Monday 30 May 2011

Tolkien speaks from the past to us now?


I continue to be astonished by coming across sections of the Notion Club Papers whose significance I had missed, but which jump-out at me on re-reading.


NCPs, Night 65 (page 228).

[Frankley] "Well, I think there's a difference between what really happened at our meetings and Nicholas's record [of the Notion Club]. (...)

[Ramer] "People of the future, if they only knew the records and studied them, and let their imagination work on them, till the Notion Club became a sort of secondary world set in the past: they could [re-view the past as a present thing]."


Coming in the midst of a section of debate about whether it is possible really to experience the past as it truly was, this has the force of a personal statement from Tolkien (via Ramer).

A further comment makes clear that the pre-requisites of direct contact with the legendary or mythic past are not 'literal' factuality of record keeping, but derives - as Ramer says - "from the profundity of the emotions and perceptions that begot them and from the multiplication of them in many minds..."


Among other things, I get the eerie sense of a coded message planted by Tolkien back in 1946 for the reader today, that if the reader lets his imagination work on these feigned records of a fictional club, they may become real, in the sense of a secondary world set in the past.

At one level the process recommended may (I think Tolkien is saying) provide a mode of access to the real Inklings and their concerns. But this achieved will itself allow further things to happen.

One touchstone of the reality of the past is a sort of non-subjectivity. That the perceived past does not merely mirror or amplify the current reader's understanding, but is capable of surprising and informing the present. Capable of inducing a different perspective.

This new perspective then enables the current reader to perceive things (past and present) that were previously inapparent, which may then induce a further change in perspective.


(Of course, such perspectival shifts are not necessarily good, can be harmful as well as helpful. The new perspective that induces further perspectival shifts might prove to be a trap. As we see all around us.)


Wednesday 25 May 2011

C.S Lewis as dreamer


Roger Lancelyn Green contributes a chapter on Lewis as a dreamer to C.S Lewis at the breakfast table: and other reminiscences, edited by James Como and published in 1980.


Green gives accounts of some of Lewis's recorded dreams, and his use of dream images or pictures as a basis for his fictions:

"Lewis confessed to drawing many ideas for scenes and characters in his stories from mind pictures that came to him either waking or asleep (...).

"When we were discussing dreams and the imaginative literary use to be made of them, I complained that though I dreamed frequently, I seldom remembered anything from my dreams.

"I shall never forget the vehemence with which he turned on me and exclaimed: 'Then you may thank God that you don't!'

"And he went on to explain that he had suffered most of his life from appalling nightmares - which he remembered only too well when he awakened. This personal trial he put to very good and convincing use in the chapter called The dark island in The voyage of the Dawn Treader.


Once again it is clear that Lewis, like Tolkien, was much less of a 'plain man' than he is sometimes portrayed; and that his creativity was of the mystical (or shamanistic) kind, based on the 'irrational' associative cognition of visions and dreams.


Sunday 22 May 2011

The Inklings were historians


Although The Inklings are usually considered to be a literary group, they were really much more like historians.


With the exception of Robert 'Humphrey' Havard (scientist and doctor) all of the main members took an historical perspective on their subject: Tolkien was a philologist, Jack Lewis wrote about medieval literature and society, Charles Williams published several historical 'potboilers'  - and some, such as Warnie Lewis and Gervase Mathew - were straightforward historians, who wrote history books.

But the core Inklings had a specifically mythical interest in history.


This was partly intrinsic to the individuals (and a major reason for their friendship), but found an early formulation in the first books of Owen Barfield  -  Poetic Diction and History in English Words which had a major impact on both Lewis (who had been friends with Barfield since they were undergraduate contemporaries) and Tolkien.


The key activity shared by Lewis and Tolkien - and to very varying degrees by the other Inklings - was the recovery of the mythic vision of history.

That was what the Inklings meetings were about.

Yes they were a writing group, and a social group; but what was being written and what kept the group together around Lewis had this core, implicit, purpose and tendency.


More importantly, it is why the group is still of interest today.

Because the problem for which mythic history is proposed as (at least the start of) a solution is by now very bad indeed, and much worse than in the 1930s and 1940s.


The Inklings were not just historians, nor even historians of ideas: they were engaged in trying to reconnect the modern mind with an historical mode of thought, a mythic mode of thought - by argument, by scholarship, and of course by the imagination.


Monday 16 May 2011

John Wain versus C.S. Lewis and the nature of The Inklings


The English 'man of letters' John Wain

published an early autobiography called Sprightly Running in 1963, the last year of C.S. Lewis's life, in which he reflected on the period when he was a member of The Inklings.

