“Development of the thing recapitulates development of the type.” I’ve caught myself falling into this style of thinking fairly often recently; this post is an attempt to exorcise the tendency by defining it.
Consider the (false) biological instantiation of the theory: thing=embryo, type=species. Example: humans evolved from fish, therefore, human embryos (don’t) acquire gills, then replace them with lungs. Origin: Invented c. 1790 by German natural philosophers–yes, this means Johann Wolfgang von Goethe–to account for the similarities in shape across embryos of different species; synthesis with Lamarckian evolution soon followed; incorporation into Darwinian evolution was attempted, but never successfully.
In a way, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” just restates the classical analogies between micro- and macrocosms (the human resembles the city, the city resembles the world, etc). But with an important difference, a Romantic difference: the focus is no longer on cosmos, that is, order/ornament, but on geny, that is, origin/history.
Of course, Romantic biology fails as science. Romantic anthropology does too; consider the linguistic instantiation of the theory: thing=childhood acquisition of language, type=species’ acquisition of language. It’s true that cognitive scientists still love doing experiments on children, but not because they think that how the individual learns language just is how the species does; rather, they think the one can help us understand the other.
So “ontology indicates phylology”? Or perhaps just “evidence supports theory.” That’s just a way of saying “there are no shortcuts.” Both the micro/macrocosm and the onto/phylogeny parallels were ways of begging the question, attempts to replace explanation with pattern-matching. Nowadays these slogans may be most useful when treated as warning signals: “was that actually a good argument, or did it assume that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny?”
If Romantic historiography is false as a theory, does that matter for the practice? Take the pedagogic instantiation: thing=education, type=civilization. No, it’s probably not the case that, as Herbert Spencer wrote, “If there be an order in which the human race has mastered its various kinds of knowledge, there will arise in every child an aptitude to acquire these kinds of knowledge in the same order.” So what about schools that teach literature starting with Homer and working up to Faulkner, or that teach philosophy starting with Plato and working up to Wittgenstein, or that teach mathematics starting with Euclid and working up to Lobachevsky?
Or take the art-critical instantiation: thing=course of individual artist’s career, type=trajectory of art history. Yes, it can be dangerous to assume that Picasso’s career exactly parallels what happened in 20th century art, but still, surely Picasso, when he was making art, did so with full knowledge that what he did, he did within a particular historical context, a context informed by its past. Should that matter for our understanding of his art?
Perhaps such schools are good; and perhaps we should understand Picasso in this way. It may be the case that ontogeny should recapitulate phylogeny. But then, it may be the case that the microcosm should resemble the macrocosm. The real question is: where do these imperatives come from? The latter seems motivated by the thought, “the cosmos has a certain structure, and we’re in the cosmos, so we should try not only to understand its structure, but to participate in it”; and the former by the thought, “history follows a certain trajectory, and we’re in history, so we should try not just to understand its trajectory, but to participate in it.”
Both are worthwhile thoughts, but resemble and recapitulate seem to take for granted what such participation would look like, rather than actually asking the question. “Recapitulate” captures the insight that telling us to “resemble” our world isn’t very useful; that we need not just a goal, but also a way of getting there. But why assume that copying the history will get us anywhere better than copying its structure?
If not recapitulate, what? Given that history is the history of beings who were aware of history, perhaps reiterate; imagine a school where, instead of reading through from Plato to Wittgenstein, you read Plato seven times: a class progressing from Plato to Aristotle, then one from Plato to Cicero, then Plato to Augustine, then Plato to Aquinas, then Plato the Descartes, then Plato to Kant, then Plato to Wittgenstein…
Or reproduce; imagine a school that progressed from least self-conscious to most: begin with folk tales, move up through Homer to Shakespeare to Plato to Kierkegaard…
Or retrace; imagine a school that moved backwards in time: start with T.S. Eliot and Wittgenstein, then set out to read everything that needs to be read to understand these two, picking the next text to read based on what allusion happens to catch the eye…
Or perhaps none of these would work; perhaps there’s no formula guaranteed to produce an adequate amount of self-consciousness. (A compatible thought: perhaps there’s more than one formula capable of doing so.) I do know that my own intellectual development is better described by the above flights of fancy than by any straightforward process of “resemblance” or “recapitulation.” I’ve spent much of graduate school revisiting texts I read as an undergraduate (which I spent much of, in turn, revisiting texts I read in high school). I still feel as if I don’t really understand them.
