(this should be a brief one, for once)

I was subbing a class on Thursday–eighth grade American history–when, for whatever reason, a student needed to know the definition of the word “lurid.”  They were doing a project on George Washington, arguably the least lurid man ever to be called president, so I don’t know how it came up, but it did.  I fumble-tongued my way around the subject for a moment, dropping words like “grotesque,” “vulgar,” “sensationalistic,” and so on, getting blank stares.  At length I remembered that they had laptops with internet access, and told them to just Google it.  Which they did, but they didn’t quite understand it.

So I tried to explain in more detail, only to run into a different, and unexpected, obstacle.  These children grew up with the internet; they’re quite accustomed to “click-bait” articles getting their attention by whatever means necessary.  The idea that some subjects are beneath polite discussion, or that there exists such a thing as “prurient interest,” is totally alien to them.  At length I referred to the supermarket tabloids: “you know how they run articles every other week: ‘Obama caught in gay love scandal,’ or some trash like that?”

The girl I was talking to just about exploded.  “Hey, what’s wrong with gay people?  There’s nothing wrong with gay people, they’re just expressing themselves.  Do you have a problem with gay people?  Do you think it’s okay to be gay?”

“What?  Huh!  No, I–”

“NO?!?!  It’s not?  Why not?”

“No, I don’t care, I mean, that doesn’t matter, whether you or I think it’s okay to be gay or not.  The point is, some older people are offended by the idea of gayness, and the magazines include that detail to get them fired up, along with the adultery.  That’s what ‘lurid’ means.”

She nodded, somewhat but not entirely mollified.  I’m not sure if she understood or not.  It certainly opened my eyes a bit, to just how far we’ve moved in a few decades.  I think these children are typical of their generation; they have adopted a purely utilitarian, libertarian (or perhaps libertine), external conception of ethics, far beyond even the previous American norm.  They do not believe in “good” or “bad” as modes of being, only “good” or “bad” actions as defined by effect on others (including, say, offending a currently fashionable demographic group).  They’ve internalized “don’t judge” to the point that any attempt to criticize anyone’s preferred way of living is offensive.  The word “lurid” is quite simply meaningless.


Tolkien’s Crusaders

When J.R.R. Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings in the mid fifties, it was broadly assumed–at least by some–that his fantasy trilogy, much of which was written during World War II, was meant as an allegory for the war itself.  Here Gondor stands for Britain, Rohan for the U.S., Mordor and company for the axis powers, etc.  It makes sense, from a certain point of view, but the speculation irritated Tolkien intensely, to the point that, in an introduction added to later editions, he explicitly debunked it, explaining, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its forms,” and noting that, if it were properly an allegory, Sauron would be enslaved, not destroyed, and Isengard would wind up creating its own ring, setting off a lengthy period of hostilities with Gondor.  Or some such.

I’m willing to take Professor Tolkien’s word that no conscious allegory was intended.  Still, there are intriguing historical parallels, which I think are worth examining.  One of the critical errors made by the “allegorizers” (for lack of a more graceful term) was to seek out links to modern history, when the author was a medievalist, and his magnum opus takes place in a world which is not just technologically, but spiritually, medieval. Continue reading