Friday, May 23, 2014

Wholly Human, Wholly Natural

First, I feel it is appropriate to return briefly to the relationship between death, change, and language. Language is tied in Tolkien's world to death. This actually makes a lot of sense, as the more people that are exposed to a language, the more subcreation there is done in the language through daily speech. Every person speaks a slightly different version from everyone else, making the interaction of people in novel ways a manner of keeping a language growing and evolving. The reason the elvish languages stagnate is because over the hundreds of years they had been speaking languages like Quenya they had been interacting with each other repeatedly. Eventually, the quirks and idiosyncrasies of individuals find their way into the common idiom (if they were ever going to be widely adopted) or are relegated to the individual/small community. There comes a point at which people are so set in their ways that the introduction of new material (except when it comes with something new to describe) that any usage other than their accustomed idiom is viewed as wrong and a perversion of the language (look at our grandparents and imagine what they would think of our language if they were several hundred years older).

So, to get on with it, a problem I had with our discussion of subcreation on Wednesday was that we failed to talk of subcreation as a whole -- we talked almost exclusively of children. My main question in this discussion is whether the product of subcreation is natural. That is, is a poem, a child, a chair, a broach, etc. a part of nature? It seems self-evident that children are a part of nature as much as any human (or elf) ever was. This proposition has some interesting implications. The only things created by Illuvatar were the Ainur, the elves, and humans (dwarrows if you are to count breathing life into them, which I do not). These beings are fully natural. Illuvatar directed the Ainur to sing with him, giving them a sort of sheet music, and from there the world was created. Arda is a subcreation of the Ainur with collaboration with Illuvatar. What are we to make of this? Can we really call this nature? We may ask the same thing of children.

If children are a subcreative byproduct of sex (giving a whole new meaning to the phrase 'make love'), they seem to be on the same level of nature as a nice song or a table (which in our modern sense means not at all). There must then be different levels of subcreation to express how close the subcreation is to the natural. Perhaps if the subcreation is living then it is natural. Perhaps all life is natural. There is no real argument as to whether children are natural. The naturality of all life is true in the ages of Arda we have studied, but what of modern cloning capabilities? What of gene selection on the DNA level? What of DNA splicing to create new species? Is slowly changing the DNA of an organism, but over many generations natural? These all seem to be artificial to us. They are living subcreations by humans, but they feel plastic, not real, unnatural. 

I then propose three distinctions for the products of subcreation. Class I (children; the natural) -- a living thing that was not purposefully modified to create something new (though an exceedingly literal interpretation of my definition could claim that egg fertilization is a case of this). Created by nature to be subcreated by nature. Class II (GMO's) -- living things that have been specifically created in their current manifestation (aka contrived; any sort of genetically altered thing, including humans if they have been altered). Class III -- inanimate/symbolic objects, including songs, chairs, poems, stories, bookcases, etc. 

Language as subcreation is hard to classify, as many would see it as a living organism created at every moment by humanity in a non-contrived way. Yet, from my understanding, we do not have a true grasp of what the subconscious really does with language. Without this knowledge, it is not possible to know whether we make a true distinction when we separate knowingly constructed languages like Esperanto from the "natural" languages. If language is a work of algorithmic prowess that our brains have been optimized to, then it should be regarded just as poetry and computers -- a creation of humanity with no life of its own. Yet should we take Tolkien's ideas into account, we find his perception of language as a living thing so long as it has its own legends and culture to accompany it. For "a living language depends equally on the 'legends' which it conveys by tradition... and vice versa" (Letter 180). Forgoing the possibility of truly understanding our brains, it is still hard to say whether language fits as a category I or category II subcreation. The creation of new words occurs purposefully on some level -- someone had to make up the word 'selfie' and use it before it could become part of our vernacular. But these new words' assimilation into our vocabulary and idiom seems to be a very natural process. We do not make an effort to take on the speech patterns of the people around us, but do so as a process of empathy to show our affinity for the person. Perhaps it is both, coming to us naturally and coerced into evolving with us and our needs.

I have a question that I don't think I've ever heard answered. Where did the power contained in the Ring go when it was cast into Orodruin? 

--Richard Hanson


  1. Dear Richard,
    Thanks for your discussion, bringing in older themes of death and language, about which recent readings have had a lot to say. However, perhaps with a wealth of thoughts, it appeared hard to stay on track and your reader has some difficulty is following along.

    For instance, the problem with the discussion of subcreation is not clear. What do you mean by ‘nature’ or ‘natural?’ You needn’t define it for all ages, but if one leans upon its definition so heavily, the reader wonders what you mean. The theme in class was only meant to connect the procreation of children to the subcreation of the Ainur to depict procreation as a form of subcreation. Arda or nature itself is created; the forms of subcreation are ‘natural’ insofar as they are based on ‘natural’ things but with creative contributions. In a way, ‘natural’; in a way, artificial. But if we are talking about whether it is ‘natural,’ we need a working definition.

    Because it is difficult to recognize what is at stake here, it is also difficult to see the usefulness of the three classes of subcreations. It is clear you put some thought into these three. But why is this classification helpful or necessary? Why not more classes and subclasses? Why does language need to conform to this tripartite view?
    Finally, you final question is curious. What makes you think that power ‘goes’ anywhere when the Ring is unmade?

  2. When looking at your three classes of subcreative endeavors, I found myself looking more closely at Class II, or "GMOs," as you put it. A few examples of GMO organisms are evident in Tolkien's writing, such as pipe-weed and overlarge vegetables(which hobbits cultivate quite extensively and seem to breed very deliberately), the well-maintained forest of Lothlorien, and the orchards of the Entwives. However, to me these don't seem to have an awful lot in common--at least to me it seems like an idle hobby of hobbits doesn't seem to fit in the same category as the heart of Elvendom on Earth, even though both pipeweed and the mallorn forests are shaped and subcreated by sentient beings. What is the true difference between the two class II subcreative endeavors of prize-pumpkin-growing and mallorn-forest-conservation? And where do the Entwives, who aren't generally held to be subcreators (or at least we never discussed them as such, perhaps they should be included) like the Children of Illuvatar, fit in? To me this line of thought suggests that classifying subcreation is either incredibly crucial, as so many different things fall under the banner, or as ultimately futile, given that so many different things fall under the banner. I'd like to lean towards the first, but perhaps the second might fit in with the blurry line we discussed between creator, subcreator, and creation that we discussed in class.