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.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Saturday, April 30, 2011

An effort at housecleaning


I've cleaned up my enormous blogroll somewhat. While I know that I get a good deal of traffic here just from folk who use the blogroll as a kind of digest to see what's new in the theo-philo-blogosphere, and that's a good thing, I also know that quite a number of the links by now are either dead or cold. Doing this clean-up has required some judgment-calls on my part. On one hand, a blog that hasn't posted for a few months is not by that token a-goner. The old posts, sometimes years' worth, are still there, after all, and it does happen that all of a sudden there's a flurry of activity on what you thought was a dead line. I've been pleased in the past to find sites get new life breathed into them. On the other hand, the list really has got outrageously long and cluttered. I've listed below any still-working links that I have eliminated from the main list. My intention is to periodically weed out any dead links and to re-plant links that sprout again. There will be a permanent link to this post atop the list, in "About the Blogroll."

I am aware of a degree of arbitrariness in this but, well, it's my blogroll and it's housecleaning time. On the surreal assumption that anyone cares whether I list them, I urge you not to be shy if you think I've cut you unfairly. I'm a reasonable guy.

First off: there are a few sites for which feeds have never worked, but which are frequently updated and which deserve your attention.

Scrivener's Error
Bloodaxe Books
Edge.org (The online successor to John Brockman's Reality Club)
Thom Hartmann
Foreign Policy Blogs
The Procrustean
Rate Your Music reviews
Bookslut
Paleojudaica

Now for the cuts. I've arranged these by somewhat arbitrary groups.

Philosophy:
Daily Humiliation
Critical Animal
Trauma & Philosophy
Grundlegung
The Relative Absolute
The Accursed Share
Fractal Ontology
New Empiricism
We Have Never Been Blogging
NY Times: The Stone
Logic Matters
Philosophical Pontifications
Philosophia Perennis
Trancissions
Frames/Sing
InNegative
Mitochondrial Vertigo
Way of Ordinary Wisdom
Contaminations

Buddhism:
The Buddha is my DJ
Buddhas & Sages
ThinkBuddha
Ordinary Extraordinary

Christian theology &/or Biblical exegetics
Rain & the Rhinoceros
Douglas Knight
Well at the World's End
Non Sermoni Res
Sub Specie Aeterni
Turnabout

Science / Mathematics:
Edge of Physics
Neverending Books
Biology-blog

Myth / Magic:
Reflections from the Black Stone
Zalmoxis

Politics:
Counter-Terrorism Blog
No Useless Leniency
Zero Anthropology

Literature / Arts:
Seven Corners
Digital Emunction
Frederick Turner's blog
Any King
Fugitive Ink
Blographia Literaria
A Shearsman of Sorts

A few sites have been replaced in the blogroll by their new incarnations:

New Directions Publishing
New: New Directions Publishing

Dilettante Exegete
New: The Dilettante Exegete

The Reading Experience
New: The Reading Experience 2

Hirhurim
New: Torah Musings

American Stranger
New: Disaster Notes

The Talmud Blog (blogspot)
New: Talmud Blog (wordpress)

"I am the King's man"
New: Ethnarchy

As I say, I will amend this post from time to time to keep it (more or less) up-to-date.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Why the dark age looks dark?


Every once in a while I grumble about the division of philosophy into "eras." I am one who errs on the side of regarding philosophers as contemporaries. I don't disregard history, "influence," "development," and so on, but I tend to believe Heidegger and Ockham and Plotinus and Sankhara would be able to understand each other (enough to have real arguments). Of course, this "understanding" must overcome all sorts of obstacles and can only occur now (unless there really is a Limbo somewhere, like Dante and Santayana envisioned, in which all these wise folk are forever discoursing) in the work of their descendants, i.e., you and me. This is one reason why scholarship remains pertinent to philosophy.

