‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

From Wagner to Tolkien

A few years ago I wrote this, on the subject of Wagner and Tolkien:
One reason Tolkien’s imaginary realm has proved so successful is precisely its structural non-specificity. What I mean is: Tolkien treats material that has deep roots in, and deep appeal to, various cultural traditions; but he does so in a way—as fictionalised worldbuilding rather than denominated myth—that drains away much of the poisonous nationalist, racist and belligerent associations those traditions have accumulated over the centuries. A thumbnail history would go like this: in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, Wagner’s Ring melodramas spoke to a great many people about a particular northern-European cultural identity; about a group of linked, potent emotional attachments to history, landscape, to the numinous and the divine, to matters of heroism and everyday life. I am trying not to sound sneery as I say this (I mean melodrama in the strict sense of the word), because these things did, and do, matter intensely and genuinely to many people. But there is a reason, a room-filling elephant of a reason, why Der Ring des Nibelungen no longer has this general resonance. It is because the cultural reservoir from which it draws much of its power also supplied cultural capital to the worst regime ever to take charge in Germany, and therefore lubricated the most catastrophically destructive war ever to be waged in the world.

In saying this I am not, of course, blaming Wagner for the Nazis. Indeed, the endless debates about Wagner’s own ideological ‘purity’ (‘was Wagner an anti-Semite?’ Short answer: yes. Long answer: yes, like just about every other gentile in 19th-century Europe) seem to me to miss the point. The restless churning through this question happens because we're desperate to acquit Wagner so that we can enjoy his music with a clean conscience. We ask the question, get the uncomfortable answer, and ask it again. In our guts resides the queasy comprehension that Wagner can’t be acquitted. Politics can’t be neatly separated out from the Ring cycle, leaving only a washed-and-scrubbed sequence of pretty orchestral tone poems behind. I love the Ring cycle, and listen to it regularly; but I would never try to deny that it is political all the way through, down to its very marrow. It is, to be precise, about the notion that history and myth are in some sense the same thing—a very dangerous notion indeed.

Tolkien’s story is not the same as the Ring cycle; his ‘ring’ (as he crossly reminded correspondents) not the same as Alberich’s ring. But a considerable amount of the heft and force of Lord of the Rings derives from the way Tolkien draws on the same broader cultural, mythic, northern-European heritage. What saves Lord of the Rings is that it is not about Germany, or about England; or to be more precise, that it is about England and Germany only secondarily, in an eloquently oblique (a cynic might say: in a plausibly deniable) manner. Tolkien found a way of articulating the same deep-rooted cultural concerns in a way that avoids being poisoned by the cultural specificity of European Fascism. This doesn’t let Tolkien off the hook, as far as racial and ideological content goes, of course. Indeed, I offer my thoughts here not as a value judgement of his fiction, so much as an explanation for why Lord of the Rings has done so extraordinarily well—resonated so powerfully with so many people—in the postwar period. It rushed in to fill the gap that more culturally-specific art had supplied before that kind of art was discredited by the 1940s.
I come back to this argument because I'm now trying to get my Tolkien-and-post-Tolkien-Fantasy ducks in a row, prior to writing, with a friend, something on the history of Fantasy as a mode. Hopefully. At some point.

