The Aesthetic of Despair
Is despair an excellence or a defect? Purely dialectically, it is both. The possibility of this sickness is man’s superiority over the animal, for it indicates infinite sublimity that he is spirit. Consequently, to be able to despair is an infinite advantage, and yet to be in despair is not only the worst misfortune and misery—no, it is ruination.
—Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death
Despair has a beauty all it own. Most terrible things do. But for some reason, most people don’t think much about despair’s aesthetic side. Yet despair’s awful beauty can be seen in the arts that it has inspired. The architecture that springs from despair is awesome in the full sense of the word. Paintings that have been inspired by despair can hardly be called pretty, and yet your eye is drawn to them. You cannot look away. Books inspired by despair are awful to read and yet still such books are ranked as some of the best books that have ever been produced. In all of these works of art, despair is the source of their great artistic power. It is what drove the artists and it is what gives their work such power to stir our own feelings. The aesthetic power of despair is so great that for many people it is the only source of real beauty that they know.
Goths are a fine example of a subculture where despair is the guiding aesthetic principle. But the Goths raise an interesting question: if despair truly has a beauty, how come so many people fail to see a pleasing aesthetic in Goth culture? Few people besides the Goths themselves see any beauty in people who paint themselves in black and white. They can not comprehend why people would exchange their flesh for metal. It horrifies them that the Goths cut themselves as a form of emotional release. The cumulative horror of the Goth subculture bewilders outsiders and leaves them wondering what could possible cause a human being to want to be part of such a subculture. Where is the beauty in the Goth aesthetic?
In order to properly explore such a question, we must first make a distinction between what is pretty and what is beautiful. A model walking down a runway is pretty; a disabled child overcoming great obstacles to take a few steps is beautiful. To be truly beautiful, to truly move someone, something must have meaning. To be pretty, something must only please the senses. Something can please the senses without having any meaning, but at the same time, something can be displeasing to the senses and yet still be beautiful. This distinction between beauty and prettiness is what divides high and low art. Low art is what is designed solely to please the senses; wildly popular for time, then it fades away. High art is what aspires to have meaning though it is often not pleasing to the senses. But to those for whom it has meaning it is far more beautiful than low art and they preserve it for the ages.
Going back to the Goths, we can now rephrase our question; what is it about the Gothic subculture that has meaning for some people? The answer is all too easy to see if you look at the wider culture that the Gothic subculture springs from. After all, the pop culture’s aesthetic is based on vanity, fakery, and delusion; whatever word you think best describes the pop culture’s aesthetic, the inescapable truth is that the aesthetic of pop culture is by design meaningless. In part you can see this in the aesthetic of personal looks, which is all about faking things you don’t have and pretending to be things that you are not. But perhaps the archetype of the meaninglessness of pop culture is the action movie. Standard parts of this movie are portrayals of sacrificial love and battling evil. Yet you know that artists and writers of the movies would deny that the word “evil” has any real meaning or that there is any meaningful distinction between love and lust. Such a movie is meant only to distract us from the real world, where right and wrong is ambiguous, and there is no love that can be relied upon. If you want to see a movie that has real meaning, one that has truth in it, it is going to be one full of despair. But one does not need to rely only on movies to prove this point; the same can be said of most of today’s popular culture. The only real thing in this culture’s art is the despair; everything else is meaningless by design.
What is fake cannot have meaning. What is without meaning cannot have beauty. Is it any wonder that the Goths fail to see any beauty in the aesthetic of a culture that pressures them to try to look either older than they are or younger than they are so that they might find someone who will offer them fake love? By embracing the look of death the Goths are embracing the one thing that they know to be real. Their look is testifying to each other and to the world that they are not striving after any fake things, no matter how pretty they might seem. Even when they are cutting themselves the Goths are only being more real than the rest of their modern compatriots. After all, as long as cutting oneself is done in moderation it is no more harmful than drugs, alcohol, food, or the many other ways that people use to deal with their despair. Cutting oneself is just a more honest way of destroying oneself in despair than those who mask the fact that they are destroying themselves with temporary pleasure.
But why embrace despair as a governing aesthetic even if nothing else has meaning? Why not take the pleasure that can be found in the merely pretty things? Even if prettiness is meaningless, surely it is better then dwelling on the despair that all humans feel at some time or another. But to a man who is thirsting for meaning, the merely pretty things are like salt water to a man who is dying for lack of water. Pretty things only serve to increase the torment of such a man. The prettiness merely serves to sharpen the hunger for the beautiful. Better, if you hunger for meaning, to wallow in the real despair than to be tormented by the fake pretty. As Dylan Thomas said in the last stanza of his poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night……
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
This is the summation of the Goth aesthetic. This is the summation of anyone whose aesthetic sense recognizes only despair as having any meaning: the desire to be blessed with real tears rather than a pretty facade put over something horrible. Even if the blessing of the real tears serves only to highlight the curse that they live under, it is still better than putting a fake smile on the face of death.
The idea that real face of death is better than death with a fake smile on its face is not an argument that can be made with logic or un-made with logic. It is purely an aesthetic choice. The fact that such a choice must be made on aesthetic grounds reveals how critical our perception of beauty is not only to our judgment of art, but how we seek to live our lives. This is why good art is so meaningful to humans.
Our sense of aesthetics is so important to how we live our lives that it can sometimes even trump our sense of what we need to do to survive and prosper. There have been countless starving artists throughout history who demonstrate on the most basic level that this is true. But the idea that there is a fundamental conflict between people’s sense of aesthetics and their sense of what is necessary to survive and prosper in life has broader application than the lives of a few talented people willing to suffer almost anything for their art.
It is around the conflict of the pragmatic versus that which is aesthetically pleasing that Aldous Huxley’s book The Brave New World turns. As every reasonably well-read person knows, the Brave New World is all about a perfect world where everyone is pretty, no one is unhappy, and everyone has as much sensual pleasure as they could possibly want. But we are meant to understand that this world is a horrible world. We are meant to be horrified by the teaching of children from an early age to engage in meaningless sexual activity. We are meant to understand that such a world has sacrificed everything of real meaning. We are meant to understand that in such a world there is no faith, hope, or love. And if we should be so dense as to fail to pick up on any of this, characters are introduced as the book progress to pound these themes into our head. The culmination of the book is a debate between the Savage, who is horrified by the Brave New World, and the scientifically minded Controller.
The Savage’s argument against the utopia was based on aesthetics. The root of his argument was that there was no longer anything that could be considered truly beautiful in the Brave New World because nothing was meaningful anymore. Shakespeare was the weapon that the Savage relied upon to make his case. Using the bard’s eloquent language, the Savage sought to invoke all the beautiful things that had been destroyed to make the Brave New World. He sought to make the Controller understand that the price that had been paid for the Brave New World was far too high. The Savage argued that, far from being a utopia, the Brave New World was in fact a type of hell. The Savage felt that the absence of beauty made life not worth living.
