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.

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)

Man as Plant: von Mises on Nihilism

In his magnum opusHuman Action, Ludwig von Mises analyzes the nihilism of “Indian philosophies, especially of Buddhism, and Schopenhaur,” in the following terms:

Some philosophies advise man to seek as the ultimate end of conduct the complete renunciation of any action. They look upon life as an absolute evil full of pain, suffering, and anguish, and apodictically deny that any purposeful human effort can render it tolerable. Happiness can be attained only by complete extinction of consciousness, volition, and life. The only way toward bliss and salvation is to become perfectly passive, indifferent, and inert like the plant. The sovereign good is the abandonment of thinking and acting.

Mises contrasts this nihilistic outlook with that of “praxeology,” or the study of human action, which

is not concerned with human beings who have succeeded in suppressing altogether everything that characterizes man as man: will, desire, thought, and the striving after ends. It deals with acting man, not with man transformed into a plant and reduced to a mere vegetative existence.

Acting man (homo agens) vs. “man as plant”–that’s an intriguing analysis of eastern and modern nihilism. In its exhortation to the renunciation of human will, the latter reduces man not so much to the level of an animal as it does to the level of a vegetable.

Which leads us to a somewhat unique biblical and historical perspective on nihilism. In Romans chapter one, the Apostle Paul famously criticizes the paganism of the ancient Gentiles in terms of God having “given them over” in their unbelief so that they “changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things…. Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator…” Given this basic framework, secular nihilism, as a post-Christian phenomenon and, relative to pre-Christian paganism, even more radical form of spiritual decadence, represents a reversion or retrograde to an even earlier day of the creation week, exchanging the glory of man, made on the sixth day in the image of an acting, creating God, for an image of that which had been prepared for man on the third day as a means for his dominion, namely the “herb yielding seed” and “the tree yielding fruit” (Gen. 1). This reminds me, finally, of Conor Cunningham’s thesis (Genealogy of Nihilism) that there is an authentic form of nihilism (defined broadly as any philosophical attempt to have “nothing as something”) latent within the Christian faith, since it teaches that God literally created everything that exists from nothing. If so, there is something symbolic about secular nihilism’s attempt to reduce man to a plant: it is figuratively attempting to renounce God’s own acts of will throughout the creation week.

Faramir’s commentary on Beowulf

Yesterday I posted on Tolkien’s admiration for the pagan “martial heroism as its own end” of Beowulf, yet which he immediately follows with his Christian caution towards the same: “But we may remember that the poet of Beowulf saw clearly: the wages of heroism is death.” In The Lord of the Rings, it is this same perspective that we found put in the mouth of Faramir, that most Christian and Tolkien-like of characters. Comparing and contrasting the Anglo-Saxon Rohirrim to his own people, the Gondorians, who are of a much higher and mightier lineage, Faramir says to Frodo:

‘Yet now, if the Rohirrim are grown in some ways more like to us, enhanced in arts and gentleness, we too have become more like to them, and can scarce claim any longer the title High. We are become Middle Men, of the Twilight, but with memory of other things. For as the Rohirrim do, we now love war and valour as things good in themselves, both a sport and an end; and though we still hold that a warrior should have more skills and knowledge than only the craft of weapons and slaying, we esteem a warrior, nonetheless, above men of other crafts. Such is the need of our days. So even was my brother, Boromir: a man of prowess, and for that he was accounted the best man in Gondor. And very valiant indeed he was: no heir of Minas Tirith has for long years been so hardy in toil, so onward into battle, or blown a mightier note on the Great Horn.’ Faramir sighed and fell silent for a while.

Much of the significance of Faramir’s courtship of Eowyn, it might be said, lies in his “converting”–indeed, healing and saving–this courageous but fey “shieldmaiden” of Rohan from her noble but pagan (and so ultimately enervating and no less nihilistic) martial obsession.

‘I stand in Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun,’ she said; ‘and behold the Shadow has departed! I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.’ And again she looked at Faramir. ‘No longer do I desire to be a queen,’ she said.

     Then Faramir laughed merrily. ‘That is well,’ he said, ‘for I am not a king. Yet I will wed with the White Lady of Rohan, if it be her will. And if she will, then let us cross the River and in happier days let us dwell in fair Ithilien and there make a garden. All things will grow with joy there, if the White Lady comes.’

     ‘Then must I leave my own people, man of Gondor?’ she said. ‘And would you have your proud folk say of you: “There goes a lord who tamed a wild shieldmaiden of the North! Was there no woman of the race of Númenor to choose?”‘

     ‘I would,’ said Faramir.

Therein, I submit, lies much of Tolkien’s Christian response to Nietzsche: it is not ultimately the agonistic will-to-power, but the pastoral will-to-garden, that is the cure for modern nihilism.

Fëanor, “Spirit of Fire”

Consuming Sons: The Nihilism of Fëanor and Denethor, part 3

More obvious examples of Fëanor’s devouring spirit, of course, are to be found in his demagogic manipulation and exploitation of his fellow Noldorin Elves, persuading them to return to Middle-earth and take up the war against Melkor, a war which is really on his own behalf and for his own benefit; his Melkorish theft of the Teleri’s ships and his instigation of the kin-slaying when the Teleri attempt to withstand him; his abandoning his half-brother Fingolfin and the greater part of the Noldorin people on the northern shores of Aman when he deems them no longer useful to himself, and leaving them to cross over to Middle-earth via the treacherous “grinding ice” of the Helcaraxë; his wanton and wasteful destruction of the Teleri’s beautiful ships upon his own debarkation on the shores of Middle-earth (in this Tolkien may be seen, through his arguably most Dionysian character, to expose Nietzsche’s übermensch as no protection against, but as precariously vulnerable to, the very petty spirit of ressentiment and nihilism that Nietzsche so feared); and finally, the manner in which Fëanor’s spirit destroys his own flesh upon his death after being mortally wounded by Balrogs in his charge upon Angband: “Then he died; but he had neither burial nor tomb, for so fiery was his spirit that as it sped his body fell to ash, and was borne away like smoke…” As Fëanor lived, so he died, consuming even his own self.