Tolkien and Heidegger on the possessiveness of representation

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 29

In criticizing the Elvish motive of preservation and possessiveness, one of Tolkien’s purposes is to draw attention to and comment on what for him is a very real human temptation. I have noted how, through the Elvish quality of loving things for their “otherness,” Tolkien positively displays the role of “recovery” that all fairy-stories have, the “regaining of a clear view,” as Tolkien puts it in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” a “‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves” (Tolkien Reader 77). What we may also see is how the Elves, as “the artistic, aesthetic, and purely scientific aspects of the Humane nature raised to a higher level than is actually seen in Men” (Letters 236), at the same time represent some of the very human motives that these same fairy-stories are meant to deliver us from. For as Tolkien continues in the same passage from his essay,

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. Of all faces those of our familiars are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them. (Tolkien Reader 77)

It is important to note that Tolkien is not yet critiquing here the kind of practical, technological mastery and “appropriation” of things that, as we shall see in later post, he warns us against elsewhere. His target in this passage, rather, is the much more subtle, intellectual, and even aesthetic and artistic form of possessiveness that, left unchecked, can lead (and in modern times arguably has led) to the outright domination and tyranny of nature. Nevertheless, the two forms of “appropriation,” however dissimilar, are closely related in Tolkien’s mind, as when he refers in his essay to the dissimulating dream-device in fairy-stories as a “machine” that “cheats deliberately the primal desire at the heart of Faerie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder” (42). In other words, the dream-device, not unlike the genre of allegory as a whole, for Tolkien, is a literary technique that effectively domesticates and so controls the narrative by denying it any actual or even possible real-world truth. Tolkien’s likening such intellectual and aesthetic appropriation to a matter of “locking” things up in some kind of mental “hoard,” moreover, is noteworthy for its resemblance to Martin Heidegger’s critique in Being and Time of the modern, Cartesian view of human perception:

the perceiving of what is known is not a process of returning with one’s booty to the “cabinet” of consciousness after one has gone out and grasped it; even in perceiving, retaining, and preserving, the Dasein which knows remains outside, and it does so as Dasein. If I “merely” know about some way in which the Being of entities is interconnected, if I “only” represent them, if I “do no more” than “think” about them, I am no less alongside the entities outside in the world than when I originally grasp them. (Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie and Robinson, 89-90, emphasis original)

For Tolkien as for Heidegger, we must avoid reducing the existence or being of things to that aspect which lends itself to conceptual or perceptual apprehension (this is why, incidentally, it is so important that in the Ainulindalë the Ainur must eventually move beyond the abstract formalism of the Music to a love for the existing reality of Eä itself). Instead, our task, in the language of Heidegger, is to remain “open” to things “disclosing” themselves to us in new and even unexpected ways. It is precisely such openness, finally, that Tolkien attempts to model for us through the Elvish love of nature and “things other,” while at the same time warning how the things we are open to and value today in their unfamiliarity can quickly become the things we possessively render familiar and trite tomorrow.

4 thoughts on “Tolkien and Heidegger on the possessiveness of representation

  1. Take care! I am always filled with dread when anybody starts taking Heidegger seriously. He has nothing for Christians, and can only help atheists if they transit rapidly through him. But all too many have become stuck in Heideggers elite nihilism.

    • Thanks for the caution, Bruce. So Heidegger as a kind of “Sauron’s Ring,” eh (“He has nothing for Christians, and can only help atheists”)? I think I’m more optimistic as to his value and insight and usefulness to Christians, but I do agree, for all that, that there is an indelible antithesis between his unbelief and the Christian faith that must not be glossed over, and that, as in all such cases, his work needs to be handled either with great care or else not at all.

  2. I’m an atheist and i find this resemblance with Heidegger very interesting, i never thought Tolkien’s elves could have so many things in common with Heidegger’s Dasein. Tolkien was a cultivated man that didn’t fear walking on the border of nihilism in order to represent the deep truths that cross his imagined world. The antagonic battle against Melkor and the deep suffering of the elves is both an analogy to the spirit of real-life mankind and both man’s perception about a possible Greater Spirit. As himself has stated, he didn’t need to represent a standing religion in Middle Earth because the entire world is so rich in metaphors and spirituality that it continually lives its Gods-Walking-On-The-Earth days all along the time Frodo throws the ring into Mountain of Doom. The ages of Tolkien though are rich in spirituality, it is not spirituality that defines them, but an active effort of surviving, avenging and decrying past and present tribulations. Those generations of men and elves are active and history-making generations, possibly as stated in another post, nitzschean generations that either are of nitzschean character or fight such characters. Barely after the end of the Third Age, after the passing of the elves, if the timeline continues, religion in Arda may appear as a reminder of the golden days of legend.

    • Thank you very much for the reply, Lucien. I started writing a response to you but it became so lengthy that I decided to turn it into its own post. So my upcoming post titled “God’s Atheism” is written, in part, in your honor. (Any reflections you have on it are most welcome.) For the nonce, however, I’ll just say (for what little it may be worth) that your at once thoughtful and atheist reflection on Tolkien reminded me of one of Tolkien’s letters that you may already be familiar with.

      “You speak of ‘a sanity and sanctity’ in [The Lord of the Rings] ‘which is a power in itself. I was deeply moved. Nothing of the kind had been said to me before. But by a strange chance, just as I was beginning this letter, I had one from a man, who classified himself as ‘an unbeliever, or at best a man of belatedly and dimly dawning religious feeling … but you’, he said, ‘create a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp’. I can only answer: ‘Of his own sanity no man can securely judge. If sanctity inhabits his work or as a pervading light illumines it then it does not come from him but through him. And neither of you would perceive it in these terms unless it was with you also. Otherwise you would see and feel nothing, or (if some other spirit was present) you would be filled with contempt, nausea, hatred. “Leaves out of the elf-country, gah!” “Lembas – dust and ashes, we don’t eat that.”” (Letters no. 328)

      take care,

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