Controller’s counter-argument was based on the pragmatic. The Controller demonstrated that all the things the Savage accused him of destroying: chastity, heroism, love–were all sources of unhappiness and grief. What good is a mother’s love for her child, if all that it accomplishes in the end is to give her uncontrollable grief at the death of her child? What good is chastity, if it must be accompanied by unsatisfied hungering and jealous rages? To be sure, the Controller’s choice eliminates all that is truly beautiful, but it also eliminates all that is truly ugly as well. For the Controller this is a price worth paying, because to him the highest demand that humans have is the pragmatic. The desire for shelter, health, pleasure, and other basic animal wants are what sensible humans strive to take care of above all else.
If the Savage’s argument against the Brave New World can be boiled down to a powerful and moving accusation that nothing beautiful remained in the Brave New World, the Controller’s counter-argument can be boiled down to an equally powerful and devastating question: what good is the search for meaning if, in the end, it must always go unsatisfied? To paraphrase the Controller, it would be one thing if you could show that the search for meaning (and thus beauty) would ultimately end in happiness. Than maybe you could argue that the search for meaning might be worth the pain. But all of human nature and human history serves to show that the human search for meaning is one that is doomed to futility and is one of the primary causes of human pain. To the Controller, the Savage is trying to stop human progress, for human progress is all about eliminating unpleasantness and maximizing human pleasure. As the Controller demonstrates, the hunger and search for meaning must be gotten rid of in order to achieve those goals. And if you get rid of meaning, you must also get rid of beauty.
It is far better to read the back-and-forth between the Savage and the Controller than any dry recapitulation of the debate. Most educated people are already familiar with Huxley’s book anyway. But often, those same educated people do not seem to realize that the Savage lost the argument. They might remember that the Controller reduced the Savage in the latter part of the debate to someone who was demanding the right to be unhappy. But this demand people have often chosen to spin as a heroic demand for freedom instead of the admission of defeat that it is. They fail to see that the reason that the Controller is so willing to grant the Savage his right to be unhappy, is that he was confident that the Savage will use this right to prove the Controller correct in the most final way possible. In this the Controller is correct, for the last chapter of the book describes how the Savage proceeds to demonstrate the futility of his hope.
In the book, the aftermath of the debate has the Savage retreating to a secluded place where he attempts to drive out of himself all of the animal desires that made him want to go back to the Brave New World…made him want to go back and look for the woman that he loved (or thought that he could love, hoped that he loved, hoped that he had a love in him that was more than just lust) that he knew would never love him. The Savage wanted to prove that his view of what was beautiful could sustain him. He wanted to prove that he could overcome himself and make himself meaningful. To that end, he sought to punish his body by denying it any kind of easy comfort. From there he went on to self-flagellating, and from there to suicide. The Savage’s end serves as a type of vindication of the Controller’s argument that the search for meaning is pointless, even as the aesthetic sense that rules the book makes the Savage seem beautiful even in his despair.
In the terms of this essay, Huxley has the Savage reject the meaningless prettiness of the Brave New World, only to have him embrace the aesthetic of the Goth. For the Savage, the search for meaning ended up being meaningless. The only real things that the Savage could grasp were pain and death. What made the Savage Gothic is that even as despair was overwhelming him he still preferred the despair to the empty prettiness of the Brave New World. Our sense of aesthetics, not our sense of what is smart, is what leads us to sympathize with the Savage. What Huxley did in the Brave New World was to cause people to make a judgment on what type of society is right for man based on our aesthetic sense, not on what is practical. What is more, he brings us to a point where we are willing to say that a life that is based on (and destroyed by) despair is more beautiful than life based on a permanent high of meaningless pleasure. Huxley brings us to the place were we can see beauty in an aesthetic of despair.
It is this part of the book that many people have problems with. They cannot help but be sympathetic to the Savage even as he kills himself. In fact they are so sympathetic that they are often angry that Huxley did not give the Savage a better choice. They are not content with the fact the Savage’s despair makes him more beautiful than the Controller. They want Huxley to make it so that the Savage is proved right logically as well. They want the accusation of the Controller, that the search for meaning itself is meaningless, proved wrong.
It is not only some readers who don’t like the fact that the Controller is vindicated. Aldous Huxley himself was not happy with the way he ended the Brave New World. He later said that if he could write it all over again, he would have given the Savage a saner choice. But I don’t really think that Aldous Huxley could have truly given his book any different of an ending and still been true to his own vision. Huxley had the Savage commit suicide because Huxley could find no hope for the Savage. He could find no hope for Savage because he could not find fulfillment for the hunger that the Savage had. And hunger without fulfillment is always destructive in the end. Thus, for Huxley to change the ending of the Brave New World, he would have had to give the Savage a fake hope. That would have destroyed the beauty of the book, for what is fake cannot be meaningful.
For the rest of his life, Huxley looked for an answer that would allow him to refute the Controller logically as well as aesthetically. He was so desperate to find an answer that he turned to LSD and other drugs, even though he knew them to be very dangerous. It was his own way of destroying himself in an effort to defeat the Brave New World. But Huxley was unable to find a saner choice for himself, much less for his imaginary creation the Savage. Just as the Savage died in a desperate attempt to escape all that was in himself that made the Brave New World so deadly, so too did Huxley take LSD one last time in a desperate attempt to transcend his own limitations and find a way to refute the Controller.
It is the sheer meaninglessness of such despair that causes some people to take the Controller’s argument and run with it. They would try to deny that even despair has any meaning. They would say that the despair of the Goths can be fixed with therapy or pills that correct the bio-chemical imbalances in their brains. They seem to feel that despair is a temporary aberration in the human condition caused by a mixture of genetic and environmental factors. They would argue that unless you correct these problems, it is impossible for anyone to find meaning in anything. For them, meaning can be reduced to the correct bio-chemical mix. With the correct bio-chemical balance in our brains, meaning can be found in everything. But such belief rests on two very dubious pillars. First, that you can equate depression with despair. The second is that you can have meaning without having despair.
To confuse depression with despair is like confusing pain with damage to your body. You can treat pain. You can even do away with pain, but then you would have a condition like leprosy. Any medical student knows that pain is a fundamentally good thing that alerts us to problems. The fact that pain sometimes needs to be treated does not mean that we want to do away with it. The same thing could be said about depression. When we are depressed we feel that things lack meaning or worth. When we despair of something, we intellectually understand that something is without meaning. That intellectual understanding does not necessarily have to coincide with depression, any more than someone who has just broken their back needs to feel pain to know that there is something seriously wrong. But depression drives us toward things that have meaning, just as pain drives us to avoid things that are dangers to us, or hunger drives us to eat. The fact that we can intellectually understand that we need to eat, or that some things are dangerous to us, does not do away with the fact that it would be unwise for us to take away from our bodies the ability to feel hunger or to be depressed. That fact that we can suppress our desire for meaning does not mean that it is wise to do so, even if the hunger for meaning can make our lives very unpleasant. Take the proverbial man who, at the end of his life, wishes that he had not spent so much time at the office. Was the fact that he managed to keep himself so busy that he did not have time to be “depressed” and consider the meaning of what he was doing, really of benefit to him in long run?
