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.


Anonymous said...

How much do we know about Ramer's Hungarian connection - and about Tolkien's interest in and knowledge of 'matters Hungarian'?

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD - I don't know of anything; but always assumed it was a slight hint-distractor of Ramer's relationship with Tolkien. On the basis that Tolkien loved Finnish; but Hungarian is the most closely related modern language. Hence Ramer's job of professor of Finno-Ugric philology - as if Tolkien's philological interests had taken a slightly different path than they did - following the Finnish rather than the Gothic.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks! That seems quite plausible, reading the little NCP "Members" biography for Ramer - though its "Professor of Finno-Ugric Philology" has got me suddenly wondering when and how one could formally study Finnish or Hungarian or variously related languages at Oxford!

I'm just reading László Marácz's Hungarian revival: political reflections on Central Europe (1996) - in its Dutch original form - and one thing and another got me wondering how extensive Tolkien's interests in Hungarian literature and lore and history and art might have been.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Anonymous said...

I've now been kindly informed by Carl Hostetter that Tolkien owned a copy of József Szinnyei’s Ungarische Sprachlehre (1912) and made some annotations in it (Carl Hostetter has seen it). I see Szinnyei also wrote Finnisch-ugrische Sprachwissenschaft (1910). I wonder how much Finnish - and Hungarian - Tolkien learned, and was able to read? Carl Hostetter also mentioned that there are two sets of manuscripts by Tolkien that describe two different stages of his invented, Hungarian-indebted language, Mágol. Sadly these texts have not yet been published - it would be fascinating if they could be. So, even though there does not seem to be any Hungarian equivalant of his early 'Story of Kullervo', there may be more to his interest in Hungarian than is immediately apparent, even from The Notion Club Papers.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

Good work DLD! Let's hope that someone follows the idea.

Anonymous said...

A couple possibly interesting 'Ramer'-related things that struck me - and which I cannot remember if you have discussed in other posts here. Michael George Reuel Tolkien (born 1943) is Tolkien's first grandchild - and Ramer shares his first two names (followed by a name beginning with 'R'). Could Tolkien have named his character after MGRT's birth with a sort of playful reference to him? (Ramer is imagined as of the same age as Priscilla, while Wilfrid Trewin Jeremy would be a year older than MGRT.)

Tolkien makes Ramer professor of Finno-Ugric Philology at Jesus College. Jesus College is not only the traditional 'Welsh college' at Oxford (which may be associated with Tolkien's early fascination with Welsh), but the Jesus Chair of Celtic was established in 1876 - according to its Wikipedia article "It is the oldest chair in the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, University of Oxford and is still the only chair in Celtic at an English university." Might Tolkien have been thinking that a college so early and successful in promoting Celtic languages would be an obvious one to do the same for Finnish, Hungarian, and what are usually considered associated languages in the future in which he sets The Notion Club Papers? And imagined someone much like himself - as lover of Hungarian as well as Finnish - getting such an appointment?

David Llewellyn Dodds

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - To be called both Michael and George, does seem to be more than coincidence! It seems to emphasize the family resemblance.

Finno-Ugric seems like an 'alternative future' which Tolkien *might* have taken instead of Germanic philology - and it does pair with Celtic, since Welsh and Finnish were early and special loves of Tolkien and the basis for Sindarin and Quenya. So, yes, the Jesus College base does make sense from that angle.

Jesus College also owns the Red Book of Hergest - another sideways link with the Legendarium.