quinta-feira, 18 de dezembro de 2008

The Two Rings by Edward Haymes



Professor of German and Comparative Literature
Joined the CSU Faculty in 1987 after 14 years at the University of Houston and 3 years at Virginia Commonwealth University. Served from 1987-1994 as chair of the Department of Modern Language. Received B.A. in English from Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Virginia; the M.A. in English from the University of Virginia, and the Dr. Phil. in German from the Friedrich Alexander Universität in Erlangen, Germany.




Tolkien and Wagner (DC ==> Lecture by Edward R. Haymes, March 18, 2004: The Two Rings: J.R.R.Tolkien's and Richard Wagner's







Before I begin I would like to commend Peter Jackson on an amazing feat. He has managed to make a mass audience sit still longer than Richard Wagner did. If he were to film The Hobbit and add it to his trilogy, his cycle would probably run longer than Wagner’s Ring cycle. As it stands, each of his films is about as long as an opera of the Ring and they don’t have intermissions.



I’d like to begin by telling a little story.

A greedy, smaller-than-human creature finds a treasure in the depths of a river. He carries it to his underground retreat where he retains it until it is stolen by a visitor from the upper world. He swears eternal hate to the thief. The treasure is, of course, a ring of great power. The ring exerts strange influences on its owners including giving them the ability to disappear. The ring becomes the object of a fatal struggle between close friends or brothers, in fact it seems always to bring danger or death to its owners. A hero enters the fray armed with a reforged sword that had been broken. Various races of humanoid beings attempt to gain control of the ring by magic and by heroism until it is finally brought at great cost and sacrifice back to its origin where it is purified by fire. The last pursuer perishes along with the ring.




Is this the retelling of Richard Wagner’s four-part cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen or is it a summary of Tolkien’s prose epic The Lord of the Rings. Actually it’s both. I have arranged things carefully so that they fit either work, but the similarities and connections between the two “Ring Cycles” go far beyond the superficial plot summarized above. There are also important differences, beyond the obvious one of artistic form: prose narrative versus music drama. Here I would like to look at some of the similarities and differences in hopes of understanding the relationship.

When I first offered this talk, it was designed to introduce Wagner to Tolkienians. My first reaction to the invitation from the Wagner Society was that I would have to turn that around and introduce Tolkien to Wagnerians. But now I am told that many Tolkienians have joined our audience tonight so I guess I am left with both tasks. The disadvantage to all this is that I will be telling most of you things you already know at least half of the time. Please bear with me as I rehearse facts that you already know in the knowledge that some in the audience may not know them.



Before we can discuss the two Ring Cycles, I need to introduce our two authors.



Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig in 1813, almost eighty years before Tolkien, and he died in Venice in 1883. As most of you know, he was a largely self-taught composer and conductor. He was also a passionate student of certain kinds of literature. Almost from the beginning he was interested in medieval myth and legend, fairy-tales and other such forms that were held to be close to the “people” the “Volk”. He started reading Germanic mythology intensively in the early 1840s and began to form the idea of making an opera from medieval German and Icelandic sources sometime in the middle of that decade.

As an avid student of Germanic mythology and heroic legend Wagner read virtually all the primary and secondary texts in this area available at the mid-point of the nineteenth century but he lacked the academic discipline that would have allowed him to separate the wheat from the chaff, particularly in the secondary literature. He often accepted wildly speculative interpretations as the product of academic scholarship. Unlike Tolkien he lacked any real knowledge of the medieval languages in which his major primary sources were written. He was dependent on translations and these varied widely in quality. One advantage of this haphazard approach was that it frequently left his imagination free to invent connections where none can be found in the sources.

German nationalists of the early nineteenth century saw a Germanic equivalent of ancient Greek and Roman mythology in the so-called Nibelung legend. It was common at that time to refer to the Nibelungenlied as the “German Iliad.” Mendelssohn and others were urged by nationalist thinkers to write an opera on the Nibelung subject. The goal was to establish a cultural past that was equal to, if not superior to the Greek and Roman literature they had all grown up on and to make it a part of the popular consciousness. Wagner hoped that his use of Germanic myth would somehow tap into this racial memory and speak directly to the soul of the German people.

Parenthetically I might mention that Tolkien envisioned a very similar goal for his work. In a letter to a prospective publisher of the Silmarillion he wrote: “I was from the early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me) but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff.” Tolkien shared with Wagner the desire of providing a mythology for his own people. Where Wagner found medieval sources for his myths, Tolkien had to invent his.



Wagner saw many of his medieval sources, particularly the Middle High German epic Nibelungenlied, as products of a decadent and overly pious age. He found more congenial versions of the story in the Icelandic sources that seemed to him, and to most scholars of the nineteenth century, much closer to the more primitive, presumably pagan “originals.” These sources, the Saga of the Völsungs, the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda, and the Norwegian Saga of Thidrek of Bern, were available to him in the romanticizing translations of men like Friedrich Heinrich von der Hagen, Ludwig Ettmüller, and Karl Simrock. In addition he read the historical and mythological interpretations of Franz Josef Mone, Wilhelm Grimm, and the great Deutsche Mythologie (German Mythology) of Jakob Grimm. Even with all of this material, he often invented stories, connections and characters so that his versions generally make more sense to us than their medieval ancestors. He maintained that his retelling somehow broke through the time-bound sources to an earlier “truer” form of the myths he used. Those curious about this process are referred to his essay “Die Wibelungen: Weltgeschichte aus der Sage” which can be translated as “The Wibelungs: World history extracted from legend.” In this essay he reconstructs millenia of lost history from his understanding of the original content of the Nibelung legend. I don’t recommend it to the faint-hearted.



Wagner originally set out to write a single Nibelung opera, which he called Siegfrieds Tod, (Siegfried’s Death). Out of the numerous and often contradictory medieval sources Wagner constructed a prose scenario with a complicated pre-history for the events, even though he planned to use only the concluding part of the story on the stage. While his completed draft libretto included a large amount of exposition in the form of a massive prologue and extensive references in the dialogue throughout the opera, he felt – almost certainly correctly – that the audience would never grasp the complex “back story.” For this reason he decided to expand the story backwards to include the youthful exploits of the dragon-slayer Siegfried and his winning of Brünnhilde. He called this drama Young Siegfried. When he finished writing this text, he was still plagued by the unwieldy mass of earlier events that needed to be known and – to make a long story a little less long – he added an additional full-length opera, Die Walküre, and finally a prelude in the form of the one-act, but complex Das Rheingold. He revised the Siegfried texts to fit with the new dramas, retitled them Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, and called the whole work Der Ring des Nibelungen, The Ring of the Nibelung. It is often claimed that Wagner wrote his Ring Cycle backwards. This is true, but it only applies to the text. The Nibelung of the title is, of course, Alberich, the original forger of the ring.

Siegfrieds Tod was sketched in 1848, while Wagner was still comfortably ensconced as music director at the royal opera house in Dresden. Between this sketch and the completion of the entire Ring text lay five of the most turbulent years in Wagner’s life. He took part in the 1849 uprising in Dresden and fled into exile in Switzerland with a price on his head. He wrote a number of prose essays, but no music. He completed the verse text to the Ring in 1853 (which incidentally followed the prose scenario he had drafted in 1848 quite closely) and soon thereafter began composition of Das Rheingold. The composition of the music proceeded from that point on through Die Walküre until he interrupted his work on Siegfried in 1856 and only returned to the composition in the late 1860s. Listeners with a good ear for style can hear the sharp break between the second and third acts of Siegfried. The final note of Götterdämmerung was penned in 1874. The first performance of the entire cycle took place in the theater Wagner designed and had built for the purpose in Bayreuth, a small town in Franconia, in the summer of 1876. The work attracted enormous attention and people flocked from all over the world – including the Emperor of Brazil – to hear and see this new marvel. It was given a mixed reception and has remained controversial ever since, although it is certainly the largest work of stage art regularly performed today. Most performances of the Ring continue to be sold out wherever they are given in the world.



John Ronald Ruel Tolkien was born in 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa to English parents. He died in Bournemouth on the English south coast in 1973. He was a professional student of ancient Germanic languages and literatures, a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford and the author of a path-breaking essay on the Old English poem Beowulf. My first exposure to Tolkien came when I was a graduate student in English and read this essay. I had no idea that he was the author of what was to become one of the most popular books of the century.

Tolkien’s love of language carried him through his education, through what the English still sometimes call the Great War, and through several minor academic posts including a stint working on the gigantic project we know as the Oxford English Dictionary. It brought him finally to a Professorship in Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University. There he was able to apply his linguistic passion to the study and teaching of Old and Middle English, Old Icelandic, and Gothic. At the same time – often after midnight - he developed his elvish languages and the stories they implied. He not only invented the languages, he invented a history for them so that his fictional languages would change over time the way English had in its progress from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf. These languages work almost as well as natural languages and a friend of mine in Cleveland has actually compiled a huge dictionary/thesaurus of Tolkien’s Elvish languages. It covers over seven hundred pages.



While both Wagner and Tolkien set out to mine the past for their message to the present and future, they had very different ways of doing it. Tolkien allowed his languages and his characters to generate their own “history” as he liked to call it. The reports from his workshop suggest that much of the work was done in the author’s unconscious. We hear of long periods in which virtually nothing was written and of twists and turns in the plot that the author had not clearly foreseen. The final plot that emerged was complex and, although we can occasionally recognize an echo from a medieval source – mainly in the names – it is impossible to find a medieval model for The Lord of the Rings as a whole. In many ways the closest model for a long story involving a curse on a ring is Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung.



Wagner reported a vision that occurred to him while staying in the Italian town of La Spezia in the fall of 1853, soon after completing the poem for the Ring. During an abortive attempt at an afternoon nap he fell into a half-sleeping half-waking state in which he experienced the effect of rushing water and the sound of a chord in E-flat. Upon awakening he realized that the problem of the instrumental opening of Das Rheingold, which had eluded him up to that moment, was solved. The veracity of this account has been questioned, but the Rheingold prelude represents enough of a musical breakthrough to justify a good story. In a similar vein, Tolkien said that his first published book from Middle Earth began when – lost in the mind-numbing stupor engendered by marking exams – he jotted on an empty page “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” This became the first sentence of The Hobbit and the germ of his huge project as, in his words “I had to find out what hobbits were.” Both artists had their seminal breakthrough moments in the half-waking state between thought and dreams. Wagner’s inspiration was musical; Tolkien’s was characteristically linguistic.


Although hobbits were new to Tolkien when he wrote that sentence in the early 1930s, the idea of a primeval world populated by elves, dwarves, orcs, dragons and men was not. He had begun writing verse and prose about a mythical pre-history, a process that included a complex process of language invention, already in the trenches of World War I. He later designed maps of this world, the most important continent of which was named Middle Earth in imitation of the Old English term for the known world, Middangeard. He often referred to his fictional products as “history” rather than use any of the standard terms for prose fiction.



The languages he invented implied speakers and their stories. Over the decades Tolkien wrote down these stories in a somewhat haphazard fashion. He was chronically unable to finish projects, whether they had to do with his profession of philology or his writing of fiction. He left behind dozens of unrealized stories in various stages of completion at his death. His son Christopher has made a life’s work of collecting, editing and controlling the materials his father left behind. The best known of these works is the Silmarillion, but even it is bogged down by a mythology that requires an expert guide to get through.

The beginnings of Tolkien’s career as a commercially viable writer came when a friend more or less forced him to submit The Hobbit for publication as a children’s book. After a laudatory evaluation by the publisher’s ten-year-old son the book appeared in 1937 and was successful enough that the publisher asked for a sequel. The sequel soon broke out of its children’s story bounds and became a giant work aimed at an adult audience, The Lord of the Rings. It took more than seventeen years for this work to reach the shelves of bookstores in 1954 and 1955, but it soon attracted a loyal following and, with its publication in an unauthorized and later an authorized paperback edition in the United States, it became – as the saying goes – a runaway best-seller and it has never looked back.



Tolkien was hypersensitive to any suggestion that his ring might have something to do with Wagner’s ring. When the writer of the foreword for the Swedish translation dared to suggest such a connection in his introduction, he fired back an angry letter to his publisher with the often-quoted sentence: “Both rings are round and there the resemblance ceases.” In the following I would like to explore parallels that are too numerous to be coincidental and the possibility that the resemblance does not cease there. Since Tolkien’s biographers have been complicit in covering up any real connection, I will be arguing a bit like a lawyer building up a circumstantial case.



I am going to hope that most of you have at least an Anna Russell knowledge of the story of Wagner’s Ring Cycle and hang our discussion of Tolkien on that. (According to the Anna Russell shrine on the web she is doing fine and just celebrated her 91st birthday in December.) I certainly am not expecting a Jim Holman knowledge of the cycle. For that you’ll have to turn to his book.

The first we see of the ring in Tolkien’s world is in The Hobbit. We are in a cave where the unlikely hobbit-hero Bilbo Baggins is trying to escape from goblins. He encounters a strange creature named Gollum who seems to have gained more from Wagner’s Mime than from Alberich. He is the owner of the ring, but Bilbo finds it by accident in the dark and carries it away with him, earning Gollum’s enmity. We learn much later that Gollum had been a hobbit-like creature named Smeagol and he had murdered his friend Deagol to gain the ring many years before – 478 years to be precise –Bilbo’s accidental “theft” narrated in The Hobbit. This sequence of events combines elements of the theft of the ring from Alberich by the gods Wotan and Loge, the killing of one brother by another to gain the ring (Fasolt and Fafner), and the storage of the ring for generations in an underground cavern (Fafner). The exchange of riddles between Bilbo and Gollum may also owe something to the Wanderer’s riddling contest with Mime in the first act of Siegfried, although both contests may be derived more directly from the riddling poems of the Poetic Edda.