The idea that depression is a necessary part of human need for meaning is counter-intuitive to anyone who has ever had a serious problem with depression. Serious depression is often characterized as a state of mind where one cannot find meaning in anything. Even things that once gave you happiness no longer have meaning for you. But such a feeling is logically defensible. To treat a logically defensible feeling as a medical problem needing a cure is as foolish as thinking that feeling pain when touching hot things is a deficiency in the human body. This is where psychologists and other mental health professionals really start to error. If they can see a bio-chemical reason for something, they think that they can treat the problem by treating that bio-chemical reason. But this ignores the fact that bio-chemical things can be (are?) indicative of something. Pain, for example, can be reduced to a bio-chemical reason. Because doctors understand that, we have pain killers. But doctors also understand that the bio-chemical reaction happens for a reason. That pain is pointing to a truth, as it were, that doctors know that they need to understand if they are to do the patient any real good. But if someone comes in and says to a doctor “Everything is meaningless,” the doctor will prescribe Prozac. That doctor will not stop to think if the statement that everything is meaningless is in fact true.
Therapists often fault doctors for relying too much on medication, and not enough on treating the underlying problem. But the approach of therapists is often no better. When confronted by a mother whose child has just been run over by a drunk driver, they recognize a cause for the depression that the mother is feeling. But they tend to take the same track as the doctors that they look down on. They look at this tragedy’s effect on the mother primarily as something that has damaged her by giving her negative emotions. The way they seek to “fix” her is to get her to “release” her emotions. They want her to know that her emotions are normal and to encourage her to talk about them, so that she does not hold onto them and lock herself in her own emotional prison. They want to teach her strategies for dealing with her emotions so that the she can lessen the strength of her emotions and lead a “normal” life. It all sounds so nice, but in realty they would probably do just as well to give her Prozac and shove her out the door.
Her problem is not that her feelings are damaged. Her problem is that her child who once had meaning for her has been turned into a corpse that has no meaning. Not only that, but it happened for a reason that has no meaning that she can discern. Such a tragedy is enough to make you question the meaning of all of life. You don’t need to feel her emotions to understand this. You could write out a logical argument based on her tragedy that life was meaningless, without ever feeling her emotions. To treat the emotions in her that lead her to seek meaning as damage that needs to be dealt with, is ultimately harmful. She does not need to “deal” with her emotions, she needs to find meaning. The reason that therapy tends to do more harm than good is that by focusing so much on dealing with a person’s emotions it gets in the way of the person’s ability to find a solution for the hunger embodied by those emotions.
As Huxley pointed out in the Brave New World, the easiest way to make sure the woman who has lost her child does not feel despair is to make her child meaningless to her. If her child was meaningless to her, she would be indifferent to whether her child died or not. It was for this reason that “mother” was a dirty word in the Brave New World. You cannot have mothers having meaningful relationships with their children without those relationships being a source of despair. The same could be said of anything that people find true beauty in. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in his poem Spring and Fall: To a Young Child..
MARGARET, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
We come to “such sights colder” because they lose meaning for us. We no longer perceive those sights as being beautiful; rather, we see them as being merely pretty. Is it worth no longer being able to see the beauty so that we are protected from the grief? That is an aesthetic choice, one that is immune to the demands of logic. Yet, I am afraid, logic does tell us that in the end we will weep. We can keep our lives so full that we do not even have time to think, much less be depressed. We can take pills to make our hearts cold so that we no longer feel the pain. But like a man who has leprosy we can not escape what happens to us. When we look at ourselves in the mirror we see that we are as ugly as hell. Our aesthetic choice is not really between grieving and not grieving, but between going into the night with our eyes open or our eyes shut
Surely we are getting too metaphysical here. Surely we are glorifying despair, and its attendant manifestation depression, just a little bit too much. What about the fact that some people are more prone to depression than others? Does that not indicate that the problem with depression is more than just people’s hungering for meaning? But we would not say that because some people have more artistic talent then others, that artistic talent is therefore a flaw, would we?
Of course not. We all accept that artistic talent is a gift. But most often it is a gift that is made possible because they are prone to depression. It is common knowledge that the more creative a person is, the more likely they are to struggle with depression. What is not often acknowledged is that the depression is what makes much of the creativity possible. Just as hunger is necessary to appreciate the food of even the best of chefs, so too is the hunger for meaning necessary for the appreciation of true beauty. Just as hunger makes the most determined hunter, so too are those who hunger for meaning the best at finding it. This is why despair is so often bound up in the higher arts. The hunger is necessary if we are ever to find the beauty. And to find that beauty, the artists must of necessity be someone who hungers after meaning. But just because they hunger for it does not mean that they find it.
That brings us back to the Goths. Hunger may be real, but it is also as destructive in its own way as leprosy. If your aesthetic is based on always being hungry and never getting to eat, it is going to self destruct. Some people have an aesthetic sense that causes them to prefer to look at starving people rather then see the disfigurement of leprosy, but I don’t think either choice really fulfills people’s aesthetic longings. We may be horrified by the Controller’s choice, but we have a sneaking sympathy for his argument. Despair without the hope that meaning even exists (never mind if meaning is attainable or not), is as meaningless as a black canvas. The Goths may disavow the fake, but they can hardly be said to have found something that is real when the only real thing that they acknowledge is the ending of all things. At least the Savage was trying to find meaning even as he was killing himself; the Goths seem to have given up even looking for meaning outside of the truth of death.
Still, as horrible as I find the Goths to be, and even though I understand the logic that leads people to the Controller’s point of view, I still prefer the aesthetic of the Goths to the aesthetic of those who hold with the Controller. Or should I say, I find the Goths less horrifying than the alternative that modern rationality so often presents. I freely admit, it is purely an aesthetic choice on my part. I can at least identify with and sympathize with the pain of the Goths. I can at least share their horror of what is fake. But those who live by the argument of the Controller, they truly horrify me. They would go into that good night so drunk on pleasure that they can no longer tell the difference between what is beautiful and what is ugly. They would destroy man’s aesthetic sense, which is to say they would destroy man. They would….
But to rave on and on about how abhorrent I find the aesthetic of the Controller is meaningless. The Goths are a real subgroup in today’s society; the Controller is a fictional character. To set up the Controller as comparison to Goths is to seemingly set up a straw man in comparison to what is real. Who really believes what the Controller in the Brave New World believed? Who really expresses the aesthetic of the Controller in the real world? To answer that question, all we have to do is look at the contemporary art world.
