Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Taum Santoski's Aphorisms 1 through 6

Since the beginning of August, John Rateliff has, acting as Taum Santoski's literary executor, been posting a series of aphorisms by Taum Santoski in, as I see it, a celebration of Santoski's life and work on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of his death.

John Rateliff calls them ‘Aphorisms Towards a Poetics of Fantasy,‘ though he acknowledges that ‘… of Tolkienian Fantasy’ might be ‘nearer the mark.’ The aphorisms appear to me to be rather cryptic (in his commentary John Rateliff also has to occasionally give in and tell us that he has ‘no idea what Taum is talking about here’ so I am at least in good company), so I thought that I would put down my thoughts in the hope of attracting comments that may help my understanding.

My understanding of these first six aphorisms has already been helped a lot by John Rateliff's comments to which I will frequently refer.

First Aphorism
‘Odin the Wanderer’
by Georg von Rosen
(from Wikipedia)
Here Santoski asserts that Tolkien's work is aetiological in nature. Santoski refers to the effort to ‘make comprehensible the human situation of doubt, fear, and hope,‘ and David Bratman, in comments to the original post, speaks of Tolkien's work being also aetiological in an etymological and an historical sense.  To this I would add that Tolkien's work also deals with the basics of causation.  When Tolkien speaks of The Lord of the Rings as being ‘a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,’ I think that this is most clearly visible in the basic fabric of causation in Middle-earth: we see how grace and providence affects the causation, not by wrestling the world into a certain path, but by making certain paths possible and by making some paths more or less likely to be followed than they would have been without the action of grace and providence.  In this way Tolkien deals with the fundamentals of causation. If we take Tom Shippey's ideas of Tolkien creating an asterisk-reality, then Tolkien's work can also be seen as aetiological in the sense that it investigates the (possible) cause of the later European mythologies (Túrin as the asterisk-source of Kullervo and Mithrandir as the origin of the image of Odinn wandering Midgard rather than the other way around).

John Rateliff has seen Tolkien's world as being rather teleological, but I am not convinced these two views are necessarily at odds: within Tolkien's sub-creation, I would say that the purpose of Arda is also largely the cause of much of what is and happens within Arda — one might even argue that Arda, and indeed all of Eä, is caused by Eru's purpose with it.

Second Aphorism
The first part, where Santoski states that the world of Tolkien's mythos (his sub-created world) is ‘related to but not identical’ to our Primary World (to borrow the phrasing of Tolkien's ‘On Fairy-Stories’) seems at first obvious, though it does of course, as David Bratman implies in his comment, depend on what Santoski meant with that phrase.  Tolkien said that ‘The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary,’ and though this means that there is a very great overlap between Tolkien's Secondary World and our Primary World (Middle-earth, as Ian Collier states in a comment, ‘ springs from Tolkien's experience and knowledge of the primary world’), they are still not identical — Tolkien both subtracts from and adds to the Primary World in the sub-creation of his Secondary World, and net result of this process can, to my mind, very well be described by saying that the two worlds are ‘related to but not identical.’  As I say in a comment, Tolkien sets up a situation in which his Secondary World in external fact derives from our (or rather his) present world, but also where, in internal fact, our present Primary World derives from his Secondary World.

Taum Santoski goes on to note that Tolkien's world is not merely a mirror image of the Primary World (not even, I will add, an image in a distorting mirror), but that it contains its own (secondary) reality. Lastly he asserts that Tolkien's world, by this very reality that it uniquely its own, impinges ‘very efectively, but with a newness and nowness, upon our world.’ I am not sure whether there is more to this than a simple statement that any good story worth telling has applicability for the reader, but, as Rateliff notes in connection with aphorism no. 6, ‘perhaps I'm simply not seeing a subtlety here.’

Third Aphorism
In the third aphorism, Taum Santoski asserts that Tolkien's mythic world is ‘in another order of time,’ referring to H.A. Frankfort's idea of the absolute past:
This deliberate co-ordination of cosmic and social events shows most clearly that time to early man did not mean a neutral and abstract frame of reference, but rather a succession of recurring phases, each charged with a peculiar value and significance. Again, as in dealing with space, we find that there are certain ‘regions’ of time which are withdrawn from direct experience and greatly stimulate speculative thought. They are the distant past and the future. Either of these may become normative and absolute; each then falls beyond the range of time altogether. The absolute past does not recede, nor do we approach the absolute future gradually. The ’Kingdom of God’ may at any time break into our present. For the Jews the future is normative. For the Egyptians, on the other hand, the past was normative; and no pharaoh could hope to achieve more than the establishment of the conditions ‘as they were in the time of Rē, in the beginning.’ 
Before philosophy: the intellectual adventure of ancient man: an essay on speculative thought in the ancient Near East by H. and H.A. Frankfort, John A. Wilson and Thorkild Jacobsen. URL: http://openlibrary.org/books/OL24401493M/Before_philosophy
Receding into the distance,
disappearing from view.
In Tolkien's Secondary World, both past and future are normative — in the absolute past there is the cosmogonical drama and the Golden Age of the Quendi in the Blessed Realm, and in the absolute future there is the promise of Arda Remade, of the Music of both Ainur and Eruhíni — not knowing the relation between the Music and Time, Eru's final chord may come tomorrow or in thousands of years. The events of The Lord of the Rings  can be viewed in both ways. It is clear that events of the Second Age and early Third Age have indeed receded, become mere distant history, but internally we can see Tolkien's ‘discovery’ of the texts as recovering the events of the War of the Ring to an absolute past though they had receded into a far distant historical past that had left only vague traces in the myth of ancient history.

