Created to Create
“We make still by the law by which we’re made.”1 With these words, and with others so aimed, J.R.R. Tolkien once assaulted C.S. Lewis’s uneasy atheism. Lewis had claimed that the myths of Christianity were merely lies, though made with argent craftsmanship, and that he in no wise could take them for truth. Tolkien’s response, later published as “Mythopoeia,” pointed his friend to the beauty of a world created and full of creators. Instead of a Godless (and godless) world of machinery, ever winding in pointless motion, Tolkien’s work told of a world, crafted by a creator and blessed with human sub-creators who receive the privilege and duty of following in their Maker’s footsteps. As men create, they portray the image of their creator, punctuating his dominion through theirs. In this way, the world is filled with story and stories, an ever-making, instead of an unbroken string of ultimately meaningless subsequent motions. Lewis’s dull machinery could hardly be attractive in light of Tolkien’s vibrant world of, essentially, worship.
Not only is Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia” a delightful poem, it is also a significant argument. Bypassing analytic precision, it aims at the heart of man, reminding the reader of something he has already known, something he has sometimes felt but has been unable to express. A self-contained world, one without a real and uncreated deity, is uncomfortable in that it fails to align with the human sense of wonder and meaning. Modern Man, apart from a real transcendence, is left to sate himself with labeling and cataloging rather than with experiencing: trees are just “trees.” And all the while, the godless world answers back: “Your desire is only an ephemeral phantasm! Everything is meaningless, a chasing after the wind!” On the other hand, and to Tolkien’s point, the Christian story embraces the longing for significance and meaning that we experience, and in doing so, it better answers the needs of man than does a material atheism.
A reader who is familiar with Tolkien’s poem might presume that another author who writes, “Man is a creating animal,” has read or is perhaps even commenting on the mythopoetic defense of sub-creation. Or perhaps that author is summarizing Tolkien’s rejection of Lewis’s machinery-laden atheistic world by writing, “Who wants to want according to a little table?”2 3 After all, Tolkien mocks the penury of mere materialism:
You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow’);
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
A star’s a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, Inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.4
Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).5
The one who writes of the “creating animal” and proclaims his revulsion to desire constrained by reason had never read any of Tolkien’s works. In fact, he had published his own objection in 1864, more than sixty years before Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia” reached Lewis’s desk.That work, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground presents an argument in the form of a monologue delivered through a crack in the floor by a man who has shut himself off from the world and now lives in an uneasy contemplative quasi-isolation.6 The recluse’s harangue flows with an irregular meter, descending as a stream from the high peaks, sometimes in a rushing torrent, sometimes seeping with a boggy slowness, descending all the while toward a vision of humanity that, in significant ways, corresponds to Tolkien’s poetic apology. Though markedly different in its artistic praxis from Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia,” Dostoevsky’s Notes similarly argues that man is not a machine; he will never be satisfied with a world that is a mere sum.
Desire and Reason
As a man of nineteenth century Russia, the narrator of Dostoevsky’s tale objects to what might be described as the popular hubris of his day made evident through a prevailing sense that reason is the highest justification for action and that civilization and education are the ordained means of the achievement of plenary humanity.7 This reign of “the laws of nature, the conclusions of natural science, mathematics,” appears as an impregnable wall constraining all humanity within its realm.8 Indeed, Dostoevsky’s narrator admits the philosophical weight of the wall. The world certainly does appear to be run by reason, logic, science, mathematics: two times two equals four, profit and progress are the sum goals of humanity, and all choices are guided by the maximal accrual of the same: these, the dictates of the ethos.9
But the narrator demurs; he is uncomfortable with the wall, for it “stands across path, arms akimbo, and spits.” This law of nature defies what the narrator has experienced and what he understands about his own existence and actions. He builds his case against it . . . .
First, the underground philosopher has, at times, done things that are unreasonable, and he has not done them out of caprice or illogic, but rather purposefully, and with intentional obliqueness to reason. He has acted foolishly, there is no argument on that matter, and he imagines, also, that he is not alone in his sort of wanting. He speculates that if, hypothetically, a purely logical world world could be assembled, he
would not be the least surprised if suddenly, out of the blue, amid the universal future reasonableness, some gentleman of ignoble, or, better, of retrograde and jeering physiognomy, should emerge, set his arms akimbo, and say to us all: “Well, gentlemen, why don’t we reduce all this reasonableness to dust with one good kick, for the sole purpose of sending all these logarithms to the devil and living once more according to our own stupid will!”10
Reason would not drive such a recalcitrant to his recklessness. He has no prospect of his act being justified by anything more than his desire to be unconstrained by universal reasonableness. He supposes that mankind has some innate desire to be unruled. Dostoevsky’s narrator makes this point with an example of its antithesis: “With the anthill the most reverend ants began, and with the anthill they will doubtless end as well.”11 A life of acting only according to a prescribed pattern of productivity is all well-and-good for an ant, but for a man? Never. He would rather have his choice: to be, or to be not, some thing.
