Of black coffee and the Comedy

Since finishing the MFA I’ve lost the ability to stick to any sort of reading project. I want to read or re-read all sorts of things, but then when I try I immediately stop. I’ve also lost the ability to sleep much at all. There’s just too much going on in my life, I’m too anxious. Perhaps this also explains the reading distraction. At any rate, it’s not all so bad. I like being awake in the small hours, the quiet and dark, alone, listening as I have these past few nights to the rain. It doesn’t happen a lot for me: my house is full; any day it will be fuller with a new child. So I make coffee at three in the morning, four in the morning, I write — and just in these past few days, or nights (neither term seems quite right), I’ve been reading La Commedia. And for once it’s the right words at the right time.

I’m trying to read the Comedy only in Italian, so I’m going a little slower than I otherwise might. But I’m not going too slowly, because I’m not reading any notes or researching anything I find obscure. I’m not looking back into anything written about the Comedy, though I know some excellent paraphernalia — by T.S. Eliot, Auerbach, Mandelstam, and there’s Charles Williams’ book on Beatrice, some essays by Dorothy Sayers. This is how I first studied Italian, by reading the Comedy with the Singleton prose crib handy. I read it and then Petrarch’s Rime Sparse, his 366 poems for Laura, written one to two generations after the Comedy, again with a prose translation handy in case I got too lost. I did this in the autumn of 2002 and the winter of 2003, the only previous time in my life in which I was as anxious as I am now, my mind and heart (Dante would perhaps say my will) going off in as many different directions. I wish I could read the Comedy again in the place where I read it that first time, a dingy cafe on Calhoun Street, in Cincinnati, called Baba Budan’s. The cafe is ancient history now, and the whole neighborhood there, by the University, has changed so drastically in the last fifteen years that I can barely recognize it now when I go back. Of course I was never exiled from Cincinnati, like Dante from Florence, but time makes exiles of everyone eventually, as surely as do any rivalrous Guelphs and Ghibellines.

I am not a huge fan of any of the verse translations of the Comedy. I’ve looked into many over the years. Perhaps I am too picky. If you can tolerate a somewhat dated and British style, Dorothy Sayers’ verse translation is technically admirable, at least much of the time, and it can be read smoothly as a whole — which is important. Even if I’m not reading them now, I certainly recommend Sayers’ essays ancillary to Dante’s art, of which there are quite a few. But for what it’s worth as an aside, the way I would suggest reading the Comedy today, if you have no Italian or not very much and especially if it’s your first time through, is by means of Charles Singleton’s en face prose translation. Read it first without bothering to look up references. Pause only sporadically, at most two or three times per section — ideally I would say only at the end of each of the three sections — to read through the commentary that Singleton provides. I would also read the commentary that Anthony Esolen provides to each canto. Together, these are the best notes. Sayers’ notes are also decent, but her translation is out of print and harder to find. Esolen’s is the best modern verse translation, and it is in American idiom. This would be the most affordable option. Singleton is in print but expensive. Nevertheless, I really think that versification hinders most people from reading something like the Comedy (this is simply a factor of how we read narrative and discursive material today and no comment on anyone’s literary acumen) and so my first recommendation, if you want to tackle what is arguably the first novel (sorry, Cervantes) in the Western tradition, is to pick up Singleton’s prose and notes.

You will never hear me call it the “Divine Comedy.” That’s Boccaccio’s handle; I’ve always thought it was stupid. The whole point of the Comedy is to collapse the distinctions we concoct (so as to hide behind them and live an unreflective life) between nature and supernature. To call the poem “divine” comedy is to let anyone not interested in “divine” things off the hook for reading it. And most of us, in fact, are not interested in “divine” things, because when things are classified as divine in contradistinction to earthly (I guess?) they tend to be very boring, because very abstract. The Comedy is indeed philosophical and theological; you could even say its intellectual content is more important than the intellectual content of any other hallowed work of literature in the Western tradition. And it can be fun to learn all that stuff. But why would someone sit up in the small hours reading the Comedy today? Perhaps the better question is: How can a postmodern like me read the Comedy? I think we can read it as what we now call fiction and as what we now call fantasy. Our use of the word fantasy in its literary connotation is directly related to Dante’s use of the same word in the Comedy… I’ll talk about that when my reading gets to those instances, which are — significantly, I think — in the Purgtorio and the Paradiso. I’m going to try to think a little about the Comedy in the next few posts, maybe one for each of its three parts. Here at the outset I want to propose a very basic, simple, schematic idea: If you read the Comedy with an eye to structure, its cosmic geography and imagery and the arrangement of mythical, legendary, and historical figures, monsters, wonders and so forth, then you have a masterpiece of fantasy; and if you read it with an eye to Dante the the poet-within-the-poem — the Narrator, I’ll simply call him — then you have an instance of what we usually mean by the term fiction, something utterly realistic, and it is realistic because it is interested primarily in Dante’s psychology or inner state (only occasionally and secondarily in the inner state of the people he meets). In other words, the Comedy is a prototype of the narrator-driven fiction that is, many people in addition to myself believe, the best and most interesting fiction (you can simply say prose) being written today.

Perhaps I’ve started reading the Comedy in these dark hours because I was craving both these kinds of writing, the fantasy and the fiction, and I wanted them seamlessly blended. And I think, also, that I wanted to read something that was a great love story and not also a tragedy. Just before I started the Comedy, I was going back over Chaucer’s masterpiece, which is not as many people have been told the Canterbury Tales, but Troilus and Criseyde — which is a tragic love story. I also recently read Rachel Cusk’s Faye Trilogy. I thought this was one of the most beautifully written and brilliant and important literary works I’ve encountered in a very long time. But it is also, at least as I read it, a eulogy for European civilization and for the relation between the sexes that has, for all its often horrible flaws, until now sustained and guided that civilization. I hope to weave in a few remarks about the Faye Trilogy as I write about the Comedy. In any case, I know the Comedy is the comedy of love. The mode of love that we see in the Inferno is pity. That will be the subject of the next post.

 

 

 

 

The long… delay

Apologies for yet another lengthy hiatus. Since graduating from my MFA program in the middle of July my life has been busy: chiefly I’ve been occupied in finishing and polishing the novel I wrote for the MFA, and in getting our household ready for our second child, due in about a month. And I’ve been reading a lot. I am going to try to begin posting my thoughts on my reading again. I have a few things to say about a new-to-me writer, Amy Fusselman, three of whose books (there’s these two together, and this one, the newest) I’ve just read and found to be incredibly interesting and beautiful. I’ve also recently re-read Christos Yannaras’ Variations on the Song of Songs, and I would love tot talk about that, possibly in conversation with the Fusselman books, and certainly with Rachel Cusk’s Faye Trilogy (that would be OutlineTransit, and Kudos), which I also finished recently and thought the whole was extremely good and important. I will be re-reading some medieval German literature soon, in combination with a couple of books by Roger Scruton on Wagner’s work: Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and The Ring of Truth: the Wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the NibelungI wonder if Scruton is planning a third book on Wagner, which would naturally look at Parsifal. Anyway, it seems silly to read those books without thinking about Wagner’s last music drama and reading Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, as I was planning to do at the beginning of the summer. It so happens I’ve been peaking back into Wolfram’s Willehalm lately as well, and I think someone needs to write a wee post or two about Wolfram’s twinned masterpieces. And then of course I have to finish the final, 1200-page volume of Knausgaard’s roman-fleuve. We’ll see how far I get in all this. Kid No.2 is fast approaching, and I have a few other things to do, like query fifty thousand people for the novel, polish up the fantasy novel and query a different fifty thousand people for that one, look for work, and maybe at some point sleep a little.

Illustration, illumination, and ‘precious knowledge’

Boys in the street
Beginning to play
Girls like birds
Flying away
I’m carrying the roses
That were given to me
And I’m thinking about paradise
Wondering what it might be

— Bob Dylan, “Marchin’ to the City”

 

Oh, would that I were in England right now… Several friends have brought to my attention a current exhibition at the Bodleian Library in Oxford of Tolkien’s artwork — “illustration” it is usually called — including several pieces never before exhibited to the public. This information, which I initially brushed off as a petty torment — since there is no chance I will go to England before the end of October when the exhibit closes — has over the past few days succeeded in distracting me on numerous occasions, and has at last combined with other ideas I have lately been considering in connection with the novel I am finishing for the MFA. For example, I have been thinking a lot about the man who painted this image:

James_Tissot_-_A_Little_Nimrod

This image is nothing like the sort of images that Tolkien produced in connection with his mythopoeia and legendarium. Rather, it is a realist image of a game of fantasy, or in other words the sort of scene that plays out among children who hold in their minds the sort of images that Tolkien made in connection with his literary work; or, more precisely: who hold in their minds images altogether their own, which they got from reading or listening to Tolkien’s literary work and not from looking at actual images of Tolkien’s or anyone else’s making. I remember enjoying the images on the covers of fantasy novels when I was a child. I did not think of those covers as illustrations of the contents of the books; but what I got from them was the same thing I got from those contents, which was the suggestion of a world extending endlessly from the edges of the images on the covers (or the words on the pages). If the world of fantasy or of fiction — I’ll call it Faerie here — did not extend endlessly from the images and words, then as a child I could never have played, as I constantly did, in the way that the children in this painting are playing.

