Evangelium in a Crashing Tower

the-shores-of-fairy.jpg

The Shores of Faery, 1915 by J.R.R. Tolkien (1892–1973).
From The Morgan Library & Museum’s exhibition “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth.”


 
Be he more a realist in his cynicism than she with her fingers crossed in hope? Ney, I say! In this essay I champion the moral importance of fairy-stories for the cultivation of ecological virtue in human beings. The value of fairy-stories for our time of uncertainty figures especially in their facility to condition those reared with them into hopeful creatures. By hope I mean that disposition of humility which admits miraculous possibilities of otherwise—possibilities, perhaps, of eucatastrophe. The latter is a term which the philologist and fantasist J. R. R. Tolkien coined to refer to the happy turn of events at the end of a tale that constitutes a proper fairy-story. Ecological virtue, I suggest, consists in a practice of eucatastrophic thinking and what John Keats’ called negative capability for an attunement to the rhythm of being. Both spring from love as “a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own.”[1]In what follows I argue that hope as an openness to the possibility of happy catastrophe is not merely wishful thinking or escapism, but is—in a deeper sense—a loving act of imagination for the welfare of the whole. The moral import of fairy-stories will become clear as a result of my argument, underscoring their importance for human cultures today who seek to engage the ecological crisis motivated by more than just fear.

“To hope,” writes the ecotheorist Tessa Shewry, “is to engage in a complex communal life with multiple, contradictory implications at once.”[2]No matter how clean our footprint is, we cannot escape participating (however indirectly) in the suffering of others—yet still we must act. Shewry’s understanding of hope reveals and instructs the imagination of one who is awake to their enmeshment in earthly ecology. But alas, hope is not a disposition that is so easy to come by. Fear has a much more familiar face. That this is so is evident in the mainstream discourse on the threats of climate change, or else we are subject to naïve technofix assertions as when manifest destiny extends to Mars. I have heard echoed over and over that it is easier for people today to imagine the end of the world rather than the end of the capitalist machine that is actively destroying it. How could this be? Why are we so wanting in hopeful imaginaries of otherwise? The poet-philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley might answer by pointing to “the extinction of the poetical principle” in popular society.[3]The latter, says Shelley, is “connected with the progress of despotism and superstition,” developments in which human beings are not cultivated for freedom, but pitted against themselves and each other.[4]Consumer choice masquerades as freedom in our time, but is in reality a byproduct of today’s cultural inundation with the manipulative magic of advertisement. Though for different reasons, Shelley’s description of the dark ages in his essay “A Defense of Poetry” bears a resemblance to our time in which human vices, rather than virtues, are encouraged:

Men had become insensible and selfish: their own will had become feeble, and yet they were its slaves, and thence the slaves of the will of others: lust, fear, avarice, cruelty, and fraud, characterized a race amongst whom no one was to be found capable of creating in form, language, or institution.[5]

The poetical faculty Shelley alludes to requires a higher kind of freedom, one that is inherently ecological—for it locates its agency beyond the narrow confines of the buffered self. “Poetry,” writes Shelley, “is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will… The mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness.”[6]This higher freedom through which a being participates imaginatively in the life of the whole is what I call here inspired agency. For Shelley, the expression of such agency is poetry in general, and though one might argue that his elevation of poetry in a conventional sense (i.e. language arranged in meter) hints at his personal inflation, his overall philosophy emphasizes humility as the disposition through which poetry inspires. Like the smoldering coal, my receptivity to the swirling winds of ecological being allow them to pass through “me,” fanning the flames of imagination into visions of hopeful alternatives to capitalist catastrophes.

