Monday 2 July 2018

Solving Tolkien's flat-earth versus spherical-earth problem with the help of Owen Barfield

[Jeremy - in The Notion Club Papers, by JRR Tolkien]

Sometimes I have a queer feeling that, if one could go back, one would find not myth dissolving into history, but rather the reverse: real history becoming more mythical - more shapely, simple, discernibly significant, even seen at close quarters. More poetical and less prosaic, if you like.

If you went back would you find myth dissolving into history or history into myth?... Perhaps the Atlantis catastrophe was the dividing line?

Tolkien had a problem with his legendarium: the First and Second Ages took place on a flat earth; but at the drowning of Numenor (i.e. the 'Atlantis catastrophe'), and the advent of the Third Age (and the time of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings) the world became a round: a sphere. By this change - which was accomplished by direct action of The One/ Eru/ Iluvatar - the undying lands (Eressea and Valinor) became qualitatively separated from the mortal lands (Middle Earth); so that only the enchanted ships of the Grey Havens could get from one to the other - ordinary ships that went West just came around the globe to reach the other side of the Middle Earth land mass.

But this change in planetary geography due to the Numenor/ Atlantis catastrophe was also the dividing line between a magical-enchanted world of the elves; and the mundane world of Men. The Third Age was a transitional phase between these, during which the High and Grey elves left Middle Earth, and the 'magical Men' of Numenor faded and were diluted into being like the mundane men of Middle Earth (although in LotR we meet several of the very few-remaining 'pure' Numenoreans such as Aragorn, Faramir and Denethor). 

In the Fourth Age (our Age) the elves have all departed or faded into invisibility; the Men have lost all their magic, and the world is disenchanted - lacking contact with, or belief in, elves, or the Valar. (Presumably the Ents and the Dwarves have gone extinct, or concealed themselves.) Hobbits, as a type of mundane Men, are said to remain, but hidden.

Tolkien was never happy about the mechanics and implications of this flat-to-round earth transition; and he kept tinkering with the 'cosmology' until shortly before he died; even (astonishingly, in his seventies) planning at one point to rewrite the entire Silmarillion as a round-earth mythology, involving enormous changes - quite beyond then-resources of Tolkien's time and energy.

Yet there was a possible solution to this problem - and it was one that had been worked-out in detail by Tolkien's fellow Inkling Owen Barfield.

I shall describe this in a moment - but it needs to be made clear that Barfield's solution was never an actual possibility for Tolkien, for many reasons. Barfield was essentially CS Lewis's friend, and Tolkien and Barfield had never been close - probably they spent very little time together outside Lewis's presence. Furthermore, Barfield did not enjoy Lord of the Rings, indeed he apparently was unable to finish reading it. And then, although both were strong Christians, there was a denominational gulf between the two - since Tolkien was a devout traditionalist Roman Catholic and Barfield a heterodox Anthroposophist-Anglican.

Barfield was, indeed, a philosopher with so radical and original a metaphysics that few - even of his admirers and scholars - have been able fully to grasp and explicate the sheer scope of what he assumed, argued and asserted.

For Barfield consciousness was primary, and 'matter' was merely a secondary 'condensation' from pure consciousness. Furthermore consciousness 'evolved' - which means it changed by a process of developmental unfolding; in accordance with the divine plan to enable Men incrementally (and over many thousands of years, and multiple incarnations) eventually to attain to god-hood.

The aimed at divine mode of consciousness was what Barfield termed Final Participation: 'final' because it was divine, and 'participation' because it entailed becoming co-creators with God. Because consciousness was primary, Final Participation happened in thought, in thinking. God thought the universe into existence, this thought was objectively real; and if man attained to this level of consciousness, each Man (in harmony with God's purposes) would become a participant in this creation.

And, because consciousness is primary, for Barfield there was no reality apart-from consciousness. What we perceive (what know by our senses, and by reasoning from sensory data) is all we know of anything. There is an indescribable stuff (what Barfield terms the unrepresented) that exists independently of our perceptions of it; but perceptions can only be understood with concept,s, by thinking - so we know nothing about this unrepresented reality.

We only know what we think, and our thinking is a product of our consciousness, and our consciousness can change qualitatively.

What we regard as objective facts are actually 'Collective Representations. In other words, beings with the same quality of consciousness, perceive the world in the same way, and therefore usually come to regard the world as consisting of data which they suppose to be independent of consciousness. When everybody perceives a tree, then people tend to assume that what is really there is a tree; when actually 'a tree' is a concept that is absolutely dependent on consciousness. 

(It can immediately be seen how alien this way of understanding would have been to Tolkien, even if he had known and grappled with it - which he would have been unlikely to do; probably regarding it as pride-full and blasphemous.)

If Barfield's understanding of the evolution of consciousness was applied to the Numenor/ Atlantis Catastrophe, we would understand it to be a qualitative change in consciousness, imposed upon the inhabitants of the world by The One. It was consciousness that changed, primarily; and as a result, the world became perceived as spherical instead of flat.

