Future, Present, & Past:

~~ 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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Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Hitchcock's MacGuffin is the empty occasion for drama. Ostensibly, it doesn't matter what it is; it serves only to be the object of desire, a narrative engine. "Government secrets," plans for a submarine, compromising letters, the Ring of Power: the object just gets the story going; the story, however, is not about the object, but about the characters. It was a neat little trick of Zizek's to conflate this with the Lacanian objet a, the empty focus of the desiring gaze (often when one doesn't even know one is desiring.) Nonetheless, there is a question to be raised. The assertion that it "doesn't matter" what the object is, is ambiguous. True enough, the audience doesn't care about government secrets; it cares about Cary Grant escaping from thugs and cunning, ruthless bosses. But in the calculus of the story, there are indeed dire consequences, "should the secret fall into the wrong hands." Even if it turns out that the whole thing is a ruse -- that there is no "secret" -- this will be because this pretend-secret has a function in some other calculus; the agent who is an unknowing decoy or a sacrificed pawn is not playing the game he or she thinks is being played, but there is a game, and (in the story) it has an object, even though the audience may not know much or care much about what it is.

This point is sometimes deployed against the case of fantasy as a genre. Just what, exactly, are the "stakes" for the Dark Lord? While a real-life tyrant like Caligula may just be into orgies and a senatorship for his horse, an epic-scale evil like the Sith must have higher ambitions, right? Emperor Palpatine isn't just into relaxing in luxury, we assume. And Sauron -- what exactly does he plan to do if he finally can set the ring again on one of his remaining fingers? Just spread a thick cloud over Middle-Earth and enjoy the sounds of orcs cracking whips?

This ostensible reductio is supposed to function as a kind of "you didn't think of that, did you?" move. Probably for most derivative genre fantasy writers, it's a fair move. But Tolkien in fact had thought of it.

In the volume Morgoth's Ring, one of the books which Christopher Tolkien edited from his father's vast amount of unpublished daft material for The Silmarillion, there is an essay on "Notes on motives in the Silmarillion," in which Tolkien very explicitly addresses the question of the motive of both Sauron and Sauron's predecessor, the vastly more powerful and frightening Melkor (aka Morgoth), who is more or less the Satan-figure in the Silmarillion. Tolkien was engaged not in philosophy but in modern mythopoesis, and his account requires to be understood in its own terms, which are narrative; but despite its mythical tropes (he speaks for instance of Melkor's being having "pass[ed] into the physical constituents of the Earth"), he makes a philosophical, even a theological point. For Morgoth, initially the object was the imposing of his own will upon everything that had its origin outside of him -- the whole of the world. As long as the world resisted, this could be the project; but the only logical conclusion of it was the sheer nihilistic will to destroy all of "Arda," i.e., the created world.
Morgoth would no doubt, if he had been victorious, have destroyed even his own 'creatures', such as the Orcs, when they had served his sole purpose in using them: the destruction of Elves and Men. Melkor's final impotence and despair lay in this: that whereas the Valar (and in their degree Elves and Men) could still love "Arda marred," that is, Arda with a Melkor-ingredient, and could still heal this or that hurt, or produce from its very marring, from its state as it was, things beautiful and lovely, Melkor could do nothing with Arda, which was not from his own mind, and was interwoven with the thoughts and works of others: even left alone he could only have gone raging on until all was leveled again into a formless chaos. And yet even so he would have been defeated, because it would still have 'existed' independent of his own mind, a world in potential.
This is essentially a (brief) theology of evil. It is, doubtless, vulnerable to a kind of critique: "Really? Evil as will-to-destruction? A failed demiurge's cosmic temper-tantrum?" But this rejoinder is too simple and misses the point that what Melkor wants (so says Tolkien) is not merely impossible, but nonsensical. And so in his despair he must "settle" for nonsense.

