Monday 19 October 2009

Ramer as Tolkien

Several of the characters in the Notion Club seem to contain elements of Tolkien. But the main protagonist of Part 1, Michael George Ramer, seems to contain some of the most surprising - including aspects of belief and behaviour which do not (so far as I know) come through in other writings by or about Tolkien.

In particular, Ramer gives very detailed accounts of psychological experiments concerned with 'telepathic' attempts at space and time travel, mainly using dreams. These accounts are given in such extreme detail, and with considerable conviction, that they raise the likelihood that Tolkien made such experiments himself and had similar experiences (or even exactly the same experiences) as described by Ramer.

If Tolkien did not actually embark on these experiments and have these experiences, then the NCPs constitute evidence that he had at least thought about these matters in considerable detail, and followed through the possible outcomes of such experiments.

Ramer's accounts go beyond anything published elsewhere, as I mentioned, but there are at least three experiences of Ramer which are given specific endorsement by Christopher Tolkien in the notes, as having been actual experiences of his father - while others are fascinations that appear elsewhere in Tolkien's writing at times distant from the composition of the NCPs.

Therefore, my inclination is to assume that these specific confirmations are but the tip of an iceberg - and that pretty-much all of Ramer's comments are probably 'Tolkien talking'.


The NCPs start out with a critical discussion of a science fiction story which has been read out by Ramer - until Ramer is pressurized (mainly by Dolbear) into admitting that he had not 'made-up' the story about visiting another planet, but had actually been to the place: 'there is such a world, and I saw it - once.'

On page 173 Ramer begins to explain that he was attracted by the 'telepathic notion' that the mind can travel while the body is in a trance. He relates this to the phenomenon which he says 'cannot reasonably be doubted' that the future can be foreseen in dreams, and that there are 'authenticated modern instances' of visions of this type. Ramer describes this as a 'case of translation', a transference of observation which is usually obscured by the 'never ending racket of sense impressions'.

This interest in, or belief in, the possibility of 'telepathy' chimes with Tolkien's Osanwe-Kentar (published in the magazine Vinyar Tengwar in 1998 Vol 39). This was probably from work on the Silmarillion Legendarium around 1959-60 (more than a decade after the NCPs). Tolkien here asserts that direct communication of thoughts is possible not just for elves but men also, but it is subject to interference from spoken language. Also that men's abilities are weaker than the elves (especially the Eldar) due to men’s relative lack of control of the body.

Ramer then traces the sequence of his psychological experiments, and the ideas which lay behind them. On page 178 he says: 'I had the notion (...) that for movement or travelling the mind (when abstracted from the flood of sense) might use the memory of the past and the foreshadowing for the future that reside in all things, including what we call 'inanimate matter' (...) I mean, perhaps, the causal descent from the past, and the causal probability in the present, that are implicit in everything. At any rate, I thought that might be one of the mind's vehicles [for travelling in space and/ or time]'.

Ramer’s aim was 'to observe new things far off in Time and Space beyond the compass of a terrestrial animal.'

'...I thought that all I could do was to refine my observation of other things that have moved and will move: to inspect the history of things whose paths have, at some point of time and space, crossed the path of my body.'

'The mind uses the memory of its body. Could it use other memories, or rather, records? (...) The fragments, right down to the smallest units, no doubt, preserve the record of their own particular history, and that may include some of the history of the combinations they are entered into.'

(page 180) 'I expect there are in fact lots of neglected chances of historical research, with proper training, especially among old houses and things more or less shaped by man.'

'So I tried various experiments, on myself; various forms of training. It's difficult to concentrate, chiefly because it's difficult to get quiet enough. (...) I wanted to discover if my mind had any power, any trainable latent power, to inspect and become aware of the memory or record in other things. (...) I don't think I have any special talent for it. (...) It is difficult, and it is also frightfully slow. Less slow, of course, with things that have organic life, or any kind of human associations. (...) It's slow, and its faint. In inorganic things too faint to surmount the blare of waking sense, even with eyes shut and ears stopped.'

My interpretation is that, via Ramer, Tolkien is here either describing his own beliefs and self-experiments; or at the least his own potential beliefs and detailed thought-experiments. Either way, it is telling us something about Tolkien's personality which is considerably at odds with that rather hidebound reactionary which the young Humphrey Carpenter put forward in the authorized biography - a much stranger and intellectually unorthodox personality.

At this point, Ramer's experiments in trying to attain telepathic movement in time and space via inspecting the 'memories' located in other entities seems to have failed. However, at this point Ramer brings in the third 'thread' in his argument - which was the deliberate use of dreaming.

'Remember, I was also training my memory on dreams at the same time. And that is how I discovered that the other experiments affected them. Though they were blurred, blurred by the waking senses beyond recognition, I found that these other perceptions were not wholly un-noted; they were like things that are passed over when one is abstracted or distracted, but that are really 'taken in'. And asleep, the mind rooting about (...) in the day's leavings (...) would inspect them again with far less distraction, and all the force of its original desire.'

