The Red Book and the Red Book: Jung, Tolkien, and the Convergence of Images

This semester I am undertaking an independent study in which I will be exploring The Red Book of Carl Gustav Jung and bringing it into dialogue with what J.R.R. Tolkien called The Red Book of Westmarch, the fictional narrative that became the key books of his Middle-Earth legendarium, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Jung’s Red Book period began in 1913, the same year that Tolkien began his own practice of active imagination in his illustrated book entitled The Book of Ishness. Using additional material from both Jung and Tolkien, as well as contemporary secondary sources, in conjunction with some of the insight provided by archetypal astrology, I will explore the similarities (and significant differences) between what was emerging through both of these men’s creative imaginations.

I will be culminating the independent study with a paper that I will post on this website, and with a PCC Forum lecture that will be filmed and also posted. If anyone has source material or other recommendations for this project I would greatly appreciate the feedback!

Jung and Tolkien

Preliminary Bibliography

C.G. Jung – The Red Book

C.G. Jung – The Basic Writings of C.G. Jung

C.G. Jung – Memories, Dreams, Reflections

C.G. Jung, Meredith Sabini (ed.) – The Earth Has A Soul: The Nature Writings of C.G. Jung

J.R.R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings

J.R.R. Tolkien – The Hobbit

J.R.R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion

J.R.R. Tolkien – The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien – The History of Middle-Earth

Humphrey Carpenter ­– J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography

Wayne G. Hammond & Christina Scull (ed.) – J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator

Verlyn Flieger – A Question of Time: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Road to Faerie

Lance Owens – J.R.R. Tolkien: An Imaginative Life – A Series of Three Illustrated Lectures (Audio)

Crossing the Threshold: The Ecological Road into Mordor

Great stories become symbols as they are encountered again and again by successive generations, as they are read in the context of currently unfolding lives. Stories become a part of the ecology in which they are told, participating in shaping the cultural landscape and being reshaped by it as well. Homer, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare—these are but a few of the authors whose stories have withstood the slow wearing and reshaping of the passing river of time; they are narratives that have become changing symbols for those who have taken them up in their own time. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth legendarium, principally his Lord of the Rings epic, has been called by several scholars a myth for our time, a symbol of the age in which we live. As one Tolkien scholar writes, The Lord of the Rings is a tale that “will bear the mind’s handling, and it is a book that acquires an individual patina in each mind that takes it up, like a much-caressed pocket stone or piece of wood.”[1] Such is the gift of a story written not as prescriptive allegory, but rather as what Tolkien preferred to see as “history, true or feigned, with its various applicability to the thought and experience of readers.”[2] It is the flexible applicability of Tolkien’s narrative that allows it to be adapted and molded according to the needs and desires of the generations encountering it, providing a symbolic foil to the world in which it is being retold.

Artwork by Christoffer Relander.
Artwork by Christoffer Relander.

Tolkien began writing his mythology during a time of rapid transformation in Europe, as he witnessed increasing industrialization overwhelm the rural landscape of his native England. His stories carry much of the melancholy rendered by this loss of ecological beauty, and seem to plant seeds of warning for upcoming generations as more and more of the Earth’s landscapes are being turned to solely human uses. The ecological awareness at the heart of Tolkien’s world may contribute to its particular applicability to the current time period in which we face massive anthropogenic ecological destruction. Methods of engagement with the ecological crisis are innumerably diverse, a reflection of the broad scale of the problems with which the Earth community is challenged. Philosophical approaches to ecology and environmentalism have sought different means of engaging with the very concept of nature, as well as the dualisms created between human and nature, self and other, subject and object, that have contributed to making the Earth crisis what it is. Can Tolkien’s tales of Middle-Earth provide a symbolic mirror for some of these approaches, from ecofeminism, to dark ecology, to process ethics? By bringing such frameworks into dialogue with narrative, can new concepts be born through their interminglings and diversions?

This study of Middle-Earth as an ecological foil will go in several different directions, although they will all address overlapping issues related to how concepts of unity and difference play significant roles in the human relationship to the Earth. I will be using Tolkien’s narrative in two ways: on the one hand, by looking at it from the outside to see how it might change the engagement of the reader—as a participant in an imaginal world—with the primary world in which she lives; and on the other hand, by diving into the world itself and studying the characters directly as examples of individuals engaging in different ways with their own world. I will first explore the role art plays in shaping the human relationship with the Earth, seeing how art can both cultivate a sense of identity with the natural world, but also how it can give a clearer view of the diversity and inherent difference in that world. Crossing the threshold and entering into Middle-Earth itself we can continue exploring themes of identity and difference, remoteness and entanglement, duality and unity, by bringing such thinkers as Timothy Morton, Val Plumwood, Pierre Hadot, Slavov Zizek, and Alfred North Whitehead into dialogue with Tolkien’s work.

Imaginal worlds and the stories which take place within them can provide what Tolkien calls a “recovery,” a “regaining of a clear view.”[3] He goes on to elaborate what such a clear view can offer, saying:

I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.[4]

Although he mentions not wanting to involve himself with the philosophers, for the purpose of this essay I will be drawing Tolkien’s narratives into philosophical dialogue. The ecophenomenologist Neil Evernden offers a complementary, although somewhat reoriented, view to Tolkien’s on the role that art and the humanities can play in ecology: quoting Northrop Frye to make his point, Evernden says, “the goal of art is to ‘recapture, in full consciousness, that original lost sense of identity with our surroundings, where there is nothing outside the mind of man, or something identical with the mind of man.’”[5] Evernden’s perspective dissolves the boundary between the human and the natural world, whereas Tolkien’s sharpens awareness that there is a surrounding world that cannot be possessed by the human. Both perspectives, however, lead to a reorientation of values in which the natural world cannot become forgotten or taken for granted. They both call forth a sense of wonder.

The French philosopher Pierre Hadot points towards how art can create continuity between humanity and nature, offering another perspective for regaining the clear view of which Tolkien speaks:

If . . . people consider themselves a part of nature because art is already present in it, there will no longer be opposition between nature and art; instead, human art, especially in its aesthetic aspect, will be in a sense the prolongation of nature, and then there will no longer be any relation of dominance between nature and mankind.[6]

Art offers to the spectator the possibility of becoming a participant, to engage at a personal level with the subject as portrayed by the work of art. The human subject can no longer encounter the other in the art as solely objective for, as Evernden writes, “The artist makes the world personal—known, loved, feared, or whatever, but not neutral.”[7] For Tolkien, art is what gives to the creations of the imagination “the inner consistency of reality”[8] that allows both the designer and spectator to enter into the created world. We have the possibility of entering fully into a world such as Tolkien’s and seeing its applicability to our own world, which is what makes it such a potent symbol for our own actions.

Entering into Middle-Earth we find ourselves in the Shire, the quiet, sheltered landscape inhabited by Hobbits. The Shire is insolated from the outside world, its inhabitants peacefully oblivious to the wider world, its borders guarded unbeknownst to the Hobbits by human Rangers of the North. The Lord of the Rings can be seen as a literary example and metaphor of overcoming the dualism between self and other, human and nature, and subject and object. It tells the story of how four Hobbits leave their isolated world—and also world view—of the Shire to journey into the diverse landscapes of Middle-Earth and encounter the many peoples shaped by those lands. They realize they are but one small part of a larger, diverse ecology of beings. As Morton writes in his book Ecology Without Nature,

The strangeness of Middle-Earth, its permeation with others and their worlds, is summed up in the metaphor of the road, which becomes an emblem for narrative. The road comes right up to your front door. To step into it is to cross a threshold between inside and outside.[9]

Morton is quite critical of Tolkien, seeing Middle-Earth as an “elaborate attempt to craft a piece of kitsch,” a closed world where “however strange or threatening our journey, it will always be familiar” because “it has all been planned out in advance.”[10] This criticism is, in many ways, the exact opposite of what Tolkien describes the very aim of fantasy to be, to free things ‘from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.’ Is this an indication that Tolkien has failed in his project, or rather that Morton is misreading what it is that Tolkien is attempting to do? Morton begins his analysis of Middle-Earth by saying,

The Shire . . . depicts the world-bubble as an organic village. Tolkien narrates the victory of the suburbanite, the “little person,” embedded in a tamed yet natural-seeming environment. Nestled into the horizon as they are in their burrows, the wider world of global politics is blissfully unavailable to them.[11]

In many ways this is a true characterization of the Shire at the start of the tale. There is an idyllic pastoralism to the Shire that is cherished by many of Tolkien’s readers, but it is also a realm of sheltered innocence as Morton points out, a Paradise before the Fall. However, by substituting this image of the Shire for the whole of Middle-Earth, Morton misses an essential aspect of the narrative: the Hobbits must depart from the Shire and encounter the strangeness and diversity of the larger world. The Hobbits, who may start out as ‘little suburbanites,’ cannot accomplish the tasks asked of them without first being transformed through the suffering and awakening that comes from walking every step of their journey. To return to Morton’s quote about the Road, once the ‘threshold between inside and outside’ has been crossed, the traveler cannot return to his former innocence. It is a shift in world view. The Hobbits can never return to the solipsistic world that existed prior to that crossing. This is an essential move that is also being asked of the human species in our own time; to cross out of our anthropocentric world view to encounter the great and imperiled diversity of the wider world.

Artwork by Christoffer Relander.
Artwork by Christoffer Relander.

While the Hobbits’ journey can serve as a metaphor for the journey the human species is being called to take—to awaken to the crisis at hand and leave our anthropocentric world view—The Lord of the Rings can be read symbolically from another perspective in which different characters represent alternative approaches to the natural world that have been taken by humanity over the course of history. These differing approaches have been laid out by Pierre Hadot in his “essay on the history of the idea of nature,” The Veil of Isis. Using mythic terms, these are what Hadot calls the Orphic and Promethean attitudes:

Orpheus thus penetrates the secrets of nature not through violence but through melody, rhythm, and harmony. Whereas the Promethean attitude is inspired by audacity, boundless curiosity, the will to power, and the search for utility, the Orphic attitude, by contrast, is inspired by respect in the face of mystery and disinterestedness.[12]

The three primary methods of the Promethean attitude, according to Hadot, are experimentation, mechanics, and magic, each of which seek to manipulate nature for some specific end. In Middle-Earth the Promethean approach is used by the Dark Lord Sauron, and later by the wizard Saruman, as they each seek to employ technology to gain power and dominion over others. Hadot writes of the Promethean attitude: “Man will seek, through technology, to affirm his power, domination, and rights over nature.”[13] As Treebeard says of Saruman, “He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.”[14] Saruman’s drive for power is a mere shadow and an echo of Sauron’s: the emblematic symbol of the power of technology in The Lord of the Rings is of course the One Ring itself, a device or machine that takes away the free will of those who use it.

Hadot’s consideration of magic as an aspect of the Promethean attitude is quite similar to Tolkien’s own views on magic, although this might not be expected with a first glance at his works. Tolkien differentiates between magic and enchantment, seeing magic as the technological manipulations of the Enemy, while enchantment is the exquisite creations of peoples such as the Elves. Tolkien writes in one of his letters that “the Elves are there (in my tales) to demonstrate the difference”[15] between magic and enchantment. He goes on to say, “Their ‘magic’ is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete . . . . its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation.”[16] Elvish enchantment might be seen as an example of Hadot’s Orphic approach to nature, with its focus on poetry, music, art, holistic science, myth and contemplation.

The Orphic attitude holds the belief that “if nature has hidden certain things, then it had good reasons to hide them.”[17] It is an approach that seeks to come to understanding through contemplating the whole, without reducing it into simplistic parts. This is illustrated by the difference between the two Istari, or wizards, Gandalf the Grey and Saruman the White. In his bid for power, Saruman has renounced his rank as White Wizard rather to become Saruman of Many Colors. He mocks the symbol represented by his former color, proclaiming:

“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

“In which case it is no longer white,” said [Gandalf]. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”[18]

Saruman has moved from being one of the Wise, those who bring an Orphic approach to all they undertake, to a dark Promethean figure seeking domination, power, and control over others.

The attitudes Sauron and Saruman take towards the lands and peoples of Middle-Earth can be better understood through the ecofeminist Val Plumwood’s model of anthropocentrism, which she recognizes as the dominant human culture’s relationship with nature. Her language is particularly appropriate for mapping onto The Lord of the Rings because she refers to the dualism between One and Other as played out in this form of hegemonic centrism. In this symbolic mapping, the One represents the centralized power of the Lord of the One Ring, while the Other represents the diversity of the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth and their multiplicity of cultures and landscapes. Plumwood’s anthropocentric model demonstrates the ways in which the One approaches the Other, particularly through means of homogenization, backgrounding, incorporation or assimilation, and instrumentalism. A breakdown of these terms follows, each of which can be seen in the way Tolkien’s dark powers seek to dominate and control the peoples of Middle-Earth:

• Homogenization – “The model promotes insensitivity to the marvelous diversity of nature, since differences in nature are attended to only if they are likely to contribute in some obvious way to human welfare.”[19]

• Backgrounding – “Nature is represented as inessential and massively denied as the unconsidered background to technological society.”[20]

• Incorporation (Assimilation) – “The intricate order of nature is perceived as disorder, as unreason, to be replaced where possible by human order in development, an assimilating project of colonisation.”[21]

• Instrumentalism – “In anthropocentric culture, nature’s agency and independence of ends are denied, subsumed in or remade to coincide with human interests, which are thought to be the source of all value in the world. Mechanistic worldviews especially deny nature any form of agency of its own.”[22]

Sauron seeks to turn all of Middle-Earth to his own devices, by reducing the great diversity of the land’s peoples to mere tributes and instruments. The power of the One Ring is that it can bring all beings, even the land itself, under its dominion: “One Ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them.”[23] Sauron’s darkness is homogenous, erasing all difference, backgrounding all who do not fit his plans, and incorporating and using as instruments those who do.

