Thursday, February 17, 2011

From - Tolkien's Morgoth and Laplace's Demon

Tolkien's Morgoth and Laplace's Demon

by Satyajit Sarna | February 17, 2011

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There are no dead problems in philosophy, but some definitely kick harder. One of the most intractable is a thought experiment called Laplace’s Demon. The proposition is simple – that an incredibly potent intellect, capable of knowing of every particle, every force, every element in existence, and all of their past movements, and capable of analysing all of this, could predict, from this moment on, every single occurrence till the end of the universe. To Laplace’s demon, nothing comes as a surprise; everything in the future is a direct result of the past - a mechanism set in motion at the beginning of time, which will run till the end of time. We are particles and forces, our thoughts are electrons pinging through immense neural caverns, and our muscular movements the opening and closing of chemical gates. At the human level, the implication is that free will is an illusion resulting from ignorance.

J.R.R. Tolkien may never have characterised the question of free will in so mechanical and heartless a manner as Laplace’s Demon was. The old professor was a famously devout Catholic, and his faith shone through in his writings, tingeing the whole universe he created with a sad mysticism. Entire books have been written about Tolkien and Christianity, and by real scholars and people far more qualified than I; so, I do not wish to delve too deeply in that question. I only wish to propose that free will was, to Tolkien, a religious consideration, and we ought to treat it as such.

The trick with Tolkien is to approach him on his own ground – an endless green Oxford lawn - and ruminate with him, at length and in depth, to marinate yourself in the big questions. The Silmarillion is,arguably, the biggest book that an author whose name we know has ever written. Its scope beggars everything else I have read that goes by the poor name of fiction. The more widely read Lord of the Rings is merely an interesting footnote at the end of the cosmic spectacle.

The Silmarillion - Tolkien’s creation myth for Middle-earth - was published posthumously after Christopher, his son, edited and collated it. The earliest parts of it date back to Tolkien’s teenage years, and large tracts of it were written immediately after the First World War, after Tolkien returned fromSomme, where he served as a signals officer. The youth and energy of Europe, and the progress and development of the positivist nineteenth century had burnt itself out in the flaming trenches of the War. With the creation of Middle-earth, Tolkien shut his eyes and set the clock back to the beginning of time.

Our problem springs from the first three pages itself. Follow this closely. Eru, or Illúvatar, (the creator) forms the Ainur (the holy spirits), and directs them like a conductor to create a great music. But Melkor, the most powerful of the Ainur, does not play the music that Illúvatar dictates. He plays a music of his own in which the importance of his part is exaggerated, which clashes with the music of the rest of the Ainur. Illúvatar puts a halt to the first piece of music and starts a new piece, a more powerful one with a new beauty. However, once again, Melkor introduces his own elements into it and once more the result is cacophony, for Melkor cannot be drowned out. The third time, Illúvatar starts a new theme, but while the first two were triumphant and powerful, the third is soft and melancholy. Instead of competing against Melkor’s notes, it incorporates them and uses them as a counterpoint, overwhelming them. Then Illúvatar shows them a vision of the creation they have undertaken – “Behold your music!” The last composition of the Ainur had created a world: Arda, beautiful and living and growing, a product of their thoughts, including those of Melkor. In that very first scene, in the very process of creation, lies the seed of all narrative.

Melkor looks at the world, and he sees only his creation, and deems himself the master of Arda. Before the coming of the children of Illúvatar – elves and men – he battles with the Ainur, who have taken up the dominion of Arda and are known as the Vala, and forever sets his hand against them, undoing and corrupting their work, and putting his malice to work.

Of course, Melkor is Tolkien’s Lucifer. Like the Morning Star, he is the best and strongest of his kind. As Lucifer was the first amongst the angels, so was Melkor preeminent amongst the Ainur. In the words of Milton, Lucifer thought it “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven”, and so it is that Melkor would rather be lord of dark and fell realms than live in the golden hall of Valinor and take his place in line. And as Lucifer became known as Satan, so too does Melkor take the name of Morgoth.

In the Koran, Iblis was a jinn and a devoted servant of Allah, so exalted that even though he was a jinn, his stature was that of an angel. His sin was to refuse to bow before Adam, the creation of Allah, while all of the angels complied. When asked why he did not bow, his answer to Allah was that he had been created out of the smokeless fire, while Adam was made out of clay, and he will bow only before Allah. In contrast with the angels, who were not capable of disobedience, Iblis had the exercise of his will, and for that, he was doomed to hell, and given respite until the day of judgement, Qiyamah. But it is on that day that he becomes known as Shaitan.