But I also remember being thankful that the books I read were not illustrated in any way beyond those covers. I preferred the images supplied by my own mind while reading the story, particularly the landscapes, which were transfigurations of the landscapes that I knew in the Ohio Valley. (I have always been slightly disappointed with any fantasy that has not involved a great continental river at some point, however incidentally, and I am quite certain that I will never write a book of any kind that does not involve such a river.) So far as I could tell, my mind was the sole means of accessing Faerie and any art which attempted to assume my mind’s role or which failed to provide indefinite extension beyond the limits of its imagery in which my mind might do its work, I would reject. I had no access to Tolkien’s visual art; but if I had seen it, I’m not sure I would have cared much for the privilege. That is not to say I think it bad work: only that I would have been unable to refrain from applying that work to the world Tolkien’s writing had discovered in my mind, and this would have been frustrating, for the peculiar virtue of books is not that they convey images but that they conjure or reveal them. (When I wrote just now of art providing indefinite extension of imagery, I meant the word provide very concretely in its primitive etymological sense of foreseeing or knowing something must be there without having yet seen it, as in ‘providence.’) I rely very heavily indeed on the mental imagery which books conjure in my mind. I therefore have a problem with what is commonly called illustration. This kind of image seems to me to sap both visual and verbal art of its vitality — its proper discoveries of the indefinite intension of Faerie — without offering anything by way of replacement.

Art that points ever beyond itself to further provinces in mind, is also able to image forth the maximum emotional depth of human interiority. Both qualities (which we might relabel transcendence and immanence) are emotional, and they seem to be dependent on the other. For example, James Tissot was also able to paint this image, which has become one of the most treasured images in my mind:

Tissot_Adam_and_Eve_Paradise

This is an image of Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise; it is also one of many images made by James Tissot of the love of his life, Kathleen Newton, in this case some time after she had died at the age of twenty-eight from tuberculosis. The upper right-hand corner of the painting, above Adam and Eve, suggests in the unfolding distance what I think of as the endless landscape of Faerie, as I have glimpsed it from within many works of fiction. That perception is the minimum requisite to draw my interest and convince me that I am seeing an authentic figuration of truth, which is a quality that exists only in mind. But what really makes this painting moving for me is Eve’s expression and gesture. I have seen blonde Eves and brunette Eves, but I have never elsewhere seen a crimson-haired Eve: if this is not Kathleen Newton as only James Tissot knew her then there never was such a woman. But somehow she is also eminently familiar to me, utterly modern without being the least bit anachronistic. No, I am not saying she resembles my wife or a past lover, it is nothing that evident and visible: and yet, surely I myself have stood like this Adam with a woman like this Eve; it seems only the other day, and it seems years ago — leaving some ill-fated party together in the small hours, or always… All of these factors come together mysteriously. I have looked on many depictions of the Fall and the expulsion from Paradise, and I have always found the myth, so to call it, moving, it kindles in me a primordial excitement; but no depiction has moved me like this one.

I probably best know the Fall and the expulsion from reading Paradise Lost, and the first words that might occur to me if I tried to think of words in connection with this painting would be the last lines of that poem:

The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.

Of course Milton does not give his Eve crimson hair. But if I had to illustrate the closing lines of that poem, Tissot’s painting is the image I would pick. However, because I feel the way I do about Tissot’s depiction of the expulsion from Paradise, I do not want to think of this painting as an illustration of anything, not even of Genesis or as great a work of literary art as Paradise Lost. For me, Tissot’s painting has its own light: it is not an illustration so much as it is luminous, or illuminated.

And in point of fact, Tissot’s painting illustrates no text known to me. It is certainly not an illustration of the Genesis material, nor of Milton’s imagination of the event. And it does not even correspond to the visions of the Westphalian nun Anne Catherine Emmerich, which visions were popularly read in Tissot’s day and supposed to have inspired the enormous number of depictions of biblical scenes that Tissot painted in the latter phase of his career, having suffered the loss of Kathleen Newton and undergone a religious vision himself that reverted him to his childhood faith — even if it could not remove him completely from his fin de siècle decadence.

I became interested in Tissot (I’d never hard of him previously) when I acquired a copy of Angelico Press’ edition of the visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich (illustrated with many of Tissot’s works), as recorded in prose by Clemens Brentano. The situation here is extremely complex: Anne Catherine was a stigmatic recluse. She experienced the visions while she was bedridden over many years. We have a record or version of her visions only because Clemens Brentano, a poet living a bohemian lifestyle similar to Tissot’s two generations later, was mysteriously attracted by rumors of the visionary nun, to the point where he gave up his bohemian life and moved house so that he could sit by her side every day and write down what she told him she had seen. What she saw, if we believe Brentano, exceeds the realistic detail of even the most sprawling and meticulous novel or travelogue. Anne Catherine witnessed the creation of the world, the fall of the angels and then of mankind, and all of sacred history subsequent, through the events reported in the New Testament. The detail and character-descriptions and, often, the hour-by-hour account of biblical narratives reads like the frenzied (but eloquent and precise) notes of an impassioned novelist. The Emmerich-Brentano combination is one of the most fascinating literary and narrative documents I’ve ever encountered, whatever one makes of its visionary capacity. It is the perfect recension of the biblical material for a century immersed in the mundane and the sensuous (by the way, that’s some more Milton — he coined “sensuous”) — and, indeed, the century of the classic novel.

Tissot’s painting of the expulsion is certainly sensuous. But what it is not is a third- or fourth-order imitation or illustration, because as I say he did not depict what Brentano reports Emmerich reporting to him. I certainly think Tissot was inspired by reading Emmerich-Brentano, but the painting is his own vision. This essay, I have a feeling, is going to go off in a couple of different directions momentarily, but first a brief aside on — what else? — etymology, i.e. these words illustration and illumination.

The connotative difference between these terms is that between the application of light (illustration) and the emanation of it (illumination). A text that has been illustrated has had light, color, form applied to it, presumably in order to clarify or make it more vivid in the imagination of the reader, who is also thus a viewer. A text that has been illuminated, on the other hand, has been made luminous, it has been made to shine forth (remember the etymology of “fantasy” here and the notion contained therein of shining). Someone might illuminate a problem for you — they might even illuminate it by illustrating it with a concrete instance. That is, as near as I can discern, how we use the terms differently. I do not enjoy visual art, no matter how good, which I can understand only as an attempt to illustrate a text or story. The visual art that I enjoy has to be luminous in its own right, even if it is also an illustration. Probably we would all agree (accepting my distinction for the sake of argument) that the best art undertaken as illustration succeeds because it is also more than illustration, it is itself luminous, accomplishes its own imagination or figuration.

These days, we think of illustrated light as inferior to the light of luminous things. But it used to be that “to illustrate” could be applied to persons, so to illustrate someone was to make them famous, tout their virtues, and cause them to be praised. (As an example of that lapsed usage, there is the important tract of Renaissance poetics by Joachim du Bellay called Defense and Illustration of the French Language — which contained no pictures.) But things that have luster, we are now more apt to think, are only shiny, they are not supposed to have an intrinsic light; likewise to call someone or some institution illustrious is not necessarily to praise that person or institution, but only to objectively describe the fact (without committing one’s own opinion) that he or she or it enjoys a certain reputation or acclaim. Whereas the terms enlightened or illumined  — though we may use these terms ironically, of course — are more unambiguously value-positive in their basic connotations.

Well, fine then. But what about the etymology? That’s the curious thing. Illumination is not weird, it very clearly contains the Latin for “light” — lumen. Technically, illuminate is supposed to mean the same thing, physically, as illustrate, it is supposed to mean the literally superficial throwing of light on something. The word “luminous” is made of the Latin for “light” plus the suffix -osus, which means “full of,” so a luminous thing doesn’t have light thrown on it so much as it contains and overflows with its own light. But from luminous I tend to think of illuminate as the making of something luminous, I suppose because of medieval illuminated manuscripts, which at least cannot be said to be ‘illustrated.’ But about that word illustration: here we cannot escape the notion of application as distinct from emanation or emission, though it takes on an unexpected sense. The Latin root of illustrate is lustrum, lustri, etc which was a purificatory sacrifice performed at regular intervals. And then, to go back even further, linguists suppose that the PIE (Proto-Indo-European) root of lustrum is a word for light, which is very close to the reconstructed PIE words for “to wash clean” and “to expiate.” Somewhere very deep in the Indo-European mind the notions of light and of purification are linked.

This reverie maybe gets illustration back around to something like what I approve of in illumination. Perhaps we could think of the best illustration as a purification of a text in the sense of getting to its essence, rather than usurping the mind of the reader or viewer with imported imagery derived only from the text’s accidents or details. Surely when authors illustrate their own texts, their own accounts of Faerie, this is what they mean to do — because the artist is at all points concerned to communicate that essence by whatever means possible, regardless of whether a picture or a story (or for that matter a sound) occurs to him first. So true illustration, in this etymological sense, must be an extension of Faerie, or another version of it, but not a reduplication. Tissot’s painting of the expulsion from Paradise captures some trace of the essence of what is itself the essential story, or the first part of it, as it exists in my mind and heart. His painting shows me something promised and something lost forever –respectively the endless unfolding landscape of Faerie, and Eve’s stance and countenance. In a way, every work of art in any medium is only an attempt to illustrate — to capture the tiniest trace of the essence that the artist has seen. But it is a strange kind of seeing. I am reminded of Thomas Aquinas, who is supposed to have said toward the end of his life: omnia quae scripsi videntur mihi paleae respectu eorum quae vidi et revelata sunt mihi — All that I have written seems to me straw in comparison to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me. Of course, Aquinas was (usually) not writing poetry. But there is also the famous and very similar statement by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

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… but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline; and the most glorious poetry that has been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet.

A favorite writer of mine, the Englishman J A Baker, once wrote, “The hardest thing of all to see, is what is really there.” Of even greater difficulty is the subsequent saying or depicting, of what is really there. And of even greater difficulty than that, is saying or depicting what is no longer, or what could be there, or what you know is there but have not seen.