Any discussion of the contemporary art world needs to start with Andy Warhol. He is one of the most influential founders of an aesthetic sensibility commonly referred to as contemporary art (it is sometimes called post-modern art). It is in Warhol that the “revolutionary” aesthetic of contemporary art was first fully expressed. In fact, the art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto claimed that Andy Warhol’s work “Brillo Boxes” marked the ending of art history. I would rephrase that to say that Warhol marked the start of a direct assault on art itself. More particularly, it marked an assault on the idea that our aesthetic hunger for beauty is in anyway meaningful. Warhol’s work is all about the celebrations of man’s animal needs and desires while at the same time mocking the very idea of meaning. All I see in Warhol’s work is an aesthetic expression of the Controller’s argument.
In fact, Warhol’s aesthetic is so much in line with Aldous Huxley’s fictional Controller that if you made Warhol up you would be accused of plagiarism. The similarities start with the superficial, such as Warhol’s worship of Ford, Warhol’s obsession with the Freudian way that advertisers created desire, and the way that Warhol industrialized of the creation of “art”. But what really ties Warhol to the Controller is the message that is implicit in Warhol’s body of work. Over and over throughout his career, Warhol took things that were traditionally considered mundane or base and he celebrated them. He celebrated them because they were mundane and base, not because he thought he saw some beauty in them that people were overlooking. He celebrated them as a direct rebuke to those artists who chose to believe that if you look hard enough, you can find beauty in anything. Through his work, Warhol sought to show that if you look hard enough everything is meaningless. The only thing you can get out of life is a kind of ephemeral pleasure. And even that pleasure, Warhol sought to show, is a product of your conditioning.
To advance his aesthetic vision (if a vision that mocks the very notion of beauty can be called an aesthetic) Warhol deliberately copied old artistic techniques used to highlight beauty and used them to highlight meaningless. Thus when Warhol paints a picture of Campbell’s Soup, he is celebrating the pleasure he got as a child of being fed that soup, and at the same time mocking the idea that there is any kind of higher meaning to be had from life. Warhol made it known that he liked eating Campbell’s soup. But you are not meant to find any kind of deeper meaning in a painting of Campbell’s soup. Warhol did not think the fact that he liked Campbell’s soup made it meaningful. In fact, the ridiculousness of a painting devoted solely to cans of Campbell’s soup just because you like it is supposed to make you question if portraits of other things are really anymore meaningful. What, Warhol asks, makes any painting any more meaningful than painting cans of Campbell’s soup just because you like eating it?
Warhol made this point over and over again. Sometimes in very crass ways, such as when he made an “art” film out of a man performing one single sexual act on another man for a long time. To Warhol pleasure is all there is to celebrate. Pain is all there is to fear. And even our conception of what pleasure and pain are is not a fixed absolute, but subject to manipulation.
In fact, alongside Warhol’s obsession with mocking the concept of beauty was Warhol’s obsession with manipulating people. He was fascinated by how advertisement could create demand for something where previously there was no demand. To him the process was further proof of the meaningless of all things. But to him it also held out the promise of power. He took great pride in his ability to get people to value things for no other reason than the fact he had successfully manipulated their desires. In doing this, Warhol was making the same point as Huxley’s fictional Controller. Happiness is the result of good conditioning, pain is the result of bad conditioning. What is the point of search for meaning when happiness can be manufactured out of thin air by anyone sufficiently talented in the art of manipulation?
The Brillo Boxes that I have previously mentioned are perhaps Warhol’s most direct statement of the value of manipulation. Many commentators on Warhol’s art have noted how Warhol was highlighting how the company Brillo turned a regular product into something that was special through advertising and fancy packaging. But what some commentators fail to see is that Warhol saw himself as doing the same thing with his art as Brillo did with their scrubbing pads. By taking great pains to recreate Brillo’s packaging, Warhol was paying Brillo the most sincere compliment he could muster. But in creating his Brillo Boxes, Warhol also gave visual expression to the Brave New World.
When you are confronted by Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes you can either despair at the meaningless of life or celebrate the power to re-condition yourself into someone who needs no other meaning than his own sensual desires. Like Warhol, most of today’s contemporary artists choose the second choice. In doing so, they reject an aesthetic that acknowledges despair and instead choose the “aesthetic” of being high. Not that they necessarily want to use drugs, but they do want their emotions nailed at a permanent high so that they will not have to feel despair anymore. They don’t want to have an aesthetic sense that makes a distinction between the ugly and beautiful since they regard that as a meaningless source of pain. But in order to get rid of despair they have made contemporary art so meaningless that it has become a common butt of jokes.
It is not that contemporary artists have nothing to say. They are full of arguments for the Brave New World. They are full of rage against those who, like the savage, would take away their soma. They are against anything that would interfere with their attempt to condition uninterrupted pleasure. In less metaphorical terms, they will rail against outmoded and oppressive family structures. They will rail against poverty, environmental damage, or other eyesores that get in the way of their pleasure. They will demonstrate against any form of sexual oppression and demand the right to any type of sexual pleasure that they choose.
But those things are all part of man’s animal desires. By devoting themselves exclusively to those things without looking for any kind of beauty (and thus meaning) today’s artists have given up their quasi-religious role as the expressers of all that is in man that does not live off of bread. Man’s animal desires are the things that commerce, politics, and wars have always concerned themselves with. By making man’s animal desires the be all and end all, contemporary artists have ceased to be artists and have instead become advertisers. Their only tools are the same as an advertiser; shock, sex, the faux documentary, the endorsement of the rich and famous, the illusion of exclusivity. They no longer even try to create something that is truly beautiful. They have all bought the argument of the Controller.
I have already made a stab at expressing my extreme dislike of such an “aesthetic.” But since my dislike is based on my aesthetic sense, I find words inadequate to express the feelings that contemporary art brings up in me. To properly express an aesthetic feeling requires a true artist and I am no artist. The best I can do is to borrow the works of those who are artists, and use them for my own ends. So should you ever happen to read Watership Down, take note of Fiver’s reaction to the singing rabbit. It is the best expression of my feelings regarding contemporary art that I can think of. In fact, I have always thought that whole particular warren that Hazel and company came across was a good commentary on contemporary art. The loveless tolerance and the hateful help so displayed was a better expression of distaste for the world of contemporary art than anything I could ever offer.
But regardless of my personal feelings, hopefully you have followed the duality that I have tried to set up. An aesthetic based on despair is horrible, but to me, one that does away with despair as a meaningless expression of bad conditioning is even more terrible. Both choices, though, are so horrible that we are loathe to accept either one. Still, one has to wonder, do we have a choice? Do we really have any other choice but to face life drunk or in pain? Where shall we turn for an example of an aesthetic that cannot be put into one of those two approaches to art? What can incorporate the despair that is part of life and make it beautiful? Would religion provide an answer? Shall we turn to the aesthetic that is prevalent in the contemporary Christian churches?
Anyone who has spent enough hours listening to contemporary Christian music knows what a waste of time that would be. The aesthetic currently ruling in Christendom is really no different than the aesthetic of the Controller/Warhol. To be sure, your typical American Christian is working towards a world more like that portrayed in Lois Lowry’s The Giver than that which is portrayed in the Brave New World. Still, the heart of both aesthetics is the same. They are both equally meaningless exercises in satisfying man’s practical animal desires.
