Recorded about a year ago while I was composing a chapter to be included in a forthcoming volume called The Beacon of Mind: Reason and Intuition in the Ancient and Modern World:
A talk I gave at my graduate program’s retreat at Esalen a few weeks ago.
A comment by media theorist and professor of communication Corey Anton about what I say around the 3 minute mark of part 2 about the death/rebirth mystery of cosmogenesis:
Hi Matt, Thanks again.
A question for me comes at about 3:25 [of part 2]. Will the whole universe “die” and/or be reborn? What, exactly, would that mean? How would that be similar or not similar to human death? Does the cosmos have any “sense” of its finitude? I mean, humans can know that they will die, and that seems to be a main condition for certain kinds of meaningfulness–an articulation of the whole of their lives. Are you suggesting something like reincarnation for either individuals or the cosmos itself? Would you find intelligible some kind of notion of postmortem memories or postmortem experience, for either individual or cosmos? It seems quite slippery at the human level because my own death then appears not as the ending of my life but as a movement to a different mode of life for me in some form (assuming, of course, that the universe itself is not dying simultaneously) but, also, at the cosmos level, when “the cosmos ‘dies,'” does it have postmortem ‘experience’? Is there any ground prior to, or outside of, some kind of “experience”?
Corey, The universe does have a sense of its (in)finitude. This is not the same as having human consciousness of finitude. Symbolic consciousness is not just sense, but the sense of sense. I do the cute thing with the parentheses there because sensing finitude immediately implies that finitude has been and continues to be operated upon by infinitude. Neither we nor the universe are simply finite. To be a dying being is not simply to be a finite being. Our being-toward-death is precisely our infinitude, our openness to what waits beyond, to the imponderable future full of infinite possibilities. We and the rest of the universe are undergoing what Whitehead called a “creative advance into novelty.” Contrary to the materialist sermonizers, there is no inevitable state of entropic equilibrium awaiting us at the end of time because time is unending. Time is a moving image of eternity as Plato said. Pure difference, absolute disequilibrium, reigns. The death of the body is the birth of the soul and the death of the soul is the birth of the body. Really, we are never one or the other (a soul or a body), but always caught somewhere in-between, in-between incarnational embrace of waking life and withdrawal toward dreamy death. We breathe. All things breathe together. Life is not the opposite of death but includes it.
Regular readers of my blog probably already know about the 2015 International Whitehead Conference next summer in Claremont, CA. It is being called “Seizing an Alternative: Towards an Ecological Civilization.” I am organizing a track on late modernity’s reductive monism. In this track, I’ll be presenting a paper laying out what may be the most pressing problem faced by philosophers living in our increasingly anthrodecentralized epoch: the crossroads between evolutionary panpsychism (or process-relational panexperientialism, in Whiteheadese) and eliminative materialism. This crossroads is a decisive crisis for the modern mind’s self- and world-understanding. Some are calling the present (or just past?) epoch the Anthropocene, which began as early as 8,000 years ago and ended around 1945 (about when the atom bomb and LSD were first detonated before or behind human eyes), at least according to Tim Morton. In naming the period after ourselves, we are also sentencing our species to extinction, placing a period at the end of our existence, noting that humanity, too, will one day be but fossilized bones buried in rock strata. If we ever were “human” (in the sense of being more than animal, supernatural, etc.), we are not so anymore. Perhaps our primal and ancient souls were already participants in a wider cosmic drama. In the modern period, there is no doubt that our socioeconomic system has become inextricably bound up with the dynamics of the entire earth ecosystem. Human and earth have become partners in life and in death. There is no turning back now.
“It may be,” says Whitehead,
“that civilization will never recover from the bad climate which enveloped the introduction of machinery…The world is now faced with a self-evolving system, which it cannot stop” (Science and the Modern World, 181).
Also presenting in my track will be cosmologist Brian Swimme and philosopher Richard Tarnas. This semester (Fall 2014) they are teaching a course at CIIS called “Radical Mythospeculation: Cosmic Evolution and Deep History.” Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial is providing much of the intellectual backdrop. Swimme has written (with Thomas Berry) about the 13.8 billion year evolutionary journey of universe, while Tarnas has written about the 2500 year history of the Western world (from ancient Greece and Israel to postmodernity). In the course they aim synthesize their approaches with Bellah’s while speculating about the emergence of a 2nd Axial Age. Also presenting in my track is Sean Kelly (author of Coming Home: The Birth and Transformation of the Planetary Era), who will present on the emergence of a Gaian planetary consciousness in the wake of modernity.
I’ll also be presenting in another track at the International Whitehead Conference called “Unprecedented Evolution: Human Continuities and Discontinuities with Animal Life.” My paper in this track will seek a synthesis between Whitehead’s philosophy of religion (especially as laid out in Religion in the Making) and Robert Bellah’s sociology of religion (especially as presented in his last book, Religion in Human Evolution).
My main goal with this paper is to convincingly portray human religious activity today and in the past as a fact not only relevant to but illustrative of the nature of the universe. In one sense, I want to explain religion as a natural phenomenon by linking it to play and ritual, behaviors seen throughout the animal kingdom. But unlike Dennett (who used this line as the subtitle to Breaking the Spell), I am not seeking to explain it away by describing its evolutionary genesis out of the earth. Rather, I want to take human religious experience seriously as part of the data that must be included in any adequate account of the cosmos. What must our universe be like such that human religious expression is possible? From Whitehead’s perspective, religious experience is not to be explained away or reduced, but “considered as a fact.” Religious experience “consists of a certain widespread, direct apprehension of a character exemplified in the actual universe” (RitM, 74). Religion, then, is not just man-made make-believe. Its imaginations can have cosmic origins.
Harman credits Whitehead for being one of the few daring philosophers “to venture beyond the human sphere” (Guerrilla Metaphysics, 190). Both thinkers share a commitment to anthrodecentrism. They de-center the human by insisting upon a flat ontology, a theory of Being wherein every being exemplifies the same set of metaphysical categories, whether that being be God, or human, or “the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space” (Process and Reality, 18). There are no special exceptions in ontology, no “highest being” exempt from reality’s rules (or from reality’s unruliness). Whitehead was already explicit about the need to avoid paying metaphysical compliments to an ontologically exceptional being. Similarly, he sought to untwist the Kantian reversal that made the special cognitive and perceptual modes of access typical of conscious human beings into the transcendental condition underlying relations of all types. On Whitehead’s reading, Kant privileged perception in the mode of “presentational immediacy” and ignored or at least sidelined the deeper and more ontologically relevant perceptual mode of “causal efficacy.” “Presentational immediacy” displays reality in a way amenable to representational analysis, showing only the more or less clear and distinct surfaces of the world as they are presented to a reflective subject here and now. It is the end product of a complex process of unconscious prehensive unification in our organism and nervous system. “Causal efficacy” unfolds behind the scenes of this Cartesian theater in the unrepresentable depths of reality, carrying vague emotional vectors from the past into the present. Perception in the mode of presentational immediacy is punctual (hence its relative clarity and distinctness); perception in the mode of causal efficacy is transitional (hence its vagueness). Presentational immediacy allows for intentional consciousness, the subjective capacity for attentional directedness toward the eidos of objects; causal efficacy, in contrast, is prehensional, the presubjective capacity to inherit the affective influences of objects. The former mode requires that a mind remain at a distance from things, relating to their essence rather than sensing their causal presence, while the latter implies the internalization of things, the intimate assimilation of their past being into our present becoming. Whitehead’s alchemical distillation of consciousness reveals an experiential structure even deeper than intentionality, a ontologically basic level of experience shared in by all relational beings. If anything is transcendental, it is not human intentionality (as Kant argued), but cosmic prehensionality. As Harman puts it, Whitehead made it possible for us to “speak in the same way of the relation between humans and what they see and that between hailstones and tar” (Prince of Networks, 124).