So: there were lots of iterations of what we might want to call ‘Fantasy’ published in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and a comprehensive history of the mode might want to discuss all of them. But a leaner account of the main currents of the growth of this mode would, I think, be entitled to pick out a cleaner through-line. There's just no denying the impact of Tolkien, not so much from the original publication dates (1937 for The Hobbit, 1952-53 for Lord of the Rings) as from the start of the great cult of Middle Earth that dates from when the mass-market paperback of LotR became a campus darling and then an international bestseller in the 1960s. The 1970s were full of direct, sometimes slavish imitations of Tolkien like Terry Brooks's execrable Shannara series (1977 and ongoing) and Stephen Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (1977-2013). By the 80s bookshop shelves groaned with fat fantasy novels, and the genre had finally coalesced as a commercial genre in its own right. And whilst connoisseurs of the mode might sometimes make noises about the importance of William Morris or Hope Mirrlees in the pedigree of Fantasy as such (both fine and important writers, of course), the brute fact remains that this was a mode that came out of Tolkien. For although the reaction against Tolkien began early—Moorcock's sneer that LofT was ‘Winnnie-the-Pooh posing as Epic’ dates to 1987—books written in reaction were very much written in reaction: they bracketed the book's emphasis on nobility, service, loyalty, bravery, its pre-raphaelite colour-scheme and general uplift with its dodgy racial and sexual politics and took the sledgehammer to the lot: voilà, Grimdark. We're still being offered a basically medievalised, feudal or otherwise pre-Industrial world threaded with magic, elves, dwarfs, dragons and all that; but now the emphasis is on rape and slaughter, on betrayal and realpolitik (narrowly, indeed adolescently, conceived) and a general horribleness. This is a mode marked by Tolkien even as it shouts its antagonism for everything Tolkien represents.

This, of course, isn't the whole story. We need also to factor in the Fritz Leiber US sword-and-sorcery tradition, which predates LotR by a decade; and also the smaller but not negligible tradition of Robert Howard's Conan and its muscly imitators, which predates LotR by two decades. In particular, Leiber's more knowing, knockabout tales not only feed into myriad direct imitations, but also lie largely behind Pratchett's Discworld, one of the most important Fantasy worlds of the last quarter century (it's not surprising, I think, that Leiber's cool-kids sharpness, his uninterest in Fantasies of dignity or elevation, can be reworked so brilliantly into out-and-out comedy). But the step-up from sword-and-sorcery as a relatively small-scale interest of dedicated fans to something much bigger happened, as it were, on the coat-tails of Tolkien's global success, 1960s-and-after, and something similar is true of the nerd-compensatory-fantasy muscle-and-sword variety most particularly associated with Howard, which came to broader notice only with the 1982 Schwarzenegger movie, which was in turn an attempt to tap-into the boom in ‘Fantasy’ as a mode. Luckily for me, though, I'm not attempting here to tell the whole story. All I'm doing is recording some of the things that occurred to me as I read Adorno's In Search of Wagner (1952).

I'm a little ashamed I hadn't read this particular Adorno before, actually. It is a remarkable book, dense with ideas. But I read it in an, as it were, bifocal manner, both for what it was specifically saying about Wagner and for what its approach to Wagner might say about Tolkien (a writer I'm not sure Adorno had ever heard of, and whom I am sure he never discussed). This is, I think, more than me being merely adventitious. Adorno builds much of his analysis around the insight that Wagner's appeal to a timeless, mythic, Fantasy realm of gods and heroes is not something separate from his bourgeois German respectability, but precisely an iteration of it. ‘The power of the bourgeoisie over Wagner is so absolute that as a bourgeois he finds himself unable to satisfy the requirements of bourgeois respectability’ [Adorno, 7]. He embodies ‘an early example of the changing function of the bourgeois category of the individual’:
In his hopeless struggle with the power of society, the individual seeks to avert his own destruction by identifying with that power and then rationalizing the change of direction as authentic individual fulfilment ... the focal points of decay in the bourgeois character, in terms of its own morality, are the prototypes of its subsequent transformation in the age of totalitarianism.
This interrelation between the bourgeois and the mythic-legendary is, of course, the most prominent feature of Tolkien's worldbuilding, where Middle Earth is literally divided between the bourgeois hobbits of the north west and the feudal horselords and medieval city-states of the South. Beorn may spend half his time as a bear, but he keeps as tidy a little bourgeois house, with all the creature comforts, as any hobbit, and bourgeois possessiveness for material objects (Wemmick's ‘portable property’) is shown, through Gollum's longevity and through the fundamental, stubborn toughness of his Being-in-the-World, to be superior to Boromir's feudal puissance in terms of holding out against the Ring. Tom Shippey has interesting things to say about the etymological connections—the sorts of connections that particularly appealed to Tolkien, of course—between the word burglar, Bilbo's dwarf-assisting career, and bourgeois, Bilbo's social identity. I could insert a 2000-word excursus on the conceptual synergies of these two terms here, but I'll spare you. For now.

