Ainur’s Vision: Desire for the Real

Metaphysics of the Music, part 36

The psychological consequence of the Vision’s implying a greater degree of being than the Music is that, more than merely calling the Ainur’s attention to an abstract or hypothetical possibility of the extra-mental, physical world it portrays, the Vision is also conspicuous in its eliciting in the Ainur the intense desire that this world should be made real, that it should be given the gift of its own independent act of existence. When the Vision is concluded, after all, the Ainur’s wish is not that the Vision–much less the Music–should be renewed, but rather that what they have seen in the Vision should be made real: “Then there was unrest among the Ainur; but Ilúvatar called to them, and said: ‘I know the desire of your minds that what ye have seen should verily be, not only in your thought, but even as ye yourselves are, and yet other…’” (Silmarillion 20). David Bentley Hart again captures rather precisely the tension between what I’m suggesting is the Kantian disinterest of the Music and the Thomistic desire for the real found in the Vision:

Beauty evokes desire… precedes and elicits desire, supplicates and commands it (often in vain), and gives shape to the will that receives it. Second, it is genuinely desire, and not some ideally disinterested and dispirited state of contemplation, that beauty both calls for and answers to: though not a coarse, impoverished desire to consume and dispose, but a desire made full at a distance, dwelling alongside what is loved and possessed in the intimacy of dispossession. Whereas for Kant, for instance, ‘interested’ desire figures as the negation of the aesthetic and the ethical alike, as incompatible with contemplative dispassion in the former case and with categorical obligation in the latter, for Christian thought desire—which includes interest—must be integral to both. It is the pleasingness of the other’s otherness, the goodness that God sees in creation, that wakes desire to what it must affirm and what it must not violate, and shows love the measure of charitable detachment that must temper its elations; it is only in desire that the beautiful is known and its invitation heard. Here Christian thought learns something, perhaps, of how the Trinitarian love of God—and the love God requires of creatures—is eros and agape at one: a desire for the other that delights in the distance of otherness. (The Beauty of the Infinite 19-20)

The Vision, in short, depicts a physical reality the realization or perfection of which necessarily requires that it be something more than a mere Vision. This means that, in their love for the things portrayed in the Vision, the Ainur necessarily have an interest or concern to see that the possibilities exhibited there should be given their full metaphysical due. The Ainur thus give expression to the same desire we find at play in St. Thomas’s metaphysics of beauty, namely that, as W. Norris Clarke has put it, “[w]hat we really desire when we desire a possible being is its actuality, not its possibility” (“What is Really Real?” 82).

Musical Theodicy

Metaphysics of the Music, part 29

We’ve been considering Tolkien’s image of the Music of the Ainur as a powerful perspective on the problem of evil. In a discussion that could almost be a direct commentary on Tolkien’s Ainulindale, David Bentley Hart develops the metaphor of music as it answers the question of theodicy:

For Christian thought… true distance is given in an event, a motion, that is transcendent… it even makes space for the possibilities of discord, while also always providing, out of its analogical bounty, ways of return, of unwinding the coils of sin, of healing the wounds of violence (the Holy Spirit is a supremely inventive composer)… Within such an infinite, the Spirit’s power to redeem discordant lines is one not of higher resolution but of reorientation, a restoration of each line’s scope of harmonic openness to every other line. It is the promise of Christian faith that, eschatologically, the music of all creation will be restored not as a totality in which all the discords of evil necessarily participated, but as an accomplished harmony from which all such discords, along with their false profundities, have been exorcised by way of innumerable ‘tonal’ (or pneumatological) reconciliations. This is the sense in which theology should continue to speak of the world in terms of a harmonia mundi, musica mundana, or the song of creation.” Hart, Beauty of the Infinite, 280-1.

The Ainur’s Music and the Trinity

Metaphysics of the Music, part 25

With the account I’ve given of Thomas’s views on music, beauty, and the realism of created being as background, I think we are in an ideal position to understand more precisely the metaphysical significance of the music imagery of Tolkien’s creation-myth. In light of the metaphysically tragic reading of the Ainulindalë surveyed earlier, perhaps the first point that stands to be made—as obvious as it is easy to overlook—is the fact that Tolkien places at the origins of his fictional cosmos an act of divine music, which is to say, an act of divine play. This point is made perhaps more clearly in the early edition of the Ainulindalë from The Book of Lost Tales, in which Ilúvatar is actually said to have “sang into being the Ainur…” (BLT 52). From its very inception, therefore, Tolkien’s narrative arguably sets a much more sanguine metaphysical course than the ontological ennui some of his commentators have credited it with.