As Shaviro makes clear, Whitehead’s concept of “prehension” is meant to include both causal and perceptual relations (The Universe of Things, 29). He invented the concept in an attempt to subvert the bifurcation of nature between mental images and material impacts, between nature as it appears before us (“the dream”) and nature as it is thought to be the cause of appearance (“the conjecture”). Prehension allows us to envision, again in Harman’s words, “a world in which the things really do perceive each other” and are not just perceived by us (GM, 52).
The prehensional basis of all object-relations implies that “detached, self-contained local existence” (i.e., simple location) is impossible, since in each act of prehension “the environment enters into the nature of” the prehending thing. This is not to say that things have prehension as a capacity; rather, in Whitehead’s scheme, a thing or actual entity is a momentary unification of multiple prehensions. Actual entities do not have prehensions (as when substantial minds are said to have accidental perceptions); rather, they are prehensions. It is regarding the issue of the interrelation of all things that Whitehead and Harman begin to part ways. While Whitehead defends an image of the universe as a creatively evolving nexus of interpenetrating events, Harman paints the picture of “a universe packed full of elusive substances stuffed into mutually exclusive vacuums” (GM, 76). Shaviro neatly sums up the disagreement: “Whitehead opposes correlationism [and anthropocentrism] by proposing a much broader–indeed universally promiscuous–sense of relations among entities,” while “Harman opposes correlationism by deprivileging relations in general” (tUoT, 30).
Harman rejects Whitehead’s relationalism for two reasons: 1) he worries it reduces ontology to “a house of mirrors” wherein, because a thing just is a unification of its prehensions of other things, there is never finally any there there beneath its internal reflections of others; and 2) he claims that an ontology based exclusively on internal relations, wherein entities are said to hold nothing in reserve beyond their present prehensional relation to the universe, cannot account for change or novelty. In such a universe, there would be “no external point of purchase from which structure could be transformed,” as Levi Bryant puts it (The Democracy of Objects, 209). As Shaviro is quick to point out, however, Whitehead was well aware of this potential objection (see page 35 of PR, for example), which is exactly why he amended his ontology sometime between his final editing of Science and the Modern World (1925) and Process and Reality (1929) so that becoming was understood to be atomic rather than continuous. A fair reading of Whitehead’s mature metaphysical scheme should acknowledge (despite a few inconsistent statements here and there) that his goal was to strike some balance between internal and external relations, precisely for the reasons put forward by Harman and Bryant.
In response to Harman’s first worry regarding an infinite regress of prehensions, I’d call his bluff and say that a truly aesthetic ontology (which he also claims to be seeking) would leave us with just such an infinite regress of appearances. A thing’s “style” or “allure” doesn’t need to be understood as emanating from some substantial core or fixed essence; we can also understand a thing’s “style” as Whitehead does in terms of the “enduring characteristic” realized by a historical route of actual occasions. There is nothing hidden from view by such outward qualities other than the occasion in question’s moment-to-moment subjective enjoyment of these characteristics. Which brings us to Harman’s second (I believe unfounded) worry about relational reductionism. Whitehead’s dipolar account of the process of experiential realization includes both a public moment of display and a private moment of withdrawal. Every drop of experience begins by taking up the “objectively immortal” data of its past. It then unifies this data into its own singular and private perspective on the world. It is this moment of privacy that most closely resembles Harman’s doctrine of withdrawal. The occasion in question is in this moment entirely independent of its relations. But as soon as this private, never before experienced perspective on reality is realized, it perishes into objective immortality, becoming publicly available for the next occasion of experience to inherit as it moves toward its own novel concrescent realization. “The many become one, and are increased by one.” Whitehead is able to make sense of change and novelty while at the same time preserving a non-reductive account of internal relations. It seems to me that Harman’s insistence on the irrelevance of evolutionary time for ontology is part of the reason he is unable to make sense of Whitehead’s attempted compromise (“The ontological structure of the world does not evolve…which is precisely what makes it an ontological structure” [GM, 24]). In effect, Whitehead’s entire process ontology can be understood as an imaginative generalization of evolutionary theory.
This difference regarding the metaphysical status of evolutionary time represents a deep divide between Whitehead’s and Harman’s otherwise similar ontologies. Shaviro, following Stengers (who was following Deleuze), reminds us that “the concepts a philosopher produces depend on the problems to which he or she is responding” (tUoT, 33). It seems as though the deep divide between Harman’s ontology of vacuum sealed objects and Whitehead’s ontology of interrelated organisms comes down to a question of taste. There is no going behind aesthetic taste to find some more rational justification to prefer one account over the other. As Fichte put it in his Wissenshaftslehre (although in the context of morality and not aesthetics), the kind of philosophy one adopts ultimately depends on the kind of person one is. Harman’s personal problem is to account for how relation is possible in a universe of vacuous actualities, while Whitehead’s was to account for how individuality is possible in a universe of interpenetrating actualities.
In the spirit of attaining to some wider point of view inclusive of both perspectives, Shaviro sums up the situation thusly:
“Harman’s difference from Whitehead, and his creative contribution to speculative philosophy, consists in the ‘translation’ of the deep problems of essence and change from one realm (that of relations) to another (that of substances). These two realms, oddly enough, seem interchangeable–at least in an overall anticorrelationist framework. Given that ‘there is no such thing as transport without transformation,’ the only remaining question is what sort of difference Harman’s transformation of ontology makes” (tUoT, 41).
Given the state of our present world, wherein “we are continually beset by relations, smothered and suffocated by them…where all manners of cultural expression are digitally transcoded and electronically disseminated, where genetic material is freely recombined, and where matter is becoming open to direct manipulation on the atomic and subatomic scales,” Whitehead’s problematic appears more and more relevant to our actual condition (tUoT, 33, 42).
“The progress of philosophy does not primarily involve reactions of agreement or dissent. It essentially consists in the enlargement of thought, whereby contradictions and agreements are transformed into partial aspects of wider points of view.” -Alfred North Whitehead, September 10, 1941
It is in this spirit that I believe Shaviro wrote The Universe of Things. Although his name is not in the title, Whitehead is the protagonist of Shaviro’s short book, subtitled On Speculative Realism. Shaviro successfully develops Whitehead’s scheme as an alternative to the other strands of speculative realism. He starkly contrasts Whitehead’s scheme with the eliminativism of Brassier and the mathematism of Meillassoux, but devotes by far the most attention to the differences between Whitehead’s Organism-Oriented Ontology and Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology. I learned a lot from these comparisons. One thing I’d really liked to have seen is a more sustained treatment of Iain Hamilton Grant’s Schellingian powers ontology. Whitehead and Schelling make for an intensely interesting comparison. Of the 4 original speculative realists, Grant’s vitalist variety of SR always struck me as the most intuitively compelling. Harman’s object ontology hit me as more of an intellectual shock that I’m not entirely sure I’ve recovered from yet.