One of the threads that particularly interests me, in tracing the Tolkien and C S Lewis pedigree of Fantasy from the 1950s into the 21st-century, is the way two Christian writers, writing tacictly (or in Lewis's cases allegorically-explicitly) Christian Fantasy, came to influence a whole tradition that wasn't in itself particularly Christian—or indeed was, in some cases, quite assertively atheist. For many fans I daresay the Christian element is something they simply handwave away: easy enough to do with Tolkien, I suppose. But the fact that these two, arguably the two writers of ‘Fantasy’ most influential on the postwar development of the mode, were so very Christian interests me. We could frame it as the Beowulf problem, since that's a poem that parses pre-Christian, pagan and monstrous-magical story material through a notionally Christian frame.

Remembering how central Beowulf was to Tolkien's own imaginative development, and just (you know) looking at the great mass of commercial Fantasy, I wonder if we can see the tension between the pagan-mythic and the Christian-allegorical in Fantasy in terms of this more strictly social-historical—or, I suppose I'm saying, really, this ideological—tension. Professing a Christian faith may be a bold thing to do on an individual level, depending on the situation, but for most of the 20th-C and for many parts of the world in this, our benighted 21st, Christianity is the orthodox and conventional worldview. I don't say so to snark. Indeed on the contrary, and speaking personally, I'm persuaded by the argument Chesterton makes in his Orthodoxy book that ordinary things are not only more valuable than extraordinary things, they are, actually, more extraordinary—that orthodoxy has a glamour and danger that heresy never can. But saying so is only to restate the legendary-mythic/bourgeois dynamic that is as much as feature of Wagner as it is of Tolkien. The Ring is all Germanic legend and no Christianity but Wagner not only wanted to express his grandiose mythic pagan-Nativism, he wanted to pay the bills. “Yet” [Adorno is quoting Hildebrandt, about Wagner and Nietzsche holidaying in Sorrento] “there was one particular remark which cut Nietzsche to the quick.”
The conversation had turned to the poor attendance of the Bayreuth Festival. Nietzsche's sister reports that Wagner had once observed angrily. “The Germans no longer wished to have anything to do with heathen Gods and herooes; what they wanted was something Christian.” [Adorno, 12]
Parsifal swiftly followed, to supply this market need; not only the most explicitly Christian of Wagner's operas, but, in its portrait of its villain Klingsor, the most nakedly anti-Semitic. Poor old Nietzsche. So much for Gott ist tot.

Still it is strange (that is to say: I'm suggesting it's structurally or formally strange) that Modern Fantasy emerges out of an emulsion of Pagan and Christian in the way that it does. It's not that a large audience are clamouring for specifically Christianised mythic legend, I'd say; but slice it and dice it howsoever we want, it is the bourgeois Christianity of Bunyan, Idylls of the King and Wagner's final compromise with his audience, through Tolkien and Lewis, that feeds the river that becomes the delta of the modern genre. In my time I have wondered if this has something to do with ‘magic’—that necessary component of Fantasy worldbuilding, and which we might want to understand this as a broad-brush attempt to capture something of the spiritually transcendent, the numinous, in the reified logic of magical systems, spells, wizards and so on. Adorno had a different angle, and I wonder if he isn't righter than I:
A contradiction of all autonomous art is the concealment of the labor that went into it, but in high capitalism, with the complete hegemony of exchange-value and with the contradictions arising out of that hegemony, autonomous art becomes both problematic and programmatic at the same time. This is the objective explanation for what is generally thought of in psychological terms as Wagner's mendacity. To make works of art into magical objects means that men worship their own labour because they are unable to recognize it as such. ... The work of art endorses the sentiment normally denied by ideology: work is degrading. [Adorno, 72]
This is why Fantasy is filled with aristocrats and warriors, or at the least of hobbits of independent means: with travellers and questers (which is to say: with holidaymakers) and so on—as, also, with rascals, thieves, rogues etc. And I suppose sometimes with students, at Hogwarts' or the Unseen University and whatnot. The point is that Fantasy cannot be written in the John Berger, or even the Zola mode: not because of the generic mismatch of Fantasy as le naturalisme, or not only for that reason, but because Fantasy is a realm where work as such is always transmuted magically into magic.

