On Feelings and Magic: Eliot, Williams and Tolkien

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“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”

This passage from T.S. Eliot’s “The Sacred Wood: Tradition and the Individual Talent” put me in mind of Charles Williams’ novel, Shadows of Ecstasy.  (Eliot, as it happens, was a great champion of Williams’ work).  Shadows of Ecstasy is a puzzling novel.  It would be easy to spend a lifetime determining where one stands in relation to its characters.  As Thomas Howard points out in his Novels of Charles Williams, it is as if Williams sympathized a little too much with the antagonist for the comfort of most readers.  The antagonist, Nigel Considine, is a man of extraordinary self-discipline who, because he feels things deeply, requires little to satisfy him.  His aesthetic sensibilities are sharp and drawn from deep within himself and, because of this, he is able to use them to develop what one could call a science of the aesthetic as opposed to a science based in analytic knowing.  He, then, applies what he has learned in a kind of technology with which he hopes to attain everlasting life and impose his will upon the world.

The good guys abound in this novel.  There is a devout priest who embodies faith, an African king who embodies royalty, a cheerful humanist who embodies the practical and an adoring wife who embodies, well, the feminine, or Williams’ feminine ideal of heartfelt abundant generosity that wants nothing for itself—the nurturing universe.  The husband of this peerless female is a professor of poetry who finds enough in a single energetic line of Milton, “And thus the Filial Godhead answering spake,” to point his whole being beyond itself, leaving him restless and dissatisfied with his mundane life.   It stands to reason that it is the professor who is most drawn to Considine.  Here, he contemplates what might be possible if Considine’s world were to come to pass.

Who could tell what wonders waited then, when emotions were full and strong and sufficient, no longer greedy and grasping, when the senses could take in colour and essence and respond to all the delicate vibrations which now their clumsy dullness missed, when deprivation itself should be an intense means of experiencing both the deprived self and the thing of which it was deprived, when…

This vision leads him almost to the point of following the antagonist to his inevitable (if ambiguous) end but, if we return to Eliot’s passage above, we can begin to see why there were some places that our professor could not ultimately allow himself to go.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of the scientific mind is its commitment to consistently apply rigor to experience.  For the mainstream scientist, this means, among other things, excluding whole categories of experience such as the sensuous and emotional because these seem irretrievably resistant to discipline. Emotions exist within us, the scientist would claim, and we project them onto the world.  There is nothing verifiable, nothing reliable in what one feels on the inside, nothing that tells us anything about anything other than our own fallible selves.  In Eliot’s understanding, however, there are emotions that are not personal.  There are “feelings which are not in actual emotions at all.”  The key to understanding this lies in what Eliot calls “passive attending.”

Most of us understand the world always, or almost always, in terms of our smallest selves, in terms of what we could call the ego.  Our egos are possessive entities and use emotions to appropriate all that they survey. Tolkien remarks on this fact in “On Fairy-Stories” and points out that, when we appropriate everything we see, we hardly see anything at all.  As soon as we have made up our minds about something, whether we like or dislike it, desire or fear it, we need give it little more of our attention for itself.  I know that I like the taste of mushrooms so it is a delicious (or disgusting) dish of mushrooms, indeed, or perhaps an extraordinary hunger that causes me to bother with truly tasting the particular mushrooms on the plate before me. Instead, I recapitulate a generalized mushroom experience, one that I have been through many times.  I do not have the experience; it plays in me like an old recording.  In doing this, I have, not only deprived myself of the subtleties of all the mushrooms that will ever be presented to me, but I have tricked myself into thinking that I have learned something about mushrooms when, in fact, I have only discovered something, and not a particularly riveting something, about myself.

There are emotions, or as Eliot would have it “feelings,” that are proper to each phenomenon but these feelings do not come from us; they come through us.   It is our job to get ourselves, our “greedy and grasping” selves, out of the way. These feelings, the exuberance of the sunrise, for instance, and the quiet reflectiveness of the sunset, are “full and strong and sufficient.”  They are so full and strong that they may frighten us and they are sufficient because they tell us a tremendous amount about the world and about ourselves.  When we truly understand a “thing,” we understand our relationship to it and because nothing exists except in relationship—there would be no differentiated phenomena, otherwise—we see ourselves as we are, only when we see the world as it is.  It is appropriate to call this seeing, this knowing, aesthetic.  It knows things as they fit together.  It would disdain to take them apart because that would render them meaningless, broken examples of what they were meant to be.   (Gandalf’s rebuke to Saruman in The Fellowship of the Ring: “He who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” )

The example of Nigel Considine teaches us, however, that even aesthetic knowing can be disgracefully misapplied.  In a letter to Milton Waldman in which Tolkien takes on the mammoth task of communicating the gist of his great creative works, he explains that there are two kinds of Magic.  The destructive kind, the kind that seeks to shape the world to the will of its user, can also be called The Machine. The productive kind is the Magic of the Elves.  It is a subcreative magic.  It is a Magic that seeks to know a thing for itself then to allow the thing to go on expressing itself through the craft of the subcreator.  This is the Magic of true art.  It is also the Magic of true science.  It is, if we value our souls and the soul of the world, the only kind of Magic in which we should allow ourselves to partake.

3 thoughts on “On Feelings and Magic: Eliot, Williams and Tolkien

  1. Very interesting! I was particularly drawn in with the passage of Eliot’s “passive attending” theory. In the political community where I co-moderate, there was an article discussed about a month and a half ago, and the gist of the article alluded to a study, where they claimed that people with high SAT scores were more prone to fail simple mind exercises, in spite of having a good capacity for self awareness. The study wasn’t terribly good, as it didn’t explore at all, how studies would go for those who hadn’t taken SATs, or those trained specifically in for instance scientific thinking, or aesthetic thinking. And yet for its flaws, the article covering the study showed a clear intent to want to point out that the more “schooled” an intelligence is, the more prone to lazy thinking it also is. I was actually upset by it, and because of that I sat down and tried to filet out what was worthwhile in that whole thesis.
    Could it be that the more “schooled”, or experienced we became, the more we were prone to feelings “running through us” as opposed to *from* us, as you were writing up there?
    I don’t know. I think the article had grains of truth, but were wrong in essence (because I doubt that SATs can tell us much about human intelligence or wisdom), but I like the way you and Eliot phrase it in this essay. In this context there is a passive awareness which can be reach – not by being inexperienced or completely unschooled, but by having gone through certain things, and *then* expanded our self awareness to the next level. In this type of thesis, it is our “middle” grounds, where we know *some* things and have settled with that, which is the limiting and utterly mundane phase of existence. I like that thought. Thank you Kelly! As usual, I didn’t mean to hijack anything with my long ass response, but this stuff made me think, and there is nothing better!

    • Never stop leaving long ass replies! I think the thing is, to paraphrase something I heard from the guest of honor at Mythcon 43, to remain agnostics even if we are people of faith. When we think we know enough, we stop paying attention and it is harder for anything to get in that challenges our worldview. That is why I love fantasy lit because it puts us in a frame of mind in which we are prepared to be surprised. I know I must sound like a broken record with all this “paying attention” stuff but it is my favorite topic! Thanks for reading!

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

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