The Counter-Nihilism of Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle”

Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle tells the story of a perfectionistic and curmudgeonly painter named Niggle (a bit of a self-parody on Tolkien’s part) who attempts a life-like (and nearly life-size) portrait of a living tree, but who only really succeeds in completing a single, solitary leaf before his project is prematurely interrupted when he is whisked away on his “long journey” (an allegory of death). Although Niggle’s agonizing and obsessive efforts on behalf of his tree, in retrospect, seem to have been for naught (especially as he has to unlearn, in his new purgatorial state, his former neglect of his neighbor Parish for the sake of his art), Niggle is eventually promoted to a more paradisiacal state (not yet Paradise itself, which is still future for Niggle) where he discovers his “tree,” no longer in mere imagination, but in real, actual existence. The Tree afterwards becomes the center of a bucolic scene, tended by both Niggle and Parish (and titled “Niggle’s Parish”) where future weary travelers can come and convalesce. Thus, while this is by no means the central drama of the work, one movement recorded in Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle is the movement from a man meticulously trying to “describe” a leaf via his art, only to leave behind and eventually have to learn to renounce his obsession, to at last being given back not just his leaf, or his unfinished tree, but to have them elevated to level of primary existence itself. As Niggle humbly articulates his astonishment at such grace, “It’s a gift!”

Conor Cunningham’s Genealogy of Nihilism has an interesting discussion of the nihilistic tendencies of modern philosophical and scientific discourse that (unintentionally, it would seem) provides an acutely apropos commentary on the very different metaphysical (because ultimately theological) perspective of Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle. Cunningham writes:

We ‘moderns’ continually betray the operation of a given within our discourse. It is this given which re-enacts the logic of the fall… Any description that modern discourse proffers will enact such a disappearance [of the thing describes. Let us see why.

An example may help. If we describe a leaf, looking to modern discourse to provide such a description, we will see nothing. We will see nothing but the disappearance of the leaf as, and at, the utterance of every ‘word’. The leaf will always be subordinated to structures and sub-structures. The leaf will never be seen or said. Any apparent sightings will be but nominal-noumenal formalities, that is, epiphenomenal results of concepts or ideas. (Here we witness a line running from Scotus to Descartes and from Descartes to Kant, no doubt with significant differences remaining.) The leaf is carried away through its discursive subordination to the structures and sub-structures of systems of explanatory description. By explanatory description is meant that a particular entity will be explained away by the descriptions its being suffers, for it will be reduced to a list of predicates, properties and so on. The inherently excessive nature of a being will be ignored.

Any difference we find in a being, or in the leaf, will fail to register, except at the virtual level of data…. [T]he nihilistic form of modern discourse will be unable to provide criteria for this selection [of the leaf from its branch, from its tree, and from its existent materiality] and will be unable to provide criteria for this selection and will be unable to provide real difference, individuation, specificity and so on… The leaf, which is there, is not a real leaf, but simply a formal distinction, arbitrarily but successfully constructed, or, more accurately, generated by systems of explanatory description. (These can be formal, conceptual, idealistic, empirical…)  (172-3)

What would the opposite approach look like, Cunningham asks?

It would look like the immanent–a leaf; an appearance that could not be subordinated to knowledge systems, for its visibility would be anchored in the Divine essence as an imitable example of that transcendent plenitude. It would be an imitability located in the Son, as Logos. We could then speak of cells, molecules, and so on. In nihilistic discourse even the cells of a leaf are further reduced, methodologically, ad infinitum (ad nauseum)…. [O]nly through the mediation of immanence by transcendence can the immanent be. (173)

Modern science and philosophy, in other words, are like Niggle’s art: on their own (in their “immanence”), they reduce to nothing, and so lose the very things and world they try to describe. Sacrificed to, so as to be “mediated” by, the divine transcendence, they regain a more radical immanence yet, an immanence that is the “gift” of existence itself.

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One thought on “The Counter-Nihilism of Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle”

  1. Just a minor nit-pick, and without relevance to the main point — the leaf is not the only thing that Niggle manages to finish in his life, but it was the only thing that survived after his neighbours used his great tree to fix the roof of Parish’ house:

    “You remember that large one, the one they used to patch the damaged house next door to his, after the gales and floods? I found a corner of it torn off, lying in a field. It was damaged, but legible: a mountain-peak and a spray of leaves. I can’t get it out of my mind.”

    It is a single leaf from this corner that is framed and put in the Town Museum as ‘Leaf: by Niggle’

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