Although Wain liked and respected the Inklings, especially revering Nevill Coghill about whom he wrote an intensely-felt memoir, he conceptualized them as not only reactionary, but actually a counter-revolutionary group:

"The group had a corporate mind" that was both powerful and clearly defined. They were "politically conservative, not to say reactionary; in religion, Anglo- or Roman-Catholic; in art, frankly hostile to an manifestation of the 'modern' spirit", "a circle of instigators, almost incendiaries, meeting to urge one another on in the task of redirecting the whole current of contemporary art and life."


C.S. Lewis immediately published a long letter strongly disputing this analysis of the Inklings in the January 1963 edition of the journal Encounter (he had presumably seen a review copy of the book) in which Lewis - while graciously thanking Wain for saying many kind things about him, and stating clearly that he regarded Wain as a friend ('friend' being a word Lewis used sparingly and rigorously).

Lewis focused on the ideological differences between various Inklings, the non-overlapping nature of some of the friendships within the group, and stating that "Mr Wain has mistaken purely personal relationships for alliances."

In essence, Lewis hotly denied that the Inklings were self-consciously an explicitly strategic, reactionary, counter-revolutionary 'cell'.


Yet, of course, as we now recognize, Wain was substantively correct in every respect except that of supposing that the Inklings was self-conscious in their instigation and incendiary activities.

The Inklings were indeed - at their core of Jack Lewis, Tolkien and Charles Williams, and during their peak years of 1939-45 - a group of Christian reactionaries with very large scale ambitions to redirect the current of modern art and life.

This was very obvious to Wain who opposed this re-directing of art and life back to a pre-modern and religious spirit (at least, he did during the early decades of his life, when he was known as an anti-establishment figure, one of the 'Angry Young Men' of the 1950s - although in later years Wain's work, for instance on Samuel Johnson, strikes me as itself reactionary - or at least nostalgic for the pre-modern era).

That was why the Inklings were friends, that was an essential basis of their friendship: necessary but not sufficient.


The reason for the continued interest in the Inklings is precisely what Wain stated.

But of course, Wain's analysis was itself from a 'modern' perspective; a perspective which sees 'political' activity as necessarily self-conscious and explicit.

Whereas the reality was that the Inklings did not subscribe to this view of politics.

Lewis, Tolkien and Williams were individually, and passionately, engaged in recovering a pre-modern, a Christian spirit for life - with re-connecting with the thread of this spirit as it came down through the centuries - a thread which was almost broken, a spirit which they themselves were among that last examples.

And this, at least, was explicitly perceived - Lewis spoke of himself as a dinosaur left over from a previous era, Tolkien spoke of fighting the long defeat, Williams blurred pre-modern past and present and expounded (in The Descent of the Dove) a history of Christendom in which he discerned a two thousand year thread coming through Anglicanism right down to his own spiritual engagement.


The substantive disagreement of Wain and Lewis over the true nature of the Inklings was only, therefore, a quibble over the degree of self-consciousness with which their counter-revolutionary activities was being pursued; there was no disagreement of the fact and tendency of the Inklings endeavors.

The Inklings were thus in effect precisely as Wain described them: instigators and incendiaries.


Sunday 15 May 2011

Dom Jonathan Markison OSB = Gervase Mathew OSB


Just for the record, I agree with the identification of one of the (peripheral) members of the Notion Club Papers called Dom Jonathan Markison as probably based-on the real-life (peripheral) Inkling Gervase Mathew.

This resemblance was noted by Perry C. Bramlett, Joe R. Christopher in I am in fact a hobbit, 2002


In the NCP list of member there is the brief entry "Dom Jonathan Markinson, OSB . New College, Master of St Cuthbert's Hall. [Polymath]"

Markison has several brief interjections in the text of the NCPs, one on an obscure point of history, another which mentions he had 'dabbled' in about 100 languages, and others of a philological nature.

OSB = Order of Saint Benedict - a Roman Catholic monk; Benedictines are addressed as Dom = Dominus or Master. St Cuthbert's Hall is an imaginary Oxford College, presumably named after the Anglo Saxon Saint.


Gervase Mathew OP (The Order founded by St Dominic; OP = Order of Preachers - a Roman Catholic Friar) was at Blackfriars Hall, the Dominican college attached to Oxford University. He was a renowned polymath - who apparently knew everybody and something about 'everything'. 

Dominicans and Benedictines are traditionally among the most scholarly of Roman Catholic religious orders. 


Friday 6 May 2011

Anti-dwarf prejudice - justified?


When the Fellowship encounter the elves of Lothlorien, Eomer's horsemen and the doormen at Edoras it is clear that there is a pretty general prejudice against dwarves among the other free peoples of Middle Earth.

Is this justified?

Well, yes it is!


The reason is that the dwarves are proud and pride is a sin.

Dwarvish pride comes out as a hypersensitivity to personal insults, such that at any moment (whether among friends or foes) a dwarf may feel himself slighted and reach for his axe.