Despite the lack of engagement with Grant/Schelling, what Shaviro convincingly illustrates is the way Whitehead’s philosophy of organism anticipates the most important of speculative realism’s main concerns, in particular SR’s desire to overcome “the anthropocentrism that has for so long been a key assumption of modern Western rationality” (1). Call it “correlationism” or “the philosophy of access”: the assumption of almost all philosophy since at least Kant is that the only reality of any consequence is human reality, reality as it appears or submits to human theories and practices.
“The taste for cosmological vastness,” writes Harman in Guerrilla Metaphysics, “reaches us from Buddhist scripture and the roar of the sea and the probes launched toward Saturn, but the philosophy of human access persuades us to forget these astonishing spaces, or to leave them to other university departments” (255).
In order to overcome the pervasive anthropocentrism of so much modern philosophy, Shaviro argues we would be better served by erring on the side of anthropomorphism. I agree, but with important qualifications. Even if human experience is a special instance of a more general feature of nature, we still need to perform a kind of alchemical distillation of human consciousness in order to determine exactly what is special and what is generic about our experience. What is unique to our way of aesthetically translating the universe, and what is universal? In Whitehead’s estimation, when we perform such a distillation, it quickly becomes clear that not all experience is conscious. There are all sorts of non-conscious experiences causally contributing to our conscious personalities. There are also all sorts of non-conscious experiences occurring beyond and below the reach of human access. As Harman reminds us, “the life of gravel and sandpaper is every bit as troubled by inner ambiguities as human existence ever was” (GM, 257). Both Whitehead and Harman agree on the need to decenter the human. Further, they both agree philosophy must overcome what cultural historian Richard Tarnas describes as “the great hidden anthropocentric projection that has virtually defined the modern mind,” namely, “the pervasive projection of soullessness onto the cosmos by the modern self’s own will to power” (Cosmos and Psyche, 41).
Harman actually denies that he is a panpsychist, since he doesn’t want to install the special features of human cognition into the heart of being. If this is what panpsychism entails, then Whitehead is not a panpsychist, either. David Ray Griffin coined the term “panexperientialism” to better describe Whitehead’s ontology. Harman prefers to refer to OOO as a “panallurist” ontology, building on his aestheticization of causality. “Even if the world were filled with nothing but dust,” writes Harman, “allure would already be present, and the whole of ontology would already be operative” (GM, 244). Just as Whitehead reminds us that, while all consciousness is experiential, not all experience is conscious, Harman states that “all consciousness is allure, but not all allure is conscious” (GM, 245). Whether we call their approaches panpsychist, panexperientialist, or panallurist, it’s obvious that both Whitehead and Harman reject the modern dichotomy between the “conscious images” of minds and the “causal impacts” of matter. According to Harman, images live in the gaps between everything, even particles of supposedly inanimate dust. He enigmatically suggests that we are most closely bound up with the rhythms of being when we are overcome by laughter or worship (243). While I’m not entirely sure what he means, I’m hoping this statement primes my readers to more open-mindedly consider the panexperientialist notion that perhaps the human body can be understood as a sort of monotheistic religion, the god-serving ritual of molecules and cells.
All the components of our body dance in harmony according to the ancient rhythms inherited from their evolutionary forebears, working together to construct and reconstruct the hierarchical structure of our organism. As individual components they have no idea they are participating in creating and maintaining the body of a hidden and unspeakable god. If the cells and molecules of our bodies are so clearly alive, what are we to make of the wider so-called “inanimate” or “inorganic” world?
“The living organ of experience is the living body as a whole. Every instability of any part of it–be it chemical, physical, or molar–imposes an activity of readjustment throughout the whole organism. In the course of such physical activities, human experience has its origin. The plausible interpretation of such experience is that it is one of the natural activities involved in the functioning of such a high-grade organism. The actualities of nature…must be explanatory of this fact…Such experience seems to be more particularly related to the activities of the brain. But…we cannot determine with what molecules the brain begins and the rest of the body ends. Further, we cannot tell with what molecules the body ends and the external world begins. The truth is that the brain is continuous with the body, and the body is continuous with the rest of the natural world. Human experience is an act of self-origination including the whole of nature, limited to the perspective of a focal region, located within the body, but not necessarily persisting in any fixed coordination with a definite part of the brain” (Adventures of Ideas, 289-290).
Panpsychism (or whatever we want to call it), though it has a long pedigree as “a recurring underground motif” in Western philosophy (from the presocratics, to Spinoza and Leibniz, to William James and Whitehead), is only just recently beginning to be taken seriously again. Still, the notion of inherently experiential material strikes many as absurd. Colin McGinn, for example, refers to the idea as “a complete myth, a comforting piece of utter balderdash.” He goes on to ask “isn’t there something vaguely hippyish, i.e., stoned, about the doctrine?” (Consciousness and Its Place in Nature, 93). On Shaviro’s reading, it is not panpsychism that provides us with comfort in the face of an otherwise meaningless and inhuman universe; on the contrary, the comforting modern myth is the anthropocentric idea that all intelligence and purposefulness is safely locked up within the human skull. It gives us a false sense of control over our environments, as though the nonhuman world were just a bunch of dead objects whose blind motion strictly obeys the clear and distinct laws discovered by science. The panpsychist re-enchantment of nature is actually a rather terrifying prospect from the perspective of our hyper-alienated, still all too Cartesian late modern consciousness.
I’ll continue with my review of Shaviro’s book in subsequent posts. Still to be discussed is Shaviro’s rebuttal of Harman’s claim that Whitehead is a relational reductionist. I’ve been arguing against Harman’s reading for years (see here). For many Whiteheadians, the whole issue was settled back in 2010 at the “Metaphysics and Things” conference in Claremont, CA (click here for Shaviro’s brief review and links to other accounts of he and Harman’s exchange at the conference). I’m not sure if Harman remembers, but a few of us from CIIS ran into him at a cafe across the street from the lecture hall just prior to Isabelle Stengers’ keynote. I’d already heard of his OOO by that point, but didn’t catch his name at the time and so only realized it was him after the fact. In any event, despite being gently but consistently scolded by Shaviro, Roland Faber, and other Whiteheadians for his misreading, Harman continues to caricature Whitehead’s process atomism in what I can only believe is an exaggerated attempt to differentiate and so win attention for his own philosophical scheme. There’s nothing abnormal about this tactic in the history of philosophy (I often say, only half facetiously, that the history of philosophy is a long series of caricatures). And the good spiritedness of this particular debate makes it a really great opportunity to flesh out the implications of Whitehead’s ontology. It provides a great example of how disagreement can be conceptually fruitful without degenerating into polemic. As I hope to show in a subsequent post, Harman’s key concept of “withdrawal” provides important insights about causal relation. But I also think Whitehead’s account of an occasion’s momentary privacy gives us what Harman wants without having to affirm the incoherent notion of “vacuous actualities.” Stay tuned…
Steven Shaviro’s new book The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism arrived on my doorstep a few days ago courtesy of the University of Minnesota Press. I’m going to provide a bit of context in this post before diving into a review of the text in subsequent posts.