One of the worst symptoms of this chronological apartheid is the invention of the Dark Ages and other tremendous gaps in the standard histories. For the sake of the argument I'll just stay with the usual narrative that starts things up in Greece, because at least here we can say confidently that there is cultural continuity, whereas the influence of Chinese or Indian thinking on the west is more difficult to demonstrate. These standard accounts usually begin with Thales or someone, move fairly quickly to Socrates and Plato and Aristotle, then gloss over everyone till we get to St Paul with some hurried words about "schools" of Stoics and Epicureans and Skeptics. After Paul we again make haste to our quick date with St Augustine, after which, nodding to Boethius, we step into our time-machine and, mating our mixaphors, pole-vault over more than a millennium to Bacon and then Descartes. We may glance downward while in flight and see someone, usually St Thomas Aquinas, doing something-or-other and maybe William of Ockham shaking his head. Once on the ground again we go down the line, Rationalism (Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza), Empiricism (Locke, Hume), Idealism (Berekley), the Transcendental move (Kant), and so on to Hegel and his various inversions (Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche) and Frege before we split again into Continental (Husserl, Heidegger and so on via deconstruction) and Analytic (Russell, Wittgenstein, Quine and so on via modal logic).

I realize that my account of this travesty is itself a travesty. I know that a good teacher of history can convey a sense of how complex and tangled these chains are. I recognize that not all centuries are equally interesting to any other, and thus that there is some justification for compression. Moreover, to complain about gaps, especially in "survey" courses and the like, is to be a pedantic bore. You may thus skip if you wish the upcoming list, which is a partial enumeration of significant names of those left out of just one of the gaps. This is the one from about the 6th century to the 11th. I was inspired to make this list one day while reading John Deely's Four Ages of Understanding, where he writes that
The closest thing to a truly dark period in the so-called dark ages runs from the execution of Boethius in 524 down to the eleventh century work of Anselm, Abelard, and Peter Lombard. During this time what was left of ancient Roman educational structures in the western Empire crumbled to dust, and the nascent monastery and clerical schools took time to gestate a new educational blooming.
Deely is one of the most scrupulous of scholars when it comes to attending to continuity of tradition, and I think he is right that beginning with Anselm we really can trace a more or less continuous conversation down to the present day. Continuity is only one of my interests, though. Looking at the stream of European philosophy/theology and its immediate tributaries, it's painfully clear that a great deal is omitted even from a history that attends to scholasticism, if it breaks off with Boethius and picks up with Anselm. (In the passage immediately following, Deely acknowledges three of these names (Ps.-Dionysus, Alcuin, and Erigena), and elsewhere makes use of Priscian.)

Boethius
Pseudo-Dionysus (5th-6th c.)
Leontius of Byzantium (5th-6th c.)
Cassiodorus Senator (6th c.)
Gregory I ("the Great") (6th c)
Isidore of Seville (6th c.)
Priscian Caesariensis (6th c.)
Ildefonsus of Toledo (7th c.)
John Climacus (7th c.)
Isaac the Syrian (7th c.)
Stephen of Alexandria (7th c.)
Maximus Confessor (7th c.)
John Damascene (7th c.)
The Venerable Bede (7th-8th c.)
Alcuin of York (8th c.)
Simeon Kayyara (8th c.)
Photios of Constantinople (9th c.)
John Scotus Eriugena (9th c.)
Ishaq al-Kindi (9th c.)
David al-Mukkamas (9th-10th c.)
Zakariya al-Razi (10th c.)
Abu Nasr al-Farabi (10th c.)
Saadia Gaon (10th c.)
Muhammad ibn Hazm (10th c.)
Symeon the New Theologian (10th c.)
Anselm of Canterbury

Most of these figures are at least nominal Christians (quite a few are saints). A few are Islamic of Jewish thinkers (I have actually omitted a great number of figures, especially of the Jewish Savoraim and Geonim), but I take it as uncontroversial that their traditions fed into the main stream of the western philosophical tradition whose history is at issue here. I am leaving aside the other question of the legitimacy of the narrative that centers around "the [Christian] west". (This post was originally inspired by one by Tim Morton on al-Razi.) These names are of varying degrees of obscurity, but I take it that at least Maximus, Erigena, and al-Farabi ought to be common knowledge.

One of the issues that arises in considering a list like this is that many of the thinkers included are more typically considered jurists, scholars, grammarians, educators, and above all exegetes and theologians. The question arises then: to what extent is the invention of "the dark ages," at least in histories of western philosophy, a function of the (anachronistic?) separation of philosophy and religion? For even the tensions and polemics between these are are not, in the Middle Ages, framed in the same way as the modern distinction which puts them in separate university departments where they can safely ignore each other. To fight like al-Ghazali and ibn Rushd, you have to be up close and personal.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Standing down


I really appreciate the immediate messages from readers who let me know (seemingly within minutes) that this blog was setting off alarms via Google Chrome and RSS feeds. Seems that a blog I had in the (admittedly very extensive) blogroll was (inadvertently, I am sure) hosting suspicious spyware, and my own blog was getting blocked as a result. I've removed the blog listing for the present time. (I won't put it back until Google stops tagging it with "this site may harm your computer," and my own antivirus software tells me it's cool.) I hope it's blessed with faithful readers who know how to contact the author (I don't). Thanks, guys.

