Love, Death, and the Sub-Creative Imagination in J.R.R. Tolkien (revised)

Love, Death, and the Sub-Creative Imagination in J. R. R. Tolkien

csms-1-448d31aWritten March 3, 2013, Revised September 20, 2014

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 soul’s biography 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.

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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).

Love, Death, and the Sub-Creative Imagination in J. R. R. Tolkien

Yesterday I found myself reading The Silmarillion, an unfinished collection of Tolkien’s mythopoeic writings depicting the creation of Ëa and its passage through the first of the three ages of the world (The Lord of the Rings trilogy depicts events at the end of the third age). The stories, posthumously published by his son Christopher in 1977, are prefaced by a letter sent by Tolkien to the editor Milton Waldman in 1951 in the hopes that he would agree to publish The Lord of the Rings. “My dear Milton,” began Tolkien, 

You asked for a brief sketch of my stuff that is connected with my imaginary world. It is difficult to say anything without saying too much: the attempt to say a few words opens a floodgate of excitement, the egoist and artist at once desires to say how the stuff has grown, what it is like, and what (he thinks) he means or is trying to represent by it all. (xi)

Silmarillion-cover

Despite the brilliant summary provided in the letter, dear Milton decided that, due to the medley of mythic “stuff” woven into Tolkien’s trilogy, it was, after all, too long and “urgently wanted cutting.” LoTR was of course published several years later, in full, and has by now sold more than 150 million copies.

Despite my several year long research focus on the power of imagination, I’ve only very recently begun exploring Tolkien’s work. I completed my first reading of his trilogy just a few months ago with my partner Becca (check out her blog). Her graduate work also orbits around Imagination, with a particular focus on Tolkien’s relevance to the task of articulating an enchanted ecology. After a bit of effort, she has succeeded in awakening me to Tolkien’s genius and to the archetypal vitality of Middle-Earth (thanks, Becca!).

I’m fascinated both by the Art Tolkien sub-created, and by the creative process through which it was brought to term.

“In order of time, growth and composition,” wrote Tolkien to Waldman, “this stuff began with me.”

“This stuff”? Is this Tolkien’s choice of words, or is he echoing Waldman from a prior letter? Do I detect a soft hint of sarcasm in Tolkien’s tone as he responds to Waldman’s patronizing request for a résumé of his “make-believe” world? Judging from Waldman’s refusal to publish the trilogy, I get the sense that he lacked the historical sensitivity to recognize the significance of what had happened to Tolkien, as well as the imaginal organ required to participate in the world Tolkien had brought forth.

“This stuff began with me,” he wrote. “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 something external to or separate from his real life identity. His very sense of himself was coëval with his sense of the story. His autobiography and his archeology of Middle-Earth were as one, at least in Imagination (though I challenge you to point out anything that isn’t). From Tolkien’s point of view, Art is not simply the vocation of a few artists. Art, or sub-creation, is a universal human calling. Unlike every other creature on Earth or above it, our purpose is not pre-determined by our species. To be human, as Pico della Mirandola taught us, is to lack any such purpose but that we create for ourselves. In a participatory universe like that envisioned by the organ of Imagination, the only purpose given us by our Creator is to become like him, to become a subcreator.

The subtending power of Imagination over human life and death is such that, lacking a positive desire for creation, we quickly sink into the darkness of world-negating nihilism. Cosmic meaning is never prescribed; we are called instead to participate in its 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 pure physical reality. It’s that, for better or worse, there is no escape from Imagination: it encompasses the whole of both life and death, body and soul. To be sub-creators is our doom, whether we use our power to create beauty or to destroy it. 

Reality is never pure: it always comes mixed up with Images. Reality, it turns out, is not a finished unity, but a plurality of processes. Every supposedly simple and complete reality is just a self-created image, an idol. What happens is that an ongoing creality is mistaken for a completed reality. This mistake leads not only to nihilism, but to ressentiment of the world’s becoming (see William Connolly’s A World of Becoming, 2011). Ressentiment or re-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; that latter that of an ego innocently open to the eucatastrophic surprises of a cosmic story still in the proces of being told.

The chief import of Tolkien’s Art, as I understand it, is that its example invites us to step into our own roles as cosmic artisans, just at that moment in world history when so much 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.” He continues: “…always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there,’ somewhere: not of ‘inventing'” (xii). Tolkien’s mode of creation is then just as easily characterized as 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/senses, spirt/matter, etc). It is from this unruly oscillation that all of Imagination’s mysterious power derives.

