The Meaning of April Fools’ Day

In my town April Fool’s Day has usually been a day of snow and sleet. After a few weeks of fruit trees blossoming and birds in full-throated warble, spring appears to fizzle out in damp whites and greys, as if early spring were just a prank on our expectations. This year above all, April Fool’s Day has fizzled in another way — overshadowed by the clownish chicanery of national politics: all possible pranks pale beside the Great Big Prank that was pulled on everyone in the 2016 election. What could surpass the prank of putting in the White House the very epitome of male stupidity, bigotry, ignorance, greed, and violent obstinacy, together with his gang of crooks and buffoons who all hate each other’s guts? April Fool’s Day has swollen into April Fool’s Four-Year Term. Part of the joke is that those who elected these baboons in effect pranked themselves. On the other hand, April Fool’s Day has proved to be the only day in the year when people are intelligently skeptical of what they see in news posts; this too is part of the exquisite joke.

   What is the deep meaning of April Fool’s Day? From the prankster’s point of view, it is our one occasion to celebrate that bedrock of the human spirit, Spite. All other celebrations ooze humbug and saccharine pretence; only April Fools’ Day permits honest laughter not only at other people’s discomfiture but at our own snortling ingenuity at devising their discomfiture. In Vadim Shalamov’s great book about living in Stalin’s most terrible gulag, the Kolyma Tales, we discover that when a human being has been reduced to the barest trace of humanity the last emotion to go is spite. It may be the fundamental emotion we most ignore in ourselves, because it makes us appear smaller than we’d like. On April Fools’ Day we get to acknowledge and indulge it — within the bounds of propriety, of course.

   But spite takes two to play: it requires a victim, and here is where the Fool comes in. The true genius of April Fool’s Day is that when we think about how we both prank and are pranked, we are all fools. It is a day for the Remembrance of Fools. I don’t mean anything grand and mythic, such as Holy Fools, Crazy Wisdom, Wise Fools, or Dostoievskian Idiots. I mean actual, all-too-human fools, in our deadly recklessness, unconscious hurtfulness, unawareness of others and resistance to thinking, all our self-sabotaging and self-destructiveness, and our terrifying lack of remorse. I recall all the things I do every day because I think I want to, all the ways I fail to hear and understand the people I am supposedly close to, all the things I say and do that end up causing turmoil for myself and those I claim to love. I barge and blunder into my own life, stepping on my own and everyone’s toes. When I am shown video footage of myself doing even ordinary things like walking, I grimace — am I really so unaware of my own body? When I read things I wrote only ten years ago, I usually laugh or wince at my own clumsiness and incomprehension. From this I can infer that at any given point in my life I probably act for the most part like a fool, and will discover it later — often because someone tells me. For that reason, it is very beneficial to have many enemies. 

   If I imagine a vantage point from which I can look down on all my mistakes and misapprehensions, and clearly see my stumbling, fumbling attempts to maintain the appearance of dignity, I will find that from that vantage point I will look the way Mr.Bean looks from my current vantage point. I will laugh in the pain of my self-discovery, and find myself hopeless. In theological terms I have run smack into the consciousness of Original Sin and my Fallen Nature: inveterate stupidity, propelled by a mean heart. April Fool’s Day can thus serve as a sobering meditation on why we need an all-powerful being to save us from ourselves. 

   From yet another point of view, however, Mr.Bean is perfect, and we wouldn’t want him any other way. Folly is a great cause of delight; we derive inordinate amounts of entertainment from other people’s follies, so why should they not from our own? It is a great thing to give other people so much pleasure. If we were more reasonable and clear-sighted, we would be tediously admirable, effecting everything with well-planned caution. No one would ever launch into grand, dangerous adventures or fall in love;  no one, for that matter,  would get married or have children. As Nietzsche pointed out, We need a certain amount of stupidity to live. In all great matters, there comes a point when we find ourselves blind and have to jump. The problem is that in small matters too we are quite blind, and are often so blind that we cannot even tell the difference between small matters and great matters. Hence our folly makes us ridiculous, but it also occasionally opens a small door to wisdom and beauty. 

   For all these reasons it is wonderful that for one day in the year we get to be fools consciously, for this frees us temporarily from being mere fools. Out of our blind blundering comes the new, the creative, the things we could not have thought of before. Perhaps it is appropriate then that April Fool’s Day happens on this cold, wet day, because when the snow melts, our flowers and trees will burst unhindered into their mindless abundance.



How Do You Like Your Coffee?

How do you like your coffee? The question implies that there a way we like our coffee, and the possessive your emphasizes the particularity of each person’s brew. What do you take in your coffee? says that we are fixed in our additives. Very rarely does anyone respond, “Oh, I’m not fussy, just make it the way you like it.”

   My coffee-loving friends are nearly all rigid purists with regard to their coffee; indeed, they cannot really be called coffee-lovers because each of them only ever tolerates coffee served in one way. I am no different. For years, every morning, I enjoy a large mug of black coffee, poured meticulously through a number 4 filter, which I lie in bed sipping for thirty minutes while I read. The coffee has to be a rich dark roast of the Sumatran/Indonesian kind; I do not like European-style coffee, or beans from Africa or South America, and what is called “coffee” in most hotels and restaurants is either, at best, hot brown tasteless water or, at worst, thinly disguised panther piss. With coffee I do not mince my words, because the perfect mug of it is the necessary prelude to a bearable day. 

   The filter has to be Melitta, because with all other filters the coffee tends to taste too bitter, or it pours too slowly. I grind the beans myself, to exactly the desired fineness; and I spend a few moments rejoicing in the aroma of the freshly ground grains. The mug has to be porcelain and twice the size of a normal mug, because the pleasure of holding a mug of that size is part of the ritual. A paper cup will not do. The coffee has to be either Sumatran or something like the Tres Estrellas blend from Ohori’s in Santa Fe; the latter blend is of African, American, and Indonesian beans, and has a complex, fruity taste that brings out the dark bliss of the Indonesian bean. Long ago I used to drink this straight, and it struck me then as more than sufficiently sweet; then I added two teaspoons of brown or cane sugar (because white sugar tastes harsh to me); and then I replaced the sugar with two teaspoons of raw honey (because processed honey has a thin, shallow sweetness). This mug of coffee has to be perfect, partly because it is usually the only coffee I will drink during the day. And it has to be strong — with a strength equal to about three extra shots of espresso in your latté. This black, potent density is purely for the jolt of taste and has almost no physiological effect on me (unlike strong tea, which does keep me awake at night). When everything is right, including the rhythm of the pouring and the imbibing, I can inwardly declare my day to have started off on the right footing; if anything is wrong, I go through the day feeling slightly off-kilter. 

   It did not seem possible for my one daily mug of coffee to be improved upon, but a month ago I discovered coconut oil: one teaspoon of this celestial balm brings a soft, caressing quality to the morning brew, deepening the taste, making the honey more honied and the coffee more coffeed. This addition has perfected the morning brew, and coffee is now unimaginable without it. But why did it take me so long to discover it? — when for decades I have read about cultures in which coffee and tea are both taken with coconut or butter, both of which carry health benefits and, so they claimed, make everything taste better. In South India, I had a cup of sharp local coffee brewed with honey, ginger, and pepper; and “milk coffee” flavored with cardamom, turmeric, and cinnamon. I enjoyed both, but left to myself, I still brew the same old mug. Why would a normally inquisitive person, who likes experimenting, stick so stubbornly with his one hyper-fastidious way of concocting coffee?

