Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Leper as Hero: Stephen Donaldson and Thomas Covenant



The imagination is a microcosm, a self-contained universe, a space where all possibilities can be born and developed, through generations, across worlds. The imagination is a conqueror, it defeats the inertia of time and substance ever more effectively, it is the motor of evolution. Evolution has long ceased being about genetics.

The imagination is inseparable from the zeitgeist. It evolves in parallel with the evolution of the world from which it draws its inspiration. The imagination is at once the most intimate and most communal of human faculties, which explains the logic of fiction: the more intimately we imagine, the more deeply we delve, the more fundamental is the bedrock we mine. And, similarly, the freer our imaginings the more likely we are to make new associations, gain new insights, new ways of describing this fundamental bedrock. This is the logic of fantasy and science fiction.


What Stephen Donaldson has done with the Thomas Covenant series is to marry a fantastic world to its psychological correlative. We are witness not to a fantasy world but a man, like us, in a fantasy world, trying to rationalise his experience (as we would). Over time the man becomes used to the world, until its ontological status is no longer the question. The question is no longer whether the world is real or not, but whether it matters to him. This represents a quantum leap in consciousness.

The Land stands in a relation to the world we know, the world from which Covenant comes and occasionally returns. The plight of the Land is a metaphor for the problems that are growing in magnitude in the world we know. The Land is beset by crises not dissimilar in effect from our current problems of deforestation, global warming and pollution on the one hand, ineffective guidance and leadership on the other.

Whereas in our 'real' world these problems seem to be separate issues, and issues moreover that are beyond our power to influence, in the Land all crises are borne of a fundamental discordance and its continued legacy. This discordance is the result of the influence of Despite, personified by Lord Foul. This nebulous maleficence is the personification of a psychological truth, an archetypal projection. Despite is a poison which infects the Land, diminishing it, eventually leading to the possibility of its total ruin.

Again we see the relationship between the two worlds. The injustices of the 'real' world can so easily make us despair, and this despair can turn bitter, vengeful, and this is despite. Resentful of life we seek to infect others with our disease, all the better to prove that the fault is external to us. We abrogate responsibility, emphasising our impotence rather than facing the possibility that we ourselves are to blame. It is more comfortable to think that others are to blame for our predicament than to face the possibility that it is we who perpetuate the situation with our belief in it.... our belief that we are powerless.

Thomas is an unbeliever. What this means is something more subtle than it first seems. Thomas does not disbelieve in the reality of the land so much as he doesn't know either way...he is agnostic. This is the true meaning of unbelief, not being able to believe anything, being caught confusedly between two opposing ideas and being made impotent through this.

A nihilist is not an agnostic, he believes nothing matters; an atheist is not an agnostic, he believes that no gods exist. For a nihilist the world reflects back to him his own belief, and likewise the atheist, and likewise for all beliefs. But for the agnostic what is reflected back to him is his own confusion, and hence his impotence.

But the agnostic is, logically speaking, superior to the atheist or the theist or the nihilist....the agnostic lives truly by the spirit of science, which is essentially doubt. The agnostic realises that no belief is wholly tenable because all beliefs are relative. Although the agnostic finds himself impotent he is also without illusion. The agnostic is free from illusion, but he is powerless to act, as he lacks a point of traction. If there is nothing certain on which he can base his actions, how can he act?


Thomas solves this paralysis by realising that there is something he can be sure of, something he knows and that something is that the Land matters to him.  It doesn't matter whether the land is real or not, and in any case what does 'real' mean? How can we know a dream is not 'real' until we wake? Reality is, ironically, an abstract concept, perhaps even an absurd one. However, reality ceases to be an abstract concept when we self-apply, when we poeticise, when we 'keep it real'. By which we mean to be true to ourselves; to not be fake. When Thomas is true with himself he finds that he cannot deny that he cares about the Land and its people.

By become aware of what one cares for we are not establishing a categorical imperative. This is 'belief thinking'. We are not trying to determine what others should care about, we are becoming conscious of how we feel. This process of self-interrogation leads to the previous state of ineffectiveness shifting to one of coherence.

Coherence is an apt term because it suggests intelligibility as well as togetherness (ie no longer being scattered). The two are the inner and outer of the same mode of being. The world is intelligible to one who is together and intelligibility is the dimension of meaning. It is the explicit lack of meaning in the world that confuses things, but it is also this lack which is indispensable to the fact of human freedom. Meaning is not information, it is an event; it is a disclosure that occurs when a person's interior being and the exterior world he perceives concord. It is revelation.