I know that contemporary Christians are not usually associated with contemporary artists. I don’t know who would be insulted more by such a comparison. Would it be your average Christian or would it be your average bohemian artist? Both groups have made it a fixed part of their mental image of themselves that they are nothing like the other group. Any assertion to the contrary would likely elicit an extreme reaction. Yet even on the issues that seem to divide them the most, there is no real difference between them aesthetically speaking. Take chastity for example.
On the surface, there is no starker difference between your average Christian and your average bohemian artist than sexual ethics. You would think that this would point to a difference in aesthetic view point between them. After all, one of the things that the Savage had against the Brave New World is that it destroyed chastity. But the Savage had a spiritual idea of chastity; your average Christian is too practical for that. The typical Christian argument for chastity is based on claims that young people will be deeply damaged if they are not chaste and their marriages won’t be quite as special. In short, be good so you won’t get hurt and you can hit the jackpot down the road.
Aesthetically speaking, how is that any different than an argument that your average bohemian artist would use to justify his sexual ethics? Both of them are basing their argument on what they perceived will get them the most pleasure and the least pain. What makes things right and wrong by both parties reckoning can be shown by which things bring the most pleasure and avoid the most pain. They come to different conclusions of course. But the argument is based around a difference on what is pragmatic, not a difference of aesthetics. To the aesthetic sense of both contemporary Christians and contemporary artists, pleasure is the only sensible means to measure what is meaningful.
One of the surest signs that Christians have the same aesthetic sense as the Controller is that they are allergic to despair. Christians believe that despair is the result of improper conditioning just as much as Warhol and Co. does. In contemporary Christianity, to be upbeat is to be spiritual. To even hint of despair is to reveal yourself fallen from grace. What this belief works out to in terms of the Christian artists is a rigorous self censorship to keep any hint of negative feeling out of their art work.
In some cases it is not even self censorship. I know of one Christian artist who got into big trouble with his record company because he wrote a song about struggling with thoughts of suicide. But you cannot blame the suits for that sort of thing; it is what the people want. The most popular Christian artists are the ones who are so perpetually upbeat you would think that they are on pot. Nothing can crack their cheerful facade. This is not to say that such Christians won’t confess to having bad days. But they will only confess that so that they can tell you how they got on the line with God and got everything cleared up. It is the Christian equivalent of popping soma.
This is a natural result of how the contemporary Christians choose to present God. He is a practical God. His commands are for your own good. Follow them and you will avoid pain and find pleasure. God is one who wants you to be happy, in shape, and happily married. The pouring out of his love means the pouring out of good feelings and high self esteem on those that need it. But those are all functions that the Brave New World fulfilled just fine. In fact, one of the Controller’s arguments against the Savage was that soma could do everything that religion could do with fewer side effects. By arguing for the goodness of God with the same arguments that the Controller used to argue for the goodness of soma, Christians vindicate the Controller’s case.
I sometimes wonder why contemporary Christians present God in the aesthetic light that they do. In order to present such a smiley faced version of the Gospel, Christians must ignore the governing aesthetic that is found in the Gospels themselves. There is something peculiar about that fact that so called Christian radio stations would never play a song that accurately portrayed the meaning of sweating blood. Maybe this state of affairs is due to the fact that most Christians proclaim an allegiance to Jesus because they are hoping for free bread. Or perhaps it is because they are so determined to save the world that they want make the aesthetic of the Gospel as accessible (i.e. pretty or pleasing to senses) as possible. But the process of trying to make an aesthetic accessible to everyone is a lot like a married couple deciding to have an open marriage. It spreads the pleasure, but in the end it makes it all meaningless. If an aesthetic does not have beauty on its own terms, it will never have a beauty on someone else’s terms.
But this is getting far afield. We are not trying to figure out contemporary Christianity. We are trying to escape the Goth/Savage vs. Controller/Contemporary Art duality of aesthetics. How can we do away with despair without doing away with beauty? Or how can despair be beautiful? How can an aesthetic that calls the fake ugly avoid saying that death is the only real thing for it swallows all things? How can we even talk about such questions when we have already said that arguments based on aesthetics are immune to logic?
To that last question there is an easy answer. There is a distinction between what an artist dares and what a philosopher dares. A philosopher needs to make you know, and artist only invites you to see. Any type of aesthetic can only be understood by seeing it. Philosophers can debate about what has meaning all they want; only an artist can show you the beauty in something. Therefore, in order to find an answer to questions regarding despair and beauty we need to find artists who struggle with those very questions. We need to find an artist who has an aesthetic that does not portray the darkness of the Goth aesthetic nor has the emptiness of Warhol’s aesthetic. We need to find an artist who reaches for that which is in man that does not live by bread. We need to find an artist who makes even despair seem beautiful.
I had thought to use Winslow Homer as an example of such an artist because he makes a great contrast to Andy Warhol. To compare the works to the two men is to get a visual representation of two very different aesthetics. But while such comparison would be instructive, it ultimately would not work for the purposes of this essay. For one thing, an in-depth comparison of Homer and Warhol would require lots of esoteric knowledge that would limit the accessibility of this essay for most people. But even if everyone was intimately familiar with both Warhol and Homer the comparison would still have problems because of the great distance that separates them in time.
Because Warhol came after Homer, he incorporates how he views Homer’s aesthetic into his artwork. Homer on the other hand, probably never even dreamed that someone like Warhol would come along. In fact, the Controller said to the Savage that the philosophers and artists of old did not even conceive that something like the Brave New World was even possible. In the same way many people who buy into a modern aesthetic look at older artists in a condescending way. They acknowledge the beauty that is found in many older works of art. But at the same time, they say that if they knew what we know now, they would not have celebrated beauty the way they did.
For these reasons, I think it better to look to an artist who lived in the modern era and dealt with both its emptiness and its despair to provide an example of an aesthetic that is neither darkness nor emptiness; an artist who is widely known even among those who do not follow the arts and can be appreciated even by the unsophisticated. Let us look to J.R.R. Tolkien to provide us with an alternative to the Gothic aesthetic and Warhol’s anti aesthetic.
I can already hear people groaning. Bringing up Tolkien in a discussion of fine art is like serving pizza at a formal dress party. Tolkien’s work simply does not measure up to what the sophisticated and the educated expect when discussing such things. But why is this? Is it simply because the whole genre of fantasy fiction has a well deserved reputation for being frivolous? But Shakespeare wrote works that would be considered fantasy today. If we would not write off A Midsummer Night’s Dream just because it was a fantasy, why would we write off any other work merely because it belonged to the wrong genre? Maybe no one likes to talk about Tolkien’s work in the same breath as fine art because bringing up Tolkien’s works is to risk associating yourself with some of the more embarrassing aspects of his fan base. I can sympathize with this. I don’t like to be associated with most fans of Tolkien myself, but I could say the same of those who idolize the Bard.
