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Monday, March 23, 2009

Rational Evil


LOTR REDUX. It's impossible to keep up with the array of bad things that are happening. The American edifice is crumbling so fast that to pick out any one thing is tantamount to seeming trivial. The barbarian Russians are resurgent. The eternally anti-western Chinese are rattling their sabers. The North Koreans have kidnapped western journalists and are flagrantly testing missiles designed to carry their nukes. Obamanian overtures to Iran and Venezuela have been flung back in his face. Even the Europeans are stricken with fear that our tyro president will kill the once unstoppable American capitalist engine that sustained their flagging socialist economies for a generation.

And all of this is occurring invisibly, almost unremarked on by the American MSM, outside the bubble of domestic politics in which Obama plasters the airwaves with his jovial presence while he launches the most concerted attack ever mounted on the most essential of American principles -- that the nation is nourished by outstanding individuals, not a crushing, controlling government. He lambastes the very idea of profit and wealth as the elected head of nation which has done uniquely unselfish good by retaining its human virtues alongside its belief in the power of individual selves to dream individual dreams that enrich whole populations. His ideal is, apparently, the reverse. That a handful of enlightened leaders should do the dreaming for all of us and then effect their expert dream through the force of law, taxation, and regulatory control of the rest of us.

It's time to speak of evil. When your leaders are persuaded that self-annihilating policies are superior to a tradition that has resulted in unparalleled freedom and accomplishment, the word becomes relevant. The scene shown above is archetypal -- betrayal by the supposedly wise and their sudden ruthlessness in apparent contradiction to all that has gone before. But the scene is important for another reason, a far more important reason.

Isn't it intellectuals who love allegories? Intellectuals who write, produce, and dramatize them for the edification of us literal-minded plebeians? When Lord of the Rings won all those Oscars, wasn't there a lot of talk about its allegorical meaning, the symbolism of the ring and the atom bomb, the good of ordinary 'little people' like the hobbits versus the powerful war mongers who subjected us to the dread of nuclear annihilation? uh, yes, there was. And more than a few critics were happy to sign on to the idea that J. R. R. Tolkien had made his Middle Earth an allegory of the battle between Nazis and democracies in World War II.

But I've never seen any analysis of the scene above. Which is, in many ways, the most important scene in the entire trilogy of the Lord of the Rings. So forgive me if I spend a few moments talking about this scene. If you're intellectual enough to believe in allegories, you should probably be willing to entertain this discussion.

What's fascinating to me is that you never get to hear Saruman's argument. We're even misdirected away from what that argument might be by Gandalf's glib (and counter-intuitive) indictment, "When did Saruman the Wise abandon reason for madness?"

Surely, it is not madness to side with the winner. Just as surely, it is not reaon to argue that the small and helpless have the power to overthrow the powerful. Gandalf's position is one of faith and moral responsibility, and his outrage lies in the fact that the 'wisest' man he knows would succumb to some other line of thinking. But what is that line of thinking? We are never told. Evil is treated like some infection that randomly strikes the wise as well as the foolish. Saruman has simply gone nuts, as if his incredibly lengthy status as one of the wisest in his world is irrelevant to his seduction by Sauron.

But if you believe in allegory, the clues are there to be read, despite the facile elisions of the script. All the most powerful personalities in Lord of the Rings are tempted by the "one ring to rule them all." Boromir, Galadriel, even Gandalf the Grey are tempted by the ring, and not at all by its powers of destruction. Their temptations have to do with the power to do absolute good through absolute power. The source of their temptation is the very virtue which they wish to impress on the world as a whole.

But Saruman, as the wisest of wizards -- smarter by definition than all the other temptees -- is the one most easily and utterly seduced. Even though he lives in a tall unassailable tower indistinguishable from tenure and intellectual preeminence.Why would he be so so vulnerable? As I've already pointed out, it's an answer never given.

Except maybe it is. In ways that it takes time to think about. Am I the only one who is troubled by the similarity of names -- Sauron, Saruman? Tolkien was a scholar of ancient literature, specifically Anglo-Saxon literature, but he also was an Oxford don with deep knowledge of Greek and Latin. "Saur" is a Greek root, suggesting 'lizard' denotatively and 'cold-blooded' connotatively. 'Saruman' is an anagram of 'saur' plus 'man,' and 'Sauron' is 'saur' plus 'on,' about whose meaning we can only speculate. Although I think we're allowed to speculate because it stands so directly in contrast to 'Saruman.' We're allowed at least (particularly in the age of post-modern criticism) to propose a typically English (i.e., crossword) interpretation of the 'on' in Sauron. I propose 'Outside Nature.' Scoff all you want, but it fits. Saruman becomes 'cold-blooded man' and Sauron becomes 'cold-blooded outside nature," which could easily be an Anglo-Saxon locution for "reason."

Think about it. Even within the context of the Lord of the Rings, Sauron is not a force of nature but a manufactured thing. His power derives from a manufactured device. His evil is not synonymous with creation itself. Tolkien goes out of his way to give us that kind of confrontation as a stark contrast with the battle against Sauron and as a test of the good wizard Gandalf:


If there's a natural source of evil, here he is.

Which means that Sauron's evil is of a particular, non-natural kind. What can it be but the artificially made hell of reason itself?

So what was it that seduced Saruman the Wise? How about reason? He, like our compassionate liberals, is smarter than the accumulated decisions and values of ordinary folk. He's tired of the knowledge that he could make life better for everyone if they would only follow his prescriptions. He comes to believe there is an answer, which consists of ruling the small, the ignorant, the helpless, the insignificant. That right answer rightly dimiinishes the foolish choices of foolish people in favor of a superior power that can create the esthetic perfection of a system that operates rationally, efficiently, tightly from top to bottom. When the wasteful human emotions, pointless dreams, empty pleasures, and transitory aspirations have been squeezed from the system, what remains is a meticulous mathematical hierarchy that obeys the laws of logic: the smartest are in charge and the lesser ones are satisfactorily obedient. To the wise, the greatest wastefulness in nature is the noisy competition among the stupid to be part of something like a story when they're only terms in an equation.

There are only two conditions required for this kind of 'liberal' view of humanity to be correct. First, you have to win:


Oops.

Second, you have to be truly, genuinely, authentically smarter than the people you're determined to rule:



Oops again. Sometimes, the victory dance becomes a step in the Resistance.

Unfortunately, nobody ever, in the whole of human history, has ever fulfilled the second condition.

And there's a hugely important literary basis for assessing the performance of any new messianic position. An analogy to consider. Obama is to the American tradition what the Grand Inquisitor is to Jesus Christ. If you still want to defend Obama after reading this, please stake your claim in the comments. And then I will absolutely kill you. (So do it. Please. I'm looking forward to it. Can't wait.)

Obama? I've already predicted everything he would do. Now he's doing it. If you would defend him, go to hell. This is the end.







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