In a way I look forward to teaching the same class, reading the same books, over and over, year after year. That may be the only real way to get an adequate education.
There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Illúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Illúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to a deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony….
–J.R.R. Tolkien, opening paragraph of “Ainulindalë,” first part of The Silmarillion
A friend recently shared with me this article responding to the accusation that Tolkien’s writings are somehow Gnostic. Now, I find the accusation somewhat befuddling; my sense of the Legendarium is that Tolkien consciously set out to write a mythology that, unlike historical mythologies, couldn’t possibly be interpreted as Gnostic. But the deeper question–whether and how Tolkien’s fantasy can be taken as consistent with the Catholic faith–seems to me a much more interesting one, and I’m not sure the linked article fully addresses it.
The Gnosticism accusation is a good way into the topic. It helps us to see how nuanced the line dividing ortho- from heterodoxy can be. The original accusatory article (warning: long and boring) defined the three main characteristics of Gnosticism as follows: “(1) the Gnostic devaluation of the cosmos; (2) liberation through some form of mystic flight; (3) the need of special knowledge… gnosis.” Well, yes… but what exactly do these mean, and what makes them incompatible with Christianity? I’d argue that, on their own, these “characteristics” identify no positive doctrine. When we take out the words “Gnostic” and “gnosis” (which do no work here, since we’re trying to define Gnosticism), we’re left with three extremely ambiguous phrases that require elaboration before they can be made meaningful.
Only certain elaborations of these phrases are incompatible with Christianity. When we say “Gnosticism,” we often mean Manichaeism, and of course these phrases describe Manichean doctrine quite well. The Manicheans, remember, believed in an eternal conflict between two first principles, one Good, one Evil. They taught that matter is evil; that we must free the divine spark within us from its material prison; and that we can only do so through special knowledge gained from their mystic texts. So was Tolkien Manichean? The suggestion isn’t even worth responding to. There’s nothing that even looks like evidence for this proposition.
The Ainulindalë does, however, clearly take inspiration from neo-Platonism.
To which I say–so what? Just read St. Augustine–or, since I’ve been doing a lot of this recently, let me summarize it for you (cf. Confessions, esp. Bk VII, and City of God, esp. Bk XII). Augustine has no truck with Manichaeism. He insists that evil is nothing more than the corruption of Good–it has no positive being. But he borrows quite a lot from neo-Platonism, and is far from the only saint to do so. Neo-Platonic doctrines, like how the One emanates into Mind, emanates into Soul, are the source of the philosophical language we use to describe the Trinity! True, there are certain aspects of neo-Platonism that Christians can’t accept, but it’s not that they can’t accept them, full-stop; it’s that they require modification.
Devaluation of the Cosmos: This can be a misleading way of putting it. Even Christians can (should) “devalue” the cosmos relative to God, that is, believe material beings to be inferior to immaterial ones. It’s only problematic to say that matter is actively bad–evil is supposed to only come from free choice. Neo-Platonists don’t call the material world evil, but they do attribute creation, not to God, but to a demiurge, and say that he created imperfectly, hence, material evil. For Augustine, this is wrong, but mostly because it’s conceptually confused–it has evil enter the world through incompetence, but incompetence is itself an evil, so you still have to either blame God (unacceptable) or blame the Demiurge (in which case matter was created by evil, not good). But Augustine does not say that angels played no role in creation. Rather, he says that God should receive the credit for creation, just like a king, rather than his servants, receives the credit for founding a city. The angels are allowed to contribute to the construction, they’re just not the source of either the plan or the building material. Evil enters the world through the rebellion of some of the angels against God’s plan–a rebellion which God allows only because he can make something good out of it.
Mystic Flight: Neo-Platonists also think the flesh a source of evil which we should desire to escape by living “according to the spirit,” i.e. through a life of philosophical contemplation. Christians can’t accept what neo-Platonists mean by these words. But Augustine does not deny that living according to the spirit is good, and living according to the flesh, bad; it would be quite difficult for him to do, given that these phrases come from John’s Gospel and St. Paul’s Epistles. Rather, first, he aligns flesh with nature rather than matter, and spirit with grace rather than form; and, second, he interprets “according to the spirit” to mean the spirit reigning over the flesh, rather than escaping it.
