Ainur’s Music: Abstract Form and Kantian Indifference

Metaphysics of the Music, part 31

Behind each of these respects in which the Vision surpasses the Music, however, is the ultimately metaphysical consideration that the Vision simply implicates a greater degree of reality or being. In contrast to the Vision, as we shall see, the Ainur are represented as having enjoyed the Music for its own sake, not knowing “that it had any purpose beyond its own beauty.” Through the Ainur’s Music, accordingly, Tolkien dramatizes the kind of “perfect self-contained significance” and “inner consistency of reality” which he attributes in his essay to the true fairy-story, qualities I have already suggested to embody a literary application of Thomas’s aesthetic principle of the integrity or wholeness in the work of art. However, unlike the fairy-stories of his essay, one of whose functions (to be discussed later) is also to direct the individual’s attention back towards reality, to what exists, the Ainur’s Music does not suggest to them before the fact any existential claims or possibilities beyond itself (much less does it creatively or productively render those possibilities actual). (As Houghton observes, for example, of the Children of Ilúvatar, in the Music “the Ainur had had no hint of their existence until they saw the vision.” Houghton, “Augustine in the Cottage of Lost Play,” 178.) In one letter Tolkien instead describes the Ainur’s Music as a mere “abstract form” (Letters 284), a quality which may bring to mind Thomas’s analysis of music as an incidentally physical embodiment of otherwise ideal, mathematical harmonies or proportions. As with Thomas’s theory of music, moreover, the Ainur’s Music likewise seems to imply on their part a kind of Kantian “disinterest,” inasmuch as the Ainur are represented as having enjoyed their Music while it lasted purely on its own terms and in a kind of stoic oblivion to the possibility of their subordinating their Music to some ulterior, utilitarian “purpose beyond its own beauty”—a concern, moreover, amply justified in the exceedingly “interested” stance of Melkor, who, failing to enjoy the Music at a disinterested distance, sought rather to bring into being the thoughts of his imagination so that he might exercise dominion over them.

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