Commencement 2016

The halls of have been quiet around Hogwarts Prep for some months. Some news is forthcoming, but today we want to direct you to a post written by Prof JBH on the The Mirror of Erised by Grandpreoccasion of this year’s commencement. The close reader of Harry Potter will recognize the Mirror of which he speaks. It is even more powerful than the Mirror of Erised, though it is nonmagical and thus harder to use. The full text of the post is reproduced below…

To all of my students and colleagues, past and present, at Truckee Meadows CC, Barrett Honors College at ASU, the University of Kentucky, and elsewhere now flung far around the globe…


It is another season where many of us teachers look fondly back at our students’ achievements and forward to the fruits of their education blossoming in due course. It is also a season of platitudes and well-intentioned lies woven by commencement speakers paid to give you one last blast of praise before you leave the paternalistic confines of your schooling. I can tell you, my dear students, that every one of us faculty have sat through a two-hour-plus commencement ceremony and thought to ourselves, “Wow. I could give a much better talk and I’d do it for free.” Okay, not that part about for free, but definitely the better speech part. I have decided this year to not wait for an invitation to address you. I am writing it down here, and if Fate or luck brings it to your attention, then I hope you will find some nugget or two herein worth remembering.

If you’ve been in one of my philosophy courses or Honors seminars, you’ve heard me prattle on about “the human predicament.” (I prefer ‘predicament’ to the noncommittal ‘condition’ or ‘situation’, which seem to me embarrassed euphemisms for the Real Thing.) If you are blissfully unaware of the human predicament’s existential grip on you, then what follows may sound like the ravings of an extraterrestrial. Nevertheless, I have about a half century of life behind me and have felt its ever-tightening and omnipresent hold on me and on all those whom I love and know. So if you are a student, I can think of no better way to encourage you on your way beyond these first few years of your adulthood to those that follow than to describe this predicament as I have experienced it and give you what paltry advice I possess to help you navigate it. Because what I would never say in class I say now: the human predicament is very real, and at times very painful, but with some perspective such as that offered by the great wisdom traditions, it isn’t to be taken too seriously.

My philosopher friend Bill Vallicella wrote a short post in 2009 on his blog that perfectly captures my own difficult experience coming to terms with this. It is the heart of this post—I quote it below in full. It is my favorite thing that he has written and I hope you will find it, as I have, as honest, enlightening, and encouraging as it is difficult.

It is a great Mirror. mirror-lakeIt can show you your own heart, that seat of will and desire, as well as the hearts of others. This Mirror will show you the truth about yourself. It is therefore no easy matter to stand before it and take in its revelations without the cover of our well-worn robes of self-delusion and bad faith. It will confirm the presence of real wounds you have suffered, those scars you carry, even from youngest childhood, while those fabrications of our own design dissolve. It will also reveal to you, like Nietzsche’s greatest weight, in “your loneliest loneliness,” that which we take extraordinary pains almost every hour of every day to conceal about ourselves from ourselves and others. Bill’s text is quoted in blue; my edits and commentary are in black:


I’ve been loved, hated, honored, loathed, respected, scorned, justly penalized, unjustly maligned, praised for what I should not have been praised for, lionized, demonized, put on a pedestal, dragged through the mud, understood, misunderstood, ill-understood, well-understood, ignored, admired, envied, tolerated, and found intolerable. And the same most likely goes for you.


Can you control what others say and think about you? Nope, not one bit. Reputation is a fickle and cruel master. And the gossip train is always on time (gossip is the currency of the small-souled, bitter, and envious—for your own sake renounce it and all of its ways). Far better than managing your reputation (what a depressing phrase!) is the life’s work of developing your character. John Wooden, the great basketball coach, said it so well: “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” And if you really are, on balance, a decent character, this, like truth, will out in the end. But how do you know if you really possess good character? You can know by the quality of your friends—what does the Mirror reveal about them? The true friend, like my dearest friend Jack, knows your character. He will celebrate with you your joys and praise your victories—but not overmuch!—but will not forsake you when you do wrong because he knows doing wrong is not in character for you. The true friend always accepts you but doesn’t always approve—and because he’s a friend he will tell you when he doesn’t approve. You can endure and overcome any abuses to your reputation with such friends by your side. Dare to be transparent and vulnerable to them.


I’ve been the object of Schadenfreude, of glacial indifference, of jealousy. I’ve been the object of every emotional attitude by someone or other, at some time or other, for some reason or other, or for no reason at all. I’ve been loved and then hated by the same person, and the other way around. I’ve been liked by people who do not now love me, and loved by people who do not now like me. I attract and I repel, sometimes different people, sometimes the same people at different times. I have been different people to different people and different people to myself. And the same most likely goes for you.


That first sentence is ordinary professional life in a nutshell! The rewards of most of the work available to professionals of all kinds in these days, in tandem with the penalties, are delivered by aggressive forces of dehumanization. We easily become its agents and inevitably suffer as its patients. Your well-being will oscillate, sometimes wildly, under the force of these vicissitudes if your own sense of worth and importance is attached to the judgment and approval of those around you.

