Wednesday, 18 September 2013

How does artistic subcreativity square with God's creation?


One of JRR Tolkien's deepest and most fertile ideas was that of subcreation, which he launched in the lecture/ essay On Fairy Stories.

The idea was that when an artist creates - especially when he creates an imaginative 'world' which has the quality of being real - he is acting in a God-like manner: honouring God's primary creative act.

I think Tolkien is correct; but the idea does come into conflict with the idea from Classical Philosophy and Theology that God's primary creative act is creation ex nihilo, or creation-from-nothing. Because such an act is completely different-in-kind form artistic creation, which is creation from pre-existing materials - creation from matter and proceeding according to the laws of nature.

So by this account artistic subcreation is actually nothing like God's creativity - it does not resemble it in the slightest degree.

However, if God's creativity is conceptualized in terms of the organization of pre-existing matter according to eternal laws - in other words the conceptualization for Mormon theology - then there is a very precise, and indeed theologically-significant - equivalence between artistic subcreation and divine creation.

And the truth of Tolkien's insight is clarified.


Here is the heavyweight theological back-up:

Note added 5 Oct 2013. This post is an interesting example of the way that metaphysical assumptions strike different people differently. To me it seems obvious that creation-from-nothing is an unique activity reserved uniquely to God - and described as such by a particular highly intellectual Christian theological-philosophical tradition. It seems obvious to me that the very explicit attribution of the uniqueness of creation ex nihilo means that it is thereby qualitatively unlike anything else. However, some other people seem not to equate uniqueness with qualitative difference. And that is that, I suppose - either it strikes you this way, or it doesn't...

Death of St Brendan (a version of the poem Imram, from the Notion Club Papers)

The Death of St Brendan
At last out of the deep seas he passed,
and mist rolled on the shore;
under clouded moon the waves were loud,
as the laden ship him bore
to Ireland, back to wood and mire,
to the tower tall and grey,
where the knell of Cluian-ferta’s bell
tolled in the green Galway.
Where Shannon down to Lough Derg ran
under a rainclad sky
Saint Brendan came to his journey’s end
to await his hour to die.
‘O! tell me, father, for I loved you well,
if still you have words for me,
of things strange in the remembering
in the long and lonely sea,
of islands by deep spells beguiled
where dwell the Elven-kind:
in seven long years the road to Heaven
or the Living Land did you find?’
‘The things I have seen, the many things,
have long now faded far;
only three come clear now back to me:
a Cloud, a Tree, a Star.
We sailed for a year and a day and hailed
no field nor coast of mean;
no boat nor bird saw we ever afloat
for forty days and ten.
We saw no sun at set or dawn,
but a dun cloud lay ahead,
and a drumming there was like thunder coming
and a gleam of fiery red.
Upreared from sea to cloud then sheer
a shoreless mountain stood;
its sides were black from the sullen tide
to the red lining of its hood.
No cloak of cloud, no lowering smoke,
no looming storm of thunder
in the world of men saw I ever unfurled
like the pall that we passed under.
We turned away, and we left astern
the rumbling and the gloom;
then the smoking cloud asunder broke,
and we saw the Tower of Doom:
in its ashen head was a crown of red,
where the fishes flamed and fell.
Tall as a column in High Heaven’s hall,
its feet were deep as Hell;
grounded in chasms the water drowned
and buried long ago,
it stands, I ween, in forgotten lands
where the kings of kings lie low.
We sailed then on, till the wind had failed,
and we toiled then with the oar,
and hunger an thirst us sorely wrung,
and we sang our psalms no more.
A land at last with a silver strand
at the end of strenght we found;
the waves were singing in pillared caves
and pearls lay on the ground;
and steep the shores went upward leaping
to slopes of green and gold,
and a stream out of rich and teeming
through a coomb of shadow rolled.
Through gates of stone we rowed in haste,
and passed and left the sea;
and silence like dew fell in that isle,
and holy it seemed to be.
As a green cup, deep in a brim of green,
that with wine the white sun fills
was the land we found, and we saw there stand
on a laund between the hills
a tree more fair than ever I deemed
might climb in Paradise;
its foot was like a great tower’s root,
it height beyond men’s eyes;
so wide its branches, the least could hold
in shade an acre long,
and they rose as steep as mountain-snows
those boughs so broad and strong;
for white as a winter to my sight
the leaves of that tree were,
they grew more close than swan-wing plumes,
all long and soft and fair.
We deemed then, maybe, as in a dream,
that time had passed away
and our journey ended; for no return
we hoped, but there to stay.
In the silence of that hollow isle,
in the stillness, then we sang-
softly us seemed, but the sound aloft
like a pealing organ rang.
Then trembled the tree from crown to stem;
from the limbs the leaves in air
as white birds fled in wheeling flight,
and left the branches bare.
From the the sky came dropping down on high
a music not of bird,
not voice of man, nor angel’s voice;
but maybe there is a third
fair kindred in the world yet lingers
beyond the foundered land.
Yet steep are the seas and the waters deep
beyond the White-tree Strand.’
‘O! stay now father! There’s more to say.
But two things you have told:
The Tree, the Cloud; but you spoke of three.
The Star in mind you hold?’
‘The Star? Yes, I saw it, high and far,
at the parting of the ways,
a light on the edge of the Outer Night
like silver set ablaze,
where the round world plunges steeply down,
but on the old road goes,
as an unseen bridge that on the arches runs
to coasts than no man knows.’
‘But men say, father that ere the end
you went where none have been.
I would here you tell me, father dear,
of the last land you have seen.’
‘In my mind the Star I still can find,
and the parting of the seas,
and the breath as sweet and keen as death
that was borne upon the breeze.
But where they they bloom those flowers fair,
in what air or land they grow,
what words beyond the world I heard,
if you would seek to know,
in a boat then, brother, far afloat
you must labour in the sea,
and find for yourself things out of mind:
you will learn no more of me.’
In Ireland, over wood and mire,
in the tower tall and grey,
the knell of Cluain-ferta’s bell
was tolling in green Galway.
Saint Brendan had come to his life’s end
under a rainclad sky,
and journeyed whence no ship returns,
and his bones in Ireland lie.
Note: Cluain-Ferta has the English name of Clonfert.
I reproduce this simply for people to read, since I find it to be one of my favorite of all Tolkien's poems.
Yet the piece remains somewhat obscure, since it was pulished in this form only in 1992, in the Notion Club Papers - although a revised (and I think slightly inferior) version called Imram was published in the the magazine Time and Tide in 1955, and was afterwards sporadically reprinted in various relatively rare Tolkien collections.
In the context of the NCPs, the poem is attributed to Philip Frankley, and is evidence that several members of the club are starting to get drawn-into the Numenorean legend - since the lines "Upreared from sea to cloud then sheer/ a shoreless mountain stood;/ its sides were black from the sullen tide/ to the red lining of its hood." are intended to refer to the last visible remnant of Numenor - the following description ("A land at last with a silver strand") is meant to be Tol Erresea, the Lonely Isle to which the exiled Noldor Elves returned, offshore from Valinor where the 'gods and angels' dwell.
The poem as a whole expresses - with unusual directness - some of Tolkien's deepest yearnings: for the sea, for The West with its (now drowned) Earthly Paradise of Men, and elven Faery.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Charles Williams' marital infidelity