Special Knowledge: The problem with neo-Platonism isn’t that it has an evil “hidden” doctrine. Its philosophy is for the most part compatible with Christianity. Rather, the problem is that neo-Platonists wish they were angels, not men; or, to put it differently, they believe true wisdom consists in knowing what, not knowing who. They don’t accept Christ. They dislike the Incarnation for a number of reasons: they don’t like how it humbles God, they don’t like how its specifics appear arbitrary, they don’t like how it shifts the emphasis from philosophical meditation to a full-bodied communion with the person of Christ. They’re completely wrong about this. But for Augustine, this isn’t because they philosophize wrongly, it’s because they don’t have revelation. It’s unclear to what extent Plato himself was culpable for not becoming Jewish–interestingly, Augustine speculates that he may have read Genesis and Exodus. Augustine definitely blames Porphyry for remaining a neo-Platonist and refusing to convert to Christianity.
So, how does Tolkien’s Legendarium stack up here?
Responsibility for Creation: Well, the Ainulindalë lines up almost perfectly with Augustine’s modifications of neo-Platonic doctrine. The only possible objection would be that Tolkien says that the Valar–the archangels who served Eru in the act of creation–were sometimes worshiped as gods. But he makes quite clear that the humans who did this were mistaken. The traditional view, to be sure, is that the pagan gods were all demons in disguise. But is it heretical to say that there was nevertheless a truth underlying worship of the pagan gods, namely, that there are angels (perhaps even a set of twelve archangels) who serve God in the world? I don’t see how.
Flesh and Spirit: To demonstrate “mystic flight,” the accusing article focuses on how, at the end of The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf, the elves, and Frodo all go off into the West to Valinor. But this makes no sense. Valinor isn’t philosophy-land, it’s the Land of the Blessed. You don’t get there through secret knowledge, you get there through being saved by God. And in any case, Gandalf is an angel, the elves aren’t human, and Frodo goes there only to rest for a short time before he dies. It’s an interesting question whether the existence of elves, hypothetically speaking, could have been compatible with Christianity, but it’s hard to see how one would even begin answering it. It’s more troubling how Tolkien describes death as Eru’s gift to man, which suggests that death is good in-and-of-itself, but he’s not wrong to say that it serves a good purpose. Although we would be better off never having fallen and never having died, still, given that we’re fallen creatures, we’re better off dying than not dying. Perhaps it would have helped for Tolkien to make clear what happens to men in Middle Earth after death.
Revelation: It’s pretty obvious why he doesn’t, though: he want to avoid stepping on the toes of Christian Revelation. He doesn’t talk about Christ, or a fictional version of Christ, because he believes in the historical specificity of Christ, and doesn’t think fictional stories can offer us anything more than imperfect “types.” This is also why he sets all the Legendarium material thousands of years BC. But C.S. Lewis wrote about a Christ-like Aslan? Yes, but that’s because he was writing about an alternate world, while Tolkien was writing a fictional history of our world. The latter is actually less problematic, religiously speaking. It’s what ever novel does when it posits the existence of a person who did not, in fact, historically exist. So long as nothing contradicts Christian salvation history, there’s no problem. Alternate worlds are metaphysically problematic–they assume that asking the question “what would God have done if he had created a different world, say, one with talking animals?” even makes sense. Note that Tolkien didn’t particularly like the Narnia books.
Similarly, he doesn’t talk about the afterlife because predicating eschatological terms of fictional characters is really difficult to do without trivializing both fiction and eschatology. Saying “Frodo went to Heaven when he died” sounds silly, but so does “Frodo didn’t go to Heaven.” I’m actually not convinced that any writer, past or present, has ever written doctrinally acceptable fiction about the afterlife, rather than fiction about mystical experiences of the afterlife. Dante, you say? The Divine Comedy is technically a fictional mystical experience, and insofar as it’s meant to be taken as more than that, it’s unimaginably arrogant. It’s so stupendously arrogant, and so successful, that it’s difficult for us to remember how arrogant it is. But how the hell can anyone justify being so presumptuous as to decide whether real people go to Heaven or Hell? He even puts someone in Hell while they’re still alive! Could he have done this if he took the language of Heaven and Hell as more than a beautiful poetic fiction? Perhaps–but what he’s doing is much more questionable than anything Tolkien does.