Institutions exist in part to evaluate individuals because people love to evaluate each other. It is up to you how much stock you will place in their measures, both favorable and unfavorable. I have been the recipient of many gifts, honors, and kindnesses, the genuine outweighing the treacherous many, many times over. These validate the good and true things I know about my work as a teacher and scholar. And even as they fill me with gratitude, I release them and their hold on my ego, just as I brush away arrows of spite and malice intended to poison me. If you were a student of mine, I probably had you read a Stoic–Seneca, Cicero, or Epictetus–and probably Boethius. Their works can be of consolation to you as your years accumulate and you endure the progress of Rota Fortunae. It’s good soil and the harvest will sustain you.

What is there of value to glean from these musings? I have added some of my own thoughts in the commentary above, some of which coincides with the points distilled by Bill in his post:


The human heart is fickle, and there is no call to care too much about what anyone thinks of you, whether good or bad — even yourself.


Easy to believe, hard to practice. Which reminds me of a related point that my friend George taught me a few years ago. Moral rules, guidelines, and policies have no power to change your behavior.

Just above, I told you “Don’t be a gossip!” What good is that command if you haven’t the power to prevent yourself from gossiping? The answer to that question is the real purpose of such rules: to judge and condemn. That is their real power. And we humans love to exercise that power. And to turn the screw another perverse notch, we can condemn you for lacking the power to obey the rule.

But why isn’t knowledge of the rule enough? Why can’t you “just do it” (or don’t do it)? Often, the rule, or the fear of failing to do it, or the fear of breaking it, is enough. But sometimes behavior originates from our wounds. And wounded people wound others. Wounds—those of the heart as well as the body—have to be tended to and healed. Can you heal yourself? Maybe. But most of us need assistance outside of ourselves. The great wisdom traditions speak to this need for transformation. A good counselor or therapist can be a lifesaver. Don’t spurn these aids. That pretty much includes all of us.

wreckage-fuselageHave you broken a moral or institutional rule and been subsequently judged or condemned for doing so? Then you have learned the point of such rules the hard way. Now comes the test: you have the option to own it or evade it. I recommend owning it, and let others think what they will of you. It may chasten you when you are tempted to stand as judge over a fellow rulebreaker. Such are the tests of character that actually count: remorse and empathy. All of your deeds, good and bad, are part of your story, for better and for worse.


Human reality is an ever-shifting play of perspectives and evaluations and, insofar forth, bare of ultimate reality and so not to be taken with utmost seriousness. All of the great wisdom traditions teach the need of detachment or non-attachment. You are grasping at straws and chasing after shadows if you seek your worth or ultimate reality in the broken mirrors of others’ subjectivity. My mirror and your mirror are broken, too.


In the clear Mirror of Bill’s wisdom, a wisdom that springs from the likes of the Stoics, Boethius, and the teachers, ascetics, and monastics of the great religions of the world, the deformities and blemishes of our own hearts are laid bare. You may thunder “I!” as loud and as long as you please. Duly consider all that your hands have done and the toil you have spent in doing it. Is it worth anything? Of course! Is it where your worth is to be found? You might as well chase after the wind. Fix your gaze above the vanities, schemes, and petty vengeances in which your ego would embroil you, and with which others would brutalize you.


If you have been done wrong, think of the times you have done others wrong. If on occasion you have not gotten what you deserve, recall the times when you got more than you deserved — and perhaps at the expense of the more deserving. If you judge that you have been unfairly treated, bear in mind that it is just someone’s judgment that you have been unfairly treated, and that the mere fact that this someone is you is not all that significant.


“I have been done wrong!” I have shouted, mostly to myself. And it was true. But that first sentence of Bill’s does not let me play the victim. Self-righteous indignation is not an option on the table. Will you be treated unfairly tomorrow? Almost certainly. And who judges this treatment unfair? You? That’s just another human judgment, yes? So don’t make too much of this shadow play of fairness while we tarry in the Cave.

You are not alone in the barbed net of the human predicament. Share in each others’ trials and joys as fellow sojourners through the heights and depths of this too transient life. You will know your true friends and you will be known by them. I am grateful always to those who have seen me in the Mirror and not turned away: Jack and Jack, Jack, Jeff, and Chris, and my family. My fondest wish for all of you is not that you will live a morally spotless life, or that you will know only pleasure and happiness and never pain, or that you will achieve an unbroken string of worldly success unblemished by failure. No, none of these patronizing fictions will do for this event. I give you instead this Mirror and trust that you will dust it off from time to time, heed its lessons, and persevere in the hard work of building your character and your life.


New Tolkien Scholarship

The Tolkien faculty here at Hogwarts Prep are keen to let you know about two new and exciting forthcoming contributions to Tolkien scholarship.