There is also a spiritual side to the strange logic underlying Tolkien’s sub-creative vocation. He says of all his “stuff” that it is “fundamentally concerned with the problem of the relation of Art (and Sub-creation) and 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 solid matter, but of story and myth), expresses a desire which not only has no ordinary biological function, but which indeed usually finds itself at 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 what Tolkien calls “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 more quickly 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 our own. 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. They envy us 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, it seems, is the highest of the Arts. 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. As such it depends upon a sort of faith, since for Imagination believing is seeing. 

The same sort of imaginal faith is required to appreciate the moral of Tolkien’s cosmogony. I realize that here I risk another allegorical interpretation despite Tolkien’s “cordial dislike” of allegory. But even Tolkien admitted that “any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language,” and that “the more ‘life’ a story has the more readily will it be susceptible of allegorical interpretations” (xiii). Tolkien recounts the creation of the world through the musical call and response of Ilúvatar, 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 a good root. He only began to sing out of tune with the other Ainur after going 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. 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 notes into the deeply solemn and for that reason immeasurably beautiful pattern of His cosmic melody.

“Might 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 moral, then? It seems simple enough: trust the creative process, even when its path seems dark, even when its products seem measly and powerless before the weight of the primary world. Embrace mortal sub-creation without ressentiment for the task. Realize that death only appears to the fallen ego as an enemy. To the redeemed Imagination, death is revealed as 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).

Petals Rising

I forgot about this short poem I penned back in August on the inside of the back cover of Ramey’s book after sitting on a bench intending to read in a rose garden in Golden Gate Park. It seems relevant to some of what I’ve covered above:

Dying_Rose_by_roxybabyrox13

I stand here watching

rose petals fall.

I pick up a fallen flower.

I see

the beauty of this rose

in falling petals;

the light of that sun

in burning plasma.

This rose

is

only petals curling

from an unseen center.

This living rose

is

an eternal idea whose light

spirals brightly out of a

still silent stem.

Gradually arriving in time–

instantly arising in space–

this

rose

slows

to show itself,

curling into colored folds,

descending into death,

dissolving into soil.

Once arising,

now falling away,

it is again

just

this

rose.

This living rose,

just like

the Living God,

is a dance of veils:

in the glances of many

passing faces,

one by one,

God and the rose reveal their lightness.

In the end,

last petal fallen,

all that is left

is you.

You are the breathing of the world

inward to thought,

outward to being;

You are a cosmic force

from beyond

the earth.

To be you,

to be this rose,

to be this rose in you,

or you in this rose,

is to be between ecstasies.

The essence of this rose

is the scent released

by its corpse

into sun-warmed air,

there lifted from my hand

and delivered the stars above my head.

The Beginning and the End of Positive Philosophy

In the Theaeteus, Plato has Socrates say that “wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.” In his Metaphysics, Aristotle echoes this by writing that “it was their wonder, astonishment, that first led men to philosophize and still leads them.”

In the Phaedo, Plato has Socrates say that “those who really apply themselves in the right way to philosophy are directly and of their own accord preparing themselves for dying and death.”

Philosophy, then,–at least if we take Socrates’s, Plato’s, and Aristotle’s words for it–begins in wonder and ends with death.

To become a philosopher, you must first be astonished by your own self-consciousness of the world, by the feeling of knowing your own ignorance of the whole. There is more to this ignorance than meets the eye. Socrates would never deny the truths grasped by geometry or logic. These are true enough. His is a learned ignorance: a gnosis that consists primarily in knowing that he does not know all the things he at first seems to.

Learned ignorance is not simple knowing, since the occult knowledge it provides cannot be stated clearly and distinctly in some logical formula. The Truth it approaches is no good for building marble archways or winning arguments in court. But nor is it simple ignorance, since underlying the philosopher’s knowledge of ignorance is an intuition of the whole. The philosopher is ignorant of this or that particular thing, but of the cosmos, he can be sure it exists-as-one, that it is a unity, a universe.

To wonder is to feel the infinite Whole–and in feeling it to know that it exists (existence), even if you cannot as of yet know what it is (essence). Wonder is not the feeling of everything together, but the intuition of All at once. This is the beginning of philosophy. Emerson describes it in Nature:

Standing on the bare ground,–my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,–all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God…

The goal is not to rest in this feeling, in an immediate intuition of the One, but through it to overcome the fear of death. Such a fear is natural for self-conscious animals like us, but by learning to think and to know lovingly–that is, by philosophizing–we can come to meet death willingly, thereby relating to the body not as soul prison by as soul portal.

