Friday, June 3, 2011

Musings: Meaning, endings, and eternity

I started writing some musings to a friend, and towards the end it started to tie into The Lord of the Rings and the subjects we discussed on the last day of class. I decided I'd share it here as well.

The eloquence of Swami Vivekananda and his introduction of eternal values of India taught to the United States are particularly remembered. The speech has been identified by many to mark the beginning of western interest on Indian values not as merely an exotic eastern oddity, but as a vital religious and philosophical tradition that might actually have something important to teach the West.[4][5] The opening line, "Sisters and Brothers of America...", was greeted by a three minute standing ovation from the audience of 7,000.[6]

Welcome Address-
Sisters and Brothers of America,

It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us. I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions, and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.

My thanks, also, to some of the speakers on this platform who, referring to the delegates from the Orient, have told you that these men from far-off nations may well claim the honor of bearing to different lands the idea of toleration. I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation. I will quote to you, brethren, a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest boyhood, which is every day repeated by millions of human beings: "As the different streams having their sources in different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee."

The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world of the wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita: "Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me." Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.

Beautiful and yet quite sad; even the most cursory inspection of the past 118 years shows that sectarianism, bigotry, and fanaticism have been alive and well. They've even added to the family; nationalism, fascism, ideological totalitarianism. (-isms are really the worst.) And yet maybe the cursory inspection is part of the problem. It's history's horrors and tragedies that really stand out; progress and acceptance are a lot quieter. I seem to be on course to live a better and happier life than my parents, who have better lives than their parents'. (Although my grandparents really got shat on, WW2 was a shitty time to be Jewish or Korean.)

When measuring huge portions of human history against a presently unattainable ideal of perfect coexistence, I suppose it's inevitable that things will look bleak.

Still, it's not clear to me whether we've made real progress in the time since Swami's speech.

One aspect of Tolkien's work that I find personally reassuring is the underlying axiom that everything will end. Nothing is forever. Admittedly Tolkien wouldn't see it this way, since he thinks God is eternal and everlasting, but everything else in his mythology passes in time. Even the immortal elves fade away.

'That is a fair lord and a great captain of men,' said Legolas. 'If Gondor
has such men still in these days of fading, great must have been its glory in the days of its rising.'
'And doubtless the good stone-work is the older and was wrought in the first building,' said Gimli. 'It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.'
'Yet seldom do they fail of their seed,' said Legolas. 'And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked-for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli.'
'And yet come to naught in the end but might-have-beens, I guess,' said the Dwarf.
'To that the Elves know not the answer,' said Legolas.

Later in the same chapter, Gandalf is counseling Aragorn, Eomer, and the other leaders of men as they plan the final battle against Sauron (the title of the chapter is The Last Debate):

'Concerning this thing [the One Ring], my lords, you now all know enough for the understanding of our plight, and of Sauron's. If he regains it, your valor is vain, and his victory will be swift and complete: so complete that none can foresee the end of it while this world lasts. If it is destroyed, then he will fall; and his fall will be so low that none can foresee his arising ever again. For he will lose the best part of the strength that was native to him in his beginning, and all that was made or begun with that power will crumble, and he will be maimed for ever, becoming a mere spirit of malice that gnaws itself in the shadows, but cannot again grow or take shape. And so a great evil of this world will be removed.
'Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.'

Maybe my problem is looking at things in terms of progress; focusing on the future instead of the present. I am sure there were reformers in ancient Greece or China who improved the lives of many, but whose names and deeds have been washed out by the tide of time. There's a time when I would conclude that they failed; they left no indelible mark on humanity; all of their ideals and wisdom and work and struggle came to nothing in the end. I think a fear of this inevitability is what drives kings to found dynasties, plutocrats to found universities, men to create and recreate religions. A fear of death and a fear of insignificance, a fear that the totality of one's life comes out to less than nothing in the cosmic scale of things.

I used to be a pretty strict (some might say unimaginative) materialist, and it seemed evident that Tolkien's everything-will-end philosophy is true. Modern physics predicts that entropy will wind down the universe and all matter will decay into light and nothing. Even without thermodynamics, it seems all but certain that the days of humanity's existence are numbered. Some last child is born, and he dies; some last repository of human knowledge decays; some last memory of a place called Earth is forgotten, and even if a planet still physically exists, would the concept of physical existence still have any substance? If meaning, an ephemeral construct of human imagination, is gone?

I guess you could say was (and am) fighting a ghost of Plato: struggling to find an eternal form: something transcendent and secure to cleave to. Failing that, I turned rather predictably to nihilism. Persuaded that morality was a sham and meaning an illusion, I might as well enjoy as much (meaningless) pleasure as I could, and consequently decided to be a rich investment banker. {I now think that being an investment banker would be a patently awful way to pursue pleasure, but everyone else wanted to be one so it seemed like the logical thing to do at the time.}

But maybe I should stop looking for meaning in the future and the eternal. Maybe those Greek and Chinese reformers did make meaningful achievements, even though all the benefits and beneficiaries of their work are now forgotten. Maybe meaning is something that exists only in conscious experience and, consequently, in the present.

And the strangely reassuring aspect of the fact that everything fades in time: the same is true of humanities' demons. Totalitarianism, your days are numbered. And this is something of a balm on every setback, every tragedy, every horror, every pain: in time, it too will bow out of existence. No lost opportunity merits eternal lamentation because no action has eternal consequence.

I've decided how I will conclude my alternate ending of The Lord of the Rings. Evil will prevail. Sauron will reclaim the Ring. The situation will be hopeless, and Sauron's inevitable victory will be swift and complete: so complete that none can foresee the end of it while the world lasts. And yet as the forlorn protagonists plan to hide away in the remotest hole they can find, the story will end on a quiet but resolute note of hope. The darkness, however complete, is only temporary. Eventually and inevitably it will be blown away like another cloud over the sea.

-D Mane


  1. The idea that you are playing with here, to me, has been what I have always felt to be simultaneously the most heart-wrenching and the most hopeful theme of the book. When I first had the books read to me in elementary school, the idea that the Elves, for example, had to leave made no sense. It was so sad! They were nice and made beautiful things and were friends with all the characters I had grown to love. It didn't seem right that victory should be achieved but that the Elves couldn't stay to build the new era they had helped to win. I couldn't understand where the Elves thought this overwhelming sense of change driving them to sail West was coming from: why did things have to change?!

    And yet, at the same time, it is change that allows the small shadows that occur throughout the book to pass and for obstacles to be overcome. It is the coming of Merry and Pippin and Gandalf to Fangorn that wakes up the Ents and drives them to wage war on Isengard, effectively removing Saruman from the war. It is because the sun comes up in the morning that Strider and the hobbits are able to travel in greater safety from the Nazgul. Sunrises always mark a turning of the tides in battles throughout the book. The brief shifting of the clouds in Mordor allows the shining light of Earendil to give Sam hope.

    So, rather than purely hopeful, I would rather call the theme of 'this too shall pass' somewhat bittersweet.

    And so, at the risk of being stoned by those who dislike the movies:


  2. You say it yourself in your musings: "Maybe my problem is looking at things in terms of progress." Medieval Europeans would have considered it vain to hope for perfection in this life; it is curious (and perhaps telling) how some of the worst evils that humanity has achieved have been in the name of progress. But that does not mean that there is no hope. Yes, human beings have been horrifically intolerant of each other in the past 118 years; they have also been heroically compassionate, giving, willing to learn from each other, and on and on. The Monsters will always be with us--but so will the Heroes to slay them?