First we have the news, care of The Tolkien Society, that a very early work, The Story of Kullervo, hits the bookshelves on August 27. Kullervo is a tragic figure from the Finnish Kalevala mythos and Tolkien scholars believe that Kullervo informs the eminent figure of Túrin Turambar.

turin-gurthang-john-howeSecond, we look forward to obtaining for the Hogwarts Prep shelves a new volume by Walking Tree Publications, a nonprofit and volunteer association: Representations of Nature in Middle-Earth. There are nine essays in the collection around the theme of the title. The publisher’s blurb should whet your appetite for this important contribution to scholarship on the theme that lies so close to the heart of Tolkien’s saga:representations-nature

[N]ature in Middle-earth plays a crucial role not only in the creation of atmospheres and settings that enhance the realism as well as the emotional appeal of the secondary world; it also acts as an active agent of change within the setting and the story.

If you can’t wait for the HPA Library to stock its copy, you can get your own copy from The Tolkien Shop or your favorite bookseller.



Amazing Interactive Map of Middle Earth

Kudos to the designers of this fantastic map of Middle Earth! Be prepared to spend at least an hour poking around. What would you add to it?

LOTR Project Interactive Map of Middle Earth

World Building and Story Telling: Tolkien and Le Guin (3)

Part III–and the last–of my mini-series on how world building and artful story-telling solicits our participation, what Tolkien calls our “Secondary Belief” in the world the author creates. And, most mysteriously of all, how those stories reach into our very hearts.

To set the table for our thrilling conclusion, here are the key points from the first two posts in this series.

J. R. R. Tolkien in his Oxford rooms






In Part I, I introduced you to our two figures, JRR Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin, and the respective names they’ve given to our ability to create stories with layers of meaning: the “elvish craft” of enchantment (Tolkien) and translucence (Le Guin). We began to examine how language does this by comparing the English language with Le Guin’s fictional Nna Mmoy language. We speak snake; the Nna Mmoy speak starfish. We also began to compare the similarities in the Nna Mmoy way of life and Elvish culture.

In Part II, we examined Le Guin’s notion of translucence more closely by stepping through key passages in “The Nna Mmoy Language.” We saw that the source of translucence in story-telling is in the relationship between the language and the broader culture of a people. The translucence of the Elven language originates in their deep history and wrestling with the wider Powers of Arda, their sometimes ill-conceived oaths, and struggles against the Enemies of harmony, beauty, freedom, and delight in living things. The Nna Mmoy have none of these difficulties, nor self-awareness of their own history. The translucence of the Nna Mmoy language originates in the complexities of the language itself because they live in a “safe,” unchallenging environment. For any language to have translucence, it must be fed by springs of complexity and variety.

In this final post in the series, I want to show that translucence is actually always and already present in our language. Our best writers have that elvish craft, that ability to enchant with translucent diction. But translucence also works on listeners and readers, and the attentive reader uses and understands language that is closer to Nna Mmoy than you might think. If you learn to detect translucence, you may embark on an exploration of unexpected meaning, challenges, and discoveries that open up to you.


The Map

The idea that translucence explains how layers of meaning are assembled and integrated into a whole work is at first difficult to grasp. I think an analogy with how maps function illustrates what’s going on.

Compare the author gifted with the Elvish Craft, or the adult Nna Mmoy speaker, to a mapmaker.

The mapmaker translates his or her knowledge of a place, its terrain and features, onto a two-dimensional representation of the place. Without exception, the mapmaker must compromise between clarity and richness, simplicity and comprehensiveness, detail and practical applicability, and so on. The map is not in a transparent, one-for-one correspondence relation with the terrain it depicts. The map is a selective image of the real place. The map is like geography. Both maps and geography abstract from the familiar concrete world of ordinary experience in order to give the map reader a useful tool to orient himself in the real place.

The map reader uses the map to navigate the place, explore its features, and reach destinations. Now every map reader knows this: the experience of studying the map is nothing like experiencing the place itself. You can’t study the geography or a map of the Everglades to obtain first-hand experience of what it’s actually like. The point of the map is to usefully guide; it does not act as a substitute experience of the place.

But there’s something else every map reader knows. Before you ever pick up a map, you’ve already encountered many of the features depicted on the map: road, stream, hill, swamp, town. You have a familiarity with the ordinary (Primary) world that the mapmaker depends on to communicate a more comprehensive understanding of the place. What the successful map (Secondary World) does is manifold:

  • It calls attention to specific features in the Primary World;
  • It allows you to experience familiar features in the Primary World differently;
  • It allows you to experience new features in familiar places.

We pick up a map of a new place handicapped by our myopic, partial vision of the real world. We take a journey to the broader world depicted by the map and our vision gets corrected, our perspective is elevated a little higher, and we glimpse how much more interesting–perhaps scary, perhaps wonderful–the Primary World is. The map is by necessity selective. It can’t show everything. If we seek to know and experience the Primary World in all its richness and terrible desolation, we will need good maps.

Translucence is what makes the good map work. There are enough familiar, easily identifiable objects in the terrain that the novice reader can get underway. Though an image, and an incomplete representation, the good map is accurate. And once you visit the actual place, you find the real landscape exceeds what the symbols on the map only hint at: the heights and depths of the ground below, the brilliance of the sky above, the ruggedness of the coastline, the colors and smells of the city, the expansive vistas of the high plains. None of this was on the map, and yet it stands out to you once you’ve been oriented by the map. Translucence teaches you that there’s more to what you see than what you see. From your original familiarity with some features the mapmaker can draw on, your vision of the real world penetrates to new features and rises to new perspectives.