When Bilbo finds the ring, it is pretty clear that Tolkien had no idea how important it would become. It has one power here: it allows the wearer to become invisible. Bilbo uses the ring at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings to make a dramatic exit by disappearing from his eleventy-first birthday party. Soon after this we find that the ring is far more than a magical trinket that makes people invisible. It is a ring of power forged by the evil genius Sauron to gain power over the nineteen other rings distributed among the races of Middle Earth. Having lost this ring long before the story begins, he has now put his entire resources to work to regain it. The wizard Gandalf reads the inscription on the ring:

One Ring to rule them all, one Ring to find them,

One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

Sauron will be able to rule all of Middle Earth from his dark throne if he is able to recover the one ring.



Now that Tolkien’s ring has been introduced, let us recall the curse placed on the Nibelung’s ring by its creator and first owner, Alberich. I’ll let him speak for himself:

[Play video – Alberich’s curse]



I rather like my translation of one couplet in the curse better than the subtitles:

Solang er lebt, sterb' er lechzend dahin,

Des Ringes Herr als des Ringes Knecht.

As long as he lives, let him waste away,

The lord of the ring as the the ring’s slave.

It certainly makes the connection clearer, in addition to being closer to the original.

Tolkien’s ring has a similar effect on the characters of his epic. If Gollum does not pronounce Alberich’s curse when Bilbo steals the ring, it is only because he lacks the eloquence to do so. He is limited to hissing: “Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it for ever.” (p.134) The curse, however, is already on the ring.

Tolkien crafts telling details that remind one of Wagner’s use of orchestral leitmotifs to bring home a point. He shows the effect the ring has on those who possess it. Bilbo finds it difficult to pass the ring on to Frodo. When Frodo has to pass the ring over to Gandalf so that the wizard can determine whether it is indeed Sauron’s ring of power, the ring begins to work on him: “He unfastened it and handed it slowly to the wizard. It felt suddenly very heavy, as if either it or Frodo himself was in some way reluctant for Gandalf to touch it.” (p. 54) An element of the Tolkienian Leitmotif is this heaviness of the ring. Throughout the latter part of the trilogy Frodo perceives the ring as growing heavier as they approach Mordor, Sauron’s hellish land. Much later when he encounters Bilbo at Rivcndell, Bilbo asks to see the ring again. Frodo brings it out, but immediately pulls it back. “To his distress and amazement he found that he was no longer looking at Bilbo; a shadow seemed to have fallen between them, and through it he found himself eyeing a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands. He felt a desire to strike him.” (p. 260) Bilbo here takes on the features of Gollum, the earlier possessor of the ring. We don’t know here whether this takes place in Frodo’s mind, in Bilbo’s actual appearance, or in some third world belonging to the ring.

Perhaps the clearest description of the ring’s powers comes in a speech by the elf Elrond addressed to Boromir, a member of the fellowship who had wanted to make use of it for his own agenda:

We cannot use the Ruling Ring. That we now know too well. It belongs to Sauron and was made by him alone, and is altogether evil. Its strength, Boromir, is too great for anyone to wield at will, save only for those who have already a great power of their own. But for them it holds an even deadlier peril. The very desire of it corrupts the heart. Consider Saruman. If any of the Wise should with this Ring overthrow the Lord of Mordor, using his own arts, he would then set himself on Sauron’s throne, and yet another Dark Lord would appear. And that is another reason why the Ring should be destroyed: as long as it is in the world it will be a danger even to the Wise. (p. 300)



Later Boromir, forgetting Elrond’s warning, tries to take the ring by force from Frodo, thinking he can use it to gain military advantage for his people. The episode ends in his death rather than Frodo’s, but it also ends in the breaking of the original fellowship into several groups.





In Wagner’s cycle the ring itself often disappears for long periods of time. It is not seen at all in Die Walküre, although it is mentioned. Let’s follow the actual progress of the ring as it passes through the story. Alberich is able to steal the gold from the depths of the Rhine and forge a ring from it by foreswearing love. Wotan and Loge steal the gold, the Tarnhelm and the ring from Alberich in order to pay the giants for building Valhalla. Like Frodo, Wotan wishes to keep the ring, but he is forced to turn it over to the giants. One of them, Fafner, promptly strikes his brother dead in a struggle over the ring. Fafner uses the Tarnhelm to change himself into a dragon, in whose form he sleeps on the gold for two generations. Siegfried has no idea of the ring’s significance as he carries it away from Fafner’s cave after killing the dragon. He gives it freely to Brünnhilde in the last act of Siegfried. I might mention that some critics have suggested that the ring causes him to desire physical possession of Brünnhilde. I think a heroic version of youthful hormones would be quite sufficient to that task. In the last scene of the first act of Götterdämmerung, Brünnhilde’s Valkyrie sister, Waltraute, attempts to convince Brünnhilde to return the ring to the Rhine daughters on her own, thus ending the curse. Brünnhilde refuses, saying that it is Siegfried’s pledge of love. We find out what that is worth a few minutes later when Siegfried appears disguised as Gunther, wrests the ring from her, and takes her to be Gunther’s bride.

When Brünnhilde discovers Siegfried at Gunther’s court wearing the ring, she realizes she has been deceived and turns toward vengeance on Siegfried. Gunther’s half-brother Hagen is the son of the dwarf Alberich and he plans to gain the ring for himself. After Siegfried’s murder, he tries to take the ring from the corpse, but Siegfried raises his arm to prevent it, causing terror among those present. At that moment Brünnhilde appears and orders the final events. She will join Siegfried on the funeral pyre; the ring – which she now takes – will be purified by the fire and return to the Rhine daughters.





As the funeral pyre consumes the bodies and the ring is returned to the Rhine, Hagen make one last desperate attempt to grab the ring. The rhine-daughters drag him into the depths where he drowns. The fire spreads to Walhalla, which is seen in the distance, and the castle burns with all the gods. The music for the final moments of the great cycle portrays a utopian magnificence cleansed of the evil represented by the ring.

[Audio: Final pages of Götterdämmerung]

Alberich, however, is presumably still alive and so evil has not left the world completely.



Frodo carries Sauron’s ring through many adventures and hundreds of pages to the crack of the volcano Mt. Doom, where it had been originally forged using the infernal heat of the mountain’s fire. Gollum, like Alberich, follows the ring and its bearer on this trip. At the last moment the ring’s power overtakes Frodo and he is unable to cast it into the fire below. Gollum makes a last desperate attempt to wrest the ring from Frodo, biting off the finger on which he is wearing it. Gollum, the finger and the ring fall into the depths of the fire and the power of the ring is broken. Here we can see a clear echo of Hagen’s final attempt to grasp the ring at the end of Götterdämmerung.



Both cycles concern themselves with the corruption of noble designs by greed and the will to power. Both rings offer the temptation of power, that the good characters supposedly will use toward good ends, but only those characters who are untouched by ambition are truly immune to its power to corrupt. Siegfried scarcely knows that he has it and gives it freely to Brünnhilde. After recovering it he offers to give it to the Rhine daughters, but holds back when they impugn his courage. Alberich, on the other hand, uses it to terrorize and enslave his fellow Nibelungs (dwarves). Wotan sees it as a further enhancement of his divine power. Fafner sees it only as the chief object of his treasure and something that he wants to keep away from the Nibelungs. Brünnhilde sees it innocently as Siegfried’s pledge of love and then – on Siegfried’s hand – as evidence of Siegfried’s betrayal of that love. Hagen desires the ring initially for his father, Alberich, but as the drama progresses, it becomes clear that he desires it for himself. Brünnhilde is able in the last scene to purify the ring on her own funeral pyre. The susceptibility of the individual possessors of the ring is directly proportional to their greed and lust for power. Alberich, Hagen and Wotan are the most susceptible and Siegfried the least.

One can say almost the same about Tolkien’s ring. Tom Bombadil is least susceptible to the power of Sauron’s ring. Initially Bilbo and Frodo are also relatively free of its influence, but as their self-awareness and strength of character grow, so does their susceptibility to the ring until Frodo is unable to release it at the critical moment at Mount Doom. In both cycles, the destruction of the ring and those who desire it most brings about the end of an age in the history of the world.



Tolkienians are fond of saying that the similarities between the two cycles can be explained by their use of the same medieval sources. Let’s examine this notion. Wagner found sources for the idea of a cursed ring in at least three of his Icelandic sources: the “Reginsmál”, a poem contained in the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda, and the Saga of the Volsungs. The story told in all those sources has the gods Oðinn and Loki (Wotan and Loge) wandering through the world. They see an otter gnawing on a salmon. They throw a stone and hit the otter in the head, killing him. They rejoice in having bagged both an otter and a salmon with one toss of a stone. After flaying the otter and taking the animal’s skin, they seek lodging with a farmer named Hreiðmar. It turns out that the otter was the farmer’s son, appropriately named Otr, who spent the day in the shape of an otter so that he could catch fish. Hreiðmar insists that the gods repay him for his loss. Loki goes back to the waterfall and catches a pike there named Andvari – who was really a dwarf – there is a lot of shape-shifting in this story. Andvari had a large amount of gold. Loki demands the gold, which the dwarf gladly pays, but then he demands the ring Andvari is wearing. Andvari resists, saying he could recover his treasure with that ring. Loki insists on the ring and Andvari places a curse on it, saying that it would bring the death of anyone who had it. Loki returns to Hreiðmar’s farm where he places the gold on the otter skin. It covers the whole skin, but he eventually has to use the ring to cover a single whisker that was not covered by the remaining gold. Hreiðmar’s other sons demand their part of the settlement and are refused, whereupon they kill their father. The one son, Fáfnir, takes the entire treasure and turns himself into a dragon to guard it. There is no further mention of the ring in any of the sources, although its possessors all meet with a violent death.

The special powers of the ring were developed by Wagner who saw in the ring a symbol of the power of wealth. Tolkien adopted many aspects of Wagner’s ring without associating it specifically with wealth. In the event, the ring brought Tolkien more wealth than it did Wagner. The composer died in debt while Tolkien died a modestly wealthy man as the result of the inordinate success of his books.

I maintain that Tolkien must have absorbed Wagner’s notion of the ring even though he probably knew the Icelandic sources Wagner had used better than the composer himself. After all he had read them in the Old Norse original. There are too many aspects of Wagner’s specific adaptation of the ring motif that show up in Tolkien for this to be an accident. The Icelandic versions of the story do not provide any characteristics of the ring besides its ability to create riches for Andvari and the curse he places on it. The curse is extraordinarily effective, leading to the deaths of Hreiðmar, Fáfnir, Reginn, and Sigurðr, but there is no specific association of these events with the curse on the ring in the sources. The curse is never mentioned again. The original thief of the ring, the god Loki is not affected by his deed. No one seeks to gain the ring. It does not have any mysterious effect on anyone. In Wagner and Tolkien the ring has virtually the same mysterious effect. It draws men and women to desire the ring, even at the cost of their own lives. It affects everyone who touches it in some way, although some more than others. Wagner has his entire brass section blare out the curse motif every time someone dies in possession of the ring.

[Audio – the curse]

Between the two repetitions of the motif, we heard Wotan’s shocked reaction: “Terrible I now find the curse’s power.”



Every turn of Tolkien’s story involving the ring brings out its curse and its power over its possessors. Tolkien doesn’t have the brass section, but he has a linguistic equivalent that reminds us of the ring’s power at every juncture. We have already seen several instances of this at work. Nowhere is the power of the ring clearer than in the description of Sam’s brief period as ring-bearer. The ring begins to take over his consciousness: “As it drew near the great furnaces, where, in the deeps of time, it had been shaped and forged, the Ring’s power grew, and it became more fell, untameable save by some mighty will. … Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason.” And so on. Sam is able to overcome the temptation represented by the ring only by his devotion to Frodo and his Hobbit/British subbornness.



The points of contact between the two Ring Cycles do not cease with the ring itself. There is a strong Wagnerian echo in the assumption of the “sword that was broken” by Aragorn, the man fated to reclaim the kingship of Gondor. Unlike Siegfried, Aragorn does not reforge the sword himself – it is forged anew “by elvish smiths” but its reforging and use by a hero fulfills expectations and prophecy much as Siegfried’s reforging had done.



Another shared concern between the two works is their rejection of modern industrial society. The clattering anvils of Nibelheim could just as well be used to describe the industry going on under Saruman’s control in Isengard. Wagner’s music fits very well to the film version of this scene.

[doctored video]

I didn’t have to change a thing.



In his production of Wagner’s Ring at the Staatsoper in Berlin, Harry Kupfer violates the mysterious opening of Das Rheingold by showing Wotan breaking off a limb of the World Ash before a note is played. This wounding of the tree leads to its demise and with it the decline of all nature. Kupfer’s production has the action weave around the fallen limbs of the great tree until in the final scene of Götterdämmerung Valhalla is set alight using the wood of the tree as kindling. The concluding ecstatic ending I played a few minutes ago accompanies the planting of a new tree by two children, a boy and a girl. The release from evil points humanity and nature toward a new birth. This was Harry Kupfer’s answer to the meaning of those enigmatic, gleaming measures.



