Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Notes on The Return of the King

I just got the extended version of The Return of the King today (I have all three extended versions now.) It's beautifully done. But of course, having read the book so many times, I have a couple of issues with it.

Movies are different from books, and frankly, I'm glad Jackson didn't try to stick slavishly to the original--what's the point of making a movie if you're not going to try to add something new to it. Overall he did a fantastic job. My main complaint, though, was that he missed something in the transformation of Frodo that was, to me, one of the most subtle themes in the book, and one that many seemed to miss.

Tolkien follows Frodo's perspective right up until Shelob's lair, but then shifts to Sam's perspective, never again entering Frodo's mind. This is consistent with his treatment of Sauron: we never see the monster. Sauron is a rumour, a shadow, the sum of all fears, a being who may not even have a physical form. He is a living nightmare. With no form of his own, he takes on any and all forms that fear may give him.

Frodo is a good man in the deepest pit of hell, having an intimate conversation with the devil which he cannot refuse and cannot escape. He already knows what to expect, because Gandalf has warned him, and he has seen what the ring does to others. And he has Gollum before him, he can see with his own eyes where he is heading. The ring has already played the obvious tricks on him, at Bree, Weathertop, and with Bilbo in Rivendell. Now it is approaching full strength, and the assault is far more subtle, and vicious. His humanity is being consumed, his mind eaten away, his body bent and broken by a burden of metaphysical weight. His is not the saintliness of quiet repose. He is gentle because he is becoming a beast. He is kind because murder is creeping into his heart. And he clings desparately to his humanity, because he is becoming a monster. He knows all this. Gollum was at least spared the knowledge of his fall, but Frodo knows what is happening to him, and this makes it far worse. Frodo's hell, and his experience of it, is, like Sauron, beyond description, and Tolkien wisely does not attempt to describe it.

In the movie, the writers treated the desire for the ring as an addiction. This is but a single layer amongst dozens. The ring is not just an addiction, it is also desire, greed, control, power, status, ego, technology, arrogance, elitism, the means that becomes an end. But most of all, it is Pride. If Sauron is the sum of all fears, then the ring is the sum of all vices and sins. So to have Frodo order Sam to go home at the urging of Gollum is a terrible breach of character. Sam is his only link to home and his humanity; Frodo would not dare part with him. Frodo is no fool, he is not duped by Gollum. Frodo has shackled him with the ring, by forcing him to swear by it. But the ring, through Gollum, has found an improbable loophole that Frodo is not aware of, a threat that will take no interest in the ring. Frodo's only mistake is giddy relief at reaching the end of Shelob's lair, in thinking the danger has passed when it hasn't.

This is not the only time that Frodo uses the ring for its intended purpose. When Gollum attacks him on Mount Doom, Frodo clutches the ring and transforms again before Sams eyes. Frodo commands Gollum: "Begone, and trouble me no more! If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom." It is by this curse that Gollum's fate is sealed. Jackson said that he didn't want Frodo to lie passively while Gollum simply stumbled over the edge, so he had them struggle for the ring, causing Gollum to fall. But Frodo is not passive. He has already doomed Gollum, but it is not murder. It happens only through Gollum's own choice. Fair warning has been given, and Frodo need only wait for the wheels he has already set in motion to lead to the inevitable. Even as the ring masters him, he masters it, and tricks it into its own destruction. For that brief moment, he is peer to the likes of Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond, and Sauron. This is another reason that his mind is closed to us. He has joined the ranks of the Great and the Wise.

I have heard J.K. Rowling criticized for disregarding the numinosity of magic. But Rowling is a master of cheeky absurdity, a head on collision between modern popular culture and myth. The numinous appears sparingly, usually in the flash points of Harry's struggle with Voldemort. Tolkien is all numinosity, a struggle of powers and principalities which may not even have physical forms, a world stalked by moods and metaphors. Much of the magic can only be seen through the eyes of the beholder. No camera would capture it. Sam in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, seen through the camera lens, is just a frightened hobbit, clutching something at his chest, climbing the stairs. But through the eyes of the orcs who meet him, he is a towering figure of shadow, holding a sword glittering with the light of the Elves, and holding "a cowing menace to the slaves of Mordor." The ring is just a ring until it is picked up; it acts only through those who come in contact with it. By being less physical, Tolkien's magic is, paradoxically, more real. It is the very sort of magic that we encounter in everyday life, though it requires watchful eyes to see it.