   I am not narrow-minded about other drinks. I will drink any fruit juice, and my partiality for fresh-squeezed orange juice means that I embrace the taste-du-jour; oranges of every kind are good and interesting. I consider myself to have good taste in beer, and while I loathe and despise the anemic commercial dribble that has no taste but only an aftertaste, the kinds of beer that people drink as thirst-quenchers, the beers that I have liked number in the hundreds and include about a dozen different types. With wine, I am a curious novice who enjoys tasting almost anything…The list goes on: with food generally, I am open-minded and find delight in the different ways people prepare my favorite dishes. All of this makes it even more perplexing why I have been so inflexible regarding coffee.

   To say that I “have developed a habit” of drinking my coffee only one way is not an answer but just another rephrasing of the question. Where do habits like this come from? Certainly, the same action undertaken at the same time and place every day for years must make some kind of “groove” in the neural system such that change becomes difficult — but why does a specific habit form in the first place, when an individual’s tastes in other things are not so inflexible? We know that it is possible for an ingrained habit to change overnight as a result of a thought — for example, when an eater of pork learns about how pigs are treated and can no longer stomach eating them, or when a heavy drinker witnesses the disgusting excesses of an abusive alcoholic relative and from that time on never feels any desire for liquor, or when after a divorce a person drops all the daily rituals he engaged in during the marriage. A habit like my coffee-habit is thus likely to have its roots in a mental action, but what does that mean?

   We all have detailed rituals for beginning a day and ending it. Our ritual before going to bed — in which brushing teeth, changing, reading, and positioning the pillows have to take place in a definite order — actually determines whether we are able to sleep or not. The wake-up ritual has the power to affect our mood for the rest of the day — which includes not just mental alertness and physical buoyancy, but also the moral emotions of generosity, kindness, and friendliness. The wake-up ritual affects who we are for that day and is thus a crucial part of our daily self-composition.

   We are constantly self-composing; in fact, what I think of as myself, a noun, is really a continuous activity of self-making, which mostly consists of the assertion of preferences through which we differentiate ourselves from everyone else and create a unique identity that stands out against the confused intermingling of phenomena. The self-making activity is carried out below the threshold of consciousness; in Sanskrit and Pali there is a term for it, ahamkara (“I-making”), because the early Indian philosophers became aware, through introspection, of the self as a formation in process. We can watch small children developing their identities through “liking” this or “not liking” that; many children are so picky in their preferences that they will agree to eat not just Mac and Cheese but only one specific version of it. Inevitably, industrial food-manufacturers make millions from individual consumers’ identification with brand-name foods: there are “Coke people” and “Pepsi people,” for instance. Clever marketers will strive to associate their products with attractive character traits, because they know that what they are selling is a personality or self-image. Coca-Cola people are happy and sociable, and they seem to like dancing and team-sports. Much marketing is therefore directed at children or teens, who have the most intense self-making urges. 

   People can be vehement about their tastes. Thus, as a proud connoisseur of the genuine article, I will not be “caught dead” drinking instant coffee — although if I find myself in an instant-coffee-drinking country, such as England or India, I will happily drink the coffee that is offered to me. Vehemence about taste is not based on reason or physiology but in the felt need for self-differentiation. We can see this writ large in cultural attitudes towards other cultures’ foods, which is most commonly “distaste.” Yet we all know that if we had been brought up in Iceland, we would not turn our noses up at Singed and Boiled Sheep Head, or Ram’s Testicles; and if we were born in Japan we wouldn’t find natto (fermented soy beans) repulsively smelly. The point is that the root of taste is not in our sense organs or in the food itself, but in our complex self-making activity.

    This activity never stops.  Since a self is not a thing that exists independently of its circumstances, our sense of self has to be maintained continually. Our external world is always changing, and our bodies are always surprising us; our internal world undergoes more thoroughgoing changes, composed as it is of perceptions, thoughts, and emotions that never cease to move. I might love black Sumatran coffee with raw honey and coconut oil now, but a year ago I did not lament the absence of coconut oil, ten years ago the brew tasted great without any sweetener, twenty years ago a normal mug of fresh-brewed coffee was a treat, and thirty years ago I knew only Maxwell House instant coffee. There will be some point in the future when I cease to drink my coffee with coconut oil.

    In each variation of my morning brew, the money I pay for my taste goes out to sustain an entire system that grows and gathers my coffee beans, roasts it, transports it, stores it, advertises it, and sells it. Because I like this coffee and must have it, I make sure that there is a world that produces it and delivers it to my mug. The same applies to my honey, coconut oil, mug, kettle, grinder, filters, plastic filter cone, electricity, and water — all of which, like the coffee beans, are the results of human activity and the economic, political resources that enable the activity. Thus I have made a world in my own image, to reflect and support my tastes. Self-making is also world-making. What I am tasting in my morning brew is the whole world as it manifests in a mug of coffee made for me, and I am sure that unconsciously this is an essential part of the pleasure of insisting on and getting my mug of coffee.

   All of this is equally of true of my other tastes — in clothing, health and cosmetic products, the furnishings of my house, my car and prefered gas stations, the venues of my social life, my devices, my books and entertainment media, and so on. Each preference does its part in creating a world that reflects me. What about my chosen activities, relationships, and work? With a little reflection, even those things are essentially like my morning mug of Sumatra brewed with honey and coconut oil. Only the families we are born into and the ones we give birth to are free of our self-making, because they are the only people we do not choose according to our preferences, and because in them we are forced to be with people we would otherwise not choose — who annoy us, exasperate us, and make us weep with their intransigence. We should be grateful for our difficult families, because without them we would be trapped in a human world made of our preferences. Our family gives us the friction necessary for sanity, and we give them the same painful benefit.

   Meanwhile, I nurse my mug of Sumatran as I wake up to the world, my world, on my own civilized terms. Since I now know that my tastes are malleable and my personality not fixed, I feel free of the need to have coffee prepared this way, and might well start drinking it next week with ginger, honey, and pepper. Or would this be identifying with a new image of myself as coffee connoisseur, roaming the town in search of new tastes? Could I even just return to a simple cup of unadulterated black coffee? Or water? But if water, which would be my prefered brand? Would tap water ever be sufficient? 


How to Teach History? Musings on my first Socratic Teacher

Why do so many high school students claim that their history classes are “boring”? — when we know that history itself is a combination of Game of Thrones and world travel, and that nobody finds those boring? I remember how, in a high school geography class in England in the 1970s, we had to spend three weeks studying the geology and terrain of Western Canadian provinces, memorizing facts and drawing detailed maps — without the geography teacher ever explaining why this should have been of interest to us. At the same time, in an English county rich with relics of industrial history,  no one ever taught us about local geology and terrain, or took us to see an 18th century factory. It is much the same with the teaching of history in American schools: the abstract and remote overview is given priority because it looks more like some curriculum designer’s conception of “knowledge.” In this essay I want to commemorate one particular teacher’s art of teaching history, because what he did really worked.