The key actions to the three great victories accomplished by the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth are carried out by characters or races that have been forgotten or backgrounded in just the way Plumwood describes: Sauron is overthrown by the actions of Frodo and Sam, two small Hobbits of a race he considered too unimportant to account for in his schemes; Saruman is defeated by the Ents whom he dismissed as mere myth; and the Witch-King of Angmar is overthrown by the shieldmaiden Eowyn, whose coming was concealed by the patriarchal language that referred to her entire race as Men—leaving the arrogant Lord of the Nazgûl to be defeated at the hands of a woman. As Elrond says at the Council held in Rivendell that decides the fate of the Ring, “This quest must be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”[24]

There are, of course, flaws with Tolkien’s work that a perspective such as Plumwood’s would be quick to point out. For example, it is a largely androcentric work, with the majority of the characters being male. It also has a Eurocentric focus, as Middle-Earth was intended by Tolkien to be set in Europe, although in an imaginary time: “The theatre of my tale is this earth,” Tolkien wrote in one letter, “the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary.”[25] Critics such as Morton point out that “For Tolkien, dwarves, elves, hobbits, and talking eagles are welcome others, but swarthy ‘southern’ or ‘eastern’ men are not.”[26] Although I do not want to discount these valid criticisms, I will point out some subtleties that emerge in the text that complexify Morton’s simple rendering of good and evil in Tolkien’s world.

For example, when Sam witnesses the violent death of a Southron man he finds himself contemplating what the character of this man might have been in life.

He was glad he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.[27]

In this moment I believe Tolkien is asking the reader to contemplate the same: to not take the presentation of the other at face value, but rather to look deeper. He is bringing moral complexity into a story that has often been initially perceived to present a Manichean vision of evil and good. Often the struggle between good and evil takes place within a single person, as can be seen emblematically in Frodo and Sméagol’s internal struggles with their own potential for evil, and even Gandalf and Aragorn’s wrestling with the corrupting influence of power. “Nothing is evil in the beginning,” Elrond says. “Even Sauron was not so.”[28]

One’s actions, and not one’s inherent being, are what turn a person evil in Tolkien’s world. The process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, writes on the nature of evil and its root in inhibiting, either through violence or neglect, the potential for beauty in the world. For Whitehead, the evil of violence “lies in the loss to the social environment.”[29] He also writes,

Evil in itself leads to the world losing forms of attainment in which that evil manifests itself . . . . Thus evil promotes its own elimination by destruction, or degradation, or by elevation. But in its own nature it is unstable.[30]

An example of this can be seen at times throughout The Lord of the Rings when the Orcs, acting as evil minions doing the bidding of Sauron or Saruman, turn on each other during a dispute and often end up killing one another in their anger—often eliminating a danger otherwise needing to be faced by the protagonists. As Brian Henning writes, “Whitehead’s insight is that violence and force tend to be self-defeating in that they undermine the very social structures that make them possible.”[31] Another case is Saruman, who cuts the trees of Fangorn to feed his fires, allowing him to raise an industrial army. Without doing this harm, which is what makes him evil to begin with, he would not have triggered the anger of the Ents, leading to his defeat. Finally, a more abstract illustration of how evil undermines itself can be seen in Sauron. Gandalf says of Sauron that “the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning.”[32] Sauron’s desire for power, which is what initially corrupts him and turns him evil, is also that which is his undoing, for it blinds him to the moral will of others, resulting in his utter demise.

One must be careful of the way in which one relates to the actions of evil in the world. Creating a dualism between oneself and what one sees as evil can lead to what Hegel, from the perspective of Morton, called the Beautiful Soul. Morton writes, “The Beautiful Soul suffers from seeing reality as an evil thing ‘over yonder.’ Is this not precisely the attitude of many forms of environmentalism?”[33] He goes on to say,

It’s that the gaze that constitutes the world as a thing ‘over yonder,’ is evil as such. The environmental fundamentalism that sees the world as an essential, living Earth that must be saved from evil, viral humans is the very type of the Beautiful Soul’s evil gaze.[34]

The evil of the Beautiful Soul’s gaze is only evil when one remains at a remove from what one perceives as evil out in the world. So long as it remains a distant gaze, evil can flourish in the world. “How do we truly exit from the Beautiful Soul?” Morton asks. “By taking responsibility for our attitude, for our gaze. On the ground this looks like forgiveness. We are fully responsible for the present environmental catastrophe, simply because we are aware of it.”[35] The burden of the One Ring is that Frodo must take responsibility for it once he is aware that the world is imperiled by it. It is his task to take responsibility for the Ring, and the longer he is in possession of it the more he is corrupted by its power. “The only way is in and down. . .” as Morton says.[36] Frodo and Sam not only go down into the heart of Mordor, they also face the capacity for evil in themselves. Indeed, Frodo must take responsibility for his inability to destroy the Ring, but in doing so he also must forgive himself, for only in his failure was the task actually able to be accomplished.

Artwork by Christoffer Relander.
Artwork by Christoffer Relander.

The approach of going ‘in and down’ is what Morton has called dark ecology. “Dark ecology is melancholic: melancholy is the Earth’s humour, and the residuum of our unbreakable psychic connection to our mother’s body, which stands metonymically for our connection with all life forms.”[37] There is a melancholy too that is inherent to the heart of The Lord of the Rings. With the destruction of the One Ring, the Three Rings of the Elves are also stripped of their power, and all that was wrought with them in symbiotic harmony with beauty of the Earth begins to fade and pass away. Interconnection is at the heart of this story, the power of good intrinsically interwoven and even dependent on the power of evil, and vice versa. Destroying the One Ring is choosing to lose the great beauty created by the Elves to allow the greater beauty of a free Middle-Earth to flourish. It is a moral decision according to Henning’s kalogenic ethics of creativity, but it is a tragic, a melancholic decision as well. The Lord of the Rings concludes with a sense of bittersweet mourning, the mourning of all that has passed, the mourning of the end of an age.

In reference to the ecological crisis, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek writes on what hope we have for the future:

We have to accept that, at the level of possibilities, our future is doomed, the catastrophe will take place, it is our destiny—and, then, on the background of this acceptance, we should mobilize ourselves to perform the act that will change destiny itself by inserting a new possibility into the past.[38]

In many ways the future of Middle-Earth is also doomed, poised on the edge of ruin. Late in the story Pippin asks Gandalf:

“Tell me,” he said, “is there any hope? For Frodo, I mean; or at least mostly for Frodo.”

Gandalf put his hand on Pippin’s head. “There never was much hope,” he answered. “Just a fool’s hope.”[39]

‘On the background of this acceptance,’ as Zizek has said, we must then make our decision, the melancholic choice that leads us ‘in and down’ into the darkness of the world, a darkness mirrored potentially in each of us as well, whose very success leads to mourning. When Frodo first learns that he is in possession of the One Ring, that it is his responsibility to face the darkness head on, he confides to Gandalf:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who come to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”[40]

 

Works Cited

Evernden, Neil. “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy.” The North American Review 263 (Winter 1978).

Hadot, Pierre. The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature. Translated by Michael Chase. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

Henning, Brian G. The Ethics of Creativity: Beauty, Morality, and Nature in a Processive Cosmos. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 2005.

Morton, Timothy. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

–––––. “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul.” Collapse 6 (2010): 265-293.

Plumwood, Val. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. New York, NY: Routledge, 2002.

J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994. 

–––––. The Tolkien Reader. New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Religion in the Making. Edited by Judith A. Jones. New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1996.

Zizek, Slavoj. “Nature and Its Discontents.” SubStance 37:3 (2008): 37-72.

 


[1] Peter Beagle, “Tolkien’s Magic Ring,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), xii.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, Foreword to The Lord of the Rings (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 5.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 77.

[4] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 77.

[5] Northrop Frye, qtd. in Neil Evernden, “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy,” The North American Review 263 (Winter 1978): 99.

[6] Pierre Hadot, The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), 92.

[7] Evernden, “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy,” 100.

[8] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 68.

[9] Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 98.

[10] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 98.

[11] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 97.

[12] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 96.

[13] Ibid, 92.

[14] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, II, iv, 76.

[15] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter, with Christopher Tolkien (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 146.

[16] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 146.

[17] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 91.

[18] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I, ii, 272.

[19] Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (New York, NY: Routledge, 2002), 107.

[20] Plumwood, Environmental Culture, 108.

[21] Ibid, 109.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I, ii, 59.

[24] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, II, ii, 283.

[25] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 239.

[26] Morton, Ecology Without Nature, 99.

[27] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, IV, iv, 269.

[28] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, II, ii, 281.

[29] Alfred North Whitehead, Religion in the Making, ed. Judith A. Jones, (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 1996), 97.

[30] Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 96.

[31] Brian G. Henning, The Ethics of Creativity: Beauty, Morality, and Nature in a Processive Cosmos (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 2005), 114.

[32] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, II, ii, 283.

[33] Timothy Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” Collapse 6 (2010): 287-288.

[34] Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” 290.

[35] Ibid, 291.

[36] Ibid, 293.

[37] Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” 293.

[38] Slavoj Zizek, “Nature and Its Discontents,” SubStance 37:3 (2008): 68.

[39] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, V, iv, 88.

[40] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, I, ii, 60.

Darkness, Duality, and the Call for Enmeshed Solidarity

Dark Ecology

When confronted with crisis, one must ask what it is that is in crisis. When it comes to what has been termed the environmental—or ecological—crisis, this question of what is in crisis immediately complexifies. The crisis itself may be that we cannot simply apply a homogenous label to what is unfolding everywhere around, before, and even inside of us. If there is a crisis of nature, and humans are causing it, then knowing what nature and humanity are, what their relationship is, and if they can even be distinguished or differentiated from each other, is crucial to the survival of countless species, including our own, and the ecosystems which these species constitute.

Certain contemporary ecological thinkers have challenged the barrier—constructed by dominant aspects of Western civilization—between the concepts of nature and humanity with a variety of different approaches. These challenges come in the form of Val Plumwood’s ecofeminism, Timothy Morton’s dark ecology, Slavoj Zizek’s ideas of interdependence and the barrier of Included and Excluded, Neil Evernden’s concepts of ecological interrelatedness, and Holmes Rolston’s response to the deconstruction of ecological terminology, among many others. Each of these approaches seeks to address and break down the dualism held between subject and object, primarily as maintained in the separation of humanity from nature.

Val Plumwood’s ecofeminist approach, as encapsulated in her book Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason, uses methods of analogy to read one system of thought into another to think through enculturated dualisms between male/female, rational/emotional, Self/Other, subject/object, and of course, human/nature. She addresses the problems of anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism, systemic remoteness, and hegemonic centrism at multiple levels as embodied not only by dominant rationalistic approaches but also by a variety of ecological perspectives, from animal rights advocacy to deep ecology. Plumwood sees humanity as being faced with “two historic tasks that arise from the rationalist hyper-separation of human identity from nature: they can be summed up as the tasks of (re)situating humans in ecological terms and non-humans in ethical terms.”[1] Her primary prescriptive approach is to shift from an attitude of identity with that which is termed Other, to an attitude of solidarity. She also emphasizes the need to recognize the agency of the Other, instead of only the intrinsic value of the Other.

Holmes Rolston addresses the idea of agency in relationship to value as well when he writes, “The world is full of eyes, legs, wings, antennae, mouths, webs and eggs, all being used in the defence of life. Is it consistent to say that animals defend lives they do not value?”[2] He goes on to say,

The organism is an axiological, though not a moral, system. So the tree grows, reproduces, repairs its wounds and resists death. A life is defended for what it is in itself, without necessary further contributory reference. Every organism has a good-of-its-kind, it defends its own kind as a good kind.[3]

Both Rolston and Plumwood are focusing on the issue of ‘resituating. . . non-humans in ethical terms,’ with an understanding that agency indicates the rights of the Other while also affirming their inherent differences from humanity. Rights need not arise from similarity to the human, as this is a form of anthropocentrism that merely pushes the boundary of duality further from the sphere of the human species.

A tension exists between affirming difference while challenging duality in the various approaches of these five ecological thinkers. As Neil Evernden points out, “Ecology begins as a normal, reductionist science, but to its own surprise it winds up denying the subject-object relationship upon which science rests.”[4] Timothy Morton affirms this when he writes, “‘Nature’ dissolves when we look directly at it, into assemblages of behaviours, congeries of organs without bodies.”[5] Both Morton and Slavoj Zizek argue that the ecological crisis ought to be addressed by abolishing the concept of “Nature” as an external environment radically other to the human. One must, in Zizek’s words, “ the antagonism between the Included and the Excluded,” rather than simply “fight for the environment.”[6] Rolston, on the other hand, accepts the use of the term “nature” but only after addressing the difference of nature as concept or framework and nature as real beings: “‘Nature,’ if a category we have constructed, has real members, that is, things that got there on their own in this world-container, and remain there independently of our vocabulary.”[7]

For Evernden the solution lies in art, aesthetics, and the humanities. He quotes Northrop Frye in saying “the goal of art is to ‘recapture, in full consciousness, that original lost sense of identity with our surroundings, where there is nothing outside the mind of man, or something identical with the mind of man.’”[8] For Plumwood, aspects of this approach might be problematic, primarily the idea of ‘identity with our surroundings’ rather than solidarity and communication with those beings outside the human species. Yet Plumwood also accepts the ambiguity and imperfection inherent to developing effective models of communication with non-humans. She writes,

The problems of representing another culture’s or another species communication however pale before the enormity of failing to represent them at all, or of representing them as non-communicative and non-intentional beings. This is an incomparably greater failing.[9]

This acceptance of the ambiguity and even the mess of ecological engagement are also present in Morton and Zizek’s thought. Morton writes, “Ecological thinking—what I call the ecological thought—is precisely this ‘humiliating’ descent, towards what is rather abstractly called ‘the Earth.’”[10] Zizek, who draws significantly from Morton, looks to the necessarily externalized slums produced by the capitalist system to highlight the dualism of Included and Excluded, and at the overlap of nature and industrial civilization in a state of “common decay”[11] to break down the conception of an insolated humanity and an “impenetrable inhuman nature.”[12] These ideas are at the core of Morton’s “dark ecology,” which “realizes that we are hopelessly entangled in the mesh.”[13]

To say that Plumwood, Morton, Zizek, Evernden, and Rolston agree with one another would be a severe misinterpretation of each of their projects. However, they do stand on some common ground with one another as they pose challenges to current systems of dualistic, anthropocentric, hegemonic thinking. While there may not be a common identity between these ecological thinkers, there does appear to be, in Plumwood’s terms, a solidarity between their challenges to ecological philosophy and the concept of nature.

Works Cited

Evernden, Neil. “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy.” The North American Review 263 (Winter 1978).

Morton, Timothy. “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul.” Collapse 6 (2010): 265-293.

Rolston, Holmes. “Nature for Real: Is Nature a Social Construct?” in The Philosophy of the Environment, edited by T.D.J. Chappell, 38-63. Edinburgh, UK: University of Edinburgh Press, 1997.

Plumwood, Val. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. New York, NY: Routledge, 2002.

Zizek, Slavoj. “Nature and Its Discontents.” SubStance 37:3 (2008): 37-72.


