Sunday 8 January 2023

Some 75 years after the Notion Club Papers, the romanticism of faery is no longer enough to make a difference to our civilization

My best guess as to the central theme and destination of The Notion Club Papers (NCPs) is that it was to be about the Club re-establishing a spiritual connection between Elves and modern Men - perhaps via the intermediate civilization of Numenor. 

And I understand this to be a version of Romanticism - the Romantic Project, dating back to the middle 1700s, from which time a strand within Western civilization began to explore and advocate such things as are explored and advocated (implicitly) within the NCPs.

For example the interest in myth and 'the primitive'; 'folklore' and nation; the imagination and intuition as ways of knowing; poetry, drama, novels and music as instruments of self-discovery and development; dreams, visions, epiphanies and suchlike regarded as spiritually valuable. 

At the time the Notion Club Papers was last worked-on by Tolkien (1946) the civilization of The West, in particular its representation at Oxford University, was very different from what it has since become. Despite several generations of secularization; there was still a Christian basis underpinning much of English life (including many laws and other regulations); and Christianity had significantly revived during the Second World War. 

For instance; CS Lewis and Charles Williams were both at the cutting edge of an intellectual revival of the Church of England, and other important figures in this movement were TS Eliot and Dorothy L Sayers - who were both friends and admirers of Charles Williams. As a Roman Catholic; Tolkien could point to the tremendous influence of (not long dead) GK Chesterton and (until recently active) Hilaire Belloc; and such prestigious literary converts as Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. 

It would therefore have seemed reasonable to assume that the future of Christianity in England was at least secure and perhaps optimistic. At any rate, Tolkien apparently did not feel a need to emphasize, defend, or much mention Christianity in the NCPs - my impression is that it is taken-for-granted that the Club members were Christians. 

In sum, therefore, the NCPs could be understood as about transforming Christian culture, especially in its creative and scholarly aspects (because the NCP members are creative writers, scholars and researchers of various types) by its becoming more Romantic; in particular (but not exclusively) by means of the 'enchantment' of Faery. 

What actually happened was that from 1946; both Anglican and Catholic Christianity in England (and, even more so, in Oxford) was just entering a rapid and progressive decline that rendered it quantitatively and qualitatively insignificant to public life and discourse before the millennium; and by now has led to the de facto assimilation of most Christians to the hegemonic (encompassing the entirety of the mainstream, of all 'parties) totalitarian-materialist-leftist ideology.

This makes a crucial difference to the likely effect of a restoration of Romanticism such as the NCPs envisaged. 

We know, from the revival of secular and non-Christian (especially Buddhist) Romanticism in the West, from the middle 1950s into the 1970s, that Romanticism without Christianity has failed to have a significant impact on the increasing materialism and bureaucracy of The West.    

This has also - mostly - been the fate of Tolkien's own colossal cultural impact. 

On the one hand, The Lord of the Rings is perhaps the most widely read and beloved book of the past seventy-something years - on the other hand, most of its readers and scholars are every bit as materialist, leftist, totalitarian-affiliated and modernity-assimilated as those who hate Tolkien. 

Without Christianity to work-upon, Tolkien's Romanticism - despite its apparently vast influence - has not been able to stop or reverse the adverse trends in The West; not culturally, nor (with few exceptions) personally.  

This suggests that the premise of the NCPs - that an actual re-connection between 'ancient' and Elvish influences and the modern world - would be A Good Thing; is not actually true in a society such as ours, from which Christianity (and indeed all effectively-motivated religion and transformative spirituality) has been deleted.  

So on the one hand, Christianity without Romanticism did-not survive... And perhaps (I would say) could-not survive. 

On the other hand, Romanticism without Christianity also makes little discernible difference; and operates as no more than a therapeutic or hedonic lifestyle-option within secular totalitarianism.  

In reading the Notion Club Papers, to understand its intended implication; I think we need either to project ourselves backwards into the time it was written and the assumptions of that era; or else imaginatively to inhabit an alternative present or potential future; in which we can discover in our-selves that Christianity is still a living option


Luke said...

What do you think would be the main spiritual effect of reconnecting with faerie? It seems to me that meeting Elves would require a belief in a living world, and that maybe the Elves could help us build relationships with such a world. That would translate to romanticism pretty well, although who the Elves are I do not know.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Luke - That would be the kind of think - for instance; to know the world as living and conscious, consisting of Beings with whom one might have relationships.

The Romantic manifesto of Wordsworth and Coleridge (Lyrical Ballads preface) gave the two examples of Wordsworth's poems about living meaningful and significant nature, and Coleridge's poetry of 'the supernatural' - which could include enchantment generally (e.g. Christabel, Ancient Mariner) and, in principle, faery.

Anonymous said...

Something interesting in connection with your suggesting imaginatively inhabiting "an alternative present or potential future" is the fact that That Hideous Strength, All-Hallows' Eve, and The Notion Club Papers are all set in the post-war future: the first two a near future, NCP 2014 looking back to the 1980s! THS imagines both the corrupt Christians Straik and Father Doyle and the ineffectually Christian King of England and the impropriety of Merlin's exploitation of his connections with the non-human earthly creation. AHE imagines the pseudo-'therapeutic' Simon (appealing with apparent success in different cultures in Asia as well as in England), the more naturally good than consciously Christian Lester, and the sacramental force of lay baptism (a baptism only known to a Christian servant girl long gone from the scene). NCP imagines a world in which Ramer could easily travel and spend time in Hungary in the 1950s and 1960s. In taking up the court of King Edward AD 914 world from The Lost Road, it imagines the sort of Christian approach which Tolkien contends in the "Beowulf and the Critics" manuscripts and his 1936 Gollancz Lecture produced the poem "Beowulf", a Christian approach looking to faithful pre-Christian monotheism - much like that of Númenor. Yet the experiences of Club members Lowdham and Jeremy seem to interact with those of their ancestors in the largely apostatized Númenor approaching destruction (as in the two Númenórean chapters of The Lost Road) - with some kind of warning for the imagined world of the 1980s?

THS imagines McPhee as good but more vulnerable than the Christians, and the conversions of the variously ideologized Jane and Mark. AHE imagines the spiritual growth of Richard, Jonathan, and Lester through their choices. Were - and are - Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien making a thoughtful imaginative appeal not only to faithful Christians but to anyone not too radically ideologized?

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD - I would certainly agree wrt "McPhee as good but more vulnerable than the Christians"; although Lewis did not show how this might work in practice - which would have been interesting.

It has been one of the saddest observations of life in recent decades to see *so many* (and continuing) naturally-good and decent McPhee-types joining The Other Side.