On the possibility of picturing impossible things

What do Tolkien, Vitruvius, Alan of Lille, and Gothic gargoyles have in common? They all touch on the problem of representing impossible things. According to historian of modality Simo Knuuttila,

[Alan of Lille] found no difficulty in asserting the possibliity of picturing impossible things. People drawing or painting chimeras and other fancy objects actually illustrate such things… In his book on architecture written in the first century before Christ, Vitruvius had condemned the use of pictures of things which cannot be (De architectura VII, 5). In the twelfth century, strange figures were not unusual in the decoration of church buildings. It is not always easy to say whether they were meant to be pictures of real or of non-existent animals, but in both cases they were intended probably to demonstrate God’s power by showing the actual or possible plurality of what divine power could bring about. (Knuuttila, Modalities in Medieval Philosophy, 102)

As I have argued before, for Tolkien sub-creative fantasy ultimately serves much the same theological purpose as Knuuttila here attributes to fantastical medieval architectural forms, namely the artist’s participation in God’s own freedom from the “channels the creator is known to have used already,” thereby accomplishing “a tribute to the infinity of His potential variety” (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien no. 153). In a more Vitruvian moment, however, Tolkien cautions in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” that such fantasy is best achieved through literature than in the visual arts. In painting, for example, he says that “the visible presentation of the fantastic image is technically too easy; the hand tends to outrun the mind, even to overthrow it. Silliness or morbidity are frequent results.” As he suggests later, in such cases “disbelief [has] not so much to be suspended as hanged, drawn, and quartered.”


The Logic and Economy of Light

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 51

In a comment on my previous post, my friend Matt Peterson suggests that “darkness is not evil, but is good, but is, like snow, something that evil uncovers.” To this I think I would answer (as Matt himself often does), “It depends.” As usual, I find Aquinas helpful here, whom I might paraphrase as saying that evil isn’t simply “non-being”; rather, evil is non-being where there is supposed to be being (where the “supposed” indicates, ultimately, divine intention, purpose, desire, etc.). Similarly, we might say that in Tolkien, darkness by itself isn’t necessarily a metaphor or image of evil. The darkness following the Ainur’s Vision in the Ainulindale is a good case in point, where it serves an aesthetic function of setting in relief both the light of the Vision preceding it and the light of Eä to follow.

Darkness where there is supposed to be light, however, does seem to be straightforwardly associated with evil, and this, of course, is what we have with Ungoliant. The darkness of the Ainulidale is progressive and eschatological, preceding but also anticipating a later, greater disclosure of light. Ungoliant’s darkness, by contrast, is regressive, a deliberate turning back the clock of creation, moving from being to non-being. Both “darknesses” involve a privation of light, yet the intentions behind each are radically at variance: one is a privation, the other a deprivation. They both involve an absence of light, and yet they both retain (paradoxically) an ordering toward the light that they make absent, one positively, the other negatively. As such, neither darkness is truly light’s “other” or opposite, inasmuch as they are both dependent upon light for their very (non)being, identity, and definition. Darkness, in other words, belongs to the economy of light, just as evil, according to St. Augustine, as “disordered love,” does not establish its own economy but falls within–or involves a falling off, as the case may be–the economy of the good. So both forms of darkness represent not just light’s absence, but also its memory, the one recollecting light nostalgically and expectantly, the other resentfully and rebelliously. Darkness, in short, is a very peculiar form of absence in that it makes light present by way of its absence. It is this respect in which darkness-as-evil never achieves its desired independence, but remains forever parasitic on the light that it hates and strives to negate, that ultimately underlies the comic and indeed eucatastrophic metaphysics of Tolkien. Darkness-as-evil strives to negate light, yet in the end must be negated by it, making light darkness’s own night.

“The Darkness was More than Loss of Light”: the Case of Ungoliant

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 50

Even more poignant an example of evil’s nihilistic bent than Melkor, and perhaps the closest Tolkien could be said to come to a Manichaean affirmation of evil as an ontologically independent force, is the horrifying specter of the spider-demon Ungoliant, the former servant of Melkor and ancestor to Shelob of The Lord of the Rings. (For an excellent analysis of Shelob, incidentally, see Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 71-80.)