In Tolkien the defeat of Sauron also leads to a triumphal denoument of the story as Aragorn assumes the kingship of Gondor and all the many threads of the story are played out. But this victory does not stop the forces of industrialization as Saruman, now known as Sharkey, attempts to industrialize the Shire. (Peter Jackson chose to leave this out of his film version, which was already very long.) We are left with the distinct impression that the protection of nature – a dwindling resource throughout The Lord of the Rings – is a rear-guard action against an inexorably advancing civilization. This was certainly Tolkien’s own view as he visited the haunts of his childhood only to find them eradicated by urban development and industrialization. In many ways Tolkien’s conclusion is far darker than Wagner’s. After driving Sharkey’s forces out of the Shire, the hobbit heroes settle down, but Frodo is troubled by the wounds he has received and is never able to find peace. Eventually he joins Bilbo as they travel to the Grey Havens and embark for an unkown world that may or may not be death. The strait-laced Catholic Tolkien was unwilling and probably unable to depict a true redemption of his pre-Christian world without the coming of Christ himself.



The many points of contact between these two students of Germanic antiquity, Wagner the amateur and Tolkien the professional, should not blind us to the many points of difference. Unlike Tolkien, Wagner associates the power of the ring with the treasure of the Nibelungs and with plutocratic power in general. Money was obviously much more important to Wagner than it was to Tolkien, something that is reflected in their lives as well. Wagner always spent money he didn’t have, while Tolkien lived the frugal life of an English academic, even after becoming wealthy. We are told that his one extravagance was a taste for brightly colored weskits.

Some of the differences are associated with the different genres involved. Even a drama cycle of four days cannot really encompass the kind of quest Tolkien depicts. Bound by his dramatic form, Wagner also has to eschew the giant battle scenes Tolkien puts in his narratives. The thousands of anonymous victims of battle make a good background to a heroic story and at least one of Wagner’s sources, the Middle High German Nibelungenlied, also has massive battle scenes at its conclusion. The Icelandic sources Wagner preferred are, however, smaller in scale, usually restricted to a few individuals on the stage at any one time. Wagner does have massed voices for the Gibichung vassals in Götterdämmerung, but most of the Ring cycle involves only two or three characters at a time on the stage. Tolkien also built his human drama around small scenes with only a few players – one can cite the long and complex relationship involving Frodo, Sam and Gollum – but these alternate with gigantic scenes that would never fit on an operatic stage.

Both epics end with the destruction of the ring. Brünnhilde realizes at the last moment that this is the only solution, while Tolkien builds his entire plot around the quest to destroy the ring, something that can only be accomplished by penetrating deep into the land of the enemy. The quest is long, arduous and very dangerous. The heroes seem good and the villains seem evil, but the borderline is often paper-thin. Characters waver between the good and the evil worlds or fall prey to evil: Saruman, the great wizard who becomes a pawn of Sauron; Theoden, the king who allows himself to be dragged down to premature senility by the evil Wormtongue; Denethor, the Steward of Gondor who despairs and commits suicide; Denethor’s son Boromir, who tries to take the ring from Frodo and is shortly thereafter killed by orcs. Even Frodo spends much of the last half of the narrative in a losing battle against the power of the ring. All the figures of Tolkien’s world are very close to the temptation to give in to Sauron and the temptation to power represented by the ring. Virtue is held upright in The Lord of the Rings by continuous exertion and the temptation is always there to give in, to relax and let events take their course. One would have to read very superficially to maintain that the characters in The Lord of the Rings are two-dimensional and lack complexity. The depiction of Sam’s struggle with the power of the ring mentioned above should illustrate this.

Wagner’s characters seem most virtuous when they are following their inner nature – and least so when their behavior is determined by what Wagner called “politics.” In Die Walküre. Wotan is following his natural instinct until Fricka forces him to realize the political consequences of his all-too-natural actions. Political considerations cause him to condemn his son Siegmund to death and to eject his favorite daughter Brünnhilde from the circle of the immortals. Siegfried does everything right as long as he follows nature – represented by the forest bird – but he ends up doing everything wrong when human power politics takes over in Götterdämmerung.

To be more precise, virtue is represented in Wagner largely by love – including sexual love – and vice is anything that violates that: Alberich’s original curse, Wotan’s sacrifice of his two dearest children, Siegfried’s seduction by the memory potion and so on. We might point out that the two brightest moments in the Ring are when the heroes are about to make love to close relatives.



A musicologist I know, who loves Wagner, is currently reading The Lord of the Rings and he had two complaints: “There is no sex and everyone is always stopping for tea.” He said this to contrast it with his positive response to Wagner. Like money, sex clearly played a larger role in Wagner’s life than in Tolkien’s. In fact, if it weren’t for the very sexy English sitcom Coupling, I might simply see Tolkien as an example of the often-cited show title “No sex please, we’re British.” Virtue and vice reside in other areas for Tolkien, as we have seen.

On the other hand, I think we can all see the virtue of a leisurely cup of tea or a glass of beer together with good company and good conversation. These were definitely virtues for Tolkien.



Tom Shippey, an Anglo-Saxonist who came to the defense of his older colleague, calls Tolkien an “Author of the Century,” referring to the twentieth. He speaks of the many authors scarred by the wars and man-made catastrophes of the century and their inability to deal with them directly. Most of them needed many years, sometimes decades to come to terms with their experiences. Shippey cites the examples of Orwell, Golding and Vonnegut, all of whom were combat veterans, who in their works of fiction – 1984, The Lord of the Flies, Slaughterhouse 5 – moved into the fantastic to express the horrors of their times. Shippey sees Tolkien as a representative of such “damaged authors” of the century. His giant works are his attempt to come to terms with the monstrosities of his time.



Wagner, for his part, set out to shape his own time and was in many ways the pivotal figure of his century, the nineteenth. He revolutionized music. He invented a whole new kind of mythical art. He embodied the nationalism of the century in his focus on matters German. He portrayed the corruption of a plutocracy arising in his time while at the same time demonstrating his own entrepreneurial spirit in his festival project in Bayreuth.

In the intellectual and artistic world of Europe and America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – the time when Tolkien was growing up – Wagner was one of the central artistic touchstones. French Wagnerites like Baudelaire virtually worshipped him and his works. George Bernard Shaw, a generation older than Tolkien, was the intellectual leader of Wagnerians in England. Aubrey Beardsley produced a rich sequence of illustrations to Wagner’s Ring that played a decisive role in C.S.Lewis’s early infatuation. Wagner and his music became a prime mover in the rise of both opera and symphonic music in the eastern metropolitan centers of America. In Tolkien’s generation we find Wagner’s positive and negative influence everywhere. T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land opens with a quote from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Richard Strauss and Giacomo Puccini wrote Wagnerian operas while Stravinsky and his school violently rejected Wagner’s influence and were thus shaped negatively by the same forces.

The bridge between the world of Wagnerianism and Tolkien’s circle in Oxford was C.S.Lewis, an ardent Wagnerian. Lewis was a lecturer in English at Oxford during most of Tolkien’s career and the two men became close friends. Lewis is famous for his works of popular theology, his interplanetary trilogy, and – probably most of all – for his Chronicles of Narnia. I have read – but been unable to confirm in primary sources – that Lewis and Tolkien regularly attended performances of the Ring in London, a fact that Tolkien and his biographers generally “forget.” Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien’s official biographer, wrote a history of the “Inklings,” the informal group in Oxford that included both Lewis and Tolkien, which mentions Wagner only twice, but both instances are telling. The first involves a dramatic reading of Die Walküre undertaken in 1934 by Lewis, Tolkien and Lewis’s brother Warnie, who is the source for this episode. Both Lewis and Tolkien wanted to read the work in the original German, but Warnie’s inability to keep up with them in that language forced them to read it in the English translation. Reportedly the three continued their discussion of the opera until very late. Carpenter also cites Tolkien’s daughter Priscilla as his source for an incident in which Lewis and Tolkien attended a performance of a Ring opera in London without the requisite evening dress and were the only men in the audience committing this faux pas.



If Tolkien had never heard of Wagner; if the Ring of the Nibelung had not been a part of every young man’s education in the first quarter of the twentieth century; if his best friend had not been a powerful Wagnerian; then we might believe that Tolkien had derived some, if not all these aspects from other sources, but the evidence is overwhelming. Tolkien stands convicted of being a closet Wagnerian.



How do we explain Tolkien’s virulent rejection of Wagner as a source? Let me draw a last parallel.

In the early 1840s Wagner was a virtually unknown composer and conductor who was seeking his fortune in Paris, the opera capital of Europe. An older, more established – and financially successful – figure in the field helped him with introductions, found him work to keep bread on the table, and eventually arranged for the production of Rienzi in Dresden which was Wagner’s first real success as a composer. That production led to his being appointed conductor in Dresden with a comfortable, if not lavish income. Wagner also learned a great deal from the operas of the older composer. Wagner’s strong sense of indebtedness led to his total rejection of the older composer, Giacomo Meyerbeer. His resentment at owing his career to another was a component of his violent anti-Semitism and led to his use of Meyerbeer to represent all that was wrong with opera and with European culture as a whole. Wagner also conveniently forgot that Heinrich Heine, another German Jew, was the major source for his Flying Dutchman. With the exception of Franz Liszt and King Ludwig of Bavaria, virtually everyone who really helped Wagner along the way was treated in the same shabby way.

Tolkien was certainly not as petty a man as Wagner, but I sense in his rejection of Wagner a similar refusal to accept the fact that he had learned much from Wagner’s mythopoeiesis and from his art as a whole. This refusal may not have been conscious, but it was powerful. Although Tolkien and Wagner may have had different attitudes toward religion, politics and many other things, they shared a notion of a grand mythic design drawn from the Germanic past and expressed in an old-fashioned version of the language of their own day as a means of exploring the nature of evil and the struggle against it. The resemblance between the two great ring cycles certainly does not end with the shape of their central symbols.

quinta-feira, 11 de setembro de 2008

Livre-Arbítrio e Presciência Divina a Solução dos Medievais

Ricardo Medeiros


O problema


Grandes debates surgem quando se discute como Deus, único causador de todas as coisas, sendo por isso senhor de todas elas, sabedor não só do passado, mas também do presente e do futuro, ainda assim pôde dar aos homens a faculdade do livre-arbítrio. Se mesmo as coisas que ainda não ocorreram somos tentados a concebê-las como necessárias, no sentido de que tenham de ocorrer como Deus as sabe que vão ocorrer, como poderíamos nós humanos ter a livre vontade para decidir sobre nossos atos? Portanto, se Deus já tem traçado o destino de uns e de outros, não é fácil compreender como haveria de existir em nós qualquer liberdade de ação.

O livre-arbítrio presume, de acordo com a doutrina cristã, que somos nós que decidimos nosso caminho. Desde a queda de Adão, passamos a ter sob nossa responsabilidade o destino que nos espera. Trilhar o caminho do Bem se desejar o reencontro com Deus; afastar-se dele por nossa própria vontade levar-nos-á em direção ao Mal. A decisão por nós tomada, no entanto, já é do conhecimento de Deus mesmo antes de a tomarmos. A presciência divina, presume-se, permite que Deus já saiba não só da decisão, mas também do fim que nos aguarda como conseqüência de nossos atos "voluntários". Tudo, a princípio, parece ocorrer por necessidade, uma vez que, não só as causas, mas também todos os efeitos já são do conhecimento de Deus.

A dificuldade que se nos apresenta não se restringe apenas à discussão sobre a presciência divina. Torna-se ainda maior quando é levantada a questão da predestinação. Estaria nosso destino já previamente traçado? Em caso afirmativo, qual seria então a noção de justiça? Como justificar as recompensas aos bons e os castigos aos maus? Se a uns já está predestinado cometer ato mal, como pode ele ser castigado a cumprir as penas de Deus, se dele não partiu a decisão de agir erradamente? Da mesma forma, por que premiar alguns ou por que Deus contemplá-los com a graça eterna se de alguma forma já estava determinado que assim seria e ocorreria? Deus, ao determinar destinos diferentes aos homens, poderia ter cometido uma falha, um ato de injustiça, pois já determinaria de antemão os escolhidos para a salvação e para a danação. Não sendo assim, mesmo não havendo desejado e determinado isso, mas, sabendo de como tudo ocorrerá (volta a questão da presciência), mostra-se impotente para modificar os rumos daqueles que não serão agraciados com a Sua companhia. Construído então o pensamento dessa forma, faz-nos irremediavelmente prisioneiros dos mais fortes dos grilhões que são a presciência e a própria vontade divinas. Como conciliar aspectos que a princípio parecem inconciliáveis, eis aí um grande desafio que é posto e que os filósofos da Idade Média irão enfrentar e tentarão decifrar.

Santo Agostinho
Santo Agostinho (354 - 430) foi um dos que aceitaram o desafio e tentou desfazer o enigma. Muito embora tenha vivido e florescido em uma época na qual oficialmente ainda não havia se iniciada a Idade Média (476 - 1492 d.C.), não se pode deixar de mencioná-lo quando se discute o pensamento filosófico da época medieval, notadamente porque suas idéias repercutiram e influenciaram sobremaneira muitos daqueles que o sucederam e foram muitas vezes tomadas como base para os próprios pensamentos dos denominados Santos Padres da época cristã chamada de Patrística.