The press release U of M included in the package describes the book as “an up-to-the-moment critique of a recent turn in philosophical thought.” “Up-to-the-moment” it is not, since Shaviro has been testing much of the book’s content on his blog and at conferences since at least 2010. There will always be an important place for books in academic philosophy, but the principle procedural lesson of Speculative Realism (leaving aside its conceptual contributions for now) is that blogs must be an essential ingredient in any future
academic philosophy hopes to carve out for itself. I strike out “academic” here because it is as yet unclear to me whether philosophy has much of a future in academia. If it is to survive the rise of the neoliberal university, philosophy may have to migrate into media ecologies more suited to free ranging public discourse and genuine learning (learning as an end in itself rather than preparation for the industrial workforce). Sometimes I think the blogosphere is able to provide this. Other times, not so much. Back in 2011, Ray Brassier (ironically the originator of the movement’s name and organizer of its first conference back in 2007) dismissed Speculative Realism as nothing more than “an online orgy of stupidity” cooked up to exploit impressionable graduate students. Since then, several dozen books have been published on the subject, including six titles in the past few weeks alone by Peter Gratton, Tom Sparrow, Peter Wolfendale, Dylan Trigg, Markus Gabriel, and Roland Faber and Andrew Goffey (eds.). If we include the last 6 or 7 months, there have also been publications by Levi Bryant and Tristan Garcia. Obviously, there is more to SR than the late night blog musings of a few overzealous graduate students. In Brassier’s defense, however, it is equally obvious that much of the recent activity in the SR blogosphere has been a total waste of bandwidth. It’s a lot of posturing and very little if any philosophizing.
Much of the controversy of late has centered around Wolfendale’s Object-Oriented Ontology: The Noumenon’s New Clothes, which violently attacks the philosophy of Graham Harman. I haven’t and won’t read the 400-page tome, but word on the street is Wolfendale ends up diagnosing OOO as a symptom of some sort of philosophical pathology (it seems the disease infects both admirers and despisers of OOO—why else would Wolfendale write 400-pages on it?). Brassier makes a cameo appearance in the book’s afterward only to once again announce the nonexistence of the SR movement. Harman has responded to the recent dust-up, somehow managing to keep his cool despite Wolfendale’s accusation that he employs some sort of (in Harman’s words) “devious brainwashing mind-control charisma” to popularize his philosophy.
“I’m not aware of having any such power,” continues Harman, “nor am I aware of having ruthlessly crushed a thousand-flowers-blooming SR blogosphere, as Wolfendale bizarrely contends.”
In preparation for my review of Shaviro’s book, which engages with Harman more intimately than any other SR thinker, I recently re-read the last chapter of his early book Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (2005). His style really is infectious. And because of the aesthetic roots of his ontology, it is not at all incidental to his arguments. “A style,” according to Harman, “is never visibly present, but enters the world like a concealed emperor and dominates certain regions of our perception” (55). There is nothing naked about his prose. Reading him is perhaps best described as a psychedelic experience.
Like Shaviro, I have certain conceptual qualms with Harman’s substance ontology, as well as with what I believe to be his misreading of Whitehead’s process ontology. But I am fundamentally in agreement with the spirit in which he engages philosophy. His call for less critique and more invention couldn’t come at a more crucial juncture in the history of ideas and the evolution of (post)human consciousness. Echoing other speculative thinkers like Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers, he calls for turn toward a more constructive and less anthropocentric mode of thinking: “We seek a form of invention no different in kind from the blossoming of cherry trees or the compression of carbon into diamond” (241). He warns us that “progress [in metaphysics] is constantly threatened with relapse into critique, that most deeply rooted intellectual habit of our time”(237-8), and contrasts critique with curiosity and the capacity for surprise, even going so far as to equate the latter with wisdom itself: “Wisdom means the ability to be surprised because only this ability shows sufficient integrity to listen to the voice of the world instead of our own prejudice about the world, a goal that eludes even the wisest of humans a good deal of the time” (239).
It is in this same spirit that Whitehead endeavored to philosophize, and in “rediscovering” him (as U of M’s press release puts it), Shaviro carries this spirit forward in a constructive way. Harman thanks Shaviro on the back cover for avoiding prose full of “rancor and backstabbing ambition” and praises him as “the most dignified and helpful of Speculative Realism’s critics.” I’ve also often found his work helpful. Particularly helpful was his earlier book Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze and Aesthetics (2009), which was basically my introduction to Deleuze. Also key for my understanding of the stakes of speculative thinking has been his insistence upon the philosophical fork in the road between panpsychism and eliminativism (an issue he takes up again in The Universe of Things).
I’ll begin my review of Shaviro’s new book in subsequent posts over the next several days…
Leon Niemoczynski (here) and Adam Robbert (here) have been having a productive back and forth regarding the prospect of an ecological metaphysics. Speculative Realism is not far afield of their conversation, with subslogans like “dark vitalism,” “new materialism,” and “bleak theology,” and key influences like Plato, Schelling, Nietzsche, and Deleuze, all hovering in the background. They gave Whitehead’s scheme in particular the most attention as perhaps the best equipped to prepare philosophy for its ongoing ecologization. I’d agree, which is why I wrote Physics of the World-Soul about Whitehead’s relevance to contemporary cosmology. In that essay I try to replace the materialist ontology of modern science with the ecological ontology underlying Whitehead’s evolutionary panentheism. In other words, I attempt to show how Whitehead’s cosmological scheme allows for the replacement of physics with ecology as the most philosophically fundamental science, as the most ontologically basic reality. In an ecological rather than a materialist science, for example,
physics and chemistry are no longer considered to be descriptions of the meaningless motion of molecules to which biology is ultimately reducible, but rather themselves become studies of living organization at ecological scales other than the biological. (from p. 3)
As Leon put it, an ecological ontology suggests that what finally exists are creatures and relationships. Nature is not a finished Whole, nor is it made up of finished parts. Nature is incomplete (as Terry Deacon would say), which is to say that it is not a static set of particles, not a law-abiding order/cosmos, but an open-ended and radically inter-related cosmogenesis. Its wholeness is always yet to be achieved, an ideal and not a reality. A more metaphysically precise account of this incompleteness would suggest that there is more to the universe than what is already actualized: potentiality is also ingredient in the Real, playing a role in how each creature experiences the present and in what each creature decides to do next.
Ancient and modern ontologies alike have sought unity, substantiality, and eternity. In contrast, an ecological ontology acknowledges the tendency of things to proliferate, to process, to evolve. Ecology is a pluralistic and historical science. There is nothing–no creature and no relationship–that did not come to be. Our seeming “universe” is really teeming with swarming masses of undomesticated teloi. It is a pluriverse full of erotically charged actors enmeshed in irreducibly complex networks of energetic transaction. These actors not only co-create one another, they co-create the various arenas of space and time “in” which their relations play out. The preposition “in” is employed here only in a grammatical and not in an ontological sense. Space-time is not a pre-existent, universally distributed container within which externally related creatures are simply located; rather, there are various more or less overlapping space-times brought forth by relations between a variety of internally related creatures. The interwoven textures of our pluriverse’s space-times do not precede their respective creaturely relations. Each specific form of relation between each species of creature constitutes a unique spatiotemporal context. Space-times are woven out of relationships.