That Shelley, along with others before and after him, could ascend to heights of ego inflation reveals the danger of inspired agency despite its relational underpinnings. Imagination can be wielded for good andevil. It is hope—as I use the term in this essay—through which imagination may rhyme along in good faith with the primary creativity of natura naturans. “In hope,” invoking Shewry again,

we establish, feel, and express a relationship between things of this world (and through this world, the claims of the past) and the future in terms of openness and potential, loosening the hold of imagined futures said to be inevitable already. This is an embodied, unassuming, wordless relationship that is shaped by and at the same time nourishes ideas, or what one hopes for… Establishing a relationship of openness between present and future creates space not only for varied imaginaries of what might come but also for what we do now to enrich the future.[7]

In contrast to the modernist pursuit of certainty and its hegemonies of “should,” Shewry’s construal of hope befits the human of an era like the Anthropocene in which all concepts of human activity must be ecologized. Hope here has much in common with what the poet John Keats sparsely described as “negative capability.” In a letter written to his brothers, Keats describes the latter as the capacity needed for “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”[8]Though negative capability may certainly require a willfulsuspension of interpretation, logic, and projection of possible outcomes, it is—as a practice—only half of the equation I insist on in this essay. The other half is in hope as a contemplative act, as eucatastrophic thinking—the caring embrace of what Keats following William Wordsworth called the “burden of Mystery.” To contextualize that burden, I quote at length Keats’ poetic philosophy of life from another letter to fellow poet J. H. Reynolds:

Well—I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me—The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think—We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by the awakening of the thinking principle—within us—we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight: However among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one’s vision into the heart and nature of Man—of convincing ones nerves that the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness, and oppression—whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken’d and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open—but all dark—all leading to dark passages—We see not the balance of good and evil.  We are in a Mist—We are now in that state—We feel the ‘burden of the Mystery,’To this point was Wordsworth come, as far as I can conceive when he wrote ‘Tintern Abbey’ and it seems to me that his Genius is explorative of those dark Passages.  Now if we live, and go on thinking, we too shall explore them.[9]

The Anthropocene is a time of “Mist;” the more we humans realize our enmeshment in the unpredictable feedback loops of earthly ecology, the more we are mystified by the question “what to do about it?” Some answers may be better than others, but none have the privilege of resolute correctness in what Keats calls the Chamber of Maiden-Thought. The latter might be interpreted as the Chamber of sensual experience, through which an individual’s curiosity is awakened and conditioned by the events of life. This Chamber, Keats tells us, has the potential of “convincing one’s nerves” that fear and hopelessness are the most appropriate responses to the sufferings of time—for what purpose can reason make of a world writhing in so much pain? No answer is sufficient. Why should I go on? If the cultivation of ecological virtue is vested on the recognition of relationship as fundamental, then to be virtuous means to realize that “I” am more than just myself. To say this is one thing, but to know it is another: to know oneself as the whole of cosmic ecology is humiliating in the literal sense of “being brought close to earth;” despair bottoms out into compassion for others in what is truly a shared suffering.[10]Ecologized sensibility—if it is true—is necessarily hopeful even as it bears the burden of Mystery because the individual bearing it knows that they are not alone. Hope is the hand we hold as we feel our way through “those dark Passages” of life’s Mansion of Many Apartments. Hope is knowing that we are in this together.

Shelley’s philosophy of poetry is helpful for more than just diagnosing the ills of today. His assertion that corruption is typically keyed with the absence of the “poetical principle” underscores its importance for organizing an ecologically just society. To understand Shelley’s generalized notion of poetry, we must understand what he means by imagination. Shelley designates the latter as that synthetic activity through which we have experience. Imagination is anterior to reason, or the class of mental action which, Shelley writes, “may be considered as mind contemplating the relations borne by one thought to another.”[11]Reason is thus figured as the squire of imagination, the deeds of whom are taken back up by the latter “as mind acting upon those thoughts so as to color them with its own light, and composing from them, as from elements, other thoughts, each containing within itself the principle of its own integrity.”[12]  Imagination, therefore, is that primary creative activity rhyming the world and our experience into being and, at the same time, is that which we participate in when we rhyme along through the poetry of our lives. After all, “poetry,” in a general sense,” writes Shelley, “may be defined to be ‘the expression of the imagination’: and poetry is connate with the origin of man.”[13]The latter point is crucial for understanding my insistence on the import of fairy-stories for the cultivation of ecological virtue. Poetry, for Shelley, is not apart from the world—rather—it is that through we strive to synchronize with its underlying rhythm. To illustrate this attuning function of poetry, Shelley offers—among others—the example of a child at play:

