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)

Saruman’s mimetic desire

Saruman the Gollum, part 2

For all his sophistication, a further indication of the corruption of Saruman’s mind and soul is the self-incriminating hypocrisy of his description of Gandalf as “wandering about the lands, and concerning himself in every business, whether it belongs to him or not,” for as Treebeard tells Merry and Pippen, “minding the affairs of Men and Elves” was precisely what the wizards were sent to Middle-earth to do, a task to which Gandalf remained faithful but which Saruman abandoned, instead “tak[ing] up with foul folk, with the Orcs,” creatures with whom he certainly ought to have had no “business.” Treebeard outlines the diminishment of Saruman in these further, incriminating words:

“There was a time when he was always walking about my woods. He was polite in those days, always asking my leave (at least when he met me); and always eager to listen. I told him many things that he would never have found out by himself; but he never repaid me in like kind. I cannot remember that he ever told me anything. And he got more and more like that; his face, as I remember it – I have not seen it for many a day – became like windows in a stone wall: windows with shutters inside.”

Saruman began as a “wizard,” which is to say, one of the “Wise,” but in his play to become a “Power,” we see him having to stoop to the level of a disgraceful liar. Saruman has become a Gollum.

Other comparisons between Saruman and Gollum might be made. I have already mentioned Saruman’s “scoffing” reference to Gandalf “the Grey,” and when Gandalf mentions Radagast, Saruman “no longer concealed his scorn”: ” ‘Radagast the Brown!’ laughed Saruman… ‘Radagast the Bird-tamer! Radagast the Simple! Radagast the Fool!'” This pointless, unprovoked, and out-of-all-proportion litany of insults is telling. On the one hand, through the powerful and learned Saruman’s derision of the wandering, poverty- and nature-loving Franciscan, Radagast, Tolkien might be seen unmasking the feigned, pragmatic, “beyond-good-and-evil” indifference of the technocratic, industrialist will-to-dominate, as something much more abject, namely a subliminal envy and resentment in the face of an aesthetically arresting and morally indicting created goodness. Like Milton’s Satan when confronted by the hierarchically subordinate yet unfallen cherub, Zephon (Paradise Lost, bk. 4), Saruman’s posture of superiority is really a front for a secretly and perhaps only half-consciously realized moral–and to that extent, metaphysical–inferiority.

Elvish Preservationism: The Correspondence of Sub-creative Intellect and Will

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 24

The species of being with whom the problematic motive of preservation is especially associated are the Elves, who, as exaggerated embodiments of otherwise human artistic and technical excellence, also find therein their peculiar temptation to go astray. Tolkien writes of the Elves in one place that their

“magic” is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation. The “Elves” are “immortal,” at least as far as this world goes: and hence are concerned rather with the griefs and burdens of deathlessness in time and change, than with death. (Letters 146)

As I’ve suggested elsewhere, these two dimensions of the Elves—their artistic superiority and their immortality—are metaphysically and psychologically linked through Tolkien’s hylomorphic anthropology: the powerful Elvish soul, or fëa, that exerts so formative an influence over the Elvish body, or hröa, making it immortal or at least undying, is also what gives their art its heightened spiritual command over matter—in short, its “magic” (in the positive sense of “enchantment”). As with Tolkien’s incarnate angels, however, whose voluntary and extrinsic relation between spirit and body can tend towards a domineering stance in relation to physical reality in general, so also the Elvish relationship of soul and body is simultaneously its glory and its liability, its peculiar virtue when well-ordered and peculiar vice when not.

The reason this “unflawed correspondence” between “product and vision,” between the will executing the product and the intellect first envisioning it (elsewhere Tolkien refers to the sub-creative will as “the effective link between the indestructible mind and being and the realization of its imagination”–Letters 260), becomes a source of temptation for the Elves is that it can of course never approximate the absolute identity of will and intellect (and thus perfectartistic execution) enjoyed by the Creator by virtue of the divine will’s unrivaled capacity of giving being to things exactly as conceived in the divine mind. James Collins makes this point in a discussion of the inherent limitation on angelic causality that, mutatis mutandis, finds equal application to Tolkien’s Elves:

The limitation placed upon direct angelic causality is based ultimately on the finiteness of created separated substances. While they act through intellect and will, they can move other things only in a way proportioned to their natures. Unlike God, the angel is not its own will; it has will in a determinate nature, and the effect proceeds from this faculty according to the mode of the finite nature. Hence angelic power is subject to the conditions of categorical action and passion. As higher forms, separated substances possess supremely universal active powers to which the passive powers of lower substances are not sufficiently adapted to receive an actualization except through the mediation of natural agents. As pure act, God is determined neither in His being nor in His operation to any particular genus or species. His action is transcendental and His will can do indifferently anything that can be done by any created will or natural agent. Hence God requires no preliminary proportioning of His power to the receptive capacity of the material subject. Immediate formal transmutation or substantial change of material substances, then, is possible only for that immaterial substance Whose power is identical with His infinite act of being. (Collins, The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels, 314-15)