Because the predominant imagery throughout the episode of Ungoliant is that of light and darkness, we should perhaps begin our analysis with the Ainulindalë’s account of how, after the Ainur’s Vision had been taken away, “in that moment they perceived a new thing, Darkness, which they had not known before, except in thought” (Silmarillion 19-20). Here at least,  we observe, Tolkien unequivocally identifies darkness’s status as a mere privation of light and hence its dependence upon the prior existence of light for its very potency. In this manner Tolkien aptly illustrates St. Thomas’s point in the Summa regarding the dependence of evil upon the good, not only for its “existence,” but also for its possibility of being known and experienced: as “darkness is known through light,” so evil “must be known from the notion of good” (unum oppositorum cognoscitur per alterum, sicut per lucem tenebra. Unde et quid sit malum, oportet ex ratione boni accipere, ST 1.48.1).

Later on in The Silmarillion, however, when the character of Ungoliant is first introduced, Tolkien almost seems to contradict this relationship of dependence. Her existence is described as one of “taking all things to herself to feed her emptiness” and of hiding in a cleft in the mountain where she “sucked up all light that she could find, and spun it forth again in dark nets of strangling gloom, until no light more could come to her abode; and she was famished” (Silmarillion 73). When solicited by Melkor to aid him in his assault on Valinor, home of the Valar, she veils the two of them in “a cloak of darkness” which was nothing less than “an Unlight, in which things seemed to be no more, and which eyes could not pierce, for it was void” (74). More perplexing still is Tolkien’s account of the aftermath of Melkor and Ungoliant’s attack on the Two Trees of Valinor, at that time the two primary sources of light in the world: “The Light failed; but the Darkness that followed was more than loss of light. In that hour was made a Darkness that seemed not lack but a thing with being of its own: for it was indeed made by malice out of Light, and it had power to pierce the eye, and to enter heart and mind, and strangle the very will” (76).

In portraying the darkness and evil of Ungoliant as “more” than a mere “loss” or negation of light, but as a “thing with being of its own,” Tolkien would appear to challenge deliberately the Augustinian doctrine of evil as mere non-being in favor of the more dualistic and Manichaean account of evil. Indeed, the whole scene, especially with its emphasis on the imagery of light and darkness, poignantly captures the basic metaphysical drama defined by the Manichees, who believed that evil “came from an invasion of the good—the ‘Kingdom of Light’—by a hostile force of evil, equal in power, eternal, totally separate—the ‘Kingdom of Darkness’” (Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 47). As Tolkien, moreover, bracingly puts it in his “Mythopoeia” poem written to C.S. Lewis, “of Evil this / alone is deadly certain: Evil is” (Tree and Leaf 99).

(To be continued…….)

Mimetic Desire as Self-Annihilation

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 49

In the previous post I argued that, despite St. Thomas’s denial of its possibility, it nevertheless seems consistent with what he says elsewhere that Satan could have fallen by desiring (suicidally) equality with God. This, in any event, is how Satan’s fall has been interpreted by René Girard, whose theory of mimetic desire Hayden Head has applied to Tolkien’s portrayal of evil. According to Girard, the suicidal desire for the essence of an “other” is implicitly involved in all such imitative desire: when we desire objects, things, people, status, or the like, we do not desire them so much for themselves as we do for the much more sordid, envious reason that they are possessed by an “Other.” This means that desire for the object is in essence a desire for or towards the rival possessor of the object, meaning further that it is in fact the possessor who is the true object of desire. Entailed in this desire is an awareness that the rival, as the desired object, also stands in a position of superiority over the desirer. This acute awareness of one’s own inferiority Girard refers to as the “ontological sickness”: in coveting what the other desires, a person is in fact coveting the other’s own “essence,” and so in doing so sacrifices something of his own being. In his application of Girard’s analysis of mimetic desire to Tolkien’s fiction, Head writes of Melkor in particular that he

is driven by a desire to imitate Ilúvatar and wishes to claim the ultimate prerogative of Eru, which is the capacity to create. And though he possesses as much “being” as a contingent creature can possess, though he is more powerful than his fellow Ainur, nevertheless, Melkor is not content with any “being” less than Eru’s ultimate being. Like Satan’s doomed attempt to rival God, however, Melkor’s attempt to emulate Eru only serves to bring about his fall… Having failed to acquire the light of Ilúvatar, Melkor… is left with the bitter consolation of “fire and wrath,” dim parodies of Ilúvatar’s creative fire. (Head, “Imitative Desire,” 141-2)