[Update: the site in question, Accelerating Future, has posted an all-clear and been reinstated to the blogroll.]

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The stone


We know Good Friday all too well. We know Easter Sunday too well too. The one is trauma swathed in rites that are themselves always in danger of degenerating into sentimentality. The other is an unrepresentable event, proclaimed with an imperative ("Rejoice!") but likewise spinning off layers of sentimentality. Neither of them are really understandable. The death of God, what can that mean? The resurrection -- even more unimaginable. The icon of the resurrection is precisely an acknowledgment that the event is undepictable, and every fundamentalist attempt to imagine "what the camera would have captured" degenerates into kitsch.

But Holy Saturday is unimaginable in a different way, and its resistance to representation has been dealt with not by enwrapping it in layers of custom (whether legitimate or not), but by more or less ignoring it. I am not the first to point this out, of course; and since von Balthasar's Mysterium Paschale, meditations on Holy Saturday have become more frequent. When I discovered this book it was like finding a treasure, for Holy Saturday has always seemed to me to be the essence of Christianity in this world.

Both rival interpretations thereof (the "Harrowing of Hell" vs. von Balthasar's suffering Christ, of which perhaps there is a foretaste in the cross-cry "My God, my God--") seem to me pertinent. Which conception of the Good is more coherent, more intuitively obvious: a Good which is defeated by either brute indifference or outright evil but never, ever makes use of power against the forces arrayed against it; or a Good which "triumphs in the end"?

There is no Eucharist in the liturgy of Holy Saturday (indeed, there is hardly any liturgy). In this respect it is, as Rahner saw, a sort of temporal analogy for the normal, everyday secular world. This is a tremendous paradox, since the absence of the Eucharist obviously marks Holy Saturday as the exception, not the norm. An inversion of the sabbath. In a sense, Holy Saturday is the moment in the year when the year turns inside- (or rightside-?) out; the norm of the world becomes the norm of the church, and is recast as a hallowed mode of waiting in hope, (albeit a strange hope, a hope without hope, "for hope would be hope for the wrong thing" as Eliot writes).

Easter is proclaimed in a world in which the bullets fly and the machetes hack, children are still locked in closets, women are still unsafe on the street, and the animals and plants and ecosystems all are dubbed with the euphemistic term "natural resources" while the seas choke with plastic and oil and the snowlines of mountains creep inch by inch toward the vanishing point. In a hundred thousand ways small and great our hearts break. I affirm with all my soul that "all manner of thing shall be well;" but I cannot imagine it. For myself, I am 364 days of the year on Holy Saturday, wondering, "Who will roll away the stone from the tomb for us?"

The tomb turns inside-out. But it will not look like what we imagine.

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.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Eucatastrophe vs. Yog-Sothery


The literary influences and enthusiasms of a philosopher can say a lot, albeit sometimes in an impressionistic, hindsight sort of way. There's something perfectly obvious, once you know it, about Wittgenstein's enthusiasm for American noir crime fiction, and his remark about Kafka--"This man gives himself a great deal of trouble not writing about his trouble"--is the sort of thing only a secret sharer could come up with. Deleuze is very hard going (or often is for me, anyway), but something may snap into focus when you read him with Fitzgerald and Dickens in mind. The cross-pollenization between Goethe and German Idealism is well known. To try to understand Existentialism from its philosophical entries alone is to see only half the picture.

Like most people, I did not start out reading philosophy; I started out reading fiction. I've remained a fiction reader; and some of my earliest reading has remained for me some of the most formative. What follows are some more or less haphazard comparisons of two such writers, and their philosophical fallout.

