January 2, 2008

MINI-MAKERS:

The Catholic Fantastic of Chesterton and Tolkien (Ralph Wood, January 2, 2008, First Things)

Alison Milbank’s Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real is a remarkable accomplishment, chiefly because it forestalls any easy dismissal of Chesterton and Tolkien as troglodytes. With adept recourse to an impressive (but never name-dropping) array of anthropologists and literary theorists, folklorists and linguists, philosophers and theologians, she shows that these Catholic writers engage modern and even postmodern culture by way of a revolutionary understanding of the imagination. Both writers resorted to fantasy as an escape into reality, as Tolkien liked to say. They were fascinated with fairies because Elfland, as Chesterton called it, enabled them to envision the world as wondrously magical no less than terribly contingent: as “utterly real and enchanted at one and the same time.” Whereas conventional Christian apologists often cast theological stones at the obduracy of atheists and materialists, Tolkien and Chesterton answer them with dwarves and ents, with Innocent Smith and Father Brown. Smith fires bullets at his own best friend, robs his own house, and commits polygamy with the cooperation of his own wife—all in order to make himself and others more fully alive. Chesterton’s childlike priest is so unsullied by self-interest, in turn, that he alone can decipher the cynical deceptions of criminals.

Milbank demonstrates that the fictions of Chesterton and Tolkien seek to destabilize the familiar world by making it strange, eerie, uncanny. Rather than being frightened by the terrors of a Darwinian universe, they embrace its abiding otherness by way of fantasy, creating imaginative worlds that are altogether as surreal as the elephantine and hippopotamic products of the natural process itself. “Man is the ape upside down,” declares Chesterton. As the ape who is also an angel, man possesses unique freedom. “This freedom is most obviously present,” Milbank writes, “in the grotesque, which recombines the forms of nature and art to make something new and surprising.” It is also the freedom to acknowledge the world’s terror and alienation no less than its benignity. Tolkien’s dragons and orcs and wargs serve as reminders that there are dark forces at work in the world, powers so sinister that no one can fully withstand them. In frequent recourse to Scripture, Milbank also shows that many biblical texts and stories are themselves discomfiting and estranging, escaping all categories, defeating all definition.

Yet estrangement and alienation are never the final outcome of Chesterton’s and Tolkien’s work. For they share the conviction that we human creatures are most like God in our positive creativity. “We make,” said Tolkien, “by the law in which we’re made.” Virtually every human act—from dressing in the morning to making vast literary epics and philosophical systems—is an act of creation. Unlike Coleridge and the Romantics, however, Tolkien and Chesterton never grant godlike status to artists and thinkers as having the power to invent their own self-enclosed universe. On the contrary, they share a deep Thomistic regard for the primacy of being: for things as they are perceived by the senses. Like Kant, they confess the difficulty of moving from the phenomenal to the noumenal realm of things-in-themselves. Yet, unlike him, they do not despair over the seemingly impassable gap between the inner and the outer, the mental and the natural; instead, they reveal that the world is not dreadfully dead (as we have believed since Descartes and Newton) but utterly alive and awaiting our free transformation of it. The universe that has been made dissonant also requires reenchantment, therefore, in order for us to participate in an otherness that is not finally cacophony but symphony, a complex interlocking of likenesses and differences that form an immensely complex but finally redemptive Whole. The doubleness of all things is cause for rejoicing, it follows, rather than lamentation.


Posted by Orrin Judd at January 2, 2008 10:16 AM
Comments

The universe that has been made dissonant also requires reenchantment, therefore, in order for us to participate in an otherness that is not finally cacophony but symphony, a complex interlocking of likenesses and differences that form an immensely complex but finally redemptive Whole.

Whaaat? I've read that sentence several times and I still can't figure out what it means.

Posted by: Brandon at January 2, 2008 3:52 PM

Dude, he says the universe is like, awesome, dig?

This surfer dude physicist explained the whole thing to me.

Posted by: KeanuReeves at January 2, 2008 6:00 PM
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