Second, the undergrounder examines the act of desire itself. It is indubitable that the sense of wanting persists, but it is not immediately clear of what sort this wanting is. The temptation, according to the undergrounder’s observation of the men of his time, is to pass off desire as being simply in accord with some laws of profit. Enlightened self-interest is, after all, a pragmatic affair, and if profit accrues from an action, then surely the result is duly want-able and the action justified. At this point, the
laws of nature need only be discovered, and then man will no longer be answerable for his actions, and his life will become extremely easy. Needless to say, all human actions will then be calculated according to these laws, mathematically, like a table of logarithms, up to 108,000, and entered into a calendar; or, better still, some well-meaning publications will appear, like the present-day encyclopedic dictionaries, in which everything will be so precisely calculated and designated that there will no longer be any actions or adventures in the world.12
This would be an efficient world, to be sure, but not one in which the living man has any real part. He is a mere fleshy pinion gear, driving and being driven. There are no adventures.
But perhaps one might argue that not all actions produce profit. Some choices are even decidedly unprofitable. The undergrounder admits for the argument that a desire for profit may be misdirected, mischief often ensuing. Indeed, “We sometimes want pure rubbish precisely because, in our stupidity, we see this rubbish as the easiest path to the attainment of some preconceived profit.”13 A foolish path, though, remains a path. And if a path, whose end is either attained or unattained according to laws, then desire and wanting have vanished, converging into bald reason. The underground narrator scoffs at the preacher of profit’s laurels: “Oh, the babe!”14
At last, the narrator arrives at a consideration of the human condition itself in regard to a purely mathematical world, a world where all choices are justified by an evaluation of profitability. Dostoevsky’s underground voice doesn’t demean logic. He doesn’t abandon reason for nonsense. But the image before which he will not bow is that of omni-crucial calculation. Free desire, including the ability to want something ridiculous is a fundamental element of humanity. The undergrounder points out that humanity is not less than reason, as if to reason he must attain, but, rather, it is more. A life fully directed by reason has not ascended the pinnacle of perfection but has instead endured a disfiguring abridgment:
Reason, gentlemen, is a fine thing, this is unquestionable, but reason is only reason and satisfies only man’s reasoning capacity, while wanting is a manifestation of the whole of life – that is, the whole of human life, including reason and various little itches. And though our life in this manifestation often turns out to be a bit of trash, still it is a life and not just the extraction of a square root.15
Being able to truly want, even something stupid, with or without regard for profit, “preserves for us the chiefest and dearest thing, that is, our personality and our individuality.”16 A man must, above all, feel that he is not simply a machine. The words, irony sodden, emerge from the floor: “The whole human enterprise seems indeed to consist in man’s proving to himself every moment that he is a man and not a sprig! With his own skin if need be, but proving it; by troglodytism if need be, but proving it.”17 If the world is governed by reason, by geometrical precision, and if the paragon of humanity consists in infallible calculation according to those laws, then man, as we know him, cannot live.
And so we finally return to the underground narrator’s claim: “Man is a creating animal.” This is not a reference to a puzzle-solver’s ability to find a pleasing solution amidst a chaotic array. Nor to a technician’s skill in assembling components, ready-made or not. Neither is Dostoevsky’s unseen voice speaking of “art” so called, nor of craftsmanship. All these images are only shadows of the creative, incomplete and immature expressions of what really lies inside of man. The creative announces itself in the voice’s ill-ease with the claims of ubiquitous reason, but it slips through the fingers of strict quantification. The narrator is frequently at a loss, and the narrative turns often uncomfortable, and until the last, the image of man as a creative animal remains quite blurry. There is no irrefutable summary statement or analog on which the reader might repose. The creative animal remains obscure, but beyond doubt, he breathes.
Resistance and Hope
Both Dostoevsky and Tolkien posture strongly against the tyranny of regnant reason.
I will not tread your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden scepter down.18
In his way, and with his art, Tolkien stands on one side of the chasm and shouts into the machinery. He will create. He will fashion with his imagination because he has been made in the image of the Great Creator. He proclaims his Maker’s dominion everywhere through his craft.
On the other hand, Dostoevsky’s voice is smaller, thinner, perhaps a bit raspy, but firm nonetheless: “I will not rest with a compromise, with a ceaseless, recurring zero, simply because according to the laws of nature it exists, and exists really.”19 He may not be able to parse the world in such a way that the artistic animal is laid plain before him, he may not be able marshal the proofs that would justify his belief, but he still holds. He admits: “To be sure, I won’t break through such a wall with my forehead if I really have not got strength enough to do it, but neither will I be reconciled with it simply because I have a stone wall here and have not got strength enough.”20 Surrender is not an option.
