Saturday 30 October 2010

1945-6 Tolkien's nervous breakdown - whilst writing the Notion Club Papers


Tolkien seems to have written most of The Notion Club Papers during the darkest time of his life - the period of somewhat more than a year following his appointment to the Merton Chair of English Language and literature in June 1945.

The root of the problem seems to have been over work and stress brought on by the fact that he took on the duties of the new professorship (from October of 1945) while overlapping with duties of his previous professorship (in Anglo Saxon, at Pembroke College). So he was doing a double work load, plus all the extra work of taking on a new job.

Another factor he refers to in later correspondence was that this was the only period of his academic life when he had to teach subjects in which he was not interested, and that he absolutely hated this. I am unsure exactly what aspect of teaching that this comment refers to - but the wound was lasting.

The Chronology of late 1945 into 1946 - published in JRR Tolkien: a companion and guide by C Scull and WG Hammond in 2006 - is studded with references to Tolkien's overwrought mental state at this time - including the need to take a period of absence from work on medical advice.

In a nutshell, Tolkien suffered what would loosely be termed a 'nervous breakdown' at this period - an illness characterized, it seems, by anxiety and depression.

And it was precisely during this period he wrote the Notion Club Papers, with their accounts of strange psychological experiences, especially of dream states and perceived travel to other times and places.

It seems reasonable to imagine that Tolkien was going through something similar at this time - however modified these experiences were in the telling (previous entries in this blog detail the specific documented links between Tolkien's experiences and those of Ramer - I would guess that this is the tip of an iceberg of correspondences).

It is interesting that Tolkien, despite the extreme psychological stresses, did not stop writing; but worked out these experiences in fictional terms.

It may also be significant that when Tolkien resumed work on the Lord of the Rings after the break at this time, the book had firmly become a deeper and more serious book than it was when he embarked upon it as a sequel to the hobbit.

My feeling is that the nervous breakdown experience of late 1945-1946 had a permanent effect on Tolkien - and that the effect was beneficial to his writing; on the one hand increasing its emotional depth, and on the other hand - and this is very speculative - giving him a surer access to altered psychological states, especially dreams, which provided a bedrock of other-worldly sub-creative reality to the Lord of the Rings.

I tend to think that without the nervous breakdown of 1945-6, and without the experience of writing the Notion Club Papers - the Lord of the Rings would have been a different and lesser book.


1 comment:

Bruce Charlton said...

Comment from Professor TA Shippey

"Two thoughts.

"One is that this sounds like something that happened to many professors in the old UK system, when there were very few of them and they were expected to do many of the tasks done in the USA by administrators, AS WELL AS their own teaching and research.

"The problem was not so much the amount of it all as – experto crede – the heterogeneity of it.

"I used the think my memory couldn’t handle any more, and have kept many of my old joblists to remind myself of the unpredictable (and instantly forgettable) nature of the things that landed on my desk, which nevertheless had to be dealt with.

"I’d suggest also that stress is often caused by incompatible demands. Do this very quickly / get it right. This is very boring / you must concentrate on every bit of it. You know nothing about this / it’s your responsibility. And so on.


"I also think this has something to do with “Leaf by Niggle”, written not long before, and with the anxiety dream which was clearly the cource of it.

"The anxiety, note, was caused by fear of never getting anything finished – partly because of Niggle’s own disorganized habits, which he learns to conquer in the Workhouse, but also because of the constant elbow-tugging of other people demanding attention.

"The image of Niggle sitting listening politely, but fiddling with his pencils and wondering all the time when he get back to what he really wants to do – I know the feeling."


"So, is “breakdown” quite the word?

"Maybe Tolkien was overdue for a sabbatical.

"The switch from the Pembroke Chair to the Merton Chair may also have brought additional strains. Perhaps he was obliged to take over the teaching for the compulsory Oxford language paper, which was certainly a problem in my time in the 1970s.

"It might be instructive to look at the exam papers Tolkien produced, to see, for instance, whether he tried to change the direction of teaching.