[1] Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason (New York, NY: Routledge, 2002), 8-9.

[2] Holmes Rolston, “Nature for Real: Is Nature a Social Construct?” in The Philosophy of the Environment, ed. T.D.J. Chappell (Edinburgh, UK: University of Edinburgh Press, 1997), 60.

[3] Rolston, “Nature for Real: Is Nature a Social Construct?” 61.

[4] Neil Evernden, “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy,” The North American Review 263 (Winter 1978): 93.

[5] Timothy Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” Collapse 6 (2010): 285.

[6] Slavoj Zizek, “Nature and Its Discontents,” SubStance 37:3 (2008): 45.

[7] Rolston, “Nature for Real: Is Nature a Social Construct?” 43.

[8] Northrop Frye, qtd. in Evernden, “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy,” 99.

[9] Plumwood, Environmental Culture, 60-61.

[10] Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” 265.

[11] Zizek, “Nature and Its Discontents,” 63.

[12] Ibid, 50.

[13] Morton, “Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul,” 293.

Bridging Our Attitudes Toward Nature

“Phusis kruptesthai philei”

For twenty-five hundred years the concept of Nature has evolved through the writings of Western History. The myriad meanings of the Greek word phusis have unfolded through history as Nature personified, Nature divine, Nature hidden, Nature secretive, nature separate from humanity, nature inclusive of humanity, nature as dead matter, Nature as art, Nature as All. Pierre Hadot traces this winding history in his book-length essay The Veil of Isis by examining the famous aphorism attributed to the philosopher Heraclitus, “phusis kruptesthai philei,” usually translated as “Nature loves to hide.”[1] Using these three cryptic words, whose meaning it seems also loves to hide, Hadot explores the many different ways this aphorism could be—and has been—translated, and the various effects such interpretations have had upon the continuing relationship humanity has with the world into which we each are born. Hadot perceives how traditional metaphors such as Heraclitus’ phrase will

hold sway for centuries over successive generations like a kind of program to be realized, a task to be accomplished, or an attitude to be assumed, even if, throughout the ages, the meaning given to these sentences, images, and metaphors can be profoundly modified.[2]

He goes on to note that “To write the history of a thought is sometimes to write the history of a series of misinterpretations.”[3]

Isis Veiled

Why is it that Nature loves to hide? What is it she—for in Hadot’s traced lineage Nature is always unquestioningly personified as female—is hiding, and from whom is she hiding it? History has offered many answers, from Nature as divine mystery, to Nature as weak and inferior and thus wrapped up in shame, Nature as clothed in imagination, Nature as malicious toward humanity, Nature protective of humanity: all of these and more have been reasons given for why Nature’s veils have been deemed so difficult to peel away.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the metaphor of the veils and the secrets of Nature never ceases to fade, until it gives way to amazement before an unveiled Nature, which, in Goethe’s expression, henceforth became “mysterious in full daylight,” in the nudity of her presence.[4]

The image of veiled Nature has tempted the curiosity of humanity from deep into our ancestral memory until the present day, although the understanding of who and what Nature is has shifted dramatically over that time.

Hadot posits two archetypal narratives to illustrate what he sees as the primary approaches humanity has taken in the quest to unveil Nature: the Promethean and the Orphic. In Hadot’s own words, these approaches or perspectives can be understood as follows:

Orpheus thus penetrates the secrets of nature not through violence but through melody, rhythm, and harmony. Whereas the Promethean attitude is inspired by audacity, boundless curiosity, the will to power, and the search for utility, the Orphic attitude, by contrast, is inspired by respect in the face of mystery and disinterestedness.[5]

The Promethean attitude is based upon a notion of progress in which humanity will some day attain all of nature’s veiled secrets so that they might be put to use for the betterment of the human species. The three main methods of the Promethean attitude, as Hadot delineates them, are that of experimentation, mechanics, and magic, all of which manipulate nature in some way for a specific end. In this perspective Nature is seen as hiding her secrets out of hostility for humanity, keeping her knowledge hidden due to a kind of spite.

The Orphic attitude takes the approach that “if nature has hidden certain things, then it had good reasons to hide them.”[6] In many ways the Orphic is an antidote to the Promethean, although it extends far beyond that as well. The Orphic approach is that of approaching nature through the contemplation of art, poetry, music, classical physics, and myth. Hadot’s archetypal analysis of nature is itself an Orphic approach, in that he draws on myth and art to unfold the meanings of humanity’s changing relationship to the natural world.

In our current era of ecological destruction and crisis, understanding what is at stake and how we came to this precipice is key to moving in a new direction. If we do not have an understanding of what humanity has perceived nature to be throughout history then we have little chance of knowing how to heal our relationship to that which we call nature. Although in The Veil of Isis Hadot seems to favor more of an Orphic approach, in that it is more holistic, contemplative, non-violent, and non-exploitative, it could be that finding a bridge between the two perspectives is a better way forward. Although a deep chasm has often separated the two, Hadot offers examples of individual thinkers who embody both perspectives within themselves. For example, to dive back toward Western philosophy’s beginnings, Hadot demonstrates how Plato carries both a Promethean and Orphic attitude within his works. In the Timaeus, “Plato represents the world fashioned in an artisanal way,” but that world can also be understood through mechanical, mathematical models.[7] Plato saw phusis as divine art.[8] For Hadot, the view of nature as art is in itself part of a solution for overcoming the division of human and nature that has contributed to create the ecological crisis.

If. . . people consider themselves a part of nature because art is already present in it, there will no longer be opposition between nature and art; instead, human art, especially in its aesthetic aspect, will be in a sense the prolongation of nature, and then there will no longer be any relation of dominance between nature and mankind.[9]

Hadot’s work is not prescriptive, yet he indicates that finding bridges may be what is needed: a bridge between Promethean and Orphic, a bridge between humanity and nature—and in many ways art is able to fill this bridging role.

 

Work Cited

Hadot, Pierre. The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature. Translated by Michael Chase. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

 


[1] Pierre Hadot, The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), 1.

[2] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, xiii.

[3] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 14.

[4] Ibid, 87.

[5] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 96.

[6] Ibid, 91.

[7] Hadot, The Veil of Isis, 97.

[8] Ibid, 22.

[9] Ibid, 92.

The Phenomenon of Painting

“In a forest, I have felt so many times over that it was not I who looked at the forest. Some days I felt that the trees were looking at me, were speaking to me. . . . I was there, listening. . . . I think that the painter must be penetrated by the universe and not want to penetrate it. . . . I expect to be inwardly submerged, buried. Perhaps I paint to break out.”     – André Marchand[1]

When does a painter cease her painting? Who determines when a painting is complete? The very word painting, as both a noun and a verb, implies action. A painting never ceases creating and being created by the very nature of the word humanity has assigned to describe it. Or perhaps that word was never assigned, it simply emerged from  the phenomenon of painting, just as the imagery of a painting seems to emerge not solely from the artist or the canvas, but rather from a mysterious intermediate ground between the two. Yet what is that ground? How can we contemplate that which emerges from ambiguity?

Light Iris

Merleau-Ponty writes, “From the writer and philosopher. . . we want opinions and advice. We will not allow them to hold the world suspended. . . . Only the painter is entitled to look at everything without being obliged to appraise what he sees.”[2] Even to sit here and write of painting, as I am doing in this moment, brings a literal concreteness to the ambiguity I am attempting to describe, that which can only emerge between world, artist, and art. When one looks at a painting, or even more so when one looks at a painting that is in the process of being created—perhaps even by the artistry of one’s own hand—there is a presence that exists within it that is beyond the intention of the artist, no matter how controlled the artist may try to be in her execution of the artwork. A painting has a life of its own, perhaps even before the artist ever conceived of it. Merleau-Ponty continues,

I would be at great pains to say where is the painting I am looking at. For I do not look at it as I do at a thing; I do not fix it in its place. My gaze wanders in it as in the halos of Being. It is more accurate to say that I see according to it, or with it, than that I see it.[3]

One sees according to the painting, almost as if the painting had its own will, a will separate from the will of the artist. This returns our thought to the question of how a painter knows when a painting is complete, especially if there is an internally active quality to the very existence of a painting even, or perhaps especially, in its completeness. It is as though the painting already existed before ever a brush was set to paper, and the painting is only complete when the already existent painting and the actions of the painter meet in the middle.

“I think that the painter must be penetrated by the universe,” Marchand writes, “and not want to penetrate it.”[4] A painter, it seems, is a vessel of the world, a receptacle that births the form with which matter is pregnant.[5] “So many painters have said that things look at them,”[6] Merleau-Ponty writes, almost as though those things wish to be born through new media.

The eye sees the world, sees what keeps a painting from being itself, sees—on the palette—the colors awaited by the painting, and sees, once it is done, the painting that answers to all these inadequacies just as it sees the paintings of others as other answers to other inadequacies.[7]

The painting itself, in this quote, seems to call forth the very existence of the painting. The colors are ‘awaited’ by the painting, the painting itself ‘answers.’ When is a painting complete? Perhaps when it wills it to be so.

 

Work Cited

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Primacy of Perception. Edited by James M. Edie.
Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964.


[1] André Marchand, qtd. in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, ed. James M. Edie (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 167.

[2] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 161.

[3] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 164.

[4] Marchand, qtd. in Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 167.

[5] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 12.

[6] Ibid, 167.

[7] Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, 165.

Sweet Sunset

Have you ever done yoga while a sheet of rain obliterates all visibility of the world around you? Or tasted drinking chocolate so rich and spicy that you would swear you are holding a melted bar of pure chocolate in the cup before you—or somehow been transported to the seductive marble counter of Vianne Rocher’s French-Mayan Chocolaterie? Or sat in a hot bath with crimson and peach rose petals strewn over the surface, the scents of jasmine and ylang ylang spiraling with the steam towards the ceiling, while bells toll the hour softly out the open window? This is just a taste of the joys I had the great privilege to experience in the second half of my visit to New Mexico, a week I am now looking back on with awe and gratitude for the level of both bliss and adventure I was able to experience.

Harp
Photo by Becca Tarnas

On the afternoon of the day I wrote my last post, I went with the friend I was staying with to pay a visit to an acquaintance of hers who is now a retired harp maker. His business was called Harps of Lorién, so I had a good feeling we would get along well. He had only kept two of his harps for himself—the last ones he made—and I had the great joy of being able to play them for a little while. The larger of the two harps had just under five octaves; a beautiful creation with a rich sound, especially in the upper register. The other harp was a lovely little lap harp with 27 strings, the kind I could easily imagine myself carrying on my back on some mythical adventure. Playing them I was reminded of a trilogy I recently read that a friend recommended to me: Riddle-Master by Patricia McKillip. The series is composed of three books, The Riddle-Master of HedHeir of Sea and Fire, and Harpist in the Wind. As one can imagine from the final book title, harps play a significant role in the unfolding of this story.

From harps we moved on to chocolate, a transition no one I know could complain of. I was brought to the Kakáwa Chocolate House where we were greeted with an extensive menu of both European and Meso-American drinking chocolates. After tasting several different samples I settled on the Chile Chocolate, which was made of 100% chocolate, coconut sugar, chile, and Mexican vanilla. The thick liquid was both sweet and spicy, rich and rounded, calming and awakening. It was, to say the least, amazing. Truly an extravagance.

Photo by Becca Tarnas
Photo by Becca Tarnas

Our evening plans brought us into central Santa Fe where we had dinner at a restaurant called Blue Corn, followed by drinks at a nearby bar called Thunderbird. My astrological twin and I, of course, ordered the same drink, a cocktail of vodka and crisp pear. Our parallels no longer surprised us, especially when it was something as simple as choosing a drink, or wearing identical socks or pants. Our differences were becoming far more interesting to discover and explore.

The following day, Sunday, my friend and I went back to the land in Glorietta to hike around the area where she and her partner are building their home. The day was cooler than when we were up there on July 4th, or perhaps I was just becoming acclimated to the altitude and desert sun. Clouds were gathering on the edges of the horizon but we still baked under the clear blue of the sky directly over our heads. Walking through the forest of ponderosa pine and cedar I started to notice a distinct smell that would hit me every so often, almost like kaffir lime leaves. What was an essential ingredient of Thai food doing out here? Finally, when I smelled the scent again I stopped and looked all around me, making note of any different plants that might be nearby. To my right was a low tree with gnarled bark and pointed, needle-like leaves. Silver-green berries grew in clusters between the leaves. I took a step closer, realizing the kaffir smell came from this tree. A juniper. I never would have guessed the two smells would be so similar except through this accidental discovery.

Photo by Becca Tarnas
Photo by Becca Tarnas

Passing under the eaves of this sparse forest we walked out into an open meadow, a long, snaking expanse of shrub-covered ground that formed a valley between two wooded hills. Gazing overhead we saw a hawk soaring, a local inhabitant my friend recognized because of the distinctive missing feather she had in one of her wings. We climbed up one of the hills to look back down on the meadow we had just crossed. Directly opposite on the hill facing us, at a point not much higher than where we stood, the dark entrance of a cave was just visible between the trees. My friend speculated that this cave might be the home of the hawk that was still circling above us, although she was not sure.

Photo by Becca Tarnas
Photo by Becca Tarnas

After returning to downtown Santa Fe, I spent the rest of the afternoon on a quiet meander through the town’s streets, pausing at the stalls of artists and vendors, admiring the bright silver and turquoise that was a prominent theme of the jewelry for sale here. The clouds continued to gather in the sky, making their way towards the town, their dark underbellies heavy with rain. Finding myself in the grassy plaza I sat beneath a tree and took out my watercolors to begin painting a scene I had been holding in my mind since that morning.

The sunset that night was so brilliant—an explosion of bleeding vermillions and reds, rosy oranges and deep purples—that no photo could even begin to capture it. I sometimes wish I could bring a painting forth all in an instant, the colors pouring from my open imagination directly onto the page. But the exact wash of that particular sunset, the ways its unique colors flowed together and blended, is fading from my memory with as much certainty as it faded from that night sky.

Photo by Becca Tarnas
Photo by Becca Tarnas

In many ways I feel my time in New Mexico was like that sunset: so beautiful and profound, surprising and unexpected, a crescendo of connection and experience. Returning to the grey fogs of San Francisco felt a little like a shock, the stark white of the sky such a contrast to the desert colors I still held within me, memories like precious gems, each expressing different emotions through their dynamic colors. My astrological twin and I are two Sagittarians who walked together down a spiraling path of an eternally growing checklist of activities: from baking cookies and pumpkin pie to turning our toenails into artistic canvases; from sampling at a delicious gluten-free bakery to a morning of pampering at the spa; from astrological readings and healing massages to crafting beautiful gift collages; from deep conversations and gorgeous laughter to the freedom of just being utterly silly. So much of what happened during my week in New Mexico was so simple, an extended playdate between two sisters, butterfly twins who had somehow only recently met—at least in this lifetime.

