Saturday, September 24, 2011

Medieval Space Travel in Dante, Lewis and Tolkien

"A man who travels into another world does not return unchanged" 


Dante's Divine Comedy

"Thence we came forth to behold the stars."
Dante Alighieri, the Inferno

In the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri describes his journey through the heavens until at last he passes between the fixed stars, the Primium Mobile and into the presence of the Unmoved-Mover. Time and Space take on not only a fixed place in regards to specific moments and places but the whole engine that dimensions them is illustrated as if frozen in an instant, like a medieval tapestry, to be moved along only to give the eye a survey of the whole, inevitably to further totalize it.

Time and Space become fixed like the stars, not as a net-work but as a grid in which things settle into designated seats, cells, steps on a latter, eternally alienated from each other. While in the Inferno persons are lost in-to themselves, in the Paradisio persons are lost out-of themselves; with a few notable (even named) exceptions, it is primarily in the Purgatorio that we get any sense of community, motion-oriented becoming or mediation.

In prior posts I discussed how a trans-forming model of the universe positions all-in-one and one-in-all, which  distinguishes itself from pantheistic or nihilistic models in which things are all totally identified or totally alienated; this is done by positive a force of becoming in which things hold a degree of alienation from each other, while admitting a degree of identification / slippage between them thus creating queer and permeable forms but forms nonetheless.

Time / Space as a result becomes an expression of the queer tension between things. In terms of Space-Time (the principle fabric of the universe predominantly attested by physicists from Eisenstein to Hawking) the universe actualizes itself through expansion or compression, (arguments vary as to which) as well as bending, allowing for matter-energy to express itself in its perceived forms.

There is then no Primium Mobile internal in(ternal to) the transforming universe which orients things on a fixed axis of time or space but rather correspondence manifests through an enacting of things/forces on one another. A here and a there exist in this model because of a certain trans-formative force that enacts the relationship of distance over a period of time.

To become identified is to become positioned in relationship to other things. Or rather, to become temporal or spacial is to become transitional, as we can as such admit no set position; no fixed place or land, no metered time or stars to call our own.

Things take part in ordering time / space as they become contingently ordered by the collective force of other things, allowing for different frames of place and temporality to be conceptualized. Things become alienated from one another according to degrees of energy/intensity which warp not only the mathematical dimensions of time / space but also our perception of them. Things touch (even overlap as palimpsests) at diverse spacial and temporal points, hold diverse relationships to things between the points and compete to assert orders/patterns upon each other.

We simultaneously becoming oriented and orient others by the forces of our material presence / motions, thus bodies push and pull via different means on one another causing different perceptible patterns to form. An object which catches on our erotic or gravitational forces will assert a certain sense of space / time on us, drawing certain things to be regarded as more central and others to be regarded as more marginal. But this push, pull and sliding occurs between multiple things at once, internally and externally. We may have numerous erotic/love objects directing us at once in the same way the Moon, the Earth and the Sun all have their effects on our motion / orientations gravitationally.

As we too exert these forces, we are at the same time marginalized and centralized by different things and we can perform our body, taking advantage of these dynamic positions, to various effects. We can make ourselves attractive to multiple partners and elicit certain pleasures of cuckolding or direct our fall towards the Sun in a way which will cause us to miss it and slingshot around until we get pulled back for another pass (the basic model of how an orbit works). Everything and everyone at once enacts their spacial/temporal relations from the position of margins in the middle of things.


CS Lewis's Space Trilogy

"Loads and loads of land, all tied down. 
Does not the thought of it crush you?"
CS Lewis, Peralandra

In the Space / Ransom Trilogy by CS Lewis, Dr. Erwin Ransom travels first to Mars, finding a land of mountains and desserts but also deep canyons which harbor the highly ordered remnants of three species with an estate-like distribution of labor. On Mars, Ransom learns about the Eldila, a race of undying, nearly invisible beings that occupy all of "deep heaven" in which the planets, stars and the like move on their orbits and rotations. In meeting an Eldil, Ransom (and, in a later book, Lewis himself) first thinks that they are standing slanted, huge and ever in motion but quickly is converted to the perspective that it is the Eldil that exist according to the true dimension axis that orders "deep heaven" and the reason for their appearances is that standing on a spherical, relatively small (compared to the Eldils) and ever moving planet, Ransom (like Lewis) is ever bent, small and falling away from them. Ransom also learns on this planet the universal "solar" language and the "true" hierarchy and history of being.

