Monday 8 November 2010

The nature of Tolkien's psychological breakdown - inferred from The NCPs


What follows are my (informed, I hope) speculations about the nature of JRR Tolkien's psychological breakdown 1945-6.

My impression is that this was not really a matter of anxiety and depression, but a matter of alienation brought-on by overwork - in sum, Tolkien was so busy, so 'hassled', that he had become cut-off from the source of his creativity.

And that source of Tolkien's creativity was in dream and trance states in which he experienced images with perceived special significance.

(These images were, I believe, mostly visualized - as described by the character Ramer, and later Jeremy; but sometimes there was probably linguistic generation, of words and text fragments, as described by the character Lowdham.)


Tolkien (I believe) found himself so busy and worried by imposed tasks that (for the first time in his life - and probably the last) he was unable either to dream/ day dream or else unable to connect his dreams/ daydreams with the rest of hs life - and so his life felt meaningless and lost its purpose.

Fortunately, Tolkien seems to have understood very well what what he was going through and why; and his response was to take some time away from work (three weeks), have a complete change of scene, to create as much unstructured time as possible, and - via The Notion Club Papers - to return to his roots, his deepest and most spontaneous motivations, aiming to rebuild from this firm foundation.

His strategy took a few months to have a significant effect, but was completely successful - so much so that the NCP novel lost its raison d'etre and was abandoned unfinished.


Specifically, Tolkien's work was done at the meeting place of fantasy and creative thought with scholarship and reason.

Tolkien relied on the world of fantasy and creativity (which I believe he accessed in dream and also in a creative state of altered consciousness - a light trance) to generate the raw material of his creativity, which he then organized logically using his intelligence; and he also relied on the fantasy mode of thinking to evaluate his ideas - either to validate then as 'true' or to reject them as merely contrived invention.

So, Tolkien's world is, to an unmatched extent, both coherent and has a visceral base of reality - the world seems discovered rather than invented.


This therapeutic aspect of NCPs can best be seen in Part One of the published version - which is highly confessional in nature - but by Part Two the fictive element, the plot, has begun to take charge.

Tolkien's self-therapy via writing the NCPs is quite different in its aim from that of psychoanalysis - although psychoanalysis is alluded to via the character of Dolbear, who is stated to have such interests.

Freudian analysis assumes that dreams are a way to get part the mind's censor; by contrast Jungian analysis assumes that dreams are a method of healing the psyche, including learning how to heal the mind.

But for Tolkien, dreams (and creativity in general) are potentially glimpses of divine Truth - in the sense that dreams (and similar experiences of altered consciousness) can be ways that God communicates with a mind that is too-much distracted by the 'noise' and chatter of modern life - this much is made clear throughout part one of the NCPs.

So, for Tolkien to be cut-off from the source of creativity and truth-validation of dreams was also for him to be cut off from God. In other words, he had become too distracted and hassled by over-work to hear the communications of God.


The fundamental therapy of writing the NCPs was, then - perhaps - to re-establish communication with his creative roots in dream and unstructured day-dreaming meditation or trance - to heal himself by dreaming, and by considering and meditatibg-upon his dreams - especially those recurrent dreams and dream images which he had been experiencing for some three decades - since at least 1914 (when he painted the Land of Pohja).

The process does indeed sound superficially like Jungian therapy - but this is deceptive.

Tolkien was not (I believe) trying to recover his creativity (for example in order to re-commence writing the Lord of the Rings - although this was in fact what actually happened).

Nor was Tolkien trying to make himself calmer and less miserable (although this happened as well).

But I suspect the primary self-therapeutic purpose of writing The NCPS was for Tolkien to re-establish a proper relation to God; and that the flow of creativity and feeling of energy and purpose were 'merely' an index that the divinely-inspired messages were again 'getting through'.


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