This is all just a roundabout way of pointing out that no criticism can be leveled at Tolkien’s work that cannot be leveled at earlier works that people are happy to accept as art. It is obvious to anyone with an iota of literary knowledge that Tolkien borrowed from earlier styles of writing. And I don’t think that a fair-minded person can deny that he does this quite well. Yet most people who make up the liberal art’s educated elite are happy to accord earlier works with the same flaws they claim to see in Tolkien’s books the status of art, yet they vehemently deny that same status to Tolkien’s books.
Why raise the issue of the educated elite’s dislike of Tolkien? Because most of them hate him with a passion that goes beyond that of someone who is convinced that a book is poorly written and not worth the time it takes to read. They hate him because they see an aesthetic in his work that they cannot stand. They hate his work for the same reason that Shakespeare was called smut in Brave New World. Tolkien’s aesthetic awakens desires in people that modern rationality cannot satisfy. Not only that, but most people in the ivory towers think that it is positively wrong to invoke those desires. They fear Tolkein’s “smut” because they themselves used porn as a weapon against the Victorian middle class mores of their forefathers. But out of grave of the mores they thought they had killed and rendered meaningless came a ghost who used fantasy to attack their “reality.”
It may seem that I am getting little carried away. But the lack of sex and his anti-modern stance are two of the most common criticisms that are directed against Tolkien’s books. To me, that is proof that it is not Tolkein’s technical abilities that lead the educated elite to despise him, but his aesthetic. I don’t know why they would get so excited about his aesthetic if they did not feel that it threatened them in some way. I am convinced that if Tolkien had written The Lord of the Rings in the eighteenth century it would now be required study in any college level liberal arts education. For then, the educated would be able to forgive Tolkien for his aesthetic in the same way that they forgive Shakespeare or Winslow Homer. Artists of earlier times can be excused their sins for they did not know any better. Tolkien, on the other hand, cannot be excused because he does know better.
It is not my intention to defend Tolkien. Tolkien needs no defense from his critics. His work has prospered much to the chagrin of those who hate him. But Tolkien’s critics help illustrate something that is obscured by most of his ardent fans. The Lord of the Rings is first and foremost an attempt to give meaning to words. Not, as many of his fans seem to think, an adventure story. And the words that he is trying to give meaning to are words that the Brave New World strives to make meaningless–words like faith, hope, love, loyalty, justice, not to mention despair and many others.
It is despair that brings us back to the subject of this essay. Because Tolkien’s work is perceived by many people to be very uplifting, it is often forgotten how deeply despair is woven into his work. But to a rational outlook, the heroic things done in Tolkien’s books are all futile, because his mythological world is on a relentless downward spiral. You can see this in The Lord of the Rings by the fact that the choice is between risking the destruction of all that is good in the world by letting someone bad having the ring, or destroying the ring and guaranteeing the destruction of much that is good. Neither choice has much to recommend it for they both move his mythological world further down road to destruction. In The Silmarillion the despair is even more explicit, and the futility of what is done even by the “good” guys is even more depressing, and the downward spiral of the world even clearer.
As a man who lost most of his friends to the carnage of World War I, who lived through World War II, and who lived in an age constantly threatened with nuclear war, it is natural that Tolkien saw the world as being on a downward spiral. What is unnatural is that a man who saw the world on a downward spiral wrote books that most people find very uplifting. The fact that his books were meant to be uplifting only adds to the mystery. Who would write a book that was meant to be uplifting about a world that was going to hell despite the best efforts of the good guys? This puzzle is further compounded by the fact that it is the good guys who are the ones in whom despair has its fullest expression in Tolkien’s work. How is that uplifting?
But one should not really say, “Good guys;” one should say, “The good symbols.” Another thing that many people forget is that the characters in Tolkien’s work are not realistic explorations of human character. Rather, they are meant to be symbolic creatures that will give meaning to words. Too often people miss this, in part because Tolkien’s symbolism is so compelling and so complex that they mistake it for an attempt to be realistic. To be sure, Tolkien meant to talk about things that were meaningful. But what is realistic and what is meaningful are not the same thing. The word “despair”, for example, surely describes something that is real. Yet you cannot lay your hand on the meaning of despair. You could realistically describe someone else’s despair, but that would only be describing one view of despair. You still could not have been said to encompass all of what the word despair means.
If you want to talk about the meaning of words in an encompassing way, that puts you in a bind. You can’t possible describe in a realistic manner all of despair’s various forms and still have time to actually say anything else. It is to get out of this bind that Tolkien uses symbols. Symbols (if they are successful) do not rigorously define something. Rather, they draw the definition out of you, instead of having the definition handed to you as a realistic portrayal tries to do. A fine example of how Tolkien does this is through his symbolic hero Hurin.
The tragedy of Hurin is a little-known story because it was never fully finished. A shortened version can be found in The Silmarillion. It is a shame that it was never finished, because the tragedy of Hurin demonstrates Tolkien’s genius for creating symbols that drag meaning out of the human heart. More to the point of this essay, the tragedy of Hurin was Tolkien’s most thorough exploration of the despair of a good man even though he never finished it. In no other symbol that he created was the tragic nature of life more forcibly symbolized. And in no other symbol was man’s helplessness in the face of evil more completely expressed.
In Tolkien’s typically over-the-top manner, Hurin was the most powerful human hero to ever walk the earth. But Tolkien had a reason whenever he went over the top. He wanted to highlight Hurin’s power so that terribleness of his helplessness would be apparent. Also, Tolkien wanted it to be apparent that through Hurin, Tolkien was talking about the strength of all men. Thus we are meant to admire Hurin’s heroic rear guard action that enabled the high elves to escape from a battle that they were losing badly. After he was captured, we are meant to admire Hurin’s heroic resistance to the torture that was inflicted on Hurin to make him reveal the location of a secret high elf kingdom. Once Tolkien has firmly entrenched the heroic nature of Hurin in our brains, Tolkien turns around and drops the hammer on us.
All this heroic action naturally angered Tolkien’s Satan figure, Melkor, who had been hoping to destroy the high elves. As revenge, Melkor cursed Hurin’s family. Melkor then gave Hurin the supernatural ability to watch as Melkor’s curse destroyed his family over a matter of decades. The truly horrible thing about this curse is not that Hurin’s family died, but that they destroyed themselves in manner reminiscent of some of the darkest of Greek tragedies. As a really diabolical final touch, Melkor then released Hurin, who confirmed that all the horrible things that Melkor had showed him had really happened. In desperation, Hurin turned to the very same High Elves that his rear guard action had saved so many years ago for help. But the high elves feared a trap and they left Hurin to die, half mad from despair. In his despair, Hurin did a number of things that aided Melkor. And before he died, Hurin came to realize that most of his actions had only served to advance the design of Melkor.
