Leviathan or Whale-God?

April 14, 2010

No, no, no, no, no. Just, no.

Here’s another person arguing for the reading of Moby-Dick where it is a sort of “anti-Bible,” heralding a new, post-Biblical, post-theological worldview. I find this reading simply perverse, and not true to the text. Unfortunately, it seems popular on both sides – with the Christians who dislike the book because they see it as atheist, and with the secularists who want to turn the book into another weapon against Christianity.

It’s true that the Whale at first appears to be an evil, impersonal force, the Leviathan, and Ahab to be justified in his quest to destroy it. But by the end of the novel Ahab is revealed as a demonic figure, and the Whale has been transformed, if not into the Christian God, at least into a benevolent one; perhaps that of the Old Testament. I don’t want to call Moby-Dick a Christian novel, because I couldn’t defend that claim and I’m not sure it’s true, but it has significant Christian themes running through it, and seriously, not parodically. And I really can’t see a way to read it as atheistic.

Melville does use Moby-Dick to create a new set of sacramental images – the whale, the doubloon, the tattooed cannibal – which he uses in place of those of Christianity, but even this, I think, is not a rejection of Christianity so much as an attempt to re-describe it (even if it is not entirely Christian in the end; like I said, Melville seems to me an agnostic). Actually, it reminds me more than anything of various imagery used by Tolkien in his writings on Middle-Earth. Consider the Silmarils, Galadriel’s phial of light, the rings of power, the sword that was broken. These are not Christian, but they’re not anti-Christian. Moreover, they help build a world that is compatible with Christianity but carries new meaning, and are able to do so I think partially because they are so new and startling in some ways, yet so old and deeply resonant in others.

It’s what literature is all about, really – finding new metaphors.


To Look Out Upon the Sea

March 27, 2010

(I will now offer a string of analogies, without explanation or defense, and then a pair of allegories written by two men much more intelligent than I am.)




Or, –to change the metaphor,–there are immense quarries of fine marble; but how to get it out; how to chisel it; how to construct any temple? Youth must wholly quit, then, the quarry, for awhile; and not only go forth, and get tools to use in the quarry, but must go and thoroughly study architecture. Now the quarry-discoverer is long before the stone-cutter, and the stone-cutter is long before the temple; for the temple is the crown of the world.
— Herman Melville, from Pierre

A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man’s distant forefathers had obtained their bulding material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal under the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said: ‘This tower is most interesting.’ But they also said (after pushing it over): ‘What a muddle it is in!’ And even the man’s descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: ‘He is such an odd fellow! Imagine his using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.’ But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.
— J.R.R. Tolkien, from “The Monsters and the Critics”


What is the meaning of all of this?

Put simply, I want to expound a theory of the nature of abstract intellectual endeavors, the liberal arts, broadly speaking. Hence my beginning with the Trivium – logic, grammar, rhetoric.

In this model, there are three possible activities, each of which is necessary in its own way:

The quarry-finder. This is the philosopher, the metaphysician. He chooses what stone to use; thus, he examines the nature of the stone, determines what the stone is. He tries to bridge the gap between us and the transcendent, tries to understand the meaning of words like God, Man, Good, True, Beautiful, Purpose, Form.

The stone-cutter. This is the mathematician, the logician. He cuts the stone into the proper shape for the architect; thus, he examines how the stones fit together, fitting them together in a puzzle. He is interested solely in structure, not in content; he does not care what words mean, only how they fit together. But it is he who shows how to rhyme, how to alliterate, how to construct parallelisms; he does not know what they mean, but he makes them possible.

The architect. This is the author. He chooses what the temple or tower will be like; he guides its construction throughout, from the quarrying to the stone-cutting to the placement of the final brick. He does it all with his final purpose in mind: to ascend the tower and look out upon the sea. And yet the temple is not his alone; it is the crown of the world.


A final thought. I have been speaking all along as if the building were the work of art, as if the artist occupied some ontologically distinct position from the rest of mankind. I don’t believe this to be true. The work of art is not the tower; it is merely the blueprint offered to the world. Each of us must be all of these, quarry-finder, stone-cutter, and architect, each building our own towers, hoping that they can look out upon the sea (which is the Beatific Vision).