The temptation inherent in the greater correspondence between will and intellect enjoyed by the Elves (and even more so by Thomas’s angels) is the increased possibility that they will covet the absolute identity of will and intellect that belongs to the Creator alone. As Hayden Head aptly puts it in his Girardian interpretation of Tolkien,

the mighty, those who apparently possess more substance, more ‘being,’ than the rest of us, are those most susceptible to the temptation to rise against God,” to give way to the “primeval impulse to appropriate the prerogatives of God… Gazing into the pure ontology of God, the strong man discovers anew his own contingency, and his pride of strength dissolves in the cauldron of envious desire… The fall is that sudden recognition of the incommensurability between God and man. (Head, “Imitative Desire,” 140-1)

Again, the corruption of the sub-creative motive involves the implicit coveting of God’s own power to create.

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 1

Another topic central to the Tolkien’s fiction and St. Thomas’s philosophy of being is the topic of evil. Indeed, part of what gives evil both its prominent place and powerful plausibility in Tolkien’s work is not only his interest in such themes as creation, sub-creation, angelic governance, love of otherness, mortality, free will, and so forth, but his related concern to examine the myriad ways in which the motives behind these themes may become corrupted. Despite the importance of the subject in his writings, however, the exact nature of Tolkien’s representation of evil has been the subject of some dispute and not precisely understood. From the time of its first publication in the mid-1950s, many critics have faulted The Lord of the Rings’s portrayal of the conflict between good and evil as overly simplistic and even dangerously naïve, while other readers have found in Tolkien’s representation of evil plenty of food for thoughtful reflection and deserving of comparison with the ideas of such prominent recent thinkers as Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas, René Girard, and Michel Foucault.[1] Perhaps the most important philosophical debate concerning Tolkien’s depiction of evil, however, centers on his relationship not to recent but to very ancient theories of evil. Of particular note is the evident Christian Neoplatonism readers have found Tolkien to share with such eminent thinkers as St. Augustine, Boethius, and St. Thomas, according to whom everything is good to the extent that it exists, so that evil, as the privation of the good, is also the privation of being. On the other hand, Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey has argued that Tolkien’s philosophy of evil, as a consequence of his personal effort to come to grips with uniquely modern forms of evil, especially the threats of modern fascism and industrialized warfare, syncretistically combines Neoplatonic monism with its historically contrary position of Manichaean dualism, according to which evil is not a mere absence of being, but is an independently existing force in its own right.

In the series of posts to follow, it is chiefly with reference to these two positions that I propose to compare the respective ponerologies (the branch of theology dealing with evil, from the Greek word poneros, meaning evil) of Tolkien and St. Thomas. As I have argued before, Tolkien’s view of being (of which evil is a privation) is no generic metaphysics, but holds much in common with the specifically Christian and creational metaphysics developed by St. Thomas, according to whom being is not some necessary, impersonal, and highly mediated emanative surplus (as per classical and later Islamic Neoplatonism), but a voluntary gift immediately bestowed by an ever-personal God. As I hope to show, it is thisunique concept of being that, first, provides the logical structure or coherence to what I argue is for Tolkien a kind of hierarchy of evil, and second (and more paradoxically), which helps at the same time to underwrite rather than contradict the otherwise extreme power and seeming Manichaean independence of evil in Tolkien’s mythology, while at the same time allowing Tolkien to reduce this same evil to nothing.

[1] As Tolkien commented in 1954 on the response of some readers to The Lord of the Rings, “Some reviewers have called the whole thing simple-minded, just a plain fight between Good and Evil, with all the good just good, and the bad just bad. Pardonable, perhaps…” (L 197). On Tolkien and Foucault, see Chance, The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power. On Tolkien and Levinas, see Eaglestone, “Invisibility,” and on Tolkien and Girard, see Head, “Imitative Desire in Tolkien’s Mythology: A Girardian Perspective,” both of which are discussed below. On Tolkien and Heidegger, see Malpas, “Home,” which considers Tolkien in light of Heidegger’s technology-essay and his famous lectures on the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin. For comparisons of Tolkien and Nietzsche, see Blount, “Überhobbits: Tolkien, Nietzsche, and the Will to Power” and Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism.”