I am not sure what Santoski may mean by saying that the mythic past in Tolkien's world ‘percolates through “history” from time to time,’ though I suspect that this may be because I take the image too literally (there is not a slow seeping through a porous membrane). Still, given Tolkien's use of the musical metaphor, I would prefer to say that the mythical past resonates through all of time, that it is as a standing wave on time between the Word (‘Eä!’) and the final chord.  The Golden Age that is never brought any closer in Time may be Arda remade (or Arda Healed), in which case the Golden Ages that tarnish is every temporary victory within Time, from the Noontide of Valinor through the rule of King Elessar and further. The tarnish on the first Golden Age(s) is light as they remain close in the absolute past, but with the degeneration of the mythological world, the tarnish grows stronger until there can only be an echo of a golden age that quickly recedes in time.

Fourth Aphorism
Four elements  — a
simple explanatory model
The opening statement, that Tolkien's sub-creation is a miniature world sub-created by Tolkien's best efforts, sets the scene for another of my favourite metaphors for explaining what sub-creative literature can do. The author obviously cannot sub-create a full world in all its detail, and so the sub-created world becomes a kind of model understood in the scientific sense. That is, it contains a limited reality that is appropriate for studying some specific phenomena. In physics we will often start mechanics with a model containing only a single force, gradually adding gravity, friction, air resistance etc. as the student progresses. In the same way an author of sub-creative literature sets up a model in which he can study some specific aspects of the human condition without the full noise of reality.

In the continuation Santoski speaks of re-establishing a ‘harmony with the present world’ through participating in the mythic powers of Tolkien's world, mediated by the words. Here I am reminded of Tolkien's statements in ‘On Fairy-Stories’ about Enchantment. I am also reminded of  Bruce Charlton's thoughts in his Notion Club Papers blog that Tolkien's goal was ‘recovery of history as myth,’ though Santoski's aphorisms would, I think, rather lead to the postulation of a goal of restoring an absolute past.

Fifth Aphorism
Inspiration or plagiarism?
Taum Santoski seems here to me to launch an attack against any claim that Tolkien was unoriginal or even that he plagiarized earlier myths, claiming that while some of Tolkien's myths are derived from (or inspired by) ancient mythologies, the sources ‘grow and fructify,’ thus becoming ‘a new thing.’ Having reached some way into Jason Fisher's new book, Tolkien and the Study of his Sources, I think that it might be a worthy line of inquiry for good source studies to attempt to explicate just how Tolkien manages to create something entirely new out of his sources rather than ‘merely a hybridized retelling.’ The focus here would not be on individual sources, but on the interplay of the sources and the literary techniques that allow Tolkien to achieve not a mish-mash (or a ‘hybridized retelling’), but something new that has its own life and its own unique secondary reality.

Sixth Aphorism
John Rateliff thinks that Santoski's claim here is ‘entirely specious, eloquence overwhelming the argument.’ Personally I also suspect a high degree of speciousness, but as Rateliff wisely adds, we may not be seeing the subtlety here.

The argument that if myth and history can be split into two categories, then ‘their definitions must be different processes’ is, I believe, false. There may be different processes involved, but this does not follow necessarily, nor does it follow that such differences of process necessarily the defining difference, even if they exist. I do think that there are procedural differences involved, but I also think that it is more a matter of a complex interplay of many processes where there are differences in the focus and weights of the contributing processes, and thus that the dichotomy of processes is false.

Myth? History? Legend?
Trying to think of examples of the difference between myth and history, I first thought of the events of the later part of the Niflung cycle (the events that Tolkien retold in his Guðrúnarkviða en Nýja, including the fall of both the Burgundians / Niflungs and Attila / Atli. To these events we have both the mythological treatment in the Niflung cycle and the accounts of medieval Greek and Roman historians. Of these the mythological treatment is the later, though we don't know how soon after the actual events they were ‘mythologized’.

The other example I have come up with is the historicizing of mythology that we seen in some medieval accounts, of which the one that I know best is the inclusion by Saxo Grammaticus in his Gesta Danorum of historicized versions of some of the Old Norse myths.

In both of these examples, I do think that Taum Santoski's distinction between perception vs. observation of events can make sense to some degree, but they certainly do not fit a dichotomy, and I believe that this perceived difference, even if correct, is a result of some underlying defining difference that would, I suspect, have to be put in teleological terms: i.e. the defining difference is not in how the account is produced, but rather in why it is produced. To complete the circle of the first six aphorisms, I believe that the differences between the purpose of myth and the purpose of history is to a large extent aetiological: there is in both an element of attempting to explain the present world by causes in the past, but they attempt to explain different aspects of the present world and they look at different causes altogether.

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