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.

 

 

 

 

New projects

It proved unfeasible for me to publish essays on this blog while finishing my MFA. But earlier this week I handed in the creative portion of my thesis. To congratulate myself on the work now done, I wandered yesterday through the ninety-degree heat — one month ago we were without power for two days due to an ice-storm… presumably some time between then and now there was springtime, but if that happened I don’t remember it — I wandered into our local record store, a surprisingly friendly and unpretentious place as record stores go, and treated myself to Herbert von Karajan’s 1979-1980 recording of Parsifal. I have never listened to this music on vinyl before, with all the ceremony and aura that entails, not to mention my toddler’s newfound fascination with the turntable. The recording is one of the great musical accomplishments of the 20th century. Immediately upon purchasing it I decided I would turn soon to a project I’ve had in mind for a long time, namely a comparison of the medieval original, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, and Wagner’s mystical and musical drama.

You don’t hear about him in English-speaking countries today, but Eschenbach was one of the great poets. I mean the analogy fairly precisely and do not exaggerate his praise when I say he wrote the Iliad and Odyssey of the Christian Middle Ages. He is emphatically, utterly, essentially, and in all respects and degrees not Dante. Eschenbach stands toward the beginning of the High Middle Ages and Dante, a century later, more toward that epoch’s end. If you want a rollicking good time and the most mystical and dramatic and in places solemn storytelling possible, Eschenbach is your man — as I will hope to show. If I had my druthers I’d teach Eschenbach to high school or college students instead of half the novels they’re made to read… but that’s another discussion for another time. I have sometimes wondered if Eschenbach was a superb storyteller and a man of vision because he was a bona fide knight. And I have consequently also wondered if more modern writers, especially those of us given to fantasy, wouldn’t be better off if we were also knights. But that, too, is a discussion for another time.

The point of all this is to say that I hope to start writing soon about the Holy Grail and Parzival story, as transmitted in Eschenbach’s version and Wagner’s. I like this idea of reworking material. It is an old idea. Better yet: it is an old idea of what to do with old ideas. The sense of antiquity, of historical depth is ingredient to much fantasy. Along the lines of reworking old material, I would also like to take a look at Karen Ullo’s version of the Cindarella story. She — that is, Karen Ullo, for I refer to all my authors in this way, along with the possessive pronoun — has been lying around on my desk for months, next to the canonical source of Cindarella, the seventeenth century Frenchman Charles Perrault, who moved in a very interesting literary milieu. I say that because Perrault’s milieu was nearer to our own, in terms of its concerns with gender politics, than that of probably any other time or place.

Before all this, though, I still have a thing or two to say about Tolkien. That will start going up in a few days. It’s hard to bring to mind a writer with a more developed sense of the depth and, so to speak, the pastness of the past, than Tolkien, particularly as that depth and layering  and remoteness manifests in verse and prose style. But if I had to supply his equal in that concern, I would likely nominate the Anglo-Welsh poet David Jones, Tolkien’s contemporary and coreligionist. Jones wrote some difficult but also very beautiful modernist poetry. In my opinion his book The Anathemata is the finest of all the ambitious modernist long poems (yes, it beats the Cantos and Paterson and Stevens and Hart Crane and all those guys with the only near-contender being Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems, and with the proviso that T S Eliot’s Four Quartets do not comprise an ‘ ambitious modernist long poem’). Some of Jones’ literary output (he was also a visual artist) has recently been reissued, including his essays, which will likely be the focus of my blogging. Jones had insightful, unique things to say about the ontological status of art, and about the way an artist relates his religious commitments and the practice of his craft.

My largest project, now that I have, for a little while, the freedom to read whatever I like, is to get through the entirety of Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle. I have only ever read the first portion, the tetralogy called The Book of the New Sun, and that was almost a decade ago. The Solar Cycle includes twelve “science-fantasy” books published by Gene Wolfe between 1980 and 2001 and takes its name from its constituent parts: The Book of the New SunThe Urth of the New Sun (a coda to the first tetralogy); The Book of the Long Sun (another tetralogy); and The Book of the Short Sun (a trilogy). I haven’t undertaken a reading project of this kind in a long while. In Search of Lost Time, which is comparable to the Solar Cycle in length, took me six successive summers, whereas I would like to read the Solar Cycle in not more than six months and if possible in as little as three. Probably the last time I concentrated like that on such a mass of material from a single author was when I was reading Edmund Spenser for what I thought would be my PhD dissertation. I do have a thing for very long works, extended projects that occupy a writer over the course of a career or clearly take up, in the form of a fictional or visionary world, the bulk of the writer’s mind. If I make it through the Solar Cycle, the most fitting follow-up to such a project would be, I think, Doris Lessing’s (yes, that Doris Lessing) epic science fantasy, Canopus in Argos