Still thinking of Tissot’s depiction of Adam and eve expelled from Paradise — in particular of my response to the human figures and the glimpse I catch, in the corner, of the endlessly unfolding Faerie –I want to share one of the many passages that comes to my mind from the work of Gerald Murnane, the Australian author on whom I wrote the critical portion of my master’s thesis. I have been so attracted to and immersed in the work of Gerald Murnane because he, too, seems to be attentive to the person in the place and the edge of the place and what lies beyond that edge that the person may be looking towards. Here he is in the story “Emerald Blue” describing an unnamed main character who is more or less a stand-in for himself, as his many unnamed main characters or narrators usually are:

There was much that he wanted to learn, but he could not believe that he would learn it as other people learned what they learned. He believed in something that he called to himself precious knowledge. As a child, he had hoped to find some of that knowledge in some discarded or forgotten book. Later, he came to understand that such knowledge as he was looking for was not readily passed from one person to another. Sometimes he thought of precious knowledge as lying on the other side of the pages of one or another book whose title and author he had yet to hear of. In order to obtain the precious knowledge, he would have had to get inside the book itself and to live in the places where the characters lived. Looking out from those places, he would see such things (knowledge being to him always something visible) as only the characters of the book were privileged to see, whereas readers and even the author of the book could only speculate about them.

I don’t know if I can communicate how much such a passage of prose fiction means to me. Murnane has been one of the great discoveries of my intellectual life, because it is a kind of solace to find someone putting into words what you have long felt and thought but have never been able to say. In any case, I consider Murnane, for such passages as this one, among the the most profound searchers in the extent and nature of Faerie. I call attention in the foregoing to the emphasis on visibility (though it is the inward visibility of imagination). But with Murnane there is always a dialectic between seen and unseen, finite and infinite. He continues a few pages later:

He had come to believe that he was made up mostly of images. He was aware only of images and feelings. The feelings connected him to the images and connected the images to one another. The connected images made up a vast network. He was never able to imagine this network as having a boundary in any direction. He called the network, for convenience, his mind.

People link Murnane to famously modern or postmodern writers like Beckett. But for me, Murnane’s work, though written in a precise and dry style, is highly emotional in the urgent way of meaningfulness, or perhaps what people mean by “beauty,” the suggestion of something there and something always beyond, something fleeting or something lost but remembered. I thought of this passage in connection with Tissot’s painting, thinking not only of the corner glimpse of Faerie but also of Eve. It’s in her face that I see the thought-feeling of something lost but remembered. But she knows, already she knows, memory is fickle: What really happened back there? Why is it so hard to see what was really there?

I am also now thinking of certain passages from Tolkien’s work. I am thinking about how the man published very little in his lifetime, and seems to have regarded his life’s work as something of a disappointment and, if not failure, then at best a frustration. Doesn’t Dostoevsky have someone say, “On earth everything has a beginning and nothing has an ending”? If he didn’t, Tolkien could have. He nearly does in this passage from his allegorical and autobiographical short story, “Leaf by Niggle.” As with the passage from Murnane’s story, Tolkien is writing in the third-person of a stand-in for himself, an unsuccessful painter. What happens with Niggle’s painting in this passage is what happens with any artist who looks to the corners of other paintings for glimpses of the endless unfolding of Faerie or who has a tendency to look backward like Eve:

There was one picture in particular which bothered him. 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 around 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. Niggle lost interest in his other pictures; or else he took them and tacked them on to the edges of his great picture. Soon the canvas became so large that he had t get a ladder; and he ran up and down it, putting in a touch here, and rubbing out a patch there.

The emphasis is mine, because I believe this is what all the best fantasy is, an endless opening out of a country. As the allegory of “Leaf by Niggle” goes on, Niggle dies and goes through a kind of Purgatory, in the latter stages of which, something like the “terrestrial paradise” of Dante’s Purgatory, he is permitted to see his Tree in its fullness, and the country in which it stands; and then finally he moves beyond the terrestrial paradise of this purgatory into a yet further country, the heavenly paradise. But this latter part we don’t see: for Tolkien could not see it, he could only provide for it in his fiction.

For Murnane, that yet further, ever-unseen but foreseen country, a place of both sentiment and presentiment, is not fundamentally different from the country of fiction, what I am calling Faerie. Murnane is an adventurous and rigorous explorer of the metaphysical, and a great exponent of the infinity and interconnectedness of Faerie. But I am not sure that he believes what Eve is beginning to understand — about what is lost forever, and half-remembered now, and strangely promising foresight, all at once — in Tissot’s painting. It is, though, something Tolkien seems to have believed when he wrote to his son (letter 96 in Humphrey Carpenter’s edition) the following passages concerning the expulsion from Paradise:

…certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy Earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile.’… We shall never recover it, for that is not the way of repentance, which works spirally and not in a closed circle; we may recover something like it, but on a higher plane.

Whether Faerie, or Middle Earth, or the precious knowledge of fiction — call it what you like — is a vision of what has been lost or of what has been foreseen regained, I am not sure. If the two termini are implicated in each other, then I suppose it is a moot point. What I know is that there is much pathos in it, this business of catching and trying to then communicate the glimpses and what lies unspoken and invisible but hinted at beyond even the glimpses. Tolkien goes on in the letter to say to his son: “I think you are moved by Celebrimbor because it conveys a sudden sense of endless untold stories: mountains seen far away, never to be climbed, distant trees (like Niggle’s) never to be approached” (emphasis in original). The untold and unspeakable, the lost and the horizon — perhaps the artist experiences these things uniquely in the nature of the work of art, but they are the common experience, in innumerable contexts, of all people. Memory and fantasy are, I think, two faces of the same human fate.

Having brought all these thoughts and images together from an unlikely group of sources, including the final verses from of one of the great artistic visions of Paradise, I will conclude by quoting some more verses on the topic. These are some of the last lines Ezra Pound wrote:

M’amour, m’amour
what do I love and
where are you?

That I lost my centre
fighting the world.
The dreams clash
and are shattered —

and that I tried to make a paradiso
terrestre.

I have tried to write Paradise

Do not move
Let the wind speak
that is paradise.

Lets the Gods forgive what I
have made
Let those I love try to forgive
what I have made.

 

 

My sunburn’d brain

There are days when I do not understand my life, when I fail so far in grasping my calling — as husband, as father, as writer — that I doubt there is such a thing as a calling to anything. One can fail so far as to doubt whether one has really lived at all, despite the memory and intimation that still plucks at your sleeve. Today is one of those days. So I have been thinking of a poem by Sir Philip Sidney, a poem that I first read a long time ago. It would have been about the spring of 2003 that I read it, the first poem in Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella (that would be Star-lover and Star in the Greco-Latin).

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,—
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,—
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe;
Studying inventions fine her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburn’d brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seem’d but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write.”

 

I used to love the poetry of Sidney’s time. Still do, come to think of it. I wonder if a poem like this one means more to me today than it did when I first read it fifteen years ago. I don’t have much to say about this poem right now, only a desire to share it and ask if it makes a kind of deep sense to anyone else. I am thinking of the last line — though of course you have to read it as a last line, with everything that went before it, and not take it on its own as a sort of maxim. When I first read that line it was like a prophecy to me. Today, because it is one of these confused misgiven days, I am not so sure what it means.

I do know, though, that my brain feels sunburned on a day like this, as red-gold as the Lake Michigan light glinting at me through foliage of sassafras and oak, like it does on this part of the shore. That is to say, paraphrasing the poem: I’ve read too damn much, or too errantly, or too something. And it seems to me that I gave up a lot for that reading, presumably with a definite notion of what as a writer I’d get in return: that notion is long gone now. But if it was a poor decision, it was also perhaps not a decision I knew I was making. Don’t ask me to explain how that works. In any case, this is only how it seems to me on odd days in middle June, when I just can’t get into the moment and the place, and of course I can’t get back to anything either.

The sun over Lake Michigan has become just the deep red I have long imagined for the sunlight of Earth in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories. And thinking of that, I am put in mind of an old book of astronomy I had when I was a kid. It was beautifully and very unscientifically illustrated, and probably unscientific all around. But it had a kind of poetry to it. For example, along with some image of a mellow forest glen bathed in liquid gold light (not this superannuated ruby light that is all around me now for a few fleeting minutes, and in Jack Vance’s stories) there was a description of what the book said would be the last perfect day. Yes, according to this book, the Earth would one day, in the course of her gradual ruination by the sun’s natural expansion (I think astronomers still say this will happen), enjoy a last perfect day, after which every day would be too hot, until eventually life would no longer be possible on the Earth. Can you imagine how futile writing would seem on that last perfect day? Music I could see playing — but writing?

All this is to say that I am going to write as soon as I can, probably starting Sunday or Monday when I get home, on the question: What is the use of writing? Ananda Coomaraswamy and David Jones and Wolfram von Eschenbach and Dante and Spenser and Milton and one or two others of more recent advent and who don’t belong in that company will be helping me out. And you can help me out by telling me what you think it means to look in your heart and write. Or for that matter, what you would do on the last perfect day.

Music, figure, and style in the Ainulindalë

This essay has ended up a good deal longer than I foresaw. There are three sections. This is long enough to require an epigraph, and I can think of none better than these lines from Bob Dylan’s heartbreaking and all-wise song “Red River Shore”:

Now I heard about a guy who lived a long time ago,

a man full of sorrow and strife,

that if someone around him died and was dead

he could bring ‘em on back to life.