A child at play by itself will express its delight by its voice and motions; and every inflexion of tone and every gesture will bear exact relation to a corresponding antitype in the pleasurable impressions which awakened it; it will be the reflected image of that impression; and as the lyre trembles and sounds after the wind has died away, so the child seeks, by prolonging in its voice and motions the duration of the effect, to prolong also a consciousness of the cause. In relation to the objects which delight a child these expressions are what poetry is to higher objects.[14]

The “impression” which the child mirrors in play is like the wind strumming through an Aeolian lyre; as actions which aim to prolong “consciousness of the cause,” both examples amount to poetry as expressions which reconcile the individual with the rhythmic life of cosmic imagination.

Whether as language written in meter or a life lived in accordance with earthly rhythms, poetry in general is any expressive activity that performs a reconciliation between the part and the whole—and is, for that reason, ecological (relational). Shelley’s conception provides a way of restoring the bridge between nonhuman nature and human culture, for it is the former which inspires the organization of the latter. “In the youth of the world,” writes Shelley, “men dance and sing and imitate natural objects, observing in these actions, as in all others, a certain rhythm or order.”[15]The closest approximation to that “certain rhythm or order” is what we call beautiful, the experience of which is the highest pleasure, for it is an echo of our origin in divinity. Shelley says those who have the capacity to apprehend the beautiful are poets and have major sway, for their expression “communicates itself to others, and gathers a sort of reduplication from that community,” allowing the entire group to organize in accord with the beautiful rhythm and in so doing, attune to the song of cosmic ecology.[16]But because cosmic imagination is creative, poetry is never-ending innovation and requires poets to stay on their toes! “If no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganized,” Shelley warns us, “language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse.”[17]Before the human species began ratiocinating its way into imaginaries of separation, attunement was basic existence. Indeed, as Shelley writes,

in the infancy of society every author is necessarily a poet, because language itself is poetry; and to be a poet is to apprehend the true and the beautiful, in a word, the good which exists in the relation, subsisting, first between existence and perception, and secondly between perception and expression.[18]

Human culture has not always storied itself apart from nonhuman nature; the roots of most words hint at this. But today, as in Shelley’s time, the dominant imaginary does not incline its adherents to experience themselves ecologically. Though all human beings may possess the capacity for poetry, today’s poets are those who for some reason or another are primed to feel through the imaginatively wrought boundaries of the buffered self. Thus, for their negative capability, poets are what we desperately need as we muster the courage to confront the unfolding ecological crisis. I am led to agree with Shelley in his dynamite declaration at the end of his essay: “Poets arethe unacknowledged legislators of the world.”[19]What we need are exemplars of inspired agency!

For Shelley, the apotheosis of poetry happens on stage in drama for its multimedia mimesis of life. “The tragedies of Athenian poets,” insists Shelley,

are as mirrors in which the spectator beholds himself, under a thin disguise of circumstance, stripped of all but that ideal perfection and energy which everyone feels to be the internal type of all that he loves, admires, and would become. The imagination is enlarged by a sympathy with pains and passions so mighty, that they distend in their conception the capacity of that by which they are conceived… Neither the eye nor the mind can see itself, unless reflected upon that which it resembles. The drama, so long as it continues to express poetry, is as a prismatic and many-sided mirror, which collects the brightest rays of human nature and divides and reproduces them from the simplicity of these elementary forms, and touches them with majesty and beauty, and multiplies all that it reflects, and endows it with the power of propagating its like wherever it may fall.[20]