The soul is individual only so long as it lives with a body. To the extent that philosophy is preparation for death, for the soul’s passage beyond the body, it is the desire to think objectively, without the limitation of subjectivity. The philosopher seeks to think beyond the body. The world, then, is the arena of philosophy. Though of course it remains all the while centered on the soul–that is, the soul of the world.

Between a philosopher’s initial astonishment of the fact of the world and his passage through shadow into source, there is much to think and write about.

Kant thought quite a bit about wonder, even attempting to think methodically so as to make a science of philosophy. In the end, he could only contradict himself. He thought knowledge must begin with sensory experience, with the givens of outer spatiality and inner temporality; on the other hand, he argued that the given world of experience would make no sense in the absence of a priori concepts like substance/accident, cause/effect, and quantity/quality. Kant formulates this contradiction–which is simultaneously the generative paradox underlying the power of his entire philosophical program–with the statement: “thoughts without content are empty, and intuitions without concepts are blind.”

Kant brought forth what Schelling would later call negative philosophy. He forgoes knowledge of the Whole for knowledge of the conditions of the possibility of knowing the Whole. Having then established these conditions (e.g., space-time, the categories), he denies theoretical knowledge of anything but the parts, since it is only parts that we experience with our physical bodies. Schelling describes this negative, critical moment in the movement of philosophy as a necessary step along the way toward a new dogmatism, or a positive philosophy. Positive philosophy is unlike the dogmatisms of old, since it does not assume that the divine’s status as “the most supreme being” leads of itself to this divinity’s “necessary existence.” To think the infinity of the Whole upon feeling it is one thing, actually knowing and expressing its reality is another.

“Schelling characterizes the execution and fulfillment of this task as the never-ending process of demonstrating God’s divinity that, as the interpretation of a process freely initiated, posits an open future incapable of being reduced to the necessary unfolding of any predetermined plan.” (-Bruce Matthews, p. 69, from the introduction of The Grounding of Positive Philosophy by F.W.J Schelling [2007]).

Theologians have long looked to philosophy to prove the existence of God. Not only does this imply that philosophy might come to glimpse God’s essence as though it were a static blueprint it could copy down on paper, it also implies that God is a mere belief in need of abstract justification. Schelling admits that no such a priori proof of God is possible–since God is not merely an idea, but a fact. Philosophy begins in wonder, which is to say it begins in an experience of the divinity of the world. To attempt to logically prove God’s existence would be pointlessly tautological, since the proof itself would always depend upon God as its own condition of possibility. For positive philosophy, the point is to communicate the divine meaning of the actual world as we experience it, to remind the actual soul of its immortality and universality while alive here and now.

“The experience toward which positive philosophy proceeds is not just of a particular kind, but is the entirety of all experience from beginning to end. What contributes to the proof is not a part of experience, but all of experience. For precisely this reason, though, this proof itself is not just the beginning or a part of a science (least of all some type of syllogistic proof posited at the apex of philosophy), it is the entire science, that is, the entire positive philosophy–and this is nothing other than the progressive, strengthening with every step, and continually growing proof of the actually existing God. Because the realm of reality in which this proof moves is not finished and complete–for even if nature is now at its end and stands still, there is, nonetheless, still the unrelenting advance and movement of history–because insofar as the realm of reality is not complete, but is a realm perpetually nearing its consummation, the proof is therefore also never finished, and for this very reason this science is only a philo-sophie” (-Schelling, p. 181, The Grounding of Positive Philosophy).

Post-Secular Spirituality

Michael over at Archive Fire recently linked to a published essay by a friend and former colleague at CIISAnnick Hedlund-de Witt. Annick researches the way changing world-views in America and Europe stand to influence–whether positively, negatively, or not at all–the push for a more sustainable approach to development around the world. She focuses specifically on spiritual imaginaries (my term) that have been dubbed “New Age” in an attempt to understand, from a sociological and developmental perspective, what impact they may have in our burgeoning planetary civilization’s attempt to respond to the various social and ecological (or perhaps socioecological and cosmopolitical) crises of our time. Her essay, linked above and here, is very thorough. I’m unabashedly sympathetic and supportive of her work.

