“Wait till next week! You can then have a look at my belfry and count all the bats.”
Mr. Michael George Ramer of the Notion Club unleashes this feisty bit of wordplay with his sanity on the line. Having just bared his soul to a roomful of blank stares, Ramer must now debunk his seeming “battiness” by convincing his literary associates that he has, in fact, been there and back again—that his dreams have literally transported him “far off in Time and Space beyond the compass of a terrestrial animal.”
Easier said than done. After all, suspension of disbelief is one thing; pulling the rug out from under default notions of possibility is something else entirely. But Ramer is, by all appearances, sincere in his belief and determined to persuade his friends that, absurd as it may sound, his account is more than just a flight of fantasy.
The same goes for Mr. J.R.R Tolkien of the Inklings. His dreams are no less vivid; his vision, no less expansive. He is, perhaps, the foremost 20th century Elf-Friend, with keys to a reality above and beyond—and yet not wholly apart from—our own. And his Notion Club Papers shed light on his all but unfathomable source of inspiration.
That’s one interpretation, anyhow. Already we’ve considered several other standpoints in class, ranging from unmoved skepticism to Tom Shippey’s “asterix reality,” as a means of accepting, getting around, or otherwise coming to terms with Tolkien’s process, product, and general vision. Still, a bevy of questions persist, at least in my mind.
Literal? Ethereal? Metaphorical? Mythical? How are we supposed to categorize Middle-Earth? Just how many bats is Tolkien hiding in his belfry? If dreams can be the gateway to reality, where does the former end and the latter begin?
That’s an awful lot of question marks for one blog post—and one thoroughly unqualified blogger—to tackle, so I’ve decided to settle for some general impressions. A skin-deep analysis of a few gut feelings, if it please the court.
Wednesday’s discussions of dreams brought to mind a similar debate held in my Winter Quarter HUM class. The text in question—Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy—was considerably more mundane (and entirely orc-less, though not without its demons), but one of the questions it raised was almost identical: what really separates dream from waking life? And are we justified in assigning one the role of “primary” reality?
To paraphrase, Descartes’ argument goes something like this: in dream and waking life alike, the senses are employed in similar fashion and to similar effect. When we dream, our senses are triggered so as to convince us that we are walking in, interacting with, and generally inhabiting the world of our dream. Regardless of what we think when we wake up, in the moment of the dream we are completely “convinced” by the dream scenario, “tricked” into responding with the same level of sensory and emotional poignancy utilized in the primary reality of our waking existence. As such, Descartes claims that the two states of being cannot be readily differentiated, saying that “there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep.”
I wasn’t all that pleased with Descartes’ argument. In a paper, I ceded that dreams can often be eerily convincing. (As my roommate will attest, I am no stranger to sleep-talking.) Still, I claimed that what dreams do lack is continuity. We fall asleep in our bed, fully expecting to find ourselves in that same bed when we wake. Dreams, on the other hand, almost never link up so nicely. In short, the states of being we label “reality” and “dream” can at the very least be distinguished from one another.
In reading The Notion Club Papers, I once again found that my own opinions on the matter of dreams were at odds with those of the speaker. Ramer’s Cartesian outlook is unmistakable. “Of course there isn't any distance between dreams and waking, or one kind of dream and another; only an increase or decrease of abstraction and concentration,” he says.
I’m not sure if any of that makes sense to me. I still maintain that dreams and waking life are separated by more than the level of attention paid to each. I want to categorize Tolkien’s “Time-journey” (and Middle-Earth, for that matter) as fiction; to draw the line at telepathic meteor-memory rides, thereby maintaining the bounds of possibility within which my life to date has played out. I’m fine with Middle-Earth as asterix reality; with Tolkien’s appetite for language, his love of history and of England, and his desire to combine those passions into an epic unlike any other. His “reporting, not inventing” shtick, on the other hand, doesn’t go down so well. Part of me wants to ignore any attempts to characterize The Notion Club Papers et al. as confessionals detailing Tolkien’s exact writing process. And I can’t be the only one. In fact, I’m not. Ramer’s friends have a similar initial reaction to his similarly batty-sounding escapades.
And then it hits them: in spite of all the talk about time travel and crystal coffins and the like, the crux of Ramer’s story inspires no “underlying emotion of incredulity.” Somehow, the propensity to believe—however subconscious that belief may be—is maintained. Ramer is encouraged to expand upon his experiences, and soon he isn’t the only one detailing personal encounters with parallel realities.
If there’s one thing I’ve taken away from class thus far, it’s this: some of us are similarly invested/engaged/absorbed in The Lord of the Rings, a work which seems to transcend literature and hint at a deeper level of reality. The beauty of Tolkien's world is its internal, self-sustaining credibility. His frame is considerably more refined than the "awkward necessity" of time machines and such. Middle-Earth is as much a part of Tolkien’s fabric of being as a lot of what most consider “real.” He wants to transport us there—to give us that means of escape.
One thousand words down, and I still haven’t made any progress towards counting Tolkien’s bats. I’m not sure that I ever will. On the one hand, settling for an asterisk theory feels like a cop-out, especially when you consider the man’s deep spirituality and the propensity for blind faith that went along with it. Still, I’m afraid it’d take quite a bit more than a “tweak” of the imagination to convince me that dreams and reality mesh, and that Middle-Earth is to be found somewhere in our primary reality.
Where does that leave me? Perhaps I’d do well to take Notion Club member Frankley’s advice, borrow a power-crane and keep on suspending my disbelief. Who knows: I might show up to class one day with a story to tell about time travel and Faerie, at which point it’ll be time for me to get my bats checked.