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that Tolkien shied away from incorporating fictional Christology or eschatology into the Legendarium. It should surprise us, rather, that he took up the challenge of writing a fictional version of Genesis chapter 1. What should we make of the Ainulindalë? I’m not entirely sure, but a few observations.
First, we should remember that Genesis chapter 1 is itself figurative, not literal (God did not literally speak–no sound came out of his mouth), and there is in principle no reason why some other literary image–say, music, rather than words–could not be used to communicate the same metaphysical truths.
Second, we should see Tolkien’s willingness to write this narrative in terms of the traditional idea that one can arrive through reason alone at belief in a creator God, and also in terms of his personal belief that authorial “subcreation” allowed one to participate (in a limited way) in divine Creation. Genesis 1 is about the structure of the universe, which perhaps is knowable only through revelation, but Tolkien’s narrative focuses on what it is to create, which perhaps isn’t.
Finally, the Ainulindalë is, technically speaking, not a narrator’s-eye-view account of how Middle Earth was created, but rather is an Elvish text on the subject filtered through many layers of translation. In this sense, the Ainulindalë may play a role within the secondary world of Middle Earth closer to that of the Timaeus than that of Genesis. More specifically, it’s a Christianized Timaeus, Christianized not in the sense of “turned into a vehicle for Christian doctrine,” but rather “made compatible with Christian doctrine” (to the extent that it wasn’t already).
This doesn’t mean everything Tolkien wrote was perfect. It’s not. But then, neither was everything Augustine wrote–and he’s a saint. (Just read the City of God and you’ll see what I mean about not perfect.) The goal shouldn’t be to hunt out heresy in everything we read, it should be to seek the good in everything we read, while being clear about its flaws and limitations. For the record, Tolkien’s biggest flaw is not Gnosticism, but nostalgia. To bring out what I mean, I’ll ask again: What, exactly, is the metaphysical status of the elves? What does the twilight of the elves represent, if not the twilight of the possibility of belief in elves, dwarves, wizards, and all the other beautiful lies that Christianity replaces? But that’s a question for another time.
Ever since the “Theory of Forms” philosophers have always sought to express in less and less grandiose terms Plato’s fundamental insight: in rough terms, that in the long run there will turn out to be a connection between reality and language, between the way things are and the way we’re able to talk about them. This one is the most minimalistic versions I’ve yet encountered:
‘You cannot fool all of the people all of the time’ is ‘analytic’.
–J.L. Austin, footnote to “Other Minds,” from Philosophical Papers, third edition, p. 113.
Of course, the paper immediately preceding this one is “The Meaning of a Word,” which rejects the analytic-synthetic distinction entirely. So who knows what exactly Austin was trying to say.
This post follows up on my post last week about the ontology of the distinction between science fiction and fantasy. I ended that post suggesting that the two genres are inextricably linked, both emerging out of the Enlightenment and Romanticism and concerning themselves with similar subject matter: the gap between objective and subjective, mechanical and organic, etc.
But wait: wasn’t there science fiction and/or fantasy prior to the 18th century?
No. At least, no more than there were novels prior to the 17th century. Perhaps there were, in a sense; there were certainly precursors of the novel; and now is not the time to go into the differences between them and the novel proper. Let’s just take for granted that not until the 17th or 18th century did there emerge a genre of prose narrative for which the guiding question was not r(X): “What would X do and say?”, X being a character from history or myth; but rather n(X): “What is it like to be someone who finds himself X?”, X being a real world situation. From r(Lancelot) we get Le Morte d’Arthur, which, though it includes magic, has little to do with modern fantasy novels; from n(shipwrecked on a desert island) we get Robinson Crusoe, which, though it contains no technological speculation, is quite close to the science fiction genre.