   Of course, I had my share of conventional history: five years of working through textbooks and class lessons. I remember nothing from age 11-13, but after that a lot has remained in my mind: the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the development of labor laws and the long fight for universal suffrage. Every now and then the teacher, Mr.Shilston, would give an exciting lecture on the history of vampires or gangsters, his two set pieces. I learned a lot from my history classes because I enjoyed writing essays in which I had to articulate the causes and consequences of complex events — and it was always the why and how that interested me, not the what or when.

   Even so, Mr. Rawlinson’s A-Level Ancient History class was a revelation: it was the first time I encountered “Socratic” teaching, decades before I even knew the word “Socratic.” Mr. Rawlinson was a svelte, dapper, soft-spoken man with short dark hair and a vicar’s smile. He was always dressed in a light grey suit, with (as I think I remember) no tie but a white shirt buttoned up to the top. In our merciless gossip he was portrayed as “queer,” but this gossip never took off because we all had a genuine respect for him. He never exerted authority, never resorted to corporal punishment, and was always quietly matter-of-fact whenever he had to chastise.  I never got to know him as a person very well, because he was pure teacher: self-effacing, dedicated to the subject and to his students, he reserved his personality for his home life. His erudition was impressive but humble; he read his Greek and Latin authors in Greek and Latin, and he would guide us through difficult passages gently and deftly, without imposing himself.

   The remarkable thing about Mr.Rawlinson was that he taught almost solely by showing us things and asking questions. When studying the Romans in Britain, we would examine photographs of Roman coins and tombs, and we would translate and decipher the inscriptions; we would stare at shards of Roman pottery, note the potter’s mark when we could find them, look up the location of this potter, and then determine which legion must have come from that location to Britain. He would have us figure out which legions came from where, how many legions there were, how many troops in those legions, what these soldiers ate and how much, and then he would make us read the Greek and Roman agricultural writers to figure out how much land and what kind of work would be required to grow that food. Thus we could hazard a good guess at how much land Julius Caesar would have needed to commandeer to quarter his troops in England over the winter. When we looked at the archaeological evidence for Caesar’s occupation, we found our calculations corroborated. Mr. Rawlinson would present the materials and ask us questions. On a few occasions we visited nearby archaeological ruins and saw and measured with our own eyes and hands.

   When we studied the Roman writers, he taught us how to interrogate them. For example, as we pored over Caesar’s account of the invasion, we would ask about his political motivations in presenting his exploits the way he did, and attempt to correlate his claims with the material evidence. When reading Tacitus’ account of Tiberius, we noticed that even the author described  Italy as being fairly well-off under that emperor — so why was the portrait so devastatingly negative? We wondered if in fact Tacitus was using Tiberius to criticize his own emperor, Domitian — so did that mean we would have to take his account of Tiberius’ foreign policy with a pinch of salt, and how exactly? 

   After doing all this work in detail, we would pull our notes together and only then read the relevant chapter in the modern textbook. We would usually find that the textbook was a restatement of what we had concluded ourselves — and the discovery was pleasant and satisfying, because we had reached the same conclusion as the experts by thinking for ourselves. Mr. Rawlinson never made a big deal of this; he just quietly led us in this process of discovery and reasoning. The essays that we wrote for the external examiners were almost entirely the results of our own engaged intelligences — for we were genuinely engaged, activated, even electrified by this direct approach to history, such that even now I vividly recall my excitement at being able to connect this potsherd and that coin with these passages in Tacitus or Suetonius.

   The main thing I got from this was not an accumulation of “things known and remembered”; indeed, I have forgotten most of it except Tacitus and Suetonius, and the dates of emperors. It was rather the activity of figuring out who did what, when, where, how, why. Mr. Rawlinson involved us in reconstructing the past and got us to do it, so that not only did we know how the authors of the textbook had pieced together the fragments of the past to make a plausible story, but we ourselves had also pieced them together. Alongside the historians, we too constructed history, and because we knew what went into this process, we unwittingly acquired a dynamic, critical relationship to history — where “facts” are not simply givens, but actively constructed. Would the teaching of history today be less “boring” if students were asked to cultivate this level of engagement with the making of history itself? In my experience, most people come alive when they know for themselves why something is so and are not just told. Moreover, in our age of “fake news” and a posture of mistrust towards everything the “other side” claims to be true, would it not be better for us in our schools to focus on how we know whether something is true or not, and how to distinguish more from less plausible, than to insist on the primacy of surveys that have been decided by faceless experts? The same thing applies to the teaching of science.

   One night, after an especially exciting class, I had a dream about Mr.Rawlinson. We were in class, on a sunny Friday afternoon in May, and the windows of the classroom were open. His eyes twinkled as he asked a characteristic question: “Why do we have to dig up ancient remains?”

   We stared at him blankly. “We don’t know what you mean, sir.”

   “Well, why are they always underground, instead of just standing around on the ground like every other building? Why do archaeologists have to use shovels?”

   We fumbled around for possible answers, until I blurted out the obvious: “Isn’t it because of the natural rising of the soil, sir, from the activities of earthworms and microbes?”

   “Ah, good guess, Venkatesh! But why would the rise of the soil be so systematic, and everything be so thoroughly buried?”

   “We are completely at a loss, sir.”

   “I will tell you! The ancient Greeks and Romans meticulously buried everything themselves.”

   A long pause. “But why would they want to do that, sir?”

   He chuckled triumphantly. “It was part of their religion, of course! Burying all buildings was a ritual to appease the gods.” We must have looked incredulous, because he added — “Well, can you think of a better explanation?”

   I’m not certain that I ever really woke up from this dream.



Samma-Vaca: Speaking as Spiritual Practice

Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.   (James 3:5)

Let thy speech be better than silence, or be silent.  (Dionysius Of Halicarnassus)
If you want to stop suffering, says the Buddha throughout the Discourses, there is an eightfold path of practice to that end, consisting of right view, right motivation, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samādhi. (The Discourse on Mindfulness Meditation, MN 10, tr.Bodhi Bhikkhu) With its connotations of orthodox correctness, the word “right” is actually a misleading translation of the Pali word samma, which means “perfected, completed, consummated.” The point is that working on ourselves entails a gradual completing of what we are supposed to do, until we find ourselves “fulfilled” and “accomplished” with regard to the eight limbs of the path. It is “eightfold” in the sense not of eight steps to be taken consecutively, but of eight branches to one trunk, or eight tributaries flowing into one river: each of these is essential to getting you there, but all eight have to be involved. Among the eight, some are more spiritually “glamorous” than others, and of the homely ones none seems plainer than “right speech” or samma-vaca. Yet samma-vaca turns out to be a powerful practice that we can do anywhere, anytime, and with anyone, transforming us both inside and out.
   And what is samma-vaca? asks the Buddha. Refraining from lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, and meaningless speech. This is called ‘samma-vaca’.
The statement seems innocuous and unobjectionable, but let’s see how the Buddha unpacks it.