(It is not a matter of whether the earth 'really had been' flat, or not; but that such a question is meaningless - since there is no 'really' which is independent of consciousness. To the Second Age consciousness of elves, men, dwarves, Sauron, orcs etc; the new form of consciousness perceived the world as round. And there is no going-behind this perception.)

So, the drowning of Numenor really was, as Jeremy of the Notion Club Papers suggested, a 'dividing line' - in which the era of enchanted myth changed-into the era of mundane history. The change was instantaneous; but the working through of this change took some thousands of years.

(Such a Barfieldian perspective also explains how Tolkien's legendarium is real: really-real, not just applicable fiction! It is real because it is 'about' consciousness; it is a way of 'representing' consciousness and its development, under divine shaping.)

So where does that leave Modern Man, in our Fourth Age - which Barfield sometimes called the Age of the Consciousness Soul? Well, we are of course disenchanted, can no longer perceive the elves or the gods; indeed we deny the reality of any God at all. Whereas the enchanted world of Tolkien's First and Second Age was one where most things were alive and conscious and in communication to some degree (a residue of this remained in the Third Age, in Lothlorien - preserved by Galadriel's ring)  for mundane man, everything is dead: indeed Man understands himself to be dead, and consciousness to be an illusion or epiphenomenon of material processes. Because only matter is real, and matter is experienced as un-alive...

But this is incoherent, insane; it is not a viable form of consciousness: it is consciousness turned against itself. It simultaneously claims to know, while denying even the possibility of knowledge. It claims to discern meaninglessness, to know exactly that which is un-knowable (i.e. to know with certainty how things really-are, independent of that consciousness which knows). 

We need to move into a Fifth Age of Middle Earth; in which we can begin to know that consciousness is primary, and to know that consciousness and reality are indivisible.

This was not a matter that Tolkien addressed in any of the work published during his lifetime - but it is a special appeal of the Notion Club Papers that Tolkien comes to the very edge of this matter; which is a thing that can be done in high fantasy.

In a nutshell, we can - if we choose - regard the Notion Club as a fantasy version of The Inklings; and the unfinished text as the start of a process by which these Fantasy Inklings would, in the course of the full narrative and as its climax, solve this most important of all the problems facing modern materialistic Man.


Chiu ChunLing said...

As I understand it, what you are saying is, crudely speaking, that the original creation of Eä was entirely spiritual (in the quite literal sense of being an exhalation of the Ainur), and Arda, which was to become the Earth, was originally conceived as a planar surface with radial bounds in this higher-dimensional but 'ephemeral' or perhaps 'volatile' (in computer jargon) information space.

As the creation unfolded, it began to affect the material universe as we understand it, imposing on it a purposeful form, and it was the point at which the material universe (and in particular, the surface of the Earth) began to be allowed to influence Arda (rather than merely being shaped by it) which would correspond to the time of catastrophe.

Because the imposition of meaning and form on the Earth from Arda began at the planer center of Arda on a given point on the surface of the habitable sphere of the Earth, and progressed moving out from there, it became possible for life to exist on Earth in a merely material level rather than being continuously 'projected' onto matter by its existence in Arda. Thus, a material being in Earth could traverse from the center of the correspondence region between Earth and Arda, and move to the border at which there ceased to be an absolute identity between the two, thus progressing to that part of the Earth which had no reflection in Arda, or to that part of Arda which did not impose corresponding form on any defined part of the Earth.

As I understand it, the first border crossed would be that at which material entities of Earth ceased to reflect anything into Arda, while the final boundary would be entering that part of Arda which had not yet been projected onto the material Earth. An Earthly entity crossing the first boundary would still be present on Earth but simply appear to have vanished from within Arda (or rather, become 'unreal'), while a primarily spiritual entity would slowly be less reflected on Earth as it crossed the first border and moved towards the edge, remaining ineffably real but less visible from Earth.

This area in which Arda is projected onto the Earth (and the smaller area within which the Earth would be reflected back into Arda) should also have been growing (though not both at the same rate, nor either at a particularly constant rate, only observing the rule that only that part of the Earth which was fully amenable to projection of form, substance, and significance from Arda would ever have been allowed to be reflected back into Arda).

While I suppose this all might have interesting mythical implications, I'm not sure it's particularly important to go beyond the poetic and thus somewhat innately mysterious relationship between Earth and Arda which appears in Tolkien's stories.

Seijio Arakawa said...

Very very interesting, though through reading this I see my unspoken-assumed metaphysics appears to be different-yet from those of Tolkien or Barfield, as presented in this essay. Because the essay posed some questions in a way that made this obvious to me, reading it has already been extremely valuable in that sense. It will take me a while to work through the implications, however.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCl - I don't really follow your explanation because of its abstraction - but then I'm not yet fully clear about my own! It takes a whle for these things to settle...