Thus, we have a Dark Lord that we never see, wraiths who are invisible, a balrog with wings of shadow. This is not just evil as the absence of good, but holes to be filled with dread. We have the twisted, the corrupted, the description of evil, but we also have these empty spaces, marked: "more of the same, but much worse." Everyone has different nightmares. These figures will accomodate all of them.

Rather than show Frodo acting foolishly, it might have been better to show the world through his eyes, the steady accumulation of horror, delusion, and nightmare that assaults him as he draws near Mordor, with measured reaction on his face to guage their intensity. We see Sam turned into a grasping monster, the sky turn to blood, the stones turn to bones. Then, when he enters Mordor, the door slams shut. We see him only from the outside now, through Sams eyes. And Frodo's desparately controlled reactions grow more intense, the horror wild in his eyes, the inward stare so overwhelming that he cannot see to place his own feet, and stumbles constantly. He thrashes in his sleep, shrinks from Sam, flinches at shadows and claws at empty air. And it is left to our imagination, knowing the horrors he faced before so stoically, to wonder what they must be like now.

The Lord of the Rings is not perfect, and what works in a book will often not work in a movie. But Tolkien had ruminated on the themes of The Lord of the Rings for almost forty years, and took seventeen years to write it. It has the depth of mythology. The fox/hedgehog distinction--that some people pursue a number of idea while others fixate on one big idea--is far too simplistic. Mythology contains a world of ideas in a dense, almost holographic format. 'Foxes' may harp on a single idea but disguise it in many different forms. Analytic and synthetic would be a better distinction. Synthetics gather ideas like a snowball growing as it rolls down the hill, but many of them may be so deeply buried that even the author has forgotten them. These still resonate, though. There is a narrative truth in good stories, which appeal to aesthetic rather than logical appreciation. It may take as many years to tease these ideas out of a work as it took to put them in. You tamper with these works at your own risk, and you may break them if you leave out something essential. None of these essentials are clearly marked, and are open to interpretation. You may not even know what you've missed, even if you have a vague feeling of dissatisfaction.

Still, Jackson has made the definitive version. It's no wonder that all the people who worked on it damn near worked themselves to death. This is more than a movie, it's a piece of history. And behind all of this effort stood more than professional pride. The love of the book drove them to it. Nothing less would do.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004


Someone pointed out that the theme of The Lord of the Rings is death. Tolkien throws mortality into stark relief through the presence of immortals. Galadriel, who is older than the sun itself, and Elrond, younger but still immortal, preserve their way of life through the power of the Elven Rings. But these rings also hold the threat of their destruction, because they are bound to the One Ring. Faced with this choice, they surrender their way of life, and their civilization fades from Middle Earth. In order to save life itself, they submit to mortality. Though they do not die, they are forced to return to the Undying Lands. Their life in Middle Earth ends.

Tolkien has hit on something essential here; the tragedy, and necessity, of mortality. Immortality brings a certain inflexibility, an attachment to old ways whose time has past. If these ways are preserved for too long, they become brittle, and snap with disastrous consequences. Death is necessary for renewal. Change is a continuous process of death and rebirth, and change is the only constant.

Against change we raise the bulwark of tradition, of continuity that defies change. "The King is dead; Long live the King!" In the very same breath, we accept change and deny it. We fear change and attempt to tame it; we measure and keep time, even serve it, in the hope of controlling it, parcelling it, make it march to a drum of our making. We form into social groups whose identites precede and survive us. By investing ourselves in these, we hope to participate in their immortality. Our most cherished institutions are housed in buildings whose architecture is reminiscent of ancient or medieval architecture. Banks are constructed to resemble classical architecture to provide the impression that they will weather time and economic vicissitudes. In rituals and ceremony we enact 'magic time', in which we occupy the same moment as generations who have practiced them before and generations to come who will perform them after us.

And yet, life itself is in revolt, by tearing down the old order through death and replacing it with a new order. Mortality is not a biological necessity. There are species that do not age, birds that can live for hundreds of years, crocodiles and turtles that simply continue to grow for decades or even centuries. But for a species as complex and adaptive as humans, immortality could prove disastrous. Each generation arises to question anew the assumptions of the old, sometimes only to reaffirm them, sometimes to modfy or throw them out altogether. It has been argued that scientific revolutions are generational, that it requires the old guard to die out in order for newer, better ideas to take hold. The same is true for ideas of social justice. Old prejudices linger, sometimes unspoken, but nevertheless entrenched and making themselves felt indirectly. And sometimes people will take full flight into a real or imagined past, clinging to ways and traditions disastrous in a modern world, hoping to deny time altogether. Usually this is done in the name of God, eternal, unchanging, and the Lord of Heaven, a realm untouched by time.