As depressing as this synopsis sounds, it is even more depressing when you read Hurin’s full story in The Silmarillion. But Hurin is never fleshed out as a real character. The despair you feel when reading the story of Hurin is not that of realistically drawn Hurin, but it is your own. By using the symbol of Hurin, Tolkien is able to weave the reader’s own despair into his aesthetic. Thus, by using symbols, Tolkien is able to draw people deeper into his aesthetic than he would have been able to had he made realistic characters with realistically described emotions. Each of his characters has its own function, but their functions all revolve around drawing the meaning out of you, rather than supplying you with it. And they often succeed in drawing things out of you that you did not know were there.
It is the fact that Tolkien draws things out of people that they did not know were there, or did not want to know were there, that made me compare his work to smut earlier. Some authors use sexually explicit things to try to get people to be realistic about themselves and the world. This is who you truly are, they say. If you were different you would not hunger after these things. It is the success of this technique that makes some people angry. They are angry because the sexually explicit things do reveal what people’s appetites are really like. More than that, it excites those same appetites and makes them stronger. Tolkien’s aesthetic works in the same way except that he excites people’s hunger for a beauty that is neither practical nor realistic.
Yet how can this be? We have said that the fake cannot be beautiful. How can what is unrealistic be beautiful? Yet realistic only means worldly. Fake means without meaning, and thus determining what is fake is an aesthetic choice. Those modern artists who incorporate sexually explicit material into their art work do so in order that people’s appetites will testify to the work’s authenticity. Tolkien bases the authenticity of his work on the hunger that is in people that cannot be met with worldly pleasures. See, he says, this is who you truly are. If you were different you would not be moved by these things.
The ring in The Lord of the Rings is the primary instrument to reveal the otherworldly in Tokien’s most famous book. The ring is presented as the ultimate expression of our practical needs and desires. Its power over people is always that it provides a means for taking care of legitimate and all too practical worldly needs. Most of the bad guys in The Lord of the Rings are simply those who are rational and have no desire to do the stupid thing. Yet in the aesthetic of The Lord of the Rings, the completely rational is ugly. The symbolic power of the ring to those of us who read the books lies in our recognition, consciously or unconsciously, that if we let our worldly needs and desires dictate how we live our lives than we will be ugly as hell.
By making the ring the ultimate expression of our worldly needs and desires, Tolkien highlights the unworldly and unpractical nature of that which defeats the ring. It is not strength or smarts that enables the ring to be destroyed; rather it is Sam’s unrealistic love, which causes him to be always willing to give all and never ask for anything in return. It is Frodo’s unrealistic faith, which keeps him trudging towards his goal, even though he has no worldly reason to believe that he can get where he is going (or even destroy the ring when he gets there for that matter). It is Aragorn’s unrealistic hope, which leads him to lift up his banner and challenge Mordor to a hopeless battle. It is these unrealistic things that make the books beautiful.
But the books are beautiful not because those characters are realistic, but because we long to see hope, faith, and love expressed in our own lives and the lives of those around us. We realize, consciously or unconsciously, that in order to be beautiful ourselves we must have something in us that transcends the worldly. Tolkien strives to makes us feel this. It is our own appetite for the otherworldly that Tolkien uses to legitimize his aesthetic.
Yeah, yeah, I can hear people saying. If we did not already realize that Tolkien is all about the celebration of love, hope and what-not we would have stopped reading the essay when you brought him into the discussion of art. But how does that help us understand the original question about despair? But that question is not really the one that we need to be working on right now. What we really need to work on is the question of how Tolkien’s conception of love, hope and “what-not” differ from meaningless pleasure on offer from Warhol and the contemporary Christians.
Despair, though, will help us make this distinction. It is in the pure despair that you can find in the story of Hurin that most obviously separates Tolkien’s aesthetic from the contemporary Christian aesthetic of today. Contemporary Christians are happy to write about the world going to hell, as long as good guys remain untouched. Despair is only for those who missed the boat, so to speak. To write a story like the one that Tolkien wrote about Hurin would be inconceivable to the contemporary Christian aesthetic. What separates Tolkien from so many other moralistic authors is that he never lets his symbolic heroes make a “right” choice that does not have unpleasant consequences. That runs counter to the aesthetic of most moralistic authors, for whom escaping pain and suffering is the ultimate goal, and who are determined to point out that it is most rational to do the right thing. But in Tolkien’s world, you cannot escape pain and despair by being a good little boy. In fact, being a good little boy is likely to bring you into more pain and suffering than you would otherwise run into. You can see the pattern all throughout Tolkien’s works.
In Hurin’s case, accepting the job of the rearguard did not get him a hero’s award or even a hero’s death. Instead, it got him a life of living hell that he did not deserve in any way. In Frodo’s case, the price of being the one who destroyed the ring was that everything lost meaning for him. In fact, what Frodo suffers from at the end of the Lord of the Rings is a clinical case of depression. Even Sam suffers in the end, though he comes closest to having a true happy ending (there is symbolic significance in that, but it does not pertain to this essay), because Sam spent the whole book trying to save Frodo, only for him to be unable to save Frodo at the end of the book.
This pattern of people being forced to give up everything they struggled so hard to save as payment for their good deeds is so important to Tolkien that he goes out of his way to make sure that it happens. Take the story of Aragorn and Arwen for example. Tolkien could have easily let their particular part of the story end happily. Instead, Tolkien tacked an appendix on the end of The Lord of the Rings to make sure we see the price that Arwen paid to cleave to Aragorn and the grief and pain that Arwen went through when Aragorn dies. The end result is that Tolkien makes it clear that Arwen accepted eternal separation from her father and the giving up of her own immortal nature just for something that in the end dies. As if it were not enough to make sure that we realized that Aragorn dies, Tolkien also felt compelled to go out of his way to make it clear that there was no peace to help Arwen deal with Aragorn’s death.
Does Tolkien afflict Arwen with all this pain to show that she made a bad choice? Does he afflict the pain on her because he thinks that love is in the end futile? Of course not. What Tolkien is after is the realization of the otherworldly. If we identify with the symbol Arwen, we are forced to confront the question of whether Arwen’s choice was a foolish one or not. If we deny that she was foolish, we are admitting that we hunger for a love that is irrational and unworldly. And more than that, we are admitting that it is worth giving up all worldly things for that love, and to take on all worldly pain for it. We are admitting that Warhol and the controller are wrong. We are admitting that the pleasure and the avoidance of pain are not the only meaning to be found in life.
In admitting this, we are acknowledging that the reason that Warhol’s aesthetic is so horrible is that it is limited to what is worldly. We are acknowledging that the worldly can never satisfy us. Yet in acknowledging this, we are putting ourselves on a collision course with the modern era. Back in the bad old days when life was short and brutish, it was more natural to think that this life was bound to be unsatisfying. Nowadays, though, we have made so much progress towards curing disease, granting better health, and in general increasing the amount of pleasure that man can expect to have that it is natural to think that if we could just a make a little more progress we would be perfectly happy. But by awaking in us our hunger for an unreal love, an unreal faith, and an unreal hope, Tolkien seeks to show us that even if we could grasp the ring; even if we did have the power to meet all our animal desires, we would be ugly, terrible things, devoid of real life. It is only if our lives are ruled by an otherworldly aesthetic, that we can hope to be beautiful.
