Tolkien, Plato, and Derrida: A Différance that makes a Difference

For Derrida, John Milbank writes (The Word Made Strange), human writing is actually prior to human speech: “Speech, according to Derrida, tends to make us imagine that all meaning is fully ‘present’, in the manner that the speaking self and her or his interlocutor appears to to be. It is this phenomenon which encourages the further delusion that there are ideas or things present to us before and outside the signifying system.” (For an example of this “delusion” of the priority of idea over linguistic expression, see my recent post on Robert Kilwardby’s critique of St. Anselm.) For Derrida, this realization “ends the Platonic domination of Western culture in which the illusion of the fully present idea encourages the belief that we can grasp reality in its totality.” But while Derrida is therefore “anti-Platonic in the sense that he takes the signifying trace to be an absolutely original moment,” Milbank acutely observes that, in another sense, Derrida “secretly remains Platonic…” For Plato, after all, “any realization of the idea in the concrete sign is taken as a lapse from an original completeness.” For Derrida, however, the fact that there simply is no original idea, only an original sign whose meaning is itself mediated and so deferred by yet another sign, and so on, means that the same tragic “‘lapse’, involving deception and concealment” lamented by Plato in the concrete sign is held to no less infect the origin of meaning.

It was against this Platonic, but now also Derridaean tragic metaphysics that I pitted Tolkien’s own approach to myth and meaning in a post from some time back, which I repeat here. One significant point of contrast between Plato and Tolkien concerns the conflicting evaluations of the truth-capacity of myth implied in their respective metaphysics.  Gergely Nagy has observed that “Plato, like Tolkien, draws heavily on traditional myths, also including his own ‘myths’ (nowhere else attested and probably written by him) in his dialogues,” and says that this parallels Tolkien’s “mythopoeic enterprise” in its ultimate aim of “show[ing] ‘truth,’ in Plato always expressed in mythic scenes and language…” (“Plato,” in Drout, ed., J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, 513). Similarly, Frank Weinreich emphasizes Tolkien’s debt to Plato for his “metaphysics of myth” when he writes how the “quintessence of Tolkien’s ontology” behind his theory of myth is “at the core a Platonic one” (“Metaphysics of Myth: The Platonic Ontololgy of ‘Mythopoeia’,” 325). What thinks accounts overlook, however, is that for Plato, the philosopher uses myths not out of choice, but of necessity. As the principle is stated in the Timaeus, “the accounts we give of things have the same character as the subjects they set forth” (29b), meaning that just as the world (on account of the ananke or constraint of its pre-existing matter) only ever achieves a tragically partial and thus never fully-realized participation in the divine, so the “likely story” (eikos mythos) that Timaeus has to tell about the origins of the cosmos achieves at best a tragic likeness to the ideal logos or rational account that the philosopher would prefer.

In Tolkien’s creation-myth, by contrast, and following the Christian doctrine of creation, while the world’s participation in the divine is limited by its finitude, because creation is nevertheless from nothing, the world—including its matter—has its entire existence through a participation in and likeness of the divine, and without remainder. For Tolkien, in short, the world in its entirety is a story about the divine, a metaphysical reality that at least in principle allows the stories or myths we tell about the world a much greater participation in the truth that remains to be told about that world. As Tolkien puts it in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” myth is no mere “disease of language” (TR 48), but given the inherent and irreducibly storied structure of reality itself, is a uniquely privileged way of communicating the truth of that reality. Indeed, for Tolkien it is through such myth-telling that reality for the first time comes into its own, accomplishing by God’s own ordination the “effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation” (TR 89).

To return, then, to the above discussion of Derrida and Plato, one might say that Tolkienian myth (not unlike the Anselmian locutio), through an understanding of the original donum that is God’s gift of creation ex nihilo, achieves a true “supplement at the origin,” and a différance that makes a difference.

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One thought on “Tolkien, Plato, and Derrida: A Différance that makes a Difference

  1. I am afraid that I do not quite grasp the distinction you make here. No doubt this is due to my being unfamiliar with the non-Tolkienian texts and theories to which you refer, but I should like to understand it better. Is the distinction to do with the degree to which Tolkien and Plato respectively believed that myth could reveal truth?

    Oh, and how does this tie up with the ideas expressed by Tolkien in his poem ‘Mythopoiea’ (perhaps especially “The heart of man is not compound of lies, / but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,” and of course “We make still by the law in which we’re made.”)?

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