There's also the prominence given to swords in this mode. Not, except in rare and marginal cases, to rapiers or xiphoi; but to Excaliburs and Glamdrings and Terminus Ests (Termini Sunt, I suppose)—to, that is, big swords, mighty swords, claymores and broadswords (swords that functioned as much as clubs to smash bones as they did blades to cut flesh). This is to say nothing of all those axes, those hammers, all those battles, all that bashing and crashing. It's a way of externalising the genre's rationale of force, the emblematic articulation of forcefulness as such. Adorno:
Wagner not only took up the bourgeois profession of conductor, he was also the first composer to write conductor's music in the grand style. This is not said with the intention of echoing the threadbare reproaches of unoriginality, of with the design of unduly emphasising mere orchestral skill—something that pales by the side of Wagner's overwhelming art of instrumentation. What it alludes to is the fact that his music is conceived in terms of the gesture of striking a blow and that the whole idea of beating is fundamental to it. [Adorno, 20]
Adorno doesn't specifically mention, although presumably he has in mind, the music that famously accompanies the descent to Nibelheim in Das Rheingold, scored for not one but eighteen anvils (tuned to F three octaves apart). There's something here, I feel, to do with Robert Graves's distinction between the mediterranean oarstroke of long-short Greek and Latin prosody and the anvil-blow stressed-unstressed northern European metrical ictus. A related point has to do with the sheer fuck-off size of many of these Fantasy texts.
Compared to Viennese classicism, Wagner's music reckons with people who listen to it from a great distance, much as Impressionist paintings require to be viewed from a greater distance than earlier paintings. To listen from a greater distance also means listening less attentively. The audience of these giant works lasting many hours is thought of an unable to concentrate—something not unconnected with the fatigue of the citizen in his leisure time. [Adorno, 22]
Something similar may be true of the manifest textual bloat of modern Fantasy: not only the shelf-sagging bulk, but its stasis, the narrative inertia of Robert Jordan, George R R Martin and their ilk. This is literature not written to be consumed on the level of individual, marvellous sentences, but by the metric tonne. Afficionados may feel such bulk only appropriate to the epic heft and scope of their favourite stories, but I wonder if the point is not heft, for which one needs density (contemporary Fantasy novels may spread over thousands of pages, but many have the texture of expanded polystyrene) so much as a kind of defocusing, an attempt at blurring the focus on the specificities of the whole. Fantasy plays with history, as with myth, as it plays with an ethos simultaneously bourgeois and feudal. Too close an attentiveness to these contradictions is to be discouraged.
Wagner showed himself to be bourgeois through and through in his conviction that poetic depth is synonymous with the omission of historical specificity. His image of the universally human requires the dismantling of what he supposes to be relative and contingent in favour of the idea of an unvarying human nature. What is actually substantial appears to him as a residue. He therefore finds himself reduced to a stratum of subject-matter that acknowledges neither history nor the supernatural nor even the natural, but which lies beyond all such categories. Essence is drawn into an omnisignificant immanence; the immanent is held in thrall by symbol. This stratum, where all is undifferentiated, is that of myth. Its sign is ambiguity; its twilight is a standing invitation to merge irreconcilables—the positivistic with the metaphysical — because it firmly rejects both the transcendental and the factual. [Adorno, 104]
With this, I think, we approach something really key about the post-Tolkienian Fantasy tradition. The ‘universally human’ becomes, in these kinds of books, pseudo-ethicised, narratively situated in a Cosmic drama of Good versus Evil, where the only important things are to show that you're on Team Good and to screw your courage to that sticking point. Actual moral choice, and the more destabilising moral complexity of actual life, is not the currency of these sorts of tales. And it's surely the case that Commericial Fantasy does indeed reject both the transcendental and the factual. In the case of JRRT the absense of gods (except, in the deep background of of the text, and Silmarilic exegesis) and the absence of ‘actual’ England, Germany, ‘Northern Europe’ and so on, are revealed as versions of one another. I suppose the problem with this as a reading of Wagner, though, is precisely the problem of the actual political—which is to say, historical—uses to which the Nazis put his art (uses to which JRRT really can't be recruited). Adorno's ‘authentic historical conflict’ actually only describes one kind of pseduo-historical, or Scottian, mode; where history-as-ideology is immanent throughout Wagner. Is that true of Tolkien as well, though? Or of Fantasy more generally?
If in the Ring mythic violence and legal contract are confounded, this not only confirms an intuition about the origins of legality, it also articulates the experience of the lawlessness of a society dominated in the name of law by contract and property. [Adorno, 108]
If the lawlessness of Westeros is, as seems plausible, part of its popular appeal (as an imaginative release for those times when Civilisation and its Discontents chafe against our senses of self: ‘in such a place I can kill who I like and fuck who I like ...’) then that very lawlessness is, as Adorno suggests here, grounded in a minutely and even pettifogging sense of contract law as such: the precise nature of the bloodline of the individual ‘rightfully’ king, the minute particulars of the magical prophesy that must be proved true, albeit in surprising ways. Indeed I wonder if we can go further, and say that the copresence of Might-is-Right mythic violence with a universe magically structured by bourgeois contract law (the way the witches' prophesies in Macbeth are precisely honoured in their contract with Macbeth, the contract lawyer ‘I am no man’ gloating of Eowyn discovering a loophole in the Nazgul's magic charm anbd so on) is foundational for the genre as such. Nor is this an arbitrary feature of the genre. It's how Fantasy links itself back to life:
The opacity and omnipotence of the social process is then celebrated as a metaphysical mystery by the individual who becomes conscious of it and yet ranges himself on the side of its dominant forces. Wagner has devised the ritual of permanent catastrophe. [Adorno, 108]
One final thing that struck me in The Search for Wagner is the moment when Adorno says of Wagner's music that ‘each listener has the feeling that it belongs to him alone’. That was exactly my childhood response to reading Tolkien: as if the book, and the world it revealed, was uniquely mine, that it spoke to me with an uncanny specificity that surely couldn't be true of other readers. The irony of course is that all true fans feel that way, that the individuation here is ersatz, or if that looks too judgmental then just a sort of the trick of the fictive light. Here's the whole quotation from Adorno:
Each listener has the feeling that it belongs to him alone, that it is a communication from his long-forgotten childhood, and from this shared déjà vu the phantasmagoria of the collective is constructed. Nowhere is Wagner more mythological than in the modernity of such pleasures. [Adorno, 109]
Nowhere, perhaps, is post-Tolkienian Fantasy more mythological than in the modernity of such pleasures.