Well I don’t know what kind of language he used

or if they do that kind of thing anymore…

 

Figurative language

In the spring of 2004 a particular species of cicada that leads a subterranean existence for seventeen years before emerging aboveground to procreate, surfaced and flourished for some weeks in a magnitude of several billion individuals across southwest Ohio. The creatures covered the surface of the earth, whether built or natural, like a biblical plague. At no time in the day or night was it possible to be unaware of them. The destination of these autochthons was the arboreal canopy, and they achieved their goal in wave upon wave of rising life, but when the time for death drew near the insects fell back to the earth, where their spore had been dropping all along in a kind of sticky rain. So you would see people walking in a sunny afternoon with open umbrellas, and in the wealthier quarters of Cincinnati women, wary of the creatures becoming entangled in their hair, carried tennis rackets around to swat at them as they flew clumsily from tree to tree or plummeted. Restaurants began to offer cicada dishes. In the vestibule of my apartment building piles of cicada carcasses accumulated and the reek of them was ubiquitous indoors and out.

But the aspect of this phenomenon that persists in my memory most tenaciously and, I might even say, endearingly has nothing to do with any of that: it is sound. The cicadas made a constant, loud, and actually somewhat complex sound. Many people referred to this as song and saw something poetic, perhaps the sad effervescence of the carpe diem spirit, in an otherwise disgusting creature that came into the air and the daylight only to sing and mate and soon die. Others called the din noise or even cacaphony, which means not a chaotic sound, as is sometimes thought, but an evil one. I’m not sure what word is most appropriate to describe the combined effect of the distinct noises the males and females of the species made unceasingly as they sought each other in the boughs, one a high constant whirring and the other a lower, more jagged and raucous chorus that heaved and quieted rhythmically. But I know that that sound subtended and permeated and rose above all of life in that high spring fourteen years ago.

Most of us moderns, though we may wish it were otherwise, cannot really hear anymore a musica unversalis, the harmony of the spheres. We have lost our primordial, participatory consciousness and our cosmological imagination — though perhaps only in the way one forgets a language one used to know, which is to say not completely, with the ghosts of beloved foreign words still occasionally slipping unpremeditated off your tongue — and so the world for us is not enchanted, though at times we seem to remember enchantment. I wonder if, strange though it may seem, one of those times occurred, for me, in late May and early June of 2004, if maybe I perceived in the song of the cicadas an analogue or figuration of what it would mean if a divine music were the font and framework of all being; or then again if, as Robert Hass writes in a poem — his poem “about grace,” as the first line states — “the world’s so full of pain / It must sometimes make a kind of singing.”

It is with music and figurative language and a primordial fall from grace in the Ainulindalë, Tolkien’s creation myth, that I am concerned here. All these things are related, because the question about what sort of language you can use is always also the question about how or in what way you are “fallen”; that is, how you exist (as we all do) to some degree insensate of the originary grace and giftedness of the creation to which we no longer feel perfectly connected. But before I go any further, I had better define my terms as best I can, particularly as I use them in ways that may strike some as idiosyncratic.

Figurative language, as I construe it, is language that means more than it says or language that transcends itself. It is hyperbolic, not in the sense of exaggeration for effect, but in the sense of being open-ended at one end or asymptotic, like the hyperbola of mathematics. (I believe that the counterpart — I do not mean the opposite — of figurative language should then be ironic language, which means other than it says or gazes reflexively on itself.) Figure, it may be interesting to note, shows the same root as fiction: figurative language, rather than simply representing or referring to something directly, gives shape (that is the bedrock meaning of fingere) to something that cannot be otherwise made known in language. It may be possible to uphold the superficial sense of a figure (or it may not), but the figure’s essential meaning is always something more, something that can only be hinted at through the figure. Generally, if one appreciates a figure, one not only delights in the figuration, the particular shape, but as well in that which is figured, that ‘something more,’ both the transcendence and the implications (if you would like yet another etymology, that would be the infoldings) of the shape. It is of course possible to appreciate a figure simply as a shape, without subscribing to the further meaning. In such a case we appreciate or understand only artistically or archeologically.

But what if a figure appears in a work of fiction? Perhaps this would be the occasion, if one appreciates the figure fully, of what Tolkien called “second-order belief.” If the fiction works, it is because it is able to kindle and cultivate this sort of belief and so the secondary world or subcreation possesses the same sort of “density,” as he calls it, as that to be found in the primary world. So runs one idea that Tolkien sometimes credited. I am not quite sure. I think a figure, if it shapes something and works for us in the fullest way as a figure, has to shape something we hold to be a truth and not something that we merely pretend is a truth for the sake of enjoying a tale. Though we do wish to enjoy the tale, and that is in itself a legitimate desire, we also want more from art than pleasure — which, in the case of an imperfectly effective figure, one we only pretend to believe, would be a somewhat illusory pleasure, would it not? And I think in illusion there is the least and most questionable of all pleasures. Myths, understood as extended figuration, may then, according to this second view, be true or contain some truth, something we don’t have to hold in pretense; moreover these would be truths that could take on no other shape than, or that are particularized by dint of, the figuration. Tolkien certainly subscribed to this second view as well. It seems to me there is some tension between these views. And yet it is necessary to retain both in order to understand the truths of fiction: for if those truths work it is both within the fiction (I would call this their ‘function’) and with us (I would call this their ‘value’), who remain always partially outside the fiction and urgently concerned with the truths of the primary world. We walk a fine line with a piece of writing like the Ainulindalë. In writing the Elvish account of the creation of Middle Earth (and again this point surfaces and is crucial: within the logic of the fiction, Middle Earth is supposed to be this real Earth), Tolkien did not assert himself as a latter-day editor of Genesis. But then again he did, through his subcreation, give a certain shape, the shape that he uniquely was able to imagine, of what he (as a Catholic, and therefore not uniquely) considered to be true of the origin and ground of creation.

Well then, so much for figurative language in the abstract. Contrary to the manuals and textbooks I have looked into over the years, I discern only two essential kinds of figurative language, the metaphorical and the analogical. It is the role of figurative language to reveal the hierarchical ecology of being. Metaphorical figuration brings together that which is distinct and unifies. Analogical figuration brings together that which is distinct and compares. Whenever there is comparison there is both like and unlike. In other words, analogy draws attention to an interval, which can be very large or small but an interval all the same; while metaphor asserts that something, at a level not ordinarily perceptible, truly is something else. People commonly talk of something being a metaphor “for” something else, but this sounds incorrect to my ears. A metaphor’s whole business is to collapse the interval, to make you forget that there are two parts of it: “God is a consuming fire” is the complete metaphor. The old rhetorical terminology talks of the tenor and vehicle of a metaphor – in this case, God would be the tenor and fire the vehicle – but to my mind this undermines a proper understanding of the function of metaphor and almost turns it into analogy.

I began this essay with an analogy: the all-encompassing music of the cicadas, I proposed, was like what I imagine would be the music of cosmic order, such as Tolkien figures it quite differently in the Ainulindalë. I wasn’t using the cicadas as a metaphor. Had I been doing so, I would have been saying that I was able to hear in the cicadas the cosmic music. At that time, such a perception was beyond my ken (though someone else might have been able to hear it, and in that case metaphor would have been appropriate). But then again, when I say that the cicadas are like the cosmic music, I am not saying that I think that that higher music literally resembles the sound of cicadas. This is what I mean by the “hierarchical” ecology or interconnectedness of being. Analogy compares things of different ontological orders or degrees of being; and in making that comparison it both asserts a likeness and connection, and an enduring unlikeness and disjunction. Two things can only be like in some respect, otherwise they are not like but either identical or unified. Metaphor’s power, inverse and complementary, is to startlingly conjoin, to blur those ‘respects’ or qualities. If it is a fusion, it is like atomic fusion in that it releases astonishing energy. Perhaps I should say the energy of astonishment, for in that joining is revealed and perhaps even realized (in the stronger sense of the word) the unity and all but incredible unison of created being. Metaphor can be extremely arresting but, paradoxically perhaps, it can also be dead. Language is full of so-called dead metaphors. Nearly everything you say, no matter how abstract or intellectual, is said in words whose meaning was originally or in its elementary parts very concrete. This is why I am always inserting etymological asides, to bring a little life back to some of our dead metaphors. Analogy, on the other hand, has a much harder time concealing itself. It’s difficult to say why this is. I think perhaps the reason is that analogy requires a grammatically explicit form, a “like” or an “as… so” or other such construction.

I apologize for the dry and flavorless (except for a soupçon of cicada) exposition. It seemed necessary, but now it’s high time we turn to the Ainulindalë, where hopefully some of what I’ve been saying will begin to make sense. The Ainulindalë is a surprisingly complex piece of writing, and perhaps not what it seems at first blush.

 

The music of the prose

The musical quality of the prose of the Ainulindalë is perceptible in its structure. It is a cosmogony in three parts: first there is the music of Tolkien’s angelic hierarchies, the Ainur; then there is a vision or fantasy of what that music has somehow signified in a very concrete or you could say incarnate way, which takes the shape of the world, Arda; and then there is the bringing into actuality from potentiality of Arda, the realization of the vision. These three parts are clearly indicated by gaps in the text. I am not at all convinced, as many readers seems to be, that these three episodes form as clearly a series of stages in the creation of the world in something like the hexameron of Genesis, or like a Neoplatonic theory of emanation from the One. The Ainulindalë is indeed an account of the creation of the world, but as I hope will become clearer in a passage which I will quote shortly, it is also more than that. In any event, to me, this triadic structure is essentially musical, rather than narrative, a kind of sonata form. And it cues me to tripartite construction that is visible in smaller modules throughout, to unmistakable rhythmic effect.

