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).

Immanent Law, Transcendent Love, and Political Theology

I’m going to attempt to clarify my own position in relation to that of Levi Bryant’s on the issue of the potential role of religion in revolutionary politics. Bryant has toned down the diatribe, offering two substantive posts over at Larval Subjects, as well as several comments to me here at Footnotes. I’ll try to lay out the way he has framed the problem first, then offer my own position. There seem to be areas of overlap, but also of friction.

In his first post, “Some Theses on Religion, But Not Really: A-Theology,” Bryant begins by suggesting that what is at stake in this discussion is not ontological, but logical. That is, the core issue is not whether reality is finally material or divine, natural or supernatural. The issue is whether we employ a logic of immanence or transcendence. This focus on logic follows from Bryant’s distinction between the structure and the content of a worldview. There are plenty of worldviews structurally organized around a logic of transcendence that nonetheless remain secular or naturalistic in content.  Bryant prefers to utilize the abstract notation of the Lacanian matheme when describing the structure of a worldview, since it minimizes the potential for diverse contents to distract us from the underlying logic at work. The independence of structure from content is mirrored by the independence of the intention or belief from the function of a person’s actions. Bryant gives the example of going to a grocery store with the intention of providing food for one’s family: though one’s intention is not to re-enforce the structure of capitalism, that is in fact how one’s intention ends up functioning. The same is true of those who attend church with the best of intentions: from Bryant’s perspective, they only re-enforce the structure of oppression that any institution founded upon a logic of transcendence is fated to create. Why is any social structure founded upon such a logic fated to be violent and oppressive? Because, argues Bryant:

it is formally impossible to generate a totality or a whole, yet this is precisely what such structures aim for. Every attempt to generate a totality or a whole generates a remainder or an accursed share– what Lacan calls an “objet a” –that marks what the structure cannot integrate or the failure of the totality. Participants within these systems see this remainder not as an ineluctable and necessary consequence of attempts to form a social and intellectual totality, but as a contingent accident. The next step is then to eradicate this remainder as that which prevents the social order from being instantiated so that social harmony might be produced. In other words, structures of transcendence, exception, or sovereignty necessarily generate a friend/enemy logic.

The aim of political transformation, then, should be to establish anarchical forms of social organization not premised on the insider/outsider logic of transcendence. Transcendence, according to Bryant, is the first form of violence, since it denigrates the world by claiming it is not enough. Such a logic leaves all worldly things vulnerable to exploitative violence. So far as it goes, I can’t disagree with Bryant’s reasoning here. He goes on to suggest that religion need not necessarily obey the logic of transcendence as he has laid it out. Even some variants of Christianity are able to

see Christ as an ordinary man (not the son of God), who died on the cross showing that God, the patriarch, is literally dead, and who was not resurrected, and where the holy spirit is nothing but a metaphor for the activity of a community based not on law, but love, and not on a label or tribal identification (“Christian”), but where anyone– atheist, Hindu, Jew, pagan, etc. –could participate.

Bryant is here moving a bit closer to the possibility I am trying to argue for, but I must take issue with his dismissal of spiritual metaphor as “nothing but” (see my post last year on Graham Harman’s ontologization of metaphor). The spiritual power of metaphor–that is, the way metaphorical language can function to carry beyond or transfer both its speaker and her listeners into another world–is precisely why I take issue with Bryant’s complete rejection of transcendence. The religious significance of logics of transcendence need not necessarily be predicated upon a rejection of worldliness per se, but rather upon the rejection of the present state of the world in the service of bringing forth another world. In Faith of the Faithless, Critchley contrasts the spiritualities of Paul and Marcion to bring into relief the sense in which Paul’s rejection of the fallen world as it existed under the rule of the Roman Empire was simultaneously a Messianic hope in a future world redeemed by Christ’s love. The future world would be one in which human beings existed in societies of free association, not because they had overcome their fallenness and achieved some transcendent state of guiltless self-mastery. Quite the contrary, the society of love envisioned by Paul was the result of each human being realizing their helplessness before God. The conversion brought about by faith reveals that the transcendent love that Jesus called us to practice is an infinite demand that remains entirely beyond our ability to achieve on our own. It forces a realization upon us: “You are not your own,” as Paul put it (1 Cor. 6:19). Critchley reads Heidegger’s existential analysis of Dasein as a phenomenological translation of Paul’s religious metanoia, but stops short of Heidegger’s seeming aspiration towards the totalized wholeness and autarchy of the authentic Self. Critchley writes:

