Immaturity and The Fall

I’ve been rereading the fiction and, for the first time, the letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, and I find myself increasingly interested in the fantasy novelist’s Catholicism. It is through his Letters that I first began to grasp the appeal of the notion of The Fall, which previously only ever seemed like the most stupid, harmful idea. But now I realize that this theological concept is really just another term for G’s most basic, fundamental theme: what you could call our human tendency, the fact that we are less than what we would be, less than what we promise, and in our essence bound to disappoint and thwart ourselves. In his great saga of Middle Earth, Tolkien depicts the inevitability of strife between our ideals and the world we actually end up creating, and it’s the same thing as what G depicts in his novels.

We may impose or try to form ourselves with technology and techniques and raise ourselves, but there is a fundamental gravity, a weight pulling us to ourselves, to our “thrown” being. G names this downward force “sub-culture” or “immaturity.” It is the realm of other things, distractions, minor obsessions, faults, secondary priorities, imps of the perverse, and what have you, that derail and deflect us, pull us down to another level. Despite the vastness of our hopes for ourselves, we end up ‘middling.’ (Tolkien loved middles, and saw redemption in them.)

It is easy to see ourselves as fallen. It is not so easy, at least without reminding ourselves, of the fallenness of others. When we look at other people’s lives, we see them as having chosen what they are and who they are. We see them as hard and definitive. They wear those clothes because they want to, we think; they work where they do because they must have wanted that more than anything else. We have no trouble blaming them for their mistakes, because they surely intended them. Yet when we look at our own lives, it is as through wholly different eyes. We see a random and haphazard and oftentimes ill-thought-out meandering of action and happenstance. The decisions we made we see as, more often than not, not our own, or not completely our own. We see how random and unchosen much of it is. The exceptions, those rare moments when we have felt like we have actually chosen our fate, stand out and make us feel proud. But they are the exceptions.

Why do we view ourselves through such different eyes? Why do we apply so sterner a metric to the lives of other people?

In a letter to Tolkien, Auden says he experiences life as a series of choices: “Life, as I experience it in my own person, is primarily a continuous succession of choices between alternatives.” That to me seems most enviable, most what I would aspire after, yet what seems so elusive that it may only come once in a blue moon (if ever) that one would actually feel one’s ability to choose among alternatives. Mostly don’t we just persist in life? Stay a course?Don’t our choices get buried under the weight of dead desire and necessity? Beethoven’s “Es muss sein!”?

Sartre or Freud would say that we are always choosing, and even our avoidance of choice is a choice.. But those are strenuous, basically Nietzschean philosophies, that belong in a sci-fi universe like Dune. I think, in reality, choice takes energy, and eventually everyone gets tired. To consciously live each moment as if it was a choice between alternatives, and that you always had it in you to make a choice (not just passively accept one), would be wonderful, but I don’t believe it can be done.It makes me distrust Auden, that maybe he is not so honest with himself.

Auden’s larger point was that such a sense of life—as choices—naturally produces the quest or journey as a literary form of expression. I think Tolkien’s point was that he produced a quest novel not out of some special sense of living life as choices (though that may be laudable) but from its being a tried and true way of stringing together the things that matter most to oneself. And, mainly, even more importantly, because a quest, however objectively small, takes you out of the passive condition. In effect, a quest makes you choose, makes you experience your life objectively.

So they are both saying the opposite—

Auden: Conscious living produces the Quest as its natural artistic form. Tolkien: The Quest produces the feeling of consciousness that most people, most of the time, lack. (Tolkien’s view is, as always, the more pragmatic and humane, and seems more right on.)

In his reply to the poet, Tolkien talked about people making themselves, his faith that some people do manage to create themselves. Yet the ordeal of Frodo, Sam and Golluum shows that this can only be achieved through other people. That’s the beauty and fascination of the story. It’s what Gombrowicz was always on about too, in his Diary: the redemptive possibility of people forming each other, even deliberately using other people who are unlike themselves (perhaps not too unlike, but just-right-unlike), to alter themselves in desired directions.To help them, in other words, choose themselves.

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