Another way of getting at this gestalt shift concerning the emergent plurality of space-times (creatures are not “in” space-time, but enactively provide it) is to turn to Adam’s definition of an ecological ontology as implying a breakdown between structure and content, between the transcendental and the empirical, or again, between appearance and reality. If I understand him correctly, it is not that the distinction is canceled, but rather that it must be historicized. We might say, then, that the a priori conditions providing the possibility of human knowledge brought into focus by Kant, while they may seem universal and necessary for individuals, are in fact evolutionarily emergent at the species level and so remain contingent features of our consciousness open to cultural and/or biotechnological transformation. It is not just human forms of intuition of space-time that can alter over time, but also non-human forms of prehension, like that belonging to the members of the ecology of electromagnetic creatures which, according to Whitehead, provide the widest or most general context of systematic inter-relationship in our cosmic epoch. “How do we know,” asks Whitehead, “that only one geometry is relevant to the complex happenings of nature?”
…this planet, or this nebula in which our sun is placed, may be gradually advancing towards a change in the general character of its spatial relations. Perhaps in the dim
future mankind, if it then exists, will look back to the queer, contracted three-dimensional universe from which the nobler, wider existence has emerged. (Modes of Thought, 57).
I want to hold out for the possibility of the ecologization of philosophy, rather than suggesting that the present crisis signals the death of philosophy, or its culmination in technoscientific materialism. Many pre-eminent thinkers have argued that philosophy has failed and needs to be replaced with something else (Nietzsche’s transvaluation of all values, the Heideggerian task of thinking Being’s openness, Deleuze’s plane of immanence, Laruelle’s non-philosophy, …). I’d argue otherwise, not so much against the clear genius of these conceptual personae, but against the idea that somehow what they accomplished wasn’t just a renewal of philosophy. Philosophy should be defined by its ability to live the question rather than to solve it, to participate in truth as a quest undertaken in love). Philosophy doesn’t need to be brought to an end by ecology. It can be saved by it, resuscitated, if only it is willing to swallow the speculative pill curing it of the correlationist anthropocentrisms weighing down ancient and modern philosophy alike. If there is to be a future ecozoic civilization, it will require an ecological philosophy.
John Cobb, Jr. gives his own argument for Whitehead’s relevance last year in Claremont:
Below is my lecture on German Idealism and Romanticism given yesterday (Sept. 30) for MA students enrolled in an Introduction to Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness course at CIIS.
I’m giving another talk on Monday (9/29) on psychedelics (the last one was at Burning Man) as part of a panel discussion for the Entheogenic Research, Integration, and Education (ERIE) student group at CIIS. This one will focus on the psychedelic roots of philosophy, particularly as they relate to the Eleusinian mystery rites. I’ll paste some of my notes below.
Abstract: Since its origins in ancient Greece, Western philosophy has sought out solutions to psychological, cosmological, and ontological problematics. Nowadays, philosophical problems and their solutions tend to come in the form of written formulas. There is no doubt that language can have a profoundly mind-manifesting effect on its speakers and listeners, but ancient Greek philosophers did not limited themselves to alphabetic solutions: they also partook of chemical solutions. In this short presentation, I’d like to revisit the pharmacological roots of the philosophical tradition in ancient Greece, unpacking its still relevant insights into the nature of the human soul, the origin of the universe, and the ground of being.
My goal is to initiate an anemnetic revival of the long repressed psychedelic dimension of Western philosophy. Building on the work of scholars like Michael Rinella and Peter Kingsley, I’ll argue that the West, too, is historically rooted in a unique sort of shamanic practice that has been excised from our origin story in order to serve the dominant political narrative about the rise of disembedded Enlightenment rationality. Psychedelics are perhaps the most important spiritual technology available to philosophy, opening the doors of perception so as to allow for profound experiential insights into cosmogenesis and our human potential to become creative participants in its ongoing evolutionary expression.
I. What are psychedelics?
They are alchemical substances that, when smoked, snorted, chewed, injected, or transdermally absorbed, make human beings conscious of the Divine Imagination.
Terence McKenna on Divine Imagination: “I think of the Divine Imagination as the class of all things both possible and beautiful in a kind of reverse Platonism. The attractor is at the bottom of a very deep well into which all phenomena are cascading and being brought into a kind of compressed state. This is happening in the biological realm through the career of the evolution of life. It’s simultaneously happening in the world as we experience it within our culture, in history. History is the track in the snow left by creativity wandering in the Divine Imagination.” Terence equates Divine Imagination with Chaos, which he says “is not the enemy of order, but the birthplace of it.” (p. 7)
Reversed, inverted, or psychedelic Platonism?:Reading Plato in the context of the Eleusianian psychedelic rituals reveals that the standard reading of “Platonism” has it exactly backwards. What does it mean to say we are living inside a cave? Psychedelics reveal the play of images upon the cave wall to consciousness, they make us aware of illusion, of the aesthetic basis of experience. Can they also show us the way out of the cave? Are they just mind-altering chemicals that confuse the normal dualities of rational subjectivity, or can they also become alchemical solutions that infuse divine creativity into human souls, that awaken us to our highest human potential as conscious participants in cosmogenesis? I think they provided exactly this to the fathers of philosophy, Plato and Socrates. Psychedelics need philosophy, lest they allow us to rest in confusion. The West has its own shamanic, indigenous tradition. We can learn a lot from other cultural traditions, but we should not forget our own lineage in the process (I assume here that my audience is mostly White, or at least was raised within the context of Western civilization).
Psychedelics transform the phenomenal content of our rational, waking, daytime consciousness into a play of images upon a cave wall. They call the very idea of “Reality” itself into question. What’s real? What’s virtual? How are we to tell the difference? They also throw the idea of the “Self” into question—not just the phenomenal surfaces of experience (sensory objects), but its transcendental depths (subjective concepts and intuitions unified by the apperception of the I). Psychedelics initiate us into the creative polarity of experience, revealing the way self and world, mind and reality, remain always in tension, never settling accounts so as to provide for some fixed foundation or taken for granted ground. Psychedelics make manifest to consciousness the groundlessness, the abyssal Chaos, that lies more or less hidden at the base of all things: (now)here we meet our maker, our mother. Such psychedelically induced auto-revelations of the origins of reality forces those initiated to become metaphysicians, doctors of the soul, who seek not to cure death (as physicians do), but to contemplate it endlessly. Philosophers (mistaken sometimes for claiming it to be a tomb) make a temple of the body, as though its very purpose and design was to manifest psyche, to make soul. Philosophy is Wisdom’s response to love. Love is what birthed us, it is our womb. Philosophy, then, is learning to die, which means learning to turn the body from a tomb into a temple. This was Socrates’ most important instruction to all lovers of wisdom, uttered at the birthplace of philosophy in an Athenian prison cell. Socrates, an initiate into the Eleusinian mystery religion (a lysergic acid fueled ritual), inaugurated the Western philosophical tradition while awaiting a heroic dose of hemlock. He was well aware that it was going to be a very intense trip.
