Heidegger and Tolkien on Art vs. Technology

Yesterday’s post looked briefly at the presence of the Augustinian doctrine of divine exemplarism in Tolkien’s creation-myth, the Ainulindalë. According to the influential critique advanced in the last century by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, such traditional and orthodox views of God and reality, ironically, far from avoiding the kind of technological approach to nature which Tolkien, for example, so deplored and from which he sought to provide some escape in his fiction, instead unwittingly enfranchised the technological outlook at the deepest metaphysical and theological level. In his famous essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger makes the case that the commonplace definition of technology in terms of an instrumental alignment of causes and effects or means and ends—a definition implicit, perhaps, in Tolkien’s account of the modern “Machine” as an instrument designed for “making the will more quickly effective” (L 145)—fails to get at the essence of technology, inasmuch as causal thinking itself has presupposed since ancient Greek times the technological or instrumental paradigm of techne. And yet it is precisely in terms of this technological, causal framework, according to Heidegger, that theology has traditionally articulated God’s relation to creation, with the result that, as Heidegger puts it, “even God can, for representational thinking, lose all that is exalted and holy, the mysteriousness of his distance. In the light of causality, God can sink to the level of a cause, of causa efficiens. He then becomes, even in theology, the god of the philosophers, namely, of those who define the unconcealed and the concealed in terms of the causality of making, without ever considering the essential origin of this causality.”[1] While Heidegger in his essay is resigned to the inevitability of technological thinking, he hopes modern man might nonetheless find his “saving power” by “confronting” and “questioning” the technological paradigm through the cultivation of an alternative mode of thinking and “revealing,” namely that of poeisis or art.[2]

In other respects, of course, Tolkien’s analysis of the problem of modern technology is very much of apiece with Heidegger’s. Like Heidegger, for example, Tolkien links modern technological with representational thinking, and contrasts both of these with an alternative model of true, authentic art. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien argues that one of the purposes of such fantasy is the “recovery” of the strangeness or mystery of things from the “dreary” or “trite” “familiarity” into which they fall through our “appropriation” of them. By “appropriation,” Tolkien does not necessarily limit himself to the kind of practical or technological mastery or domination of things that he criticizes elsewhere, though it would certainly include this. Rather, “appropriation” would seem to include an even more subtle, intellectual, and even aesthetic and artistic form of possessiveness, the kind of thing, for example, Tolkien thematizes in his legendarium, most notably in the character of the Elves. On the one hand, while the Elves symbolize “a devoted love of the physical world, and a desire to observe and understand it for its own sake and as ‘other’,” as well as embody a “‘subcreational’ or artistic faculty of great excellence,” on the other hand Tolkien sees them as for that reason being peculiarly susceptible to what he refers to as the “will to preservation,” i.e., the desire “to arrest change, and keep things always fresh and fair…” (L 236). Thus, Tolkien too recognizes the ease and sometimes imperceptibility with which the true, selfless artistic impulse—which ideally seeks only communion with and knowledge of things through a sub-creative process that simultaneously brings things to their own completion or fulfillment—can slide into the self-interested imposition of one’s own purposes or plans; the ease, that is, one might say, with which “art” or “poetry” can devolve into mere “craft” or “technological making,” and hence the necessity for the one to be distinguished from the other. Here I submit we also gain a further perspective into Tolkien’s well-known preference of myth or fairy-story over allegory. In allegory’s “purposed domination of the author,” as Tolkien puts it in the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, we seem to have exactly the kind of “bad exemplarism” associated with the craft-model of making criticized by Heidegger, in which the act of making is preceded and almost wholly predetermined by a prior act of knowing. In contrast to the “domination” of allegory Tolkien juxtaposes the “discovery” and “applicability” of fairy-story and myth, a form of knowing, in other words, that takes place only in and through the act of making.


[1] Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. Lovitt, 26.

[2] Ibid., 34-5.

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