When Illúvatar creates elves, the lesser companions of the Valar, he makes them beautiful and immortal and pure. He grants that they be the most beautiful of all his Children and that, unless slain, they will perish only with the end of the world. In contrast, mortality is the lot of men. They will live for a while and then they will die. Therefore, they are known as Guests or Strangers.

However, mortality is a “gift” because, hand in hand with it, Illúvatar also grants “that the hearts of men should seek beyond the world and should find no rest therein… but they should have a virtue to shape their lives, amid the powers and the chances of the world, beyond the music of the Ainur, which is as fate to all things else”. So it is that Illúvatar gives the freedom of will to men.

Melkor aka Morgoth, is Tolkien’s Lucifer. Man creates in the image of Melkor – unique, unguided, free to choose values, even to make horrific mistakes and to harm himself and his own kin.
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Free will is also inherently linked in The Silmarillion to the concept of creation. Aulë, one of the Vala, creates the dwarves in secret, under a mountain; when Iluvatar questions him, he apologises and expects that he will have to destroy them, for he has usurped the power of Illúvatar. However, Illúvatar is pleased and breathes life into them. But Aulë did not usurp or imitate the power of Illúvatar; what he did was whittle a few dolls to play with. Melkor’s usurpation of power was a greater thing. It was the action of a demiurge, the fashioning of a world and playing with the power of Creation. The term is one that we take from the Greeks via the Gnostics – the demiurge is an artisan spirit, a creator of the material universe; one who is both created and yet can create anew.

The power of creation is key to the central story arc of The Silmarillion. The greatest craftsman of the elves is Fëanor, who embodies the spirit of fire. Fëanor, to my mind, has some spark of the demiurgic power; after all, none of the Vala could match his workmanship. He creates the three Silmarils, jewels in which the light of Arda is encapsulated. The Valar bless the jewels, and everyone treasures them.

Naturally, Morgoth - who has been allowed the freedom of Valinor on the grounds of good behaviour - filches the Silmarils. Fëanor is furious at the lack of understanding and powerlessness of the Vala. He swears the Oath of Fëanor – “which none shall break and none should take, by the name even of Illúvatar, calling the everlasting dark upon them if they kept it not” - which binds him and his sons to chase the Silmarils and reassert their possession of what was theirs, regardless of who may take or keep it from them, be they Vala or elve or man. The Oath of Fëanor is so strong and dire a thing that Fëanor and the other Noldor, his clansmen, are exiled from Valinor; and from there, the beautiful jewels occasion tales of terror and greatness and treachery.

If a being is omnipotent and omniscient, how could he have created anything or anyone involuntarily? Does God test the faith of man, all the while knowing the answer? Remember, when Illúvatar directs the music of the Ainur, and Melkor raises his vain and discordant theme, Illúvatar subsumes his notes into a greater swirling piece and states – “And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its innermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined”. Of all the deus ex machina in Tolkien’s work – the Eagles spring to mind – Melkor is the greatest, a challenge and barrier to all men, elves, or Vala. Is it not possible that God created Satan andAllah created Iblis to challenge the faith of man, all the while knowing the answer?

The philosophical tool that yokes Laplace’s Demon is almost anti-philosophical in nature. Simply, they call it Pragmatism. So what if to the omniscient mind, there can be no divergence from the given path? It is no concern of ours. Man has no choice but to act as if he is free. We are free - first, because we believe ourselves to be, and second, because we cannot imagine otherwise; we cannot comprehend ourselves to be bound. We have no choice but to proceed with the belief of free will.

To return our argument to the context of The Silmarillion, Melkor had a hand in the shaping of man. Illúvatar made the Eldar pure, and in the holy sanctum of Valinor, but Melkor reared men in conflicted Arda. Elves are part and parcel of the work of the clockmaker, and they do not create in the deeper sense. Their creations are organic, their shape is lovely and holy and based on the world around them, and completely predictable. Man creates in the image of Melkor – unique, unguided, free to choose values, even to make horrific mistakes and to harm himself and his own kin. This is an echo of the demiurgic power. Consider, for example, the atom bomb - the ultimate remaking of matter and the ultimate deviant act.