Art and Sub-creation

March 16, 2010

Arts and Letters Daily (whose RSS feed is well worth subscribing to, incidentally) was better today than it usually is. It linked to two quite interesting articles. The first was “Addiction and Freedom,” which discusses (among other things) the strange substance dualism implicit in how people seem to equate showing that something is linked to a certain activity of the brain with showing that it cannot be a free choice.

The second was “Avatar and the Flight from Reality,” which used the movie Avatar as a springboard for an argument that true art is mimetic, and works such as Avatar that attempt to create an alternate reality that “alludes” to our own, rather than imitating it, are egocentric and not artistic. He argues that the Western tradition has always consisted of art that attempts to describe the world, and the modern fantasy and sci-fi genres are radical breaks from tradition, however traditionalist Tolkien and Lewis might have thought they were.

It’s an interesting thesis, though one I disagree with. Did Homer really believe in the gods he describes? (Perhaps – the article argues he did.) What about Shakespeare and “A Midnight Summer’s Dream” or “The Tempest”? Are those entirely mimetic?

But I think he does make a valid point when he says that the idea of creating entirely new worlds – rather than just modifications to our own – is relatively new, and indeed a break with tradition. There’s  a reason Tolkien insisted that Middle-Earth is not a fantasy world, it is Earth – because that means he’s writing (fictional) mythology/history, not creating his own entirely distinct world with no relation to our own. Of course, most sci-fi is set in Earth’s future, and fantasy often connects the created world to our own (e.g. Earth children can visit Narnia).

But sci-fi and fantasy do, at heart, promise new realities, one different from our own. Is this a bad thing? Is it as radical a break as the article suggests? I’m going to try to write something about these questions in the near future, but for now I won’t draw any definite conclusions. But I do advise people to read the article and think about it – it’s worth your time, even if you disagree, as I do, with its conclusions.

Faerie as Other

November 30, 2009

I’ve been thinking recently, for assorted reasons, about what I don’t like about Dostoevsky as an author. In doing so, I think, I have come up with a good explanation of what the word “faerie” means. So here goes my attempt to explain it.

One of my problems with Dostoevsky is how he completely ignores the physical world. Yes, he has characters interact with the world, the two main ways being that people have different amounts of money and people get diseases. But their interactions with the world are always anthropocentric; the world has no value in and of itself, as something inhuman. A Dostoesvky book consists almost entirely of people sitting around having conversations with one another. They don’t go out and interact with the world.

Contrast this with a few of my favorite authors – Herman Melville, G.M. Hopkins, J.R.R. Tolkien. They are very different in style and content, but one commonality is that all of them treat the physical world in and of itself as something interesting. So what is interesting about the physical world, and why ought authors to care about it?

I’m going to shift radically for a moment here and talk about people. There is one way to look at the world that separates the “I” from all others; the “I” is the subject, the perceiver, while everyone else is from this view just an object in the world. This way of looking at things doens’t allow us to recognize other people at all; it just allows us to recognize external things.

Another way of seeing people is socially; “obviously” we are all people, we can talk to each other, interact with each other morally, etc. All good so far, right?

But then there’s the physical world, nature – the thing that is part of the “object” of the subject-object way of looking at the world, but is not part of the “society” in the societal way of looking at the world. It is other – neither way we look at the world allows us to consider it similar to the “I”. But it still exists, and is important – God created the heavens and the earth before he created mankind.

It is this otherness, combined with it being created by God, and thus for a purpose, that is captured in the idea of faerie. We men cannot fully understand nature, individually or collectively, but it exists, and was made by God for a reason, though we cannot grasp the reason or even the nature of its existence.

So in this view of faerie, the idea of Elves, of a race separate from us and natural but also somehow rational, is fey because it echoes this separateness; the other race is like us, but somehow not us, and usually more natural-seeming than we are; Tolkien’s Elves do not have the same gap as is between man and nature. Magic itself is fey because it is physical – it is not a direct emanation from God – but it is incomprehensible; it emphasizes the otherness of nature, even as the wielder controls nature.

Mental Types

November 24, 2009

Yesterday afternoon/evening I was hanging out with a few friends and we had a really long conversation (~5 hours) about philosophy, theology, literature, psychology… just about everything, really. It was one of the more productive such sessions I’ve had in a while, in terms of bringing together disparate ideas and synthesizing them, as well as coming up with new ways of looking at things; one of the easiest to explain results (though not at all the most important) was this idea of “mental types.”