Terence McKenna again on illusion and divine imagination: “ Psychedelics somehow change our channel from the evolutionarily important channel giving traffic, weather, and stock market reports to the one playing the classical music of an alien civilization. In other words, we tend to tune to the channel that has a big payback in the immediate world. It seems obvious to me that there are channels of the imagination that are not so tailored for human consumption…The Divine Imagination is the reality behind appearances. Appearance is simply the local slice of the Divine Imagination.” … “What psychedelics reveal is so intense and extreme an example that it argues strongly that the imagination is not the human imagination at all…The psychedelic experience at its intense levels goes beyond the terms of human motivation. It seems rather to enter an ontological reality of its own, one that the human being is simply privileged to observe briefly. A deep psychedelic experience says no more about a person’s personality than it does the continent of Africa. They are, in fact, independent objects. To my mind, the Divine imagination is the source of all creativity in our dreams, in our psychedelic experiences, in the jungles, in the currents of the ocean, and in the organization of protozoan and microbial life.” (p. 14-17)
Psychedelics direct our attention away from the instrumental concerns of survival (masses, positions, dimensions, etc.) and refocus it on the aesthetic dimensions of experience so we might learn not just to survive but to thrive.
II. What is the eucharist?
By invoking the eurcharist, I’m attempting to put psychedelics (which for much of the modern era have been displaced into the recreational arena) back into a ritual context. Re-ritualization is relatively straightforward, since we need only return to the models provided us by the ancient mystery religions. I’m going to focus on Eleusis since its mysteries are intimately bound up with the origins of philosophy. The precise nature of the annual rites at Eleusis were secret, but we can reconstruct a good deal of their meaning. They are thought to be a recapitulation of older, pre-Olympian goddess-worshipping rituals originating on the island of Crete. The major difference is that the older Cretan rites were celebrated publicly. Eleusis was an attempt to preserve these rites secretly, so as to protect them from the onslaught of patriarchy, which was uneasy, to say the least, with the implications of their psychedelically-induced revelations. These revelations offered insight into the mysterious death-rebirth cycle of plant life. The Eleusinian mystery rites were based on the myth of Demeter, mother earth, and Persephone, her daughter, who would become queen of the underworld after dining on a few pomegranate seeds while in hell with Hades. The myth is a symbolic representation of the seasonal shifts in vegetation (or perhaps these seasonal shifts are symbolic of the myth?).
Homer on this myth (a summary): “Persephone, playing in a meadow, came across a large and wondrous narcissus. As she reached for it, the ground gave way and the dark lord of the underworld, Hades, appeared on his golden chariot. He carried her off screaming to Zeus and the gods for help. Demeter heard her and rushed to find what had happened. For nine days she wandered the earth. On the tenth she appealed to the Sun who sees all in his daily travels. He reported that Zeus had given Persephone to his brother Hades to be his wife. Demeter, filled with grief, was angry. She removed all signs of her divinity and as an old woman walked the earth in quest of her daughter. At Eleusis she sat on the outskirts of town near a well; Clement of Alexandria noted that sitting on a well “is even now prohibited to those who are initiated, lest they should appear to mimic the weeping goddess.” Keleos’s four young daughters wanted to help her, and with their mother’s permission brought her home. Stepping onto the threshold, the old woman touched the roof beam with her head and a heavenly light filled the room. The family was filled with amazement and fear, but no one guessed she was a goddess. The girls’ mother, Metaneira, offered her fine chair, but Demeter waited in silence. Finally a waiting-woman offered a stool covered with white fleece. Demeter sat down, covered herself with her veil, and waited in silence, pining for her daughter. This refers to the silence of the mysteries and the fleece-covered stool on which the initiate sat. The waiting-woman induced Demeter to smile. Metaneira brought a goblet of sweet wine, but the goddess refused, requesting instead a drink of barley, water, and mint, referring to the mystery-drink. Later Metaneira gave Demeter her baby to rear. Demeter secretly fed the boy only the ambrosia of the gods, and at night concealed him in the embers of the fire, like a log. In this way he grew like a god, but Metaneira spied one night and shrieked at the sight of her son in the fire. Furious, Demeter snatched him out and exclaimed that he would have become ageless and immortal. Revealing herself as a goddess, she requested the people of Eleusis to build a great shrine in which she would instruct them in her rites. When the temple was finished, Demeter sat there pining for her daughter. Spring came but fields produced no growth, for heartbroken Mother Nature kept the seeds unsprouted in the ground. The human race would have perished, but Zeus took notice and one by one sent the other Olympians to summon her, but she spurned them all, inconsolable until she saw her daughter. Finally Zeus dispatched Hermes, guide of the souls of the dead, to entreat Hades to release Persephone. Hermes led her to the world above and Demeter ran to her, asking: “While you were in the underworld, surely you didn’t eat anything? For if you did, you’ll return for one-third of the seasons.” Persephone admitted she’d been tricked into eating some pomegranate seeds, and therefore had to spend one-third of each year as queen of the underworld and two-thirds among the rest of the gods. Demeter released the power that caused seeds to sprout, grow, and produce blossoms and harvest. And before returning to the ranks of the immortals she instructed the leaders of Eleusis in the sacred mysteries.” (http://www.theosophy-nw.org/theosnw/world/med/me-savage.htm)
This myth is suggestive of a correspondence between the death/rebirth cycle of plants and the death/rebirth cycle of human beings. Just like plants move from seed, to stem, to bud, to flower, to fruit, and back to seed again, human souls grow from birth, through infancy, adolescence, adulthood, and senility until death, at which point the soul leaves its temporary embodiment to become the seed for some future reincarnation. Like plants, human souls share in an immortality of sorts. In dying to our individual bodies, we live forever in the soul of the world. Eleusis (Eleuseos) literally means “the coming.” The child that Demeter was feeding ambrosia and placing in the fire to “grow like a god” is a hint of the divine child to come. In fact, there is more than a hint of the incarnation in the Eleusinian myth. It is a myth about the mystery of mortality, about the path through death to what lies beyond it.
The mystery rites at Eleusis took place over 9 days, symbolizing the 9 months of human gestation. Stages of major mystery ritual are symbolic of the archetypal perinatal matrices (Neptune—>Saturn—>Pluto—>Uranus).
Ingesting a psychedelic turns the world inside out, such that the soul extends beyond the skull to encompass us, while the seeming solidity of matter dissolves into the infinite plasticity of energy.
The Eleusinian ritual was an early form of the rite later celebrated by Christians as the Eurcharist. Demeter represented grain or bread for the Greeks. The annual rites also included invocations of Dionysius, another vegetation god, representing grapes or wine.
Terence on the psychedelic eucharist, the kykeon: “It has to be understood that psychedelics are a way to the Gaian mind. They are not metaphors for sacraments, they are real sacraments, and their efficaciousness can have political consequences.”