The Analogy Explained

I tried to drop enough hints in the map analogy so that you could piece together its meaning on your own. But it’s not easy, so let me spell it out a bit more.

In the analogy, the mapmaker is the storyteller or author of the story, the world-builder. The map reader is the listener, or the reader of the story. The map is the story. The symbols and conventions used on the map are the language of the story. The map is a guide to a place in the world. The map reader comes to the map like the reader comes to the story with some pre-knowledge of both the symbols (the language) and the features represented (the world and its history). There’s another interesting similarity between maps and Tolkien’s idea of the Primary and Secondary. You’ll recall that Tolkien’s Secondary World is a fictional place, but a special kind of fictional place; namely, one that sheds new light on the ordinary, Primary world. The map is a representation of the Primary world through conventions of symbol, arrangement, and scale. The map purports to show the Primary world through these conventions and representation. The map is not a fictional world, but it can shed new light on the terrain and features of the Primary world.

Storytelling, or any other cultural form of expression, including handmade crafts, is also rooted in our prior familiarity with the world, the world we perceive and that perception gives us a hold on. We come to stories with our own stock of acquired vocabulary, concepts and meanings. The author (mapmaker) exploits this background knowledge and crafts original speech that creates new meaning. We may have been to a location a hundred times before, but never noticed the geological feature shown on the map. Indeed, it may be so hidden from sight that we would never have found the feature without the map. We now have an altered perspective on a familiar place. What was once hidden to us now stands out and opens new features for us to explore. But the new feature, the original speech, always rests on a background of already understood speech.

To understand translucence and how it works we have to examine something we take for granted: our familiar stock of words and why they seem to us easily comprehensible, usually univocal in meaning, and independent of the specific voices or script in which we first learned them. Small children who do not yet speak, whether Nna Mmoy, Elven, or Terran, encounter language as something already achieved by their society, as a meaningful world enveloping them, and which they must catch on to. Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes this situation in which we all, from ordinary speakers to poets and storytellers, find ourselves:

Speech is, therefore, that paradoxical operation through which, by using words of a given sense, and already available meanings, we try to followup an intention which necessarily outstrips, modifies, and itself, in the last analysis, stabilizes the meanings of the words which translate it. (Phenomenology of Perception, 1945, 455-6)

In stories we are not simply using our stock of familiar words and straightforward meanings. Though much of our speech might be confined to the familiar and already constituted meanings (recall my example of the coffee shop in Part I), we forget how our familiar expressions have come to us by way of an obscure and ambiguous history. We require that pre-given stock of familiar words and meanings in order to read and understand stories of new and strange places, which simultaneously conceals the deep history of the familiar words and meanings. In Le Guin’s parlance, this is the inevitable effect of our speaking “snake.” It is only with additional effort that we notice the translucence of literal words or meanings and follow their allusions and suggestions into the infinite starfish branches of earlier, oft-forgotten or misappropriated, semantic depths. In their ordinary speech, the Nna Mmoy have no habitual and obvious meanings, for the simple concatenation of one syllable to another is sufficient to branch out into original speech. The Elves, on the other hand, speak “snake” like us, but they have not forgotten their history and have its semantic depths always available to them. We are either ignorant of the historical richness and depths of our language and the events of its formation, or we tend to overlook what is now habitual and obvious.

Storytelling arises obscurely out of its history and projects itself indefinitely into the future. I say “its” history because it is more than just the individual author’s history.

Are you still with me? Good, because here’s the punchline: translucence establishes our connection to our deep history. Light is shone on what is obscure. Surprising pathways to the familiar make them strange and new. Patterns we had not noticed suddenly take shape. (Some we invent, but the more accurate maps dispel confusion.) Aloof, superficial connections blaze with new significance and import.

Putting It Into Practice

Let’s test your translucence powers! I’ve listed some simple words below, a mixture of concrete and abstract things, with which you can practice thinking and speaking starfish. Here’s what to do:

  1. Each word is the head, or center of the starfish. Let the beginning of your thought or story be the literal, physical representation elicited by the word from the pre-given knowledge you already have.
  2. Now move to another thought wherein the word indicates something more, something beyond, the limits of what the physical senses or the particular image you’ve drawn from tells you. This is an allusive, playful, suggestive movement. It could be something emotional, some moral value or disvalue, some invisible structure or pattern, and so on. Before going on to the next step, pause to reflect on two things: (a) Did your move draw from something in your knowledge of human history, including other arts and literature? (b) Did your move draw from something in the memory of your own experience?
  3. Now that you’ve made one starfish movement, use translucence again for your second movement (third thought). Let the originating word move into yet another direction (layer of meaning).

Ready? Here you go:



















Congratulations! You’re speaking like the Nna Mmoy. Your speech is translucent!

Let’s conclude with a few observations.