Agostinho não se limita a discutir apenas o livre-arbítrio. Defende também a existência da graça divina e da predestinação. Afirma que os homens têm a faculdade da livre vontade, mas, ao mesmo tempo, estão sujeitos à vontade e à predestinação divinas e à concessão de Sua graça para que sejam salvos. Alguns são escolhidos para a salvação; dentre estes, porém há os que por livre vontade, buscam o bem, e os que dele se afastam. A predestinação não é para Agostinho, portanto, uma necessidade. Transcrevemos aqui trecho de comentário presente na coleção "Os Pensadores", edição de 1973: "Ao definir as três faculdades da alma - memória, inteligência e vontade – tem nessa última a mais importante. A vontade para Agostinho seria essencialmente criadora e livre, e nela tem raízes a possibilidade de o homem afastar-se de Deus. Reside aí a essência do pecado, que de maneira alguma é necessário e cujo único responsável seria o próprio livre-arbítrio da vontade humana. A queda do homem é de inteira responsabilidade do livre-arbítrio humano, mas este não é suficiente para fazê-lo retornar às origens divinas. A salvação não é apenas uma questão de querer, mas de poder. E esse poder é privilégio de Deus. Chega-se, assim, à doutrina da predestinação e da graça, uma das pedras de toque do agostinismo. Sem a graça, o livre-arbítrio pode distinguir o certo do errado, mas não pode tornar o bem um fato concreto. A graça ajunta-se ao livre-arbítrio sem, entretanto, negá-lo. Sem o auxílio da graça, o livre-arbítrio elegeria o mal; com ela, dirige-se para o bem eterno. Mas, segundo Agostinho, nem todos os homens recebem a graça das mãos de Deus; apenas alguns eleitos, que estão, portanto, predestinados à salvação."

Mais tarde, Santo Agostinho retoma o assunto na "A Cidade de Deus", obra escrita entre os anos 413 e 426. No capítulo IX do livro quinto, que tem como título "A presciência de Deus e a livre vontade do homem contra a definição de Cícero", Agostinho contesta veementemente Cícero, o qual diz não ser possível a predição de coisas, nem mesmo em Deus. O bispo de Hipona argumenta inicialmente que não se pode admitir a existência de Deus e, ao mesmo tempo, negar que Ele é presciente do futuro. Acrescenta ainda que aquele que sabe de antemão todas as coisas não pode ignorar, entre as causas, nossa vontade. Nossa vontade, portanto, pode tanto quanto o próprio Deus quis e soube de antemão que poderia, pois ela não poderia ter mais poder que o concedido por Ele.

O capítulo X do mesmo livro, Agostinho dá ao título a forma de pergunta: "Está sujeita a alguma necessidade a vontade humana?". A sua resposta é não. A vontade humana, conclui, não está sujeita a uma necessidade, pois, na realidade, fazemos muitas coisas que, se não quiséssemos não faríamos. Sujeitar o livre-arbítrio à necessidade seria suprimir a liberdade. Agostinho refere ainda que Deus soube das coisas que dependeriam da nossa vontade ("Aquele que de antemão soube o que dependeria de nossa vontade não soube de antemão nada, mas soube alguma coisa, mesmo que Ele seja presciente, algo depende de nossa vontade"). Quando diz "não peca o homem precisamente porque Deus soube de antemão que havia de pecar", e mais além, "se o homem não quer pecar, também isso Deus soube de antemão", Agostinho tenta dizer que Deus sabe de antemão, mas não é Ele a causa do homem ir em direção ao pecado. Estaria, portanto, apesar de sabido com antecedência por Deus (presciência), na total dependência da vontade humana o pecar (livre-arbítrio).

Boécio
O livre-arbítrio e a presciência divina são discutidos também por Boécio (480 - 524) no século VI d.C., na obra "A Consolação da Filosofia". No capítulo V, quando questionada sobre o tema, a Filosofia responde dizendo inicialmente que o livre-arbítrio existe sim, e que é uma faculdade dos seres possuidores da razão. Para ela "nenhum ser dotado de razão poderia existir se não possuísse a liberdade e a faculdade de julgar". E, diversamente do que possa ser imaginado, a alma humana será tanto mais livre, quanto mais se mantém na contemplação da inteligência divina, e, tanto menos livre quanto mais desce a juntar-se às coisas corporais, às que se ligam à carne, e, finalmente quando levados pelos vícios, perdem a posse da razão. Boécio utiliza o seu hipotético diálogo com a Filosofia para tentar responder ao desafio de conciliar a possibilidade de Deus conhecer previamente todas as coisas com o livre-arbítrio humano. Desafia-a dizendo tratarem-se de coisas contraditórias e incompatíveis. O diálogo, a forma que o autor encontra para expor suas convicções na "Consolação", agora existe para dar corpo à argumentação de Boécio para explicar a presciência divina, questão que, para ele, está relacionada à própria natureza das coisas e à hierarquia existente que as diferencia. Parte do princípio de que as coisas são conhecidas não a partir de suas próprias propriedades e natureza específicas, mas segundo a natureza de quem as procura conhecer. Os sentidos conhecem as coisas de uma forma, e dentre estes, a visão da melhor maneira; a imaginação conhece de outra forma, mais completa; a razão, mais completa ainda; e a inteligência divina conhece tudo de forma absoluta. Além disso, as faculdades superiores podem compreender as subalternas, enquanto estas não podem jamais elevar-se ao nível das que lhes são superiores. A forma de conhecimento divino, portanto, não é a forma do conhecimento humano. É a razão humana, em última instância, que não consegue conceber a presciência daquilo que não é necessário. Mas isso se deve à limitação que nela existe em relação ao conhecimento divino supremo e absoluto. Do mesmo modo que os sentidos devem ceder à imaginação, e esta à razão, é necessário, pois, que "a razão ceda e reconheça a superioridade da inteligência divina". Somente dessa forma é que ela poderá entender o que ela não pode ver em si mesma, o que concebe a presciência divina, com toda a precisão e certeza, mesmo que esses acontecimentos não se realizem.

O tempo e o eterno
Um aspecto sempre presente nas obras dos filósofos medievais quando lidam com o problema da presciência divina, é a forma como esses pensadores abordaram a questão do tempo. Agostinho, por exemplo, dedica o livro XI ("O Homem e o Tempo") de suas Confissões inteiramente à essa questão que ainda hoje se mostra obscura e controversa. No capítulo 11 ("O tempo não pode medir a eternidade"), escreve que quando o pensamento vagueia ao redor das idéias da sucessão dos tempos passados e futuros, "tudo que excogita é em vão". Para Deus na eternidade nada passa, tudo é presente; a eternidade imóvel determina o futuro e o passado, não sendo ela nem passado nem futuro. Boécio também relaciona presciência de Deus com a forma limitada como concebemos a dimensão tempo. No mesmo capítulo V da "Consolação" tenta definir o que é ser eterno - propriedade exclusiva de Deus. Define eternidade como a posse inteira e perfeita de uma vida ilimitada, tal como podemos concebê-la conforme ao que é temporal. Mais adiante cita Aristóteles quando o mesmo, ao se referir à lei do tempo, diz que é o que "sempre começa e jamais cessa, desenrolando-se segundo o ritmo de um tempo ilimitado". Porém, isso ainda não significa eterno para Boécio. Para ele, mesmo que a extensão da vida seja ilimitada, esta não a pode apreender e abarcar totalmente e de uma só vez, já que não possui mais o passado e ainda não desfrutou do futuro. Somente Deus pode ser considerado como eterno, pois é o único que pode possuir de uma só vez a totalidade da plenitude de uma vida sem limites; o único no qual o presente abarca todo o tempo ilimitado. Dessa maneira, Deus tem uma natureza sempre eterna e presente, também seu saber, permanece imutável em seu presente e, abarcando os espaços infinitos do passado e do futuro, considera a todos os acontecimentos com se eles já estivessem se desenrolando. Santo Anselmo (1033 – 11019), em seu Proslógio, capítulo XX, faz o seguinte comentário em relação a questão de Deus no tempo: "Que Deus não está em lugar nenhum, nem no tempo: e tudo está em Deus". Diz que os termos ontem, hoje e amanhã não podem ser aplicados a Deus, pois, só existem no tempo e Deus existe fora de qualquer tempo, em tempo nenhum. Santo Tomás (1225 – 1275) tem opinião semelhante. Afirma que em Deus não há qualquer sucessão temporal, pois esta última só existe nas coisas que estão sujeitas ao movimento, e Deus é, por definição, imóvel. Por isso, o seu ser existe na totalidade e simultaneamente.

Confissão das limitações
Clara é a dificuldade encontrada por todos aqueles pensadores de quinze séculos atrás para tentar explicar com palavras como Deus pode ter conhecimento dos acontecimentos que ainda estão por vir. Por volta da metade do século XIV, já no apagar das luzes da Idade Média, Ockham (1300 – 1350), ao abordar a questão da presciência divina, sustenta que se deve admitir sem dúvida que Deus conhece todos os futuros contigentes. Ressalva, no entanto, que é impossível a todo intelecto expor isso com evidência e o modo como conhece todos os futuros contigentes. Mais além, confessa: "não sei exprimir de que maneira". Semelhante assertiva fez Agostinho em sua "Confissões": "Poderá minha mão que escreve explicar isso?... Poderá a atividade de minha língua conseguir pela palavra realizar empresa tão grandiosa?" Ockham tenta, então, resolver o problema dizendo que Deus é um conhecimento intuitivo... de todas as coisas que podem ser feitas ou não,... tão perfeito e tão claro, que constitui também um conhecimento evidente de tudo que é passado, futuro e presente. Difícil explicar com palavras, mais difícil fazer-se compreendido. Até àqueles que comungam do pensamento cristão não lhes é obrigado acatar passivamente o que disseram os filósofos teólogos ou aceitar as razões que procuraram, não sem grande esforço, passar adiante. As explicações lógicas aqui levantadas, e todas aquelas que se levantam sobre qualquer assunto, estão sujeitas a questionamentos. Tais refutações não devem ser vistas apenas como acinte ou má vontade para com o pensador, embora o sejam algumas delas. Exemplo disso temos na própria Idade Média, quando Gaunillo refuta Santo Anselmo. Mesmo confessando completa e total crença em Deus, ser supremo que "existe e não pode não existir", o monge de Marmoutier, nega-se a aceitar a "prova racional" da existência de Deus que lhe foi oferecida por Anselmo. Vê-se, ao contrário, em todos esses homens, humildade e auto confissão das próprias limitações as quais estão submetidos, e mais ainda, das limitações a que são impostas nossas palavras, melhor forma de expressão de que dispomos.

Concluindo
Em pelo menos três pontos principais podemos ver apoiados os argumentos aqui referidos que conciliam a presciência divina com a livre vontade dos homens. O primeiro deles, que, por si só já deveria ser suficiente, é a própria crença na existência de Deus com os atributos de onisciência e onipotência que lhe são atribuídos. Isso parece ser fundamental para a aceitação da presciência, como deixou claro Santo Agostinho na "Cidade de Deus", o que é facilmente compreendido na medida em que, admitindo-se Sua existência, faz-se obrigatória a aceitação de que Ele pode prever fatos futuros, ou não seria onipotente e onisciente, uma limitação de sua grandeza que seria absurda. O "ser do qual não se pode pensar nada maior" de Santo Anselmo, único por definição, não poderia ser privado da "simples" propriedade da presciência ou não seria o ser do qual não se pode pensar nada maior. A natureza superior da inteligência de Deus, referida na "Consolação", de Boécio também leva ao caminho da necessidade ou vontade da crença para a admissão da presciência divina. Não aceitar a natureza superior, absoluta e ilimitada de Deus, de certa forma, inviabiliza toda a empreitada na busca de explicações na razão para Sua presciência dos acontecimentos.

O segundo ponto a que se pegam os filósofos medievais é a forma como nós sentimos e nos relacionamos com o tempo, que é diferente da forma com Deus se relaciona com ele (se é que podemos usar o termo). Conceber o tempo como uma dimensão exclusivamente humana e não divina parece tentar contornar o problema. Entretanto, afigura-se bastante difícil para nós desvincular a noção de tempo de nosso pensamento. Há que se fazer um enorme esforço (sobre-humano!) para isso, aceitando o nosso futuro como presente para Deus. E nosso passado também. Superar isso é uma das maneiras para aceitar que o que está para acontecer só acontecerá (futuro) para nós humanos. Não importa que decisão tomemos; temos completa liberdade de tomá-las. Qualquer que seja ela, no entanto, esta já é do conhecimento de Deus em seu presente eterno. O argumento que põe em esferas distintas o tempo infinito - o que pode ser pensado por nós - e o eterno divino - o que abarcaria de uma só vez todo o tempo passado, presente e futuro - é, apesar de difícil entendimento, de uma construção tão simples quanto bela, pois deixa a todos que conseguem apreendê-lo impossibilitados de contra argumentação razoável que o ponha por terra. O simples fato de vislumbrar a possibilidade de um Deus já presente no nosso futuro que ainda é desconhecido para nós, é suficiente para aceitar sem refutação cabível a presciência divina, e esta sem qualquer vinculação com a nossa livre vontade de escolha.

O terceiro ponto, por fim, é o que está talvez implícito na afirmação de Ockham referida anteriormente de que Deus tem "conhecimento intuitivo... de todas as coisas que podem ser feitas ou não" [grifo meu]. A ressalva final desta assertiva assume enorme força com profundas conseqüências ao pensamento, uma vez que, com ela, basta a Deus faculdade de poder saber todas as possibilidades envolvidas para que Lhe seja conferida a presciência de tudo que existe. Tal afirmação, portanto, desobrigaria Deus do conhecimento do que acontecerá exatamente. Conhecendo previamente todas as combinações possíveis, obrigatoriamente saberá a única que realmente ocorrerá, pois esta estará de qualquer maneira contida no universo de possibilidades conhecidas. Esse raciocínio pode ser comparado a uma partida de xadrez, na qual o grande jogador é aquele que sabe o maior número de jogadas futuras (das que ocorrerão e das que existem somente como possibilidade) e os desdobramentos que estas e as próximas jogadas levarão; o seu oponente, por seu turno, é livre para fazer suas jogadas da forma que desejar. Em uma escala infinitamente menor, o bom enxadrista sabe o que vai ocorrer nas próximas jogadas, muito embora seu oponente tenha total liberdade de fazer o movimento que desejar nas pedras sobre o tabuleiro. Deus, em sua potência infinita, saberia, não um grande número, mas todas as possibilidades e todos os desdobramentos possíveis, deixando-nos livres para agir em conformidade com nossa vontade, o que, de forma alguma, impede que o nosso futuro seja do Seu conhecimento.