But how can the pain and death of Arwen be anything other than an expression of the Gothic aesthetic? If death swallows all things, how can anything but death be truly meaningful? But in Tolkien’s aesthetic, death does not swallow all things. That is why so many people find The Lord of the Rings and other works of Tolkien so uplifting. In them we confront all that seems ugly in life, only to see it turn into beauty in the hands of Tolkien’s aesthetic.
The Goths look around and see death at the end of all things. Tolkien looks around and sees that same death. Yet amongst all that death, Tolkien sees an unworldly aesthetic. It is that supernatural beauty that Tolkien sees as the ultimate consumer of all things. Therefore, in Tolkien’s aesthetic, everything has meaning, for everything is working together towards the complete revelation of true beauty. Thus even death, pain, and despair are beautiful because they are also are working towards the revelation of all that is beautiful. That is not to say that everything is good, anymore than Gollum is good just because he helps to get rid of the ring. But it is to say that everything is meaningful, and thus beautiful in its own way.
In every way he possibly can, Tolkien strives to show this. At its most obvious level, this is why he has Frodo undergo a symbolic death instead of real one. At its more subtle level it explains why he puts in a poem about love conquering death right before Frodo gets stabbed by the Witch King. It is also why Tolkien puts into The Lord of the Rings a poem about faith, buttressed by love, leading to the downfall of the Satan figure Melkor even though it seemed that Melkor had won all. And where does he put this poem? He puts it right before the deliberations of Elrond’s council on the fate of the ring.
Tolkien realized (as many of his critics never cease to point out) that he was not the best of poets. Yet he strove to use his bad poetry as a means of alerting people to the underlying symbolism of his story. He never wanted people to read his book and miss the fact that though his book was fantasy, he was trying to show people meaningful things. By juxtaposing his poetry to key points in the story Tolkien hoped to help people understand and appreciate his symbolism. Before all of the darkest and most critical turning points in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien places little markers like this. He strives to make sure that you will be on the lookout for the beauty that is in even the worst of things. He strives to make you see how the darkness only highlights and increases the beauty of the otherworldly. But most of all, Tolkien wants you to realize that the supernatural virtues that conquer the ring spring from a realm that will consume death and make all things meaningful.
But in spite of Tolkien’s best efforts, the symbolism of his works passes most people right on by. Take the symbol that goes by the name of Arwen, for example. Most people do not seem to understand that the symbol that is Arwen is influential all throughout The Lord Of The Rings even though she has almost no speaking parts. They don’t see the markers that Tolkien lays down all throughout the book that show how Aragorn drew a hope from her love that sustained him in the darkest times. About the only one that most people get is the obvious one right before Aragorn goes down the paths of the dead. Nor do most people understand that Tolkien did not want Arwen to serve as the stereotypical hot chick that the hero gets in the end, but rather to serve as a symbol of unreal love. That is why Tolkien made sure we would all understand that Arwen sacrificed her high position. That is why he made sure that all of us would see the pain that she suffered for her love.
But Tolkien’s symbolism is deeper than even all of that. If you understand that the stars serve for Tolkien as the promise of paradise in a dark world (that is why the elves love them), you will understand that with Arwen Tolkien is trying to point out that unreal love is a type of star. It is because her love serves as a type of star holding out the promise of an unreal world that Aragorn has such hope all through out The Lord of the Rings. A man who has seen the light of the blessed realms fears no black riders. He fears no besieging forces. He fears not even the paths of the dead or death itself.
This is why Aragron is named Estel (which means hope) and Arwen is named Undomiel (which means Even Star). You are meant to understand that true human love is a light that comes from the hereafter, and it gives us hope as we face the long night of death. If Tolkien made this any clearer, he would have to write it out on a coal shovel and hit us over the head with it. Yet even if he did that most people would still miss it.
Even though most people could not parse out the symbolism of Tolkien’s books to save their lives, I think the symbolism still serves its purpose. For Tolkien’s symbolism works even when we don’t understand it. His many fans are testament to that. Even many people who profess not to care much for Tolkien’s work and who don’t understand it, still admit to finding the moral drama of it moving.
But if the fake cannot be beautiful, how can Tolkien’s aesthetic be beautiful? Surely the idea that the revelation of true beauty will consume all is un-provable at best, a delusion at worst. But the idea that death will swallow all things is un-provable as well. We will not know for sure that death consumes all things until every last thing has gone on into oblivion. Warhol’s aesthetic is un-provable as well. What makes the Gothic aesthetic work to the extent that it does is that we all see death bringing things to an end. What makes Warhol’s aesthetic work is that the desire to live is very strong in all of us. To whatever extent Tolkien’s aesthetic works, it is because it draws out of us a hunger for more than the worldly and it creates in us a fear of becoming worldly.
As I have said, an aesthetic is immune to logic. It is not by logic that an aesthetic can be judged. Rather, it is by what we can see that we judge an aesthetic. The real problem here is that I have described Tolkien’s aesthetic instead of showing Tolkien’s aesthetic. When you describe an aesthetic you invite people to treat is as a logical argument instead of something to be observed and considered. Believe me; I really would have preferred not to do it that way. Tolkien has no special gift for logical arguments. His power stems from what he could see and from what he can get others to see. To parse his symbolism, as I have done, is in a sense to weaken it. Once you parse it in logical fashion, you are forcing it to stand alone without the support of the longings of our own inner world. It was never designed to withstand such.
But many people love The Lord of the Rings without thinking about why they do and what about it moves them. They don’t stop to realize that the beauty of Tolkien’s work depends on your perception of the otherworldly. Speaking to a grieving Arwen, Aragorn says “I speak no comfort to you, for there is no comfort for such pain within the circles of the world.” Tolkien himself faced the modern world and he too felt the despair. He saw that no other aesthetics were possible in the circle of this world than that of Saruman or Denethor. To rephrase this in the terms of this essay, Tolkien saw no choice in the circle of this world except the aesthetic of Warhol or the Goths. But as Aragorn also said to Arwen “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! We are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond that is more than memory.” This was Tolkien answer to the modern aesthetics. To Tolkien there was no beauty to found in them because anything that denied the otherworldly would never be beautiful.
Whether you hold with Tolkien’s aesthetic or not, the fact remains that in the circle of this world despair is the only possible base for an aesthetic. Unless of course, you think being drunk counts as valid aesthetic. For whatever the universe may do, we can see the downward spiral that happens in our very own bodies. That downward spiral testifies to us that the things that we love of this world are as ephemeral as dreams. If we don’t bury that thought in our minds; if we face the fact that everything we look at is dying, how can we do anything else but despair?
But despair is not to be despised. For despair is like a purifying fire that burns the dross and reveals the gold. If you can not see any gold, it is not the fault of the fire. But if the fire does reveal gold, than you will learn to love the burning for what it reveals.