   In one of the shorter suttas from the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha engages Cunda the Silversmith in a discussion of Hindu rituals of purification, and then describes what purification means for a follower of the new path. Quite simply, the Buddha undertakes “purification” of three things: bodily action, verbal action, and mental action. If these are “impure,” all the rituals with water and fire will do us no good; and if these are “pure,” the rituals with water and fire will be redundant. In other words, working on what we do, say, and think is a sufficient practice for “purification,” but if we expend no effort on what we do, say, and think, no ritual practice will be sufficient. Samma-vaca gives us an excellent example of the kind of thing the Buddha means by “purification.”
    Many have remarked that if you cannot control your mouth, you have no hope of controlling your mind. Most people spend the first decade of their lives learning Elementary Right Speech: how to interact politely, respectfully, inoffensively, when to speak, when not to speak, and so on. Then we spend another decade on Intermediate Right Speech, which involves techniques of argumentation and presentation, the expression of more complex feelings and ideas, the heuristic and forensic uses of language. Some of what we study on these two levels is bottomless; even something as simple as when to speak and when not to speak cannot be determined by formula, and the knowledge of “when” is refined over a lifetime. But are we ever taught that we can use language in such a way as to improve ourselves or harm ourselves? Here we begin to enter on Advanced Right Speech, in which we become more consciously skilled with our words. Each act we commit feeds and waters a sprout that can grow into a habit; insofar as thoughts and statements are also actions, they too have the power to grow into habits and thus change us. When we become aware of the effects of our words, both on ourselves and on others, we realize that every word we utter makes a mark, and nothing we say can be deleted. The Buddha points out that our own speech can make us “impure” — confused, muddy, self-evading, increasingly unable to separate truth from untruth. His own words on the matter are hard to improve upon and worth listening to carefully:

“And how is one made impure in four ways by verbal action? There is the case where a certain person engages in false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty [i.e., a royal court proceeding], if he is asked as a witness, ‘Come & tell, good man, what you know’: If he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I know.’ If he does know, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ If he hasn’t seen, he says, ‘I have seen.’ If he has seen, he says, ‘I haven’t seen.’ Thus he consciously tells lies for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of a certain reward. He engages in divisive speech. What he has heard here he tells there to break those people apart from these people here. What he has heard there he tells here to break these people apart from those people there. Thus breaking apart those who are united and stirring up strife between those who have broken apart, he loves factionalism, delights in factionalism, enjoys factionalism, speaks things that create factionalism. He engages in abusive speech. He speaks words that are harsh, cutting, bitter to others, abusive of others, provoking anger and destroying concentration. He engages in idle chatter. He speaks out of season, speaks what isn’t factual, what isn’t in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, and the Vinaya, words that are not worth treasuring. This is how one is made impure in four ways by verbal action.”

The four ways are: 1) telling falsehoods, by which we deliberately relax our commitment to truth and eventually even become so tied to subtly evolved fictions that we can no longer notice when we might be fooling ourselves; 2) saying things that are certain to cause strife, contention, and bad feeling, thus destroying social harmony by creating a miasma of mistrust — and at the same time turning ourselves into the kind of spiteful little creature who delights in dragging other people down; 3) uttering words designed to hurt and upset, sowing internal strife in those around us, and undermining their capacity for contentment; and 4) filling precious silence with babble that can matter to no one, just to hear our own voices or to cover over a silence in which anxiety might arise. This fourth destructive way is the hardest for a modern to understand, so accustomed are we to our sound-realms constantly being filled with “entertainment” or commentary; silence disturbs us, it is “awkward.” Just from a single day’s experience with social media posts, I can cull dozens of examples of each of the “four ways”: posts that are careless of truth and factually reckless, posts that are sure to turn some group of people against another and drive them both farther into contention, posts that we know will hurt and anger someone, and posts that are just for posting’s sake, for “fun.” The effect of all of these together is unproductive emotional entanglement and mental confusion.
   When we become more disciplined and scrupulous with our words, the opposite happens, and we find ourselves becoming better people:
“And how is one made pure in four ways by verbal action? There is the case where a certain person, abandoning false speech, abstains from false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty, if he is asked as a witness, ‘Come & tell, good man, what you know’: If he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ If he does know, he says, ‘I know.’ If he hasn’t seen, he says, ‘I haven’t seen.’ If he has seen, he says, ‘I have seen.’ Thus he doesn’t consciously tell a lie for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of any reward. Abandoning false speech, he abstains from false speech. He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world. Abandoning divisive speech he abstains from divisive speech. What he has heard here he does not tell there to break those people apart from these people here. What he has heard there he does not tell here to break these people apart from those people there. Thus reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, he loves concord, delights in concord, enjoys concord, speaks things that create concord. Abandoning abusive speech, he abstains from abusive speech. He speaks words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing & pleasing to people at large. Abandoning idle chatter, he abstains from idle chatter. He speaks in season, speaks what is factual, what is in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, & the Vinaya. He speaks words worth treasuring, seasonable, reasonable, circumscribed, connected with the goal. This is how one is made pure in four ways by verbal action.”
Here we are introduced to the rare person who can always be counted on to be truthful and honest; who nonetheless never speaks in such a way as to cause discord, and is both good at and enjoys making friendships; whom people routinely seek out because of her sincerity, kindness, good nature, and encouragement; who is always to the point, and always worth listening to. This is an image of a wonderful, lovable human being — the kind of person we would want for a friend, and also one that we can all aspire to become.
   The beauty of such a path is that it can be practiced, for at the beginning of each day we can actually articulate to ourselves an intention to work on the four aspects of samma-vaca with regard to the particular people and situations of our daily lives; and at the end of the day we can reflect, evaluate in detail whether we succeeded or not, and then decide what we need to do to improve. It is the conscious application of our reflective intelligence that makes this a practice, and not just the spontaneous play of natural gifts. Did I tell the truth? Was I right to tell my friend X what my other friend Y had said about him? Did I hurt W’s feelings and make it harder for him to speak with me? Did I just waste an hour chatting about politics on Facebook? Underlying all of these questions is the bigger question about motivation: Why did I speak, what in me needed to say this? In thinking about these things and trying to cultivate lucidity regarding our own actions, we gradually become smarter about ourselves, more sensitive to other people, and more nuanced in our actions.
   A habit of self-reflection tends to make us more moderate and judicious, but being mindful of our mouths develops the special kind of intelligence that is attuned to the intricate mysteries of language. We are never done with the work of samma-vaca; it becomes more challenging and more interesting the better we become at it, and it is work that never stops expanding our minds and hearts. I still think about ways I could have said things better fifty years ago, and the good or bad effect of things that were said to me long ago — for every utterance is a seed that cannot be prevented from growing into something. The practice of samma-vaca necessarily takes place in small, particular instances, but each of these instances is packed full with significance: for example, something as simple as a “hello, nice to meet you” is an occasion for understanding the deeper meanings of welcome and respect. 
   Speaking well depends on listening well, and learning to listen may be one of the hardest things a human being has to do. We are generally poor listeners from impatience, arrogance, desire, and fear: impatience, because we are eager to say our own thing or because we have some other task to check off; arrogance, because it is natural for people to assume they are qualified to judge others, so that we already “know” what our interlocutor will say and what it is worth; desire, because we want to hear ourselves corroborated; and fear, because there are things we know we don’t want to hear. When we are silent, is it because we are listening or because we are waiting to speak? When we speak, are we responding to the person in front of us, or merely reacting or deflecting? If we are habitually not responsive to people and situations, we cannot be sincere practitioners of samma-vaca. It will be obvious that our silences are also included in this, because all silence expresses something, and some silences are more eloquent than words. To the extent that many silences are in fact preparations for speech, words exist in a continuum from intuition, to thought, to utterance — which means that the thoughtful practitioner of samma-vaca must attend to what precedes speaking as much as to speaking itself.
   Thus the art of speaking well includes the complementary art of listening well. Both of these arts cannot be taught as an arsenal of techniques and strategies to master. For example, we can know all there is to know about different methods of beginning an argument, but how do we know when to start and how to choose the words that will move this particular person? Or we can have a large enough vocabulary and wide experience of life to understand the words that are spoken to us, but how do we intuit the real intentions behind the words — such as whether the speaker is friendly or unfriendly towards us– let alone understand why the intentions are what they are? If we have no insight into these deeper matters, we are unlikely to address this interlocutor effectively in speech. 
   But how do we learn such things? It would seem that there is no shortcut; we learn from paying attention to every interaction and reflecting afterwards on what went right or wrong. We learn from mistakes, and also from letting others point out our mistakes: when we said things poorly, when we misunderstood, when we completely misjudged an interlocutor, when we failed to sustain a harmonious relationship. Mistakes and failures make up the rich seedbed of self-reflection and improvement. Because of this, samma-vaca is a practice that will tend to make a person more grounded, generous, humble, attentive, observant, present — and at the same time, more reflective, imaginative, far-sighted, open to other people and to other possibilities. It is a richly rewarding practice for a thoughtful person, and a salutary discipline for a less thoughtful person, because it encompasses so many other virtues. Indeed, samma-vaca is itself a mindfulness practice that tends to get instant feedback because it occurs in the moment, with other people.
     The wonder is that every human being can do this practice in some way; each of us is capable of trying to listen well and to speak well, and of the self-reflection that these require. Even when we find ourselves perplexed in certain situations and unable to see clearly, we can always consult our friends, who can be helpful in getting us to see what we did wrong and how we could do better. In the Pali Discourses, the Buddha’s gift is twofold: a vision, and a practice. He always gives us something we can do — indeed, that we can start doing now, wherever we are, by ourselves. There is no need to wait for anything or anyone.

The Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta: To Cunda the Silversmith (tr.Thanissaro, Anguttara Nikaya, 10.176) can be found here:
The Discourse on Mindfulness Meditation (tr.Bhikkhu Bodhi) can be found here:

Adult Consolations: Tolkien on Fantasy

Only in the English-speaking world are fairy stories relegated to the children’s section. In Germanic cultures, the Märchen is for everyone, and often too dark for children; in France, the Conte is a sophisticated, sometimes cynical genre. Tolkien is insistent that the best fairy stories are for adults. In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” written in 1939, over a decade before The Lord of the Rings, he wrote:  If fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults. They will, of course, put more in and get more out than children can. (p.15) What, then, will adults “get” from a serious reading of The Lord of the Rings? Tolkien offers three benefits of reading good fantasy: Recovery, Escape, and Consolation.

   Great works of literature generally give us ways to experience our world afresh, to make the familiar unfamiliar. Our world is often lost to us through overfamiliarity, such that we no longer pay attention to the people and things around us; literature helps us to “recover” the world we have lost. Perhaps all art does this in some way. 

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them. (19)

Fantasy literature “recovers” by getting us to imagine alternative worlds composed of elements from our world, but reassembled into new combinations and reshaped. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series illuminates the world we think we know by making us live for a while in an alternate universe the features of which bear a distorted resemblance to elements of our own. The effect is to tickle and startle us into a new perception of our lives,  in much the same way as Chesterton’s word Mooreeffoc perplexes us:

Mooreeffoc is a fantastic word, but it could be seen written up in every town in this land. It is Coffee-room, viewed from the inside through a glass door, as it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day; and it was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle. That kind of “fantasy” most people would allow to be wholesome enough; and it can never lack for material. But it has, I think, only a limited power; for the reason that recovery of freshness of vision is its only virtue. The word Mooreeffoc may cause you suddenly to realize that England is an utterly alien land, lost either in some remote past age glimpsed by history, or in some strange dim future to be reached only by a time-machine; to see the amazing oddity and interest of its inhabitants and their customs and feeding-habits; but it cannot do more than that: act as a time-telescope focused on one spot. (19)

Tolkien then differentiates this valuable effect from the powerful thing that happens when “creative fantasy” unlocks what is inside you (your hoard) and liberates it to surprising transformations:

Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new), may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds. The gems all turn into flowers or flames, and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you. (19)

What does he mean by this? In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s long education through Bilbo’s stories and songs frees him to imagine possibilities for himself that those around him would never consider; it opens up his ability to undertake the grinding trek to Mordor and gives him the faith that the often perilous struggle might be good for him. It also renders him incapable of simply living in the Shire any more. Creative fantasy has the power to dissolve ties that we thought were natural and unbreakable.

   From unleashing the imagination it is only a small step to Escape, the second great benefit of fantasy. Tolkien disagrees strongly with people who denigrate “the literature of escape”:

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Just so a Party-spokesman might have labelled departure from the misery of the Führer’s or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery. In the same way these critics, to make confusion worse, and so to bring into contempt their opponents, stick their label of scorn not only on to Desertion, but on to real Escape, and what are often its companions, Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt. Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter; but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the “quisling” to the resistance of the patriot. To such thinking you have only to say “the land you loved is doomed” to excuse any treachery, indeed to glorify it. (20)

There is nothing in itself wrong with the need to escape; in many situations, escape is understandable and justified. It might be argued that most forms of literature are “escapes” from our ordinary lives, in that through them we are taken to different times and places and meet different people. This can be a very good thing — again, loosening our chains to the world we take for granted by getting us to entertain other possibilities. The escape from ideas of natural Necessity also includes what Tolkien calls “the Great Escape: the Escape from Death,” with which fairy tales and religions share a preoccupation. This fictional freedom from necessity may be the virtue and the vice of fairy tales: on the one hand, why should there be only one necessary way for things to be? — and on the other, surely the habit of thinking in terms of Escape will trap the prospective escapee in a permanent misery of resisting what in fact cannot be resisted — such as sickness, old age, and death.

   Against the facts of the irresistible, the third benefit of fantasy literature is Consolation, which is the essence of the fairy tale and which is manifested as a “eucatastrophe”:

…Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite—I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function. (22)

Kata-strophe itself literally means “downturn,” or “overturn.” The prefix eu (“good,” “well”) expresses a reversal of the downturn, a fixing of the upset. A good example would be the confused action leading to the destruction of the Ring: in spite of Sam’s incapacitation, Frodo’s sinister change of heart, and Gollum’s frenzied triumph — or because of them — the Ring is destroyed in a sequence of events that nobody would have imagined beforehand. 

   But is the Eucatastrophe a mere plot element, just another form of peripeteia? — or is it a an irruption of grace, even when the downward plunge of plot has not been reversed? Tolkien seems to mean both of these.