Sauron, Tolkien specifies, had not reached this stage of nihilism. He was content that the world should exist, "so long as he could do what he liked with it;" but already this had become an idée fixe:
his 'plans', the idea coming from his sole isolated mind, became the sole object of his will, and an end, the End, in itself.
From this it should be clear that the apparent pointlessness of evil, which lies behind the question asked earlier ("what is the Dark Lord going to do if he gets the Ring?"), is intended. It is a feature, not a bug. Tolkien then adds a significant footnote:
But his capacity of corrupting other minds, and even engaging their service, was a residue from the fact that his original desire for 'order' had really envisioned the good estate (especially the physical well-being) of his 'subjects.'
I.e., Sauron's will really does have its roots in a good, albeit now perverted and obscured, desire. (This is already stated in The Lord of the Rings by Elrond: "Nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.") By the same token, one could say this even of Melkor; for the will to "self-expression" is not itself evil. But Melkor was immeasurably more powerful (and his fall more ancient) than Sauron's, and so his corruption was the greater. And so, by extension of the same principle, we are allowed to speculate that had Sauron succeeded and his will continued to turn upon itself, he too would have ended in will-to-destruction; in destroying (or attempting to destroy) Mordor, the Orcs, and eventually Arda itself.

A different writer gave us a similar (and no less fantastic) articulation of this destructive will in a famous passage:
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness; only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.....

Power is power over human beings. Over the body-but, above all, over the mind. Power over matter external reality, as you would call it-is not important. Already our control over matter is absolute....We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull. ...We make the laws of nature.... What are the stars?...They are bits of fire a few kilometers away. We could reach them if we wanted to. Or we could blot them out. The earth is the center of the universe. The sun and the stars go round it. ...For certain purposes, of course, that is not true. When we navigate the ocean, or when we predict an eclipse, we often find it convenient to assume that the earth goes round the sun and that the stars are millions upon millions of kilometers away. But what of it? Do you suppose it is beyond us to produce a dual system of astronomy? The stars can be near or distant, according as we need them. Do you suppose our mathematicians are unequal to that? Have you forgotten doublethink?....The real power, the power we have to fight for night and day, is not power over things, but over men....Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy- everything. Already we are breaking down the habits of thought which have survived from before the Revolution. We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer. But in the future there will be no wives and no friends. Children will be taken from their mothers at birth, as one takes eggs from a hen. The sex instinct will be eradicated. Procreation will be an annual formality like the renewal of a ration card. We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon it now. There will be no loyalty, except loyalty toward the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always -- do not forget this, Winston -- always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face -- forever.
Right at the beginning, one can note that Orwell has bitten the bullet about "motive." The Party has long passed the moment where they told anyone, even themselves, that they had anyone else's good at heart. Since Orwell never tells us the history of the ascendancy of the Party in Oceania, we are at liberty to doubt whether O'Brien is aptly characterizing the motives of the revolution; but that is a secondary point. Orwell's nightmare is justly known for many reasons, above all for its extreme and lucid articulation of this naked lust that had never before, perhaps, been so unapologetically spelled out. At the same time, as Orwell was doubtless aware, O'Brien's speech here betrays (not that this would have distressed O'Brien, who would have deftly employed doublethink) an inconsistency. The Party "is" omnipotent; and yet the Party is aiming for omnipotence ("when we are omnipotent, we will have no more need of science.") This is an index of a deeper, more desperate inconsistency. The project of the Inner Party is crucially dependent -- and this dependence is a metaphysical, not a "practical" one -- upon its need for something else to prey upon. A continual and inexhaustible source of helpless enemies. (One could spell this out in some detail with reference to Hegel's account of master and slave in the Phenomenology of Spirit.) This parasitism is precisely analogous with the incapacity of Morgoth to wipe out the world (though O'Brien claims to be able to do this). For now, the Party can be content to foster the sadism of tearing minds apart and putting them back together in shapes of their own choosing -- not unlike Morgoth's corruption of the Eldar and the Edain into Orcs. But ultimately, such a power -- if it should be ascendant, which is by no means impossible -- would end, like Tolkien's Dark Lord, in willing the destruction of everything.

This kind of unimaginable nihilism is easy to dismiss, as though it were a nonsensical boogeyman, or a massive projection. Doubtless we have many reasons to be skeptical of the notion of an "axis of evil;" to guard against casting even those who clearly will our destruction as simply willing Destruction per se. Much could be said about this; both about the hobbling of oneself when one undercuts one's moral intuitions by ruling unusable one of the most long-standing of moral categories, and about the many reasonable and good motivations for being tempted in this direction. That's yet another post. My point here is that neither Tolkien nor Orwell were naive about this question. Each recognized that the "threat" he was envisioning in their narratives was "too big" to be really conceived; that everything it entailed was not clearly spelled out. It is, in essence, a kind of anti-MacGuffin. But this does not make it merely a narrative trick.