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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Reading Group meeting 28/1/12

5 Comments:

Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

28.1.12

This afternoon we began our exploration of The Notion Club Papers Part One, and they not only presented us with new dimensions to our understanding of Tolkien’s creative impulses, but opened up some unexpectedly complex issues.

Laura opened the discussion by remarking that the Papers are fun at various levels. They are playful in their handling of time, playful in the way Tolkien sets up the characters and the ‘records of the meetings of the Notion Club which is itself a playful version of the Inklings.

Angela declared that Tolkien’s inadvertent ‘prediction’ of the Great Storm in 1987 was spooky, his date being only 4 months different from the real Great Storm that wrecked the south of England in 1987.

Pat thought the academics who make up the Notion Club were inclined to behave like children, while Angela wondered if, as Tolkien adapted his real colleagues into the members of the Club (himself included) it would be possible to match us (the Southfarthing members) into the characters in the Club!

Kathleen confessed to having been very confused by the Papers, thinking they recounted the deliberations of real people in a real club, and also thinking the format was not at all what she expected from Tolkien. We assured her that this confusion was due to the way Tolkien set up the fiction – it looks so convincing.

Ian picked up Kathleen’s remark about a different kind of narratorial ‘voice’ from Tolkien, recalling that in addition to Tolkien’s intentional narratorial difference could be added whatever adjustments were needed when Christopher had to edit his father’s manuscripts of the Papers.

Laura noted that Tolkien always has Nicholas Guildford the Club’s note-taker referring to ‘nights’ rather than evenings when recording the Club meetings. Julie thought this might set up a kind of ‘Arabian Nights’ framework of many different tales.

Pat was puzzled by the characters’ frequent discussion of ‘Frames’ as a mode of accommodating more or less successfully the stories being discussed by the Club during its meetings. Chris defined these ‘frames’ as referring to an unsuccessful or artificial shift in a story. Ian observed that the process of ‘reframing’ – shifting a story from one ‘frame’ to another – could be linked to modes of travelling.

The characters’ objections to framing involved what some of them regarded as poorly devised means of space travel in which a story moved from earth to a distant planet too easily. Ian pointed out to us that different modes of travel offer different kinds of experience. Travel by motorcycle requires constant concentration throughout any journey – making the rider very aware of distance and changes in environment, while travel by air requires almost none and the air traveller moves from one location to another so rapidly as to be hardly aware of how much distance has been traversed.

Angela added a different aspect to the Notion Club’s deliberations on ‘framing’ travel, by observing that when Tolkien actually wrote the story no one had even conquered Everest far less gone into space. Chris noted that the characters compare the detail required to create convincing space travel with the less exacting conditions for travel into the realm of Faerie: real places like Mars create their own limitations which fairy tales do not.

Ian noted that Tolkien includes some reference to fundamental physics to show that a writer cannot just do anything.

We had been wondering about Arthur C. Clark’s seminal scientific article on satellites and Ian, using his palantir, discovered Clark had published his article on geostationary orbit in 1945.

Kathleen observed that to cover extraordinary transitions in space what was needed was a wizard!

2:40 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Julie then located a Star Wars moment when the Club are discussing the different parameters for space travel and fairy story. As Julie remarked Star Wars conflated space travel and fairy story as the text begins ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…’ (I hope I've got that quote right!) so we get a fairy story opening to a space fiction. There are of course many fairy story elements in Star Wars apart from this.

Mike then changed the direction of the discussion from science to literary theory when he asked provocatively whether Tolkien was being ‘self-indulgent’ in the way he constructed the debate in the Papers. Actually what Mike was questioning was whether Tolkien was really discussing his own writing agenda and reaffirming his views on what constitutes a ‘proper’ mode of story telling.

Ian observed that JRRT was exploiting the potential of expressing a variety of views through the use of other voices.

Chris related this discussion to the Letters we have just read, suggesting that we see a similar process in the draft forms of many letters, where Tolkien can explore his views on a topic before settling on the final version. In the NCP, the characters express those different views.

Ian commented that Tolkien was investigating writing space-travel and the Papers show his ideas for the parameters of space, while NCP2 will show the parameters for time travel. Our problem is as readers that we have no reference for what the character Ramer has written, but it is ‘writing’ that the Club are discussing.

Mike picked this up and agreed that the problem for us is that we are only given details of the Club’s debate, not the thing being critiqued.

Laura brought us back to a matter relevant to JRRT’s own biography when she asked where God was in all the Club’s discussion, because today we have a split between Evolutionist science and Creationists. Julie noted that angels are mentioned and Kathleen suggested Tolkien was showing the Club discussing the movement of bodies not spirits.

Mike then remarked that at one level Tolkien was rightly pointing out in the Club’s discussion that Science fiction writing in the 40s and 50s really was rubbish. Ian observed that Tolkien was not in fact writing science fiction, but writing with a 1940s attitude.