The human being is essentially impotentialized in its relation to the Messiah. The decision about who I am is not in my power, but only becomes intelligible through a certain affirmation of weakness. Authenticity is not so much a ‘seizing hold’ as the orientation of the self towards something that exceeds oneself, namely the hetero-affectivity of an infinite demand that calls me. Freedom is not something I can confer upon myself in a virile assertion of autarchy. It is something that can only be received through the acknowledgement of an essential powerlessness, a constitutive impotence. Freedom can only be received back once one has decided to become a slave and attend in the endurance of love–for love endures all things. (p. 182)

The Marcion heresy, on the other hand, must be rejected for precisely the reasons that Bryant lays out. Unlike Paul, who saw how the whole of creation was “groaning in travail” alongside the human community, waiting together with us for redemption, Marcion rejected creation as irrevocably evil. Critchley retells the story of an elderly Marcionite who used his own salvia to wash himself each morning so as not to be contaminated by the evils of the created world (p. 198). As Critchley argues: “[Marcion’s] dualism leads to a rejection of the world and a conception of religion as a retreat from creation…[becoming] a theology of alien abduction” (p. 202). Critchley goes on to draw inspiration for his thesis concerning the revolutionary potential of faith from Kierkegaard’s Works of Love. Kierkegaard describes the difference between the Old Testament conception of law based on “worldly love,” wherein “you do unto others what others do unto you and no more,” and the New Testament conception of love without law, wherein, as Critchley describes it, one “engages in a kind of transcendental epoche of what others owe to me, and instead [quoting Kierkegaard] ‘makes every relationship to other human beings into a God-relationship'” (p. 248). Kierkegaard continues:

Worldly wisdom thinks that love is a relationship between man and man. Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: man-God-man, that is, that God is the middle term. (WL 112-113).

In this sense, divine transcendence is made to participate in the down to earth ethicality of face to face engagements. When I truly love someone–truly in that I engage them according to the logic of a gift rather than the logic of exchange–it is because I have transcended myself, making room within my soul for the divine to act in the world through me. “Not I, but Christ in me,” as Paul put it (Gal. 2:20). Is this just a metaphor? Perhaps it is metaphorical, but let us not underestimate the power of words to re-imagine worlds.

My own attempts to re-imagine the way religion functions by arguing that 1) there is no neutral ground outside religion from which to critique it (we are all ineluctably mythic creatures, our individual and collective identities being necessary narrative in structure), and 2) faith can and has functioned as the motivating factor underlying revolutionary political action lead Bryant to accuse me of being what Deleuze called a “state thinker,” someone who attempts to both naturalize and sanitize hierarchical religious social structures by (even if unintentionally) justifying the logic through which they operate. Bryant singles out theologians (those for whom the logic of transcendence is operative) as especially guilting of “state thinking,” since they always idealize how faith could operate without paying due attention to how it has actually functioned in the world among lay people. While I think there are plenty of real life examples of faith operating as a tremendously effective weapon in the fight against state violence and oppression (e.g., Gandhi and MLK in the 20th century), I will still admit to idealization. I find it extremely important to defiantly journey beyond the walls of my city of residence, like Socrates in the Republic, not only to critique the obvious injustices of the day, but also to “dream another city in dialogue,” as Critchley puts it (p. 93). Critique of existing structures is not enough. We must also construct a new view of the world. Further, as Plato also discusses in the Republic, I believe the city (the collective) and the soul (the individual) must become transparent one to the other. If we are to become capable of enacting a genuinely anarchic society not ruled by any exceptional sovereign, super-rich class, or miraculously representative body (Madison’s “refined democracy”), we must find a way to relate to one another collectively that is no longer bound by the self-serving capitalist logic of exchange. Is the “logic” of love engendered by faith is such a way?