Photo by Becca Tarnas
Collage for the Dusk Twin
Photo by Becca Tarnas
Collage for the Dawn Twin

Prehending The Monster: A Dance With Whiteheadian Dragons

What does it mean to be a monster in a Whiteheadian universe? A world in which “the holy idea of process”[1] pervades, and all beings are defined in relationship to each other. A world in which God is unconscious and yet able to see all Time and Space, who gives limit and also meaning through infinite patience, a God who may indeed even be a dragon. “Seek out gold and sit on it.”[2] Infinitely patient, eternally growing with the accumulation of the experience of all lowly creatures, God becomes a creature himself bound within the immanent sphere of Time. How does one define oneself in such a world? How to know thyself when there is “No thread, no frailest hair between myself and the universal clutter”[3]?

Dragon

Beowulf is a poetic elegy of heroism, written by an unknown Anglo-Saxon imagination, which we have inherited from Europe’s Dark Ages. “Not that one age is darker than another,”[4] as a post-modern dragon proclaims. The novelist John Gardner has taken this Medieval text and offered it from a new perspective: the man-eating monster Grendel, whom the hero Beowulf defeats in his first battle, tells us his own story of how he came to be who he is. Gardner’s tale is woven of the post-modern philosophies existentialism and nihilism, framing Grendel’s solipsistic view of a disenchanted, mechanistic universe devoid of all meaning. Yet the narrative is also richly saturated with the thought, and even direct quotations of, the process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, whose voice speaks through a worm from the ancient world, as well as an old priest enraptured with his musings on God, but also through each scene of the story’s unfolding.

It may be that Gardner was able to write Grendel’s tale through a Whiteheadian lens because something of Whitehead’s thought was already present in the original poem of Beowulf, although written some ten to thirteen centuries before Whitehead was ever born. Through Grendel one can begin to see glimpses in Beowulf of prehension and concrescence captured in narrative form, long before they were ever named as philosophical concepts. This study of ancient myth, imaginative poetry, and process philosophy is an exploration in which cause and effect are not dependent upon time, in which the hero’s final defeat can illustrate concrescence, Whitehead’s prehension can illuminate Grendel’s monstrosity, and Gardner’s dragon can give metaphor to the contemporary practice of creating concepts without images, and the dangerous bridges we may walk to understand them.

Grendel woke up in a mechanistic universe, to paraphrase John McDermott.[5] He contemplates the indifference of his world, the “cold mechanics of the stars.”[6] All things are inanimate to him, religion is lunatic, he is vastly alone, isolated. “Space hurls outward, falconswift, mounting like an irreversible injustice, a final disease.”[7] Yet, like so many “terrified by the eternal silence of these infinite spaces,”[8] Grendel seeks out meaning, even as he denies its existence: “Stars, spattered out through lifeless night from end to end, like jewels scattered in a dead king’s grave, tease, torment my wits toward meaningful patterns that do not exist.”[9]

It is as this post-modern “meaning-seeking speck of dust”[10] that Grendel has his first crisis of meaning, in which he sees the living values of what he thought of as the inanimate world. While trapped painfully between two trees, Grendel searches the landscape in vain for his mother, and the objects of the world each present themselves to him.

I twisted around as far as I could, hunting wildly for her shape on the cliffs, but there was nothing, or rather, there was everything but my mother. Thing after thing tried, cynical and cruel, to foist itself off as my mama’s shape… each thing trying to detach itself, lift itself out of the general meaningless scramble of objects, but falling back, melting to the blank, infuriating clutter of not-my-mother…. I seemed to see the whole universe, even the sun and sky, leaping forward, then sinking away again, decomposing.[11]

Grendel is having a cruel experience of the full presence of everything, a multiplicity of what Whitehead calls prehensions, in which everything is always present in, and creating the relational essence of, all other things. Whitehead writes,

The actual world is a manifold of prehensions; and a ‘prehension’ is a ‘prehensive occasion;’ and a prehensive occasion is the most concrete finite entity, conceived as what it is in itself and for itself, and not as from its aspect in the essence of another such occasion.[12]

Each entity in Grendel’s experience is actively putting itself forward; the objects and Grendel prehend each other, yet Grendel also prehends the absence of his mother—her very absence is a real entity that is defining the essence of each object in Grendel’s experience. “Every occasion is a synthesis of being and not-being.”[13] “Being,” in this case, refers to Grendel’s prehensions of all that is physically present, whereas “not-being” refers to his prehensions of what is only conceptually there as a desirable possibility—his mother.

In the trauma and pain of being caught in the tree, believing he is dying, Grendel is having an enchanted experience of the world that immensely contradicts his belief in a meaningless, inanimate universe. He has lost the ability for negative prehension, the “definite exclusion of that item from positive contribution to the subject’s own real internal constitution.”[14] He cannot filter out any presence; it is utterly overwhelming, this interconnection of all things.

At last Grendel is rescued, hours later, by his mother. As he lies safe within his subterranean cave he contemplates his experience and can only conclude that it was entirely projection: “‘The world resists me and I resist the world’ I said. “That’s all there is. The mountains are what I define them as….The world is all pointless accident… I exist, nothing else.’”[15] Grendel refuses to be changed by his experience. Yet, as he thinks on himself thinking, he comes to a realization: “I observe myself observing what I observe. It startles me. ‘Then I am not that which observes!’ I am lack. Alack! No thread, no frailest hair between myself and the universal clutter!”[16] The interconnectivity that is his essence, without which he is lack, sinks in. He experiences a reversal of Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am not. Grendel only exists in relation to the entirety of the universal clutter. Who then is he to be?

It is in this state of existential isolation that Grendel first encounters the Shaper. The Shaper is the name Grendel uses to refer to an old minstrel who has come to entertain the thanes of King Hrothgar beneath the golden eaves of Heorot. The Shaper cannot be allegorically exhausted in Gardner’s rendering. On one level the Shaper is clearly the forgotten Beowulf poet himself. His first lines are explicitly the opening lines of the Medieval poem, translated into English:

Hwæt! We Gar-Dena     in gear-dagum, 
þeod-cyninga,     þrym gefrunon, 
hu ða æþelingas     ellen fremedon.[17]

Lo, we have heard the honor of the Speardanes,
nation-kings, in days now gone,
how those battle-lords brought themselves glory.[18]

This puts the Shaper simultaneously inside and outside Grendel’s story. He is composing the tale, yet is also a character within it. Yet Grendel outlives him, so the Shaper writing the entirety of the Beowulf poem is an impossibility, as that poem carries on long past Grendel’s own death. The timing of their deaths contradict each other.

Grendel’s desire to find meaning is met by the song of the Shaper, images woven on the weft of his harp strings. “Even to me,” Grendel says, “incredibly, he had made it all seem true and very fine.”[19] He hears the roaring applause, following the song, of “men gone mad on art.”[20]

What was he? The man had changed the world, had torn up the past by its thick, gnarled roots and had transmuted it, and they, who knew the truth, remembered it his way—and so did I.[21]

The Shaper has the ability to create and reshape history with the power of his poetic imagination. J.R.R. Tolkien, arguably the greatest advocate for Beowulf as a work of creative imagination, perceives this ability of the Beowulf poet to make art appear as history. Beowulf was long studied as no more than a historical document, of little artistic or literary significance, until Tolkien shone a new light on its virtues. “The illusion of historical truth and perspective, that has made Beowulf seem such an attractive quarry,” Tolkien writes, “is largely a product of art.”[22] Tolkien tends to use the term art in a highly specific way: Art is what gives an “inner consistency of reality”[23] to a creation of the imagination. Art is what makes the imaginal real, and what gives the Shaper his great powers.

The Shaper of Gardner’s tale has more roles to play than one in Gardner’s Whiteheadian universe, and he may be no mere mortal poet. His ability to reshape history, to imbue it with beauty and meaning, thus inspiring Hrothgar’s people to lead better lives, bears strong resemblance to what Whitehead calls the “consequent nature of God.” Whitehead writes,

God’s role… lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization. He does not create the world, he saves it: or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.[24]

This characteristic of the Shaper is what so enchants Grendel, what draws him in with a desire to participate in the poetic image the Shaper weaves. “He takes what he finds,” Grendel says, “And by changing men’s minds he makes the best of it.”[25]

Finally, it is through Whiteheadian scholar Isabelle Stengers’ reading of Grendel that yet another role of the Shaper is revealed: the Shaper may be Whitehead himself in his mode of creating philosophical thought. Stengers writes that Whitehead “conceived philosophical thought as the Shaper himself conceives of history—as fabulation—and who has succeeded in making converge what should have diverged.”[26] Whitehead creates concepts as the Shaper sings his heroic tales: “Whitehead fabricates, composes, constructs—deliberately, technically, artificially—a universe whose facticity and fictional character cannot be denounced, because they are obvious.”[27] The only character in Grendel who can denounce the Shaper is the dragon. He says, “That’s where the Shaper saves them. Provides an illusion of reality—puts together all their facts with a gluey whine of connectedness. Mere tripe, believe me.”[28] The dragon can make such assured insults because he is granted a greater perspective on all existence; yet he too is limited, for he cannot see his own nature, a topic to which we will return.

Grendel is born into the body of a monster, cursed to be misunderstood in his actions at first sight. Thus he truly becomes a monster, choosing to murder viciously and devour crudely, only after this definition has been projected by others upon him. He sees himself as lack ever since he experienced the world as “not-my-mother,” a lack which awaits definition in relationship to others. But his grotesque physical form can only offer him one relationship. Eavesdropping at Hrothgar’s hall, Grendel hears the Shaper tell of the world’s creation by the greatest of gods, followed by a tale of two brothers: one killed the other, splitting the world into dark and light, and God cursed the murderer. As he listens Grendel realizes he is one of the accursed, doomed to darkness. Throughout Beowulf Grendel is often referred to as of Cain’s descent, an indication of the strange mix of early Christianity and northern mythologies that ignited the poet’s imagination.

þanon woc fela 
geosceaft-gasta;     wæs þæra Grendel sum, 
heoro-wearh hetelic.

And from Cain there sprang,
misbegotten spirits, among them Grendel,
the banished and accursed.[29]

Grendel is enchanted by the Shaper’s words. He believes his tales, even as he wishes for them to be untrue. In a fit of religious conversion Grendel rushes down to Heorot calling “Mercy! Peace!”[30] His presence incites fear in Hrothgar’s thanes and they attack the crying beast they believe to be threatening them. Grendel flees. He is saddled with Cain’s guilt before ever committing Cain’s crime. It is this burden that draws him to the dragon.

Premonitions of the dragon’s presence resound throughout the chapters of Grendel that lead up to the dragon’s introduction; whispers of “something deeper, an impression from another mind, some live thing old and terrible.”[31] Grendel begins to sense the dragon more and more as he sinks further into his own darkness and cravings for violence. “I could feel it all around me,” Grendel recalls, “that invisible presence, chilly as the first intimation of death, the dusty unblinking eyes of a thousand snakes.”[32] Grendel’s prehensions of the dragon seem to shift from non-being ever more toward being until finally he stands within the dragon’s presence. Yet it is never made clear if he ever encounters the dragon in the flesh, or whether the dragon always remains a conceptual prehension. Grendel sits in silence feeling an unknown presence. Then, he says, “I made my mind a blank and fell, sank away like a stone through earth and sea, toward the dragon.”[33]

“I know everything, you see,” the old voice wheedled. “The beginning, the present, the end. Everything. You now, you see the past and the present, like other low creatures: no higher faculties than memory and perception.” He stretched his mouth in a kind of smile, no trace of pleasure in it. But dragons, my boy, have a whole different kind of mind. “We see from the mountaintop: all time, all space. We see in one instant the passionate vision and the blowout. Not that we cause things to fail, you understand…. Dragons don’t mess with your piddling free will.”[34]

“Dragons, real dragons,” Tolkien writes, “are actually rare.”[35] The presence of the dragon in both Grendel and Beowulf is “richer in significance than his barrow is in gold.”[36] Gardner’s dragon hurls philosophy at Grendel with the ferocity of his fiery breath, and Grendel leaves more than a little singed by perplexity. The dragon’s mountaintop view of the universe—all time, all space in one instant—is a view, at least in Whitehead’s cosmology, only God can have. Like Whitehead’s God, the dragon can only know the universe, not alter its outcome. Whitehead’s God can know all the possibilities of the future, but it is the actual occasions themselves that determine the outcome. Creativity thus reigns supreme. “My knowledge of the future does not cause the future,” the dragon says. “It merely sees it, exactly as creatures at your low level recall things past.”[37]

Whitehead’s God, like the dragon, is a creature himself, a creation of ultimate creativity, just as the dragon is a creation of the creative imagination, “incarnate in time, walking in heroic history, and treading the named lands of the North.”[38] There are interesting parallels here with the gods of Norse mythology that was a deep wellspring of inspiration for the Beowulf poet. “In Norse, at any rate, the gods are within Time, doomed with their allies to death.”[39] Gardner’s dragon, like the Norse gods, knows he will eventually die. “A certain man will absurdly kill me.”[40] The man he refers to is, of course, Beowulf, although his name is never once mentioned in the entirety of Grendel. “A terrible pity—loss of a remarkable form of life. Conservationists will howl,”[41] he says with bitter irony. Perhaps it is here that fiction and philosophy diverge, for no such fate seems to await Whitehead’s God, unless we take a deep plunge into Nietzschean post-modern despair.

The dragon and God’s apparent omniscience brings to light the question of fate within Beowulf and Grendel’s stories. God can see all possibilities but not determine the outcome; the dragon seems to be able to see a single outcome but not have the ability to alter it—even his own actions always unfold according to what he has seen. If the dragon is indeed God he seems not to be aware of it, making him unconscious of his full omniscience. Fate certainly plays a prominent role within Beowulf, as we hear of how “one man lay down to his rest, already marked for death;”[42] that “doom abided”[43] in the high, golden gables of Heorot that someday they would burn; or finally, that Beowulf’s “fate hovered near, unknowable but certain”[44] as he went to face the dragon and his own demise.

Sceolde læn-daga 
æþeling ær-god     ende gebidan, 
worulde lifes,     ond se wyrm somod, 
þeah ðe hord-welan     heolde lange. 