In the second book, Ransom travels to Venus and discovers that the planet consists of one massive ocean on which floating islands of vegetation support a variety of terrestrial plants and animals which live atop their ever bending, rippling surfaces that form hills, valleys and divides according to the motion of the waves underneath. It is said that walking on the islands is like walking on the waves themselves only you don't fall through. Exploring the islands, Ransom finds that each of the islands contains a distinct and diverse set of fantastic plants and animals (from bubble-trees to tiny dog-like dragons). As flexible and floating surfaces, the islands not only change in the shape of their parameters and elevations constantly, but their relation to each other; making cartography an impossible venture. In meeting one of the islands two "intelligent" occupants, an Eve-goddess-like woman, he comes to learn to "accept the good that is given" and not to long for the good that was expected, that each wave that comes is different, the best and will never come again. She questions Ransom's idea that time can be measured by set internals and reacts in horror to the news that on Earth people live on fixed land; the one fixed land (that they know of) on Venus is forbidden.

At the close of the second book, Ransom meets the residential Eldil rulers of the two planets and bear their planets names (Mars and Venus respectively according to "terrestrial" or earthly titles). Each Eldil effects his brain so that he may perceive them as human-like bodies and take on mythological, gendered characteristics of Mars and Venus. Ransom, via Lewis who is said to be simply recording and at times elaborating a dictated account, describes each as sexless but with a distinct masculine and feminine gender (which he asserts in a way very different than Judith Butler) that sex is always already gender which exists as some higher polar quality in things. He admits that in the particularities there may be "confusion," even in regards to sex, but that certain bodies, things and planets have a definite gender which defines them.

According to this logic, Mars offers a masculine embodiment and model of time and space: set points and relations which live in certain spheres and according to a set clock (which is mentioned to be running out for the species of Mars, all of whom will die out "soon").
Venus offers a feminine embodiment and model of time & space (similar in some ways to those suggested by Elizabeth Groz in Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism): things change and move, becoming themselves always in relation to the changes and movements of other things. Even the number of sentient species on the planet are not set but are said to change as certain ones slowly develop consciousnesses. Allusions to the Edenic bounty of Venus as being womb-like and the reflecting skies and waves to be like Venus's mirror.

What strikes me in the dualism of forms (or relationships to form) asserted in Lewis's Space Trilogy as well as in Elizabeth Grosz's Volatile Bodies (and her book Chaos, Territory Art) is that in each the authors present qualities that seem inherent to all things but insist that they are separated, personified and perceived distinctly according to two essential categorized ways of being: according arranged into two sexes/genders.

I could here take on the argument, which is due but in the context of these entries and my work almost too obvious, that: such dualism of gendered materialities (of bodies, space and time) are fraught with failure to define essential definitions, material evidence or even psychological/psychoanalytic justifications; that dualistic poles or even dialectic alienation either fails to hold up to logical scrutiny or are based on faulty nihilistic presumptions.

But I will here eschew such an important but currently tangential argument for the sake of getting to the pressing matter that taken without their quintessential gendered duality, that these two planets/gods/books express different qualities of time and space in a transitional (queer materialist) perspective.

Venus (and Grotz's definitions of female corporeality) offer a beautiful illustration of the ever transforming and transitional qualities of the material universe. Time and Space constantly undermine their motions towards ontological states as Space-Time and other bodies move, grow, intermix, merge and bend. The "life lessons" Ransom learns about living in such a state of constant surprise and wonder are debatably harmonizing with an ethics of queer materiality.
Mars offers an illustration of a transforming universe if taken in a very qualified way. The resistance to being undermined that things exert, the "no" of stone discussed in my article on Tempests (borrowed from Jane Bennett) are integral to understanding that queerness does not mean that things flow in any course without resistance or never assert norms. Queerness, and performativity, in fact assert that things constantly assert norms AS they undermine them. Trans-forming is in a manner about forming. Things exist distinctly as somewhere, at sometime, in some form and are NOT in all possible places, times and forms at once. Things move and change but not in all possible manners and intensities at once. Queer things are the systems as well as the things that disturb, defy and escape the system.

Things are like Venus in undermining time and like Mars in performing clocks, but in that performativity ever mocking essentialist models of female and male.

JRR Tolkien's Middle-Earth

"The Elves call 'death' the Gift of God (to Men). 
Their temptation is different: towards a faint melancholy, 
burdened with Memory, leading to an attempt to halt Time."
JRR Tolkien, Letter to C Ouboter (10 April 1958)

In Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit, the Silmarillion and numerous other finished and unfinished tales JRR Tolkien center around persons and objects which simultaneously draw all things into themselves and alienate all things, bending time and space in the process.