@SA - Thanks. It feels as if there is important somewhere here, still raw and unformed. Barfield's ideas about the evolution of Man and of the earth and surprisingly slippery, and hard to hold-onto - although he is quite lucid on a sentence by sentence level about them. Much of his Platonic dialogue Worlds Apart is to do with describing his view of exactly what I am talking about.

This in turn was greatly influenced by Rudolf Steiner, at least in its outlines, and Steiner wrote/ spoke a great deal (far too much IMHO! - and mostly nonsense) about Atlantis - which he seems to have based upon Madame Blavatsky... both claiming to know it clairvoyantly from the Akashic records, so that it should be confirmable by anyone.

Barfield, on the other hand, argues most by a rational and deductive/ indictive kind of method. I generally feel that Barfield is insufficiently aware that he is actually doing metaphysics rather than natural science - that one cannot actually argue a different basis for evolution *from* The Evidence. Indeed both Barfield and Steiner regarded themselves as epistemologists and denied they were metaphysicians - which is false and misleading, but presumably relates to the philosophy of their times.

Anyway, the key to all this is grasping Steiner's core argument in the Philosophy of Freedom (1894), which I find to be a convicing 'solution' to the age old problems (one problem, variously expressed) of subjective versus objective, mind versus matter, idealism versus empiricism, nominalism versus realism etc.

The implications of Steiner's argument are astonishing in their scope - and Barfield shows that these implications show that we cannot do history on prehistory, cannot validly describe the world when it was inhabited by men with different consciousness. The modern sciences hat purport to describe evolution before Man, or earth geology before men, or the history of the universe are therefore based on metaphysical error - and are merely crude, simplified and grossly-distorted 'models' of limited and unknowable applicability.

SO... treating them, as we do, as foundational truths is one root of the modern materialistic malaise.

Chiu ChunLing said...

Well, simplifying further, the original spiritual creation of the universe included a vision of life spreading across the surface of a planet. This vision was first present to the view of the Ainur from a particular perspective, hence becoming a two-dimensional projection of a higher dimension manifold.

Because the original singing of Arda was a harmony resulting in a symmetric expression centered on the origin (or center), the mapping of this onto a sphere presented no difficulties or distortion. Also, for some time during the initial creation, the material world was purely subject to the creative act of the Ainur by the will and power of Ilúvatar. However, Ilúvatar had already planned for the natural law consequences of this creation (including Melkor's discords), which were shown in the vision and thus reflected in the Third Theme.

That is, the working of natural law, not according to any will of its own but merely in response to the acts of creation, are part of the rule of justice that ties the discords of Melkor (the seeking of power) into the greater theme of sorrow and regret for such acts. Though the natural laws of the material world are only a reflection of the laws of pure logic which assured that there must be unforeseen consequences of thoughtless action (and here I only describe Tolkien's probable view, I am not a Platonic Idealist).

Anyway, even more simplistically, the idea was that, at some earlier age, it was possible for the spiritually inclined to sail to the horizon and then continue at a tangent to the surface of the Earth and sail clean off into a (physically as well as spiritually) higher world. But since then this higher spiritual reality has become mapped to the surface of the planet such that there is no particular point of travel necessary to enter it, while conversely it does not involve leaving the physical world behind.

It's an interesting mythic idea, I think that it does communicate a profound truth about the ancient incidents of simply and physically leaving the mortal world. At the same time, the common error that simply getting further off the ground equates to spiritual progress is rampant in our time of technologically enabled flight and high-rise construction (even when unspoken, which it often isn't). I don't see that this mythic concept helps address that error.

Anonymous said...

"Barfield shows that these implications show that we cannot do history on prehistory, cannot validly describe the world when it was inhabited by men with different consciousness."

Thinking (if you can call it 'thinking'...) aloud, how does Lewis's likely myth of unfallen Adam in The Problem of Pain relate to this? And, the depiction of unfallen Anthropmorphic creatures in Perelandra - co-existng and interacting with fallen humans? And, again, the depiction of assorted unfallen non-/pre-/semi-Anthropomorphic creatures on Malacandra? And - a 'Numinorean' continuity to late-antique Merlin in That Hideous Strength?

Again, re. the How, what of pre- and post-Numenorean Elvish (1) consciousness, (2) speech, (3) extant written records, and ditto Maiar (Istari) - and between those two and between each and Men?

I wonder how much young Tolkien may have been dissatisfied by Nesbit 'solution(s)' to time-travelling English children?

I wonder how much Tolkien and Lewis are variously consciously interacting with Milton's 'matter' of angelical explanation of the War in Heaven (among other things) to unfallen Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost? (Ransom, on Perelandra, as fallen, though (Baptismally) redeemed human, has both similar and different disadvantages to Milton's angels.)

David Llewellyn Dodds