In the Akallabêth, when the maddened kings of Númenór sail across the ocean to seek Valinor, against the order of nature and the dictates of the Vala, they exercise their free will, driven by their dream of reaching paradise. Every higher action of ours is bent towards gaining, or if you so believe – regaining, a state of grace. The explorer in the Age of Discovery, hacking his way through the Amazon rainforest had the discovery of Eden on his mind. The long-distance runner brings his body and mind to the brink of breakdown, as does the drug user or the heavy drinker, because beyond the veil of reality, they see something else - a movement behind a screen. Some people are just wired to behave that way, as if they are climbing back up from the Fall.

Tolkien was raised in the shadow of Birmingham’s Edgbaston Waterworks, which to him were Blake’s “dark satanic mills”. He recoiled from the ugliness of the creations of industrial England, and the Luddite streak in him was strong enough to envision: the forges of Isengard and the torture chambers of Mordor, where Orcs were made from kidnapped elves; and, in its most prosaic form, the Scouring of the Shire.

J.R.R. 'Beren' Tolkien and Edith 'Luthien' Tolkien
Images above from Wikimedia Commons here and here.

The Silmarillion is Tolkien’s missile at heaven, his anguish at the fallen world he was born into, filled with impersonal industrialised warfare, the loss of community, and the suppression and subordination of nature to man’s desires. So he creates a world apart from that given to him, fills it with his stories, and invites others to live in it. This too, is a heretical action; a rebellion against the world, and the God who he believed had created it. Tolkien was, like Fëanor, a demiurge and he gave himself a world to live in. The engravings on the graves of Tolkien and his wife even bear the names Beren and Lúthien alongside their given names.

As we are forced to believe we are free, we are demiurges too. We have the ability to bring into the world creations unfettered by the world we are given, divergent from the laws of nature and even against the will of our own creator, because God freed us by making us mortal. Because we must die, we have equity in the concept of freedom of will. Because the flail of death is always on our backs, we are free to make the world in our own image, and not merely be bound to its ways. We can only seek true meaning in one way, and that is by creating in our own image, by bringing new things into the world. Creation and rebellion are our rights, and the closest to Godhood we can come in our own short lives.

For better or worse, we may all be Melkors. But we need not become Morgoths.

Note: Nothing in this piece should be taken to imply disrespect of anyone’s beliefs. If any is caused, it is deeply regretted. I use terms and meanings loosely, but hopefully, not so loosely as to be incorrect.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

From - The Happiness Machine

The Happiness Machine

by Satyajit Sarna | February 03, 2011

[Dandelion Wine; Ray Bradbury; 1957]

You may never spend a summer on the Amalfi coast. You may never be loved. You may never run a mile in four minutes. You may never drive a Lamborghini, or see your name in print or on a medal. But the one truly magical experience that is given to everyone is childhood. No amount of poverty or riches or pain can truly kill the experience of being a child. Even child soldiers and street orphans have not actually had their childhoods taken away, they’ve just had them bent into an unrecognisable shape. They too see the world fresh and coloured for the first time; they too know that they are first to feel a perfect day.

Dandelion Wine is a loose collection of vignettes and ramblings from the summer of 1928, in a small Midwestern town. It takes its name from a distillation of summer flowers and citrus fruits and rainwater, the taste of “summer caught and stoppered”, which is bottled every June by Douglas Spaulding’s grandfather. When the winter is at its deepest, and one is racked with hacking coughs and ice-numbed feet, the smallest sip of dandelion wine brings back the feeling of sunlight, the smell of cut grass, the endless American summer which is their true golden season, which marks the risen splendour of all things. Douglas Spaulding lives in postcard America. Retired colonels who remember the Civil War sit on the porch. Kids drink thick milkshakes (cue John Travolta in Jackrabbit Slim’s) at the drugstore. This is a pre-war white-bread Eden, untroubled by desegregation, oil economies and urban crime. If The Great Gatsby is the story of the Fall, then this is the panorama of the Garden.

When I read Fahrenheit 451 and the Martian Chronicles, I remember being surprised to the point of shock by the compassion, the blatant humanity of the writing. As a teenager, it seemed to me an unforgivable gaucherie, a slip showing at the dinner table. Dandelion Wine is a deeply spiritual book, plumbing the wellspring of that compassion for every man, for every living thing, for civilisation and politeness. At fifteen, it would have disgusted me as genteel and deeply uncool; at twenty-five, it warms me precisely because I now realise how rare compassion is and how sparsely it grows.