Again, to me, this passage has the feel of direct reportage.

Ramer then goes on to talk about some of the dreams: 'I used to get at that time very extraordinary geometric patterns presented to me, shifting kaleidoscopes especially, but not blurred; and other queer webs and tissues too. And other non-visual impressions also, very difficult to describe; some like rhythms, almost like music; and throbs and stresses.'

Again my impression is that Tolkien - via Ramer - is here striving to express something very difficult to express from his personal experience. This, especially, because the passage does not work very well in the narrative and stands-out as being unnecessarily detailed.

'But all the time, of course, I wanted to get off the earth. That's how I got the notion of studying a meteorite' (...) I took to hobnobbing with [a large meteorite in a public park]. (...) It seemed to be quite without results. ‘

However, later Ramer found that 'there had been results. It had evidently taken some time to digest [the memory records in the meteorite], and even partially translate them. But that is how I first got away, and beyond the sphere of the Moon, and very much further.'

This begins to sound more speculative, and yet the following reported experience is explicitly verified by Christopher Tolkien: Ramer reports that he got 'some very odd dreams or sleep experiences. Some were quite unpictorial, and those were the worst. Weight, for instance. Just Weight, with a capital W; very horrible. But it was not a weight that was pressing on me; you understand; it was a perception of, or sympathy in, an experience of almost illimitable weight.'

The note from Christopher Tolkien reads: 'My father once described to me his dream of 'pure weight''.

Ramer is struggling to describe a very strange dream experience, and it seems that it was also describing an actual dream of Tolkien's. This was not what Ramer desired from his dreams, and he again changed strategy:

(Page 183) 'I found it all very disturbing. Not what I wanted, or at least not what I had hoped for. So I turned more than ever to dream-inspection, trying to get 'deeper down'. I attended to dreams in general, but more and more to hose least connected with the immediate irritations of the body's senses. Of course, I had experienced, as most people have, parts of more or less rationally connected dreams and even one or two serial or repeating dreams. And I have had also the experience of remembering fragments of dreams that seemed to posses a 'significance' or emotion that the waking mind could not discern in the remembered scene. (...) Many of these 'significant patches' seemed to me much more like random ages torn out of a book.'

Christopher Tolkien's notes reads: 'Of this experience also my father spoke to me.'

So here we have further corroboration that Ramer is speaking of Tolkien’s experiences. And these experiences constitute an account of experiments in dreaming. In Verlyn Flieger's Question of Time she goes into great detail about the use of meaningful dreams not just in the NCPs but throughout Tolkien's whole corpus. It seems likely to me that this was a major interest of Tolkien’s, including a practical and self-experimental interest; and that he was discussing this via the mouthpiece of Ramer in a form where the whole matter could be discussed week by week in Inklings meetings.

I think it likely that a major motivation for writing the Notion Club Papers was precisely that it served as a semi-fictional vehicle whereby some of Tolkien's most strangest and most compelling beliefs and experiences could be presented candidly, yet somewhat indirectly, for detailed discussion in the safe and trusted context of the Inklings.

Sunday 18 October 2009

The fascination of the Notion Club

I find the Notion Club Papers (NCPs) to be one of the most fascinating books I have ever read.

Some basic information can be found at Wikipedia

I was stimulated to read the NCPs by Verlyn Flieger's wonderful book on Tolkien: A Question of Time. Flieger's Interrupted Music adds even more depth of understanding.

There are several reasons why the NCPs are so compelling:

1. The book is an example of Tolkien writing a modern novel, with modern characters more or less in the science fiction genre.

2. The characters are somewhat based on the real life Inklings, and the nature of their conversations certainly resemble a kind of idealized Inklings meeting.

3. The characters of Ramer and Lowdham, Ramer in particular, embody aspects of Tolkien's personality which are seldom, or never, represented anywhere else in his published work.

Indeed, my feeling is that parts of the NCPs represent the most candid, most undisguised autobiography that Tolkien ever wrote (or at least that has been published so far). If I am correct about this, the reason is that the NCPs were written to be read privately to the real life Inklings (who were old and trusted friends) and probably would never have been published without considerable further revision (and opportunity for elaboration and concealment).

4. According to Flieger's speculations, the NCPs may have represented an extremely ambitious and complex attempt to 'frame' the whole of Tolkien's Legendarium - including the Silmarillion, The Numenor legends, The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings - in a science fiction novel set in the future, the NCPs itself having an elaborate fiction of how it was discovered and edited, and was itself a fiction masquerading as fact.

So, while an unfinished and unpublished (until half a century later) novel, much of it in note form, is obviously something of somewhat limited and specialized literary appeal - in terms of Tolkien's life and work, the Notion Club Papers has a very important place.