And yet, if you believe God is the Architect of this world, you must concede that He is the ultimate Rebel, who might answer, like Marlon Brando's character in The Wild One when asked what he is against: "What have you got?" To return to Tolkien, and one of Gollum's riddles to Bilbo:

This thing all things devours
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers
Gnaws iron, bites steel,
Grinds hard stones to meal,
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down!

The answer is Time. How likely is it that the Creator of time and the Architect of perpetual change would inhabit a realm as still and stagnant as a tomb, or desire anything like it on earth?

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Genetics and Ethics

Last week on Big Ideas I caught Michael Banner giving a lecture on Genetics and Human Nature. His main thesis was that genetic manipulation posed the danger that we would damage human nature itself by tinkering in something that we had no business meddling with. His starting point was Frances Fukuyama, who argues that we have reached the end of history through liberal democracy and free market capital, and that the only danger posed to this is that genetic engineering will change the very human nature that makes this work.

Fukuyama's arguments would require more time than I have here. Suffice it to say that they are a repetition of the old Hegelian trick, the claim that we have reached the end and goal of history. This seems to me primarily a failure of vision. Liberal democracy and capitalism may be better than any of the existing alternatives, but they are far from being perfect, and may require adjustments which are hardly trivial just to ensure their survival. We have by no means reached a steady state, as the rise of fundamentalism should demonstrate. Liberal democracy itself requires a standard of education and, yes, enlightenment, that is subject to erosion. Freedom has its enemies even amongst those who invoke liberty as a rallying cry. True freedom, as Sartre pointed out, is scary. There are plenty of people who believe that we have altogether too much freedom and would like to see a return to a pre-democratic, even a pre-modern, society. As for capitalism, the balance between social responsibilty and individual interests has by no means been established and agreed upon, and if we get it wrong, the whole structure may collapse. And there are far too many people who do not remember why we adopted these styles of government and social organisation in the first place. Given the upper hand, they may force history to repeat itself.

Fukuyama includes concern with mind and mood altering drugs with his concern about genetics, arguing that both have the capacity to change human nature and throw us into uncharted territory (I will return to the issue of drugs later.) Banner accepts this, and goes on to argue that human nature is a given, imposed by none other than God, and that the ability to change this poses several moral problems. Among these are a threat to humility, through the creation of the truly self-made man, the erosion of charity to the less fortunate (in this case, the less genetically fortunate), and the elimination of traits whose purpose we do not see but which nevertheless have a purpose. It should come as no surprise that Banner is coming from a theological background. Regardless of the origins of the argument, however, I still see this as a type of Frankenstein hypothesis, and I don't see that genetic manipulation makes any of these outcomes any more or less likely.

Consider humility. Although genetic manipulation may theoretically allow us to make people who are smarter, stronger, etc, this is unlikely to be the way we use genetics. There are just too many genetic factors involved, spread across the entire genome, and environmental factors probably play a much larger role. It is far more likely that we will simply treat a few individual genes for massively debilitating conditions. There is, however, a social parallel which acts in the same way, and causes much the same moral problem: wealth. The self-made man in our current society is the wealthy maverick capitalist, who is not self-made at all but arrives at his position with the assistance of large numbers of his fellow citizens. Humility is a major problem here; if success goes to his head, the self-made man will forget his debts to society and indulge himself at the expense of others. Inherited wealth compounds the problem, creating class distinctions and positional advantages that the children of the wealthy take for granted and assume is their right. Fukuyama's neo-conservative position is conducive to this blind spot; it is one of the very flaws which threatens to destabilize the very societal structures that he sees as the end of history. In any case, you cannot genetically make yourself at all. Only your parents can do this, and in all likelihood, only the rich could afford it. The loss of humility that Banner fears is already happening, and has been for a very long time. Genetics really adds little to the mix.

The same applies to the erosion of charity. Banner argues that we take pity on the less genetically fortunate because they have no choice in the matter. This makes no sense; even with genetic engineering, you cannot modify your own genetics anyway. You have what you are born with, and if genetic manipulation is possible, others would take the blame, not you. In any case, the disparity of wealth creates the same problem. We still hold others accountable for their material success, even without knowing the factors involved. How is the judgement of merit based upon wealth any different from judgement based upon genetic endowment, particularly since the two are related?