It is also possible to connect further the Creator’s music-making at the outset of the Ainulindalë with what we saw in chapter one to be the proto-Trinitarianism of Tolkien’s mythical theology. As Tolkien’s puts it in his commentary on the Athrabeth, “the possibility of complexity or of distinctions in the nature of Eru” is already to be glimpsed in the Ainulindalë, particularly in the Flame Imperishable which he identifies as being “in some sense distinct from or within” Eru (Morgoth’s Ring 335, 345). Linking the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity with the musical universalis tradition behind the Ainulindalë, David Bentley Hart has suggested that the “complexity or distinction” of the Christian godhead means that, behind the cosmic music played out in the world by the Creator is the prior divine music which is the Creator, constituting the Creator in his own being:

the image of cosmic music is an especially happy way of describing the analogy of creation to the Trinitarian life. Creation is not, that is, a music that explicates some prior and undifferentiated content within the divine, nor the composite order that is, of necessity, imposed upon some intractable substrate so as to bring it into imperfect conformity with an ideal harmony; it is simply another expression or inflection of the music that eternally belongs to God, to the dance and difference, address and response, of the Trinity. (The Beauty of the Infinite, 276)

In keeping with this point is Ilúvatar’s explanation to the Ainur that it is because they have been kindled with the Flame Imperishable that they are, as it were, to “kindle” their own music, “show[ing] forth [their] powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will” (Silmarillion 15). It’s possible, in other words, to see the overflowing harmony of divine persons making up the divine being as the basis and originating source for the harmonies produced by the Ainur. And while the finitude and creatureliness of the Ainur’s Music doubtlessly means it must pale in comparison to the “beauty of the infinite” and transcendent rhythms of which the divine godhead is composed, Tolkien’s narrative is less concerned with its status as an inferior redundancy of Ilúvatar’s original theme than it is, as we have also seen, with that respect in which their Music has instead been caught up within and made to share in the divine life and music of Ilúvatar himself. Nor is Ilúvatar in his absolute transcendence in any way oblivious to their Music (as the Neoplatonic One is and must be oblivious, for example, of his emanations), but is rather portrayed as a connoisseur of their Music, delighting in the new state of affairs their Music has brought about: “But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song” (Silmarillion 15).

Scripture’s Music of Creation

The metaphysics of the Music, part 2

As I noted in the first post in this series, discussions of Tolkien’s cosmic-music imagery have frequently drawn attention to its classical antecedents. Thus, before we consider how Tolkien essentially synthesizes this tradition with his Thomistic metaphysics of creation, we may wish to review some of the more noteworthy of these classical sources, along with what his commentators have had to say about them. I have noted before the tendency, among some Tolkien readers, to draw contrasts between the Ainulindalë and the biblical creation-account, and Tolkien’s conceit of angelic beings helping to fashion the world through their celestial music—an idea foreign to Genesis—might seem to be a case in point. The idea itself, however, is not entirely without biblical precedent, as may be seen in the book of Job, for example, which describes the heavenly host accompanying the creation of the world with their singing: “Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? Or who laid the corner stone thereof; When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:6-7). In the Book of Chronicles, moreover, King David enjoins the entirety of creation to lift up its praises to God: “Sing unto the Lord, all the earth; shew forth from day to day his salvation… Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice… Let the sea roar, and the fullness thereof: let the fields rejoice, and all that is therein. Then shall the trees of the wood sing out at the presence of the Lord…” (1 Chron. 17:23, 31-33; see also Ps. 96:11-12 and 98:4-8). The Book of Revelation, finally, depicts in similar fashion the angels singing and praising God in the company of his martyred saints (Rev. 5:8-12). As David Bentley Hart summarizes the scriptural data on the subject, “[t]here are abundant biblical reasons, quite apart from the influence of pagan philosophy, for Christians to speak of the harmonia mundi: in Scripture creation rejoices in God, proclaims his glory, sings before him; the pleasing conceits of pagan cosmology aside, theology has all the warrant it needs for speaking of creation as a divine composition, a magnificent music, whose measures and refrains rise up to the pleasure and the glory of God” (The Beauty of the Infinite, 275). In the sixth century, accordingly, Pope Gregory the Great, based on his reading of Scripture and Pseudo-Dionysius’s treatise on The Celestial Hierarchy, propounded the influential medieval idea that the redeemed human race, in the final consummation of all things, would constitute with the angels a tenth choir and so make up for the loss suffered from the rebellion of Satan and his company (Forty Homilies on the Gospels, Homily 34). Tolkien would seem to echo this idea in the opening page of the Ainulindalë,where it is already anticipated that “a greater [music] still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days” (Silmarillion 15).