After many trials,
he was destined to face the end of his days
in this mortal world; as was the dragon,
for all his long leasehold on the treasure.[45]

The role of fate in Beowulf is a clear sign of what has shifted in our philosophies since the Middle Ages, and what differentiates the Anglo-Saxon poem from Grendel. We have, in many ways, been released from a world in which “the Lord was weaving a victory on His war-loom”[46] into one where God can behold each possible string of the warp and weft but it is up to the tapestry to move the shuttle.

Gardner’s dragon explodes in a tirade against humanity’s inability to create a comprehensive philosophy when it becomes clear his words are not having the desired effect upon Grendel.

“Man” …He snorted fire. “They only think they think. No total vision, total system, merely schemes with a vague family resemblance, no more identity than bridges and, say, spiderwebs. But they rush across chasms on spiderwebs, and sometimes they make it, and that, they think, settles that!”[47]

In the “leap of imagination”[48] it takes to create truly new concepts sometimes one must run forth blindly, balanced on a spider’s thread over a bottomless chasm mired in fog. No images on which to grasp hold. Such is the adventure Stengers embarks on when she undertakes to “think with Whitehead.” In her introduction she warns:

It is a strange tongue that will gradually be elaborated here, a language that challenges all clear distinctions between description and tale-spinning, and induces a singular experience of disorientation in the heart of the most familiar experiences.[49]

Yet the work Whitehead, Stengers, and other process philosophers have taken on is to move away from what the dragon derides: “Simple facts in isolation, and facts to connect—ands and buts—are the sine qua non of all their glorious achievement.”[50] He goes on, succinctly summarizing Whitehead’s project in two simple sentences: “But there are no such facts. Connectedness is the essence of everything.”[51]

Connectedness is the essence of everything. Grendel experienced just this as he searched the landscape of “not-my-mother” and instead encountered the universe rushing in at him with organic attention. But it is more than he can handle. It is more than most mortal beings can handle. The dragon knows this when he says, using direct quotes from Whitehead’s Modes of Thought,

Listen. Listen closely! An angry man does not usually shake his fist at the universe in general. He makes a selection and knocks his neighbor down. A piece of rock, on the other hand, impartially attracts the universe according to the law of gravitation. You grant there’s a difference?[52]

This form of selection is how we handle prehension without being overwhelmed as Grendel was when his ability for negative prehension dissipated. Furthermore, it is the method Grendel chooses from then on so that he can maintain the isolated boundaries of his mechanistic, meaningless world view. He chooses to direct his anger at the universe by brutally murdering and devouring the men of Hrothgar’s kingdom.

Connectedness is the essence of everything. As prehension is defined by Whitehead, nothing has any independent existence. All things “are only entities as within the totality; you cannot extract them from their environment without destruction of their very essence.”[53] If this is the case, by their very existence Grendel needs the humans to be who he is, and the humans need him. But they also are defined by the actions and existence of all the past; Grendel carries Cain’s guilt and the humans can only define him as such. “This unity of a prehension,” writes Whitehead, “defines itself as a here and now, and the things so gathered into the grasped unity have essential reference to other places and other times.”[54] The other places and times in which creatures like Grendel have acted violently toward human beings now weighs on Grendel’s own life, as the dragon mercilessly points out to him.

“Ah Grendel!” he said. He seemed that instant almost to rise to pity. “You improve them, my boy! Can’t you see that yourself? …You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves.”[55]

The unity of prehension seems to have two important effects in this case. In some strange way the deep interconnectedness of everything begins to bear the weight of fate. Grendel cannot escape who he is meant to be in relation to all others. But prehension holds another effect: if the monster is not monstrous without humans, and humans are not human without the monster, their essence is not only defined against the other but as the other. Thus to reject the monster is also to be the monster. There is a monster inside each of us.

Whether or not we wish to interpret the dragon or the Shaper as aspects of Whitehead’s God, we are given a much more direct glimpse of his God in Grendel’s encounter with the old priest Ork. In Beowulf the God of Christian monotheism is unknown to the Danes, although he does seem to be known to Beowulf, who is a Geat, a foreigner.

Metod hie ne cuþon, 
dæda Demend,     ne wiston hie Drihten God, 
ne hie huru heofena Helm     herian ne cuþon, 
wuldres Waldend.

The Almighty Judge
of good deeds and bad, the Lord God,
Head of the Heavens and High King of the World,
was unknown to them.[56]

The God we meet in Ork’s spiritual revelation is, as Stengers points out, first God as principle of limitation from Science and the Modern World, followed by the God of infinite patience in Process and Reality.[57] “The King of the Gods is not concrete, but He is the ground for concrete actuality,”[58] Ork whispers in a trembling fit. “He is the eternal urge of desire establishing the purposes of all creatures. He is an infinite patience, a tender care that nothing in the universe be vain.”[59] Grendel watches in wonder as the priest sobs in the snow, overcome by his vision, by his realization of the nature of God. Whitehead writes, “The power of God is the worship He inspires.”[60] The worship to which Ork is inspired baffles Grendel because he has never encountered a being worthy of such worship. The dragon inspired terror, anger; the Shaper inspired enchantment, confusion, but neither inspired worship. The dragon and the Shaper do not hold the power that the priest, and before him Whitehead, feels emanating from the King of Gods.

“The ultimate evil is that Time is perpetual perishing, and being actual involves elimination,”[61] Ork cries forth. The encounter with death is a strong theme that courses through Beowulf, and subsequently Grendel.

Ure æghwylc sceal     ende gebidan 
worolde lifes;     wyrce se þe mote 
domes ær deaþe.

For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
win glory before death.[62]

Tolkien describes poignantly the experiences of heroes as they live their lives fighting the long defeat against darkness: “…as in a little circle of light about their halls, men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat.”[63] Perpetual perishing may indeed be the ultimate evil, but it is inevitable. In that inevitability, perhaps, is where the beauty and meaning lies. Every actual occasion, in its process of concrescence, becomes in relation to all other actual occasions. So too the hero becomes a hero in relationship to all the surrounding darkness. When concrescence is complete the actual occasion perishes into objective immortality, and thus participates in the concrescence of all other actual occasions. In his final defeat the hero too perishes, but he also perishes into immortality, the immortality born by the glory he has won. Thus God takes care that nothing in the universe is done in vain.

But what, then, of Grendel? He does not seek to win glory, to attain any form of immortality. What can be the meaning of the actions of one who still sees no meaning in the universe in which he lives? His entire journey has not changed him—he was born into the post-modern, encountered the enchanted pagan-Christianity of the Shaper, the undetermined fatalism of the dragon, the painful onslaught of interconnection between himself and all that was not-his-mother—yet by story’s end he is unchanged, a psychopath to experience. In his fatal encounter with Beowulf he recognizes the dragon within Beowulf, sees flames slip from the corners of his mouth, fiery wings ignite behind him. The words of the dragon are whispering through Beowulf, whether in reality or in Grendel’s hallucinating imagination it matters not, for they are all one: Beowulf, the dragon, Grendel. Each is not without the others.

Yet as Grendel escapes Beowulf’s grasp, leaving his arm and life force behind him, he reverts to his sense of meaningless once again, for the final time. He knows he has encountered another world view, the Whiteheadian philosopher embodied in Beowulf as well, and believes he understands him. “Understand his lunatic theory of matter and mind, the chilly intellect, the hot imagination, blocks and builder, reality as stress.”[64] Yet he defines himself to the last in opposition to this.

“It was an accident,” I bellow back. I will cling to what is true. “Blind, mindless, mechanical. Mere logic of chance.”[65]

He cannot change. He does not evolve through any process. This is not why he must die; death is the inevitable, the meaningful, the beautiful. He cannot change. That is what makes him a monster. And the potential to be that monster resides in each of us.

“Poor Grendel’s had an accident,” I whisper. “So may you all.”[66]

 

Bibliography

Gardner, John. Grendel. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1989.

Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Stengers, Isabelle. Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts. Translated by Michael Chase. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View. New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group. 1991.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Monsters and the Critics. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. London, England: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.

–––––. The Tolkien Reader. New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group. 1966.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1985.

–––––. Science and the Modern World. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1967.


[1] John Gardner, Grendel (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1989), 159.

[2] Gardner, Grendel, 74.

[3] Ibid, 29.

[4] Ibid, 69.

[5] John J. McDermott, qtd. in Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group, 1991), 417.

[6] Gardner, Grendel, 9.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Blaise Pascal, in Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 420.

[9] Gardner, Grendel, 11.

[10] Richard Tarnas, “A Brief History of Western Thought,” course taught at the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, CA, October 5, 2012.

[11] Gardner, Grendel, 19.

[12] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1967), 71.

[13] Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 163.

[14] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1985), 41.

[15] Gardner, Grendel, 28.

[16] Gardner, Grendel, 29.

[17] Seamus Heaney, trans., Beowulf (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000), 2.

[18] Gardner, Grendel, 41.

[19] Gardner, Grendel, 43.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London, England: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006), 7.

[23] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 68.

[24] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 346.

[25] Gardner, Grendel, 49.

[26] Isabelle Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 503-504.

[27] Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 506.

[28] Gardner, Grendel, 65.

[29] Heaney, trans., Beowulf, 88-89.

[30] Gardner, Grendel, 51.

[31] Ibid, 48.

[32] Ibid, 50.

[33] Gardner, Grendel, 56.

[34] Gardner, Grendel, 62-63.

[35] Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, 12.

[36] Ibid, 16.

[37] Gardner, Grendel, 63.

[38] Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, 17.

[39] Ibid, 25.

[40] Gardner, Grendel, 70.

[41] Gardner, Grendel, 70.

[42] Heaney, trans., Beowulf, 87.

[43] Ibid, 7.

[44] Ibid, 165.

[45] Heaney, trans., Beowulf, 158-159.

[46] Ibid, 47.

[47] Gardner, Grendel, 64.

[48] Whitehead, Process and Reality, 4.

[49] Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 3.

[50] Gardner, Grendel, 64.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Gardner, Grendel, 69.

[53] Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 65.

[54] Ibid, 69.

[55] Gardner, Grendel, 72-73.

[56] Heaney, trans., Beowulf, 14-15.

[57] Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 3.

[58] Gardner, Grendel, 131.

[59] Ibid, 132.

[60] Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 192.

[61] Gardner, Grendel, 132.

[62] Heaney, trans., Beowulf, 96-97.

[63] Tolkien, The Monsters and the Critics, 18.

[64] Gardner, Grendel, 172.

[65] Ibid, 173.

[66] Ibid, 174.

The Diamond Vision Gallery

This series of four paintings is a visual response to the content of Chris Bache’s course The Birth of the Diamond Soul, offering different images of the reincarnating soul both inside and outside the influence of time and space, as well as an homage to the devastation of the ecological crisis and how it may be the catalyst for the forging of the Diamond Soul.

THE OVERSOUL

The Oversoul is a term used by Bache in his book Lifecycles to describe the larger soul overseeing, but also incorporating, each incarnating human life. It is simultaneously a single entity, but also a family of entities nested within each other, and ultimately nested within the larger and larger spheres of existence. This painting is one representation of the Oversoul, pictured as a nautilus, an image Bache provided in class. The chambers of the nautilus each represent a human incarnation, yet the whole shell is the full soul. I have depicted a waiting fetus gestating within each chamber as a symbol of these lives. The life about to be born resides in the outermost chamber, with a diamond in potentia within his heart. The diamond represents the Diamond Soul being forged slowly over the course of each lifetime. A second diamond resides in the center of the nautilus representing the ultimate birth of the Diamond Soul at the end of the incarnational process.

The pantheon of planets within the nautilus and the zodiacal signs surrounding it indicate the archetypal influences on each life and upon the soul as a whole, each chamber of the nautilus having a different perspective and relationship to the signs and planets that characterize that particular life. The baby about to be born residing in the outermost chamber is within the realm of Pisces, both as a fetus in the aquatic realm of the womb, but also as a symbol of our current times since we are in the Age of Pisces.

The vision of this painting came to me nearly in complete form when I began contemplating the nautilus as a metaphor for the Oversoul. To my delight, each of the zodiacal signs took on a life of their own as I painted them, as I had not pictured their exact form before drawing them in. I was particularly surprised by the form Sagittarius took, as a horseshoe doubling as a bow with an arrow. The animals also each took on their own personality seemingly independent of my intentions for them. The real surprise came as the baby being born into the Age of Pisces, for it was pure synchronous chance that the nautilus opened into the sign of Pisces, yet it seemed to fit perfectly with the concept behind the painting.

THE DIAMOND SOUL NEBULA

In an effort to visualize the concept of the Diamond Soul, Bache introduced us to several images from the natural world that might represent parts of the Diamond Soul, ranging from blossoming flowers to nebulae. This particular nebula, the Cat’s Eye Nebula, is one that conveys the idea in an especially evocative way, with its ethereal explosion and heavenly sacrificial blooming. The core of the nebula, as can be seen in all the images captured of it, is a pure white space resembling a diamond.

I found in my attempts to paint this nebula with watercolor that portraying the light and darkness, the veiled colors of the celestial event, was much more difficult than I had previously expected and took more than one try. When one looks at a photograph of a nebula it is the qualities of the whole that are so compelling, but in painting it I had the experience of becoming intimately familiar with each part, trying to understand where the colors blend and where they do not, yet also attempting to capture the whole as well. The only adjustment I made from the image as I painted it was emphasizing the diamond at the heart, forged in the layers upon layers of light and color.

DROUGHT AND HOPE

This painting of a drought-ridden desert with a single sapling growing in it is less an image of the Diamond Soul, but rather of the birth canal humanity seems to be entering before such soul transformation is possible. The painting is a representation of the changes rapidly being wrought upon the globe by human-induced climate change, and was particularly inspired by Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. McKibben provides the data that clearly demonstrates that global warming is no longer a future threat, it is a current reality. On a personal level this understanding was reinforced by a road trip I took across the American Continent this July while creating the concepts for this gallery. From Nevada to Michigan temperatures soared above 100° F, usually averaging at 104° but sometimes even reaching 108°. Fields were dry and often barren, and many cornfields showed yellowing leaves coated in a layer of dust. Yet oil wells continued to pump in these same fields by the roadside, and every building we entered was blasting arctic temperatures of air conditioning, all fueled by coal and oil burning power plants.