“Pharmakon” in Greek can mean both poison and remedy. In this sense, psychedelics are poison, in that they tend to catalyze ego death; on the other hand, they are remedies, in that it is only through the death of the ego that human beings are initiated into the true meaning of life and so are healed of the alienation that plagues the rational mind, which perceives itself as separate from the body, from earth, and from the wider cosmos.
Alphabetic technology and Alchemical technology: Plato was living amidst a crisis in consciousness brought about by a mutation in his media ecology: the older analog technology of speech was being augmented by the more recently invented digital technology of alphabetic writing. Psychedelics make both the limits and the power of oral or written language very apparent…
Chaos, Creativity, and Cosmic Consciousness (trilogues of McKenna, Sheldrake, and Abraham).
Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm by Stephen Harrod Buhner
Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere by Richard Doyle
Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens by Michael Rinella
I wanted to post a transcription of some reflections I shared during a medicine circle I participated in this past summer. Some of what came to me has had a big impact on my conceptualization of my dissertation thesis regarding the etheric (or plant-like) nature of Imagination.
It is such a privilege to speak later in the circle, just to be able to absorb everyone else’s experience before sharing my own. It is very grounding. Yesterday I hadn’t yet arrived, and so it was difficult for me to speak from my heart when I was sharing my intentions. I was still feeling uncertainty, wondering if I should be here, asking if I could afford this… I hadn’t yet allowed myself to accept that I had made the decision to be here. And then the rapé was offered. It literally blew the doubts and uncertainties out of my field of awareness and dropped me into what at first was just an intense somatic experience of numbness in my extremities. As that sensation subsided after a few moments, I reached a place of crystal clear clarity. I realized why I had decided to come here. The “reason” is not something I can explain rationally – it is more like a feeling of faithfulness. Later in the evening we drank the ayahuasca. After the first serving, I wasn’t experiencing very much. I felt pretty normal for the duration of that part of the ceremony. My mind was very active and the doubts came back again. I thought maybe this isn’t going to work, maybe this is going to be a long night. I wasn’t even nauseous – there was no change really in my consciousness. The chanting and ceremonial context certainly held me and gave me an experience but it wasn’t what I was hoping for entirely. Then I drank the second dose and it’s hard to tell how long it took, but it drastically altered my normal state of mind in a way I only became conscious of after the fact. At some point after drinking the second dose, maybe 30 minutes or an hour after, I became conscious again and realized I had been experiencing a vision of a beautiful infinitely-armed goddess who was dancing above me, lavishing me with love, care, and attention. I realized that I had been meditating on the question “who am I?” And yet until I became aware of it, I didn’t have any self-consciousness. There wasn’t an ego asking “who am I?”, it was just this experience of deepening into the mood or atmospheric feeling of this question and being answered by the presence of this pervasive feminine intelligence. Then we went outside. When I saw the stars the question that was orienting me shifted to: “what is this?”, “How is this possible?” Then I laid back and gazed at the night sky, holding that question. No immediate answer came. I was transfixed by its infinitude. Then [the shaman] invoked the spirit of the sky and that of the earth, at which point it became clear to me: “oh yeah, there is this too [patting the ground].” Then I found myself struggling for a moment to try to integrate the sky and the earth, their differences, the way they complement one another. And then the dried tobacco was passed around. I began meditating on plants as the essence of life. There are animals, too, but animals eat plants. So plants are what provide the foundation for all of life. I was just praying on the tobacco and realizing that plant life is what integrates earth and sky. Plants between earth and sky. The light of the sky summons the fertility of the earth and the child of their marriage is plant life. Then my mind kicked in and I wanted to understand more theoretically, “wow, how is that possible?” And then I realized I already know the answer, but that it’s not something I could explain in a scientific way. I’m holding the answer in here [points to chest]. Then I offered the tobacco to the fire and I realized that the reason life emerges is to experience the sacrifice of death. And that life is worth it even though when you’re born, the one thing that’s inevitable is that you are going to die. Somewhere in there is—maybe not the explanation—but at least the meaning or understanding I’ve been searching for. I realized that I knew the answer before I even asked the question.
Love, Death, and the Sub-Creative Imagination in J. R. R. Tolkien
by Matthew David Segall
In the year 1951, as recorded by the calendar of our world, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to a potential publisher of his Lord of the Rings trilogy to describe the origin of his fantasy story:
“In order of time, growth and composition, this stuff began with me. I do not remember a time when I was not building it…I have been at it since I could write” (xi).
The imaginal flowering of Tolkien’s mythopoeic world was never separate from his real life identity. It grew from the soil of his own soul, from out of the wounds of his own real life world. His very sense of himself as a developing personality within a devolving late industrial society was coëval with his feeling for the courses charted by his characters through the story. His autobiography and his archeology of Middle-Earth were as one.
Though Tolkien is clearly an example of what our traditions of criticism have called a literary genius—a man singularly awakened to the world-making power of his Imagination—we must nonetheless grapple with the apparently contradictory metaphysical implications of his fantasy works: Art is not the privilege of a few especially talented human geniuses, but the shared intuition or common sense running through each and every creature in the cosmos. It is not Tolkien’s imagination that created Middle-Earth, just as it is not any particular person’s imagination that has created our earth as it exists in the year 2014. It is the same Divine Cosmic Imagination that has created both, the one through Tolkien, the other through all of us together. A genius inspires every one of us from the dumbest to the most erudite in our thoughts, and in our hearts, and even in our very cells, the molecules organizing our cells, the protons and electrons whose dancing in currents of light grant motion to those molecules. The process of cosmic creation is the locus of primary genius. All of nature is inspired Art. The cosmic imagination has called the human into being. Human Art is nature’s way of becoming conscious of its own creative process.
Unlike every other creature on Earth or above it, our human purpose is not pre-determined by our species. To be human is to lack any such purpose but that we create for ourselves. In a participatory universe such as ours, the only purpose given us by our Creator is to become like him, to become, as Tolkien referred to it, a “sub-creator.”
The subtending power of Imagination over human life is such that, lacking a positive desire for creation, a creative impulse, a sense of self-esteem in our ability to create, we quickly sink into the darkness of world-negating nihilism. Cosmic meaning is never prescribed; we are called instead to participate in its making. The purpose we have been given by our Maker is to participate in His making.
It isn’t that the lack of a creative desire to participate in life dissolves the illusions of Imagination, leaving behind nothing but bare biological survival and the blind and stupid churning of matter. It’s that, for better or worse, with or without such positivity, there is no escape from Imagination: it encompasses the whole of both life and death, body and soul, yay and nay. To be sub-creators is our doom. If we do not use our power of divine likeness to create beauty, we risk destroying it. We are not permitted to abstain, to be spectators on an already made reality. For there to be any reality at all, we must participate in its making, whether positively or negatively.
Reality is never purely what it is because it always comes mixed up with Images. Reality, it turns out, is not a finished unity, but a plurality of interwoven processes. Every supposedly simple and finished reality is but a ego-generated image, a mirage, an idol. What happens is that an ongoing creality is mistaken for a completed reality. This mistake leads not only to nihilism, but to resentment of the world’s becoming.