Morgoth’s Ring

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 43

The idea that Melkor had “disseminated” part of his own, evil self into the very material being of the Earth is a peculiar one and may again seem to lend support to Tom Shippey’s identification of a Manichaean-dualistic strain in Tolkien’s thought. While there are a number of different levels at which Tolkien’s notion of Morgoth’s Ring might be evaluated, for the present we may simply note Tolkien’s emphatic denial, and in overt contradiction with one of the central tenets of Manichaean thought, that matter in his fiction is by any means inherently evil. On the contrary, in good Augustinian fashion Tolkien writes: “‘Matter’ is not regarded as evil or opposed to ‘Spirit’. Matter was wholly good in origin. It remained a ‘creature of Eru’ and still largely good, and indeed self-healing, when not interfered with: that is, when the latent evil intruded by Melkor was not deliberately roused and used by evil minds” (Morgoth’s Ring 344). One statement Tolkien would appear to be making through his concept of Morgoth’s Ring, accordingly, is that if material being should at least seem to have an inherent tendency towards evil, as per the Manichaean explanation, this tendency is in fact not inherent in matter at all, but is adventitious, the result of a Fall of which all creation, and not just its free, spiritual or moral beings, has partaken. If so, then the dualism we find in Tolkien might perhaps best be compared with the “provisional dualism” David Bentley Hart has suggested is to be found in the New Testament: matter “stained” by a “Melkor ingredient” would be comparable to the stoicheia the Apostle Paul speaks of (Gal. 4:3), the “rudimentary elements” of an otherwise good world subject for a time to futility, groaning for its redemption, and awaiting the “manifestation of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19-23)—a world, that is, (and as Tolkien put it in his letter to his son Christopher), in which “evil labours with vast powers and perpetual success—in vain…” (Letters 76). The Morgoth’s Ring concept, accordingly, might be viewed as a concession to the appearance of a kind of Manichaean dualism on the one hand while at the same time attempting to give an orthodox cause or explanation of the reality behind this appearance, much as Tolkien, as I have argued previously, affirms an “apparent Anankê” of “nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death,” all the while positing the existence of an absolute divine providence working behind this “apparent Anankê” and governing all things towards their own higher, “eucatastrophic” purpose. I’ll want to come back to this idea in a future post.

Melkor: Tolkien’s critique of Nietzsche’s aesthetic

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 33

I’ve written before on Feänor as a kind of implied critique on Tolkien’s part of Nietzsche’s Dionysianism (see here and here). Another character, however, in whom one might see Tolkien toying with and ultimately subverting the aesthetic ideals of his fellow philologist is Melkor. In the preceding post in this series, I cited a passage from the Ainulindalë describing what I characterized as Melkor’s domineering “will to sameness.” In contrast to the complex and diverse themes of Ilúvatar and the faithful Ainur, the music of Melkor is said to have “achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes,” in contrast to the music of Ilúvatar which “was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came” (Silmarillion 16-17). Although he doesn’t seem to have had Tolkien’s Ainulindalë in mind, the entire conflict between the music of Melkor and Ilúvatar almost perfectly symbolizes what theologian David Bentley Hart has described as the permanent antagonism between the Dionysian aesthetic of Nietzsche and his disciple Gilles Deleuze on the one hand, and the competing aesthetic offered within Christian theology on the other. As Hart writes,

A Dionysian rhythm… embraced within the incessant drumbeat of being’s unica vox as it repeats itself endlessly, from whose beat difference erupts as a perpetual divergence; and even if Dionysus allows the odd irenic caesura in his dance—the occasional beautiful sequence—it constitutes only a slackening of a tempo, a momentary paralysis of his limbs, a reflective interval that still never arrests the underlying beat of difference. Theology, though, starting from the Christian narrative of creation out of nothingness, effected by the power and love of the God who is Trinity, might well inquire whether rhythm could not be the prior truth of things, and chaos only an illusion, the effect of a certain convulsive or discordant beat, the repetition of a sinful series. (The Beauty of the Infinite, 276-7)