The basic idea is, there are certain great writers (philosophers, writers of fiction, poets, etc) with whom each individual identifies more than other. So it is an interesting exercise for a person to identify them and then draw what conclusions may be drawn from that list about himself.

This approach has its dangers, of course. We don’t want to say person X is better than person Y for thinking in a certain way, but also, we don’t want to become relativists, saying all ways of looking at the world are equally valid. But, I think, if we realize this danger we have a good chance of avoiding it.

So what writers do I most identify with?

  • J.R.R. Tolkien, obviously, though perhaps less so than a few years ago.
  • Herman Melville, whose philosophy I disagree with in many ways but whose approach to the world feels very similar to mine.
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poetry resonates with me in a way few others’ does.
  • Thomas Aquinas, whose dry, Q/A approach to theology I recognize as flawed, but whose systematic nature is very similar to my own.
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom I have not read much of but who I feel like I understand more than really any other modern philosopher.

What do these people have in common? I have a few theories:

  • They are interested in the self, and how the self relates to the world. Melville’s Moby-Dick is about, among many other things, how man attributes his own symbols and meaning to the world at large, and attempts to make himself omniscient and omnipotent; Hopkins’ most important poems all deal with both the self taking in all of creation and the self isolated, cut off from nature; and Aquinas and Wittgenstein, given their fields of study, are almost forced to address this question.
  • They are interested in the world itself, and do not approach the world purely phenomenologically; they give the world an independent existence, which they examine as interesting in its own right. Tolkien created an entire mythology; Melville spends pages upon pages in Moby-Dick describing whale skeletons and the history of whaling; Hopkins tried to understand the inscape of things by examining them until he almost became them; and Aquinas followed Aristotle in categorizing all of nature.
  • They have a  real sense of the divine in nature; as my German teacher told us  the Romantics said, “Natur ist sichtbare Geist, Geist ist unsichtbare Natur.” Tolkien has the concept of faerie, Melville has the Whale as a symbol for God; Hopkins’ entire worldview was based around the idea of sacramentality, and similarly for Aquinas; and Wittgenstein’s one statement about prayer, as I recall, involved a man walking in the woods pounding his walking stick.
  • They are fascinated by language, and the power of words, rather than passively using language without examining its nature. Tolkien was a linguist; Hopkins made up his own words and cared immensely about how words could carry meaning; and Wittgenstein said that “there is an entire mythology stored within our language.”

There are also a few writers who, although clearly great, I do not really identify with. The two most important, I think, are

  • Plato. Why? Because, I suppose, he is too much an idealist for me; he refuses to deal with the world. He skips straight to the isolated self.
  • And Dostoevsky. Why? Because he also refuses to take on the world, dealing only with people and God; his books are about morality and inter-personal relationships, but never about the larger world.

Well then. What does this tell us? If there is any conclusion to be drawn from it, it is that I am a realist; I refuse to allow people to ignore the world, and I identify most with writers who have the same preoccupation with the world itself, rather than ideas.


September 17, 2009

We recently read the Battle of Maldon in my Medieval Literature class. It’s essentially a narrative of a battle between heathen Viking invaders and the Christian Englishmen, resulting in the defeat of the English and tribute – “danegeld” – being paid to the Norsemen.

What people find interesting about the poem is the description of the main character. It portrays Beorhtnoth, the English thane, as a courageous, pious man, who is ‘tricked’ by the Danes into letting them cross a bridge, essentially giving up a defensible position and making it inevitable the Danes would win. By ‘tricked’, I mean the Danes asked him if they could cross and he said yes.

The poem is ambiguous as to whether this was a wrong action or not – the word used to describe his character at that point is “ofermod”. There are no other examples of “ofermod” in Old English, so we just don’t know what it means. It is literally “over-courage”, “over-heart”; but does this mean he has too much courage, i.e. is foolhardy, or that he has an impressive amount of courage, a good thing? No one knows. People read it different ways. (Incidentally, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a play, “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son”, about the aftermath of this battle, that addresses the ambiguity in question. It’s good, go read it.)

There’s a similar disagreement about the poem “The Windhover”, by Gerard Manley Hopkins (whom I’m studying for Junior Poet). The word is “buckle”. Does it mean that the thing buckling is collapsing? That it is being bound together, as in buckling a belt? Does it mean “buckle” as in “buckler”, a type of shield? No one knows, and which it is makes a huge difference in how the poem is read.