Each of the words in the list has a deep history of layered meaning. There is both cultural difference among these layers as well as cultural commonality. A snake, for example, may have either a dominantly positive or negative value association in a given culture. Most cultures have some degree of both (a lot of modern people are unaware of the ambiguities of meaning in their own tradition).

An author may intentionally or unintentionally draw the history of these words and ideas into her story or song. If intentional, she may pack layers of nonsuperficial meaning into her creation, but unless her new expression somehow outstrips or modifies the already available meanings, at best she is imitating rather than creating meaning. If unintentional, then she cannot foresee or control how her readers, who may have more comprehensive knowledge of the history informing the words and ideas in her story, will interpret and understand her meaning in diverse and sophisticated ways. Because of the obscurity behind her expressions and her unknowing appropriation of that history, her intended meaning is at the mercy of her readers who may recognize her expressions as familiar ones.

Not all stories are maps; not all authors speak or poets sing with translucence. Why is it seemingly so rare to encounter a story that draws you into its world like a magnet, that satisfies some deep longing, that thrills with its linguistic elegance or virtuosity, or seems to have its author always present with you as a partner “in making and delight?” It may be that the author’s diction, like textbooks or litanies of bare facts, favors opacity over translucence. Or it may be that the reader’s stock of meanings, our Elvish immersion in our cultural histories, is weak, myopic, or unformed. Such are the temptations of snake language. Our usual communication with one another (and our past) is through statements and questions that taper off into some univocal, single, surface meaning. We don’t ordinarily converse in starfish like the Nna Mmoy. We bifurcate our speech into “ordinary” and “artful,” with the dominating ordinary type valuing simplicity and practicality. In modern society we relegate the artful to the domain of private leisure and enjoyment.

Invented and novel connections to the deeper regions of our social and cultural histories requires listening and following authors from (or who are regular travelers to) those deeper regions. They are the mapmakers of the soul. Translucent stories allow us to visit the undiscovered country, to see ourselves more clearly as we really are, to transform our vision of our place, and to experience being known–and knowing–in ways that enrich and delight.

World Building and Story Telling: Tolkien and Le Guin (2)

Part II of my mini-series on how artful story-telling solicits our participation, what Tolkien calls our “Secondary Belief” in the world the author creates. And, most mysteriously of all, how those stories reach into our very hearts.


In Part I, I introduced you to my two figures, JRR Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin, and the respective names they’ve given to our ability to create stories with layers of meaning: “elvish craft” and “translucence.” We began to examine how language does this by comparing the English language with Le Guin’s fictional Nna Mmoy language. We speak snake; the Nna Mmoy speak starfish.

In this post, I want to take a closer look at the property of the Nna Mmoy language that allows their people to create stories and poetry like nature creates life. Le Guin calls that property translucence.

But first I want to return to Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories” for a moment to forge a tighter connection between his “elvish craft” and Le Guin’s translucence. Tolkien calls the elvish craft a “special skill,” one that requires “labour and thought,” is put to the “difficult tasks” of “story-making in its primary and most potent mode,” and when realized, is a “rare achievement of Art.” Unlike the Nna Mmoy, creating stories that satisfy our “ancient desires” does not come easily to us. It seems far from the easy, everyday construction of our ordinary speech. (I emphasize ‘seems’ because in the last post in the series, I’ll suggest that it need not be, that our language is closer to Nna Mmoy than we may realize!)

Tolkien rummages around his conceptual toolkit for the best way to describe the elvish craft:

We need a word for this elvish craft, but all the words that have been applied to it have been blurred and confused with other things. Magic is ready to hand, and I have used it above, but I should not have done so: Magic should be reserved for the operations of the Magician. Art is the human process that produces by the way (it is not its only or ultimate object) Secondary Belief. Art of the same sort, if more skilled and effortless, the elves can also use, or so the reports seem to show; but the more potent and specially elvish craft I will, for lack of a less debatable word, call Enchantment. Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose. (…) To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires, and when it is successful of all forms of human art most nearly approaches. (…) Uncorrupted, it does not seek delusion nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight….

Enchantment is the term that Tolkien uses to describe what is involved in the narrative art that “commands Secondary Belief” (belief in the Secondary World because of its artistic authenticity, inner credibility, and fulfillment of deep human desires). An enchanting (enchanted?) story is a Secondary world-building story “into which both designer and spectator can enter” and experience “shared enrichment” as “partners in making and delight.” Have you experienced that as a spectator (reader)? Have you felt the efflunariaects of the designer’s (author’s) enchantment?

If you have, then the author’s use of the language, his diction, was translucent. So that brings us to Le Guin’s idea. Talk of properties is rather abstract, so I’m going to break translucence down a bit. First,

A line of poetry can be translucent, as it were, to another meaning it could have if it were in a different context. The surface significance allows a possible alternate significance to register at the same time (167).

The example she gives shows that she’s not talking about double entendres (Breaking: stolen painting found by tree! Details at 11). Rather, it involves a slight adjustment to the original phrasing:

[I]f a syllable changes in one word, then “the crickets are singing in chorus in the starlight” becomes “the taxicabs are in gridlock at the intersection” (167).