When drama is at its best it presents a concentrated portrayal of human experience, shining with the “brightest rays of human nature” that then penetrate the audience and awaken those self-same qualities already resident within. Drama has the power to catalyze and cultivate human sensibility, shaping it to perform the values it narrates. In spite of his celebration of drama, Shelley disparages the form of story for its supposed disjunction with the whole:

The one [story] is partial and applies only to a definite period of time, and a certain combination of events which can never again recur; the other is universal, and contains within itself the germ of a relation to whatever motives or actions have place in the possible varieties of human nature.[21]

Shelley’s disparagement of story is indeed strange if one accepts my extension of his general notion of poetry to individual life itself when it reconciles with the life of the whole. Is not story the means by which we might narrate our lives in wholeness? Moreover, does not every story have the potential to tell itself in such a way as to convey something universal of human experience?

In his defense of story, J. R. R. Tolkien contrasts wildly with Shelley’s celebration of drama, chiding the latter form’s pretense toward expressing the fantastic, which a feat like the reconciliation of the part with the whole certainly is. In his essay titled “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien introduces a similar philosophy of imagination, one that wonderfully introduces more terminological distinctions than Shelley’s affords. Tolkien’s focus in this essay is on “Fantasy,” or that operation “which combines with its older and higher use as an equivalent of Imagination the derived notions of “unreality” (that is, of unlikeness to the Primary World), of freedom from the domination of observed “fact,” in short of the fantastic.”[22]For Tolkien, the “Primary World” is the expression of the Creator’s “Primary Art,” or the unfolding creativity of cosmic imagination. “Sub-creation” characterizes the activity of those who participate in Creation producing “Secondary Worlds,” the achievement of “which gives (or seems to give) “the inner consistency of reality,” or “Secondary Belief.”[23]Specifically, Fantasy is the style of  sub-creation characterized by “a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression.”[24]As works of Fantasy, fairy-stories work to restore our astonishment in life by presenting universal human experiences (much like in Shelley’s dramatic concentration of life) under the guise of impossible circumstances. In an effort to reconcile Shelley and Tolkien, we might call fairy-stories a fantastic form ofpoetry. Tolkien describes Fantasy’s awe-inducing power as a power of “recovery,” one that resonates with my insistence on restoring the human relationship to nonhuman nature:

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness.[25]

Drama’s reliance on corporeality (performing bodies, costumes, props, stage sets, etc.) limits its ability to revivify perception. Dramatic attempts at Fantasy often fall flat or appear absurd. In Tolkien’s words, “men dressed up as talking animals may achieve buffoonery or mimicry, but they do not achieve Fantasy.”[26]Rather, it is, as Tolkien insists, through words that Fantasy is rendered best, for

fairy-stories deal largely, (or the betters ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting. For the story-maker who allows himself to be “free with” Nature can be her lover and not her slave.It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.[27]

The power of fairy-stories to revivify the mundane, astonishing habitual perception into wide-eyed amazement with the beauty of nature is clearly important for our time. To cultivate ecological virtue we must recover an experience of the mystery and inherent value of the nonhuman world. The reality of such stories has a deeper valence than any nominalist understanding of language could admit. Though he is at times ambiguous, fairy-stories for Tolkien seem to deal with an actual realm—the realm of Faërie—in which denizens like the elves dwell. Fantasy as a capacity granted to the human being by imagination is in this purview inevitable, as are its sub-creations in which important truths about what it means to be human may be taught by the elves alone:

To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires, and when it is successful of all forms of human art most nearly approaches. At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art, which (however much it may outwardly resemble it) is inwardly wholly different from the greed for self-centred power which is the mark of the mere Magician. Of this desire the elves, in their better (but still perilous) part, are largely made; and it is from them that we may learn what is the central desire and aspiration of human Fantasy—even if the elves are, all the more in so far as they are, only a product of Fantasy itself. That creative desire is only cheated by counterfeits, whether the innocent but clumsy devices of the human dramatist, or the malevolent frauds of the magicians… Uncorrupted, it does not seek delusion nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves.[28]

By “Enchantment” Tolkien refers to the elven craft of sub-creation in which the Secondary World is experienced with “Primary Belief,” a Fantasy so convincing that it is accepted as reality. At their best, elves demonstrate ideal sub-creation for human beings in what Shelley might call poetry, or the celebration of, reconciliation with, and “shared enrichment” of Creation—“partners in making and delight, not slaves.”