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.  It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality. (22-23)

Far more powerful and poignant is the effect in a serious tale of Faërie. In such stories when the sudden “turn” comes we get a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire, that for a moment passes outside the frame, rends indeed the very web of story, and lets a gleam come through. (23)

These “piercing glimpses of joy” arrive as revelations of a world behind or held within our world; they irradiate the surface world of the narrative, giving it a luminous transparency in  which the hidden dimension expressed through song and poetry suddenly becomes manifest. Such moments are “eucatastrophic” because they unexpectedly redeem or save the seemingly hopeless world. Of all the characters, Sam is the most receptive to the “turn,” as when he encounters the magic of Lothlorien:

He turned and saw that Sam was now standing beside him, looking round with a puzzled expression, and rubbing his eyes as if he was not sure that he was awake. “It’s sunlight and bright day, right enough,” he said. “I thought that Elves were all for moon and stars: but this is more elvish than anything I ever heard tell of. I feel as if I was inside a song, if you take my meaning.” (Fellowship, 341-2)

Even in the depths of hardship he has the intense sensitivity to beauty that we see in Japanese literature, where a hardened warrior can be brought to tears by a glimpse of the moon:

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. (Return, 199)

There are several extraordinary moments like this throughout the book. Another memorable moment is the one at the end of the “Siege of Gondor” chapter in which Gandalf, about to be assailed by the Black Rider, hears a cock crow:

Gandalf did not move. And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the City, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of wizardry or war, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.
   And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns. In dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the North wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last. (193)

Here, we have eucatastrophe on two levels: the horns of Rohan signal a happy turn of the plot, while the cock’s crow — which does nothing to further the plot — illuminates the darkness of the situation with a reminder of the beauty of the dawn.

   Without such moments, the story would be not much more than a chain of events, an action narrative, without “heart” or “soul.” Tolkien’s point is that the outer sequence of events is held together by an “inner consistency” that gives it solidity and depth. The sequence of events is not all there is, but issues from a meaning or logos that lights it up to one who is sensitive. The reader who is attuned to this inner consistency can feel how all the disparate elements of the story cohere into a meaningful pattern — just as Gandalf is able to sense at the outset that Gollum might have a function in the whole. 

Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it. If he indeed achieves a quality that can fairly be described by the dictionary definition: “inner consistency of reality,” it is difficult to conceive how this can be, if the work does not in some way partake of reality. The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” (23)

   Tolkien compares the eucatastrophe to the evangelium (eu-angelium: good news), a kingdom of grace that permeates the world and redeems it all from its sins and stupidities. The novel, however, does not necessarily announce any such religion: there is no God, apparently also no gods, no afterlife, no linear plot of ascension and salvation, no theology of sacrifice. A Buddhist might well experience the eucatastrophe as nirvana in samsara; a Hindu might see a flash of the One Brahman in the multifarious universe. In Middle-earth there are beings like Tom Bombadil who have existed from the beginning of an uncreated universe, and there are many hints of long ages that succeed one another with cyclical logic. The world-weary Elrond speaks as one who has seen it all before and knows that we will see it again. The history of Middle-earth is not redeemed by any Deliverer from high, but from something that glows within it and transfigures it with unearthly beauty. Tolkien is adamant that any true Fantasy will be lit by this, and that it is something that adults will be moved by more than children. The Consolation consoles because it brings us back into contact with something that we tend to lose with age: an attunement with the magic of the world, the fairy improbability of everything.

Sam’s Deep Breath: The Exquisite Ending to the LOTR

Sometimes a man gets up from his dinner
And walks outside and walks and walks and walks —
Towards a Church, that stands in the East.

And his children bless him as if he were dead.

And sometimes a man, dying in his house,
Remains inside, remains in dish and glass,
So his children are drawn out into the world
Towards the Church that he forgot.
(Rilke, Book of Hours, 2.19)

Frodo and Sam have been ones who walked and walked to the end of the quest. Since any adventure ends either in death or in a return to less adventurous reality, the chapters that ensue after the completion of the quest inevitably feel like an anticlimax in comparison to all the heroic action. Frodo is saved from the anticlimax of living by being given a special destiny in the ethereal West, but Sam has to come back down to the hobbit house of dish and glass, chair and baby. Many have felt the ending to The Lord of the Rings to be not only anticlimactic, a disappointing descent for Sam’s high aspirations — but also terrible, because in consigning him to his new domestic role Frodo has in fact abandoned Sam to a half-life in which all his rich yearning will have to be suppressed in the face of incomprehension. He apparently ends up as the third kind of person, who is not in Rilke’s poem: the one who went out, came back, and is now imprisoned for life in dish and glass. Everything depends on how we read the very last line of the novel — which, as I hope to show in this essay, is the fitting and true climax to the story, carrying the full force of the preceding thousand pages.

And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
   He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.

Rose is the mother-figure who swallows him back into comfort and domesticity. If the book had ended with this action — and put little Elanor upon his lap — we would have been left hanging in the air: we need Sam to say something, to show us where he is, to prove his commitment, otherwise the lacuna will be filled only with the reverberating grief of Frodo’s departure. What is in that “deep breath,” and what is meant when someone says “well, I’m back”?

   The final chapter takes place firmly in Sam’s point of view: The clearing up certainly needed a lot of work, but it took less time than Sam had feared. (301) For the most part it continues so, with Sam trying to make sense of what is happening:  It was a fair golden morning, and Sam did not ask where they were going: he thought he could guess. (307)  The only exception is when Frodo has a fit while Sam is away doing forestry work, but presumably the narrative gives this to us because Sam is later told about it by Farmer Cotton, who was the one who found Frodo in his fit. Three times in this short chapter the phrase “torn in two” comes up between Sam and Frodo. The first time, Sam is bringing up his dilemma of wanting to live with Rosie and Frodo at the same time:  ‘I feel torn in two, as you might say.’ (304) This is a problem with an easy practical solution, but it masks a deeper dilemma, which is not about how to live with two people, but about how to live in two worlds:

‘I wish I could go all the way with you to Rivendell, Mr. Frodo, and see Mr. Bilbo,’ said Sam. ‘And yet the only place I really want to be in is here. I am that torn in two.’
   ‘Poor Sam! It will feel like that, I am afraid,’ said Frodo. ‘But you will be healed. You were meant to be solid and whole, and you will be.’ (306)
We saw in The Fellowship of the Ring that the special thing about Sam is that he is a fusion of two opposite perfections. On the one hand he is supremely practical in taking care of people, animals, and plants; he is well suited to being the gardener of the Shire, an earthy and affectionate statesman. On the other, he is also the most lyrically rapturous of the hobbits, with his mind and heart constantly in the realm of song and legend — as when, in Lothlorien, he feels himself to be inside the song. He has two worlds, and the blessing of the quest is that for a thousand pages at least, and by the side of Frodo, he is able to inhabit them simultaneously. But how will he do that back in the Shire? Frodo understands  Sam’s torn heart, and it is striking that he interprets it as a wound: “you will be healed.” What does he mean by this? He cannot mean that both worlds will become integrated in Sam’s life in the Shire — because if that were possible, Frodo himself would not have to leave. And he cannot mean that time will take its course and sooner or later Sam’s ties to the story and to Frodo will be superseded by familial absorption; he knows all too well that Sam is governed by unshakeable loyalty, that his yearning is profound, and that if that absorption were to happen it would mean that the Sam we knew has died inside. Could Frodo’s words be mere empty consolation, based on nothing more than faith and hope? The consolation is repeated and amplified a few pages later:

‘And I can’t come.’
   ‘No, Sam. Not yet anyway, not further than the Havens. Though you too were a Ring-bearer, if only for a little while. Your time may come. Do not be too sad, Sam. You cannot be always torn in two. You will have to be one and whole, for many years. You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do.’
   ‘But,’ said Sam, and tears started in his eyes, ‘I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire, too. for years and years, after all you have done.’
   ‘So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. But you are my heir: all that I had and might have had I leave to you. And also you have Rose, and Elanor; and Frodo-lad will come, and Rosie-lass, and Merry, and Goldilocks, and Pippin; and perhaps more that I cannot see. Your hands and your wits will be needed everywhere. You will be the Mayor, of course, as long as you want to be, and the most famous gardener in history; and you will read things out of the Red Book, and keep alive the memory of the age that is gone. so that people will remember the Great Danger and so love their beloved land all the more. And that will keep you as busy and as happy as anyone can be, as long as your part of the Story goes on. (309)
From the perspective of legend, it would be right for all the Ringbearers to leave together, and Sam must have accompanied Frodo with this possibility in mind. This moment echoes the moment when Éowyn turns up in armor and ready for battle, only to be told to stay behind; and her acceptance of Faramir instead of Aragorn, and a healer’s life, raises the same questions as Sam’s return: is she forced into domesticity, does she surrender, or does she assent? Frodo’s consolation to Sam is that he will be needed and also surrounded by love, and that there is greater growth for him along that path — whereas the sojourn in the West is a kind of final stasis and happy embalming, with no prospect of movement or growth. Frodo knows that while he himself has been completed, finished, by the quest, Sam is not and has more work to do, which he can be happy in. 

    When Frodo leaves, Sam, Merry, and Pippin are filled with a sadness that was yet blessed and without bitterness. (309) What kind of sadness is this? There is sadness at anything good coming to an end or being lost, but most endings and losses are confused, entangled, unresolved. This one is a clean finish, with nothing left undone, and with the chance to bid a real farewell. And yet the sadness is profound.

But to Sam the evening deepened to darkness as he stood at the Haven; and as he looked at the grey sea he saw only a shadow on the waters that was soon lost in the West. There still he stood far into the night, hearing only the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores of Middle-earth, and the sound of them sank deep into his heart. Beside him stood Merry and Pippin, and they were silent.
   At last the three companions turned away, and never again looking back they rode slowly homewards; and they spoke no word to one another until they came back to the Shire. but each had great comfort in his friends on the long grey road. (311)
To understand what Sam is feeling, we have to search into our own experience and remember a time when we actually stood for hours in silence lost in emotion. I recall once, as I lay on the top bunk of a Chinese train compartment, noticing how the old man in the opposite bunk lay there gazing for six hours at a small photograph held between thumb and index finger of his right hand, his face without expression, his body absolutely still. Such is the remembrance of a person who is saying goodbye not to a person or a thing but to a whole essential history; it is almost a farewell to life. The grand story that he has been part of, the great love that he has felt, now has to reside far inside him: hearing only the sigh and murmur of the waves on the shores of Middle-earth, and the sound of them sank deep into his heart. The three hobbits know that they have concluded this part of their lives, and that it is definitively gone; this is why they never again look back. 

   Thus Sam returns with full heart, and Rosie — if she loves him — must know it, and also understand why he isn’t beaming to be home. She has to settle him back into his role physically. He drew a deep breath: he doesn’t only take a deep breath; rather, the drawing is effortful, deliberate, a slowing down of emotions and heart, a self-settling and reorienting.  This is not easy for him. Part of him had not expected to return, after all. Well, I’m back — not just I’m back. The well is like a sigh, a gasp, expressing surprise and discovery. It is acknowledgement that he might also not have come back, and also that miraculously he has found a reason to be back. If you have ever experienced the temptation to walk away from everything and then, to your own puzzlement, nonetheless refused the temptation and returned, you yourself will have drawn that deep breath and said Well, I’m back, if only to yourself. But Tolkien is not done: the last words are he said. Sam has to utter the thought before he can truly be back, for the words are a commitment. Tolkien’s phrasing could be taken to mean “Well, I’m back” was what he said, suggesting that there are things that Sam isn’t saying and perhaps will never say, at least to these people. 

   Sam’s torn nature is his peculiar completion. Whereas Frodo’s completion renders him unable to live in the Shire, Sam can live because he has two worlds and is well established in each of them. He will never be fully here, but perhaps the other world in the background can be sublimated in his earthly work — growing plants with magical elf-dirt, for example,  and being keeper of the legends for his community, and raising his children with stories from “the church in the East.” The novel’s last line gives perfect expression — in soothing iambic pentameter — to the mystery of Sam, who — like Tolkien’s readers — have no choice but to find a way to occupy two worlds, the one we imagine and the one we have to live in. 

Frodo’s Wound

Is The Lord of the Rings a great book or not?  In the Western tradition, from Homer and Aeschylus on, the essential mark of a great book is that it must have a dilemma. It is not enough to have a ripping yarn populated with vivid characters and eloquently written: the narrative has to be built on a crisis that cannot be solved, a conflict that cannot be won. A struggle of right versus wrong might be entertaining but is not fundamentally interesting; however, a struggle of right versus right will hold our attention for centuries. Why is this? — it must be because deep down in our hearts we know that our own lives are dilemmas, which both make us truly alive and also destroy us. Thus, the heroine of Sophocles’ Antigone is right in her stand on natural bonds, but so is her adversary Creon in his stand on political necessity. In the Iliad, who is right, Achilles or Agamemnon — and who has the greater excellence, Achilles or Hector?  In Plato’s Apology, were the Athenians right to kill Socrates, or would they have been right to let him live? All the Platonic dialogues are built on dilemmas. Even in Greek mathematics the most significant propositions involve contradiction or paradox. I would also argue that the greatest Eastern classics are also caught on horns: thus the Mahabharata, with its perplexities concerning dharma and its deep ambivalence towards its heroes, is a greater epic than the Ramayana, which is too simply black-and-white. In Chinese, Confucius and Mencius are fascinated by seemingly balanced moral alternatives; and is there a book anywhere that is as abundant with dilemmas as Sima Qian’s Records of the Historian? In short, if The Lord of the Rings is only about the war between good and evil, in which the good triumphs, then it may be a rousing and edifying epic but it is not a great book. What lifts Tolkien’s work into greatness is Frodo’s dilemma, which breaks him.

   At the beginning of the “Homeward Bound” chapter, we learn that Frodo is not well:

‘Are you in pain, Frodo?’ said Gandalf quietly as he rode by Frodo’s side.
   ‘Well, yes I am,’ said Frodo. ‘It is my shoulder. The wound aches, and the memory of darkness is heavy on me. It was a year ago today.’
   ‘Alas! there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured,’ said Gandalf.
   ‘I fear it may be so with mine,’ said Frodo. ‘There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?’
   Gandalf did not answer. (268)

What is this wound? We have watched him getting physically injured several times, and he has been treated by the best possible doctors — but there is something more. The wound aches, and the memory of darkness is heavy on me. The “and” is powerful: I am hurt by a wound, but also by a memory. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. The second “and” stands out, suggesting that the real pain is not physical. Gandalf’s “alas” says that he knows what is going on, and that he knows that Frodo knows. There is no real going back: yes, there is a kind of apparent going back, but no real going back. Their conversation is like a patient talking with his doctor about a terminal cancer diagnosis. When Frodo asks Where shall I find rest? is it a rhetorical question, or a real, desperate question? Gandalf’s silence is full of meaning: either nowhere, or who knows?