This is, admittedly, a made-up example from the visitor’s supposed knowledge of Japanese. Note well that the two meanings both concern the mundane world. This kind of double meaning I’d call two-dimensional. Adjust a single syllable, and your statement can branch in two different ways, but their meanings remain in the plane of the concrete world of the bodily senses. They do not overlap or stack on one another with figurative or multi-referential senses. The figurative, the metaphorical, the allusive…these make language three-dimensional. They create depth.

But Nna Mmoy is more complex than the two-dimensional example.

[E]verything you say in Nna Mmoy is like that. Every statement is transparent to other possible statements because the meaning of every word is contingent on the meanings of the words around it. Which is why you probably can’t call them words.

A word in our language is a real thing, a sound with a fixed form to it. Take cat. In a sentence or standing by itself, it has a meaning; a certain kind of animal (…). As distinct as a pebble. Cat is a noun. Verbs are a little shiftier. What does it mean if you say the word had? All by itself? Not much. Had isn’t like cat; it needs context, a subject, an object.

No word in Nna Mmoy is like cat. Every word is Nna Mmoy is like had, only more so, much more (167-8).

Let that sink in for a moment. Imagine that you had none of your handy nouns with which to express yourself! Now this lovely image:

A Nna Mmoy syllable only has one written character. But it’s not a pebble. It’s a drop in the river.

Learning Nna Mmoy is like learning to weave water (168).

Needless towater-drop-by-cloki say, such a language would be extraordinarily difficult to understand, for the simple act of referring to something, of assigning a name, of defining, does not exist. Or rather, nouns and names exist, but they work like the multifunctional verb had. Not surprisingly, the visitor to Nna Mmoy had the easiest time communicating with the young children:

Their children’s words are more like our words, you can expect them to mean the same thing in different sentences. (…) Learning to read and write is a lifelong occupation [for the Nna Mmoy]. I suspect it involves not only learning the characters but inventing new ones, and new combinations of them–beautiful new patterns of meaning (169).

The translucence of their diction is inherent to the Nna Mmoy language in its most superficial form, but exploiting the textures of meaning available from its semi-transparence requires lots of practice. Conversation, speech and writing would be the central activity of their society.

Then they’d gather, along in the afternoon, under the trees, and they’d talk and laugh, having one of their long, long conversations.

The talking often ended up with people reciting, or getting out a paper or a book and reading from it. Some of them would be off reading by themselves, or writing. A lot of people wrote every day, very slowly, on flimsy bits of the paper they make out of cotton plant. They might bring that piece of writing to the group in the afternoon and pass it around, and people would read from it aloud. Or some people would be at the village workshop working on a piece of jewelry, the circlets and brooches and complicated necklaces they make out of gold wire and opals and amethysts and such. (…) I finally realised that some of the pieces of jewelry were sentences, or lines of poems. Maybe they all were (169-70).

gold-circletBeautiful! Their spoken and handmade arts converge in their meaning and use. And how consistent with what Tolkien calls an “uncorrupted” enchantment (see above): “it does not seek delusion nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight.”

The visitor hypothesizes that the Nna Mmoy invented such a language to compensate for the poverty of their environment. The world of the Nna Mmoy was engineered by their ancestors to be absolutely safe. “They took a great complex pattern and simplified it to perfection. A nursery room safe for the children.” And because the Nna Mmoy have no cultural memory of their ancestors, they do not share in or understand the common, darker side of the human condition: suffering, conflict, violence, natural dangers. They are world poor, as Heidegger might say. They use language to reintroduce “endlessly complicated, infinitely rich” patterns back into the world.

If you follow the logic here and apply it to our world, you’ll see why the literal, surface meaning has so much importance to us. We live in a world that is rich to explore, full of wonder and danger. Our openness to the world in both body and mind gives us the capacity to experience the full range of its delights and terrors. We don’t need a language like the Nna Mmoy to experience the “endlessly complicated, infinitely rich”…our world already is that. We simply have to live in it.ring-barahir-allyedfrown

Now let’s turn back to Middle Earth for a moment. The Nna Mmoy way of life is a lot like that of Tolkien’s elves. Do I need to say anything more than silmaril? The ring of Barahir? Anduril, the reforged Narsil? The feasts in Rivendell and the long evenings of song and poetry?

But Middle Earth ecology and culture has not been stripped down of its complexity; it’s a lot like our own world, full of pleasures and pains, fears and joys. With Elves in particular, there is also the weight of history. They are immortal and much of their culture is devoted to remembering their past. That’s a lot of story to tell. Here’s the key: the translucence of the Nna Mmoy language originates in the language itself; the translucence of the Elven language originates in their history. For any language to have translucence, it must have complexity and variety. The Nna Mmoy diction and grammar is their only source for this. For Elves it is their world and history. They weave the inner world of experience and the outer world of nature, society and individuals into stories and songs. Their handmade crafts are of a piece with their verbal culture. Their elegant language has to be sufficient to express their experience with embodied immortality.