My understanding is that Lessing’s epic is supposed to be informed by her involvement with Sufism, in much the way that Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle is an architectonic working out of much of his thought and experience as a Catholic fantasist. This is of course my overall project as a writer and really in my whole life, this inquiry into how fantasy, the perception of transcendent reality, plays out in religious thought and experience on the one hand and in literary art on the other. There is both mystereion and mythos or if you prefer a different and analogous Greek pair, symbol and allegory; and if you prefer Latin then religio and fabulae. Such pairs cannot be divorced, but that does not mean their relationships are placid and static. My MFA thesis — which, fear not, I will refrain from discussing further here — was a novel about this dual refraction of fantasy, specifically as viewed under the rubric of what the philosopher calls the problem of evil. This ‘problem’ is not specifically what goes wrong, but the fact that things go wrong. The difference between the What and the That is the difference between physics and metaphysics. In the literary artifact and in the religious sacrament, though in different ways, the two are indissoluble at a conscious and at a supra-conscious level. We will see David Jones talk about this union using the Catholic terminology of the efficacious sign.

Anyway, this is all just to say that I will be writing on here again, hopefully with some fairly major momentum now that I am, at least in theory, sort of, maybe, a free man. Before I turn back to Tolkien, though, I’d like to share some reflections on the now eleven years I’ve spent in formal, post-secondary study of literature… coming right up.

 

 

 

On the irreplaceability of Han Solo

Where would I be without Facebook? It furnishes such a rich profusion of writing prompts. The other morning I encountered a most enlightening query regarding Star Wars, to wit: If you could only bring one of these characters back to life, which would it be? The options were: Han Solo; Anakin; Padme; Yoda; Obi-Wan; Qui-Gon. There is, of course, only one answer that any sane person could supply to such a query:

Han Solo.

You don’t even have to think about it, do you? I tried out the question on my wife, listing the options in the order given above, and she stopped me before I finished saying “Obi-Wan,” because the answer was so obviously Han. I’ve been trying to think about why it has to be Han, why my interest in Star Wars came to an end with the death of Han Solo, if not long before, with the end of Return of the Jedi.

Many of the comments on FB in support of resurrecting other characters (Han was preferred by the clear majority) were speculations regarding plot, the things that could happen differently in the plot if this or that character were to come alive again. This was illuminating, because it helped to show what is unique about Han Solo, namely that after his rescue from Jabba the Hutt and subsequent resuscitation, which made for an excellent story (and let’s note in passing that just a few years later Star Trek would pull off the same feat in The Search for Spock) — after The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo’s importance to the plot was over. And when Solo is most important to the plot — when he’s frozen in carbonite — he’s not really Han Solo, because he’s… frozen in carbonite. On the other hand, all other characters fulfill their plot-roles precisely by acting according to who they are.

What I am getting at here is that the other main characters are defined by their roles in the story. They are, in fact, not really characters as we think of them in the modern sense, but types in a great, sweeping archetypal fantasy of good versus evil. But is Han Solo really a character in that modern sense inherited from the development of the novel? It could be fairly easily argued that he is not, that he is just as stereotypical as anyone else: the independent-minded gunslinger, loyal to his friends but ultimately only looking out for himself (but capable of some moral improvement or an instinctual sense of the good), as he plies an amoral life in a lawless world.

I don’t think Han Solo stands out because he’s a character in a fiction populated otherwise only by types. (There is one exception, at least potentially, to this critique of the other figures in the story, and that is Leia. She doesn’t quite get to flourish like she deserves but she has the makings for a more complex person — in fact a genuine literary character — in a way no one else does, not even Han. Note that we tend to care more, I think, about her bond with Han than with Luke.) Han Solo stands out because he is a light from another world, and whatever he comes into contact with shines in a different light than it otherwise would.