Note that the mainstream literary novel tends to follow the template n(in an ordinary situation). Sometimes we get n(shipwrecked on a desert island), but more often n(in need of a husband in middle-class Napoleonic era England), which of course yields Pride and Prejudice. The exact definition of “ordinary” is unclear; it can’t be “average,” since most novels aren’t about average people, exactly, nor can it be “exemplary,” since novels can certainly be about people in situations you shouldn’t want to be in. X including complex erotic entanglements, normal, so long as it’s not emotionally indulgent; active political involvement, fine, so long as it’s not actually about governance; violent crime, acceptable, but risky: you could wind up writing a genre novel. These conventions arose gradually over the course of the 18th and 19th century, and even now aren’t fixed, but I don’t think it’s entirely unfair to summarize them thus: we will now ask questions that are not philosophical, but rather social.
But some novels reject this; and, for whatever reason, many (though not all) of those that have rejected it have been “genre” novels. Genres can be defined as subsets of the set of all novels; detective stories are all n(someone has died), and horror stories are all h(something horrible is happening). These genres were both invented by Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote mid-19th century, and who did not see himself as a realist novelist, but as a writer of “romance” (though his works can’t be understood except as descended from the novel form). Both raise the same sorts of questions: what can we know? what does it mean? And, obviously, both are genres that have had a life of their own, outside of sci-fi and fantasy. But don’t fear; we’re drawing closer to our target.
Historical fiction and adventure fiction both share a crucial feature of sci-fi and fantasy, namely, that the novelistic premise has two terms. The former follows the formula h(X,Y)=n(X, in a time when Y), while the latter follows the formula a(X,Y)=n(X, in a place where Y). These are perhaps even more fertile ground for “romance,” for the presence of the second term forces the writer to be self-conscious about his artifice, and “romance” here (referring as it does to Shakespeare’s later plays) means reflecting on the structure of narrative itself, in particular, on what narrative has to do with the objectively possible and what it has to do with our desire for subjective meaningfulness. Consider, in this light, two books written by contemporaries of Poe who shared his dislike for realism and preference for “romance”: The Scarlet Letter results from h(having committed adultery, Puritan New England), and Moby-Dick results from a(caught up in a quest for vengeance, on a whaling vessel).
Of course, not all historical or adventure novels are relevant to this story about the genealogy of sci-fi and fantasy. There’s one way of understanding the temporal/spatial difference, which we might call literal, such that we’re interested in the other time as predecessor of ours, or the other place as a certain distance from ours; this renders the other time or place, not ordinary, but not entirely out of the ordinary. For example, Middlemarch (set 40 years before the book was published). But this is not what Hawthorne and Melville did. Instead, they made their times and places related to our ordinary world symbolically: Puritan New England and the Pequod don’t interact with 19th-century America, but are allegories for it–in a way not immediately obvious. As such, these books immediately raise two questions: how does the reality portrayed fit together? how does it tell us about our reality?
Yet something is still missing. That something we might call the false supposition (hence science fiction and fantasy): the genre f(X,Y)=n(X, in a world where Y), with such ur-examples as f(resurrects dead tissue, that’s possible)=Frankenstein, and f(journeys to the center of the earth, that’s possible)=Journey to the Center of the Earth. “A world where that’s possible” is, of course, not a world that differs from our own by very much, and Mary Shelley and Jules Verne probably didn’t understand themselves to be writing fiction of the impossible; they didn’t think they were so different from Daniel Defoe writing Robinson Crusoe. But once people realized that this is what they had done, the “in a world where” clause began to grow more elaborate; we begin to see differences of time, place, and possibility; and interest grows in the very idea of an imagined world, rather than just imagined things in the world. Imaginary worlds are interesting: how do they work? (sci-fi.) What do they mean? (fantasy.) Unfortunately they also cause a number of problems, most importantly, they’re never as different from our own as we want them to be. After all, it would be impossible for us to understand something completely alien to us.
All these strands converge in the 20th century, and the modern sci-fi and fantasy genres are born. The novel, that is, a narrative of what is it like to be the main character; plus a polemical resistance to “ordinary” novels, that is, novels about society, and an insistence on metaphysics and ethics; plus a self-conscious artistry regarding how narrative deals with the gap between objective and subjective reality; plus an allegorical relationship between the narrative and our own reality; plus the logic of the alternate world imagined as entirely distinct from our own; equals science fiction and fantasy.
What I find fascinating is that this genealogy, though targeted mostly as someone like Ray Bradbury, also quite accurately describes J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, even though he read very little modern literature and detested Shakespeare for failing to be adequately fantastical. (At least, he said that about Macbeth; I don’t know his opinion of the later plays.)