In the painting a young woman is bending over an olive sapling, seemingly watering it with her tears. It is ambiguous if this is the last plant left growing in this barren desert, or if it is the first that has managed to survive. I chose the olive as this single plant because of the great lineage of symbolism connected to the olive, particularly in the Western tradition. The olive is the tree of Athens, mythically a gift from the Grecian goddess Athena who gave it to provide wood, oil, and fruit to the people of Athens. In return they named their city-state after her. Athens is the birthplace of democracy and as such the olive may also symbolize the democratic process. The olive is part of the painting to pose the question of the role of democracy, or perhaps its absence, in the onset and unfolding of the ecological crisis.

The olive is also a symbol from the Hebrew tradition, a sign of hope in the Old Testament. When Noah sends a dove from the Ark to search for signs of land, the dove returns upon the second journey with an olive branch. The olive thus is the first growing plant after a devastating environmental catastrophe, the Great Flood, and also able to emerge out of a desert, but in the biblical case it is a desert of sea water.

The woman’s body is painted in a multitude of colors to represent all races that will be affected by the ravages of climate change, yet it also has an ethereal quality to it, almost resembling the sparkling surface of a diamond, as perhaps she is approaching the stage of a Diamond Soul.

Finally, the labyrinth in the background represents the circuitous route of the human journey, of the soul’s journey, and of our pathway to learning and wisdom.

BREATHING TIME

Breathing Time was inspired by a meditative exercise presented by Bache during the Diamond Soul course in which each breath we took represented one hundred years, or approximately one human life. Eventually we brought the movement of our hands into this meditation, each expansion and contraction of the hands representing a lifetime. The energy created by this movement we slowly gathered into a sphere at our centers, then held it like a ball of light, before pressing the energy into our hearts and letting it fill our bodies. This painting is a visual representation of that meditation as I saw it during the exercise itself.

In the painting, within the arcs of energy created by the breath and the moving hands are revealed faces, each one the face of a previous life. The faces are the color of the murky, nebulaic background indicating that the air may be packed full of these faces, full of lifetimes, but only the ones that are swept over with the meditative energy are revealed in that moment. There may be an infinity of faces present, just as we likely have an infinity of lifetimes to our souls.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bache, Christopher M. Lifecycles: Reincarnation and the Web of Life. New York, NY: Paragon House, 1994.

Bache, Christopher M. Dark Night, Early Dawn: Steps to a Deep Ecology of Mind. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000.

Grof, Stanislav. Psychology of the Future: Lessons from Modern Consciousness Research. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000.

Grof, Stanislav. The Cosmic Game: Explorations of the Frontiers of Human Consciousness. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998.

McKibben, Bill. Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011.

The Fantastic Imagination: Sub-creating Tolkien’s Middle-Earth

The road toward truth is circuitous and winding, and passes through many realms. It may be that this path will lead you not outward to the world of objective facts and figures but deep inward, to a realm residing in the soul. This realm has been given innumerable names: the mundus imaginalis, the world of the imagination, Faërie, or by one seer of this Secondary World: Middle-Earth. It is a place we all have been at some point in our lives, and it takes a myriad of forms. Yet some wanderers may choose to linger on the misty, sylvan paths under Faërie’s diamond stars longer than others, revealing enchanted truths and realities hidden to those who choose to remain almost exclusively in the world of common day.

A mythology wields great power and has a desire to be told: thus it became the task of one English philologist, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, to imagine the mythic world of Middle-Earth into being. During the decades when he crafted Middle-Earth Tolkien often felt as though the mythology was not being made by him, but rather coming through him. In part to explain this experience, Tolkien described his building of Middle-Earth as a Sub-creation, an intertwined outpouring of both invention and inspiration. These ideas, and the power of the imagination to create reality, relate closely to the philosophical explorations of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his delineations of the Primary and Secondary Imaginations, their relationship to each other, and their ultimate source.

Middle-Earth

Tolkien composed a world with roots deeply grown into the rich soils of our own world; to achieve this, he employed the powers of language, cartography, history, and legend. Yet, as the willing reader steps through the page into Middle-Earth, the landscape and peoples one encounters seem to have a life of their own, as if a spark of vitality had been breathed by a Primary Creator into the realm Tolkien wove from the resources of his own genius. Whether humanity was indeed given life and form by an ultimate Creator or not, we have been endowed with the ability to create in our own right; sometimes these creations may be gifted their own life and become as real as we are, while still residing within a Secondary World accessible through the imagination that bridges to our Primary World. Why some of our creations are granted such life and others not is a mystery beyond my ability to fathom, but it could perhaps be that some are meant to have their own life and truth, an idea which Tolkien expresses in The Lord of the Rings through Gandalf, when he speaks to Frodo about Bilbo’s finding of the Ring of Power:

Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.[1]

It too may be that Tolkien was meant to bring the mythology of Middle-Earth into being through his writing, and as such it was given the authenticity and truth that so many feel when they traverse its woods and mountains, and converse with its inhabitants as they walk along their roads.

As Henry Corbin points out, the current predominant usage of “the term ‘imaginary’ is equated with the unreal, with something that is outside the framework of being and existing.”[2] Yet one may find quite the opposite: the imaginary, or the imaginal, exists in the innermost place of our souls, and thus is internal and intrinsic to the outer world we call reality. Tolkien is an avid explorer of this realm, which he sometimes calls Faërie, and seems to attest to its reality in an almost off-hand way in his essay “On Fairy Stories.”[3] Tom Shippey sees this as a sign of Tolkien talking down to his readers: “Repeatedly he plays the trick of pretending that fairies are real––they tell ‘human stories’ instead of ‘fairy stories,’ they put on plays for men ‘according to abundant records,’ and so on.”[4] While this could certainly be interpreted that way, it seems rather that Tolkien may actually be describing what he knows of Faërie, as a genuine traveler in the perilous realm. Tolkien valued viewing the world symbolically and mythically, perceiving reality as a whole through the organ of the imagination.[5] As Peter Beagle writes, “I believe that Tolkien has wandered in Middle-Earth” and that he “believes in his world, and in all those who inhabit it.”[6] For Tolkien, Beagle, and many others, Middle-Earth was not “created, for it was always there.”[7]

Tolkien’s own experience of writing was that he was “recording what was already ‘there,’ somewhere: not of ‘inventing’.”[8] He also expressed that “the thing seems to write itself once I get going, as if the truth comes out then, only imperfectly glimpsed in the preliminary sketch.”[9] This has, of course, been the experience of countless artists over the centuries in moments of high inspiration. Norris Clarke writes of these creative experiences, saying, “It felt, they say, as though they were tuned in or connected to some higher power which somehow took over and flowed through them.”[10] What this higher power may be, and how it relates to the imagination, can better be understood by contemplating Coleridge’s philosophical delineations of Primary Imagination, Secondary Imagination, and Fancy.

Other authors, such as Shippey, Verlyn Flieger, and R.J. Reilly, have observed the connection between the imagined world of Faërie, and Coleridge’s “esemplastic imagination.” Reilly describes such imagined realms as “Romantic” because they exist for their own sake, and as such have an inherent relationship or agreement with Coleridge’s Secondary Imagination.[11] Faërie is a creation of the Secondary Imagination, which in turn is an echo of the Primary Imagination, what Coleridge holds “to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.”[12] The Primary and Secondary Imaginations differ from each other only in degree and mode but not in kind, yet the Secondary is “co-existing with the conscious will” of the human being.[13] While the Primary Imagination can be understood as operating in the mind of the divine Creator, and thus bringing the world as we know it into being, the Secondary Imagination is that same imaginative power operating through the human mind. Owen Barfield, a friend of Tolkien’s and a fellow member of their literary circle “the Inklings,” explored Coleridge’s thought deeply in this area. Barfield explains that the Primary Imagination is an act that we, as human beings, are not conscious of, and when we are conscious of it as our own creative agency it becomes the Secondary Imagination.[14]

The Secondary Imagination “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate”[15] and “struggles to idealize and to unify.”[16] As an extension of the Primary Imagination responsible for creating reality, the Secondary Imagination also has the ability to create reality, but of a different degree: imaginal reality. This is, for example, why Corbin chose the term mundus imaginalis to differentiate what is just “made up” from “the object of imaginative or imagining perception.”[17] This concept indicates that the product of the Secondary Imagination has a reality of its own, because its ultimate source, like reality, is the Primary Imagination, only it is created through the agency of the human being. Tolkien uses the term “Sub-creation” to refer to the product of the Secondary Imagination, because the result is created under an ultimate Creator.

In addition to the Primary and Secondary Imaginations, Coleridge also writes of Fancy, which is “no other than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space.”[18] Barfield notes that Coleridge seems to not have explicitly segregated Fancy from Imagination, for at times he appears to write of them differing entirely in kind, and at others in degree, comparable to the distinction between Primary and Secondary Imagination.[19] The difference between the product of Fancy, compared to Imagination, could be seen as the difference between something that is just “made up” and a living imaginal world, a true mundus imaginalis.

Tolkien himself addresses the differences between Imagination and Fancy in his essay “On Fairy Stories” and although he does not refer directly to Coleridge, it is clear, as Shippey points out, that Coleridge is whom he is addressing. While Tolkien has comparable, if not identical, definitions of these terms, as a philologist he disagrees with Coleridge’s choice of names. Tolkien asserts that the image-making faculty is the Imagination, and any difference in kind marked by Coleridge between Fancy and Imagination, Tolkien feels solely belongs to a difference in degree. What gives the “inner consistency of reality”[20] to Imagination, the same reality the product of Coleridge’s Imagination has, Tolkien calls Art. Art conjoins with Imagination to create the final result, Sub-creation. The word Tolkien chooses to fully encompass Imagination and the resulting Sub-creative Art, perhaps out of philological jest with Coleridge, is Fantasy, an older form of the diminished word Fancy.[21] Tolkien acknowledged that “fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds,”[22] is difficult to achieve: in order to be true Fantasy it must have an inner consistency of reality flowing through the sub-creator’s imagination and into the Secondary World.

A successful sub-creator brings into being a world which both the spectator and designer may enter, a world that has its own laws by which it operates. As long as every facet of the imaginal realm follows these laws, the inner reality of the world remains intact and the world is true.[23] Because of this, for Tolkien, it is essential that all stories about such Secondary Worlds are presented as truth––not as a dream, or some other unreal whimsical creation.[24] For Coleridge, the richness of art is dependent on the unity provided by the Secondary Imagination: it will be “rich in proportion to the variety of parts which it holds in unity.”[25] The unity of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is held together because each landscape, creature, and name has a consistency that he has forged into the very structure of his world. Furthermore, when the imaginal world is consistent with itself it creates for the reader what Tolkien calls Secondary Belief, or Enchantment.[26] Thus it is as enchanted humans that we walk the glades and forests of Middle-Earth.

What ultimately gives reality to Secondary Art is that it is consistent not only with itself, but also with what Tolkien and Shippey refer to as Primary Art.[27] If the source of Secondary Art is the human imagination, the source of Primary Art is the divine Imagination, or what Coleridge calls the Primary Imagination. For Tolkien, Primary Art is synonymous with Creation, or Truth.[28] For a sub-created Secondary World, or Fantasy, to be true it then must echo the Primary World, as Colin Duriez writes, capturing in its “imaginative accuracy […] some of the depths and splendor of the Primary World.”[29] Fantasy is crafted out of the Primary World, just as the painter or sculptor’s materials are drawn from nature.[30] But in the Fantasy realm we are able to see these primary ingredients in a new way, once again marveling at the wonders of our own world.[31] Tolkien shows the overlap between our own world and Faërie when he writes,

Faërie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.[32] (Emphasis added.)

Faërie could then be seen as the real cosmos but without the human, or rather, without the disenchanted human. After all, as Beagle remarks, the same forces that shape our own lives shape the lives of those in Middle-Earth: “history, chance and desire,”[33] and so forth. When we lead our lives in response to these forces, whether or not we find ourselves in Faërie depends on our level of enchantment, or our Secondary Belief.

Tolkien’s initial desire behind his decades of imaginative effort was to create a mythology for England, which he felt lacked a myth comparable to the great Norse and Greek traditions.[34] England did have the Arthurian legends, but these he felt did not suffice, in part because they contained Christianity, and in part because they were not rooted in the ancient languages of England. Tolkien’s objection to religion in myth is based on his sense that the contours of religious doctrine should only exist implicitly within Fantasy, sunk deep into the morality and actions of the characters. He writes of the Arthurian myth that

it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion. For reasons which I will not elaborate, that seems to me fatal. Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world.[35]

Like the religious element, language also plays a foundational role in the development of Middle-Earth, rooted deeply into the world’s symbolism and structures.  To forge a world like Middle-Earth, and bring it to the level of a mythology, Tolkien drew simultaneously on invention and inspiration, which seem to be the two major ingredients of Sub-creation. Through invention he built up the world of Middle-Earth from the myths, legends, and languages of Europe. As Patrick Curry writes, Middle-Earth “was a co-creation, in partnership with some very old and durable cultural materials.”[36] Yet it was inspiration that breathed life into the world Tolkien had constructed, giving it its unique characteristics and a vitality of its own.

In some ways invention can be seen as related to Coleridge’s notion of Fancy, and inspiration to the Imagination. Fancy is memory disconnected from time and space, and can only draw on what has been experienced.[37] “Fancy is the aggregating power,” as Barfield writes, “it combines and aggregates given units of already conscious experience; whereas the secondary imagination ‘modifies’ the units themselves.”[38] On the other hand, inspiration, like Imagination, almost seems to have a divine source that pours through the sub-creator and imbues the creation with life and individuality. An example of the difference between Fancy and Imagination, invention and inspiration, can be seen in the race of Ents in Middle-Earth. As invented by Fancy, an Ent is just a talking tree, a rearrangement of the idea “tree” by giving it the human property of “speech.” The word “Ent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word enta uncovered by Tolkien in his philological research.[39] At this stage Ents are perhaps an interesting etymological find, something to peak one’s curiosity, but as of yet certainly not a living being. But through the power of imaginative inspiration, the invented concept of Ent suddenly comes alive as the bark-skinned Treebeard, also named Fangorn, the oldest living being to walk under the sun. It is truly an enchanted transformation. Ents are bestowed life and step forth as a race of creatures, tree-herders, shepherds of the forests, with a long tragic history of their own, speaking in a slow, rhythmic language of names compiled over the Ages of the World.