Resentment or enchantment: these are the two paths open to we earthly sub-creators. Both bring forth a certain shape of subjectivity: the former that of an embattled ego who has externalized blame upon an enemy in order to feel expiated for its own failure to faithfully participate; the latter that of an ego innocently open to the eucatastrophic surprises of a cosmic story still in the process of being told.
Tolkien’s Art invites us to step into our roles as cosmic artisans, just at that moment in world history when the stars have fallen and so much else seems headed for disaster.
Tolkien’s Art is not what it at first appears. More artisanal than artistic, the products of Tolkien’s sub-creation “arose in [his] mind as ‘given’ things.” Always,” writes Tolkien, “I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there,’ somewhere: not of ‘inventing’” (xii). Tolkien’s mode of creation is also a mode of discovery. This seeming contradiction is easier to grasp if we consider it alongside Tolkien’s belief that “myths are largely made of truth” (xv). The “wide-spread motives or elements” expressed in the world’s mythologies (known to Tolkien’s contemporary Carl Jung as “archetypes”) are such mythic truths. It is no surprise, then, that these archetypes were in some sense re-discovered by Tolkien in the course of his imaginal descent into Middle-Earth. We need not decide whether sub-creation is true creation, or simple discovery, since Imagination functions according to its own oscillatory logic allowing it to hover indeterminately between pairs of seeming opposites (creation/discovery, self/world, intellect/sensation, spirit/matter, and so forth). It is from this unruly oscillation that all of Imagination’s mysterious power derives.
Tolkien says of all his artwork that it is fundamentally concerned with the problem of the relation of Art (and Sub-creation) to Primary Reality (xiii). Primary Reality is the world of daily life, of biological struggle, and, eventually, of death. The sub-creator, in bringing forth a Secondary Reality (made not of mass in motion, but of story and myth, of image and emotion), expresses a desire which not only has no ordinary biological function, but which indeed usually finds itself in strife with these functions (xiii). Despite its spiritual motives, the sub-creative desire “is at once wedded to a passionate love of the real primary world, and hence filled with the sense of mortality, and yet unsatisfied by it” (xiii). Death, even if imaginary, is no less real for all that. We human sub-creators have, again, two paths open to us upon encountering it.
The first option is to resent death as a curse, and so to “rebel against the laws of the Creator” by employing various devices meant to mechanically stave off the inevitable. This is a fallen form of creativity in service of the denial of death, which cannot but lead to the desire for ever more Power. For Tolkien, this desire for Power can lead only to an obsession with “the Machine.” The Machine necessarily possesses its master (and so inverts the master-slave relationship). It represents a form of black magic that is concerned only to make the will quicker and more effective, a technological magic accomplished by external devices, rather than by the innate power of Imagination.
The second option is to accept death as a gift from God, to sub-create out of sheer love of this world without jealousy or possessiveness. This is easier if we follow Tolkien’s advice by looking at things “through Elvish minds” instead of the human ones we’re used to. The object of Elvish magic “is Art, not Power, sub-creation, not domination and tyrannous re-forming of creation” (xii). Though “it is not the legendary mode of talking,” Tolkien assures us that his “elves” are really nothing more than “an apprehension of a part of human nature” (xvi). No doubt it is the higher part; though of course, the Elves were the first to fall.
“There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall…at least not for human minds as we know them and have them.” (xv)
In the mythic mode of speaking, the Elves are said to be the Firstborn of Ilúvatar, humans their Followers. Taking the Elvish view on things gives we mere mortals the opportunity to raise our attention from the mud into which we have fallen to dwell again at least for a moment beneath the stars in the sky and to contemplate the heavenly mission their light was sent to earth to share with us.
“The doom of the Elves,” writes Tolkien,
“is to be immortal, to love the beauty of the world, to bring it to full flower with their gifts of delicacy and perfection, to last while it lasts, never leaving it even when ‘slain,’ but returning–and yet, when the Followers come, to teach them, and make way for them, to ‘fade’ as the Followers grow and absorb the life from which both proceed.” (xiv)
“The Doom (or Gift) of Men,” he continues,
“is mortality, freedom from the circles of the world. Since the point of view of the whole cycle is the Elvish, mortality is not explained mythically: it is a mystery of God which no more is known than that ‘what God has purposed for Men is hidden': a grief and an envy to the immortal Elves.”
From the Elvish perspective, death is Ilúvatar’s Gift to humans. Elves envy humans because our love for the world is, at least potentially, so much more beautiful than theirs. Why? Because we mortals have the choice to love one another, and to love the world, despite death. Eucatastrophe, is the highest of the Arts, the most beautiful of all Nature’s works.
Only by incarnating into the physical world and passing through the finitude of death could God’s Love become truly infinite. This is the Creator’s great secret, kept even from the angels until (if I might risk an allegorical translation) the Christ Event. Until that “turning point in time,” the Drama had remained incomplete…“incomplete in each individual ‘god,’ and incomplete if all the knowledge of the pantheon were pooled…For the Creator had not revealed all.” (xiv)
Embracing death lovingly despite not being certain of its meaning requires a redemptive act of Imagination, a sort of faith, since for Imagination believing is seeing.
The same sort of imaginal faith is required to participate in the meaning of Tolkien’s cosmogony as depicted in The Silmarillion. Tolkien recounts the creation of the world through the musical call and response of Ilúvatar, the All-Father, the One, and his noetic offspring, the Ainur, or Holy Ones. Together, all the Ainur sang in accord with Ilúvatar’s theme:
“…a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.”
But then, Melkor, the Ainur with the greatest gifts of power and knowledge, began to
“interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.” (16)
Not only Elves and Humans, but even Angels are subject to the mythic law of the Fall. Like all evil, Melkor’s fallenness stems from the same root as goodness. He only began to sing out of tune with the other Ainur because he had gone off alone in an effort to fill in the emptiness of the Void where Ilúvatar’s song had not yet reached. His efforts made his heart grow hot with possessiveness. Alas, his will was lost to the lure of Ilúvatar’s music and he turned selfward, instead. Melkor’s rebellion caused heaven’s harmony to falter as many of the other Ainur began attuning with him instead of Ilúvatar. Soon, all about the throne of Ilúvatar “there was a raging storm, as of dark waters that made war upon one another in an endless wrath.” Ilúvatar contended with Melkor, not by negating his “loud and vain” improvisations, but by weaving even the most triumphant of Melkor’s dissonant notes back into the deeply solemn and for that reason immeasurably beautiful pattern of His cosmic melody.
“Mighty are the Ainur,” said Ilúvatar,
“and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar…And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.” (17)
The universe presents human beings with an opportunity to trust the creative process that has birthed them, to trust it even when its path seems dark and difficult, even when its products seem measly and powerless before the weight of the primary world of toil and death. We can embrace mortal sub-creation without resenting the task by realizing that death only appears to the fallen ego to be an enemy. For the ego redeemed by Imagination, death is revealed to be God’s greatest gift to Creation, a sacred secret entrusted not to gods but to humans, those made in His Image and after His likeness.
“The great policies of world history, ‘the wheels of the world,’” wrote Tolkien,
“are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak–owing to the secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom but One, that resides in the intrusions of the Children of God into the Drama.” (xvii)
*All citations from second edition of The Silmarillion ed. by Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).