I’m not sure what to think of ambiguities like that. They are certainly interesting, and make possible multiple interpretations. To that extent, I like them.

But this might be just because I don’t like having a work of literature be too “preachy”, and having ambiguity makes it less preachy – but really, ambiguity only makes it seem less preachy, it doesn’t change the actual meaning of the poem, assuming there is one. After all, it seems like the poet himself knew what the poem ought to have meant, but that we cannot, which is immeasurably frustrating, and implies the poet failed somehow. Especially when which it is doesn’t determine just some nuance of meaning, but how to read the entire poem.

Which is it? Is ambiguity in literature desirable? If so, to what extent? This is a question I haven’t been thinking about for as long as I probably should have been, and I don’t really have an answer formulated yet. I have a gut reaction against books that try to preach a certain moral, and try to avoid doing so in my own stories, but then again most of my favorite books do have messages they’re trying to convey, and I don’t fault them for it. What’s going on here?

Talking Animals WTF?

May 30, 2009

A common motif in children’s movies (and books, for that matter) is that of talking animals. But not all talking animals are created equal. There are two different kinds of talking animals in children’s stories: the ones that have their own civilizations, and live basically independently from humans, versus the ones that coexist with humans and can even talk to them.

Of course, thesee two different kinds of talking animal stories have subgroups. Take the stories where there are only talking animals – no humans. (I include here stories where humans exist, but don’t play a big role, and there are no human characters or there are only a few minor human characters and they can’t understand the animals’ speech.)

One of my favorite kid’s movies of all time, The Lion King, has only animals as characters, and so in it the characters, while animals, are essentially human. Their animal natures don’t really have much effect other than to give an instant characterization: lions are royal and brave (generally speaking), monkeys are clever, hyenas are deceptive and ruthless, etc. But the characters themselves are basically human. The plot would make just as much sense with human characters, though the movie would be worse.

On the other hand, the book Watership Down (also one of my favorites) actually uses the fact that these are animals, not humans; the rabbits are very, well, rabbity, not very intelligent, not making very big plans, etc. There are humans, and how they endanger the rabbits is important, but the gulf between rabbit and human is so great that humans are essentially gods – they don’t care about rabbit society, and aren’t expected to. The humans can kill the rabbits if they want to, but just as often don’t care at all about them. The rabbits are the main characters, they aren’t humans though they have some human-like characteristics, and the humans are basically gods.

Now take those stories where there are both humans and talking animals, and the humans are, generally speaking, the main characters. This poses an interesting problem as to how to portray the animals. A common error, I think, is to present the animals as basically human, and to imply (through having some animals able to talk) that all animals are equal with humans. This just causes moral confusion.

I recently saw the movie Up (the reason for my making this post in the first place); in it, there are dogs with collars that make them talk basically like humans, and the plot centers on the main character trying to protect a bird (not even a talking bird!) from being captured (not killed, captured!) by the villain. Why exactly would it have been wrong for the bird to be captured and brought to America? I really have no idea. It makes no philosophical sense, I’d say. But emotionally, I think it had something to do with how the dogs were able to talk. This is my problem with stories with humans and talking animals where the talking animals are essentially human.

For an alternate kind of story with talking animals and talking humans, I have to turn to fairy-tales – the story of Cinderella, as told in the original German (Aschenputtel, which I read in German class once upon a time). In it, there are birds that help Cinderella out by giving her clothes, and who protect her by revealing her sisters as frauds (the sisters cut off their toes and heel so they can fit into the tiny shoe, and the birds call out “Ruckedidu Ruckedidu, Blut ist im Schuhe!”). They can talk, yes – but they’re not people. They don’t have personalities, per se. They’re basically nature embodied. We would be somewhat disconcerted if these birds died, because they can talk – they give us this link to nature, to understand what nature “wants”. But they don’t make us think that animals are human, or that we should feel bad when we kill a bird and eat it.

Hm. Interesting Tolkien connection; he talks about talking animals in his “On Fairy-Stories”, saying that the presence of talking animals was a clear sign that something was a fairy tale. It is, I’m pretty sure, this last kind of talking-to-animals (and not the animals-are-human kind!) that he was talking about. Anyway, good essay. Worth reading.

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