I suggested that the NCP was itself a time-travel story because of the way Tolkien plays with time as its framework. Actually written over Christmas 1945, the records of the Club meetings purport to be from the 1980s, while Tolkien sets their ‘discovery’ in 2012.

Pat wondered if we were looking at a piece of modernist fiction, since modernism rejected the linear story form, and perhaps this style had been adapted by Tolkien for the space travel theme.

On a lighter note, Angela and Chris noted the whimsical mention (looking forward) in the context of deep space travel and its impracticality by virtue of human life expectancy, of still being able to get tickets on the State Railway, to which the rejoinder was ‘But there’s still at least a chance of arriving before death.’ We had already noted the humour of some passages of the NCP.

2:43 AM  
Blogger Dr. Lynn Forest-Hill said...

Angela noticed the character Ramer complaining about critics, and Laura noted the pun on Tolkien’s own name in that of the enthusiastic undergraduate member of the club John Jethro Rashbold (This surname being a translation of ‘Tolkien’).

Anne picked up the strange space travel mode described by Ramer who seems to be able to travel ‘physically’ by means of his dreams. Anne noted that with regard to dreams the uncoscious doesn’t recognise time or chronology. Laura thought it might be possible to direct dreams as Ramer implies, and Pat, Angela, and I all said we could ‘set an internal clock’ to wake ourselves up at a specific time.

Julie wondered in the end, why the aversion being expressed in the Papers to space ships. Ian remarked it was because they were not convincing enough, and Tolkien preferred something like the Roverandom option (being conveyed on a moonbeam), as opposed to some ‘Heath Robinson’ fantasy contraption. Mike added that the use of truly ‘alien’ technology avoids the problem Tolkien seems to be identifying in C.S. Lewis’s space travel options.

After a very varied discussion we agreed to read to the end of NCP1.

2:43 AM  
Blogger Glimmer said...

Just a little follow-up to a couple of things I mentioned last Saturday.

Wittgenstein (who gave rise to Logical Positivism which was one of the Philosophical Departments at Monty Python's University of Australia for those like me who cannot forget such moments in life), amongst his other tortured and fatalistic philosophical thoughts, did spend some time on the philosophy of Language and I feel that Tolkien and chums couldn't have been unaware of a leading contemporary thinker, albeit one who favoured latterly Cambridge. Wittgenstein wrote his first work in the trenches of WWI, by the way.

To give you the paraphrasing of Gareth Southwell, Wittgenstein thought that language is a picture of the world, and so philosophy really only involves working out which pictures are possible. However, sometimes we try to describe things that, due to the limits of logic and language, we cannot speak about directly without getting in a muddle. There are limits to what we can say, and some things are just too fundamental to our way of seeing the world to be the subject of enquiry. On these occasions therefore, it is best to keep quiet.
I was struck by (what I percieved to be) a connection with that summary and a lot of the dialogue we read in TNCP for last Saturday.

Direct quotes from W -
“The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.”
“To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life.”

After reading The Letters (no, not all of them I confess) I feel that this Wittgenstein observation may well have found resonance with Tolkien -
“If anyone is unwilling to descend into himself, because this is too painful, he will remain superficial in his writing. . . If I perform to myself, then it’s this that the style expresses. And then the style cannot be my own. If you are unwilling to know what you are, your writing is a form of deceit.”

Mike

7:47 AM  
Blogger Glimmer said...

Just a little follow-up to a couple of things I mentioned last Saturday.

Wittgenstein (who gave rise to Logical Positivism which was one of the Philosophical Departments at Monty Python's University of Australia for those like me who cannot forget such moments in life), amongst his other tortured and fatalistic philosophical thoughts, did spend some time on the philosophy of Language and I feel that Tolkien and chums couldn't have been unaware of a leading contemporary thinker, albeit one who favoured latterly Cambridge. Wittgenstein wrote his first work in the trenches of WWI, by the way.

To give you the paraphrasing of Gareth Southwell, Wittgenstein thought that language is a picture of the world, and so philosophy really only involves working out which pictures are possible. However, sometimes we try to describe things that, due to the limits of logic and language, we cannot speak about directly without getting in a muddle. There are limits to what we can say, and some things are just too fundamental to our way of seeing the world to be the subject of enquiry. On these occasions therefore, it is best to keep quiet.
I was struck by (what I percieved to be) a connection with that summary and a lot of the dialogue we read in TNCP for last Saturday.

Direct quotes from W -
“The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.”
“To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life.”

After reading The Letters (no, not all of them I confess) I feel that this Wittgenstein observation may well have found resonance with Tolkien -
“If anyone is unwilling to descend into himself, because this is too painful, he will remain superficial in his writing. . . If I perform to myself, then it’s this that the style expresses. And then the style cannot be my own. If you are unwilling to know what you are, your writing is a form of deceit.”

Mike

7:47 AM  

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