Finally we arrive at the end, the moment in which the harrowing events of a fairy-story take a miraculous turn toward a happy resolution—the eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic trope is not one of mere escapism, nor is it inherently childish. “It does not,” writes Tolkien,

deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief… in such stories when the sudden “turn” comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through. [29]

That fateful gleam comes through to pierce our hearts with some uncanny truth that somehow makes the “burden of Mystery” lighter. Spellbound by Secondary Belief, our joy hints that the fantastic eucatastrophe may in some way actually

partake of reality. The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth…in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far- off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.[30]

Human sensibility cultivated through a cultural practice of telling fairy-stories might thus be formed to feel through the “dark Passages” of life, candlelit by a hopeful disposition that flickers with eucatastrophic thought. To confront the ecological crisis we must both internalize an identity that exceeds our individuality and indwell a disposition of hope that is itself a loving practice of being ecological. Only when we think eucatastrophically can we muster the courage to press forward in the name of possibilities of otherwise. Rather than a parasite of the earth, let us—raised on heaping plates of fairy-story—be partners with our Creator; let us, as sub-creators, “assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.”[31]

NOTES

Keats, John, from “Selections from Keats’s Letters,” Website. May 22, 2019. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69384/selections-from-keatss-letters.

Morton, Timothy.“Deconstruction and / as Ecology,” in Greg Garrard, ed., The Oxford

Handbook of Ecocriticism, 291–304. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. (Page 11 in PDF): file:///C:/Users/aarnoldy/Downloads/Deconstruction_and_as_Ecology.pdf

Shelley, Percy Bysshe, “A Defense of Poetry.” PDF file. May 6, 2019. https://resources.saylor.org/wwwresources/archived/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/A-Defense-of-Poetry.pdf.

Shewry, Teresa. “Hope.” In Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thinking, edited by Jeremy Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert, 455-468. Minneapolis, MI: University of Minneapolis Press, 2017.

Tolkien, J. R. R., “On Fairy Stories.” PDF file. May 22, 2019. http://heritagepodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/Tolkien-On-Fairy-Stories-subcreation.pdf

[1]Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry.” PDF file. May 6, 2019. https://resources.saylor.org/wwwresources/archived/site/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/A-Defense-of-Poetry.pdf, 6.

[2]Teresa Shewry, “Hope,” in Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thinking, ed. by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2017), 455.

[3]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 11.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 17.

[7]Shewry, “Hope,” 458.

[8]John Keats, from “Selections From Keats’ Letters,” Website. May 22, 2019.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69384/selections-from-keatss-letters

[9]John Keats, from “Selections From Keats’ Letters,” Website. May 22, 2019.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69384/selections-from-keatss-letters

[10]Timothy Morton, “Deconstruction and / as Ecology,” in Greg Garrard, ed., The Oxford

Handbook of Ecocriticism (Oxford UP, 2014), 291–304. (Page 11 in PDF): file:///C:/Users/aarnoldy/Downloads/Deconstruction_and_as_Ecology.pdf

[11]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 1.

[12]Ibid.

[13]Ibid.

[14]Ibid.

[15]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 2.

[16]Ibid.

[17]Ibid.

[18]Ibid.

[19]  Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 20, my emphasis.

[20]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 8.

[21]Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry,” 5.

[22]J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories.” PDF file. May 22, 2019. http://heritagepodcast.com/wp-content/uploads/Tolkien-On-Fairy-Stories-subcreation.pdf, 6.

[23]Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 5.

[24]Ibid.

[25]Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 9.

[26]Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 7.

[27]Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,”10.

[28]Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 8.

[29]Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 13-14.

[30]Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 14.

[31]Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 15.

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