Implicit in Melkor’s desire for the Flame Imperishable, in short, is the desire to supplant and to become his rival, Eru. His desire is the “ontologically sick” and self-annihilating one of having an essence and existence other than one’s own. As Thomas points out, however, such a desire is in effect a desire for the annihilation of one’s own being. As Tolkien himself puts it, the envy and “hatred of God… must end in nihilism” (Morgoth’s Ring)

The Suicide of Self-Deification

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 48

In the previous two posts we saw how suicide in Tolkien’s fiction enacts a kind of world annihilation. To return our attention to the Ainulindalë and the question of creation, the suicidal division between self-and-self and self-and-God may already be observed in Melkor’s hubristic desire for the Flame Imperishable. In his discussion of how the devil first “sinned by seeking to be as God,” Aquinas carefully qualifies his meaning to avoid the suggestion that, in doing so, the devil sought to be “equal” with God. According to Thomas, the angels sought to be “as God” not by equality, but rather by likeness, the basis for this distinction being that, first, the angels would have known equality with God to be intrinsically impossible for any creature, and second, that even if such equality were possible (or at least thought to be possible), in desiring it the angels would have been desiring a nature or essence other than their own, and thus would have been effectively desiring the abolition of their own being, a desire contrary to every nature (ST 1.63.3). (See also On Evil 16.3, “Whether the Devil Sinned by Desiring Equality with God.” As Thomas puts it in his article in the Summa on why evil is not or has no nature, “good is everything desirable; and thus, since every nature desires its own being and its own perfection, it must be said also that the being and the perfection of any nature has the character of goodness” (ST 1.48.1).) “Consequently,” Thomas summarizes, “no thing of a lower order can ever desire the grade of a higher nature, just as an ass does not desire to be a horse; for were it to be so upraised, it would cease to be itself.” For Thomas, in short, the desire that the devil may have had for God’s own power to create nevertheless could not have involved a desire to be equal with God, inasmuch as he would have known such an eventuality to have entailed his own non-existence. The creaturely desire to be God–or any other creature, for that matter–is a form of suicide.

Yet Thomas does not seem to have been consistent himself in his claim that no being can desire the realization of circumstances that would entail its own destruction. As it is, Thomas goes on in the same passage to recognize that there are moments (not applicable to the angels, given their incorporeality) when the “imagination plays us false,” leading a man to believe that by acquiring a “higher grade as to accidentals, which can increase without the destruction of the subject, he can also seek a higher grade of nature, to which he could not attain without ceasing to be.” Toward the beginning of the Summa, however, in his discussion of “whether good is prior in idea to being,” Thomas entertains the objection that good must be prior to being because it is more universal, a point illustrated with the case of Judas, of whom Scripture says that it would have been better for him not to have been born. To this objection Thomas replies that it is not the non-being of a thing itself that is ever desired; rather, its non-being is desired for the sake of the removal of some other evil in something else, which is to say, for the sake of the being of something else, and so “even non-being can be spoken of as relatively good” (ST 1.5.2 ad 3). Thus, it would seem consistent with Thomas’s own principles to say that the devil, in desiring to create, desired to be equal with God, and thus in a sense desired his own non-being, not for its own sake, but as a perceived condition for his gaining something good in itself.