Image above and on article thumbnail is from dsearls' photostream on Flickr.
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When you are a child, you have the ability to focus for long stretches on the smallest of things, the cheapest of pleasures; every change, every thought is novel or magical. One of the rituals of the summer for Douglas Spaulding is the buying of new sneakers – the Royal Crown Cream-Sponge Para Litefoot Tennis Shoes – which he describes in the sort of reverie that is comparable to nothing but a boy recollecting buying new sneakers, in which he will run through fields and jump over streams. He invents stories and worlds around the mystery of the ravine that runs through the town, where the wilderness swallows little boys and a serial killer is said to hide. If you had to attach a name to the symbol, you could say that the ravine represents death and the unknown, and you wouldn’t be wrong; but if you were ever a child who wandered into the woods, you also know the lure of the curve around which you can’t see, the boundary you were told not to cross, the hour beyond which you were supposed to be home, and there is no name for that. There is also no name for that moment when you realise that even though you are leaving or moving away, there are things you never noticed till the last moment, like the colour of that house on your road, and then you are forced to ask, “What else have I missed?”

The sign at the back reads: "Let yourself be seduced by a sweet ending"
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Dandelion Wine is also about old people, people who are full of wisdom and stories, and their relation to the world. The bedridden Colonel Freeleigh calls his friend in Mexico City and asks him to open his window and hold the receiver out, to hear the sound of “brown and alien and beautiful people” so he can remember being there half a century ago, young and healthy, literally travelling by telephone into the past. Miss Helen Loomis spends her last three weeks with a young man in love with a picture taken of her in 1853, to whom she describes travelling the world, alone. She travels again, but this time in his company, because he is a young man who wants to see “Istanbul, Port Said, Nairobi, Budapest. Write a book. Smoke too many cigarettes. Fall off a cliff, but get caught in a tree halfway down. Get shot at a few times in a dark alley on a Moroccan midnight.”

Children and old people have much in common; they both appreciate the vastness of life; children out of ignorance, and old people out of experience. They enjoy the same simple unconstructed delights, the magical patterns of nature, the invention and use of small tools. Old people have stories to tell and children have the patience and enthusiasm for them. There are scenes in Dandelion Wine I will not describe because I simply cannot, but I will tell you that it is important for us all to talk to old people, for them to tell us stories, for us to cook for each other, for the miraculous candle of family to pass somehow, sputtering and flickering. They know too much, and like Colonel Freeleigh, they are all time machines; they can put us down in Lahore when it was still in India, or tell us what it was like looking out of a cockpit at an electrical storm over the Arabian Sea.

You can say that all of this is damnable nostalgia, that the world was never washed with dew and peppermint like this, and maybe you are right, but that’s like criticising whiskey for not tasting exactly like barley, for being too full of smoke or peat. It happens to history, even at a personal level. I cannot remember doing homework when I was ten years old, even though I must have done weeks of it, but I can remember bringing books home and reading them till it got dark, or playing in the mud but being clean and fresh and smelling of talcum powder when I went to bed.

And the writing! I will stand small-town Ray Bradbury, who dropped out of college to sell newspapers and bang out stories on public typewriters for pulp magazines, against the feted lights of the literary world, every day of the week. Take all your M.F.A. programmes and serious writers and intense young men in black coats and send them somewhere safe and prosperous where they can be edgy and dangerous in peace; give me instead one more paragraph of Bradbury, one more drop of dandelion wine. Read this book slowly. Savour it. Shut it every few pages and let it drift across your mind like a cloud when you’re lying on the grass and it’s tickling your neck.

These are sentences written by a man in love with life, who wants to shout it in the street so that everyone may hear it, and maybe someone will shout back. Look at their rhythm. When offered a taste of ice cream, old Mrs. Bentley says, “I’m old enough and cold enough; the hottest day won’t thaw me”. Say that out loud – it’s a perfect tercet - feel the scansion of it on your tongue like a banana split, the internal rhyme of two flavours. Bradbury knows the true weight of metaphor and symbols: not heavy like a bludgeon, nor so thin and diffused that at the end of three hundred pages, you’re still not sure what it was and whether it only happens to white people. The Happiness Machine makes people sad, the serial killer is waiting at home, and the next dish of ice cream you eat could make you cry.

Celebrate life, says Ray Bradbury, celebrate and love its mysteries and miracles, its everyday hopes and trials and those who surround you through it. Celebrate also the present, this time, the season in which you dwell, because across the universe, every season must come to an end.