I think there will always be a major stumbling block for Christians in relation to Charles Williams, due to his marital infidelities.

Much has been made of the fact that his infidelities never went so far as actual sex - but this is hardly relevant to the problem.

My overall impression is that Charles Williams wanted to have sex with Phyllis Jones and the reason he did not was that she would not allow this - this is what Alice Mary Hadfield implies in her biographies, and it fits all the evidence we have. This kind of sexual limitation was not, therefore, a result of restraint but of constraint; which hardly counts in CW's favour!

And the quasi-magical, Tantric-inspired physical intimacies reported by his biographers, and most vividly in Letters to Lalage by Lois Lang-Sims, make clear that young women were strategically sought out, and put under psychological pressure to comply with CW's ritual demands.


The problem with all this is twofold:

1. Charles Williams was, from before he met Phyllis Jones, a theological innovator whose main idea was probably the new/ recovered spiritual path or via positiva of Romantic Theology - which was a sacramental view of erotic love, marriage and sex that was to serve as the major (but not exclusive) focus of Christian life. CW's extra-marital shenanigans with other women seem very subversive of the viability or validity of this path.

2. Most disturbingly, there does not seem to be much evidence of CW repenting his extra-marital infidelities, nor even resisting their temptations; even more disturbingly, he makes considerable efforts (post Phyllis Jones) to integrate extra-marital erotic love with his Romantic Theology - in a way which seems all the more self-serving as it is (at least to my understanding) utterly incoherent!

(On this basis, I find it very difficult to understand the elevated reputation of his late book on Dante and Romantic Theology - The Figure of Beatrice, since it reads more like a patchwork of rationalizations than a consistent and live-able theology.)


In sum, a full and frank acknowledgement of Charles Williams' marital infidelity is necessary to understanding his thought - since the apparent failure to repent of it, but instead to try and justify it theologically, had a destructive effect on the clarity and coherence of his Christian writings. Therefore, this effect must be noted and discounted if Williams' writings are to be as useful and helpful to Christians as, potentially, they might be.


Monday, 2 September 2013

Provenance of the Notion Club Papers - both fictional and true


Note: Provenance - noun. The place of origin or earliest known history of something.   


When he presents The Notion Club Papers in Sauron Defeated: Volume Nine of The History of Middle Earth (1992), Christopher Tolkien provides an Introduction (pp 145-53) and continues by presenting the NCPs as a free standing unit commencing on page 154 with a facsimile of the NCP title page before the Foreword, attributed to the fictional Editor of the NCPs, Howard Green. 