Fancy, without the influence of Imagination, also has ties to another form of artistic creation, one which Tolkien said he “cordially dislike[d] […] in all its manifestations”: allegory.[40] By having a prescribed intention––whether a moral, lesson, or message––or by telling an old story in the same configuration but with new names, allegory undermines the freedom of the reader to experience a story as an entity in itself, a self-contained reality. Allegory, by its very nature, undermines truth. Corbin draws out the difference between allegory and genuine Image when he writes, “Allegory […] is a cover, or rather a travesty of something that is already known or at least knowable in some other way; whereas, the appearance of an Image that can be qualified as a symbol is a primordial phenomenon.”[41] Great imaginative works cannot be reduced simply to a moral message or lesson, they have a life of their own, an inherent autonomy beyond the will of the author.[42]

Despite his dislike of allegory, Tolkien did write at least one in his career, but it served the purpose of encouraging him to continue his work on The Lord of the Rings, and offered an image of his hope for the world of Middle-Earth. This was the little tale Leaf by Niggle. Niggle is a painter, who can be equated with Tolkien the writer, who spends his life working on a detailed painting of a tree.

It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew, sending out innumerable branches, and thrusting out the most fantastic roots. Strange birds came and settled on the twigs and had to be attended to. Then all round the Tree, and behind it, through the gaps in the leaves and boughs, a country began to open out; and there were glimpses of a forest marching over the land, and of mountains tipped with snow.[43]

Shippey sees in the allegory that the Leaf is Tolkien’s first book The Hobbit, his Tree The Lord of the Rings, and the landscape behind as all the other stories that make up The Silmarillion and fill in the vastness of Middle-Earth.[44] However, the most remarkable part of the story is when it seems to leave the realm of allegory altogether. Niggle goes on a great journey, which is synonymous with death, and after some time in a hospitalized form of purgatory, he is sent to an oddly familiar country which he suddenly recognizes:

Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. […] All the leaves he had ever laboured at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were many others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had time.[45]

By stepping into an enchanted realm, Niggle’s work becomes real, the invented becomes the imagined, and he can stand in the shade of his own Tree. The Tree, whether an allegory for The Lord of the Rings, or for fairy story in general, is aptly chosen: the philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes of the tree as a symbol of the imagination, an imagination with the gift to create worlds.

The imagination is a tree. It has the integrative virtues of a tree. It is root and boughs. It lives between earth and sky. It lives in the earth and in the wind. The imagined tree becomes imperceptibly the cosmological tree, the tree which epitomizes the universe, which makes a universe…[46]

Trees not only have high branches but also long roots, and the roots of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth run deep, drawing nourishment from the soil of our own Primary World.

Like most cultural myths, Middle-Earth is rooted in language, but unlike the ancient cultures in which stories and languages evolved simultaneously, Middle-Earth is a philological re-creation, a laying of stonework far older than the hands that built it.[47] Tolkien was as well-equipped as any builder to undertake the task: as a philologist who taught at Oxford and Leeds, he knew twenty languages to varying degrees, and during his lifetime invented another fourteen as well as a variety of scripts.[48] He reconstructed words and names from almost forgotten linguistic origins, drawing on fragments of words from poems and texts that had once formed legends.[49] Tolkien writes in one letter of his Middle-Earth myths:

These tales are “new,” they are not directly derived from other myths and legends, but they must inevitably contain a large measure of ancient wide-spread motives or elements. After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of “truth.”[50]

For Tolkien reconstruction was the work of invention, but as he would have known, the root of the word “invention” comes from the Latin invenire, meaning “to find.”[51] So for him invention certainly was not “making up,” but rather “discovering,” an experience he mentioned many times when reflecting on writing the mythology of Middle-Earth. He was not only discovering the different names and languages in the Primary World and reconfiguring them: he seemed also to be discovering Middle-Earth itself, a complete world existing already in the Primary Imagination, coming into form through Tolkien’s own Secondary Imagination.

In approaching The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien began with the map, which gave a solid foundation for the world before he and his characters embarked on their adventures. As in the Primary World, the names of places on the map were crafted out of descriptions of the places; these, in turn, were then worn down into names used in other languages, but no longer holding a meaning beyond the given places.[52] Whether called Tookland, Nobottle, Wetwang, Dunharrow, Gladden, Silverlode, or Limlight each place has its history within and outside of Middle-Earth.[53]

The name Middle-Earth itself, related to the Norse Midgard, actually came to Tolkien through an Old English poem called Crist by the Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf. Two lines particularly caught Tolkien’s eye:

Eala Earendel engla beorhtast
offer middangeard monnum sended.

Hail Earendel, brightest of angels
Above Middle-earth sent unto men.[54]

Not only was the name Middle-Earth present as middangeard, but the name Earendel stood out to Tolkien as well, a name which became Eärendil in The Silmarillion; Eärendil was the father of Elrond, bearer of the last Silmaril, the evening star most beloved by the Elves.

Tolkien’s Elves and Dwarves are drawn from the legends and myths of immemorable age that pervade cultures across Europe.[55] Tolkien drew on many aspects of the lore of Elves and Dwarves, presenting both the peril and beauty of the Elves, the longevity and gold-mongering of the Dwarves.[56] His emphasis on spelling “Elves” and “Dwarves” in the ancient manner, as opposed to “elfs” and “dwarfs,” further deepened their roots in history.[57] His invented languages were also based on the languages of Europe; the two Elvish tongues were his most developed vocabulary, with the more common Sindarin Elvish rooted in Welsh, and the High Elvish Quenya drawing on Finnish structures.

Because Middle-Earth was to be a mythology for England, Tolkien drew deeply from the waters of the Anglo-Saxon well: the Rohirrim were based in part on Anglo-Saxons, and the name Eorl is from a line of Old English poetry; other names such as Eomer and Eowyn, as well as the term eored for a troop of horses, all stem from the word eoh meaning “horse.”[58] Tolkien even embedded linguistic changes in the history of Middle-Earth itself. For example, before Eorl the Young brought the Rohirrim from the North to inhabit the Gondorian plains of Rohan, the names of Rohirric leaders had Gothic origins: Vidugavia, Vidumavi, Marhwini.[59] Only after they enter into allegiance with Gondor do the Rohirrim take on Anglo-Saxon names. Both the words “Ent” and “Woses” appeared in Old English poetry, and in Middle-Earth the Rohirrim are appropriately situated between the Entish woods of Fangorn, and the Druadan Forest in which the Woses dwell to the South.[60]

Tolkien’s perfectionism touched every word he wrote in The Lord of the Rings, and he even attended to such details as the direction of the blowing wind and the cycling phases of the moon. He wanted his readers to feel as though they had stepped into history.[61] All of his attention to the distinctions of locality, as Curry describes,

contributes greatly to the uncanny feeling, shared by many of his readers, of actually having been there, and knowing it from the inside, rather than simply having read about it––the sensation, as one put it, of “actually walking, running, fighting and breathing in Middle-Earth.”[62]

Beagle captures beautifully the interwoven intricacy of Middle-Earth, the miniscule details discovered to invent it, and the natural reality they express when fused together as a unified whole: “The structure of Tolkien’s world is as dizzyingly complex and as natural as a snowflake or a spiderweb.”[63] Inspiration unifies the invented parts into an organic whole, thereby animating them. Tolkien writes in one letter, “I have long ceased to invent. […] I wait till I seem to know what really happened. Or till it writes itself.”[64] In another letter, this one to W.H. Auden, Tolkien writes,

I daresay something had been going on in the “unconscious” for some time, and that accounts for my feeling throughout, especially when stuck, that I was not inventing but reporting (imperfectly) and had at times to wait till “what really happened” came through.[65]

As Shippey observed, Tolkien seemed to labor at invention until he reached a moment when he could go no further. Somehow, in that moment inspiration would take over and life would fill the creation he had built; he would then be led into the adventure with just as much bewilderment as his literary companions.[66] It was, as Tolkien calls it, the “fusion-point of imagination,”[67] where invention and inspiration meet and something new is born.

The race of people that set Middle-Earth apart most from all other manifestations of Faërie were not invented from European legends. They seemed to have arrived fully formed, already inhabiting their little Northwestern corner of Tolkien’s world. These were the Hobbits. As Tolkien writes on several occasions, the origin of Hobbits is unknown, even to themselves.[68] In the now well-known pivotal moment, Tolkien was grading exams one summer’s day when he unexpectedly wrote on a blank sheet: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”[69] As Shippey notes, Hobbits are “pure inspiration” [70] without a trace of invention to them. Tolkien of course quickly gave them philological roots, connecting “Hobbit” to the Old English word hol-bytla, meaning “hole-dweller.”[71] He went further, setting the Hobbits in an English style of life, seemingly far more modern than the rest of Middle-Earth extending beyond the Shire. Even the names of the Hobbits have echoes of English culture; for example, the name Baggins echoes the English word “baggins” meaning afternoon tea, or any food eaten in between meals, of which Hobbits are rather fond.[72] “The implication,” writes Shippey, “is that the inspiration was a memory of something that could in reality have existed.”[73]

Hobbits, in many ways, are more human than the Men in Middle-Earth, and offer us modern readers a window into their world. They provided the link for Tolkien to connect the Elvish mythologies recorded in The Silmarillion to the world presented in The Hobbit; the result was, of course, The Lord of the Rings. Hobbits put “earth under the feet of ‘romance,’”[74] and as readers we are invited to walk with them.

While Fantasy, as Sub-created Art, can be expressed through many art forms, Tolkien felt Fantasy was “best left to words, to true literature.”[75] Literature allows the imagination to flourish at every level, from the author writing it, to each individual reader imagining what the author presents in her or his own unique way. Tolkien writes, “every hearer of the words will have his own picture, and it will be made out of all the hills and rivers and dales he has ever seen, but especially out of The Hill, The River, The Valley which were for him the first embodiment of the word.”[76] It is as though author and reader alike are drawing on an archetypal realm of the imagination, and each of the images they produce of this world adds another layer of dimensionality, bringing it further into reality. As Reilly writes, “Literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive.”[77]

When the imagination of the reader participates in the Secondary World, the reader then becomes part of that world as well. Beagle writes on his experience of reading The Lord of the Rings, “Something of ourselves has gone into reading it, and so it belongs to us.”[78] He goes on to say the book “will bear the mind’s handling, and it is a book that acquires an individual patina in each mind that takes it up, like a much-caressed pocket stone or piece of wood.[79] The meaning of the work, as Reilly says, resides between the “art work and the perceiving subject”[80] and ultimately lies in the “freedom of the reader.”[81]As readers we also become sub-creators of the Secondary World, as our own imaginations pour forth into our experience of it.

As Duriez expresses, and as a Roman Catholic Tolkien surely believed, our human ability to be sub-creators derives from our being made in God’s image.[82] Tolkien confirms his belief in this when he writes in “On Fairy Stories,” “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made, and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”[83] Sub-creation is the imagining of God’s world after God[84] but, as Clarke writes, expanding the “limited boundaries of the real world in which we presently live by creating something really new, never experienced by humans before,”[85] and thus enhancing human life. Indeed, Tolkien writes that “liberation ‘from the channels the creator is known to have used already’ is the fundamental function of ‘sub-creation,’ a tribute to the infinity of His potential variety.”[86] For Tolkien, God was, in a way, creating Middle-Earth through him, which may be why he felt like he was discovering a world already in existence.

In one of the last years of Tolkien’s life he received a letter from a man, which he describes as follows: This man

[…] classified himself as ‘an unbeliever, or at best a man of belatedly and dimly dawning religious feeling […] but you [Tolkien],’ he said, ‘create a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp.’ I [Tolkien] can only answer: ‘Of his own sanity no man can securely judge. If sanctity inhabits his work or as a pervading light illumines it then it does not come from him but through him. And […] you would [not] perceive it in these terms unless it was with you also.[87]

Beagle too was perceiving something of this quality of Tolkien’s work when he wrote about the music that “springs from the center of this world.”[88] Tolkien’s living imagination, flowing from what Coleridge called the Primary Imagination, sprang up alive in the heart of Middle-Earth. It was almost as though the story were asking to be written. For example, Tolkien had a recurrent dream of “the Great Wave, towering up, and coming in ineluctably over the trees and green fields.”[89] He eventually wrote this dream into Middle-Earth, giving it as a dream to Faramir, but also capturing it more fully in the “Downfall of Númenor” in The Silmarillion. Interestingly, once he did write it, the dream ceased recurring. It was as though the dream, possibly coming from the Primary Imagination, needed to become a reality, and once revealed through Tolkien it could rest.

In the lecture Tolkien gave which eventually became the essay “On Fairy Stories,” he expressed his wish that one day the mythology of Middle-Earth would be discovered to be “true,”[90] as he felt the possibility that all myths might be in some realm other than our own.[91] Indeed, it was because of the link Tolkien saw between human creativity and divine making, that he felt “all tales may come true.”[92] Many critics have accused Tolkien’s stories of being escapist, and not having a clear message for the modern world, but as Curry points out, “It offers not an ‘escape’ from our world, this world, but hope for its future.”[93] So indeed maybe all myths may come true, and Middle-Earth will be a reality, in another realm not of space, but of time, possibly a time in our distant future.

At last perhaps we can return to Tolkien’s little allegory, “Leaf by Niggle,” to better understand what he meant. Niggle is joined in the country he painted by his neighbor Parish, who never much appreciated his painting when they had been alive together. Yet when he realizes that it was Niggle who dreamt up the country they are now in he remarks:

“But it did not look like this then, not real,” said Parish.

“No, it was only a glimpse then,” said the man; “but you might have caught the glimpse, if you had ever thought it worth while to try.”[94]

Whenever Tolkien uses the word “glimpse” he frequently seems to be referring to the gleam of truth that shines through Fantasy, whether it is in Niggle’s story, in the preliminary sketches of his plots, or in his definition of Fantasy as “the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds.”[95] Tolkien believed that “there is no higher function for man than the ‘sub-creation’ of a Secondary World”[96] because, as Shippey writes, “it might be mankind’s one chance to create a vision of Paradise which would be true in the future if never in the past.”[97] For Tolkien, the human imagination had the power to create a new Paradise, because he saw the Secondary Imagination as an echo of God’s Imagination, and as it worked through him he felt he was ultimately doing the creative work of God.

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Curry, Patrick. Defending Middle-Earth. Edinburgh, Scotland: Floris Books, 1997.
 
Duriez, Colin. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship. Mahwah, NJ: Hidden Spring, 2003.
 
Flieger, Verlyn. Splintered Light: Logos and Languages in Tolkien’s World. Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2002.
 
Noel, Ruth S. The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974.
 
Reilly, R.J. Romantic Religion: A Study of Barfield, Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1971.
 
Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.
 
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.
 
–––––. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter, with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.
 
–––––. The Lord of the Rings. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994. 
 
–––––. The Silmarillion. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.
 
–––––. The Tolkien Reader. New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 54-55.