This Land that Covenant cares for, as with anything one cares deeply for, is a presence, it is alive, potent with palpable Earthpower, an inherent healing movement proportionate to ecological vitality......viz medicatrix naturae – nature is her own physician... the idea of Earthpower is one that catches our attention with a new name for what was once the basis of medicine.

This Earthpower is experienced as a rightness, a concordance, it is an immediate sensing,  a vital, aesthetic knowing. And it's absence is likewise sensed immediately as a wrongness, a wrongness which grates upon the nerves, which diminishes the senses, which feels like a violation.

So Thomas' decision, or indecision, is not actually about whether he believes or not in the Land (or anything for that matter), Thomas' dilemma has always been whether or not to trust his own sense of rightness, which is even better stated perhaps as deciding to not tolerate that wrongness which feels like a violation....and is a violation.

When Thomas wakes in the Land he discovers his impotence has vanished (Earthpower), and so with his new found vitality and the belief that it's all a dream he rapes the first woman who befriends him...an act that will have repercussions throughout the whole series. Thomas violates an innocent person who only wishes to help him. Thomas is human and therefore contains both the possibilities of good and evil. His violation therefore is something which is not wholly wrong or evil, as nothing is wholly good or evil in the world. This crime that he commits is somehow necessary as it proves to Thomas that the land and his actions in the Land matter....they have consequences which affect him, which continue to affect him and the Land generally. Until this act is redeemed it will continue to affect things with its logic, which is the logic of despite.

So Thomas is faced with a choice, or rather choice itself. His fate, and that of the Land, are in his own hands. Such is the hero's quest. The 'domesticated' person does not act, he reacts, he does what he is told or he petulantly does the opposite. The hero acts. The hero chooses what to do and then he does it 100%. He doesn't know if he will succeed, but he has decided to try. It is his choice and he is responsible for his choice. Thomas reaches this state of heightened responsibility gradually. It is all too much initially...how the hell can he be expected to save the Land!? How the hell can we be expected to save the Earth?! We are powerless, are we not?

On the surface we are powerless. Economically, politically we are zero. Politics and economics are simply the latest version of The Game of Thrones and we are the pawns that are incidentally sacrificed so that the kings and kingmakers may indulge their vanities. And this is why Thomas is a leper: for he is the least powerful of all in the context of the 'real' world. He is shunned, a nonentity.

And yet it is Thomas that is the hero. 

This reveals something of importance, a psychological truth that has been explained by Jesus and Henry Miller to name two. That truth is that the last shall be first. The only way out of the trap of the world is to reduce to zero, to become no-one in the eyes of the world. Initially this process is humiliating: we want to be part of the world; we know we have something to give the world, something valuable, but we are not given the chance to do so. Despite our sensitivity and intelligence or, more accurately, because of our sensitivity and intelligence we do not have a place. For if the world was run intelligently....well no more needs be said. Intelligence and integrity have little use in a world that runs on greed and cynicism.

But this process of being consistently denied and disenfranchised slowly changes us. Eventually we reach the 'don't give a fuck' point and we find that we have become free of the 'machine' and its control. By becoming zero we have inured ourselves to the gaze of the world for we have nothing more to lose.

But this is just the beginning. This is the point of translation - Thomas' translation into the Land. This translation is an analogy for the shift from the external to the internal world, and begins the gradual realisation of the primacy of the interior world: the realisation that the exterior world is a reflection of the interior, the realisation that the outer world is a projection of what we believe, what we tell ourselves.

In other words it is the stories we tell ourselves - the dreams and myths we live by - that create the external world that seems to be something beyond our influence. Because the world generally believes in a materialistic and mechanistic science we have a world in which the human being has become insignificant, because we are insignificant according to this story. What import the lone individual in a universe so immense in both time and space that it can’t even be conceived?

But this is the view from without. There is another view, that from within, and it is this view that is primary. We experience subjectively: the world is always the world for us, experienced from a centre which is our own self. The objective or scientific view of the world, the view from without, is a picture of the world, a story that we all more or less agree upon. When this picture of the world is disharmonious with our subjective centre, then we have a discord, a discord which can be remedied only by creating a better picture.