What I find most troubling about arguments against playing God is that we play God anyway. All that such arguments achieve is to make us blind to what we are already doing. For if we play God by killing those who might otherwise live, we are also playing God by saving those who might otherwise die. The latter is called mercy. But is it, when what we are doing is prolonging suffering, through means that would not have been possible a few decades ago? To give an example, medicine discovered a way in the 60's to save babies born with spinal bifida, a condition which leaves them paralyzed, usually brain damaged, and may leave them in cronic pain. Without a thought, they did so, and hundreds of spinal bifida children now clutter wards, some little more than passive lumps of flesh in expensive chairs. No consideration was given under those circumstance to the idea that it might be better to let nature take its course. We played God just because we could.

And so we have always done, by wearing clothing that allows us to survive in conditions that would otherwise kill us, by extending our capabilities through tools, and by helping those who might die without our help. One of the chief indicators of civilization in fossil records is the appearance of crippled humans who have lived for an extended period of time with this condition, who would have otherwise died without continual care. If we are made in God's image, it is in this sense. We too are creators. We too remake the world and ourselves to our liking.

There are many cronic health problems which are sustainable and surviveable only because we live in a society with a large material surplus, which has the resources to extend the capabilites of the profoundly crippled to a nearly normal level. We are already genetically engineering ourselves, by maintaining people with genetic disabilities who would otherwise die out, allowing them to have children and pass these disabilities on. We have overuled survival of the fittest. This is a great accomplishment, but it could spell disaster in the event of an economic or ecological collapse. Without our extraordinary wealth, hundreds of millions who are kept from the brink through spectacularly ingenious and expensive medical interventions will live in misery, if they live at all.

As for intervention through drugs, especially mood and mind altering drugs, consider this: the first chemical reaction that man mastered was fermentation. Before we had soap or bread, we had booze. What we are looking for in our new drugs is something that will alleviate the core problem without the dramatic character deformations associated with self-medicated solutions. So, prozac, whisky, or suicide? Prozac has its problems, no question about that, but if you are talking about the destruction of human nature, you can't do much worse than alcoholism. It's several hundred thousand years too late to worry about whether we should be interfering with our own biochemistry.

It is human nature to play God. We have always done so. We are in it so far over our heads that we have long since forgotten that we are under water. If there ever was a divine plan, we quit it a long time ago. We can either deny that we do it, and do it poorly, or we can admit it and try to understand how to do it well. The promise of genetic engineering is not that we will remake a new species, but that we will fix what we have already broken. The alternative is to stick our head in the sand till nature steps in and fixes it for us, at horrific cost.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

The Teleological Proof

Dr. Antony Flew, a lifelong atheist philosopher who argued against belief in all its forms, recently announced that, due to the weight of the teleological argument based upon the origins of life, he has converted to deism. While I find deism the most benign of all religious positions, so much so that I consider it a serious option for a rationalist, I do not find this argument at all convincing.

The argument is that while evolution may guide the development of life, it does not explain how life came to be in the first place. For this origin, you need an intelligent creator. However, I don't find anything particularly extraordinary in these origins. Scientists have been able to produce amino acids and cell-like structures, the building blocks of life, in conditions identical to those found in deep space. All that is required to get the wheel of evolution turning is the spontaneous appearance of a molecular Von Neuman machine--a self-replicating entity. While this is highly improbable given a small sample and a short span of time, any probability at all will reach a virtual certainty given a large enough sample.

That we have not observed this spontaneous event is to be expected. The sum total of all experiments on the subject would probably amount to a few months time in an area less than a hundred cubic meters in volume. Contrast this to hundreds of millions of years across the entire earth's surface. The problem with our experimental methods is that by their very nature they focus upon a very limited sample. It would be better to model the conditions and the properties of each of the elements and compounds in a computer simulation, and then derive all possible reactions in a broad distributed network, somewhat like Seti@home. This would not be easy, and the snag is that we often don't know the full properties of a novel molecule or structure until we actually create and observe it. Nevertheless, the discoveries provided by such a project, and their application to new materials and bio-chemistry, would probably be well worth the effort.

But the absence of proof does not constitute proof of absence. I can see nothing in the spontaneoous appearance of a self-replicating entity that requires divine intervention. Deism, like all religious propositions, is an article of faith. I see nothing in science that supports or denies it.

Update: No, Flew is still an atheist. Apparently he doesn't find the teleological proof very convincing either. I'm not sure how these rumours get started, but it sounds like another case of creationist spin.