And now I’ve set you up for the final post in this series: how translucence works in our stories, how our two-dimensional language obtains its depth in new dimensions of meaning. How we are enchanted by the best stories in the way Sam Gamgee is moved hearing Gildor Inglorion’s company of elves sing:

Well, sir, if I could grow apples like that I would call myself a gardener. But it was the singing that went to my heart, if you know what I mean (Fellowship of the Rings, 92).

Stay tuned for Part III!


World Building and Story Telling: Tolkien and Le Guin

Nna-Mmoy-fullI wasn’t entirely pleased with my previous post on world building in Tolkien and Le Guin. Rather than replace it, however, I’m going to leave the old one in place and redo it by revising and refocusing it, and breaking it up into a short series of posts that I’ll have up this week.

What I’d like to explore with you is a comparison of Tolkien’s notion of the elvish craft and Ursula K. Le Guin‘s notion of translucence in “The Nna Mmoy Language.” I think this will be a handy tool for you writers out there, as well as serious readers of literature of all kinds.

In this first post I’ll start to forge the connection between Tolkien and Le Guin. Here’s the payoff: I think translucence gives us a very practical way to understand how literary meaning works. There are rich literary theories that explain how the layers of meaning beneath the surface reach the reader and open a door to the deepest folds of one’s heart. What translucence does is explain how those meaning-layers are assembled and integrated into a whole. When you read the artful story or hear the song, you’re being enchanted (Tolkien’s term). When you stand “outside” the story or song to examine it with a critical eye, with various theoretical approaches, it is the translucence of the language and diction that is the signature of works of enchantment, of those that are composed with the elvish craft.

Le-Guin-Wave-MindLe Guin wrote a lovely essay on Tolkien’s poetic diction, and how it is of a piece with his prose, called “Rhythmic Patterns in Lord of the Rings,” published in the collection The Wave in the Mind (Shambhala, 2004). I highly recommend it.

Another question that I think translucence gives us a key to answer is one I’ve heard from many students and fellow readers: Why does Tolkien include so much verse in The Lord of the Rings? There’s more than one reason, I think, and the enchantment that occurs by way of translucent language is one of those reasons. But let’s set the table with Tolkien’s description of the elvish craft. Says Tolkien in his oft-revised “On Fairy Stories:”

To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.

Le-Guin-Changing-PlanesIn the chapter called “The Nna Mmoy Language” in Changing Planes, Le Guin’s travelogue to this world focuses extensively on the language of the Nna Mmoy people. What Le Guin invites us to imagine is a world in which Tolkien’s narrative art of of Secondary World-building is not a difficult task, but the way the Nna Mmoy ordinarily speak and write, a language in which the layers of meaning are built into the very unfolding of one word following another in ordinary speech.

Picture a scene from ordinary life in our world: you enter a coffee shop, order a cup of coffee, and make light references to the news of the day. Now imagine that the words exchanged between you and your coffee mates were imbued with metaphorical, allegorical, even mythological significance, and that you couldn’t (and wouldn’t want to) strip those layers from a supposed “literal” bottom-line, straightforward, unambiguous meaning. This would, of course, be maddening for us. But that is because we speak “snake”:

A snake can go any direction, but only one direction at a time, following its head (165).

We can begin an English sentence with any word, but as each word is appended, the direction (meaning) of the sentence becomes quickly set, and by the timhyperbolic-conee you reach the end of the sentence, there are usually very few words that will fit (often only one)…Madlibs notwithstanding…though it is the disruptive meaning of unexpected or nonsense words that plays against the words that fit in ordinary speech which make them work (i.e., Madlibs are funny because we speak snake).

The Nna Mmoy, on the other hand, speak “starfish:”

A starfish doesn’t go anywhere much. It has no head. It keeps more choices handy, even if it doesn’t use them. (…) When you say something in Nna Mmoy, there is a center to what you say, but the statement goes in more than one direction from the center–or to the center (165-6).

Le Guin suggests that Japanese works more like Nna Mmoy [I’d like to confirm this with any Japanese-speaking readers!]Hyperbolic-space Starfish speech, like snake speech, has a definite beginning. But on Le Guin’s spatial metaphor, the beginning of a Nna Mmoy statement is a center rather than an end. Because it can go in multiple directions in one statement, the appended words spread out from the center in an infinity of end points. Snake speech, on the other hand, ends in a definite point, the tail.

The point in “The Nna Mmoy Language” when the light bulb went off for me was, strangely enough, not all of this interesting linguistic analysis, but the description of the Nna Mmoy way of life:

The Nna Mmoy are excellent gardeners, vegetarians by necessity [Prof JBH: because very few forms of life remained after their ancestors had caused a mass extinction of species]. Their arts are cookery, jewelry, and poetry. (…) No mining has been observed, but opals, peridots, amethysts, garnets, topazes, and colored quartzes may be picked up in any stream bed; jewels are bartered for unworked or reused gold or silver. (…) shells are traded for finished jewelry and for poems–if that is what the written texts, single sheets, booklets, and scrolls, so beautiful and teasing to the eye, actually are (163-4).