The vogue for H.P. Lovecraft among speculative realists is often remarked. It is sometimes even noted that this is one of the only things, aside from an entrenched resistance to correlationism, that unites them. I am dubious as to whether, by now, this is any longer the case--the trend has become too broad--but it is worth noting as a shared characteristic of the first four "founders" (so called)--Brassier, Harman, Grant, and Meillassoux--and it bears a little scrutiny. Yes, Lovecraft produced a body of "weird" fiction, and this apparently chimes well with some counter-intuitive results of the philosophy; some of Lovecraft's literary heirs (I am thinking of Ligotti, for instance, or Mieville) are occasionally seen as fellow-travellers, and other names prominent among the S.R. movement (see especially Reza Negarastani, but also, e.g., Nicola Masciandaro) produce work that sidles right up to the edge of horror fiction and sometimes looks like commentary in the margins of one of Lovecraft's lost grimoires. But what is it about Lovecraft and "weird" horror that specifically attracts thinkers of this ilk?

Lovecraft is one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century in terms of genealogy. He did not invent horror or "weird fiction," but he played a key role in its mutation into a genre had mass appeal while being capable of sustaining critical attention. To be sure, Lovecraft's own craft often leaves something to be desired. I count myself a fan--The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is one of my favorites--but even Lovecraft's strongest defenders do not deny that his prose slips towards the purple, and that some of his effects are contrived or absurd. (Consider, e.g., the doomed narrator/writer of "Dagon," scrawling "The window! The window!") But what Lovecraft accomplished--what he more or less invented, and certainly developed far beyond the point where he found it at--was an art of depicting the human mind confronted with incommensurable realities.

In 20th-century astrophysics, a tremendously dense object, the black hole, is theorized as surrounded at a certain radial distance by an "event horizon." This is the limit, outside of which an approaching object can still recede again without being irrevocably captured by the black hole's gravity. Once it crosses the event horizon, its requisite escape velocity approaches infinity; it therefore must inevitably fall into the black hole. This is why black holes are typically said to "have no hair;" there is no way to investigate what they are like, since this would involve receiving a signal from the black hole.However, due to the stretching of spacetime, General Relativity predicts that an object falling toward a black hole will, from an outsider's perspective, never cross the event horizon. It will continue to send ever slower messages back to its listeners. These messages will be endless, they will be slower and slower, and they will all pertain to what lies outside the event horizon. From the spacecraft's own perspective, things are very different; it is torn apart by the gravity of the black hole (presumably-- so the theory predicts).

Lovecraft's narrators or protagonists have very frequently had their psyches drawn into the circuit of the equivalent of a black hole. From our "outside" perspective, they seem to be speaking words we can understand; but from their own, they have crossed a threshold from which there is no coming back.

Lovecraft's only kinsman among his contemporaries in this respect is Kafka. This comparison will no doubt seem like a category mistake, but both men were concerned with the mind in its encounter with something that not only vastly exceeded the mind, but strictly speaking did not care for the mind as such. The difference is that in Kafka, there is only approach, or better, only the idea of an approach. We remain entirely outside the event horizon. In Lovecraft we are, per impossible, given a report of the encounter with the unthinkable. Kafka's protagonists, like ourselves, never cross the event horizon. We receive their dispatches as they read them themselves. But Lovecraft's poor souls are torn apart.

The contrast I want to consider, though, is not between Lovecraft and Kafka but between Lovecraft and the one writer to whom he can really be compared as an innovator and inventor in genre. Lovecraft stands at a crucial turning point for the genre of horror. Likewise, in fantasy, there is no question but that the figure who occupies a similar place is J.R.R. Tolkien. They are a curious pair. Like Lovecraft's, Tolkien's art has been savagely ridiculed at times. Like Lovecraft, he completely reinvented his genre. Like Lovecraft, his imitators have been many, and mostly inferior. Both writers have been attacked for an implicit or explicit racism; both have been noted for the lack of attention they give to sex; both were apparently political conservatives for at least part of their career.