In his second post, “Transcendence and the Problem of Boundaries: A Confession,” Bryant asks the most pressing and all-important question: “is it possible to form a community of strangers without identity and to still really have a community?” “Without identity,” because if a community names itself, it creates outsiders, reproducing the logic of remainder and leading to the violent elimination of that remainder as discussed above. Bryant suggests that the social form practiced by the historical Jesus may have been such a community. Unfortunately, the institutionalization of Christianity lead it to become “the greatest of conspiracies against Christ (we fetishized his death to obscure the trauma of the socio-political philosophy he proposed).” I couldn’t agree more. But what of the form of transcendence I defended above? I don’t think it is unique to the teachings of Jesus, but like Bryant, this is the tradition I know best: Jesus’ teaching that love supersedes the Mosaic law broke open the closed community of Israel, with its unique relationship to a transcendent deity, such that all peoples, regardless of class, creed, or color, were to be treated as friends, as fellow members of the communal body of Christ. This universalization was so far reaching that Jesus said even those who wish to do us violence should be treated as friends: “Turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39), “Love thy enemies” (Matt. 5:44). Jesus realized that this would be the only way to break the cycle of violence and revenge characterizing human history back to its origins.

But again, a love as transcendent as that taught by Jesus just doesn’t appear to be a realistic possibility for normal human beings. Those who are members of oppressed and colonized communities would seem almost to have a psychological need to seek vengeance upon their oppressors. Is there any other way for them to reclaim their stolen humanity? “It is through violence against the colonist,” writes Critchley, “that colonized subjects can rid themselves of their deformed inferiority and liberate or literally remake themselves” (p. 238). Critchley grants that the case of the colonized makes any sort of a priori pacifism seem entirely inadequate, but he still remains skeptical of the glorification of violence by thinkers like Slavoj Žižek. Critchley examines the meaning of the commandment, “Thou shall not kill,” asking whether it should be interpreted as an absolute prohibition or “impersonal, coercive law.”

The commandment is a more fragile, but insistent, guideline or plumb-line for action, addressed in the second person…[C]rucially, the force of the commandment is non-coercive and requires our assent…[I]t is an ethical demand that requires approval. By virtue of its non-coercive force, the commandment of nonviolence is a guideline for action with which we are obliged to wrestle in solitude, and, in certain exceptional cases, to take responsibility for ignoring. (p. 16)

Following Critchley’s Levinasian analysis of the ethics of violence, I’d want to argue that the transcendent character of divine love is never something that can be easily put into action by finite human beings. It remains beyond our individual power to actually follow Jesus’ teaching to “turn the other cheek” in every case. This doesn’t mean we are off the hook, however. Political engagement is messy and requires taking responsibility for the difficult process of negotiation regarding the commandment not to kill. But what of the role of faith in allowing for the possibility of “mystical love,” a faith described by Critchley (p. 20) as “that act of spiritual daring that attempts to eviscerate the old self in order that something new might come into being”? Perhaps this form of transcendence–namely, self-transcendence–remains ineluctably violent. But it is a violence done only to oneself, to one’s selfish ego, such that genuine love for one’s neighbor becomes possible.

[Update: further thoughts…Perhaps holding the immanent and transcendent together requires an imaginative logic, or logic of imagination. As Schelling suggested, it is only through imagination that “we are capable of thinking and holding together even what is contradictory” (System of Transcendental Idealism, 1800). Infinity may be the better word than transcendence here, since, as Schelling and Hegel realized, one cannot oppose the infinite to the finite without thereby limiting the infinite. The finite is not other than the infinite, just as the immanent is not other than the transcendent. Better yet, the geologian Thomas Berry coined the term “inscendence” to describe the way the world itself is bathed in noumenal light, its immanence pierced every so often by ecstasies. This raises the question as to whether logic and ontology, thought and reality, can be as neatly separated as Bryant has done. What, exactly, is the relationship between politics and ontology? It is the question with which all of this began earlier in the week. It remains to be answered.]

Experiments in Political Theology and Dialogical Blogging

The first clause in the title of this post is the subtitle of Simon Critchley‘s newest book, The Faith of the Faithless (2012). Critchley is a deep ethical thinker who had until a week ago managed to fly under my radar. This isn’t all that surprising, since the admittedly still diffuse research methodology of my dissertation is rather like wandering backwards through an ancient and ever-growing bibliographic labyrinth of academic and para-academic publishing. Every week or so, I trip over one of the books tossed about on the floor, have a look, and discover another author whose thinking seems to be converging with my own. It’s not like these texts are randomly arrayed: I’ve been following a thread that I can see knots together those texts I’ve already read; it’s just that I’ve been walking backwards as I pull it.