  1. Two things. One, everyone reads alone so all reading experiences and their worlds are lonely voyages, surely? Two: the use of words in prophecy or spells as magical contract law goes right back to the beginning of words and their power to define reality, no? You won't find a mage anywhere that isn't very careful about the True Names business. A foundation stone of all verbally-managed realities. Oh, and I really enjoyed reading this :) Thanks.

  2. I'd read a lot of sf, although not much fantasy, when I first came to Pratchett. The kick I got out of his early stuff reminds me, retrospectively, of nobody so much as Harlan Ellison - that sense of having a High Fantasy world observed by somebody who not only didn't but couldn't give a shit about it, because he was just as much of a post-Holden Caulfield shmuck as you were. Leiber struck me as more arty and self-aware - but perhaps I read the wrong stories.

    Other than that I'm still mulling over the idea of Grimdark as Tolkien with all the signs reversed - keeping the fixtures and fittings but losing the nobility, the sense of a deeper meaning and the bürgerlich goodness (not to say greatness) of an ordinary hobbit trying to do his best in the middle of it all. Which doesn't leave a lot, you wouldn't have thought - not if it's worldbuilding you're into and not a kind of X-rated Bored of the Rings. Perhaps Tolkien's vision was vulnerable to this kind of reversal precisely because of its repression of its social setting; perhaps Charles Williams's frank elitism was a more stable solution. But then, stable solutions don't react with anything.