Beauty, Truth and Tolkien

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I have often maligned the idea that art should be defined as anything someone puts a frame around, believing instead that the relationship between humanity and art is not manufactured but ordained. In light of this belief, I have been trying to understand the phenomenon of “found poetry,” poetry in which words are lifted just as they are from their mundane context so that the poem functions as a frame, revealing the beauty of the words or endowing them with a beauty that was not there to begin with (that is the question).  I know of few pure and excellent examples of found poetry. William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say”is often cited, though it is not clear how much of it is found and how much constructed. My favorite found poem consists of a nineteenth century American recipe for pitch, the black stickiness of the tar evoking the resilience of those who knew no life other than hard, claustrophobic labor.

What takes place in the mind of the poet who finds a poem, a poet who knows just where to place her frame, and is this framing different from, as Marcel Duchamp did in 1917, submitting a urinal to an important exhibition and, by virtue of its submission, calling it art? I imagine that the words of a found poem, when first encountered, must seem to shimmer a little in the midst of their duller surroundings or maybe it is more gradual than that. Maybe the poet finds himself singing the words in his mind the way a child will chant something he has heard and likes the sound of.  (I once knew a four-year-old who spent several afternoons skipping around the playground to the beat of “Sex-sex-sexy/Sex-sex-sexy,” apparently with no idea of what the words meant but enamored with their sibilance).

This brings to mind the famous declaration of J.R.R. Tolkien in his lecture “English and Welsh” that “most English-speaking people…will admit that [the phrase] cellar door is beautiful especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling.)” This remark is usually paraphrased as the unverifiable claim that the syllables that make up “cellar door” form the most beautiful succession of sounds in the English language and I have yet to see a reference to it that includes the latter half of the statement—”especially if dissociated from its sense (and its spelling).” (When dissociated from its “sense,” there is something pleasing even about the curved porcelain lines of a urinal). Tolkien goes on to say that, though the sound of cellar door is “more beautiful than sky and certainly more beautiful than beautiful,” there is a “higher dimension” of words in which “the contemplation of the association of form and sense” is naturally encouraged. (I have taken liberty with Tolkien’s phrasing because his primary purpose was, not to describe his experience of the English language, but to express how this higher dimension of language was particularly accessible to him in Welsh).

By his own account, Tolkien’s experience of producing the works that make up both his genre-defining fantasy adventure,The Lord of the Rings, and its deeper background mythology was one of writing down what was already there, somewhere. If we accept this kind of receptivity as typical of authors or poets then perhaps there is no real difference between finding poetry and “composing” it. The beauty of art is of a different order than the beauty of nature but art, like the human consciousness that delivers it to the world, is itself of nature. As Roger Caillois put it, “…art constitutes a particular instance of nature: that which occurs when the aesthetic act undergoes the additional process of design and execution.” The poet, the painter or the photographer possesses the burden and the gift of guiding our sometimes mulish minds to the shift in consciousness that allows us to see the beauty that was always available but might have otherwise remained unregarded. The remarkable thing is that, sometimes, this beauty is not a primary expression of the necessary and harmonious relationships of the qualities of nature but comes to us as the result of the irrepressibility of such necessity and harmony, even in the face of human efforts to distort natural relationships in the service of human ends.

There is a particularly human brand of ugliness that we can call “the meretricious” that occurs when certain features of what is portrayed are exaggerated in an effort to stimulate the baser instincts of the audience. The depictions we see in noisy, over-bearing advertising are a case in point. Another related kind of manufactured ugliness comes into the world when an attempt is made to imitate the living tendencies of nature by reducing those tendencies to a formula then producing objects based on the formula, leaving the life behind. Objects produced in this way are ugly because they are empty, brought to us via the reduction of quality to quantity followed by a naïve attempt to bring the quality back to life.  Ratio is substituted for relationship.  For such ugliness to exist, there is no need to distort the ratio of the qualities, though doing so adds a dimension of repulsiveness to the coldness of the object. (The sometimes stark architecture of Le Corbusier strikes me as an example of a product that is lifeless but not otherwise particularly vulgar). There is nothing, however, that cannot be rescued from ugliness. Nature, as it expresses itself in the materials of manufacture, in the mind of the manufacturer, in the way the elements play with even our most self-important monuments, and in the mind of the observer, will have its way.

Beauty is the experience of a vital order but order is not what we see, it is how we see. The human mind “sees” by coalescing coherent phenomena out of the vast amount of sensory data that is relentlessly available to it. Order is the mold that we use to shape the world out of a chaos of qualities—hot, cold, light, dark, red, blue, bitter, sweet and on and on and on. A certain amount of order is necessary for human consciousness to perceive anything at all, even the meretricious.  Without it, there would be no substance to perceive but, in the way the world reveals itself to us, there are degrees of necessity among the relationships of the qualities. We can think of ugly artifacts as speaking the language of nature but speaking it so clumsily that they are almost grunting where others might sing. Sometimes, by some miracle, however, we manage to grunt something that, with only a little application of aesthetic consciousness, can be understood as beautiful. We manage to find a poem.

Have you ever seen a power plant lit up at night and thought that it looked, not like a dark, Satanic mill, but like a castle with signal fires lit along its parapets—or, better yet, have you ever driven above a Wal-Mart store on an elevated freeway at night? For some reason that is unknown to me, the roof of every Wal-Mart that I have seen from this perspective has been a neatly rowed farm of plastic skylights. When the interior lights of the store shine into the darkness through the plastic, I get the sense that I am looking down through clear, dark waters at large, luminescent mushrooms on the deepest ocean floor. Beauty—voilà! Beauty, where all the odds and all our efforts stood against it.

In articulating an aesthetic, we are, in fact, articulating a cosmology.  When we see how order functions in its highest task, which is to bring to us the purely beautiful, we can begin to see how order functions in bringing to us all things. If, as Tolkien contends, “we make…by the law in which we’re made,” then understanding what makes a human artifact ugly, beautiful or merely pretty, can take us all the way to understanding what makes every single thing what it is. The power that makes the world works also in the artist to enrich the world.

In Tolkien’s creation myth, a legion of gods, the Valar, sing the world into being (though not into full-fledged life) at the command of the One God, Ilúvatar.  When one of the number of Valar rebels and attempts to introduce his own refrain into the symphony, Ilúvatar shows him that this has, in no way, subverted the theme.  “You will see…” he tells his wayward child “that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite”

No less than the consciousness of the gods, our consciousness, and the world in which it participates, is alive and, as a living thing, it has a certain temperament, a disposition to behave in a certain way that is as much a part of it as my eye color is a part of my body.  As living consciousness in a living world, we can choose to rebel, to live as much as our wills will allow in contradiction to our own best nature, but we cannot choose not to be. As beings made of and naturally making order, we can never wholly rob ourselves of at least some measure of access to beauty and, thus, truth. That is one freedom that even the gods have no power to bestow.

6 thoughts on “Beauty, Truth and Tolkien

  1. The Vital Order

    we seem to shimmer a little
    coalescing coherent phenomena
    articulating a cosmology
    from necessity and harmony
    the application of aesthetic
    consciousness, and a certain
    temperament, an elevated
    freeway at night, a castle
    with signal fires lit
    along its parapets

    Thanks for sharing this wonderfully contemplative essay with us, Badgaladriel (and for introducing me to the idea of “found poetry”)!

  2. Badgaladriel, Thank you for this well ordered essay. I love the thought, allowing ourselves access to beauty.

  3. Pingback: The Scrolls of Badgaladriel | The Grey Havens Group

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