Their legacies have been at odds. A few enthusiasts have been able to reconcile their love for both (I think for instance of Lin Carter). But for every one of these there is an exemplar of the opposite tendency, for which Tolkien, or at least his influence, is seen as crippling and baneful. In this respect, at least, Tolkien stands out: I do not know of any attacks of remotely similar savagery decrying the success or influence of Lovecraft; and doubtless this is in part because while their legacies are comparable artistically, Tolkien's is of a different order of magnitude in terms of sheer popularity--and hence, in commercial terms as well. China Miéville spoke for many, I suspect, when he called Tolkien "the wen on the arse of fantasy." As an unabashed enthusiast I have wondered for a long while at the critical hostility toward Tolkien, probably best exampled in Wilson's famous essay "Ooh, those awful orcs!" (Wilson also wrote a fairly damning piece on Lovecraft, "Tales of the Marvelous and the Ridiculous.") So it was with some pleasure that I read Miéville's brief essay outlining five reasons why fantasy and its readers are indebted to Tolkien. He's right on every point, particularly on the centrality of loss in Tolkien's art, which gives the lie to every stupid reduction of fantasy to "consolation", and also underscores why Peter Jackson just didn't get it. However, I want to look at reason five, "subcreation," a bit more deeply, partly because, as Miéville notes, it is under-examined, partly because I think it makes for the most compelling comparison with Lovecraft, and partly because it is (albeit perhaps by a hair) the most philosophically promising one, the one that underscores why Tolkien appeals to one sort of philosophizing and Lovecraft appeals to another.

Subcreation is Tolkien's word for the detailed evocation of an entire milieu in which one's story is set. One might in fact see it as the fleshing-out of what Tolkien's friend C.S. Lewis called theme, a word I have used recently in the sense Lewis gave it (or at least, I hope, a sense connected with Lewis'). One thing that appeals to fans of Tolkien, and has inspired no shortage of nerds in their own imaginings, is the fully-envisioned world of Middle-earth. It may have (no pun intended) precious little to do with the plot at all. This is one reason why, despite my grave misgivings about Jackson's films, I've seen them over and over; it was such a thrill to see Middle-earth (at least, in those spots where Jackson got it right). This was a shameless drinking-up of theme with hardly a thought for plot. A real Tolkien-dork will spend hours reading the damn appendices to Lord of the Rings; bets will be made about which dwarf-lord came first in the genealogies. To be sure, this is insufferable from the outside, but the principle it illustrates in literature, Miéville rightly underscores, "represents a revolution:"
Previously, in works such as Eddison's, Leiber's, Ashton Smith's and many others', the worlds of magic, vibrant, brilliant, hilarious and much-loved as they may be, were secondary to the plot. This is not a criticism: that's a perfectly legitimate way to proceed. But the paradigm shift of which there may be other examples, but of which Tolkien was by a vast margin the outstanding herald, represents an extraordinary inversion, which brings its own unique tools and capabilities to narrative. The order is reverse: the world comes first, and then, and only then, things happen--stories occur--within it.
As is well-known, Tolkien was a philologist, and for his own entertainment invented the languages his various denizens of Middle-earth spoke. In fact, Middle-earth was in a sense invented in order for there to be a place for the languages to be heard: Tolkien was perhaps not completely exaggerating when he said that he wrote his trilogy in order to make a context in which “A star shines on the hour of our meeting” (Elen síla lumenn’ omentielvo in Quenya, if you're interested) was a common greeting. (I've long thought that Tolkien's only peer in linguistic invention, his through-the-looking-glass twin as it were, is Joyce; when I read Tom Shippey's Author of the century I was pleased to see him making this point too.) In other words, Tolkien's thrill for the very fact of linguistic communication generated in him an entire cosmos and cosmology; his plot was at the service of theme and not vice-versa.