Essas são, portanto, algumas considerações a respeito de como pensadores da Idade Média, indubitavelmente amparados em fortes sentimentos de fé, viram, enfrentaram e opinaram a respeito do grande obstáculo que se interpõe à razão humana que é tentar conceber a simultaneidade da presciência de Deus e da livre vontade dos homens. Da forma mais simples possível para a complexidade e grandeza do assunto tratado, e sob o peso da flagrante impossibilidade de expressarem com palavras as coisas que estavam além do plano racional, esses homens vagaram por entre os labirintos das explicações e argumentações e esforçaram-se de coração para verem transmitidas às pessoas – mesmo às que não possuem a fé - o que para eles próprios, em certos momentos, parecia límpido e claro. Decerto, o mérito maior não deve ser imputado ao convencimento dos argumentos por eles utilizados. A grandeza desse pensamento que nos é deixado, assim como de toda a obra desses homens se provam sozinhas, pelos mil e quinhentos anos que se mantiveram vivas, fazendo verdadeiras as palavras do médico e estudioso argentino José Ingenieros, no início desse século que acabamos de ver passar: "a imortalidade é o privilégio dos que fazem suas obras sobreviverem aos séculos e por elas é medida".

**** ****

BIBLIOGRAFIA:
1 - Santo Agostinho, "Os Pensadores", vol. VI (encarte), editora Abril S.A. Cultural e Industrial, 1ª edição, 1973.
2 - Santo Agostinho, "A Cidade de Deus", Livro V, capítulos IX e X, Editora Vozes, 5ª edição, 2000.
3 - Boécio, A Consolação da Filosofia, Martins Fontes, 1ª edição, 1998.
4 – Santo Anselmo, Proslógio, capítulo XX, em "Os Pensadores", vol. VII, editora Abril S.A. Cultural e Industrial, 1ª edição, 1973.
5 - Santo Tomás de Aquino, Compêndio de Teologia, Capítulo Oitavo, em "Os Pensadores", vol. VIII, editora Abril S.A. Cultural e Industrial, 1ª edição, 1973.
6 - Santo Agostinho, Confissões, em "Os Pensadores ", vol. VI, editora Abril S.A. Cultural e Industrial, 1ª edição, 1973.
7 - Ockham, Causalidade de Deus e Presciência, em "Os Pensadores", vol. VIII, editora Abril S.A. Cultural e Industrial, 1ª edição, 1973.
8 - José Ingenieros, O Homem Medíocre, Livraria do Chain Editora, Curitiba, PR
9 – Etienne Gilson, A Filosofia na Idade Média, Martins Fontes, 1ª edição, 1998,

An Ode to Babylon 5, or What the Atheist Taught Me About Christian Culture

By Tim Enloe



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I've loved science fiction since childhood. Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise always captured my imagination by propelling me into strange new worlds full of adventure and the wonder of discovery. It didn't stop with Star Trek, though. Over the years I've read an enormous amount of science fiction. Because there are very few Christian science fiction writers most of what I have read has been by non-Christians. Now while I always knew there were conflicts between my Christianity and unbelieving sci-fi, it wasn't until I discovered the discipline of apologetics (particularly its emphasis on worldview thinking) in my early twenties that the deep nature of this conflict dawned on me. I soon learned to enjoy the books and shows for what they were but to critically watch for expressions of anti-Christian worldviews. Some of the best practical lessons I learned in this period were not from my Christian philosophy books, but from various episodes of Star Trek: the Next Generation. The truism that in modern cultural products "God is utterly conspicuous by His absence" was never more evident to me than in my science fiction journeys during this period.

But while I critically enjoyed these cultural products of those outside my worldview, I gradually developed a deeper understanding of the very meaning of culture and of modern Christianity's radical failure to sanctify modern life under Christ's lordship. I can now appreciate the wisdom and profound sense of loss that Reformed author Douglas Wilson expresses in the pithy phrase, "We Christians used to build great cathedrals; now we toss Gospel-frisbees". Culture is an inescapable reality of our existence. As creatures made in the image of an intensely creative God, we cannot help ourselves--we are inexorably driven to create, or rather, to "subcreate" (as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, both outstanding Christian authors, put it), and the products of our creative activities make up our culture. Culture is the spiritual and moral and intellectual air we breathe; we can no more successfully escape it than a fish can from water.

So far so good, but what does any this have to do with science fiction? Simply this: Modern culture lives and moves and has its being within a worldview that goes by various names--naturalism, secularism, modernism--but which has one central characteristic: its orientation towards things "scientific". One reason why the popular imagination esteems science fiction is because we have all been conditioned to view ourselves as cogs in the vast impersonal Machine of "the Universe", which obliviously grinds along crushing our hopes and dreams beneath its inexorable wheel. Our best and only hope is to master some small part of our environment through technology, and because our remarkable successes in the twentieth century show no signs of abating many atheists believe that we will one day (if we have not already) take control of our own evolution--our own fate--through technology. This is, in fact, a major theme of many science fiction universes.

Much of twentieth century science fiction revolved about just this sort of "Science as Divine Revelation of Reality" paradigm. Having no room for the harmonious Medieval vision of "the three faces of culture" (truth, beauty, and goodness) integrated under the personal governance of Christ, Enlightenment philosophy (particularly Kantian agnosticism and Lessing's "ugly ditch" between religion and the real world) systematically reduced every aspect of human culture to an introspective, stoically defiant gaze into the stygian abyss of "existence". Thus, while beauty and goodness have become the exclusive properties of "the eye of the beholder", truth has been relegated to the sterility of "the scientific method", which promises to produce technological mastery of every environment--and perhaps one day even of our very souls. Science fiction picked up on this theme and drove it home into the minds of generations of unreflective, rootless souls.

But the Enlightenment paradigm and the science fiction that feeds on it has an abiding problem--human life is not reducible to what can be analyzed and quantified in a laboratory. Any reflective human being (science-lover or no) knows this. Culture, the air we breathe, cannot be merely a function of "What Science Says". The "human equation" must be elevated above the Machine. No matter what we think we are, we cannot escape what we actually are. And we are men, not machines. Much of the angst-ridden conflict between "Modernism" and "Postmodernism" has revolved around this realization. There are signs that although the latter did not win the battle to relativize all knowledge it has significantly altered the former's brazen, sterile, technological triumphalism. Culture, especially in terms of the humanities, has made a comeback as increasing numbers of people have realized that for all the good Science gives us, it cannot give us the things that really matter. For at least the last fifteen years, science fiction has occupied a large portion of popular culture precisely because it has its fingers solidly on the pulse of our condition as men who feel we cannot escape the Modern, yet who realize that Modernism does not satisfy our souls.

Again, so far so good, but what does any of this have to do with "what the atheist taught me about Christian culture"? Two words: Babylon 5. I could have picked nearly any modern science fiction universe as the centerpiece of this essay, but I have chosen this one because to my mind it more accurately than others represents the deep angst we moderns feel because of our unthinking evisceration of the transcendent, and it was in part meant to be an atheistic mirror image of one of the greatest Christian cultural achievements of the twentieth century (Tolkien's Lord of the Rings). For one who thinks in terms of worldviews and their complex relationship with the emotions and actions they inevitably inspire, there is one particular science fiction universe that stands head and shoulders above the rest: J. Michael Straczynski's Babylon 5.

From the start we knew that Babylon 5 was not meant to be just another science fiction show. Straczynski said he had a definite story to tell, and that the show would tell that story for as long as the ratings permitted it to be on the air. Straczynski's plan was to do five seasons and no more. With some last minute intrigues and "fat out of the fire" machinations behind the scenes this was actually accomplished. No one had ever done this with science fiction, and no one has done it since (though it is yet very early since Babylon 5 as a series ended). Today there is every indication that like Star Trek before it, Babylon 5 has taken on a life all its own. In addition to several "canonically authorized" series of novels (some of which are quite good, I must admit 1) and two television spin offs (Crusade and Legend of the Rangers), there are comic books, toys, and numerous websites promoting everything from technical specifications of the spacecraft and weapons, biological and historical information about the alien races, music from the shows and TV movies, and original fanfiction. In short, Babylon 5 has become not only a culture in its own right, but a reflection of the prevailing culture that spawned it.

By itself this recognition of Babylon 5's achievement as a distinct modern atheist cultural product / culture-shaper would not be noteworthy, but when evaluated from the standpoint of a comparison with modern Christian cultural products / culture-shapers, it indeed becomes a profound lesson. This will require some extended discussion, and I beg the reader's patience.


The Worldview / Mythology of Babylon 5

Understanding worldviews and story is critical to the theme of this essay. For all his atheism's horrifying moral ambiguities (as is perhaps best expressed in the conclusion of the Shadow War in the fourth season episode "Into the Fire"), not only does Straczynski understand the incredible life-altering power of stories, but he tells his stories within a fully self-conscious, full-orbed, consistently-applied worldview. He is an atheist, but he is an atheist who knows what he believes, why he believes it, and how to go about making that plain to others in such a way that they are deeply, personally affected at all levels of their culture--art, science, religion, literature, politics, emotion, intellect. In Babylon 5 we see (oxymoronic as this may sound) the very soul of atheism, and we cannot help but react to it either positively or negatively. It either confirms our existing prejudices or challenges them with its subversive narratives--as all good stories do. The power of Babylon 5 is not in its special effects or its (frequently) well-written stories with pithy dialogue or (occasionally) well-acted part, but rather, in the basic worldview story it tells throughout its five seasons. Like all worldviews, including the Christian one, it is a complete mythology about man from his origin to his destiny.

And what is that story?

In the beginning was the Universe, and the Universe was conscious. Desiring to explore its own condition, it decides to generate a vast variety of sentient lifeforms who interact with each other in enormously complex ways. Races which would come to be known as the First Ones, races that begin when the Universe is relatively young, eventually reach through millions of years of evolution a state of existence that can only be likened to godhood. Having reached this exalted position, many of them "passed beyond the Rim [of the galaxy]" to explore "whatever lies in the vast darkness between galaxies". Two of them, however, remain behind to help guide the Younger Races, to help them achieve all the potential that their own evolutionary paths allowed for.

These two First One guardian races, the Vorlons and Shadows, soon discover that they have irreconcilable philosophical differences about how the Younger Races are to be shepherded. The Vorlons believe that order and obedience can smoothly control evolution with a minimum amount of suffering. The Shadows believe in helping evolution along by fomenting chaos and war so that strong races will survive and evolve while weaker ones will die out. At some point in the far distant past, the Vorlons and Shadows declare mutual war on each other's messages and proceeded to literally use the Younger Races as pawns in their own selfish quests to prove the other wrong. For untold eons this war of the gods continues, going through roughly thousand-year cycles punctuated by apocalyptic battles that nearly always result in the apparent defeat and retreat of the Shadows. ("Apparent" defeat because even though the Shadows retreat, they do, ironically, achieve their goal of helping evolution wipe out weak races through war, leaving the Vorlons to guide the survivors for the next thousand years until the next big Battle).

It seems that for most of this long conflict, even though they do not themselves understand the real nature of the conflict most of the Younger Races generally believe the Vorlons to be "the good guys" and the Shadows the "bad guys". Indeed, whereas the Vorlons are highly enigmatic and unapproachable, they do deign often to appear to the Younger Races as "angels of light"2, preaching goodness and order and peace, while the Shadows are by their very name and physical appearance (very much "spider" like) taken as incarnations of fear and evil. The Vorlons are generally associated with "Light" and the Shadows with "Darkness", both terms that are highly charged with moral significance (especially to modern Western people who despite all their silly denials of and slanders against Christianity are nevertheless still very deeply influenced by seventeen hundred years of Christian cultural dominance prior to the onset of "Enlightenment" in the eighteenth century).

But as the story reaches its pivotal point (from the middle of Season 3 to the middle of Season 4), we discover through the intervention of the First One (quite literally the very first being in the history of the Universe to have achieved sentience, an alien named Lorien) the above truth about the Vorlon / Shadow conflict and their millennia of manipulation of the Younger Races. The force of the story, driven by its atheistic view of authority, simply asserts that it is time for this order of things to end because the Younger Races "have learned to stand on their own". The theme announced in the opening monologue of Season 1, that "the Third Age of mankind" has arrived, reaches its zenith when, with an enormous fleet of ships from all the Younger Races surrounded by a death-dealing Shadow planetkiller, the Human leader of the entire Younger Race resistance against both the Vorlons and the Shadows imperiously orders the gods to "get the hell out of our galaxy".

Amazingly (inexplicably!!) the gods obey their inferiors and simply, with chilling finality, depart, taking all their agendas with them and leaving behind a vast number of loose threads for the Younger Races to figure out how to weave into a coherent cloth. Indeed, this very episode of the story closes with the Human leader and his wife conversing about how with the departure of the First Ones the mystery has gone out of the Universe, so now all that is left is for the Younger Races to create their own mysteries as they fumble about making their own mistakes rather than someone else's. The "children" have learned to stop their "parents'" foolish bickering by simply exiling the parents from reality. The fourth season's closing episode, "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars", gives us a panoramic view of the future of humanity--like the Vorlons and Shadows before the, Humans will eventually reach "First One status" and have their own period of guiding a new group of Younger Races--though hopefully the Humans will not make the same mistakes as their Vorlon and Shadow predecessors. Man began as simple "starstuff" (a reference to the idea that our bodies are made up of elements that were once blown out into the universe by supernovas and eventually, through planet formation and evolution found their way into us) and ends as a star-walking god, the true captain of his own soul and master of his own destiny.