It is in rhythm that I more clearly perceive the music of the prose style. The Ainulindalë is not in the style of Genesis, despite its content. (Though in point of fact its content isn’t all that close to the opening chapters of Genesis, either, as Tolkien’s creation story never quite arrives at the coming of Men.) The most basic stylistic component of the Ainulindalë is the paratactic and occasionally editorial procedure of the learned chronicler, with which Tolkien was familiar from his reading in medieval literature. If there is a ‘mythic’ prose style, this is not it. Neither is it an epic style, if epic is understood to be verse, though as I will indicate our chronicler, so to call him, is capable of elements of epic style. But the dominant style here is that of the chronicler, albeit a musical, ‘poetic’ style, the work a chronicler who has put some effort into his composition. We might call him a ‘pseudo-chronicler’ or a chronicler on the way to becoming a novelist. Insofar as this chronicler permits himself editorializing, which is a kind of narrative omniscience, he approaches a novelistic style, or I might say polystyle. In my opinion the chronicler’s voice is closer to a novelistic omniscience than to the much more traditional self-awareness and self-reference of the storyteller. To show what I’m talking about, I will quote first my favorite paragraph in the Ainulindalë. Note that it is composed of three sentences, and that the sentences all follow more or less the same grammatical and therefore logical structure. In each sentence there are three parts: statement, additional statement, counter-statement (or, to use the terms of a Greek chorus, which might be apposite: two strophes and an antistrophe) signified by a logical disjunction, either “but” (twice) or “and yet” (once). The construction “it is said by the Eldar” is a construction typical of the learned chronicler displaying his learning, a citation of his authority or source, which constitutes a minor demonstration of what in literary terms is called omniscience (not to be confused with divine omniscience, a separate topic to be treated in due course!):

But the other Ainur looked upon this habitation set within the vast spaces of the World, which the Elves call Arda, the Earth; and their hearts rejoiced in light, and their eyes beholding many colors were filled with gladness; but because of the roaring of the sea they felt a great unquiet. And they observed the winds and the air, and the matters of which Arda was made, of iron and stone and silver and gold and many substances: but of all these water they most greatly praised. And it is said by the Eldar that in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur more than in any substance else that is in this Earth; and many of the Children of Ilúvatar hearken still unsated to the voices of the Sea, and yet know not for what they listen.

What we are looking at in this expertly balanced paragraph is the Vision that Eru shows to the Ainur, whose music he has thrice had to stop because of the interpolations of Melkor; we are not in fact looking at an Arda that has been made in actuality, at “this Earth.” Were that the case, then the chronicler would refer to Arda, as he will do four paragraphs later, as the “World,” after Eru makes the Vision real with his single word, “Eä.” The word “World,” so capitalized, is used in a different way at that point in the Ainulindalë, meaning the whole cosmos wherein Eru and his Ainur and their music abide. Tracking this diction is crucial to understanding the metaphysics of the Ainulindalë, and I would only suggest that in following a word’s changing usage we are reading in a way that is very like listening for the mutations of a motif in music.

But what I most want to notice in this passage is that although the object of sight is the Vision, as beheld by the Ainur, and not the true made Arda (the Ainur do not even realize yet what a difference there will be between Vision and Reality), the chronicler’s editorialization serves to add another dimension of meaning and tone to the passage. Observe what happens by the end of the paragraph: the chronicler is no longer talking about the Vision or the primordial fall of Melkor at all, instead he is talking about how the actual Arda, which has not yet been made real in the main line of his narrative, is perceived not by the Ainur (or Valar), who are the main actors of the Ainulindalë, but by the Children of Ilúvatar, who have little real place in its narrative. In other words, the style of this passage has everything to do with what I might call its amplitude. It appears, grammatically, to be a chronicler’s utilitarian, paratactic, linear listing of events or attributes or what have you. But through the introduction of the narrator’s concern on the one hand to establish his authority by referencing the ideas of the Eldar and on the other to tie his report of inconceivably distant events to the present interest of his readers (who are, within the fiction, all Children of Ilúvatar) — we are presented with a moment of pathos, and the scale of this cosmogony shrinks momentarily to accommodate a more human (or Elven) perspective. Some people call this telescoping of “narrative distance.” It is a kind of commentary or editorialization, and it is characteristic of the classic novel (whatever changes the genre may have undergone in more recent generations), which entire genre is founded on narrative omniscience.

That, then, is how I would describe the narrative voice of the Ainulindalë, a chronicler who is on his way to becoming a narrator, i.e. the narrative voice of a novel. The telescoping of narrative distance, usually brought about by the chronicler’s manifest need to establish both authority and its counterpart contemporaneity (authority is always a recourse to the past), results in some of the most theologically important moments in the Ainulindalë, the moments whereby it transcends the confines of a simple creation myth to become on the one hand an apocalyptic vision of what in Christian terms would be called the eschaton, and on the other a kind of insight or statement of wisdom regarding the psychological origin of evil. Here is the narrator or chronicler once again being authoritative and using that authority or, in novelistic terms, omniscience, to establish his contemporaneity, to speak to the concerns of his readers. Notice again the passive construction, “it has been said” which works to both ends:

Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days. Then the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.

These sentences come only from the fourth paragraph of the Ainulindalë. They are thus an instance of what you could call the most extreme prolepsis imaginable. Almost nothing has happened yet. Only the first movement, so to speak, of the Great Music has been accomplished. Melkor has not fallen, history has not yet unfolded because Arda and time itself perhaps have not even been made, though they have been prefigured, in part, by the Music. But we don’t know anything yet about the metaphysics of that prefiguration, of how the Music somehow contains or can contain the secret fire of “Being.” And yet the chronicler is reporting the theology of the end of time, as it has been speculated by the Eldar and others, I suppose, long since the events that the main narrative reports. This is a kind of narrative omniscience.

A telltale use of narrative omniscience in the novel is psychological insight into character. We have become used to this kind of thing, desensitized to it. Interest in the innermost motivations of subjectivities more or less like our own is the fundamental province of the novel, whatever else it might do in its own particular ways. The forms of literature that preceded the novel certainly exhibited great passions of one form or another, or they showed much plotting in the sense of cunning and maneuvering. Passion and cunning are the two opening gambits of the Homeric poems — the rage of Achilles and Odysseus “polytropos,” of many turns (both outward and inward, in his case). But generally earlier literary forms showed those passions and machinations — figured them, you could say — in action and speech. I think that despite its archaic style the following sentence tends toward a novelistic theodicy, or at least a venture in Satanic psychology; in any case it jumps out at me: “But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.” That right there is the Fall, the felix culpa, of Tolkien’s legendarium. It is made all the more poignant for two reasons: Eru has actually commanded the Ainur to do something that is almost the same as what Melkor does (“ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will”); and because of the passive construction, “it came into the heart of Melkor.” Where was this faulty desire before it entered Melkor’s heart, and is he responsible for its gaining the core of his individual being in this way? But I don’t want to get into the psycho-theodicy, for that is not after all where the heft of the Ainukindalë falls.

Think of the way that Milton presents us with Satan in Paradise Lost, and you will see how modern Tolkien’s cosmogonic tale really is. And the speaker or narrator of Milton’s poem is certainly concerned to vaunt his epical techniques. He is notorious for compound, extended similes (analogical figuration), a perpetual striving with the heritage of antiquity. The medieval chronicler who can be heard in Tolkien’s prose does not seem impelled to such extremes, though he will occasionally give us a classical simile, e.g. “And [Melkor] descended on Arda in power and majesty greater than any other of the Valar, as a mountain that wades in the sea and has its head above the clouds and is clad in ice and crowned with smoke and fire; and the light of the eyes of Melkor was like a flame that withers with heat and pierces with deadly cold.” It’s not the most wrought simile you could imagine, and perhaps we’re grateful for that. In fact, for my money this kind of writing rings false; it is ‘Miltonic’ — imitating an imitator — rather than a successful imitation, as most of the rest of the Ainulindalë is, of a genuine historical style. But in another sense, though, as I will be talking about in the next section, all of the Ainulindalë is a single massive figuration, and thus Tolkien — and here I must mean the author and not his narrator, who is barely more than a scribe — quite overgoes the Miltonic and neo-classical, and does so by being modern.

I have been talking about narrative voice and style, much of which comes to a certain musicality, because the narrator is the logically and ontologically prior element in all fiction, and the narrative voice determines which specific possibilities of prose style will be actualized. There is nothing more important in fiction than the narrator. You can do without any other element, without characters or plot or coherent setting, but there is always at least by implication a narrator (who may of course also be a character). The writer who capitalizes on this, as I think Tolkien did in the version of the Ainulindalë that has come down to us, weaves a subtle text indeed. I am not suggesting that Tolkien read a lot of classic novels and decided to allow such reading to influence his mythopoeia. But it is hard to miss the influence of the classic novel, still dominant for people of his generation, on the whole legendarium, and much to the benefit and appeal of the work, I might add. The chronicler on his way to becoming a narrator, or stealing tricks from the novelist, could be called something like Tolkien’s default style and emblematic of his larger project to bring into the modern world the feeling of a mythic English past. As Tom Shippey has pointed out, nothing could be more novelistic than hobbits. To finish out this section of the essay, I’d like to compare the first extended passage I quoted, the paragraph made of three balanced sentences about the elements of Arda, to the last paragraphs of The Lord of the Rings (not including the appendices). Note here again the parataxis, hallmark of the chronicler’s rather than the novelist’s mode of narration. But then note that what these paragraphs lead up to is a single line of text that is quintessentially novelistic, for there is nothing that identifies the genre of the novel more explicitly than a conclusion in domestic scene (think of the epilogue to War and Peace, for example) — the husband, the wife, the child, the hearth — and dialogue itself. So in the beginning of the legendarium as at the end, the merging of the medieval — and I would certainly say medieval rather than classical or mythical — and the modern comes to the fore, in the very grammar, as part of the unique atmosphere of Middle Earth, an atmosphere equally familiar and uncanny, which is precisely what Faërie must be:

At last the three companions turned away, and never again looking back they rode slowly homewards; and they spoke no word to one another until they came back to the Shire, but each had great comfort in his friends on the long grey road.

