Friday, April 7, 2017

Language, the Mind, the Body, and Dreams

There’s one part of our conversation in class on Wednesday that I’m still trying to puzzle out – the connection between the mind, the body, language and dreams, and specifically, just how necessary of a role the body plays in all of this. For all that we went over the “mind <---> body” diagram on the board, it seemed that the body had little to do with traveling in dreams as Tolkien described it in either The Notion Club Papers or the Lord of the Rings. 

In The Notion Club Papers, Tolkien’s stand-in Ramer states, “Language properly so called, as we know it on Earth – token (perceived by sense) plus significance (for the mind) – that is peculiar to an embodied mind; an essential characteristic, the prime characteristic of the fusion of incarnation” (HME 9, 202). He relates this to how he has been “visited, or spoken to,” in a way that’s like a hallucination, in a way that “something (even if it is only some department of the body) must be affecting the mind and making it translate outwards” (HME 9, 203). In Tolkien’s explanation, language requires both the body and the mind because the mind thinks up the message; the body speaks/transmits it. For Tolkien, the body is the filter through which language must pass. And in his relation of his language to the “hallucination” he must have experienced, he seems to imply that the body must be the conduit for dreams as well.

This connection between language, dreams, and the body are furthered for Tolkien in another passage we discussed – “We each have a native language of our own – at least potentially,” says Ramer in The Notion Club Papers. “In working-dreams people who have a bent that way may work on it, develop it” (HME 9, 201). Are dreams, then, for Tolkien, the untranslatable native language? He describes earlier how difficult it is to put down on paper what he sees in dreams: “I’ve an idea that writing these memories up, re-telling them in waking life and terms, blurs or erases them in waking memory,” Ramer says (HME 9, 198). Something about dreams is untranslatable, tied specifically to the mind and body of the dreamer.

However, in his letters, Tolkien also implies that dreams can be genetically passed on from parent to child. “I have what some might call an Atlantis complex. Possibly inherited, though my parents died too young for me to know such things about them, and too young to transfer such things by words. Inherited from me (I suppose) by one only of my children, though I did not know that about my son until recently, and he did not know it about me,” he writes in one of his letters (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 213). Tolkien never communicated with his parents about this dream, and he didn’t speak with his son Chistopher about it until after the fact. It wasn’t transferred by language, then, but by something in their DNA.

I don’t think I really buy all of this. It makes sense that language is tied to and requires the mind and body; it makes some sense that each person has their own “native” language in their minds that influences their thoughts, and their dreams; it makes much less sense to me that dreams can be tied to your DNA, in some way passed down without speaking about them. But it doesn’t matter exactly whether or not I buy it; it matters that Tolkien seems to, and therefore matters to how we look at dreams in the Lord of the Rings.

In the Lord of the Rings, Frodo is able to dream from the outset; it seems even that Tolkien gave him his own Atlantis complex. In the first dream sequence we looked at, Frodo dreams of “the sound of the Sea far-off; a sound he had never heard in waking life” (LotR book 1, ch. 5). He travels as Ramer does in The Notion Club Papers. If dreams are, as Tolkien implied earlier, a form of one’s native language, Frodo is experiencing his own.

However, as was pointed out, Sam doesn’t dream at the outset, and has to learn how from Galadriel (from sleeping like a log in Tom Bombadil’s domain, to seeing the future in Galadriel’s mirror). I wondered if this wasn’t because of Sam’s more physical presence in the world; Frodo is frailer, and early on in their journey wounded by one of the Nazgul, while Sam is stockier and stronger. As Ramer says in The Notion Club Papers, “The body’s a wonderful lever for an indirect influence on the mind, and deep dreams can be very remote from its disturbance” (HME 9, 196). In dreaming, according to Tolkien, the body can be a buffer between the physical world and the one the dreamer inhabits, and Sam’s just might be a better buffer.

This idea – that Sam had to separate himself from his waking body in order to learn the language of dreams – is furthered by his other dream-like experiences in and after Lothlorien. For instance, when they first walk into the Cerin Amroth, Sam is “looking around with a puzzled expression, and rubbing his eyes as if he were not sure that he was awake” (LotR book II, ch. 6). He describes feeling like he’s “in a song” (LotR book II, ch. 6). His waking world, in which he physically stands, is becoming destabilized. After his experiences in Lothlorien, his waking world still feels unstable; when he spots Gollum following them in the river, he at first assumes it was a dream: “I said to myself, ‘dreaming again, Sam Gamgee,’ I said; and I said no more just then. But I’ve been thinking since, and now I’m not so sure,” he says to Frodo (LotR book II, ch. 9). (Frodo, too, also earlier assumed that Gollum’s presence was a dream, when he caught sight of him in the Mines of Moria.)

But to me, this also seemed to challenge Tolkien’s earlier idea of dreaming as a native language, or discovering a language in dreaming. The word “native” means that you’re born with it, and Sam was not really born with a sense for dreams. Tolkien believes that one can inherit certain dreams, but again, that’s something you’re born with. For Sam to learn how to dream, he had all this time to be learning a certain kind of new language – a new way of understanding the world and his own mind, apart from his physical presence in it. Though we spoke in class of how the mind and body were tied up with each other in the interpretation of language and dreams, it seems in the Lord of the Rings that the body only gets in the way; one has to be separate from one’s physical presence in the world to dream fully.

-- Annie N. 


  1. Perhaps an answer to your conundrum: the body can learn! Tolkien doesn't say dreams travel in the DNA (not described by Crick and Watson until 1953, although its role in genetics had been the object of discussion from 1927). Tolkien talks about "blood", which seems more metaphorical than strictly biological. But how heritability is linked to growth in skill--as in Sam's learning to dream--is another question. Perhaps worth disentangling! RLFB

  2. "Are dreams, then, for Tolkien, the untranslatable native language?" - perhaps, in that they're linked to the inherently human act of creation. During the act of dreaming, the mind-body relationship is inverted, in a way: rather than the physical body being the filter for ideas of the mind, the body is an illusion of the mind, the mind "filters" what it thinks the body is or isn't capable of (specifically, in the realm of languages). Then, language imposes some sort of structure upon the imagination that allows us to create through. I like this idea, it reinforces the idea of having some "native" unique capacity for (sub-)creation. But it still doesn't resolve the problem of "dreaming real events", does it? Perhaps we should take Tolkien's claim of genetic inheritance of dreams more seriously. If there is some sort of "inherited memory" - of the sea, of historical events - that runs deeper than the artificially acquire language-skill, deeply emdedded in our genetic psyches. Consider when he discussed his "Atlantis complex" that his son Christopher inherited - it "wasn’t transferred by language, then, but by something in their DNA," as you put it. In this case, language is an imposition of artificial structure, with its own logical systems, rules, and bounds derived from the physical possibilities of speech and writing. In contrast, the inherited dream pulls the dreamer outside of his own body and its limits altogether, allowing him to share in a quasi-physical experience originated from another body altogether.

    Well, that sounds pretty far-flung, and I can't say I believe it very much. My own hunch is that these sorts of "inherited dreams" are from similarities of mental function between parents and children, from stories our parents whisper to us while we're too young to even completely understand language, from cultural memories we absorb unconsciously over time. But my primary goal is to explore this opaque mind--body relationship with you, and maybe thinking of "body" as the filter in the physical world, and "mind" as the filter in the dream world, can better allow us to understand the role that language and imagination play in either world. "Learning to dream more skillfully" perhaps means that the dreamer has more control over how these filters act - and how to overcome the restrictions that our mind, still attached to the physical world, impose upon us in the dream-world. Odd stuff.