Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Subversive Conservatism of "The Lord of the Rings"

I spent the weekend watching the special extended edition of Peter Jackson's stunningly beautiful achievement. Can any good come out of Hollywood? In this case the answer is overwhelmingly "yes." I've collected 7 books on Lewis and Tolkien to read this summer on vactaion - along with my annual reading of their primary works - and this was just a warm-up. (I cheated by re-reading Lewis' space trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia this past winter.)

I believe that Tolkien's body of work - The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings - is one of the greatest artistic achievements of the Christian Western despite coming so late in the history of this civilization; in fact, coming at a time when the West is in decline. The Silmarillion is an invented mythology for a culture that is deeply Christian. The Hobbit is a moving and loving tribute to the way of life that characterized the English countryside for a millennium prior to the Industrial Revolution. The Lord of the Rings is a morally and theologically profound meditation on good and evil, providence, the virtues (especially that of friendship) and personal moral responsibility. It is anti-revolutionary (in the Kuyperian sense) and conservative in the deepest sense of the word.

But what is the deepest sense of this poor misused and ill-treated word "conservative"? What struck me as I watched Peter Jackson's wonderful movies this past weekend was just how "medieval" Tolkien's world was in every conceivable way. Could "medieval" be the deepest meaning of the word "conservative"? If so, does this mean that we conservatives are merely nostalgic? Well, it all depends.

To be nostalgic, it seems to me, may be a good thing or a bad thing. It is a bad thing to have a romantic longing for a past that never was; in this sense nostalgia constitutes a refusal to live in the real world and is therefore essentially gnostic. It is an impulse to flee the world of space and time in which we are embodied and to aspire to the angelic world of pure spirit where we could be free of the burdens and limitations of the flesh. This sort of nostalgia is rightly criticized as anti-Jewish and anti-Biblical.

But if we have nostalgia because of a lament for a past that once was but has now been lost, then the above criticisms do not apply. In fact they can be turned back on those who make them because if the point is to live in reality, then what is - and was - real is the hinge upon everything turns. Was there a past golden age from which we have fallen or not?

The Christian doctrine of creation and sin affirms that there was and so constitutes a sign of contradiction in a modern age that has created a new mythology of evolution for the new civilization it desires to build. Evolution flatters us by telling us that we - we who live today - are the peak and summit of history and, indeed, cosmology. It is a rather clever way of reinstating man at the top. Having been demoted from the center by heliocentrism, man regains his lost prestige by by placing himself at the top of the evolutionary ladder. Sin is simply evolutionary hold-overs which can be shed through further and more intelligently directed evolution, by which is meant social engineering (the project of Mordor). Man can create himself by taking control of the evolutionary process, which is what the frantic investigation into reproductive technologies and the stubbornly persistent clinging to eugenic fantasies ultimately mean.

In the old cosmology - the medieval one - man is at the center of the universe by virtue of God's creation of man in His own image. In the new cosmology - the modern one - man is at the center of the universe by virtue of his own grasping of the mantle of "creator" so as to fashion future generations in the image of the conditioners.

In the evolutionary myth there is no past golden age, merely a story of progression from inorganic to organic to animal to human to scientific human. The golden age is in the future in a corruption and bowdlerizing of the Christian doctrine of creation. Specifically, what was censored out was the doctrine of the fall into sin. There can be no "fall" in an evolutionary myth: only progress upward or regress backward or a static lack of progress.

In the medieval worldview, there really was a past golden age in the Garden of Eden, which was a functioning myth in that culture, unlike in the modern one. Since human history is the story of decline from an ideal, rather than progress up from animality, in the medieval worldview it is possible that past ages might have been more noble than our own. This is not necessarily the case in every instance for history has it vicissitudes - there is both original sin and common grace, both evil and a restraint on evil - and so each instance must be investigated with an open mind because nostalgia in the bad sense is always a real possibility. But it is not a necessity.

The medieval worldview may be imperfect and subject to correction at certain points and yet be truer and better than our own. And that is the liminal possibility raised by The Lord of the Rings, which may account for the surprising fascination it exhibits for people in the modern world. It challenges the taken-for-granted assumption that this is the best of all possible ages. It casts doubt on the sacred cow of evolutionary progress by portraying an era that was less technologically advanced than our own, characterized by more physical toil and hardship that we know, beset by more dangers than we face and yet precisely for these reasons more open to the attraction of love, honor and fealty. It challenges us to wonder if we have made good trades in these matters. Aristotle said that philosophy begins in wonder and The Lord of the Rings causes us to wonder in both of the main senses of that word: to be in awe (which was Aristotle's intended meaning) and also to question our common assumptions (which is certainly in keeping with Aristotelian method).

The Lord of the Rings is a cracking good story, but it also raises questions that normally are kept submerged by our hedonistic, noisy, shallow, consumerist culture. In that sense it is subversive as well as conservative for the genuinely conservative must necessarily appear subversive in an age of perpetual revolution. The Lord of the Rings is conservative in the sense of being medieval and to long for the medieval world it portrays is not necessarily nostalgic in the bad sense. It all depends on whether that old myth in Genesis actually is truer to the space-time reality we inhabit than the modern myth of evolution.

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