At last they rode over the downs and took the East Road, and then Merry and Pippin rode to Buckland; and already they were singing again as they went. But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back upon the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.

He drew a deep breath. “Well, I’m back,” he said.

In terms of actual literary history, there are about five hundred years lying hidden between the end of the second paragraph and Sam’s casual closing line. And by the way, here are threes again: three remaining hobbits, then the triad of Sam, Rose and Elanor in their home — don’t make too much of this, but it never hurts to be attuned to number, even just for practice. Music, when it is not thought of as a kind of time, is a kind of number.

 

Music as figure

This brings me to my last thoughts on the Ainulindalë, not about the musicality of the prose (which is to speak metaphorically) but music as a total figure. I have already quoted the passage in which the chronicler shares the longstanding theology, as it seems to be, that holds the Music of the Ainur to be both protological and eschatological, at the origin of things and at their end. So, to be a bit crude about it, the Ainulindalë is not a concert review. Because it is a narration, it seems like it is about a music that plays, and then some other things happen — there is a great Vision or fantasy, then there is the making of the actual Earth, or Arda, and then there is a fight over the shaping and mastery of Arda. But if we thin about what we’re really reading here, if we pause to consider that this is not actual music as we know it, then we see the whole piece of writing is a great figure. What it reports to have happened in the “Deeps of Time” we must assume really happened, within the logic of the fiction. But as a figure of the metaphysical state of affairs, the Ainulindalë is always happening; just as in Jewish and Christian tradition (or, for that matter, according to a later reteller of the tradition like Milton) Adam and Eve and their lives in the Garden are always playing out for each one of us: or we are they. And Eru’s fiat to existence, his Great Word (for once, this my capitalization, as a coutnerpart to the text’s “Great Music”) that allows all to really be and not only to be fantasy, “Eä,” must be ever spoken for as long as we are here to speculate and tell stories about it.

The report that our chronicler gives us of Elven theological speculation seems to be confirmed or at least reduplicated in Ilúvatar’s declaration that, “no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.” But apart from the clear articulation of such metaphysical doctrine, there are textual, grammatical reasons that the Great Music must be understood only analogically. This essay has gone on far too long, so I will quote one last passage, the first half of the fourth paragraph of the Ainulndalë, the latter half of which I have already quoted. This is the first full rousing of the Music, before Melkor’s fall and after the first awkward efforts of the Ainur:

Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.

This is an astonishing analogy, for the music of the Ainur must be either nothing like what this passage describes, or else the passage describes the inconceivable. The kind of music described is approximately that of the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century sprawling and gigantic choral symphony, of the order of Mahler or Bruckner or Sibelius, one of Tolkien’s favorite composers. Such music could be enormously complex in its structure and displayed an almost overwhelming variety of color, or kinds of sound. But even Mahler and Bruckner could not write music for countless choirs, or pen melodies that were endless. Nor, I think, has any conductor ever had to consider how best to handle the acoustics of a music that is capable of echoing even in a void.

But it is all figure. There are not dwelling places and a non-place, the Void, in which they music may resound, it there is not time. The chronicler will later refer to Ilúvatar’s heavenly dwelling where the action of the Ainulindalë begins as the “Timeless Halls.” In the same sentence he will describe the Valar coming to shape and indwell the real Arda as entering in “at the beginning of Time.” Any notion we might entertain of music, of speech, certainly of narrative, presupposes time. But these observations are really extraneous, for the game’s afoot from the second clause of the fourth paragraph. What we are reading about is what the voices of the Ainur are like unto. They are not even singing with words, but only like choruses that sing with words. And after all, what words could they be using? To what concrete objects and discrete actions could their language refer?

What I want to finish with is simply the thought that the Ainulindalë is the maximum of figuration, the exemplar of what it means for myth to contain otherwise unsayable truth in figure. It is a demonstration and advocacy of that means of truth-telling. In wonderfully sensuous language, clear narrative, and with a complex polychronic and polystylistic narrative voice, the purely intellectual limits of thought are set down. Beyond the frontier of the figuration is the single — in some all but unthinkable sense the only — Word, and “the World that Is.” The Ainulindalë models the translation of the highest registers of allegory into a tale you can carry easily in memory or in your pocket. Or in other words the Ainulindalë is more than story, but it is a more-than-story whose goal is to arrive at story.

Tolkien as linguo-mystic

I’ve been rather distracted by some books on Tolkien and by some of his more marginal material. And I’m afraid I may be only at the beginning of the distraction, that the distraction could become a project in its own right. Perhaps distraction is the wrong word, then, because of its privative and negative sense: one is drawn or dragged (trahere) against one’s will and better judgment away from one’s goal. But though I have been forcibly moved, it has been into rather than away from what interests me most in the art of writing, and for that matter in metaphysics and language, in music and the natural world. And something is becoming clear to me that I’ve lost sight of since I was a teenager, and that is the way you can become totally immersed, in an almost participatory fashion, in fictional worlds, in an author’s whole oeuvre and universe and the thought, the way of thinking over many years, out of which that world of words comes. I see that one could easily teach an entire semester’s course on Tolkien’s work — if one did not, in fact, compose an entire curriculum around it. Want to learn Quenya? That’s two semesters prerequisite in Finnish and two in Latin. I can’t remember the last time I was as excited by and immersed in the total work of a writer as I seem now to be with respect to Tolkien. And it’s not like I haven’t read the man before. Heck, I heard and internalized The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings before I could very well read at all. But it’s a good while since I did more than glance here and there in the old philologist’s work, and I had never, until recently, begun to dig very far into the ancillary and unfinished opuscules. Christopher Tolkien completed his monumental editorial project, the twelve-volume History of Middle Earth, when I was about fourteen, and I was vaguely aware of it, I think I even read one or two volumes. But that was getting toward the time when I began to feel a need to put aside fantasy, and even (foolishly) to become embarrassed by it or at least uneasy, for the sake of other forms of literary art such as French poetry, and Dostoevsky, and Bob Dylan — all which stuff, by the way, has far more to do with Tolkien than I realized twenty years ago.

Well, then, I’ve been reading Tolkien’s minor works, i.e. some of his poetry that did not appear in the larger fictions and the short stories; and also the essays. I’ve also been reading insightful works by Tom Shippey, Jonathan S McIntosh, and Stratford Caldecott on Tolkien’s style and mythopoeia and metaphysics and even, as I would call it, his ‘linguo-mysticism.’ And then there are his letters, which are of enormous interest not only in elucidating the creative work, but I should think as well for all writers interested in the relationship between the craft or style of fantasy and mythoi, the substance of it. They contain a good deal of spiritual wisdom and sobriety into the bargain. I am only getting started on the letters. But what I really need to give a thorough inspection is the History of Middle Earth. Particularly I’m eager to read the “The Notion Club Papers,” which in conjunction with the short stories (especially “Leaf by Niggle”) would seem to constitute the author’s clearest metafictional thought.

But I digress. The larger point is that Tolkien, as I am somehow only now realizing, was a writer on the order of, say, Spenser; or, to use more modern examples: James Joyce, John Cowper Powys, Thomas Hardy, William Faulkner and Marcel Proust. I might throw in Virginia Woolf and Herman Broch as well, and not even get started on poets. Why this odd bunch? Two things are striking about Tolkien: his total commitment, as a writer, to a single, unified world or cosmos; and the origin of his work in a fascination with the innermost essence or heart of language — several languages in particular, and language as such — which is the root and genesis of his peculiar, quasi-mystical insight. Tolkien himself attributed his creative work to these twinned sources, which he would sometimes call mythopoeia and glossopoeia, the creation of story-worlds and in a unique way of language, and therefore of unique, new languages. He was, then, a master stylist, in the ranks with Shakespeare and Milton and, again, Spenser, all of whom were really more than stylists, they practically reinvented English for themselves. (It would be interesting to compare Tolkien as a stylist, really a polystylist, with some roughly contemporary reworkers of English whom we might better describe as archaists, viz. Charles Doughty, Robert Bridges, and E R Eddison… another time.) But call it style anyway, and say that for Tolkien, style was inextricable from what we now might call world-building. That modernist company I listed all had a philological bent like Tolkien’s (though none were the trained philologists Tolkien was), and they all, like him, went deep in place, which is to say in history or in memory. And they all knew a kind of metaphysical awe that spurred their writing. Perhaps crucially, the worlds that these writers shaped both are and are not this real world. And their commitment was near-total, i.e. their writing seemed to exist in the service of their worlds and the kinds of language necessitated by those worlds, rather than the worlds and styles existing as epiphenomena of the writing, as usefully consistent settings and thematically appropriate styles. However, this is not to say — at least not for Tolkien — that world was ontologically prior to language. Indeed, either the reverse obtains or, for Tolkien, world and word are coeval.

One of the aspects of Tolkien as a writer that I most appreciate, and which I suspect many other of his fans appreciate whether consciously or not, is that he evidently thought a great deal about the musicality of language, whether in its most wrought form, poetry, or in prose style, or in the essential defining characteristics of a language, what he called its word-forms and phonaesthetics. And he thought about all this in a very personal way. In a lecture concerning his interest in Welsh philology (not his area of academic expertise, and so something he was not obliged to study very much) given the day after The Return of the King was published, Tolkien speculated:

Language — and more so as expression than as communication — is a natural product of our humanity. But it is therefore also a product of our individuality. We each have our own linguistic potential: we each have a native language. But that is not the language that we speak, our cradle-tongue, the first-learned. Linguistically we all wear ready-made clothes… But though it may be buried, it is never wholly extinguished, and contact with other languages may stir it deeply.

