Friday, April 28, 2017

Metaphor and Sin

In class, we spent some time discussing Barfield’s ideas about language and metaphor as espoused in Poetic Diction.  Barfield makes the claim that “Metaphorical language marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension until words, which represent them, become, through time, signs for portions or classes of thought, instead of pictures of integral thoughts,” (Poetic Diction 66).This notion of some distant historical state in which the interrelatedness of creation was apprehensible led us to the discussion of the inevitable (at least according to Tolkien) fall from this state. It was mentioned that the use of metaphor in language itself constitutes some type of fall, as it obscures these original relations through language (this “principle of living unity”, as Barfield calls it) and, in some sense, denies the truest nature of object’s existence. I think this notion can be extended to help us understand some of the later discussion of sin and what makes an act inherently sinful.

Tolkien’s discussion of the “magic” of language in earlier weeks is particularly relevant here. Tolkien claims that it is primarily adjectives that give language power; by being able to take a “gray rock” and both conceptually and linguistically separate the grayness from the rock, we become able to conceptualize that which is not purely from experiencing that which is. We can imagine gray water, for example, and understand such an unreal concept via our understanding of the rock and of water.  This is a type of metaphorical language as it attempts to have us understand one object through its relations to another. Such usage presents the same issues of obfuscation that Barfield observes – it replaces a once present intuition of the essence of the object with a metaphor-mediated understanding of its properties. In this way, we “fall” away from our primeval state in which our understanding came primarily through this intuition and enter a state in which most, if not all, understanding is metaphorical.

Counterintuitively, metaphorical understanding removes an object from its proper place in existence, while. Barfield explains:
At a later stage in the evolution of consciousness, we find [the principle of living unity] operative in individual poets, enabling them . . . to intuit relationships which their fellows have forgotten-relationships which they must now express as metaphor. Reality, once self-evident, and therefore not conceptually experienced, but which can now only be reached by an effort of individual mind… (Poetic Diction 87)
The original chain of understanding becomes reversed, and we come to understand the rock in terms of its “grayness” and “hardness”. This fall is thus characterized by a denial of the proper place of the object in creation, i.e. its true essence. It is interesting to note that this fall presents a contradiction found elsewhere in Tolkien’s works, namely that of evil bringing about beauty. Just as Melkor’s discord gives rise to the beauty of snow, our fall away from true apprehension of “principle of living unity” also allows us to speak figuratively, thereby allowing us access to the magic of language. We can tell beautiful stories at the cost of apprehending the “story” truly present in objects, i.e. that of creation.

I think we can use a similar framework to attempt to understand the “fall” away from a state of grace, namely sin. The cases of sinful acts presented in class have one primary characteristic in common; in each of these acts, an actor attempts to impose their own will over some aspect of the Music. Fëanor attempts to exert complete domination over the Silmarils and effectively isolates them from the rest of creation. Melkor similarly attempts to corrupt Arda out of the desire to have domination over it. Of course, the Ring is the physical manifestation of Sauron’s attempts to impose his own will on others.

In these cases, the central characteristic is a denial of the themes present in the Music – the ultimate will of Eru. Attempting to control completely an object necessitates removing it from the context of its place in the Music, i.e. its true place in creation. I claim that it is this rejection of Eru’s will makes an act sinful. This is to be contrasted with those actions that embrace both the actor’s and the action’s place in creation and their relations to other objects. Aule, in forming the Dwarves, does so out of love for both his role as a sub-creator and out of love for his sub-creation. Contrary to Melkor’s rejection of his role as a subcreator (desiring instead to be a creator in his own right), Aule embraces and fully apprehends his role in the Music.

It is also interesting to note that these actions are sinful despite them being ultimately futile. None of the cases presented as sinful result in the actor having complete dominion over the object of his actions. Fëanor loses the Silmarils, Melkor is cast into the void, the Ring is destroyed, and Eru’s will ultimately prevails. Indeed, this is explicitly stated from the outset when Eru proclaims:
And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined. (Silmarillion 4) [Emphasis added]

This ultimately raises the question of what role the Ainur and Children of Illúvatar are to play in the Music, and thus what their true place in creation is. Submission to His will is dual to rejection of His will, and thus it stands to reason that such submission should be viewed as the ultimate good. Indeed, Frodo’s acceptance that the ring was “fated” to come to him and his embracing of the role of ringbearer is an act of heroism. This is not entirely unlike Catholic thought, in which one of the central acts in the Gospels is the Virgin Mary’s acceptance of her role in the story as the Mother of Christ.  In creation, Eru wills the Ainur to be subcreators: the first act of their existence is a subcreative one through the Music. The role of the Children of Illuvatar is also to be subcreators – they are to shape and form Arda as they can. Perhaps Tolkien’s works can be best as his struggle to understand and submit his role as a sub-creator? As the angels sing the Gloria to God in heaven, Tolkien worships through his own works of sub-creation on earth.

Works Cited:

Barfield, Owen, and Howard Nemerov. Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning. Hanover/NH.: Wesleyan U, 1987. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R., and Christopher Tolkien. The Silmarillion. New York: Ballantine, 2002. Print.

1 comment:

  1. Tolkien would agree, his work is about worship (we will get to this at the end of the course). The question now is, is there such a thing as free will if going against the Music means falling into sin? It is true that none of the acts that we talked about succeeds. But could they? Why not? And how does metaphor help us understand this conundrum? I feel like there is a link missing here, but I am not quite sure why. RLFB