Thursday 9 November 2023

Experiencing spiritual contact with JRR Tolkien via The Notion Club Papers

I have a strong, and still increasing, conviction that we ought to move away-from the kind of impersonal abstraction that has been characteristic of spiritual, mystical, meditative and prayer life for many centuries - so much so that the two are often regarded as synonymous. 

Christian mystics have, for instance, often been Neoplatonic in their rationale and experience, and mysticism is often asserted to be a negative state of indescribable, inexpressible experience.  

What I mean is that the ultimate is often supposed to be an experience and a 'subject' that is beyond the personal. 

On the other hand, personal experience of the spiritual - that is, when there is some kind of contact with a Christian personage - whether Jesus Christ, Blessed Virgin Mary, a saint of angel, or any other individual of higher spiritual stature - have also often been reported. 

But typically such an interaction has been conversational... 

An experience of meeting-together perhaps, and conversing. Such experiences as as talking-with a statue or crucifix, an icon, or at a shrine; speaking oneself and hearing replies in the mind... 

Maybe meeting with another person in a dream-like state (or an actual dream), accompanied by vivid visions. Perhaps writing questions and then being dictated answers; or automatic writing. 

These two seem like the options - either, on the one hand, a sophisticated and intellectual kind of abstraction and negation; or else, on the other hand, a rather child-like interaction with a personage that operates rather like a mundane conversation. This tends to encourage adult (and educated) Christians to abandon the personal and embrace the abstract. 

But there is at least one other option, which is something I have at times experienced. An example is when I was immersively reading and thinking about the Fourth Gospel - but an earlier instance relates to more recent historical people who I came to regard as spiritual teachers: William Arkle and JRR Tolkien. 

I have elsewhere talked about the Fourth Gospel and Arkle experiences; but not really about Tolkien. 

My Tolkien experiences were related mainly to my original readings and re-readings of The Notion Club Papers - including the notes by Tolkien's son Christopher. The fragmentary, incomplete, nature of the NCPs; and the fact that they required (or, at least, invited) speculative completion, was what made me embark upon the attempt to experience the work from Tolkien's perspective, by a kind of sympathetic identification with Tolkien. 

The result was that - from my personal perspective. I felt a clear and sure kind of understanding of what Tolkien meant or intended by particular passages; due to a subjective experience of validation or endorsement by (what felt like) Tolkien's spirit. 

To be more specific; I struggled with particular sections of the texts relating to the NCPs; and at times felt I knew just what they were getting at; what experiences of Tolkien's they were derived from; what aspirations of Tolkien's they related to. 

This was personal, like a kind of communion or co-thinking with Tolkien's spirit; but they were never 'conversational' in form, nor in the form of questions and answers, nor was it anything like telepathy or 'reading thoughts'. And they were mostly not mediated by words or pictures or anything else. 

The experience was much more like what I have termed direct knowing. That is a personal of experience of what I assumed were Tolkien's primary thoughts in relation to the subject. 

Although sometimes I did experiences mental pictures as well - such as pictures of what was being described - for example a burning meteor in the earths atmosphere. These pictures were more like secondary illustrations of the direct experiences which were primary - in other words it was more like being a burning meteor, than a picture of one. 

Of course; there is no particular reason why anyone else should assume that I have got these things right! 

I might well be regarded as fooling myself with wishful thinking; or trying to impress other people by claiming special authority by (whether manipulatively, or delusionally) having a 'direct line' to the author. 

Furthermore; in communicating such matters, what another person gets is itself a result of reading my writings (or, in principle, hearing me speak on the subject). Such is always something of a secondary nature compared with the original subjective experience, being only an expression of what I experienced, and also requiring the reader to interpret and understand the writings.  

The thing is that I don't really care what 'other people' think about it! 

For me, the experiences were well-motivated and self-validating and had spiritual value. That is the reason for them, and the reason for writing-about them. They are part of my spiritual life; not (except accidentally and occasionally) a matter of interacting publicly - except for a general hope that I may encourage more people to read and meditate upon the Notion Club Papers

I do not take a single such experience as everlastingly decisive: so, I have 'checked' the initial experiences many times over the years for coherence and stability of understanding; mainly by re-using the experiences in other thinking, at later times. 

The special value of these first experiences in relation to the Notion Club Papers is that this sense of attuning to the spirit of Tolkien (his intentions), worked as a 'key' to the NCP writings; to my being able to appreciate and learn-from some texts that initially made very little impression on me, which indeed - at first glance - I found rather dull and frustrating.  


My point here is to suggest that such an engagement may be of value to other people; at least when motivations are Good, and when the person whose spirit is sought is one with whom there is a strong respect, liking (indeed love); and when there is a valid desire to understand, and to learn-from him.

In retrospect; I think that the incomplete nature, and relatively small amount of material, in the published Notion Club Papers - was actually very helpful. It is too easy and false to try and understand a person by means of reading a great deal by him, and about him. 

For example, many historical persons have attracted a vast 'literature', and the reader is tempted to discover them at second-hand; by learning and compiling great swathes of 'evidence' from reading their entire outputs - from autobiography, biographies, memoirs, letters, critical scholarship etc...  

I do this myself! And have done so with Tolkien. 

Yet, I don't think I ever achieved such a sense of knowing Tolkien-the-man, as I did from my engagement with the bits-and-pieces that constitute The Notion Club Papers.  