Though both authors reject a godless materialism, Dostoevsky’s work is harder to embrace. After the defense of a humanity that transcends reason, the final chapter in the undergrounder’s argument seems to surrender the field: “Better conscious inertia! And so, long live the underground!”21 He has touched the taboo, and he must now resign. Yet the underground is no refuge for his soul, and, by the end of the paragraph, he exclaims: “Devil take the underground!” Indeed, the narrator’s frustration often seems to echo the Teacher’s observation: “I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly . . . with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”22 The world is awash in suffering, and man reaches for relief. We want to applaud the hidden voice: “Reason explains nothing, and consequently there’s no point in reasoning.”23
Tolkien likewise sees the darkness. Indeed, he elsewhere writes most pathetically of living under the gloom.24 In “Mythopoeia,” also, he acknowledges the seeming ascendancy of the godless machine, but at the same time, his benediction is for those who resist, for those who hope, for those who, by faith, endure faithfully.
Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate,
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bare, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.
Blessed are the men of Noah’s race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
a rumor of a harbor guessed by faith.25
The supposed world of purposeless whirling cannot satisfy, and one day its scant charms will be laid bare. The dark towers will crumble; the perplexing will amaze. The made will flourish in their making, and the maker’s stamp will be on all. Tolkien turns our eye toward that day:
In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day-illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.
Then looking on the Blessed Land ’twill see
that all is as it is and yet made free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.26
From the shadowy paths of Magdalen College to a St. Petersburg apartment, the echoes repeat: man was not made as a wheel in a clock; man cannot reconcile himself to a pointless winding.27 Whether the spirit of the age preaches the supremacy of the machine or the glory of the almighty now, whether the nobility of the autonomous self or the loftiness of a pragmatic subjection, the man is not so made. He will never find his ease in a denial of the divine. In desire, he plants his foot outside of the machine. This is something new. He makes as he has been made.
1 J.R.R. Tolkien, “Mythopoeia,” 70, as found in Tree and Leaf, Harper Collins: London, 2001, 87. Tolkien also applies this line to his argument in his monumental essay, “On Fairy-stories,” which may also be found in Tree and Leaf, as well as other publications.
2 Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, tr. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 23.
3 Dostoevsky, Notes, 26.
4 Tolkien, “Mythopoeia,” 1-8.
5 Tolkien, “Mythopoeia,” 91-98.
6 This piece is often published under the title Notes from the Underground. I use an alternate version, Notes from Underground, for two reasons. First, the edition of the book which I am citing uses this alternate title, so it seems appropriate to be consistent with that usage. Second, use of the definite article in the title may give the impression that ‘the underground’ is an organization or association which is engaged in resistance against a dominant narrative (e.g. – “ . . . the French Underground was engaged in resisting the Nazi occupation . . .”). One further comment may be helpful here: Notes from Underground is presented in two parts. The first is the argument described above, and the second is a narrative that intersects with the themes of the first section, fleshing out its arguments with ‘real life’ examples.
7 Dostoevsky uses the foil, at one point, of an “an educated man of the nineteenth century,” and, more picturesquely, one who has “renounced the soil and popular roots.” Dostoevsky, Notes, 15.
8 Dostoevsky, Notes, 13.
9 Dostoevsky, Notes, 13.
10 Dostoevsky, Notes, 25. It is worth noting, though not strictly a part of the argument here, the instability of such a ‘universal future reasonableness’. The rebellious kick, regardless of its vigor, would crumble the entire edifice simply by being rebellious (and thus unreasonable). The system stands and falls as a whole. As here, Dostoevsky often seems to play with the fragility of absolutes in his stories. Also, and similarly unrelated to the argument at hand, I admire the translational choice of this edition in preferring ‘arms akimbo’ to a more ordinary ‘hands on his hips’ such as may be found in other editions. See Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground and The Gambler, tr. Jane Kentish (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
11 Dostoevsky, Notes, 33.
12 Dostoevsky, Notes, 24.
13 Dostoevsky, Notes, 27.
14 Dostoevsky, Notes, 20.
15 Dostoevsky, Notes, 28.
16 Dostoevsky, Notes, 29.
17 Dostoevsky, Notes, 31.
18 Tolkien, “Mythopoeia,” 125-130.
19 Dostoevsky, Notes, 36.
20 Dostoevsky, Notes, 13.
21 Dostoevsky, Notes, 37.
22 Ecclesiastes 1:18-19 (NIV).
23 Dostoevsky, Notes, 124.
24 Tolkien’s tales of Arda, and most poignantly those of Middle Earth, are quite affecting, though I suspect that you are already somewhat familiar with them.
25 Tolkien, “Mythopoeia,” 81-90.
26 Tolkien, “Mythopoeia,” 131-138.
27 The college at Oxford where Tolkien and Lewis walked and discussed the significance of myth and creation.