These texts provide various accounts of the purported (feigned) history of the NCPs, which lead up to the conclusion that the NCPs are to be regarded by the reader as both fictional and true

1. The facsimile title page describes the full title as Leaves from the Notion Club Papers, emphasizing that these are a selection from an incomplete portion of the original NCPs


2. The bottom of the page reads: Second edition MMXIV.

The Roman date means 2014 (next year!) - and that this is a second edition means that the NCPs, having only been discovered in 2012 (as we later discover) have already run into a second edition - which is surprising, given the apparently limited appeal of the text, but also allows for some pseudo-scholarly playfulness combined with making-a-significant-point, later in the Note to the second edition


3. From the Foreword we are told that the NCPs were discovered by Howard Green on top of a sack of waste paper in Oxford University during the summer of 2012. There was no evidence of their origin. 


4. Howard Green tells us that the NCPs as he found them had been prepared for publication - despite that they seemed merely to be the minute book recording the proceedings of a club for reading and conversation - and that many of the entries have no apparent interest to any outsider. There seem to have been originally reports of some hundred meetings spread over about a decade from 1980-90 (that is, about ten meetings per year).


5. But, although the members of the club are named in the Foreword and in the main body of the text, the fictional editor Howard Green then tells us that no such club as the Notion Club ever existed; that there were no persons with such names, not even pseudonymously. This also applies to the club secretary Nicholas Guildford - which name is derived from a medieval dialogue (not named, but implicitly The Owl and the Nightingale which mentions one Master Nicholas of Guildford).

This discovery is atributed to Mr JR Titmass - whose name had the earlier version of Titmouse (given in Christopher Tolkien's introduction) - which I guess may be a sly joke on the name of the Inkling Charles L Wren (the titmouse or by its earlier name the titmase = small bird - the wren being the smallest British bird). 

(Wren was Tolkien's successor in the Professorship of Anglo-Saxon, and Tolkien sometimes found him irritatingly professional and pedantic.)


In sum - at this point the provenance of the NCPs seem to be that they are a fictional composition of little interest recording the proceedings of a fictional club presented by a fictional secretary! 


5.  Backtracking to Christopher Tolkien's Introduction, there are some quotations from earlier drafts of the Title Page and Foreword. 

The earliest presents the NCPs as 'a fragment of an apocryphal Inklings' Saga, made by some imitator at some time in the 1980s"

Which was replaced by "appears to have been written after 1989, as a apocryphal imitation of the Inklings Saga Book."

So - if 'apocryphal' carries meanings such as being of doubtful authorship, and having an exaggerated and/or unreliable and/or erroneous content; what might be implied by this term Saga Book?

Perhaps Saga Book refers to the journal of the same name published by the Viking Society, and which in its earliest editions carried accounts of the society Proceedings with exactly the same format as the shorter entries in the Notion Club Papers?

(see the earliest editions available on ) 


6. Note to the Second Edition describes that two more fictional scholars WW Wormald and DN Borrow have made an elaborate alternative interpretation of the provenance of the NCPs, challenging the interpretation of Howard Green. Green puts the date of composition in about 1940, more exactly "during or just after the Six Years' War" (in other words, the real time when Tolkien actually wrote the NCPs).

But Messrs Wormald and Borrow apparently claim that this is impossible, because the NCPs contain reference to two later events than the 1940s - that is the Great Explosion of 1975 and the Great Storm of Thursday, June 12th, 1987. If the NCPs had indeed been written in the 1940s this would mean that the author had foreseen these later events - which W. and B. regard as impossible, therefore they make an interpretation of the evidence which has the original manuscript copied after 1987 and the 1975 and 1987 incidents inserted at this later date.  

At one level this passage (on pages 156-8) is a parody of the kind of reasoning engaged in by historical textual critics - for instance Bible scholars who do not believe in the possibility of prevision/ precise prophecy, and must therefore attribute prophetic texts to later dates.

Note also that Tolkien/ Howard Green had changed his dating of the composition of the NCPs from the earliest draft which stated they were written "made by some imitator at some time in the 1980s" to the earlier date of the 1940s. 

Why did he do that? - because Tolkien has now got other and larger fish to fry...


7. Howard Green concludes this section with a very important passage:

I am now convinced that the Papers are a work of fiction; and it may well be that the predictions (notably of the storm), though genuine and not coincidences, were unconscious: giving one more glimpse of the strange process of so-called literary "invention" with which the Papers are largely concerned.

My interpretation is that here is Tolkien speaking about how The Notion Club Papers, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and Quenta Silmarillion which they were designed to 'frame' - should be regarded by the reader: how he wanted them to be regarded by the reader.

Remembering that the Notion Club Papers was, at the time of writing, intended to be the entry-point into Tolkien's whole Legendarium - and therefore the 'plan' was that the Foreword to the Notion Club Papers would be the very first thing a Tolkien reader would ever encounter.

Tolkien wanted his works about Middle Earth/ Arda to be regarded as fictional and also containing genuine knowledge about the 'real world', which combination was made possible by the unconscious processes of literary invention as it is described in The Notion Club Papers.