Gardner's Grendel

Gardner saw Beowulf as a menacing outside force, who just wanted to torture Grendel in his final moments, but I think that Grendel and Beowulf are two sides of the same person.

Beowulf is the spiritual reality, a nagging force from inside, a thing that people in the 20th century (and Grendel) rejected. It's never even questioned in the book whether metaphysical reality has anything to offer-- the answer is an assumed "no." People who believe in meaning are always ignorant, the powerful always realize the futility of existence and just do whatever they want. Gardner saw Beowulf's attempt to give Grendel a glimpse of spiritual reality before killing him as a sadistic thing, not just content to humiliate him or make him feel pain, Beowulf has to taunt him into almost believing something that runs contrary everything he built his life on-- to invalidate his entire justification for throwing it away.

As you see it it is, while the seeing lasts, dark nightmare history, time as coffin; but where the water was rigid there will be fish, and men will survive on their flesh till spring. It's coming, my brother. Believe it or not. Though you murder the world, transmogrify life into I and it, strong searching roots will crack your cave and rain will cleanse it. The world will burn green, sperm build again.

I think this quote is an exposition of some voice that nags at and bothers a lot of modern people. Grendel is a total materialist, who feels as if he was denied some birthright (as we all do at one time or another) and deals with it in the most nihilistic, destructive way possible. The Danes' sense of meaning is below contempt for him (as is religion in modern society) but he has not the wisdom to comprehend nor the fortitude to really face the infinite on his own (the dragon). He is lost due to his own stubbornness. His refusal to submit any part of himself to a higher spiritual destiny has condemned his entire being to the fate of lifeless soil.

Gardner seems versed in futility. His characters are liminal beings, caught between the possibilities of the infinite and the practical needs of life. Rather than gaining freedom from their ungrounded state, they are worn down by it. I think this is a pretty comprehensive picture of the modern condition. Though free, we are corroded constantly by forces we don't comprehend.

On lit-crit

Even though I just wrote a long treatise that goes against the well known interpretations of a book, I'm ambivalent to the idea of "death of the author." While I do believe that any resonance you feel with a work, or whatever new insights you can bring to something can be very worthy of consideration regardless of whether it contradicts what the author said, you also have to prove your case-- the death of the author applies just as much to your critique as it does to the work itself. Just being able to understand something well enough to make a critique doesn't obligate anyone to condescend to tell you your interpretation is "just as valid."

You have to make your case. Just being a critic doesn't give you de-facto authority over the original author no matter what the postmodernists say. Generally, the author has at least some AUTHORITY over their work. The put in the time considering the ideas behind their work, enough time to build an entire narrative. While it should be possible to make a strong case for an interpretation that contradicts the author's intent, it should take some extraordinarily good reasoning.


I actually think this applies to all postmodernism. In darwinian (or maybe I can even say dawkinsian) terms, postmodernism is a memetic parasite that learned how to take advantage of one of the main propositions the enlightenment -- that all human beings have value. If you can extend that universal protection to someone's ideas by conflating people with their chosen ideologies (i.e. "you make me unsafe by disagreeing with me") you can force any idea at all into serious consideration... To do otherwise would make you a bigot.

That's how we get people saying shit like "there's no biological basis for gender/sex," because it doesn't matter if something is true as long as it's true for you. If someone tries to prove you wrong, you can just say they're being mean. Of course, you totally forget the bounded nature of your personal reality when it comes time to put your ideas into practice. I mean, hey, you can't spend all your time navel-gazing when you've got an agenda to promote. That's only for when you need to dissemble.

Kind of ironic how postmodernism strips people of meaning and makes them suffer far worse than the things it wishes to deconstruct could ever do. Ah well. Who cares as long as you can blame it on ${ENEMIES[round(rand()*ENEMIES.length-1)]}.

Scientific underpinnings

I think Postmodernism satisfies some deep psychological need in modern people. Or, not really satisfies.... If it could truly satisfy, it probably wouldn't have the destructive consequences it does. I actually think it was created in a misguided attempt to fulfill a deep need for personal, subjective meaning that modern society disfavors.

