether the barrista would sell you a cup of coffee  or shoot you on sight, I fancy that Starbucks, as a business, would not  have lasted long. Fortunately, both you and the barrista subscribe to  the Tao. Even if you don’t understand the reasons for the rules, you  obey the rules, at least most of the time, because that is the only  way that you can get along and do business together. Even to live  together in a community requires the Tao. My neighbours lock their  doors when they go out, it is true. But if I did not accept the Tao,  locks would do them no good; I would smash the doors with an axe and  help myself to their belongings. And if they did not accept the Tao,  they would have no grounds to complain. No human being can live as a  solo army, at war with the whole world. We are born weak and helpless,  and most of us are weak and helpless again before we die; and we all  have to sleep in between. The Tao literally keeps us alive when we  cannot defend ourselves.

The basis of the Tao, in one word, is reciprocity. “Do unto others  as you would have them do unto you.” Or if that is too strong for you,  take the formula of Confucius: “Never do to others what you would not  like them to do to you.” Over tens of thousands of years, in the  laboratory of daily life, in tribes and villages, cities and nations, we  have boiled down the art of reciprocity; we have codified the things  that none of us (when sane and healthy) wish done to us, and we agree  not to do them to others. In almost every culture, this code is  reinforced by the prevailing religion; but it is quite possible to  accept the Tao without any religion at all. It is the common moral  currency of humanity, and with the caveat noted above, it passes  everywhere. Societies that reject the  Tao  do not hang together; and  individuals who reject the  Tao  soon find themselves without any society.

When I turn from real life to fiction, I find a curious difference. In  the stories of the past — in nearly all fiction before, say, the late  nineteenth century, and all  popular  fiction until a much later date —  the  Tao  is taken for granted; only there is a class of people who do  not observe the  Tao.  These people are called  criminals,  or   outlaws,  or  villains.  In the older kind of fiction, the villain  upsets the  Tao  to take advantage of a weaker party, and the hero  restores the  Tao  by avenging the victim.

Consider the  Odyssey.  Odysseus was a sharp operator, maybe, but still  a hero; he restored the  Tao.  Old Polyphemus, the Cyclops, violated the   Tao  in a pretty straightforward way: he ate his house guests. The  Greeks set great store by the laws of  xenia,  or hospitality; and even  we degenerate moderns, when our friends invite us to dinner, do not  expect to  be  the dinner. Later, he restored the  Tao  in the matter of  adultery, dealing with his wife’s suitors in a brusque but exemplary  manner. (No, he could not have called the police. Odysseus was the King  of Ithaca; he  was  the police.)

It is only we moderns, for the most part, who try to write fiction  without the  Tao.


Read the rest: