Words and Ideas

A pair of articles by thinking men, and writers, on the dangers of thought and word. The first one is especially reflective on the way in which we can't even express the danger without falling into a kind of contradiction. That doesn't mean the danger isn't real:

Tolkien’s ring of power is a plain gold ring, of course, and embodies a series of quite complex valences to do with binding, with vows and marriage. But at the same time as being a blank surface, the ring is also paradoxically (which is to say, magically) lettered. The ring, in other words, is a book. To be sure it is a short book; its whole text is the one ring charm. But a short book is still a book. Looked at this way, Lord of the Rings becomes a strangely self-destructive fable—a book about the quest to destroy a book, a long string of carefully chosen words positing a world in which words have magical power to huge evil. How few books there are in Middle Earth!... Gandalf scratches his rune at Weathertop; the hobbits misread it. The elven door in Moria, beautifully lettered, commands 'speak friend and enter!' and nobody understands its simple instruction. The fellowship find a dwarfish book in the mines, as scorched and battered as poor old Beowulf; but as they read it aloud ('drums in the deep', 'we cannot get out') it becomes true to them, and they repeat the words as suddenly, horribly, appropriate to their own predicament. The repeated theme is the danger of words; their slipperiness but also the ease with which they can move us directly into the malign world of the text. One ring to bind us all.

...This is not as straightforward as it might be. As both a Christian and a scholar of Old English, Tolkien has a necessary investment in the spoken word, especially as it is passed between a communion of loving friends: the logos, the face-to-face, the speak-friend-and-enter. The Lord’s Prayer (which Tolkien liked to recite in the Gothic language) was conveyed by Christ to his followers verbally, not in written form. Of course, Christ’s whole life is conveyed to us via a written text.... The world of Middle Earth is a raw world compared to the ‘cooked’ world of 20th- and 21st-century urban living. And so for Fantasy more generally: the word is raw in its immediacy and naturalness, its directness and magic. Magic here is spoken aloud; songs are sung directly to an audience; nothing is written down except the everything that is written down to construe the Fantasy realm.
What is the distinction between the 'book' that Tolkien burns, and the one that he made? One difference lies in beauty. The ring is beautiful, but the language inscribed upon it is foul. So is the idea expressed by the words:
Not long ago I was introduced to an audience as an “intellectual.” This was a well-meaning choice of word, and a flattering one, but it was slightly off. An intellectual is a person who is mainly interested in ideas. I am an aesthete—a person who is mainly interested in beauty. Nowadays the word aesthete carries with it the musty reek of high Victoriana. Still, there remains no better word to describe the way certain people—people like me—view the world.

It’s not that aesthetes are hostile to ideas. But it’s part of aesthetic wisdom that there is great danger in allowing ideas alone to take the reins and ride mankind, since too often they end up riding individual men and women into mass graves. Far too many intellectuals have been what Jacob Burckhardt called “terrible simplifiers,” the power-hungry idea-mongers whose utopian visions have inspired the world’s most murderous tyrants. That is reason enough to decline to be counted among their number.
The author follows this up with a long insight on the importance of art to political thinking, in part to leverage against the force of binding ideas. He ends on a note that turns on a highly intellectual distinction, I notice: the distinction between 'making art that moralizes' and 'being alive to the moral force of created art.'
When making art or writing about it, the aesthete tries never to moralize. Nor will he look with favor upon artists who do so, no matter whether their particular brand of moralizing is religious or secular. But he can and must be fully, intensely alive to the moral force of art whose creators aspire merely to make the world around us more beautiful, and in so doing to pierce the veil of the visible and give us a glimpse of the permanently true.
Tolkien said that he hated allegory. I suspect he meant something like the distinction. The world he crafted was very much alive to permanent moral truth. Indeed, its beauty arises chiefly from its truth.

(H/t: Brandywine Books and Arts & Letters Daily.)


MikeD said...

Tolkien’s ring of power is a plain gold ring, of course, and embodies a series of quite complex valences to do with binding, with vows and marriage. But at the same time as being a blank surface, the ring is also paradoxically (which is to say, magically) lettered. The ring, in other words, is a book.

This quote right here expresses to me much that is wrong with academia. This is the reader (who is writing about his experience reading) saying what the book means to him, and then transferring that into the original author's intent. And frankly, I find that laughable. As noted, Tolkien himself hated allegory and insisted to his dying day that there was no allegory in the Lord of the Rings. And yet, we have here a "serious person" saying "no, no, no, Tolkien is wrong, I know that this is what he meant when he wrote this!"

Frankly, I think the authority on what meaning an author puts into his work is the author himself. Lacking definitive answers on that meaning, we are free to speculate on symbolism and meaning. But here, we have an author who explicitly said "this is not allegory; there is no deeper meaning". And this joker wants to second guess him? Worse, second guess him and imply he was hostile to reading and subconsciously was a book burner? That's not just a reach, it's insulting.

I am reminded of a story (always told second or third hand, so likely untrue) of a college lecture where the professor is reading from a poetry journal and telling the students what the meaning behind each poem is. And at one point the professor reads one particular poem with many references to the color green. He explains to the students that clearly the author had come out of a long winter and relished the coming spring. One student raises his hand and asks, "Isn't it possible the author just likes the color green?" The professor scoffs, "That's just the kind of insipid analysis I have come to expect from today's students. Clearly the author is using green as a metaphor for spring." The student rebuts, "I'm pretty sure the author just really likes the color green." The professor becomes indignant and exclaims, "I have a PhD in English Literature, I have taught classes for as long as you have been alive, I am published in seven scholarly journals, who do you think you are?" The student responds, "Well, I only may be published in one, but it's the one in your hand, and I know I'm the author of that poem."

Grim said...

I didn't read it as a declaration that The Ring was and only could be a book, but that one way of thinking about it is as a book. Why does it need to be burned? Because it makes real a dangerous idea -- that one should master all, and all should serve that one.

Read along with the comments about, e.g., the books in Moria, it's an interesting thought. Books do make real the concepts they enshrine, sometimes.

Ymar Sakar said...

People in the past didn't automatically read the bible, or read at all.

They also weren't clear on what happened in the past, and continually rewrite their clan's epics using oral history.

Eric Blair said...

A friend of mine said that the one ring was really the ultimate machine

Chew on that one for a while.

Grim said...

Maybe the penultimate one. The penultimate machine takes care of all your needs by making slaves of everyone else. The ultimate machine can do it all by itself, so that the slaves aren't necessary.

Although, maybe not: Sauron like Melkor seemed to need to dominate others. So perhaps it's his ultimate machine: the best one of which he was capable.