Gollum and Frodo, the Suicide and the Martyr

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 47

It’s possible that his link between suicide and world-annihilation is also behind an early, alternative climax Tolkien envisioned to The Lord of the Rings, in which Gollum, rather than falling accidentally into the fires of Mount Doom with the Ring (as the final, published version has it), instead “commits suicide” by leaping into the fires with the Ring of his own accord, but not before pronouncing to Frodo that, in doing so, “I will destroy you all” (Sauron Defeated 5). Gollum’s statement may merely be referring to the eventuality that, in destroying the Ring along with himself, he would also succeed in killing Frodo and Sam in the conflagration to follow. However, it’s not at all obvious that Gollum could or would have known that the destruction of the Ring would result in such a cataclysm. Another, more tantalizing possibility, accordingly, is that Gollum’s declaration has a more symbolic (though for him, very real) force. Throughout the passage, it is worth noting, Tolkien emphasizes the state of Gollum’s “wretchedness” (he mentions it twice), and it is perhaps significant that, although Frodo and Sam are the only other individuals present, Gollum does not say “I will destroy you both,” but “I will destroy you all.” If Gollum, therefore, in this alternative ending saw his own death as a kind of ritual world-annihilation, together he and Frodo, who by contrast saw his own likely death as the means for saving the world, together rather precisely embody the radical metaphysical difference that Chesterton draws between the martyr and the suicide in Orthodoxy (a work that Tolkien was familiar with). As Chesterton puts it:

a suicide is the opposite of a martyr. A martyr is a man who cares so much for something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life. A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything. One wants something to begin: the other wants everything to end. In other words, the martyr is noble, exactly because (however he renounces the world or execrates all humanity) he confesses this ultimate link with life; he sets his heart outside himself: he dies that something may live. The suicide is ignoble because he has not this link with being: he is a mere destroyer; spiritually, he destroys the universe. (Orthodoxy 78-9)

And linking Chesterton’s view of suicide back to his Thomistic doctrine of creation, in a manner no less applicable to Tolkien, Mark Knight writes that “the unique threat of suicide lies in the way that it inverts the act of Creation through an individual’s choice to undo that act” (Knight, Chesterton and Evil, 51). Self-annihilation is an act of resentment towards the fact that God alone gives and ultimately controls being.

Annihilation and suicide

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 46

In the previous post in this series I suggested that, in its final manifestation as annihilation, evil makes a kind of return to its beginning: what began as a creaturely attempt to usurp the Creator’s power to give being ends in the equally futile attempt to altogether obliterate it. There is a way, however, in which one can, at least ritually, enact after a fashion, and with some efficacy, the annihilation of the world, and that is through suicide, through the “annihilation,” that is, of one’s own self. Evil may never be able to “corrupt the whole good,” as Thomas says, yet because evil is the privation of being, it follows that every act of evil succeeds in eroding something of the evil-doer’s own being, causing him to be less than what he is. For Aquinas, as Philipp Rosemann observes, “to do evil, or to sin, means to act against one’s own conscience, that is to say, against the innermost core of one’s own being. This split within the human being, this division of the self against itself, is at the same time a split outside the human being, that is to say, a division between the sinner and God” (Rosemann, Understanding Scholastic Thought with Foucault, 170). One way of striking out at God, accordingly, is to strike at oneself as his image-bearer, and one way of obliterating the world is, so to speak, to obliterate oneself. We have seen an aspect of this in Sauron and Melkor, who in their desire to dominate and destroy are willing and even required to do violence to their own selves, rending their own spirits in an act that for Tolkien mythically dramatizes the spiritual suicide of the modern self, and all in order that they might invest part of themselves in the instruments and objects of their domination. (This idea has been revisited recently in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories, in which the “Dark Lord” Voldemort, in an effort to make himself immortal and invincible, creates “horcruxes” by violently splitting his own soul into seven different parts and putting each part into some fetish-object held to be of great value or lineage in the wizarding-world.)

The link between the destruction of the world and the self-destruction of suicide is brought out in the grim nihilism of Denethor, Steward of Gondor, who when asked by Gandalf what he would have if his will could have its way, answers:

‘I would have things as they were in all the days of my life,’ answered Denethor, ‘and in the days of my longfathers before me: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard’s pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated.’ (ROTK 130, emphasis original)

When it becomes evident that he cannot have things as they once were, Denethor indeed chooses “naught” and sets himself on fire (like one of the “heathen kings,” as he puts it), thus revealing the will to annihilation or nihilism latent not only within the will to domination, but even within the will to mere preservation examined earlier.