Indeed, extra material can sometimes (apparently) interfere-with and hinder the understanding of a person, a spirit; by layering-over, burying, confusing an already-achieved empathic understanding. 

I found this with William Arkle. 

When I had very little biographical information about Arkle, I was compelled to wring everything possible out of that little I did know; I would brood on it, and press my mental understanding towards grasping his meanings by a kind of identification.  

When later I found out more supposedly-'objective' information, it overwrote the earlier understanding to an extent; the new material made a screen between myself and the author - rather as a movie can overwrite the experience of a book with its explicit imagery and specific interpretations. 

My experience of Tolkien, in the early 1970s, was similar - there were only a handful of books by or about Tolkien - and I could not access all of these; therefore what-I-had was scarce, precious, and pored-over repeatedly. Some was copied-out. I even tried to make my own illustrations. 

I think this behaviour relates to the achievements of Medieval scholarship in the pre-printing manuscript era; when books were scarce, precious - and therefore closely-pondered over long periods. In such circumstances; reading sometimes itself became a form of contemplative prayer. 

But there is more to this phenomenon of communing with an author than merely sustained and loving attention. 

We also need to be believe that it is possible for us genuinely to establish actual contact with the spirit of someone who is dead. 

Before I acknowledged the reality of a spiritual world, beyond and encompassing the material reality; I had a less-powerful and less-real experience of such identification. Consequently, I was much more concerned that my understanding was endorsed by "other people". 

Examples would include a deep identification with Shakespeare via Hamlet in my late teens; or a similar attitude to Ralph Waldo Emerson in my thirties. Although very strong in a subjective way; these feelings nonetheless seemed to need decoding into 'implications' for modern life, and for my particular life. 

I was focused on 'learning lessons' from authors - mostly because (at heart) I regarded such experiences as symbolic, and not-really-real.  

But now - because I know that life beyond mortal death is possible, and because I believe that there may be communication between the living and the so-called-dead; new depth and strength becomes possible and recognized.

It is probably worth emphasizing that I am not here talking about "channeling" JRR Tolkien! This is Not a matter of Tolkien speaking through me!

With the kind of spiritual contact I described above for The Notion Club Papers, I was Not a passive recipient of information - instead I had to do all the work*

(*Note: This, of course, also means that I am personally responsible for what I have written on the subject.)

The understanding reached was My understanding, not JRRT's intention; but my experience was of My understanding being endorsed by Tolkien. 

The result is not experienced as Tolkien's exact personal intention, nor even Tolkien's words; instead, it is more like me suggesting to Tolkien a particular explanation or interpretation - and the direct endorsement being of a nature somewhat like (but never in words): "Yes. OK. That's near enough. It's pretty close to what I intended."

After all; even among our closest family and friends, we do not experience perfect understanding of ourselves, nor can we achieve perfect understanding of our loved ones; nor are communications of understanding any better than approximate in expression and interpretation. 

Yet such situations are very far from hopeless; and we do experience moments and periods of certainty, or spiritual harmony and accord. 

My understanding is that it is possible - with correct understanding, right motivations, and sufficient personal effort - to experience the same sort of spiritual contact with dead authors, artists, philosophers etc; that we can with our living beloved family and friends. 


Note added 10th November 2023

It strikes me that it is worthwhile to analyze the general, public significance of my - or anyone else's - claim of experiencing spiritual contact with an author - whether dead, or indeed still alive!  

In terms of such public activities as literary scholarship or criticism, (because false claims are so easy, and none can be checked externally) a person's claim of special spiritual understanding cannot be allowed to have any formal or explicit significance: Scholarship or criticism ought to stand or fall on its intrinsic qualities. 

(This is what ought to happen in an ideal sense; despite that, in practice, this is seldom the case - and that instead high status institutional affiliations and educational certifications of the scholar or critic are too-often taken as validation of specific claims.)

So, we ought to judge for ourselves and not accept spiritual claims of another person simply because they have been made. Nonetheless; it seems absolutely valid to take-into-account such matters as spiritual affinity, when evaluating Tolkien scholarship and criticism. 

And, in practice, this is done; both by the majority mainstream, secular and academic, Tolkien scholars, and also by the significant minority of scholars whose perspective on Tolkien is rooted in his devoutly Roman Catholic religion. 

For myself; I make an evaluation concerning each scholars spiritual sympathy, that is his empathic understanding of Tolkien - and my attitude is (broadly) that the scope of a scholar's understanding is constrained by the limits of his spiritual sympathy. 

That does not exclude the possibility that - within that scope - a scholar may make a vast contribution to the understanding of Tolkien: thus (IMO) the greatest of Tolkien scholars so far - Tom Shippey - is neither a Catholic nor a Christian. 

Nonetheless, that constraint is still operative; and I would not expect Shippey to have much to contribute to a spiritual approach to Tolkien - that is, to the idea of regarding JRR Tolkien as a spiritual mentor and guide (as I do).  

Broadening-out the argument; my summary is that each of us whose concern is spiritual and Christian, can and should be discerning and evaluating, and taking into consideration, the degree and nature of spiritual affiliation between a specific scholar, critic or philosopher - and any person under discussion. 

In sum: making decisions concerning spiritual affiliation is not just relevant, but a necessary activity in the world generally - as well as literature specifically.  


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