He goes on to say that “Gothic was the first [language] to take me by storm, to move my heart.” Strong words. And they ring very true to me — not necessarily Tolkien’s particular preferences in philology, but this notion that we have an inborn set of linguistic predilections. You can see this very clearly in a child learning to talk. My young son runs about all day blurting syllables and learning how to put sounds together, sometimes saying actual words and using them as language, i.e. correctly, but much of the time just clearly playing with phonemes. Most of these he is picking up from his parents — but how does he choose which syllables to practice, if not by sheer preference? And what to make of the sounds he plays with that do not seem to be part of English?

Some of us sheepishly carry on with this sort of thing far past childhood. Not only do we pursue other languages, as much for the aesthetic pleasure as anything else (a pleasure that may derive, if Tolkien is right, from those languages offering us something of the contours of our ‘native language’ that we don’t get enough of in our own regular speech), but we actively invent new languages. That Tolkien was able to do so quite extensively and rigorously is, I think, a large part of the success of his legendarium. He developed a phonaesthetics that appeals to many readers: there is pleasure in the Elvish languages themselves, apart from the sense of a world that their significant presence in the mythoi suggests.

But suggest a world the invented language most certainly does. Glossopoeia implies and entails mythopoeia. In his lecture “A Secret Vice” (that is, inventing languages), given in 1931 (six years before The Hobbit was first published, and thus before anyone had any notion of what Tolkien was up to in his spare time), the man who studied Finnish on a whim and felt compelled to cross-breed it with Latin and his own ‘native language’ in order to invent Quenya, speculated that

For perfect construction of an art-language it is found necessary to construct at least in outline a mythology concomitant… because the making of language and mythology are related functions; to give your language an individual flavor, it must have woven into it the threads of an individual mythology… your language construction will breed a mythology.

There is certaily nothing amiss in discussing the pleasure of glossopoeia. Art is made to give pleasure and entertain, as Tolkien himself would assert in a later preface to The Lord of the Rings. But saying in what the pleasure of glossopoeia consists is another matter. Tolkien goes on in the lecture to admit that he was “most interested perhaps in word-form in itself, and in word-form in relation to meaning (so-called phonetic fitness).” There is, I submit, a certain degree of mystery in this kind of thing. Around the same time that Tolkien was talking about word-form matching meaning, the highly poetic Swiss Neoplatonic (and, incidentally, Catholic) philosopher Max Picard was high up in a valley somewhere near the Italian border writing a book in which he declared that in every language there will be certain words that are “darlings” of the language, in which the “soul” of the word fills out its “body” perfectly. He adduces Baum and Himmel in German as examples. Probably one either has sympathy with such notions or one does not. It is certainly not arguable in regular academic exposition, which is no doubt part of the reason Tolkien, an academic, always felt shy about his literary efforts, rooted as they were in this very intimate and unique relationship with and sense for the music of language.

It is exceptionally difficult to talk about the musicality of language. It is a concept that is anteriorly metaphorical, and to make matters worse, the individual or subjective element in how we perceive musicality — the fact that we are each, in weighing and tasting a line of verse or a sentence of prose, dealing with an utterly personal linguistic experience and our own ‘native language’ — can make analytical discussion of this aspect of literary art frustrating. But it is sometimes possible to describe what one perceives and enjoys in the musicality of language. In “A Secret Vice” Tolkien concludes by reflecting on poetry (and I would say the same applies to prose):

The word-music, according to the nature of the tongue [sc. language] and the skill or ear (conscious or artless) of the poet, runs on heard, but seldom coming to awareness. At rare moments we pause to wonder why a line or couplet produces an effect beyond its significance… So little do we ponder word-form and sound-music, beyond a few hasty observations of its crudest manifestations in rhyme and alliteration, that we are unaware often that the answer is simply that by luck or skill the poet has struck out an air which illuminates the line as a sound of music half-attended to may deepen the significance of some unrelated thing thought or read, while the music ran.

And in a living language this is all the more poignant because the language is not constructed to do this, and only by rare felicity will it say what we wish it to, significantly [sc. semantically], and at the same time sing carelessly.

This is still, it strikes me, a very poetic or figurative way of saying what is going on in the musicality of language. Like I say, we are dealing with a deeply entrenched metaphor when we talk about the music of language. Describing the grammar or historical provenance of a passage, and then comparing it to the semantic sense, will never yield a full explanation of art’s mysterious marriage of form and content.

I want to end this prolegomenon to a discussion of the Ainulindalë (“the music of the Ainur” according to the subtitle) by observing that for Tolkien the musicality of language was apparently bound up with another sort of perception. Recall the connection between glossopoeia and mythopoeia. I read in Stratford Caldecott’s book The Power of the Ring that C S Lewis, in composing an obituary for Tolkien, described him as having traveled “inside language.”  And Caldecott then records that, according to Verlyn Flieger, a fellow academic once said to Tolkien, “You broke the veil, didn’t you, and passed through?” Evidently Tolkien then admitted that he had. If I have time, I intend to track down this reference (Caldecott’s notes and citations are appallingly incomplete), for this is beyond question the language of religious mystery, which is not language Tolkien would have treated lightly. The only elucidation I can supply at the moment is from the same point in Caldecott’s book. (I have foolishly relinquished the library copy of Shippey’s Author of the Century, or else I could find there, if memory serves, a reference to the incident I am about to report.) When he was still quite young, Tolkien encountered two lines in an Old Saxon poem which moved him in a way that, since it cannot have come only from the sense, must have come to some degree from the music of the lines. In the “Notion Club Papers,” Caldecott reports, Tolkien described reading the lines from Cynewulf, which contain the word Earendel (morning star), in this way:

I felt a curious thrill, as if something had stirred in me, half wakened from sleep. There was something very remote and strange and beautiful behind those words, if I could grasp it, far beyond ancient English… I don’t think it is any irreverence to say that it may derive its curiously moving quality from some older world.

As we know, he would go on to grasp, and really to discover, that world magnificently. I am going to next be talking about the Ainulindalë, which is an account not of the discovery of a world now passed, but of the creation of the world still extant. I am going to be talking about phonaesthetics and glossopoeia and music in the Ainulindalë, the last both as a figure and as the language of the piece itself, i.e. its prose style or its specific and varied musicality. I felt it was best to share these thoughts on Tolkien’s ideas and experiences of linguistic musicality first. When I can get my hands on the “Notion Club Papers” and perhaps read more in his letters and track down that source in Flieger’s work, I may have more to say about Tolkien’s insight into the musicality of language, and his understanding of the relation between that kind of music and mythopoeia.

 

 

Interlude: Some thoughts on finishing a MFA and on the idea of a literary education

At the University of Cincinnati I wrote my senior thesis for the English Department on the work of the 17th century poet Katherine Philips. Her poetry is strictly disciplined, and her thought is mystical but carefully balanced, poised, not an access of vague and visionary wonder. As to Philips’ craft, her style you might say, it was neither like Donne’s nor like Herbert’s, whom I’d been studying and admiring when I first discovered Philips, nor, despite her friendship with the man, in the vein of Henry Vaughan. Rather, Katherine Philips was among the inheritors of Ben Jonson. Hermeticism combined with intellectual rigor and strict classicism of prosody is not something you often find. It is a combination I appreciate, and I heartily recommend Philips to fans of 17th century poetry. One phrase from Philips’ poetry has stuck with me for fifteen years — in fact, if I remember correctly, it is the phrase around which I constructed my entire thesis:

Passion hath violent extremes, and thus  
All oppositions are contiguous.

I’ll tell you this right now: if you want to win my heart, rhyme on a logical connector and then use that connector to turn what should be a simple statement of self-evident truth into one of mysterious causation. I bring up Philips’ phrase because I find that it’s knocking around in my mind once more as I reflect on the course of my literary education, or formation as I would prefer to call it, which is now concluding. The oppositions, or opposite poles, of my formal education in literary and linguistic matters are contiguous. I once thought of these poles as antagonistic, but now I see they are complementary and kin. It is what lies in the middle that is incommensurable and, I have come to think, something that I could have done without.

My institutional literary formation beyond high school came about in three stages: a BA in English and Classics; a PhD in English which I abandoned after five years, taking only a MA; and the MFA in creative writing (fiction). These degrees represent three distinct types of formation, respectively in philology, criticism, and practice. If there is another type of literary formation (apart from simply acquiring life experience), I do not know what it would be. There is the stuff with which one makes (philology), the meaning that is supposed to inhere in the thing made (criticism), and the making itself (practice). As I say, it is the middle portion about which I would here express strong reservation, and even repudiate. The common-sense notion would hold that criticism is the most important aspect of an education in letters, that philological learning is valuable only as a means to developing a critical acumen, and that practice is unnecessary except for those who would like to be writers. At this point in my own experience, I do not agree with any of that. Now I will see if I can explain why, but please don’t take any of this as argument. Really, all I am attempting is a distillation of and reflection upon my experience of these three types of literary formation.

I sometimes like to tell myself that I read widely, but I know this is untrue, at least in comparison with the way I read between the ages of about sixteen and twenty-two. It was the most adventurous and exciting time, intellectually, in my life. (And maybe more than just intellectually — but then, excitement isn’t all there is to life.) All forms of literary art appealed equally to me in those days — realism, fantasy, verse, prose. I also had a strong sense that there was a canon, a certain civilizational “deposit” (as David Jones would call it), which I had to master. The University of Cincinnati was at that time still a fairly traditional place, and the curriculum was set up in such a way that one could proceed methodically through the tradition at least of English literature from the early medieval or Anglo-Saxon epoch to the present. That is more or less what I did, I started with such Old English literature as remains and I went up to about, say, David Foster Wallace, who was then still living and at the height of his fame.