Now anyone who is familiar with the power of story, particularly of story that purports to explain the whole of existence (what is properly identified as "myth") can see that this is a compelling story. Essentially it taps into and thoroughly explores what might be called "the myth of growing up"--that profoundly disturbing experience we all must undergo. The power of mythology lies precisely in its ability to tap into such deep, fundamental aspects of human nature, and Babylon 5's vision of what it means for humanity to "grow up" is a bold (if ultimately hollow) retelling of this aspect of our existence. It's power lies in its radical faithfulness to its worldview--the story does not shrink, for instance, from the stark harshness of accepting that millions of years of murder and mayhem can be excused by simply noting that the murderers were right by their own standards but now it is time for someone else's standards to take over.

In Babylon 5, truth, beauty, and goodness, the three faces of culture, are functions of social consensus, not loving, sovereign divine care. This is, of course, a profoundly irrational and self-defeating principle, but Babylon 5's redeeming virtue (so to speak) is that it is consistent with this premise of its worldview and so dramatically succeeds in telling its story. For those already disposed to accept a basically atheistic paradigm, Babylon 5 confirms their deepest convictions and encourages them to stare at the existential abyss and laugh--to make the absurd leap of faith from real ultimate meaningless to (supposed) real proximate meaning without batting an eyelash. For those hostile to atheism, Babylon 5 subversively challenges the non-atheistic worldview by sheer force of consistency to and honesty about its presuppositions. It "works" because it is not afraid to admit its biases and accept all the implications of them without fear or waffling or qualification of any kind.

Not so with modern Christian storytelling.


The Worldview / Mythology of Modern Christianity

Modern Christians by and large do not understand the concept of worldviews, or the profound ways in which the Bible's worldview subversively challenges our very existence as moderns. Modern Christians are exactly that--mind-numbingly, heart-killingly modern. We presume to have All Truth, but we do not even understand our own worldview, the thing that makes our truth-claims possible in the first place. This central fact comes out in our cultural products. Recall Wilson's aphorism: "We Christians used to build great cathedrals; now we toss Gospel-frisbees". Is this not a true indictment of our failure to engage in any meaningful cultural activities? We mock the culture of non-Christian unbelief that we find ourselves in, but we have our own peculiar Christian versions of unbelief that we pursue with holy zeal. We fill the airwaves with the immature, emotional gushing of trite "ask-Jesus-into-your-heart" revivalism and "Holy Ghost laughter rallies", adorn our cars with inane bumper sticker slogans, and assault the New York Times Bestseller list with poorly written "thrillers" about how Christians will escape this mean old world of evil matter and history by God's equivalent of Scotty's transporter (the "Rapture") and let the world burn in the apocalyptic hell-on-earth predicted by our (foolishly) "literal" reading of biblical prophecy.

Our problem, in a nutshell is that we hate the world we live in and desire to escape from it into a pure "spiritual" realm where there are no nasty bodies, no messy history, and none of that irrelevant culture stuff. Past generations of Christians, on the contrary, understood that this world is our Father's world, the theater in which His loving plan is being played out, the place for us to take His word and disciple the nations with the goal of seeing the whole earth filled with His glory. Our fathers in the faith took the Gospel to the nations and transformed them, creating what we in our boring, soulless modernity scoff at as "the Dark Ages" but which was really a magnificent (though quite flawed) incarnation of a theology that was really believed 24 / 7, not merely mouthed in church on Sunday.

The Enlightenment tells us (contrary to Scripture) that "faith" is a purely private and emotional affair, an individual's own personal communion with the god of his choice, disconnected from all engagement with the world of matter and history. Amazingly, we believe this lie, and so we produce utterly irrelevant, baptized versions of the pop-culture that is all we know and all we love. We think that the disgusting mess of pottage represented by WWJD bracelets and Left Behind novels and cheesy "witness wear" and B movies with B actors is our last, best hope for answering the evil Secular Humanists who supposedly evicted us from the positions of real cultural power when they banned school prayer in 1962. Hating history as we do, we thus do not understand that those positions of real cultural power used to be ours by reason of the blood, sweat, and tears of generations of our faithful fathers, but that, ironically, we simply gave them up without a fight in our mass defection from a biblically powerful faith during the two centuries of decline beginning with eighteenth century Pietism, continued by the nineteenth century's Second Great Awakening, and culminating with the twentieth century's retreat of Christians into mindless, fideistic "Fundamentalism". We rail against the culture of unbelief that at least produces consistently atheistic (but moving!) stories like Babylon 5, but all we offer in return is a culture of unbelief that produces inconsistently Christian (and shallow!) trinkets that are here today and in the landfill tomorrow.

Like God in secular stories, a real sense of the Christian worldview in modern Christian cultural products is conspicuous by its absence. In our haste to avoid worldliness we have abandoned the world itself to the atheists, but paradoxically all we can do is whine about the very evil we ourselves brought about through our unfaithfulness to the covenant of our God.


What the Atheist Taught Me About Christian Culture

Ironically, perhaps the greatest example in modern times of a truly Christian cultural product--one which even Straczynski the atheist acknowledges his debt to in everything from certain basic story elements to entire classes of characters--is one which the mass of we "true believers" revile as demonic simply because it has monsters and wizards in it--J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Yet, any informed Christian (i.e., one who has bothered to actually read Tolkien's works, especially his Letters and the Silmarillion) can readily see the profound Christianity of the Lord of the Rings and understand with minimal reflection that the story not only taps into all the deepest themes of the human condition that the Bible itself deals with, but also satisfyingly answers them by resolving them into the loving, providential governance of the God who is really there and who is not silent--the God who does not let us sit in isolated enclaves and whine about persecution and intolerance while we read our Bibles in complete isolation from all that has come before our day, but commands us to go forth in the power of His name and baptize the nations, making them disciples. This is the true story of Christianity, but we modern Christians have forgotten it.

Straczynski the atheist understands the provocative power of story. Atheist that he is, in writing Babylon 5 he also understood the enormous power of myth as it came out in the Lord of the Rings. Indeed, for all its flaws, Babylon 5 might justly be called "an atheist's answer to Tolkien". All the same themes are there: the dangers of power for both the mature and immature, the drive to grow up into what one can be by virtue of one's nature, the inexpressibly moving human attempt to engage with realities that transcend all understanding, the epic, ages long conflict between right and wrong, the passing of one Age into another with deep, saddening loss of beauty but great hope for the future, noble heroes and baseborn traitors, fierce wars and faithful loves, courage and fear, wisdom and utter foolishness.

The difference, of course, is that Babylon 5 has no ultimate foundation for its presentations of these themes. It can at best merely borrow them from the very Christianity it subtly despises by making it just one more relativistic and ultimately futile attempt to grasp the ultimately unknown (and possibly nonexistent) numinous. As a cultural product of atheism, Babylon 5 "works" on one level because it is consistent with its worldview. This much, at least, is light years ahead of any contemporary Christian attempt to express the Christian worldview. But as noted above, worldviews are not self-contained--if they do not actually engage the reality they claim to explain, they cannot be said to succeed on the broadest possible level. Tolkien successfully resolves the epic war between good and evil because good and evil are objectively definable entities--they are held accountable to a standard beyond the Circles of the World, Iluvatar (=God). Babylon 5, on the other hand, cannot successfully resolve its own epic conflict between "good" and "evil" because good and evil do not objectively exist for atheism. At the climax of the Lord of the Rings, Sauron gets what he deserves for his millennia of murder and mayhem; at the climax of Babylon 5, the murderers and mayhem-makers get off scot-free, and to the rousing cheers of "Good riddance!" by the Younger Races.

As a bare story, Babylon 5 works because it is consistent with its worldview. As a realistic explanation of reality, however, it only works because it is tacitly relying on the small bit of remaining cultural capital from the now-defunct "Christendom" it pretends it has transcended. As a bare story, Tolkien's saga also works because it is consistent with its worldview. But as a realistic explanation of reality, Tolkien's saga works precisely because it is a legitimate, unashamed product of that Christendom, which itself gives the only really meaningful and finally defensible explanation of the human condition (original sin, gracious salvation initiated by God, redemption and transformation of the whole of the creation that was marred by sin).

The Lord of the Rings is anything but a sermon, but its incredible staying power in the minds of millions of people who would not touch the Bible itself with a ten-foot pole is a dramatic--and unanswerable!--testimony to what is wrong with modern evangelical Christianity. But then again, so is Babylon 5. Nothing like Tolkien exists in today's Christian cultural enterprise, for we are too busy filling the shelves with absurd apocalyptic thrillers and the airwaves with absurd televangelism. When an atheist can produce better fiction than Christians, we all ought to see that we have been asleep and that we have lost something profound. People of all belief systems will watch and remember Babylon 5; only people within a very narrow, introverted slice of Christianity will watch and remember The Omega Code. The fact that modern Christianity's "best" cultural products are all in the class of the latter signifies the humiliating recognition that sometimes we can even learn the truth from atheists.



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Notes


1. Particular two sets, J. Gregory Keyes' Psi-Corp Trilogy and Jeanne Cavelos' The Passing of the Technomages trilogy.

2. It should be added that the Vorlons appear to each race in forms specifically mimicing that race's biological appearance, thus creating the ability for Straczynski to come along later and promote the "one religious reality, many diverse faces" myth)

segunda-feira, 8 de setembro de 2008

A CHAT ABOUT CRAFT WITH GRANT MORRISON

By Alex Ness


A CHAT ABOUT CRAFT WITH GRANT MORRISON

I think that Grant Morrison is proof that comics are a wonderful thing. While he is serious, he is also playful, and both aspects of his character appear wonderfully in his work. There is an unfathomed depth in most of his stories, but within them exists a story that can be enjoyed upon many different levels. He has a hard-earned reputation for quality, despite the fact that he has rarely seemed to kowtow to popularity's demands. In fact, one of Grant's appealing aspects to me is his ability to entertain my heart and soul and to inspire my mind.

In this interview, we chat about the methods of his work, his views toward Marvel and DC, and an outlook toward upcoming projects.

AN: Tell me about how you work... are you in a silent, well-lit room, or is it filled with music and cats, what exactly?

GM: It depends. We moved to the country last year, overlooking the beautiful nuclear submarine pens of Loch Long. These days, I'll be working on the lawn, when its sunny, and at my desk in the tower if its not. The surviving pair of cats - I used to have six - wander in and out all day and sometimes sit on me when I'm at the computer.

I almost always listen to music when I write - THE FILTH was written to Momus, Pulp, Chris Morris, The Rutles, Black Box Recorder, Pole, Eminem, Melt Banana, Supercar and The Streets, among other things. SEAGUY was Syd Barrett, Donovan, Noel Coward, the Pet Shop Boys, Julian Cope, N.E.R.D. and Milky. Right now, I'm listening to Missy Elliott and Ludacris doing 'Gossip Folks', one of my favorite songs...and every time I hear 'Rings Around The World' (which just came after Missy on the i-Pod), I smile and think fondly of Warren Ellis. VIMANARAMA! has been indebted to Asian Dub Foundation, Monster Magnet, Ali F Soundsystem and Bobby Friction's Wednesday night Sounds of the New Asian Underground show on Radio 1. In the last few months, doing SEVEN SOLDIERS, I've enjoyed The Handsome Boy Modelling School, the Prodigy album, Kasabian, LCD Soundsystem, the Monkees, Thievery Corporation, Girls Aloud, Graham Coxon's 'Happiness in Magazines', John Lydon, Eminem's 'Encore', Stereo Total, Adam and the Ants, Placebo, 'Otto Spooky' by Momus, Robbie Williams, Sheep On Drugs, Snoop Dogg, Goldfrapp, Kaiser Chiefs and 'Galanga' by MIA. I listen to everything and anything. My favourite from last year is the Goldie Lookin Chain album 'Greatest Hits'. The song 'You Knows I Loves You Baby' is a work of insane, boundary-shattering genius, as far as I'm concerned. 'Half Man/Half Machine'! I listen to the GLC over and over and over again and never get tired. We went to see them play in Los Angeles in March and it was the best gig I've been to this year. I think they've got a new record out soon.

AN: No Smashing Pumpkins, sigh.

GM: Sometimes I get up for a shite or piss, to play a game on telly, or to bang on the guitar and make up songs. Or I go for a walk to the shops or into the hills. Most of the day, I'm at the screen or writing in my notebooks. I've been working practically non-stop for a year to wrap up a number of big projects, so I have no idea what's going on in the real world, although I know the secret identities of the Freedom Fighters and the price of beans in Narnia. It's a simple life.

AN: Why do you write?

GM: I write to live and to make sense of things. Words and voices come out of my head when I ask them to and I write them down and show them to people, at which point the stuff from my head miraculously converts into money, then the money turns into houses and cat food and trips abroad and clothes and savings. I view the process as pure sorcery and treat it with the respect and devotion it deserves.

AN: Do you ever suffer writer's block?

