Monday 15 May 2023

The perilous necessity of seeking enchantment

I have been re-reading that most inspiring of essays: On Fairy Stories, by JRR Tolkien; and considering the need some of us feel (in the 'modern world') for enchantment

Tolkien describes how this can be found in the best of Fairy Stories - or what we nowadays, since Tolkien's essay, term 'fantasy' literature. 

But what of 'real life' - of our lives outside of fairy stories? What of our disenchanted mundane lives? Is there any kind of 'cure' for disenchantment - something in-addition-to our leisure-time and recreational immersion in artistic recreations of faery?

What should we do when we awaken from the enchanted realms of a fairy story, and find-ourselves back in the mundane world?

Such questions are the basis of the 'romantic' impulse; and for people such as Tolkien (and myself, and many others) they are unavoidable and compelling matters; they are matters of life and death. 

We can try to ignore or drown-out the 'horns of Elfland' - the call of enchantment - but we will always be comparing our actual lives with the possibilities experienced in 'fairy stories'. 

For us, the prospect of life stretching ahead is intolerable without enchantment; so it is not a matter of whether we pursue enchantment; but how

Yet, as Tolkien often emphasizes; this seeking of an enchanted mortal life is perilous; just as true faery is perilous. He frequently depicted this - most explicitly in Smith of Wootton Major, most pessimistically in his poem The Sea Bell; and it forms the background motivation to the embryonic plot of The Notion Club Papers

The fundamental problem is that mortal Men in this world cannot attain any Good with permanence - because that is the entropic nature of our-selves and the world; and from the fact that such joys are subject to 'habituation'/ tolerance/ fatigue - so that they cannot be sought directly and repeated 'stimuli' (use of symbols, rituals, or exposure to art-works) will decline in effectiveness. 

Many have tries to create for themselves an enchanted life; all have failed - in the end we are up-against our own corrupt and limited natures. 

Many, many people have ended up in the tragic situation depicted at the end of The Sea Bell; unable to forget, yet unable to attain, 'faery' - and finding no consolation in 'the world'. 

A Christian can and should be consoled by the ultimate prospect of resurrected life in Heaven; which is (as Tolkien makes clear at the end of his essay) the only possible actuality of that which we glimpse in faery. It is resurrection that makes the quest for enchantment a matter of truth rather than delusion. 

Yet, that still leaves the problem of how we structure our earthly lives in the years ahead... indeed in this day, and this moment...  

A further problem is that the consciousness of Modern Man has developed so as to become so resistant to enchantment - that there seem to be many people who claim not to experience it, not to want it. 

And there are others who (whatever they may they claim) seem never to experience any kind of enchantment; but instead seem (so far as I can tell) to live disenchanted lives; to the point of being hostile to the whole idea - and regarding any taint of romanticism is childish, insane or evil

Sadly, many self-identified Christians are of this aggressively disenchanted type: the kind of Christians who regard any whiff of faery, magic, romanticism as indicating the stench of Hellish brimstone (and who regard Tolkien himself as one of the devil's party). 

I say 'sadly' - because, despite that the quest for enchantment may be personally tragic; not-to-want it at all, and to regard enchantment as stupid, malign of delusional, strikes me as a kind of self-maimed half-life. 

I cannot help feeling sorry-for such people - even when they are frustrating or maddening to deal-with. 

My best positive suggestion, that I have discussed many times before on this blog; is to apply some of the lessons of Owen Barfield's concept of Final Participation - which I have further analyzed into concepts such as Primary Thinking and heart-thinking. 

In particular; the idea that - instead of seeking an overwhelming and immersive experience of enchantment, of faery, such that we hope to experience 'being there', inside that world -- we may choose to seek to participate-with such a world in the realm of purposive conscious thinking

Instead of (mentally) lowering-our-selves-into enchantment, instead of sinking-into a dream-like realm; we might instead aim to rise-above the mundane: to weave our conscious thinking with thoughts of (experiences from?) faery. 

This Final Participation is not a final answer; because there is none on this side of death; but engaging with an assumed living and potentially present realm of faery is something that lacks some of the problems of the more usual attempt at 'travelling'-into/ dwelling-within faery - not least because it is immune to that loss-of-effectiveness that plagues all attempts to lose-ourselves. 