But there is another side to all of this. For Tolkien, subcreation is not merely a literary endeavor. It is perhaps not even a merely artistic endeavor. Miéville points us to Tolkien's essay "On Fairy-stories" in which he lays out a good deal of his account of subcreation, observing that Tolkien remains (almost) the sole theorist of this notion. Tolkien's idea, however, is situated in a broader and deeper philosophy of engagement with literature. It is far more widely applicable than just to "fantasy;" for subcreation has a meaning only in connection with creation, and this for the Roman Catholic Tolkien is an expressly theological category. If you doubt the pertinence of theology here, I refer you to the original essay, which explicitly adverts to the Christian story, in particular the resurrection, and by implication the eschatological destiny of the world, in what Tolkien calls eucatastrophe. This felicitous coinage deserves to be far more widely known, I think. Tolkien means by it a reversal of fortune that brings about an unlooked-for and overwhelming good, but to him it was rooted not in any implausible intervention (deus ex machina) nor coincidence, but in the structure of the world. This was why he placed such an emphasis upon rendering Middle-earth so present, so detailed: the "happy ending" needed to be, as he put it, "true in that world," and he clearly believed this to be the application of a principle that pertained to our world, the "primary world," as well:
The peculiar quality of "joy" (Eucatastrophe) in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality of truth - The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. (On Fairy-Stories)
Now if you compare this to Lovecraft, there is a fairly glaring contrast, but a very interesting symmetry as well. Tolkien's eucatastrophe is nearly isomorphic with the event horizon I mentioned in connection with Lovecraft. Tolkien's word denotes an incommensurable good, whereas Lovecraft's characters have encountered an incommensurable malevolence (or an indifference so intense as to be indistinguishable from it); in both cases, it discloses (each claims) something deep about the nature of reality. But here is the interesting thing. As is well know, Lovecraft did not believe in his cosmic beings; he believed, with Nietzsche, that the clever animals will have to die, that
Other races will appear and disappear in turn. The sky will become icy and void, pierced by the feeble light of half-dead stars. Which will also disappear. Everything will disappear.
One can see why this appeals, if that is the right word, to a modern efforts at thinking "the end of thought." But the salient point (for my purposes) is that this is all Lovecraft believed; he expressly did not believe in the eldritch nightmares such as he described, and he did not think them possible:
The crux of a weird tale is something which could not possibly happen. If any unexpected advance of physics, chemistry, or biology were to indicate the possibility of any phenomena related by the weird tale, that particular set of phenomena would cease to be weird in the ultimate sense because it would become surrounded by a different set of emotions. (Selected Letters III 434)
Now in making this contrast between Tolkien and Lovecraft I do not mean to imply that Tolkien believed in magic rings and Ents, whereas Lovecraft did not believe in grimoires of accused lore (at least, that actually "worked"). But it is impossible to imagine Lovecraft himself (as opposed to one of his narrators) speaking of the Deep Ones in the way Tolkien speaks of Elves in "On Fairy-Stories," and there is a reason for this.

In his essay "On the Horror of Phenomenology: Lovecraft and Husserl," (in Collapse IV) Harman notes Lovecraft's monsters and "others" are indeed beyond our ken, possibly inherently; but they are emphatically of our world, not in the sense of belonging to our spacetime--sometimes they do not--but in the sense of being phenomenal. They exceed our expectations and our concepts, and partly by this token are horrible, but they can still be described, as for instance in the painstaking scientific analysis of the dissection in "At the Mountains of Madness." This is to say that the "incommensurable" in Lovecraft is natural. Nonetheless, this incommensurability is not mitigated by being natural, any more than the destruction wrought the black hole would be. Cthulhu and Shub-Niggurath are tremendously more powerful than anything human, but they are of the same ontological order as Randolph Carter or the town of Providence, Rhode Island. And this is because there is, for Lovecraft, only one ontological order.

Tolkien certainly held that Elves and Ents were of the same ontological order as Humanity; the trees in Mirkwood or the Old Forest may be in some sense sentient or capable of acting, but Tolkien does not think of them as not different in kind from
ourselves. Nonetheless, Tolkien does believe the supernatural has a pertinence to fantasy; but that is because he believes in the supernatural. Its pertinence however is not straightforward:
Supernatural is a dangerous and difficult word in any of its senses, looser or stricter. But to fairies it can hardly be applied, unless super is taken merely as a superlative prefix. For it is man who is, in contrast to fairies, supernatural (and often of diminutive stature); whereas they are natural, far more natural than he. Such is their doom. The road to fairyland is not the road to Heaven; nor even to Hell, I believe, though some have held that it may lead thither indirectly by the Devil's tithe. (OFS)
Both Tolkien and Lovecraft approved of "escape" as a function of their preferred genres. Lovecraft felt keenly
The general revolt of the sensitive mind against the tyranny of corporeal enclosure, restricted sense-equipment, & the laws of force, space, & causation....The time has come when the normal revolt against time, space, & matter must assume a form not overtly incompatible with what is known of reality-when it must be gratified by images forming supplements rather than contradictions of the visible & mensurable universe. And what, if not a form of non-supernatural cosmic art, is to pacify this sense of revolt--as well as gratify the cognate sense of curiosity? (Selected Letters III 295-96)
In answer to critics who denigrated fantasy as "escapist," Tolkien wrote:
Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. (OFS)
This passage needs to be considered carefully by those who think Lovecraft is the more realist of the two authors. Neither man, as I said, denigrated the idea of escape. But only Tolkien believed there really could be an escape. For Lovecraft, the sense of revolt could only be "pacified." We are always already within the event horizon.