But there was another aspect to that phase that was equally important, and that was the study of foreign languages. I already knew French pretty well upon arriving at the University, so I was able to pursue a minor in French literature. But the much more important language study occurred with Greek and Latin. I was also able to look into Old English, Irish and Welsh (I can’t say I learned these languages, but I studied their basic structures and vocabularies and phonetics — tasted them, as Tolkien said in a lecture on Welsh), and I began to study German (modern standard) and Italian (medieval Tuscan, to be more accurate). I don’t mean for any of this to sound impressive, though I recognize it may sound like boasting. But an important point I want to make is that it really isn’t all that impressive. If it seems that way it’s only because the nature of our educational system in the US is such that the acquisition of foreign languages is treated as a supplementary activity and not as the foundation of learning to think in the first place. Throughout most of the history of quasi-formal education, the acquisition of at least one foreign tongue from an early age has been standard. It is only by dint of speaking the lingua franca as one’s native language, and living in the most powerful country in the world isolated by two oceans, that most Americans have come to think of acquiring foreign languages as a somehow specialized or exotic education.

So why did I want to make the literary, historical and linguistic study of languages — philology — the basis of my own education? I think it was because I perceived that the writers who made the greatest impression on me had been formed philologically. I am talking about Tolkien, Joyce, T S Eliot… and then if you go back to the earlier periods, Chaucer and Spenser and Milton were multilingual and interested in the history of the languages they knew, and this in such a way that it served as a basis for their literary art. I had the opportunity to attempt to fashion myself in their image, so that is what I set about to do. Such a self-fashioning (to steal and repurpose Greenblatt’s term) just seemed to me the only literary education there was. You read widely and you read in the original languages where possible. You also read deep in history, and the upshot would be that the world would be an immense and ancient and poetic place for you, because it would be layered in three thousand years of one’s civilizational inheritance. And to some extent, I did manage to realize this vision.

But I would later perceive that there is a problem with the vision. I’ll address the problem at greater length when I discuss David Jones’ work, but in brief it is this: that civilization, the fruition of the Axial Age in the Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian world of the Mediterranean basin and the European subcontinent (or in other words what we call, somewhat absurdly, Western) — that civilization is, to anyone who has studied it in any depth, very clearly coming to an end now. Even as Western technology and social structures spread over the entire planet, the actual roots and essence of that Western culture are deteriorating and disappearing at breakneck speed. If the world feels like it’s flying apart, that’s because it is. The most basic assumptions about human nature, about moral and epistemological authority, about the existence of a transcendent origin of reality and a cosmic order in line with that origin — all of the assumptions that have prevailed for two or three millenia are being extinguished. (Nobody really doubts this. We call the condition “postmodern,” and it seems to be lasting longer than we thought it would, all post- and not pre- anything, at least not yet.) Another paradoxical development is that, again, even as the superficial aspects of contemporary Western culture and Western technology spread over the world more ineluctably than ever they did in the Colonial Era, the large-scale power dynamics of that Colonial Era are being undermined. This transformation is altogether just and right, but it carries with it the consequence that the canon I learned so passionately in my youth has been provincialized. The provincializaton of the canonical literary deposit is not in itself a problem, it is in fact a more truthful perspective, though an undeniable fact is that it entails a devaluation of credentials for those of us who have staked our education on it. It is the lapsing, even among those who are its historical heirs, of belief in the truths of the deeper Western tradition, with its sources in the philosophical systems originating in Greco-Roman antiquity and the social and cosmological vision that came from the Jewish and Christian religions, that more drastically devalues the literary deposit, and can even evacuate it of meaning. In other words, the traditional philology in which I’m steeped is rapidly dwindling in relevance. So it seems to me, and so it has seemed to plenty of others before me — to the T S Eliot of The Waste Land, for instance, or a generation later to the great critic George Steiner.

I am mostly going to skip over the second phase of my literary formation, the PhD school. To be blunt and quick about it, I think the interpretation of literature, or what we now call criticism, is almost totally useless and phantasmagorical. It is all too easily made the thrall of ephemeral ideological programs. That’s one problem with it, but not actually the bigger problem. The bigger problem is that a work of art doesn’t mean anything other than itself. Art isn’t mean to lie around inert, interpreted by experts, it’s meant to function dynamically within a living symbolic structure, a culture. I think Ananda Coomaraswamy was very right about this. Whatever can be paraphrased in a work of art is either not of its essence, or else it is ineffectual, the ghost of a meaning that was once not known about but believed and lived. The present hypertrophy of our collective critical faculty is not like the birth of Western philosophy in Ionia 500 years before Christ, nor like the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century; it is instead entirely deconstructive and knows nothing of wonder. Rather than awakening its disciples to the beauty and truth and goodness of the literary artifact, our criticism teaches them to see in it little more than a record of power struggle, an eternal return of repression and oppression and subversion. Paul Ricoeur famously called this way of thinking a hermeneutics of suspicion.

Not all literary scholarship is worthless. Whatever scholarship still aspires to philological goals is certainly valuable. But scholarship that takes one or another form of so-called critical theory as its point of departure or espouses the hermeneutics of suspicion is the clumsy tool of a displaced brahmin class, evidently self-serving and hopelessly abstract. The ideal is real, and so is the concrete, the particular. What lies in between — the ghostly abstractions and paranoias of the self-appointed moral guardians and technocrats of contemporary Western culture — is unreal. So I believe. As far as literary formation is concerned, because I believe what I do, I find the intermediary stage of my own formation to have been largely a waste intellectually. It was not a waste practically, since it gave me another five years in which to read, to study languages, and above all to teach undergraduates. I value what there is to be valued, and I remain grateful for all the privileges I have been accorded, hoping to use them well. But one does have to come sometimes to certain negative conclusions. There is no young person I know, no matter how intelligent or literarily inclined, to whom I would today recommend the study of literature at the doctoral level. Not, at any rate, if such a person wished to cultivate in herself an ever more nuanced and potent sense of wonder and joy in the literary artifact.

But the MFA is another matter. It’s true, creative writing has long since become an institution in the US, and taken as a whole it does indeed suffer all the hyper-professionalization, intramural squabbling, and self-absorption at the cost of scope of vision that any institution inevitably suffers. However, that said, the Master of Fine Arts is still — or at least it has been for me — true to form. That is to say that it is not plagued by the sort of illusive intellectuality that vitiates literary criticism. The MFA is mainly the dispassionate, guild-like study of a craft. I cannot overstate how much I have valued such study. What I mean when I say the MFA is contiguous with a philological formation is that it deals with particulars, it gets into the real, visible structures and techniques of an art form, which happen to be very hard for moralists to colonize. When you study literature the way you do for a MFA, you learn something undeniably real and tangible and immediate about the world. I have found that the MFA therefore builds well on a philological foundation, though of course one can do it without that and still profit from it. In fact, studying creative writing could go a long way to making up for what one misses out on philologically. I hope it has done this for me. But really the two approaches to literary discipleship are, as I said above, complementary. They might be undertaken in tandem for non-utilitarian purposes, i.e. not so that one might work as a translator (you know, all those high-paying jobs at the UN translating Old English…) or become a published author, but so as to learn about the world as it appears to us and precedes all more practical considerations: the world as language, that in which we live and move and have our being.

So, to recapitulate: Language, in all its concreteness and historical particularity and individuality, is real. Ideas are also real. Abstract programs of interpretation are not to be confused with ideas and are significantly less real than language and ideas. The best literary formation is a preparation for reality in all its presence and all its transcendence. So I would eschew the descent into ungrounded abstraction that is “critical thinking” and advocate for the immersion in real knowledge, the knowledge of forms, that is philological and compositional training. In philology and in the study of literature as an art form that one may learn to imitate, even if as an amateur or as an exercise, the world takes on a granular and complex texture, but at the same time one learns to perceive how idea inheres in form. And one develops a comparatist and practical instinct. You learn to see how different languages approach the same problems of articulation, and likewise you learn alternative approaches for problems in composition. I’m not advocating everyone with literary inclinations get a MFA. There should still be an institutional distinction between people who want to be professional about writing — who want to enter the guild — and those who are pursuing the craft only for non-utilitarian reasons. But if I could reconfigure how literature is taught, so that it might come again to feel like a vital thing, not only a deposit but a heritage, I would slash all the crap about critical this and critical that, and I would replace it with traditional philology and training in literary composition. This is how things seem to me after two decades of sustained study, in three modes, of language as an art, and of thinking as I go about what allows one to appreciate the most intimate textures and attune oneself to the subtlest and deepest resonances of the literary artifact, whatever it still retains of the Western civilizational legacy. I am for the earthy and particular, the real locution and the living metaphor that is the idea; and against moralism and abstraction.

Let me admit again that I have not argued anything here. Perhaps someone reading has done a PhD in literature more or less recently and got more out of the experience than I did. I’m well aware that plenty of people — they used to be my colleagues — would find a rejection of critical thought such as I have expressed here to be morally reprehensible. Looking ahead, I will say, apropos of some of the notions articulated here, that I am interested in David Jones’ thought largely because he was preoccupied by how one makes art in the midst of the lapse of a civilizational order. For Jones, such an order is a system of living signs, efficacious signs, signs that are believed in and not merely known about. The artist, according to Jones, works with signs. What happens, then, if the artist’s material is no longer valid, if in other words he no longer shares a language with the bulk of his peers? One of the reasons I am interested in various kinds of literature that can be called fantasy is that I believe these genres contain the remnants of the civilizational deposit, the arsenal of signs, symbols, images, archetypes et cetera which used to be real to the mass of people of whatever educational level. What I suppose I’m trying to do here is to practice a different sort of literary criticism, not theoretical in motivation but philological — that is, to appreciate and contemplate for love of the word.

p.s. And I promise no further rants about cultural politics.