I have argued extensively (here and here) that adequately responding to the socioecological crises of our time is not possible without spiritual transformation. When it comes to “spiritual matters,” I tend to think most easily along the lines articulated by Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry in The Universe Story (1994). Brian, a cosmologist, has called for the “re-invention of the human,” while his mentor, Berry, a religious scholar and geologian, invoked the alchemical mystery of metamorphosis by referring to our civilization’s present challenge as the Great Work.

But what on earth does “spirituality” even mean?  I tend to distance myself from the so-called New Age movement, since its popular manifestations seem to suggest that all the world needs now is “positive energy.” Usually this energy is touted as a deeply mystical “secret,” but nonetheless comes conveniently package and sold in DVD-sized boxes, each one inspected by Oprah (there is a pink “O” sticker on the cover to prove it). I think this sort of “spirituality” fits too easily into the same old capitalist mold all good “Young Hegelian” thinkers want to break free of.

Slavoj Žižek, who contrasts Young (to which he could be said to belong) with Old, or conservative Hegelians (think Ken Wilber) in his recent book Living in the End Times (2010), also has a number of interesting things to say about New Age eco-apocalypticism. On the one hand, he points out that Daniel Pinchbeck’s vision of a coming “deep spiritual shift”  (as recorded in his book on 2012) is structurally identical to a kind of communism, at least if “we scratch away its spiritualist coating” (Žižek, p. 350).

If we are graduating from nation-states to a noospheric state, we may find ourselves exploring the kind of nonhierarchical social organization–a ‘synchronic order’ based on trust and telepathy–that the Hopi and other aboriginal groups have used for millennia. If a global civilization can self-organize from our current chaos, it will be founded on cooperation rather than winner-takes-all competition, sufficiency rather than surfeit, communal solidarity rather than individual elitism, reasserting the sacred nature of all earthly life (Pinchbeck, p. 213).

On the other hand, Žižek also notes that the New Age imaginary is an all-to-easy, feel-good temptation that, especially in the context of the ecological crisis, neglects “the basic lesson of Darwinism: the utter contingency of nature” (p. 350). Earth is not a pristine and perfectly balanced harmony of organisms and environments (as imaginaries like Deep Ecology often suggest); it is a dynamically evolving, far-from-equilibrium system of complex relationships that scientific research is only beginning to unravel. When trying to comprehend the nature of our relationship to the natural world, Žižek suggests that we “[bear] in mind that ‘nature’ is a contingent multi-faceted mechanism in which catastrophes can lead to unexpectedly positive results” (p. 351). The oxygen crisis comes to mind as perhaps the best example, with the astroid collision that helped end the dinosaurs’ reign close behind.

Returning to the potential upside of New Age spirituality, Žižek goes on to question whether the typical “anemic-skeptical liberal stance” as regards spiritual matters is enough to “revitalize our post-political desiccation of democracy” (p. 352). Could it be that some sort of “return of the religious” is necessary to inject passion back into Leftist politics?

Žižek, right on cue, dialecticizes the dichotomy between secularism and religiosity :

…as Hegel already showed apropos the dialectic of Enlightenment and faith in his Phenomenology of Spirit, such counter-posing of formal Enlightenment values to fundamental-substantial beliefs is false, amounting to an untenable ideologico-existential position. What we should do, by contrast, is fully assume the identity of the two opposed moments–which is precisely what an apocalyptic ‘Christian materialism’ does do, in bringing together both the rejection of a divine Otherness and the element of unconditional commitment (p. 353).

What exactly Žižek means by a “Christian materialism” is not clear to me as of yet, but I think my work toward developing a “logic of incarnation” could also be described in this way.

What might it mean to call the human a “spiritual animal”? In light of some of my recent blogs on death, perhaps the human is spiritual because, unlike most other organisms, it is not simply “living”; rather, due to its knowledge of death, it also participates consciously in Life itself. We are spiritual precisely because, at least in the non-ordinary circumstances when we are made to pay attention to it, our sense of being alive–of livingseems to hover somewhere between life and death. Our present consciousness at first appears limited by the horizon of the sensory world; but just as we cognize this limit, we come immediately to recognize our spiritual participation in bringing it forth. As soon as we grasp our own bodily mortality, consciousness instinctually protests by either repressing the full trauma of the fact or transforming itself through a religious act (i.e., faith) into something spiritually immortal.