GM: Can't say that I do. Sometimes it's hard to motivate myself to sit in front of the computer if I'm feeling lazy or depressed, so that can represent a kind of block on occasion, but I can't afford to do nothing for very long. Being up against a deadline freezes me up like nothing else, so I try to stay at least six months ahead these days, preferably a year. Otherwise, I can't stop writing stuff down all the time. I've written stories since I could spell. At 8 years old, I wrote and illustrated my first little homemade science fiction 'novel', 'The People of the Asteroids'. My mum's still got it wrapped in plastic in her old photographs drawer. I wrote or drew stories every day of my life and churned out homemade comics, diaries, 600-page fantasy and horror novels, fanzines, songs, plays, porn and dream collage books, for years and years, long before anyone noticed, so I'm just doing what I've always done except I get paid for it now. My published output is the tip of an iceberg, really. I never get blocked in the sense that I always write about what I'm getting up to or thinking about at the time, so the ideas and impressions never stop coming in and always get processed into symbolic form as comic stories or whatever.

If I'm feeling miserable, burned out and hermit-like, for instance, the bad feeling can turn up, as it did in JLA: WORLD WAR III, as something like the monstrous 'Primordial Annihilator', Mageddon. At which point I give myself a slap, send the Justice League in to solve the problem, and before you know it, they've won and I'm able to leave the house again with a smile on my face!

I don't know where I stop and the writing begins anymore, to be honest, which is perfect for my purposes.

AN: What inspires you to write, do you have a muse, a talent demanding use or simply a desire for money?

GM: The money's a plus, certainly, but it's no longer the principal motivation for writing comics. At this point, I could live well off my royalties and do nothing new again, but the whole process of writing is more intense and all encompassing for me and it doesn't seem to be something I can stop.

I wrote The Invisibles Vol 1 issue 23 on my living room couch, hallucinating, and dying of MRSA-related septicaemia, (those cranky descriptions of demons and the crystal crown biting into Mister Six's head and the Gnostic Christ saying 'I am not the God of your fathers...' were scrawled notes from the delirious no-man's land between life and giving up) and the following issue was written from a hospital ward, waiting to hear if the near-fatal staph aureus infection I'd contracted had spread to my heart. I was there for two weeks, working as often as I could between tests and treatment, with the intention of writing myself out of trouble (as a mad sidebar, after beating off the infection with the aid of antibiotics, I became inexplicably obsessed with eating raw carrots for the remainder of my stay in hospital - only to find out last week that staph aureus - 'golden' staphylococcus - gets its distinctive color from carotene. I must have been so stuffed to the fucking guts with carotene-pigmented bastards when the bacteria was swarming through me that I went into withdrawal for the stuff when the bugs were finally wiped out!).

I scribble down my impressions about everything and turn them into adventure stories all the time. The Invisibles is largely autobiographical for that reason, hence its incredible effectiveness as a magical 'hypersigil' - I went to the Power Exchange sex club on 960 Harrison (in 'real' life it looks nothing like Phil Jimenez' huge glamor version in the comic) and bounced on the opium bed in the millionaire's house in San Francisco, before my characters did it in Vol 2: 5 & 7 of Invisibles. I saw the magic mirror and the aliens and the 5th dimension during my 'contact' experience in the Vajra Hotel in Kathmandu in May, 1994 and subsequently.

I lived on the San Ildefonso Pueblo for a couple of months with my friend Emilio and the head of the Medicine Society, Russell, (called Austin in the book). I took two acid tabs and performed magic on the Black Mesa by the Rio Grande, just like King Mob does in V2:5 - all that stuff about bats and 'kissing the anus of Cortez' they're talking about is real deal LSD bollocks transcribed from tape recordings I made at the time. King Mob's London flat is the squat at the top of Brixton Hill where Emilio lived for a while before moving to the U.S. in 1990. I went to yoga, meditation and martial arts classes all through the 90s to be more like my characters. I got involved in the fetish scene (I even wrote for SKIN 2) and befriended some of the shiny Chaos witches who haunt those dodgy dungeons. I endured the hair-raising two-day Himalayan bus ride from Leh to Manali that's mentioned in V3:2 and King Mob's descriptions of it are abstracted from the original, battered, on-the-road journals I kept. I contributed parts of my own life and experience to the characters of Fanny and Dane and all the others. I danced on MDMA in the nightclubs every other weekend with glamorous party girls, ladyboys and popstars, then wrote it down. I went to Venice, India, Australia, Indonesia and the other locations in the story. The Indonesian kid, Agus, from V1: 5 was my guide and motorcycle driver when I stayed in Jogjakarta, etc., etc.

I wrote my own break-ups and breakthroughs and breakdowns into the comic, too. I threw my personal theories of consciousness and identity into the book as they were forming, and included results of that month's magical experiments - Dane McGowan's initiations were mine. King Mob's, Mason Lang's and other initiations all happened to me. The visionary trip to the Aztec Land of the Dead undertaken by Lord Fanny in V1:18 is exactly as I experienced it, with the little yellow dog and the flat facades of buildings and the eerie, paper-thin, dimensionally-abstracted people left behind in the Land of the Living. (So convincing was my description of the terrain that the 'Iron Sun of the Underworld' I saw there has recently turned up in a book as an example of genuine Aztec mythology when it was actually an 'invention' of mine and appears in no prior account of Mexican myth that I'm aware of!) Jim Crow's scorpion trip in V1: 10 is reproduced almost verbatim from my magical diary. 'Barbelith' started out as a word from a dream I had, aged 17, which turns out to mean 'alien stone' if you stretch the etymology far enough. The acid invocation to the Blood Red Goddess in V3: 5 is based on diary entries written by me on LSD in a hotel room in Melbourne, Australia, during a backwards- talking Bizarro Kai ritual. Many episodes from the character Bobby Murray's early life are taken directly from my own childhood. The teddy bear Boody in The Invisibles was my first teddy bear and still sits in the bedroom in Glasgow, threadbare, round, totemistic and well, Buddha-like. I named him myself, as soon as I figured out how to talk, and it's interesting I found the word 'buddhi' somewhere in my new vocabulary. Like Bobby in the comic, I startled my parents by coming out with a long, coherent and apparently chilling sentence in English, months before I officially started speaking (they didn't write it down). King Mob's 'Gideon Stargrave' stories are direct quotes from the Michael Moorcock-inspired short stories I wrote obsessively when I was 17. That's Phil Jimenez' attempt to render into pictures a description of my first DMT trip, in V2: 13, shortly after it happened in Richard Metzger's apartment on Christopher Street in summer '97.

The weird thing is that I did many of these things for the sole purpose of having experiences worthy of putting into stories, so, if I hadn't wanted to include Australian magic, Jeet Kune Do, or the tawdry allure of transvestite glam in The Invisibles, I might never have gone there or done that. Instead, I've been round the world three times on my own and with friends, visited a ton of countries, and had loads of mad relationships and weird experiences. This is how a hypersigil works to change the world around you. This is total surrender to the text, total immersion and deliberate self-annihilation. I'm not doing 'stories', I'm desperately writing biography to celebrate life in this world and to negotiate with depression and meaninglessness. I become possessed by characters and texts to the point where my own 'personality' is reconfigured and it's partly what gives my comics their particular, occult, and often irritatingly 'cultish' flavour, I reckon.

So if I've laboured the point here, it's simply because you expressed a particular interest in the creative process and I hope this demonstrates how life feeds directly into the work all the time and vice versa. It's the same for everything I've written, including the superhero stuff. It's why writing The Filth almost killed me and why writing Superman has reignited my inner sun, you might say. I'm not looking for plots or High Concepts, or reading other people's books to find 'ideas' I can sell. If I need an 'idea', I look inside my head and there are always plenty of the f***ers jostling for attention. I'm trying to express in my own words and my own way how it feels to live in this mad, f***ing world I got dumped into, along with all you lot. My head is bursting to talk about life, death, love, sex, fashion, comics, cosmology, religion, movies, nature, travel, guilt, fear, drugs, rock 'n' roll, magic, whatever - and the comics seem such a pure, exuberant way to deploy potent metaphorical content in the service of these personal compulsions.

So, you know, my inspiration is everything I see, everything I do, everyone I meet, everywhere I go. It all goes in the blender. Bet you wish you hadn't asked now.

God Bless the Queen and her fascist-armband flaunting grandsons! I'm 96 years old today!




AN: When do you write? What do you drink whilst writing?

GM: I get up at 10:00, check the e-mails, work out in the gym for a bit, have breakfast and then write in the afternoon and evening, listening to the loch water lapping and the ducks impersonating Frankie Howerd.

Drink? I try to drink three litres of water a day, usually. Sometimes I'll knock back a couple of glasses of white wine. Sometimes a few cans of Red Bull. On rare occasions I drink Vodka Orange or Vodka Bull if I'm flirting with the amusing but dangerous archetype of 'sozzled writer' for the day. I've also invented the deadly Bullshitter - a cocktail which combines champagne and Red Bull to effervescent and mind-destroying effect. I don't smoke - tobacco, grass, hash, crack cocaine, heroin or kippers.

AN: Your use of Metaphor has confounded numerous "Joe Six-pack" readers and thrilled many critics. Is metaphor the domain of higher levels of thought? If so, does that thereby threaten to alienate those readers who are unable to think upon those planes?

GM: I hope so! God help me, I don't want to be responsible for a small but noisy group of morons busting neurons they can't afford to lose. I'd much rather alienate them than waste time and energy trying to entertain the poor bastards. There are plenty of other people available to do that kind of work. If someone doesn't like or understand what I'm up to, they should just buy someone else's comics. There are loads of great books out there to appeal to every IQ level.

Mike Cotton from Wizard and I were talking at the start of the year and Mike fronted the question, 'Is Grant Morrison too smart for comics?' I was quite surprised. I've been employed as a comic writer for nigh on a hundred years now and my bibliography of successful titles shows no sign of coming to an end, but people always seem to be very concerned that I don't have an audience or that it's dwindling. All I can say is, there may just be some readers who are TOO DUMB for comics but they're not a part of my audience.

So Joe Six-Pack? He can f*** off for a start. I don't know anyone who fits that description. I like to write comics for the sort of people I wouldn't mind having a conversation with. Simple as that.

All stories are filled with metaphor, like all of human life. Perhaps I've been over-enthusiastic, but I've always enjoyed talking about theory and allegory because I figure some readers, like me, might be interested in the elaborate behind-the-scenes thought processes which create the stories they read.

What can I say? I'm not some big intellectual: I grew up as a working class kid in a violent town. My dad was an ex-soldier turned peacenik activist, my mum worked part time in offices, doing shorthand and typing. I left school at 18 never to return but I was lumbered with the precious gift of interpretation by Mr. Thompson, my English teacher, so I like things to have double, triple or quadruple meanings, if possible, with multiple POVs and big spaces for the reader to vanish into and fill up with ideas of his or her own, sort of like 'Lost' on the telly, or like 'The Prisoner' or the films of David Lynch, for instance. My own personal taste doesn't run to literal work or stuff where everything's neatly explained to me and tied in a 'clever' bow. The world's a big, wild mess and I like to reflect that. As a reader, I like to join in and not just watch, if you see what I mean, so as a writer my intention has always been to create experiences which deliberately raise questions or suggest further, untold stories and don't necessarily have one easy solution or outcome. I like to leave people with something to talk about and fire their own imaginations and I'm trying to capture the real patterns of real life.

To elaborate on that, in real life, people say things they don't actually mean and they don't have little thought balloons or captions hovering nearby to explain what they're really thinking: even if they did, they'd be thinking several contradictory things at once and in different voices, with pictures and scribbly feelings attached. In real life, we judge people by how their actions and their words match up. In real life, we don't get all the facts but have to use our logic and emotions and sense of smell to draw our own conclusions. In real life, two people can appear to be having the same conversation while actually discussing several quite different things.

In real life, conversations are peppered with weird dead ends, misunderstandings, interruptions, surrealist non sequiturs and in-jokes. In real life, you don't get neatly-controlled dramatic set-ups and resolutions. In real life, the writer isn't nearly as clever as he'd like to appear on the page. And so on. For these reasons, I like to think of myself as a hard-nosed realist writer and SEAGUY, for instance, as being much more directly relevant to the world we actually live in and the way we live our lives than any number of allegedly 'realistic' comics which only deal in wish fulfillment soap opera melodrama. I like to think my work is operating at a uniquely high level of structural and metaphorical sophistication, more in the manner of music or poetry. That's why it's so easy for different people to 'read' it differently and to form such often wildly contradictory opinions.




AN: Is your use of metaphor the means in which comics will finally climb the gate and enter "accepted mediums"?

GM: Comics don't need to climb the gate and enter anything. We're having more fun outside in the sun.

As I said, metaphor occurs naturally in ANY story. The fact that Tolkien's Ring can easily stand in for the Bomb, or for Addiction, or for any number of things - which it can - doesn't seem to hamper people's enjoyment of the elephant fights in 'The Lord of the Rings', so metaphorical content shouldn't be looked upon as anything highbrow or unusual. I tend to see it everywhere, but that's just how I'm wired up. I don't know about you, but I can't look at Godzilla without seeing the atom bomb over Nagasaki, the screaming, hyper-enthusiastic shopgirls of Shibuya, Tokyo, and the devastating smile of the goddess Amaterasu, among other things, all piled on top of one another and representing the very same something.

Metaphor's there to be read or applied if you want to enrich your experience of art. It can just as easily be ignored if all you want to do is watch the action and look at the weird, cool pictures. The same is true of my comics, or anyone else's. There's subtext everywhere, but you don't have to bother with it if it's not your thing. Just dance to the beat of the story, and if you don't 'understand' everything, well, good. It'll stand you in good stead for the real world - a place filled with people and events you will NEVER entirely understand. You don't have to understand an experience in order to have it. You will, in fact, DIE not understanding most of what goes on in the world and why. Don't sweat it. Dance with it.

AN: By showing how the medium can be so multifaceted won't otherwise comic virgins be forced to admit that the medium is valid? And why, after your Doom Patrol run and books like Maus and Wilderness, is that still a valid question?