When combined with the great courage and strength of dwarves (the best of all infantry soldiers among the free peoples - with the exception of Numenoreans), this makes dwarves dangerous people to have around.


Of course, in Gimli we have the best of dwarves - that much is made clear: Gimli is an exception.


Gimli's companions seem to accept the general view that dwarves are trouble, and argue along the lines of 'yes we know about dwarves - but, Gimli was specially chosen by Elrond, he is a member of the Fellowship, he is different  from the general run of dwarves - and we will vouch for his behaviour'

(Which is code for: 'don't worry, we will keep him under control...').


Yet even Gimli is bad enough! - very nearly provoking suicidal fights with Lothlorien elves and the Riders of Rohan - fights which would have been fatal to the battle against Sauron.


So, we conclude that the prejudice against dwarves as such is reasonable, dwarves usually are trouble; but the best people (Galadriel, Eomer, the guards at Edoras) are (rightly, on the whole) able to evaluate the evidence, trust their instincts, and make an exception in the case of Gimli.


Sunday 1 May 2011

An Experiment with Time by J.W Dunne and the Inklings


This famous book of the late 1920s and 30s was a major influence on The Inklings, and forms a background to the Notion Club Papers.


One of the most striking aspects of C.S Lewis's The Dark Tower is the following:

" '... that we see the future is certain. Dunne's book proved that - '

"MacPhee gave a roar like a man in pain.

" 'It's all very well, MacPhee,' Orfieu continued, 'but the only thing that enables you to jeer at Dunne is the fact that you have refused to carry out the experiments he suggests. If you carried them out you would have got the same results that he got, and I got, and everyone got who took the trouble. Say what you like but the thing is proved. It's as certain as any scientific proof whatever.' "


Dunne had recorded his dreams in detail and in writing the instant he awoke. The method he describes is very specific, and he is clear that unless this method is followed, then the necessary information will not be available.

Dunne's conclusion - surveying these results, from himself and others - was that some parts of some dreams consisted of recollections of past events (especially the day preceding the sleep) mixed with anticipations of future events - quite thoroughly mixed, so that which-was-which only became apparent later.

My sense is that Lewis and Tolkien both accepted this by the late 1930s into the 1940s, sought an explanation, and discussed its implications - presumably in Inklings meetings.


Let us assume that Dunne was right and that Lewis and Tolkien were right to accept his evidence.

And let us take the evidence of the Dark Tower and the Notion Club Papers to conclude that Dunne's experiments were replicated, were verified, at least by Lewis and Tolkien and (probably) some other of the Inklings.

Then why has this idea died-out? Why do so few people nowadays believe that dreams can predict the future?


The reason is easy enough to understand on reading Dunne - that the dreams were a mixture of past, future and apparently irrelevant material - but there was no way to evaluate which elements were predictive until after they had been confirmed.

So, although Dunne seemed to show convincingly that some aspects of some dreams were visions of the future - this had no practical value: specifically this knowledge offered no powers.

You could not - therefore - use future visionary dreams to make money (e.g from bets), manipulate people, avoid disasters or anything of that kind.

To the modern mind, this means that Dunne's work seemed trivial, hence ignorable, and was eventually discarded (without consideration) as being fake, or gullible, or something...


That dreams contained visions of the future was, of course, believed by everyone until a few hundred years ago - and probably is believed by the vast majority of people in the world even now. But in ancient times, the ability to interpret dreams, and decode the future visions - so that the knowledge they contained might become useful, was regarded as a rare gift (and one associated with a lot of fakery).


On the other hand, if Dunne was correct (and I find the testimony of Lewis and Tolkien hard to ignore) then this is very interesting for what it tells us about the human condition.

Among other things, it suggests to me the following:

1. That dreams have a natural function - and not just related to memory (the past) but also to the future.

2. That this natural function happens during sleep - and does not require conscious awareness (since most people most of the time do not recall dreams - and Dunne's results depend on specific techniques of rapid recall, association and the making of an objective record, which techniques were apparently not done by anyone before him; and by very few since).

3. That - therefore - the natural function of dreams is not predictive; and that the use of dreams to predict the future is a special, individual, learned skill.

4. My guess as to one function of dreams is that they locate us in the world in an unconscious, implicit, non-verbal way; that dreams provide our relation to reality, our embeddedness in time, which we carry with us as a background to waking, conscious life.

5. That it is therefore possible that the lack of dreams, or of dreams of the right kind (perhaps as a result of some illness, or unnatural lifestyle, or drugs or something) might cause alienation: might cause someone to feel isolated, un-integrated with life, solipsistic, that life has no meaning nor purpose.

- of course this alienated state is compatible with the individual serving a social function, or operating at a high level in specific roles, or wielding power, or having high status. But that person is subjectively cut-off from the stream of time.

- sounds like the modern condition to me.