With the Final Participation idea; we do Not try to lose our-selves or our awareness of this-world - but aim instead to remain our-selves; indeed to expand and strengthen our-selves as we encounter enchantment; which can be done by aligning our motivations with that which is Good in faery.  

Such is difficult because it is a creative activity; and creating just-is difficult. Also because it entails the discernment of what is Good in our-selves and 'the enchanted' - and working-from that.

But - however difficult, intermittent, and only-partially-successful, is such a creative endeavor; it is nonetheless something that provides a very deep level of satisfaction, and a potential for profound learning.

So, Final Participation in faery seems like a valid Life Quest for those of us for whom a 'romantic life' is a fact of our natures. 


William Wright (WW) said...

I really liked this post.

In our current situation, it is almost as if we ought to try and find enchantment in our creative endeavors not in whether they have fully realized an enchanted life here and now (which, as you pointed out, is not possible in our current state), but in what they say or tell us about our unique selves.

Meaning, the good endeavors that we choose to engage in that we in fact find enchanting (or would be) give us a hint about ourselves, both past and future, which would be very unique to each of us.

Past, in that these desires come from somewhere, as does the frustration in their un-realization. More specifically, that these choices and endeavors are echoes coming from within us as eternal beings who lived before our existence here on this earth, where these types of activities are what we found joy and enchantment in as part of an enchanted existence.

Future, in that the silver lining of the frustration and disheartening nature of unfulfilled enchantment in this life is that we continually learn and reinforce that once the limitations and corruption of this life are done away with, that these are the types of things that we would truly once again find joy in, though now at an even more fulfilling and enchanted state than before as we are free to build and expand on them (Leaf by Niggle comes to mind in terms of what I am thinking of here).

In any case, being able to connect to both these past and present states of ourselves in a sort of self-discovery may be a pathway to enchantment (what could be more enchanting than understanding how you uniquely fit in with God and with other beings as part of creation?), even as present actual results of our efforts and lives are less so.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WW - Glad you liked it, and thanks for the stimulating comment.

Luke said...

Would the poetic philosophy and vision of Patrick Kavanagh, as expressed in much of his poetry and in these two poems in particular The Hospital, be an example of rising above the mundane but not dwelling in faery, weaving conscious thought with experiences of faery? Of not trying 'to lose our-selves or our awareness of this-world - but aim instead to remain our-selves; indeed to expand and strengthen our-selves as we encounter enchantment; which can be done by aligning our motivations with that which is Good in faery.'?

The Hospital

A year ago I fell in love with the functional ward
Of a chest hospital: square cubicles in a row
Plain concrete, wash basins – an art lover’s woe,
Not counting how the fellow in the next bed snored.
But nothing whatever is by love debarred,
The common and banal her heat can know.
The corridor led to a stairway and below
Was the inexhaustible adventure of a gravelled yard.
This is what love does to things: the Rialto Bridge,
The main gate that was bent by a heavy lorry,
The seat at the back of a shed that was a suntrap.
Naming these things is the love-act and its pledge;
For we must record love’s mystery without claptrap,
Snatch out of time the passionate transitory.

My Room

10 by 12
And a low roof
If I stand by the side wall
My head feels the reproof.

Five holy pictures
Hang on the walls:
The Virgin and Child
St Anthony of Padua
Leo the XIII
St Patrick and the Little Flower.

My Bed in the centre
So many things to me—
A dining table
A writing desk
And a slumber palace.

My room in a dusty attic
But its little window
Lets in the stars.

Anonymous said...

It's intriguing to think those who heard On Fairy-stories in whatever form Tolkien first delivered it in 1939 could only have known Tolkiens's Elves from The Hobbit - and that that was still the case when it was published in Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947), while those of us who have been able to read it in the context of The Lord of the Rings in the course of the last 67 years can ponder how well they fit together and complement each other.

This post has got me wanting to think more, and more carefully about that! Elven 'art' and Elven 'nature' and experience, compared and contrasted with 'human'... and how the later Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth relates to 'all that'!

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD - "could only have known Tolkiens's Elves from The Hobbit "

Yes, and the Rivendell elves - in particular - are a pretty silly bunch!