The religion of our age, for all intents and purposes, is science. Due to its obvious material prowess it has so utterly enthralled modern man that the writings of ancient desert-dwellers just pale in comparison.

But the problem is, Science was never meant to impart meaning. It was only built as a practical way to get from point A to point B. It can't tell you how to live, only how to unlock the power of the practical world.

I think that's the major problem. YHWH predicated His worship on feats of strength, on fire from the heavens and miracles. But we've obtained most of the very powers the bible describes, and things far beyond it. We aren't just treading on God's domain-- we've moved in and redecorated the place. Put our feet up, made ourselves comfortable, and if YHWH objects, we release the hounds on His gracious presence. YHWH, at least the way most people understand Them, cannot any longer be credibly worshipped.

But we completely misunderstood. God is just as much a metaphorical vision of an important part ourselves as He/She/It is our creator. By disposing of the Idea so lightly, we are throwing away a large part of our psyche. We think we're beyond such things. We think religion was just bad science, as the man says, and that anything in our selves that might have produced such illusions are safely dismantled, neutralized, and purged from our domain. We're smart!

When you realize how little the average person knows themselves, such hubris seems absolutely retarded.

Just as Jung warned, those demons we've ignored are always threatening to rise up and take control. Some people are almost completely possessed1.


Postmodernism is about as close to a scientifically derived religious doctrine as you can get. They mistook mere power for transcendence, and structured their lives accordingly. Where science declared no meaning, they assumed there was no meaning, and so they built themselves as senseless cretins, who cannot understand themselves as anything more than the culmination of a chain reaction, the crest of a wave, pushing back against the things that push on them.

Gardner wasn't a toady of postmodernism, but Grendel is about as postmodern a book as you can find. Even if it's something Gardner never intended, he made the most insightful exposition of the postmodern mind I've read. The thrashing anger and hatred, the cold mechanical emptiness, and the wish for it to all just end.

So, what do I take from this?

Gardner was definitely aware of the emptiness of modern life. I don't think he could have written such things if he wasn't. Especially his death, in a motorcycle accident of all things, is most illustrative to me. I have a feeling that Jung would have said that he caused the accident himself-- or at least put himself repeatedly in situations where such an accident was possible-- out of some kind of a death wish. Psychoanalysts are quick to make huge assumptions like that, but sometimes, you really just have to wonder.

They say that everyone lives out a myth whether they know it or not. Gardner seems to be a person who couldn't settle on just one myth to live out, and all his life vacillated until he found one that that killed him. If you don't know what myth motivates you, you're in a dangerous predicament.

  1. In Jungian psychology, possession refers to entering a state where a particular personality, maybe one you've never expressed or are completely unaware of, takes control of your behavior. It's generally something animal, something evolved. Jung postulated that this is where we got the idea for the polytheistic gods of old time. When a farm boy who'd never hurt a fly rapes and kills indiscriminately in combat, it was often too horrible to think that those tendencies came from themselves. They'd blame it all on possession by some outside force, maybe some god of war. It made some sense, considering that so many people in the same situation could be gripped by the same spirit at the same time. Of course, with the benefit of evo-psych, we can theorize that it's important for humans to have such a capability at the ready, in case it's needed for survival. But Jung, in his typical amorphous way, never really specified whether he was referring to an abstract metaphenomenon or the real gods, incarnate in spirit, on a plane that you could only access in different states of being. I think that ambiguity is essential to what he's trying to communicate... Maybe you can't really appreciate the depth of things, the weight of things without truly experiencing it first-hand. When you start to dismiss them as mere neural patterns that you've outgrown, that you can suppress (repress) through your intellect and will, is when they have the strongest hold on you. The ego thinks its free, because it makes decisions about how to get what it wants... but the subconscious decides what it is that you want. You have no control over it. Or, maybe you do, maybe you know on some level that you really shouldn't be throwing these things away, so you tuck them safely away in a place the ego can't completely neutralize them, because you may need them someday. That's the thing with Jung-- he erases the lines between the thing you call "you" and the shadowy metaphysical world of dreams.