Critchley’s book is, as he describes it, an experiment in thinking the strange and scary relationship between politics and religion. It is a relationship, much like that between religion and science, that is fraught with controversy and spilt blood. It has always been this way, and remains so today despite our modern pretensions to enlightenment and rational discourse. Emotional polemic is the name of the game in this arena, the teams neatly divided into the evangelical atheism of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers, and Sam Harris and the fundamentalist theism of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Ken Ham. I mostly watch this game play out from the stands, but every once in a while one of my sideline protests is heard and I get drawn into the field of debate (never with any of these individuals themselves, but with their wider community of supporters). I much prefer conversation and dialogue to polemical debate, but it has proved extremely difficult to have a civil or philosophical discussion about the relationship between politics, religion, and science. My forays into PZ Myers‘ blog Pharyngula have, on the face of it, proven completely fruitless, as have attempts to dialogue with Levi Bryant at his blog Larval Subjects. I say “on the face of it” because I remain optimistic about the effects of these conversations on those who may be reading silently in the background. Blogging is a public forum, one of the few remaining political sites for a democratic people to work out their self-authentification and self-governance. The Internet remains a virtual environment, but in our catastrophic epoch of the post-human and post-natural, reality itself is increasingly endangered, making virtuality a necessary haven of withdrawal. Those explicitly involved in these online arguments aren’t necessarily the only significant nodes of mutual influence. It seems to me that most often, it is those remaining silent who are influenced most significantly by the dialectic unfolding on screen. Even if their thoughts remain at the level of pre-discursive feeling and imaginal strain for the time being, the stress of silence acts as an alembic forming truly new thoughts that will no longer be trapped in the tug-of-war of old polemics.

All of us who blog religiously have a mission, that is, a religious mission. We are seeking to instigate political transformation. From Critchley’s perspective, politics may be conceivable without religion, but it will never be practicable. He justifies his claim by looking into the political thought of Rousseau, who “arguably provides the definitive expression of the modern conception of politics” with his 1762 treatise The Social Contract (p. 8). At first glance, Rousseau’s political theory seems to provide

an entirely immanent conception of political legitimacy…an egalitarian conception of association rooted in popular sovereignty (ibid.).

A deeper look at the composition of Rousseau’s Geneva Manuscript (later renamed The Social Contract) reveals that he made a rushed edition to the text just before sending it to the publisher in 1761, “scribbled in an almost indecipherable hand” despite the rest of the manuscript’s perfect penmanship (p. 28). The edition was a chapter titled “On Civil Religion.” Rousseau ends up seeming to contradict his immanentist account of political formation by pointing out the need for what Critchley calls the “fictional force” of a political religion.

Rousseau acknowledges the motivational inadequacy of a purely philosophical account of politics and offers the picture of a political religion…there is a need for fictions other than philosophical in order to unite the general will with the interests to act on that will… (p. 34).

“Philosophy,” in this context, should be understood to mean the rational, dispassionate discourse expected of modern, enlightened individuals. Rousseau recognized that logical argument alone was not sufficient to persuade a people to behave in the interests of the common good. Something else was required to overcome individual alienation, something like faith. The faith of a political religion is not about blind belief in the externally imposed doctrines of a priesthood, but rather concerns remaining open to the possibility of “a transformation [in our own] manner of existence,” or what Rousseau referred to as a “change of [our] nature” (p. 39). Critchley describes the transformation brought on by the enactment of faith as one of mystical love, an “act of spiritual daring that attempts to eviscerate the old self in order that something new might come into being” (p. 20).

Rousseau’s “social contract” is a very strange kind of contract, since unlike every other kind of contract, the freely acting independent parties involved don’t even exist until after the agreement. Prior to the contract, the freedom required to justify its legal authority has not yet been created. The contract, at the time of its formation, is essentially a fiction. It is a fiction that the subsequently formed free individuals must conspire together in an act of mutual faith and trust in order to realize. This mutual act of faith–the”rare but ever-potential force…to give oneself in an act of association with others”–is the basis of any civil religion and so self-governing society. It follows that the primary purpose of engaging in political activity is not to persuade people, but to form a people in the first place. The formation of a people depends upon an experience of mystical love, an experience that begins as a fictional force but ends in a new communal reality.