Follow-up post on Tolkien's vision here.

Friday, April 8, 2011

One good Turn deserves another


Before The Speculative Turn (2010)-- around two years before-- there was The Participatory Turn (2008), a book which argues (according to its page in SUNY press' website) that we can "take seriously religious experience, spirituality, and mysticism, without reducing them to either cultural-linguistic by-products or simply asserting their validity as a dogmatic fact." As the word "participation" might tip you off, this is more or less my project too (all my philosophical forays--and that is all they are, border-skirmishes--have their roots in either cultural or spiritual motives). The two books make an interesting pair, and as the earlier one has not made a big splash, as far as I have seen (despite some good reviews, including one in Tikkun), I thought I would examine it a little by way of comparing the Participatory and the Speculative Turns. If the later book wears its revolutionary claims on its sleeve, or at least on its jacket ("This anthology assembles authors, of several generations and numerous nationalities, who will be at the center of debate in continental philosophy for decades to come"), the earlier book is a trifle on the modest side. ("Do we really need another 'turn'?" the introduction opens.) Editors Jorge Ferrer and Jacob Sherman write:
...we do not think of the participatory turn as a radical break with either the past nor the present, but rather as an attempt to name, articulate and strengthen an emerging academic ethos....this articulation is neither a return to previous epistemological structures not a drastic rupture from them, but rather reflects the ongoing project of a creative fusion of past, present and perhaps future horizons that integrates certain traditional religious claims with modern standards of critical inquiry.
This smacks of not wanting to put on airs, but the essays included (you can read a modified version of Ferrer's here), while no more unified by a single program than are those of the more recent "speculative" anthology, are every bit as implicitly far-reaching. What they share is precisely a commitment to "take seriously religious experience:" they neither reduce it to something else (something that would be best investigated by, say, anthropology or sociology) nor do they unify it all under a single heading, some ur-religious mysterium tremendum et fascinans. For Ferrer and Sherman, religion is irreducibly plural. Like the editors and authors of The Speculative Turn, Ferrer and Sherman reject both linguistic reductionism and the Kantian premises which made it possible, and so re-open the question of the status of truth. They trace the equation, by which every metaphysical claim reduces to (nothing but) discourse, back to a neo-Kantian framework that regards the issue of any supernatural source of religion to require either suspension (since what is in question is a noumenon, hence inaccessible) or denial. This dismissal of all contemplative traditions' claims that unconditioned facts of reality are experiencable, amounts de facto (argue Ferrer and Sherman) to metaphysical perspective as ethnocentric as it is materialistic.

The Kantian impasse is at work, they argue, in the tug-of-war between perennialists and constructivists with regards to mystical experience. The former argue that mystical experience is one, that it involves some kernel that is common to all religious encounters, and that this experience is then translated, as it were, according to the cultural accouterments of the mystic's particular context. The latter respond that all experience is linguistically or culturally mediated; talk of a "common core" outside of culture is simply meaningless. Not merely the interpretation of experience, but the very experience itself, must be filtered via the mystic's cultural and personal lenses. Both these parties are found by Ferrer and Sherman to be ensnared by Kantian premises: to wit, the assumption that a dualism must obtain between an unconditioned reality and a human framework of interpretation. To the contrary, they argue, no religious event is purely objective or subjective, neither a discovery nor an invention; it is ontologically co-arising, hence "participatory."

Is this, then, a response to that by-now baneful word "correlationism," which is also traced to Kant's door? Not entirely. Though there is no reference to Meillassoux in the book, it would be possible to read The Participatory Turn as a pre-emptive blow on behalf of a kind of correlationism, the kind that claims a metaphysical or ontological status for the correlation itself. (I have some sympathies with this move, though, so I may be projecting.) Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that the keynote address at today's symposium "Here Comes Everything: an introduction to Speculative Realism" at the California Institute of Integral Studies is given by Jacob Sherman, and called "Participatory Realism: Two Cheers for Meillassoux." I wish I could be there. It seems the two Turns have been toward each other. Their confluence should be interesting.