Music or Vision, Dream or Art

Metaphysics of the Music, part 37

This issue of desiring things for their otherness—conjured in the Vision but conspicuously absent, in retrospect, from the Music—may be further related to the literary distinction Tolkien draws in his essay between fairy-stories and what he calls the “Dream.” As Tolkien explains, the Dream and the fairy-story are alike in that in both “strange powers of the mind may be unlocked,” yet Tolkien says he would nevertheless strongly distinguish the two and “condemn” the Dream as

gravely defective: like a good picture in a disfiguring frame… [I]f a waking writer tells you that his tale is only a thing imagined in his sleep, he cheats deliberately the primal desire at the heart of Faërie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder… It is at any rate essential to a genuine fairy-story, as distinct from the employment of this form for lesser or debased purposes, that it should be presented as “true.” … But since the fairy-story deals with “marvels,” it cannot tolerate any frame or machinery suggesting that the whole story in which they occur is a figment or illusion. (Tolkien Reader 41-2)

Tolkien’s argument concerning the dream-device is interesting on a number of levels, one of which is its link to other literary Thomists of his day for whom the dream symbolized the antithesis of true art. In Art and Scholasticism, Jacques Maritain had contrasted genuine artistic inspiration—defined along the Thomistic lines of “reason superelevated by an instinct of divine origin when it is a question of human works ruled according to a higher measure”—with the mere “seeking the law of the work… in dream and in the whole organic night below the level of reason…”[1] This concern, as we have just seen, Tolkien parallels in his point about how “strange powers of the mind may be unlocked” in dreams. Under the direct influence of Maritain, for American novelist and self-described “hill-billy Thomist” Flannery O’Connor, the dream-image was less a metaphor for a sub-rational and therefore illegitimate source of artistic inspiration, so much as a symbol of the artist’s temptation to impose his own alien purposes (whether rational or otherwise) onto the work of art, rather than letting the work’s own form come to the fore. As O’Connor explains to one correspondent to whom she had sent a copy of Art and Scholasticism: “Strangle that word dreams. You don’t dream up a form and put the truth in it. The truth creates its own form. Form is necessity in the work of art.”[2] Finally, John Milbank, in his essay-review of Rowan Williams’s Grace and Necessity, a study on Maritain’s influence on twentieth-century Catholic authors and writers such as O’Connor, has similarly touched on the specifically realist dimension of Tolkien’s fairy-story/dream antithesis when he comments on how “the metaphorical presence of one thing in another alien thing has to be related back to the distinctness of temporal and spatial finite realities if art is to exceed dream.”[3]


[1] Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 183n101.

[2] O’Connor, The Habit of Being, 218. In an earlier letter to the same correspondent, O’Connor had written: “The artist dreams no dreams. That is precisely what he does not do, as you very well know. Every dream is an obstruction to his work.” Ibid., 216.

[3] Milbank, “Scholasticism, Modernism and Modernity,” 656-7.

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One thought on “Music or Vision, Dream or Art

  1. Pingback: Tolkienian Fairy-Story and Nietzschean Tragedy | The Flame Imperishable

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