In the Simarillion, one among the great spirits (later called Melkor or Morgoth) which played the song of creation turned away from the community of spirits and in towards itself; and in doing so finds himself empty/emptied. Morgoth breaks rank from the spirits to play his own melody, which draws others to gaze upon him and the song changes, orienting its tune closer to Morgoth's. When the conflict deepens between the God of this universe, its spirits and Morgoth, he flees the community, drawing others with him. When the time and space that define the universe of Middle-Earth are created, Morgoth enters into it and begins twisting it into orientation around himself, as he had the song. The landscape literally transforms around him and the great trees of light in immortal lands of this creation are destroyed by his works; resulting eventually in the passing of the immortals from Middle-Earth and the bending of the world into a sphere. Eventually Morgoth is destroyed, after the domination and alienation of many.

The Valar and the elves too create objects which orient time and space, two shining trees which bear the light of the heavens, then three jewels that bear the light of the trees. As the light passes from heaven to tree to gems, there continues to be an effort to preserve and fix these powers in place along with all things their power touches. In time these objects become the center of conflict as different persons fight for their possession; some wishing to keep them for the mutual ordering of the community, others to orient the world towards them. Eventually all these are destroyed, after the domination and alienation of many.

In the Silmarillion and the Lord of the Rings, after the destruction of Morgoth and the Gems, Sauron Morgoth's assistant rises in Middle-Earth and begins to likewise draw all things towards himself and towards their own alienation/destruction. To accomplish this he creates a Great Ring and many other rings of power that give its possessors long life and the ability to order their surroundings, its people and environment, even to hold them in a kind of stasis; they also allow them to become at the same time intensely prominent with power and invisible. A great war and the makings of a second eventually see Sauron killed and the rings destroyed but only after the domination and alienation of many.

Great spirits, music, trees, gems, rings are a few of the prominent things in Tolkien's Middle-Earth which exercise power over time and space as well as the temporalities and orientations of other things. These things lend power to the narcissism present in them and their bearers. Narcissism here is defined as the simultaneous desire to make all things one in and under the self and a deep repulsion of others and the self which desires the alienation and destruction of them all. It is the negative-face of psychoanalysis's dialectical reading of the subject as being defined by an inherent "lack" that drives them to desire and hate "O/others" out of an anxiety about its own nullity. This mentality can effect the perceptions of immortal and mortal alike in Tolkien's world, as the anxiety either about the passing of things out of one's grasp in space and time cause them to desire the domination and ultimately the destruction of many of these things.

The story which repeats itself in various ways throughout Tolkien's writings is then the battle of the One which seeks to set up a single orientation schema fighting and being defeated by the many (and ultimately the self-undermining of such monomaniacal intents). There is a God present in Tolkien's universe, but it is not one that orients all things into a fixed place around itself as in Dante, nor imposes an invisible grid as in Lewis, but which gives each thing a power of its own to orient and sub-create the universe. It is this multiplicity of space-time-thing benders that allows for both the narcissistic and the pluralistic worlds to form and do battle. Tolkien is also not timid in stating that the desire to be the one is evil and that the desire to be one in and among many is good; however he consistently demonstrates that the particular events and persons, which polarize at times their qualities are not singular but molecular, nor are they set but constantly transforming (along with their surroundings).

More Medieval Travels to Come
"Those that sailed furthest set but a girdle about the Earth and returned weary at last to the place of their beginning; and they said: 'All roads are now bent.'

Thus in after days, what by the voyages of ships, what by lore and star-craft, the kings of Men knew that the world was indeed made round, and yet the Eldar were permitted still to depart and to come to the Ancient West and to Avallуnл, if they would. Therefore the loremasters of Men said that a Straight Road must still be, for those that were permitted to find it. And they taught that, while the new world fell away, the old road and the path of the memory of the West still went on, as it were a mighty bridge invisible that passed through the air of breath and of flight (which were bent now as the world was bent)."

JRR Tolkien, the Silmarillion

"[Priscilla's] just read Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra; and with good taste preferred the latter. But she finds it hard to  realize that Ransom is not meant to be a portrait of me  (though as a philologist I may have some part in him, and recognize some of my opinions and ideas Lewisified in him)"

JRR Tolkien, Letter to Christopher Tolkien (31 July 1944)


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