If this re-imagining does not occur we are forced more and more to adapt our subjective self to the picture of the world. We reduce ourselves to being at the mercy of chance, incidental to the operation of the great cosmic machine, we live fearfully, surrounded by potential dangers, and these fears stop us living spontaneously...and life always expresses spontaneously...we become ever more anxious, paranoid, uneasy, pent up. This repressing of the life force is like damming a river, or trying to plug a volcano, the more we repress the greater the force that seeks release, as every force has its equal and opposite. What is repressed eventually erupts as a demonic force in the world at large,  hence Despite.

Thomas' initial violation, - the rape of an innocent - brings him back to the reality of his own power. His crime acts as a liberation in this sense. He is free to do as he wishes, as he has proved to himself, and he is likewise condemned to be responsible for his actions. It is this act, occurring at the very beginning of the series, which is Thomas' real awakening.
This logic, which is also the logic of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, and of Mathieu in Sartre's Roads to Freedom trilogy, is that the reality of an implicit moral order to the universe can be proved by transgressing it.  This wrongness, experienced in the marrow of ones being, is a most efficient way to reveal that we do have power, that we are a causative factor and not just an effect, not just an insignificant by-product of the cosmic machine.

It is from here that Thomas' journey real journey begins. By committing this crime he commits himself to the Land. Though unaware of it at first he has bound his fate to the Land's. It is this crime which, as it were, makes him and the Land real.

The journey:

1. This experience of abusing one's power is of central and culminating importance....it is not only a lesson in consequences, it is a revelation that we are capable of evil, of wrongdoing, that evil is part of us, all of as. Once done an act cannot be retracted, but all acts can be redeemed. Even if that takes lifetimes.

2. The next step on the journey is to perceive and utilise the connection of power to truth. Truth acts as a safeguard against abuses of power, it gives us more control. And the more honest we are with ourselves and others the more  our power amplifies, as every untruth remains lodged in the psyche, an obstacle to the flow that this power depends on. This is also related to the process of introspective analysis touched on before - we can only become more truthful by delving more deeply into the reality of our feelings.

3. Our feelings are always revealed in relation to something else, especially someone else. Life is meaningless without the other. If we are not acting for others as well as ourselves we find that our will wanes or becomes corrupted. It is this point in the development of the story that Thomas begins to find allies.

4. These alliances then reveal another dimension hitherto unseen: namely what is impossible alone is possible together. The reality of synergy.

5. And this then reveals something else, something implicit in synergy itself: Providence. Miraculous unforeseen aid when all seems hopeless, guidance from surprising quarters...all these underscore the fact that improbable fortuity (cf synchronicity) is borne not of chance but of something else, something more fundamental, such that a need that transcends the ego can call forth miracles.

6.A need that transcends the ego is, in other words, a need to which the ego is sacrificed. Sacrifice is the law that nothing new can be born unless something else dies. This death, in the terms of the ego, is symbolic. It is the making sacred of the self by offering it to something else. Love, therefore, is the ultimate sacrifice.
 

7. The sacrifice of love is a further deepening of our affective awareness. The initial realisation of care - care of the land and its people - has now crystallized in the Beloved. This is an intensification and a completion...this union is something completely new, a new being is born, a gestalt entity, one for whom all comes within the aegis of the self. This total understanding is the highest revelation.

This revelation is that the other exists as other only relatively. At the fundamental level there is no other, just pure subjectivity manifesting itself in space-time. All is all and all is one. From this perspective there are no enemies or problems external to ourselves. We have come full circle, initially we seemed at the mercy of the elements, adrift, rudderless. Now we are the sea.

At this more fundamental level we not only live by dream and myth, we create them. The key here is that everything at this level relates directly to the individual. In other words all the contradictions and conflict apparent in the real world can be overcome, can be reconciled within the individual. And a reconciled individual naturally radiates this wholeness and health into the wider world as he has become one with the healing movement of nature itself, sacrificing himself to it. He is on the side of life, of the living. This reconciled individual is both saint and sinner, angel and louse, god and devil. It is in accepting himself wholly that he achieves humanity for himself, and the world. To be holy is to be whole, not 'good'. The 'good' takes care of itself, naturally.

What Donaldson has explored in these books, what he develops over many years and with great insight, is the psychological journey of man from despair to courage, from indifference to love, from cynicism to knowledge...and it is this psychological dimension which elevates his series above the fantasy genre. Donaldson makes of us the central characters: modern, traumatised, essentially good but impotent people, and the arc of the series is nothing other than the gradual empowering of ourselves through taking personal responsibility for the world, which means taking personal responsibility for what dreams we choose to dream. For this is the bridgehead: the fulcrum from which we move the world.












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