Future, Present, & Past:



Speculative
~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Friday, April 15, 2011

Tolkien and subcreation


My last post was not meant to show that there is anything symptomatic, let alone "wrong," with the main trends of Speculative Realism in their enthusiasm for Lovecraft. But the contrast between HPL and JRRT helps me to lay out some of my own divergences. A few people have asked me, mostly off-blog, to what extent I consider myself a Speculative Realist. My post on not being a correlationist was intended as a partial answer to this. My disposition has always been realist--I still remember recoiling with horror from the anything-goesism I first encountered in what passed under the banner deconstruction during my short-lived university 'career'. I loved reading Derrida by myself, for instance, but I hated the hip excuses made out of his work. I loved (and was strongly effected by) reading Sartre and Camus, let alone Kierkegaard, but something in me strongly reacted against the 'we are free to choose anything' line, which always felt to me like the Army's slogan Be-All-That-You-Can-Be, smoking Galois cigarettes. So for me, maybe just because I have a prejudice against contemporary trends, realism has a strong attraction, mainly ethical in motivation. As to speculation--well yeah, I mean look at the name of the blog. BUT: I still found myself ill at ease with something about every version of SR I come across (Adrian Ivakhiv at Immanence is perhaps closest to my own line of thinking), and when I tried to think this through I kept hitting just my own reactions--"yeah, but I don't like that"--until it occurred to me that the common denominator in SR was Lovecraft. Not as an influence (maybe) but as an index. And it struck me that the writer who occupies an analogous place for me is Tolkien.

In saying this, I want to clarify myself as regards certain aspects of his legacy, not because I don't respect them but because my emphasis and intention is different. The philosophical echoes of Tolkien have tended, by and large (which means I'm about to make some over-generalizations) to be twofold. Either readers have picked up on his broadly ecological vision (sometimes with a hefty dose of anti-industrialism as well); or they have embraced some extrapolation of romantic conservativism. The former camp tends to be a mixture of Christians and (sometimes only vaguely) neo-pagan, Wiccan or "animist" groups, and takes inspiration from Tolkien's vision of nature--his trees, his gardens, his mountains and wastelands, as places that exist in themselves and not merely for human domination. (The best instance of this I know is chapter three of Patrick Curry's excellent Defending Middle-earth.) The latter is almost entirely Christian, and takes its inspiration from Tolkien's vision of political and economic life as local, but also from his depiction of military might used in self-defense against an enemy one may need to understand, but not to empathize with. (John Milbank's essay here is a somewhat stark example.)

Both these positions have their critics. There are some legitimate critiques to be made of Tolkien's ecological vision, which seems rather hard on desert landscapes for instance, not to mention wolves (and spiders!); but in general I think critics often overstate their point and I often suspect that they are motivated by something other than ecology.

As to Tolkien's politics, there is no question but that Tolkien was a small-government kind of guy. "The most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men," he once wrote to his son. "Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity." His political stance, he said in the same letter, tended toward Anarchism, "or to or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy." This curious juxtaposition of opposites led Tolkien to endorse, or at least to pine for, a kind of Cincinnatism, in which rulers could be recruited, and rulers never made ruling their chief occupation:
The mediaevals were only too right in taking nolo episcopari as the best reason a man could give to others for making him a bishop....But, of course, the fatal weakness of all that—-after all only the fatal weakness of all good natural things in a bad corrupt unnatural world—-is that it works and has only worked when all the world is messing along in the same good old inefficient human way. (Letters, pp63-64)
"The same good old inefficient human way"--that is, the way before Ford, before mass-production and industry. Those who see Tolkien as a "reactionary" are not far wrong, aside from the sneer with which they usually say it.

What both camps--the ecological and the political--have in common is a fear of an enemy. One is is focused upon an impending ecological ruination--Saruman's contraptions, his "mind of metal and wheels"--the other upon a (perceived) impending military or political or terrorist threat to its conception of Christian civiliation, either from within or without--the hordes of Mordor at the gates of Minas Tirith, and Denethor's collapse of nerve within. What neither camp does, however, or at any rate does only secondarily, is to seriously consider Tolkien's oeuvre as a work of art, or Tolkien's aesthetics and their philosophical and theological underpinnings (and ramifications). This is an astoundingly rich field, and what makes for the strongest contrast with Lovecraft, who was essentially a Positivist who wished to savor a kind of thrill of something he knew to be impossible, and so had to construct his tales as a kind of wistful guilty pleasure. Tolkien's aesthetics on the other hand comes out of a rich intersection of Thomism and almost unparalleled mythopoetic and philological acumen. Tolkien was able to write as he did because he believed there was a point to writing--even if it were unfinishable, an anxiety which plagued him often. One can see Tolkien exorcising this anxiety in "Leaf by Niggle", the short story he published alongside the essay "On Fairy Stories" and which he clearly saw as a sort of companion piece to it. This story is important, partly as the closest thing to allegory Tolkien ever wrote, and partly because it is very tempting to read it for clues of how he thought of subcreation in terms of soteriology and eschatology. Tolkien pretty clearly hopes that there will come a fulfillment on the 'last day' when God will make real what we've dreamed or what we have loved. We are not passive, nor meant to be so; I would argue (going beyond Tolkien) that our every moment is a kind of subcreation, since we actively make the Umwelt we live in, and we continually improvise its theme.