The world Han Solo comes from is the world of grim and gritty low comedy. (Leia does not come from this world, but she has comedic potential — part of what makes her so much more complex than others — and Han serves to actualize some of that potential.) Han is the paragon figure of that world, along with his sidekick, and there are of course other representatives sprinkled throughout, including all of the droids. But Han stands alone for comedy in its deeper sense, as the genre of the lowly, but the lowly that is capable of rising to heights unknown to the world of tragedy. The genius of Star Wars, or much of it, is to combine the lowliness of comedy with the loftiness of tragedy, and indeed to surpass that loftiness. It is a difficult achievement, for the two modes represent cosmic visions that are difficult to reconcile.

To elevate comedy, to allow stories enacted by menial folk and desperados, the luckless, the lonely, the unloved and the seemingly failed, to rise to a level of meaning and beauty previously only perceptible in stories of valiant heroes and magically powerful divine or semi-divine figures. — This is, historically, in European civilization at any rate, a result of the influence of the Christian story in the Gospels, as predicated upon and prefigured in the Hebrew Bible. Many have felt it important to note this elevation of comedy and the fusion of it with tragedy, from Nietzsche to Auerbach, Rosenstock-Huessy and, perhaps, Tolkien. In the work of that last we see how the addition of comedic characters — for that is what the hobbits are, and Gollum — transfigures what would otherwise be a heroic tale and, we can assume, a tale of defeat. Doesn’t Star Wars do the same thing?

From the point of view of pure tragedy, Luke’s quest to overcome his father’s legacy is the heart of Star Wars, for tragedy is about inherited and ineradicable guilt. But from the point of view of the higher comedy, the heart of the story is the marriage of Han and Leia, the redemption of the tragic cosmos through its union with the comedic. Their marriage may be contrasted with that of Anakin and Padme, who are two types from the same literary and spiritual world, namely tragedy. The doomed union of Anakin and Padme serves only a purpose within the plot (that is why it is doomed), while that of Han and Leia is the telos of the plot, it stands beyond the story as its triumph.

 

 

 

 

 

Point of order re: the universe(s)

I ran across a thing on Facebook today. It was a query, to wit: “Who created the greatest universe?” Six possible answers were provided, in the form of authors and their iconic works of fantasy. They are, I shouldn’t be surprised to learn, the six highest grossing fantasy franchises: Star Wars; Star Trek; Dragon Ball; Lord of the Rings; Harry Potter; Game of Thrones.

One of the larger points I am always trying to make is that geography matters, place matters. And for the love of the Actual Maker of the Actual Universe (and all potential universes, if you want to get technical about it), correct terminology matters. A universe is what it is: the extent of created reality. If you don’t believe in the transcendent, if you don’t distinguish creator and created, then the universe is just the totality of existence, even whatever, if anything, lies the other side of a black hole, or on the inside of the inmost folds of the eleventh dimension of quantum space, or what have you. That’s what the word ‘universe’ means. It doesn’t mean ‘fictional world,’ or ‘world in which a fiction occurs.’ If it meant that, then every fiction could be said to occur in its own universe. I don’t find this a helpful way of thinking about fiction, as it would make it impossible to think that one fiction could be part of a larger category of things we call fiction, and I take the essential unity of all fictions to be a very important point. But anyway, the point here is that, metaphysically speaking, no writer has ever created a universe.

However, there is a genre of fiction that posits an unreal setting, that is to say, a setting that is not supposed to be in any way connected with this world, or universe: not through somebody’s dream; not set in some heretofore overlooked corner of the Earth that can only be accessed by (for example) a very irregular and unusual train service; not some version of this Earth that is pretty much exactly the same as the one we know but with vampires or witches or whatever; not some alternative dimension accessed through a magical piece of furniture that is located in a fictional representation of this universe; not a galaxy far away (but in this universe, because what else could it be said to be far away from unless it were from us who live here in reality?); not a historical world of long ago, or this universe at some future time — none of that, I’m talking a totally fictive universe. The strictest definition for modern fantasy fiction that I can think of is the one that defines the genre as fiction that is understood, within the implicit logic of the fiction, to occur nowhere in this universe. In the case of this strictly defined fantasy, which is most contemporary high or epic fantasy, the author can be said to have, in a way, created a (fictive) universe, i.e. a (fictively) ontologically autonomous reality.

And guess what? Of the six options listed in the query that got me thinking about this, only one, George R R Martin’s, meets this criterion. All five of the other options are supposed, within the logic of the fiction, to occur in this universe. So there’s the correct answer: Martin wins by default. And that is all the more I will say about something I saw on Facebook. But maybe I’ll say later why I think the distinction at play here matters.