Critchley’s is a civic faith without religious creed, based not on

the abstraction of a metaphysical belief in God, but rather [on] the lived subjective commitment to an infinite demand…a declarative act…an enactment of the self…a performative that proclaims itself into existence in a situation of crisis where what is called for is decisive political intervention (p. 13).

Critchley’s “infinite demand” emerges out of his study off Levinas’ ethics of otherness. Rather than the individualistic ethos of liberal modernity, Critchley’s ethical theory is rooted in what he calls “dividualism,” the existential process whereby

the self shapes itself in relation to the experience of an overwhelming, infinite demand that divides it from itself–the sort of demand that Christ made in the Sermon on the Mount when he said: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you’ (Matt. 5:44) (p. 6-7).

Critchley’s experiments in political theology draw upon a rich history of radical mystics and religious revolutionaries, but he begins the book by unpacking what he calls “Wilde Christianity,” the faithless faith articulated by Oscar Wilde while in prison for two years (~1895-97). Wilde could not bring himself to believe in any church religion, but the symbol of Christ nonetheless remained compelling to him. Critchley reads Wilde’s imaginative engagement with the figure of Christ as a kind of “soul-smithing,” where through the fires of sin and suffering, one forges a new identity. We are to imitate Christ’s ultimate creative and artistic act: “the incarnation of the inwardness of suffering in outward form” (p. 5).

“To the artist,” writes Wilde,

expression is the only mode under which he can conceive life at all. To him what is dumb is dead. But to Christ it was not so. With a width and wonder of imagination that fills one almost with awe, he took the entire world of the inarticulate, the voiceless world of pain, as his kingdom, and made of himself its external mouthpiece (quoted by Critchley, p. 5).

Politics, then, is as much a religious as an artistic endeavor. Religious in that it requires an act of self-giving akin to faith, or mystical love; artistic in that, as Wilde put it, “its symbols must be of my own creating” (p. 4), smithed in the caldron of my own soul rather than received externally.

Critchley continues:

Christ is the incarnation of love as an act of imagination, not reason, the imaginative projection of compassion onto all creatures (p. 5).

A political religion is a religion based on the fictive force of love. Love, whatever its potential power, is hard to come by in this world. It is indeed mostly a fiction. But on those rare occasions when authentic political activity is allowed to emerge, it can only be the result of this fiction becoming a reality.

I’ll have more to say about Critchley’s experiments in political theology in subsequent posts. I found it a happy coincidence that he was brought to my attention just before Bryant’s inflammatory response to me regarding the role of religiosity in public life. I didn’t recognize myself in his “response to a new age nut,” nor do I think I’ve mischaracterized his Lacanian-Marxist perspective on religion and politics. I am not sure what exactly threw him into such a rage… maybe if I were more studied in Lacan, I’d be able to offer a psychoanalytic explanation. But I’m not. When I look at how religion has actually functioned in the world, I see a far more complex picture than Bryant does. I agree with a commenter at Larval Subjects that the detestable violence and oppression of the past cannot so easily be pinned on “religion,” since in that case we may as well blame “science” for the horrors of the 20th century industrialization of war. Yes, some religious institutions have and continue to violently oppress people, but perhaps this has more to do with the symptomatic evils of institutionalization itself than it does with something intrinsic to religious faith. But rather than trying to directly respond to Bryant, which seems pointless, I thought further fleshing out where I am coming from would be most productive. That’s what I’ve attempted to do here.

*[Update]*: Bryant just posted a response to another commenter that further clarifies his own position:

My criticism of your claims is not that beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes are irrelevant, but that you’re working at the wrong level of analysis and are not discerning the nature of the system at issue and why it functions as it does. I think this poor analysis arises directly from your background in phenomenology and Kierkegaard that emphasizes the subject and belief and that is therefore blind to large scale systems and how they function. It’s also noteworthy that all the things you suggest can be changed in these systems (hearts and beliefs) ***and*** the system can still function exactly as it did before. Why? Because hearts and beliefs weren’t the cause of this functioning in the first place.