[2] Henry Corbin, “Mundus Imaginalis, or The Imaginary and the Imaginal,” trans. Ruth Horine, En Islam Iranien: Aspects Spirituels et Philosophiques, tome IV, livre 7 (Paris, France: Gallimard, 1971), 1.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 33.

[4] Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003), 49.

[5] Colin Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship (Mahwah, NJ: Hidden Spring, 2003), 178.

[6] Peter Beagle, “Tolkien’s Magic Ring,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), xvi.

[7] Ibid, ix.

[8] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter, with Christopher Tolkien (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 145.

[9] Tolkien, Letters, 104.

[10] Norris Clarke, “The Creative Imagination: Unique Expression of Our Soul-Body Unity,” in The Creative Retrieval of St. Thomas Aquinas (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2009), 203.

[11] R.J. Reilly, Romantic Religion: A Study of Barfield, Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1971), 8.

[12] S.T.Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (London, England: J.M. Dent & Co., 1906), 159.

[13] Ibid, 159.

[14] Owen Barfield, What Coleridge Thought (San Rafael, CA: The Barfield Press, 1971), 77.

[15] Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 159.

[16] Ibid, 160.

[17] Corbin, “Mundus Imaginalis,” 10.

[18] Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 160.

[19] Barfield, What Coleridge Thought, 82.

[20] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader, 68.

[21] Ibid, 68.

[22] Ibid, 64

[23] Ibid, 60.

[24] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 41-42.

[25] Coleridge, qtd. in Barfield, What Coleridge Thought, 81.

[26] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 73.

[27] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 93.

[28] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 89.

[29] Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, 176.

[30] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 78.

[31] Ibid, 77.

[32] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 38.

[33] Beagle, Tolkien’s Magic Ring, x.

[34] Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 97.

[35] Tolkien, Letters, 144.

[36] Patrick Curry, Defending Middle-Earth (Edinburgh, Scotland: Floris Books, 1997), 134.

[37] Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 160.

[38] Barfield, What Coleridge Thought, 86.

[39] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 131.

[40] Tolkien, Foreword to The Lord of the Rings, xv.

[41] Corbin, “Mundus Imaginalis,” 10-11.

[42] Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, 186.

[43] Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 101.

[44] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 43.

[45] Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle,” 113.

[46] Gaston Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie (Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc, 2005), 85.

[47] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 57.

[48] Ruth S. Noel, The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974), 3-4.

[49] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 48-49.

[50] Tolkien, Letters, 147.

[51] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 25.

[52] Ibid, 101.

[53] Ibid, 103.

[54] Cynewulf, qtd. in Noel, The Languages of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, 4.

[55] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 57-58

[56] Ibid, 59-61.

[57] Ibid, 56.

[58] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 20-21.

[59] Ibid, 15.

[60] Ibid, 131.

[61] Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, 198-99.

[62] Curry, Defending Middle-Earth, 27.

[63] Beagle, “Tolkien’s Magic Ring,” xi.

[64] Tolkien, Letters, 231.

[65] Ibid, 212.

[66] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 104.

[67] Tolkien, qtd. in Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 63.

[68] Tolkien, Letters, 158.

[69] Tolkien, qtd. in Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, 175.

[70] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 65.

[71] Ibid, 66.

[72] Ibid, 72.

[73] Ibid, 67.

[74] Tolkien, Letters, 215.

[75] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 70.

[76] Ibid, 95, n E.

[77] Reilly, Romantic Religion, 195.

[78] Beagle, Tolkien’s Magic Ring, x.

[79] Ibid, xii.

[80] Reilly, Romantic Religion, 196.

[81] Tolkien, Foreword to The Lord of the Rings, xv.

[82] Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, 72.

[83] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 75.

[84] Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, 198.

[85] Clarke, “The Creative Imagination,” 205.

[86] Tolkien, Letters, 188. This particular letter by Tolkien was in response to a fellow Catholic, Peter Hastings, who felt that a sub-creator should not diverge “from the channels the creator is known to have used already,” as Tolkien did when he wrote about the reincarnation of Elves. He continued in his response to Hastings to say “But I do not see how even in the Primary World any theologian or philosopher, unless very much better informed about the relation of spirit and body than I believe anyone to be, could deny the possibility of reincarnation as a mode of existence, prescribed for certain kinds of rational incarnate creatures.”

[87] Tolkien, Letters, 413.

[88] Beagle, “Tolkien’s Magic Ring,” xv.

[89] Tolkien, Letters, 213.

[90] Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, 195

[91] Reilly, Romantic Religion, 214.

[92] Tolkien, qtd. in Duriez, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, 176.

[93] Curry, Defending Middle-Earth, 33.

[94] Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle,” 117.

[95] Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 64

[96] Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, 195.

[97] Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, 53.

Morality and the Muse

What is the relationship between artistic creativity and morality? Plato sought to ban the poets from his ideal civilization because he felt poetry was a mere imitation of good and evil, and could negatively influence the morality of the masses. Two thousand years later, Percy Shelley argued that poets create the moral condition of the world by igniting empathy through their imaginative works. Yet the moral condition of the artists themselves remains relatively unaddressed by Shelley. History has shown that artists have not always been exemplars of the good in their personal lives, and that service to the creative muse often undermines their moral standing. If the ethical influence of art is so powerful, what does this mean for the moral condition for the world? Do the immoral digressions of some artists outweigh or negate the good influence of their works? Or is the world ultimately a better place because of the moral sacrifices of our great artists?

In Book X of the Republic Plato argues, through the voice of Socrates, that poets ought to be excluded from his ideal state because of the immoral effect poetry has upon its audience.[1] Plato writes that the poet does not create, but simply imitates, “though in every case he does not know in what way the thing is bad or good,”[2] he merely represents life in all its distortions. Those who hear this imitative poetry are at risk of being swayed by it, potentially leading to their ethical demise. As the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch writes in a discussion of Plato’s Republic, “…when artists imitate what is bad they are adding to the sum of badness in the world; and it is easier to copy a bad man than a good man.”[3] Yet, whether the poet is representing good or ill, because their work is merely imitation, for Plato it is not truth, and only truth can convey ethics to others.

Plato refers to the greatest poet of the Hellenic world, the man whose epic works still influence the minds of the young and impressionable to this day, to fuel his argument against poetry: Homer. In the voice of Socrates he asks, “…is Homer reported while he lived to have been a guide in education to men who…transmitted to posterity a certain Homeric way of life…?”[4] In response, Socrates’ companion replies no, Homer was neglected in his lifetime, which leads Plato to conclude that this was because Homer merely possessed “the art of imitation” and not “real knowledge.”[5] For Plato it is only real knowledge, or truth, that can inspire one to be morally good.

Yet, today the name of Homer still prospers, and his works, but not his way of life, have indeed entered into posterity. In rapt admiration, Percy Shelley writes in A Defense of Poetry, “Homer embodied the ideal perfection of his age in human character; nor can we doubt that those who read his verses were awakened to an ambition of becoming like to Achilles, Hector, and Ulysses.”[6] For Shelley, the moral character of those who read Homer and the other great poets are shaped by these verses. However, what is key here is that it was not Homer’s way of life, as Plato pointed out, that descended to those who still experience his poetry, but the characters in his art that gained immortality.

What happens within the poet, or any other kind of artist, while in the process of artistic creation? I myself am an artist, and when fully engaged in an artistic project certain aspects of my ethical character begin to fall by the wayside. When caught in an inspired frenzy the external world falls away: I do not nourish my body in the way it deserves, I cut myself off from intimate contact with friends and family. If distracted I can become harsh and irritable. For the time being, every part of myself becomes devoted to completing the work at hand. However, I know the potential depravity of my own patterns are minor in comparison with the twisted roads some artists may descend in pursuit of creative inspiration.

Over the centuries, many artists have become ensnared in the Faustian bargain of creativity. Whether it is an adulterous affair with the woman or man who seems to be one’s muse, or the enticing song of opium, the curling tongue of absinthe, the inspirational voice of heroin, cocaine, liquor, or even the sweet melody of tobacco as one cigarette follows the next and words flow with every inhale. In comparison with its begetter, the piece of art that is born so often is an angel in the dark forest, which draws admirers the world over, and like those of whom Shelley writes, are “awakened to an ambition of becoming like”[7] the art they behold.

The artist is beholden to the muse of inspiration, or as Murdoch writes, “a kind of divine or holy madness from which we may receive great blessings.”[8] One cannot will creativity to arise, but must coax it forth. Shelley writes exquisitely that

the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the color of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure.[9]

The muse is fickle, and indeed both divine and mad. She needs to be nourished, which may easily lead to the moral demise of the artist.

Who is this vital inspiration? Poets have given her many names over the millennia, but the Greeks once worshipped her as Mnemosyne, or Mneia, whose names mean recollection, the first Muse of artistic inspiration. Her three daughters are Melete, Mneme, and Aoide, known also as contemplation, memory, and song. Later in Greek mythology the number of Muses increased to nine, one for each of the arts practiced in the ancient Hellenic world.[10] These “mothers of the singers”[11] were hailed by Homer, Virgil, and Dante, each in the opening lines of their epic masterpieces.

Jean Gebser, in his The Ever-Present Origin, writes of the Muse and the Siren as two poles of the poet’s soul, one giving inspiration, the other beckoning to death.[12] The word Muse, which means “ponderess” and gives us the word “to muse” in English, enters the German language as the two words Musse and Müssen. While Musse means “to contemplate,” Müssen means “must” or “compulsion.”[13] It is this tightrope between the two, the contemplative Muse and the compulsive Siren, that the artist walks on the path of creation, needing both to impel herself forward, each step as uncertain as the next word or brushstroke.

It is the nobility of the art potentially inspired by such a muse that makes the world’s great artists worthy of the high praise which Shelley and others bestow upon them. Shelley writes of the forgotten flaws of these artists: “Their errors have been weighed and found to have been dust in the balance; if their sins ‘were as scarlet, they are now white as snow;’ they have been washed in the blood of the mediator and redeemer, Time.”[14] For although, as Murdoch writes, these artists are motivated by a “divine or holy madness,” [15] it is the divine source of their mad inspiration that redeems them. Something beyond the human is working through the artist, a sacred source, a holy muse, and it is this spark of divinity that generates the shining moral character of the final work of art.

For Shelley the imagination is the “great instrument of moral good”[16] because it allows one to feel empathy for another. The most powerful art and poetry can allow the person experiencing it to wholly place herself in the experience of another, and through her imagination to empathize fully with that other. The emotional experience of empathy, as the philosopher Jacob Needleman writes, is “that which moves us to physical action or to the act of human speech or to the real wish to love and serve or to partake in the great struggle for what is objectively good and right and just.”[17] It is the empathic connection between the observer and the art which leads to moral action, not the inclusion of morality itself within the work of art. Shelley felt that a poet should not include his own conception or ethics in his art because these would be bound to the time and place in which he lived, and would therefore not have the desired moral effect upon later generations.[18] For example, although Tolstoy accused Shakespeare of a “lack of moral clarity,”[19] it is the fullness of his characters in their goodness or their evil that allows his audience to completely empathize with the struggles of the protagonists and antagonists alike. Shakespeare allows his audience to work out for themselves, in their own internal moral struggles, what is right and wrong, what is evil and what is good from what they see genuinely represented before them.

Socrates said that we can only become virtuous when we know what virtue is.[20] Such virtue we learn from the example of others before us, by empathically experiencing the stories of those who once lived. We become porous to such stories through engaging the voices of art, which can bind to our emotions and allow us to fully feel what others have felt. Plato understood the powerful effect of art and poetry, for although he banned it, he banned it in his own poetic voice that has endured through the ages.

Needleman defines a human being as “the being who yearns to love,”[21] and love, as Shelley writes, is the “great secret of morals.”[22] Love is the ingredient which allows us to open ourselves enough to empathically engage with others, to wholly understand what another feels and experiences. Yet love is not a physical object which can be passed from generation to generation; instead it must be portrayed ever and again by those who can trace its ideal form: beauty. As Murdoch writes, the enjoyment of beauty is the mark of a moral soul,[23] and in the words of Needleman, “…evil simply cannot be contained in the same mind that contemplates… beauty.”[24] Therefore, the artists who are able to depict beauty, in all its dimensions, are able to bestow an understanding of morality beyond what even they may be able to entirely comprehend.

Shelley, in language beyond eloquence, captures the gift the world’s great artists have given us:

…it exceeds all imagination to conceive what would have been the moral condition of the world if neither Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Calderon, Lord Bacon, nor Milton, had ever existed; if Raphael and Michael Angelo had never been born; if the Hebrew poetry had never been translated; if a revival of the study of Greek literature had never taken place; if no monuments of ancient sculpture had been handed down to us; and if the poetry of the religion of the ancient world had been extinguished together with its belief.[25]

It is the world’s great artists who have shaped the moral codes by which we live, even if their own lives as individuals were as morally ambiguous as any of our own. For working through them was something greater than the mere human: their art is a mingling of human and divine, which sends ripples of truth out through cultures and epochs, shaping the lives of all who encounter their works.

Works Cited

Gebser, Jean. The Ever-Present Origin. Translated by Noel Barstad with Algis Mickunis. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1985.

Murdoch, Iris. Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature. Edited by Peter Conradi. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1999.

Needleman, Jacob. Why Can’t We Be Good? New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2008.

Plato, Republic. In The Collected Dialogues, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, 575-844. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. A Defense of Poetry. Harvard Classics 27. (2001): Accessed April 3, 2012. http://www.bartleby.com/27/23.html.


[1] Plato, Republic, in The Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 820.

[2] Ibid, 827.

[3] Iris Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature, ed. Peter Conradi (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1999), 390-391.

[4] Plato, Republic, 825.

[5] Ibid, 825.

[6] Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, in Harvard Classics 27. (2001): accessed April 3, 2012. http://www.bartleby.com/27/23.html, paragraph 12.

[7] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 12.

[8] Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics, 387.

[9] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 39.

[10] Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin, trans. Noel Barstad with Algis Mickunis (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1985), 318.

[11] Ibid, 317.

[12] Ibid, 208.

[13] Ibid, 317.

[14] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 43.

[15] Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics, 387.

[16] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 13.

[17] Jacob Needleman, Why Can’t We Be Good? (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2008), 89.

[18] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 13.

[19] Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics, 400.

[20] Needleman, Why Can’t We Be Good?, 36.

[21] Ibid, 264.

[22] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 13.

[23] Murdoch, Existentialists and Mystics, 402.

[24] Needleman, Why Can’t We Be Good?, 83.

[25] Shelley, A Defense of Poetry, paragraph 36.