GM: Well, the way I see it, Alex, images, ideas and characters derived from comic books now cover just about every available surface in the civilized world. X-Men cereal! The Incredibles pajamas! Sky High! What more proof do comics fans need that the rest of the world has - at least for a moment - stopped laughing at all the crazy shit we're into?

Will we remain unsatisfied until every newborn babe has a Spider-Man logo tattooed on his head? Aren't Marvel and DC characters on the sides of buses enough evidence that the whole world has fallen under the spell of comics? Does every man, woman, and child have to swear allegiance to Captain America's shield before we finally accept that comics are already valid ? How much more validation do summathese goddamn fanboys need, for crying out loud!!

Everybody I've ever met thinks it must be great to do what I do for a living and I've met lots of people, including lots of famous ones. They all think comics are great. What more can I say ? They're not too sure about the more obsessive, stereotypical 'fan' type, but then obsessive fans of anything can seem be a little disconcerting whether they are fans of old skool hip-hop, football or Gwen Stefani. Otherwise, as far as I can see, just about every-bloody-body loves the idea of comics and superheroes. They would buy shitloads more of the actual books if the format, pricing and availability changed, but messages like that take a long time to get through to the brains of the big companies. Sell comics at cinema concession stands, for instance, and the sales would skyrocket shockingly overnight. Or rack them next to the week's new CD and DVD releases in Virgin megastores and pop shops. Manga size. They'd shift millions like they used to. All of this will probably still happen in one way or another before 2010.

Comics as an artform has done all right by me and my mates over the years, and, as far as I can see, everybody else is pretty cool with the idea that comics still get made. The people who can't stop whining about how the books are crap and all the writers are rubbish compared to 'real' writers, and all the artists aren't as good or as fast or as tall as they used to be, or whatever, are self-confessed comics fans, sadly. There's always a small hard core of 'Fans' who tend to despise, denigrate and insult comic books and their creators more than any other segment of the population would even imagine doing...

....in that good old-fashioned, ironic kind of way.

AN: How do politics affect your work?

GM: Not much. Politics, in the sense of party antics and showbiz elections, is just misdirection and bullshit to divert our attention from the real work of the world, which is all done by very rich people we don't get to see much of. Once you've watched a couple of governments do their pathetic dance and come and go, you've really seen it all. The same kinds of people do exactly the same kinds of things and continually try to keep us interested in their daft, unconvincing shtick. I lost interest once I realised how boring, repetitive and stage managed the whole circus is, with even a new Bush cropping up every generation. All I want my elected officials to do is make the trains run on time and stop spending my tax money on useless weapons of war, so I'm already screwed.

Issues of class, authority and privilege influence my work much more than politics, I'd say. I grew up in Govan, Glasgow, at the decaying heart of a dying industrial city and I had a rigorous Scottish education until the age of 18. I still have enough chips on my shoulder to scoop up a whole big mess of hot salsa.


AN: You recently married a wonderful woman. Congratulations! Are there any li'l Grants on the way? Alan Moore's daughter is now writing. I think your child would be welcomed into the world as a future talent!

GM: Any children we have will be forced into backbreaking, offworld mining jobs with Space Federation ... I don't need the competition.

AN: What is the goal that you have for the work that you do?

GM: To make contact and Find the Others. Something like that, maybe.

I don't know if it's a goal-oriented process. My work's already out there achieving its own weird goals in its own way, doing things and making people think things that I never intended.

AN: What was the difference between working at DC and Marvel, i.e., their state of mind, their manner of doing business, or how they each treat talent?

GM: They're like Catholics and Protestants or Christians and Muslims; so alike they have to exist in opposition in order to more clearly define their slender differences. The talent pool is totally interchangeable in most cases and energy is shifted between the two companies on a regular cycle. Marvel was undeniably emitting more heat than DC for a few years there - 2000-2004 - but now it's all different. I seem to remember accurately predicting this shift in several interviews a couple of years ago, along with the next big youth cult swing towards a kind of 'dark' fetishistic psychedelia, or Ultraviolet Gothic Dandyism. That's started to become obvious now and has even been given the tentative name 'glam noir'.

So trust me when I say quite objectively that mainstream fashion trends - the 'New Weird', as they call it - favor the more expansive DC universe in 2005/2006. It'll be interesting to see what happens next. It's a rewarding time to be a comics enthusiast, that's for sure. There's a lot of intense, positive competition and you can see that everyone's trying very hard to do the best work they can, which can only be good news for readers.




AN: Why do you seem to gravitate towards talent from the UK to illustrate your work? (I am a fan, mind you, just curious.)

GM: Well, I live here and I know a lot of the local artists, so the collaborations often come about as a result of personal friendships or whatever. I'm sure I've worked with as many Americans as Brits, but usually on company owned projects.

AN: What comics do you pick up and read currently?

GM: This year I have been mostly reading...Planetary, Astonishing X, Astro City, JSA, Promethea, New Frontier and anything else by Darwyn Cooke, Plastic Man, the Question, Teen Titans, Ultimate FF, Ultimates, Intimates, Legion of Super Heroes, New Avengers, Godland and a bunch of other things I can't remember. Dan Clowes 'Death Ray' issue of Eightball was a particularly inspirational book. Brendan McCarthy's amazing 'Swimini Purpose' deserves a special mention. I've also just discovered the work of Marc-Antoine Matthieu, whose comics I love above all others at the moment. He seems to be the only other person in the field who's experimenting with page depth and four-dimensional layouts. I try to read everything in the comp boxes, but those are the books I've made a point of picking up in Forbidden Planet when they've come out.

AN: I have a few college degrees including Master's fields in Political Science and History, and have an IQ that I am proud of, for whatever that is worth, but I have no idea what SEAGUY is about or what happened. I read it, liked it, and was entertained by it. But I by no means understood it, nor came close to understanding it. Care to give any hints?

GM: Firstly, I don't HAVE any college degrees and I wrote Seaguy so it can't be that. I also don't believe you when you say you have no idea what Seaguy is about or what happened in it. Of course, you know what happened - what happened was very helpfully and clearly drawn for you by the lovely Cameron Stewart. If I asked you to pick up a Seaguy issue and describe to me what you saw drawn there, I'm sure your descriptions of what you were looking at would match the intended progress of events in the story. The only other explanation is that you may have gone comics-blind without realising it!

Seaguy is about a naive, would-be hero in a super-commercialized world where a state of permanent, ignorant happiness is ruthlessly enforced by a mysterious, well-meaning, but misguided, elite who have reduced the population to an infantile level and somehow neutralized all the superheroes by making them feel stupid and out of date. Perhaps that's too close to reality for some readers, but otherwise, what's not to get? It's all right there on the page and the story will hopefully be continued and brought to its dark and dramatic conclusion in future volumes.

I've heard these kind of complaints before, when it appeared in monthly installments, and I've learned to ignore the small internet 'fan' base with its weird, insular ideas about how the world works and what's successful or not. The Filth was denounced on message boards as incoherent gibberish (often by people who could barely spell, let alone string sentences together), but the trade collection's selling incredibly well and it's turned out to be one of my most successful books. The Filth has had rave reviews from the mainstream press and been voted one of Publisher's Weekly graphic novels of the year. I'm quite sure that Seaguy will find his intended market now the trade's been released.

Anyway, if you read SEAGUY, liked it and were entertained by it, isn't that enough? What else should a comic book do? Make love to you?

AN: Oh, hell no.

GM: Drive you to the store and buy you a pizza? Cure cancer? Good God! What do people want from me?

AN: Yes to those.

When you wrote X-Men, many people thought that there were both genuine moments of brilliance and opportunities lost . How would you characterize your work on that book and, is there anything you'd like to go back and change at this early time to reflect?

GM: No. If I had to 'go back' I'd slit my wrists all over again. People think all kinds of things, but one man's opportunity lost is another man's brilliant moment. It's impossible to please everybody, so I just try to please myself. I'm a long-time, hardcore comics fan and I know the kind of stuff I like to read, so I write for my own smart and demanding, inner teenage fanboy. I'm happy with 'New X-Men', although not as happy as I am with 'Invisibles' or 'Marvel Boy' or 'Seven Soldiers' or 'We3'. Disagreements with Bill Jemas left me feeling very uncomfortable at Marvel, I must admit, and I think that flavored the work, although possibly for the better.

Then, after 9/11, the millennial demand for 'New' became replaced by a fearful retreat towards 'Familiar' and those tensions are all reflected in New X-Men. It's a 'difficult' work of mine, certainly. It dealt with a lot of very heavy emotions. I was writing 'Here Comes Tomorrow' while visiting the hospital every day to watch my dad dying of cancer. Like I said before, every experience goes straight into the work when you're writing this mad pulp fantasy every day for a living. Every time I re-read New X-Men, I like it better, though, and if I hadn't done it I'd probably have drifted into obscurity doing odd Vertigo books, so the experience was definitely worth it. It's a very tightly-structured and self-referential piece and gave me the idea for Seven Soldiers.

What more can I say? The book was immensely successful for Marvel, and with a much higher frequency of release than most titles, that meant a lot more revenue for the company. After three years and forty issues, my last issue with Marc Silvestri still made number 1 on the sales chart, so I think I did my job and shot a jolt of weird, spastic electricity through the old beast.

Still...I can't believe the hellish gymnastics they went through to 'explain' plotlines which were already explained quite simply by the stories I wrote and wrapped up. Here's how to explain what happened - XORN was NEVER REAL, he was a DISGUISE for MAGNETO who went MAD ON DRUGS and DIED...but we know he always COMES BACK, somehow, so expect a dramatic return sooner or later, True Believers!

There. All neat and tidy, the way I left it.

AN: Your Fantastic Four book was the absolute greatest take I'd ever read on the team, their history, and the future (along with Waid and Weiringo, as well as Lee and Kirby). How did you find it working with the wonderfully talented Jae Lee and what did he add to the emotional content of that story? I think, and am certain that I can be wrong, that this book showed that you had a great affection for these characters and I wonder why you did not do more work on them, and wonder if you would do more in the future?

GM: Jae Lee is a brilliant artist. The Sue/Namor kiss in that story is one of the sexiest comics kisses ever drawn - Jae gave the page to Kristan for her birthday one year. I was very pleased with that book and I'd love to work with Jae again.

I'd always be interested in doing the FF, but I'm having a lot more fun at DC right now than I ever had at Marvel.

AN: Do you have a road map for upcoming work at DC? I know you have various plans and wonder if they are coming to fruition.

GM: Everything's going very well and lumbering toward publication. Seven Soldiers is the tightest comic I've plotted so far and I did it partly to prove to myself that I can write 'straight' mainstream books if that's really what people want to see. And the artists! I'm really happy with every single one of my collaborators on this series. My editor, Pete Tomasi, brought some amazing art talent to the table.

Readers who hated the 'gaps' they thought they saw in New X-Men will hopefully be laced up tight in this little number. Everything resonates and connects. Every act has a far-reaching consequence. Seven Soldiers is like a thousand dominoes all falling in looping intricate patterns down your stairs and out the door.

I hope more comics writers try the supercompressed, bi-weekly long format - it's like 2-and-a-half years worth of comics condensed down into one year. And the Seven Soldiers set-up, when you think about it, is exactly like those celebrity reality shows - a bunch of no-hope c-listers finally get their chance to show their real personalities and get noticed by the public! Who'll be the traitor, the hero, the failure, the loser, the breakout star? It looked like a gamble to release something like this into the very conservative monthly market, but I knew the times were changing in favor of this type of material and so far it's really paying off. We've had great press from the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly and others.

Alongside SEVEN SOLDIERS, which runs until Spring 2006, there's ALL-STAR SUPERMAN with Frank Quitely, of course, which begins in December 2005. I'm just finishing issue 4 and I've never been so proud of a mainstream comic as I am of this. I write about 50 pages of material then 'supercompress' it down to 22 pages, like a lump of coal squeezed into diamond. The ideas have been pouring out and every single issue contains enough compacted entertainment material to fuel a 12 issue maxi-series, so it's big bang for your buck!

Then there's 52, the big DC weekly comic which I'm plotting and writing in collaboration with Mark Waid, Geoff Johns, Keith Giffen and Greg Rucka for a spring 2006 launch. I love being the bass player in the first comics supergroup. That's going very well and I can't wait to see what people think of it. The series is being created and written like a TV show and the results have so far been spectacular, as far as I'm concerned. It's the DC Universe in Hi Res close up detail, as never seen before. Very unusual stuff.

Apart from that, I've being doing a LOT of work at DC/Wildstorm, including massive series bibles for some of 2006's big launches, and collaborating with Jim Lee on the relaunch of WildCATs. I have a lot of respect for Dan DiDio and we're only just starting to see the effects of the energy he's brought to DC. There are big plans afoot and I'm very excited to be part of it all. And I haven't mentioned the two big 'icon' series I'm working on for 2006/7.

Outside comics, my novel, the IF, is way over deadline but inching towards completion after five years, SLEEPLESS KNIGHTS is still in development at Dreamworks, and We3 has just been set up with New Line, so I'll be writing the screenplay for that in October.

What can I say? The world may be going to hell, but I'm having a great time.



FINAL THOUGHTS

A very special Thank You to Grant Morrison for his time and candor.

I am happy to say that I will be attending Fall Con as a guest. As such, I hope that you might come visit me there. Talk to me. Take my photo. Give me money. Feed me. Rub my belly. Or just smile. But attend the con. It'll be great!

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Alexander Ness
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Alexander@popthought.com


"Every positive value has its price in negative terms... the genius of Einstein leads to Hiroshima." Pablo Picasso


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