In Tolkien's account, subcreation means the making of a "Secondary World" capable of sustaining "Secondary Belief:"
literary belief, when the story-maker's art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called “willing suspension of disbelief.” But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. If you are obliged, by kindliness or circumstance, to stay, then disbelief must be suspended (or stifled), otherwise listening and looking would become intolerable. But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make-believe, or when trying (more or less willingly) to find what virtue we can in the work of an art that has for us failed. ("On Fairy-Stories")
Tolkien gives an example:
A real enthusiast for cricket is in the enchanted state: Secondary Belief. I, when I watch a match, am on the lower level. I can achieve (more or less) willing suspension of disbelief, when I am held there and supported by some other motive that will keep away boredom: for instance, a wild, heraldic, preference for dark blue rather than light. (OFS)
It's important to note, incidentally, that the example is not literary. This is because a "secondary world" is not a literary or even an artistic endeavor in the usual sense, though this is what Tolkien primarily illustrated by the term. I have found that Tolkien's thinking here can be usefully elucidated by a careful application of the apparatus of a very different book, one of the neglected (and flawed) small gems of American philosophy in the 20th century-- James Carse's Finite and Infinite Games. This is not to say that Carse and Tolkien see eye to eye (they emphatically do not); only that Carse's thinking provides a different language in which draw out some of Tolkien's insights, and vice-versa. (A critique of Carse is still in the works here, one of the many posts I may eventually get to.) Carse's main distinction is in the title of his book. A finite game, he says, "occurs within a world." A "secondary world" in Tolkien's sense is (I would say) such a world. It is not the game, but it makes the game possible. It is, as it were, the border between the finite game and the infinite one. Carse talks of "infinite games" in the plural, their defining characteristic being that one plays not to win but to keep playing; but he does not give any examples of such games, and in the final sentence of the book he declares, "There is but one infinite game." This One, inherently unclosable, game, is what the Christian tradition has called The Kingdom of God. But a "secondary world" qua "enchantment" (In Tolkien's sense) is a finite game enacted as a move in an infinite game. It has reference to the primary world, and is not a turning away from it:
Fantasy is made out of the Primary World, but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give. By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory. (OFS)
This is to say, such things are "enchanted."

Every deep tradition knows that it must make the world to point as it were beyond the world. In the Roman Catholic tradition from which Tolkien came, one is surrounded by visible icons, even as one is told constantly of the invisible God; the liturgical calendar begins precisely with a reminder that "the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour," and dogmas and creeds are articulated in the name of the ineffable. These are not just "fingers pointing at the moon," but fingers pointing out their own non-moon-ness; an ambiguous accomplishment, requiring a living tradition to keep it possible, a tradition that knows all its occasions and apparatus are both more and less than it makes of them at any moment. For any of them--a censer, a candle, a sunrise--is a prop, but also a window onto mystery. Everything is an icon; which is to say, in a certain sense, everything has an interiority (what I have tried to express in shorthand by saying that "objects have souls"), and can tend towards their own coronation in the kingdom of ends. Thomism distinguishes between the subject as subjecta mentis and as supposita entis, subjects of consciousness and subjects of being, and while I do not imagine that Tolkien has an elaborate scholastic apparatus behind his aesthetics, he clearly held that all beings, even rocks, had a kind of moral standing and intentionality, as it were.

The phrase "in the enchanted state" uses a technical term in Tolkien's vocabulary. He is at pains to distinguish what he calls Enchantment from both Art and Magic:
Art is the human process that produces by the way (it is not its only or ultimate object) Secondary Belief. Art of the same sort, if more skilled and effortless, the elves can also use, or so the reports seem to show; but the more potent and specially elvish craft I will, for lack of a less debatable word, call Enchantment. Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose. Magic produces, or pretends to produce, an alteration in the Primary World. It does not matter by whom it is said to be practised, fay or mortal, it remains distinct from the other two; it is not an art but a technique; its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills. ("On Fairy Stories")
Take a moment and you'll see that this characterization of magic is very close to the way Tolkien describes government in the letter cited above, and the way he thought of industrialism as well, a kind of perversion of craftsmanship as it were. Again, the best critic of Tolkien I know of in this respect is Patrick Curry, whose essay "Magic vs Enchantment" spells out this opposition and draws a number of consequences from it.

A "secondary world," then, is only incidentally (I want to argue) a setting for a novel, let alone a fantasy novel. It can also be the rules of a board game or a field of combat or an auditorium stage or a bedroom. What happens in a secondary world is that one is enchanted: the borders between it and the primary world blur. But they do not disappear. Enchantment ought to return us to wonder at the world outside it. A "glimpse of joy," as Tolkien says regarding Eucatastrophe, hints at something in the structure not just in the secondary world but in the World.

A secondary world is a finite game directed beyond itself: played as a move in the infinite game. You see what I'm driving at: this is a participatory vision of reality.

A question arises: what keeps a secondary world from becoming merely a delusion? After all, "the story I tell myself" can also be a gigantic distraction, an ideological rationalization, an aestheticizing prop for avoidance--what Tolkien called "desertion" instead of escape. This intersects with previous posts about stories, which is what set me off on thinking about Tolkien in the first place. More on that soon.

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