Bryant has a point, of course. My own desire to experiment with political theology is not the result of being blind to this sort of Marxist analysis. It emerges because, after the revolution, I don’t think it will be possible to re-construct a people or a world for them to live in out of the ashes of neo-liberal capitalism without engaging with what have traditionally been religious issues. Yes, capitalism is largely a structural issue and it must be dismantled on that level. But if we succeed in dismantling it, there remains the project of composing a public, what Critchley calls a “work of collective self-creation where I am the smithy of my own soul and where we must all become soul-smiths” (p. 4).

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The Poetics of Cosmogenesis, or Cosmopoiesis

Jason/Immanent Transcendence has asked me to offer a Whiteheadian take on his recent posts (two examples are HERE, and, especially relevant, HERE) concerned with such ideas as purpose, process, form, time, and chance in John Dewey. Jason has also recently written about a Deweyan approach to the place of values in nature while in conversation with Levi Bryant (HERE).

A. N. Whitehead appears to be the more cosmological thinker, Dewey the more epistemological. Their impact as thinkers is similar, since both put their abstract theorizing into play in the educational arena to great acclaim. Their theorizing about nature, and the nature of the mind, was equally rooted in the ontogenic aspect of nature, i.e., in nature’s unthingedness. Nature’s ontogenesis (like Whitehead’s category of the ultimate, Creativity), cannot be represented rationally, since it is the ground and condition of rationality. For this reason, Whitehead says of his cosmological scheme that it emerges originally from non-rational aesthetic and moral valuations, from an “imaginative leap” dependent upon the generative power of metaphor (Process and Reality, 4). Philosophy, for Whitehead, aims for “sheer disclosure” (Modes of Thought, 49), not deductive proof or logical demonstration (though logic is always a part of philosophy, it is not the whole). To approach the creative origin of being and the cosmos with logos, it is necessary to speak as this creativity (i.e., to speak poetically), since any thought about this creativity immediately converts the infinite originality of reality into a determinate totality, a closed world rent asunder into a transcendental subject reflecting upon finite objects, including itself. Representational or intentional thought–thought about things–when left to its own devices, leads to all the modern diseases of philosophy: nominalism, positivism, nihilism, etc.

If we’re seriously going to concern ourselves with the genesis of being and of nature, it is absolutely necessary that we learn to play with words. Without metaphor, we cannot even begin to approach such an unplaceable topic. Whitehead’s was an aesthetic philosophy, his theology poetic (e.g., here’s a post on Catherine Keller’s Whiteheadian theopoetics). We know that finite nature is a unified cosmos only because its overarching beauty has swayed us. Whitehead’s theodicy accounts for the reality of good and evil, of harmony and discord, on aesthetic grounds. The universe is a thing of beauty, but its origin is entirely unruly (or, as Jason might say, it is “ruled” by chance). Reality is rooted in (a priori) absolute freedom and amoral creativity; but this unruly reality has been (a posteriori) generative of cosmic beauty and personal love. The former freedom is the condition of possibility, the latter personality is the actualized fact. “In the beginning,” there was no distinction between time/habit/material memory and chance/novelty/eternal possibility. When we contemplate the sky here and now in the present, we experience a moving image of eternity; when we consider our body’s relation to the sky here and now, we experience the logos taking on flesh. Here and now habit and novelty are together begetting personality. Conscience is being created, an event which is forever changing the meaning of the original Creativity creating it, and of the Chaos that may in the future destroy it. Creativity and Chaos, like the morning and evening appearances of Venus, are merely different seasons of the same indifferent star. It is only from the present that metaphor can carry us beyond ourselves into the past or future.

I’ve grown tired, so I’ll end by letting Keats sing the tragic tune of our contingently harmonious cosmos. This the first two stanzas of “Endymion”:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.
Nor do we merely feel these essences
For one short hour; no, even as the trees
That whisper round a temple become soon
Dear as the temple’s self, so does the moon,
The passion poesy, glories infinite,
Haunt us till they become a cheering light
Unto our souls, and bound to us so fast,
That, whether there be shine, or gloom o’ercast;
They always must be with us, or we die.