   Frodo’s anguish is the profound mystery at the heart of the book; it has been prefigured by the transformation of Smeagol into Gollum. Perhaps Tolkien has too much tact to drag this mystery into the light of day and tell us straight out what it is, but it could also be that while he feels it the author himelf doesn’t comprehend it well enough to give words to it. On one level we are witnessing the post-traumatic stress of a sensitive soul who has seen pure evil and all the darkness possible in this world, face to face. After such an encounter it is not possible to return to ordinary life unshaken; the very existence of so much evil will cast everything in permanent shadow. But there is more to Frodo’s trauma. A little later, as they are heading home:

‘Well here we are, just the four of us that started out together,’ said Merry. ‘We have left all the rest behind, one after another. It seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded.’
   ‘Not to me,’ said Frodo. ‘To me it feels more like falling asleep again.’

While Merry feels that he is waking up, coming to his senses again, Frodo is sad to lose his hold on the hyper-reality of the epic world: his old hobbit life will be less vivid, less real, less interesting. The painful struggle to destroy the Ring, in all its misery and horror, is preferable to the tedium of comfortable mundane living. If it was Merry who voiced this, we would understand it more easily, because he at least has experienced the rush of battle and heroic action — but all Frodo has experienced is plodding hardship and literal torture. 

   Tolkien’s description of his fits of anguish can sound like an account of withdrawal from heroin addiction:

Sam stayed at first at the Cottons’ with Frodo; but when the New Row was ready he went with the Gaffer. In addition to all his other labours he was busy directing the cleaning up and restoring of Bag End; but he was often away in the Shire on his forestry work. So he was not at home in early March and did not know that Frodo had been ill. On the thirteenth of that month Farmer Cotton found Frodo lying on his bed; he was clutching a white gem that hung on a chain about his neck and he seemed half in a dream.
  ‘It is gone for ever,’ he said, ‘and now all is dark and empty.’
   But the fit passed, and when Sam got back on the twenty-fifth, Frodo had recovered, and he said nothing about himself. (304)

The white gem was given by Arwen in anticipation of his need: “When the memory of the fear and the darkness troubles you….this will bring you aid.” (253) It is either a magical antidote to a supernatural poison, or a more benign addiction to replace the harmful one. He clutches it in exactly the same way he used to clutch the Ring: has she given him a souvenir of hope and brightness to balance out the nightmares, or a milder version of the Ring, keeping him anchored to the period in his life when he felt most alive but without letting him be devoured by it? There is one more recurrence of the memory:

One evening Sam came into the study and found his master looking very strange. He was very pale and his eyes seemed to see things far away.
   ‘What’s the matter, Mr. Frodo?’ said Sam.
   ‘I am wounded,’ he answered, ‘wounded; it will never really heal.’
   But then he got up, and the turn seemed to pass, and he was quite himself the next day. It was not until afterwards that Sam recalled that the date was October the sixth. Two years before on that day it was dark in the dell under Weathertop.

The memory is of having been stabbed by the Witch-King and almost dying; it was Frodo’s baptism into death, his first experience of what it might be to fade away into nothing. On first consideration, this would seem to be the opposite of what I have described earlier as a more vivid hyper-reality. We have seen throughout journey to Mount Doom that Frodo has been largely absorbed in brooding, which is interrupted occasionally by Sam, who can make him laugh. It is a little like the devotional brooding of a monk, who goes through his daily tasks with his mind on God, and also like the brooding of someone enthralled by an intense inner experience that he cannot relinquish. It bears very little resemblance to Sauron’s obsession with the Ring, which is actually only an obsession with the power it represents; but we see in Frodo’s brooding, as well as in Gollum’s evident love for it, that the Ring brings much more than power. For Frodo and Gollum, putting on the Ring means connecting with something more intense than life can offer; it is not necessarily pleasant or blissful, and perhaps it cannot be expressed in any language of duality. Someone who through the Ring has experienced this higher state cannot go back and live in a world of simple moral valuations. The power of the Ring is that it releases its wearer from commitment to moral distinctions by acclimating them to the larger-than-life state of soul in which the wearer is willing to sacrifice anything to remain bound to this wonderful thing. 

   For a person of shallow character or wicked desires, this is not a problem: the Ring simply brings him what he he thinks he wants. However, for a decent person who cares about goodness and other people, the Ring comes as a terrible dilemma. It is essentially a Romantic dilemma, well expressed in poems by Coleridge, Keats, and Yeats. In Keats’ “Nightingale” Ode, the speaker seeks to escape this world of suffering into a realm of transcendent beauty through the song of the nightingale, but by the end of the poem finds himself alone and forlorn on a desolate shore. The decent, thoughtful person cannot be happy  without love, goodness, other people, the pleasures of life; but after experiencing the Ring, he also cannot live without connection to the dark, intense, inner reality in which these mere human values mean nothing. The tension between these two poles is more than Frodo can endure; it exhausts him and drains his will to live. On the surface, the epic tale is a triumph of light over darkness, with Frodo as the principal hero; but under the surface, it is a tale about the gradual breaking of a sensitive, intelligent being who loses interest in ordinary living because only the destroyed Ring could have given him something more vitally satisfying. 

   In the end Tolkien brings Frodo to a place very similar to the “magic casements opening on the foam / Of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn,” where Keats’ speaker finds himself bereft:

And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise. (310)

The journey to the Grey Havens is an image of a beautiful, chosen death. The poetically noble, who cannot bear to live any more in the Age of Men, decide to relinquish the world to its new owners, and Frodo — incapacitated for life — disappears with them into the dream world of legend, to which he belongs more than to this life. Is this a sad or happy ending? From the point of view of life, it is sad that the most complex, lovable character in the book, the one who has undergone and achieved the most, has been rendered unfit to live; and from the point of view of legend, Frodo is complete, has achieved everything he has set out to achieve, and he can vanish now in his fulfillment. Why wish anything more for him? He gets to fade away gracefully at his climax and not be reduced over the years, like most of us, to a boring, garrulous anticlimax who lives in the past. The dilemma of Frodo was born with the germ of unrest at the beginning of the tale, where already he knows he is not a hero of legend but also cannot be content to be just a hobbit; it then grows into something that both culminates and kills him.

   His dilemma is the heart of the entire book. Without it, we have just another tale of epic heroism. With it, we have a novel about the perplexed meeting of two incompatible worlds. It is not that the book contains no other dilemmas: Sam, Eowyn, Gollum, Faramir, and Denethor all have dilemmas that deepen the tale. But Frodo’s dilemma runs through the entire book like a diameter, and pierces it with an insoluble problem. We want long lives of pleasure and comfort, of material and social stability, of mundane virtues and cozy excellences, all warm and rounded — but we also want to risk ourselves in life-quests and life-missions, to be grand and save the world with a sword, to experience a great love and a great death. If we are lucky, like Merry, we get to partake in conventional heroism against a conventional monster; but if we are less lucky, we get to do the dirty, painful grind-work of the mission, in which we find ourselves transformed bit by bit into something very close to the darkness we are fighting — and from this transformation there is no going back. It is the same struggle we see in modern superhero stories, in which too our little lives are not enough and we have to do something stereotypically great, like save the world: some heroes do it by fighting, and others do it by becoming the villain in some way. At the end of the first war Isildur removed Sauron’s ring by cutting off his finger probably while his men hold him down; it is no coincidence that Frodo loses his own finger with the Ring. He knows what it is like to have been Sauron and Gollum, and this knowledge is the “long burden” that fulfills him, bringing out depths of power and goodness he never knew he had — and that also renders him unable to live in any earthly society.