I can’t help but picture Tolkien’s elves, especially those of the First Age, from this description of the Nna Mmoy! They are creators. Though elves do not speak like the Nna Mmoy (more about that later), they esteem craftmaking of all kinds, beautifully made things, movement, music, and lore. They treasure and nurture growing things. And their conversations in times of peace are unrushed. I compare these nighttime conclaves to a quilting society, where the quilt that the assembly of elves makes is the conversation itself. It seems to me that these similarities in the elven and Nna Mmoy culture extend to their respective languages; they must share some kind of important, creative, enchanting property.

In the next post, I’ll have a closer look at the property Le Guin calls translucence, explaining what it is and how it concerns the serious reader of literature of all kinds. I’ll spoil the surprise by telling you now what my “hook” is into the last post in the series: translucence is actually always and already present in our language. Our language, at times, is closer to Nna Mmoy than you might think. Stay tuned!

Sins of Adaptation: Deathly Hallows 2

FilchWhen I first heard these lines uttered in the movie, I knew all was lost, that the vital spirit of J. K. Rowling’s climactic chapter, “King’s Cross,” was Avada Kedavra’d in a green haze of moralism. The subsequent portrayal of the battle of Hogwarts was so distant from the written showdown between Harry and Voldemort, it only confirmed the murder of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and by extension, the entire Hogwarts saga. Kloves, the writer for DH2, while JKR must have been on break having a scotch, has Dumbledore say the following to Harry in the ethereal King’s Cross station:

Help will always be given at Hogwarts, Harry, to those who ask for it. (…) But I would, in this case, amend my original statement to this: “Help would always be given at Hogwarts, to those who deserve it.”

No, nein, nyet. Twelve inches of parchment should be plenty for you to complete a satisfactory comparative analysis between book and film on this matter.

Truth, Beauty and Language

The faculty have been reading Ursula K. Le Guin‘s Changing Planes and a spirited discussion broke out on the chapter “The Nna Mmoy Language.” Because your curriculum here at Hogwarts Prep requires you to develop the skills of critical reading as well as imaginativity, we thought it important to share some of our discussion with you.

Criticism concerns analysNna-Mmoyis, discursive thought, conceptual facility, and logical rigor. Imaginativity concerns as if thinking, ambiguity, indirect communication, allusiveness, suggestiveness, playfulness. To be a complete student, we encourage you to reject the prevalent tyrannous dichotomy regarding these human capacities, in which one must Take a Side that privileges one power over the other. Of course, one may be more excited by zoology than poetry, but cultivate the self-reflection that will allow you to determine how much this preference really derives from yourself and how much from the cultural pressures of various social authorities (including us!).

At the center of our Le Guin discussion was an evocative passage on pp 165-8, a key excerpt of which I quote:

When you say something in Nna Mmoy, there is a center to what you say, but the statement goes in more than one direction from the center–or to the center. (…) A line of poetry can be translucent, as it were, to another meaning it could have if it were in a different context. The surface significance allows a possible alternate significance to register at the same time.

Well, everything you say in Nna Mmoy is like that. Every statement is transparent to other possible statements because the meaning of every word is contingent on the meanings of the words around it. Which is why you probably can’t call them words. [emphasis mine]

We found Le Guin’s use of translucence to be a very helpful way to conceptualize how storytelling, if done authentically and with craft, works its magic and tells the truth. (The truth about what is an important question, which we will leave aside for now.) One may ask, “Well, why not translucence?” The reason we might be surprised that truthtelling can occur through translucent diction is that such an idea is at odds wBowtruckleith how we typically associate language and truth. We name things. Names impart a fixed identity to the thing. “That? Oh, that’s a bowtruckle.” Then we add relational terms that state similarities and differences. “That’s a doxy, not a bowtruckle. Doxies differ from bowtruckles in the following ways…” Words used with singular meanings in a specific context allow us to identify and distinguish, specify and differentiate. Now suppose the word ‘doxy’ has the property of translucence. Our confidence in being understood as speakers and hearers is undermined because the identity of the thing in the world that is uniquely picked out with that term suddenly becomes ambiguous. Our language for criticism, mathematics, and logic works so well as a source for understanding to be shared among speakers and thinkers because its strict literalism, its opacity, admits of precisely one meaning for statements made in this language. There is only surface significance. There is no depth to be seen or plumbed below that surface.

It has been well establgalileoished in the last 400 years that the language of mathematics is extremely powerful. It is the language of scientific theorizing. Galileo said “The Book of Nature is written in the language of mathematics.” By Nature he meant the physical universe, all that sensible manifold which is measurable and quantifiable. And you are already familiar with physicist’s hope that the universe will be expressible as a single equation, an equation, by the way, which most theorists expect to be “elegant.”

It is also important to acknowledge that mathematical knowledge, if correctly formed, is also true, and nonrelatively true. That’s a powerful tool, and it is a remarkable fact that the world “out there” can be accurately represented by the human mind through the senses and using language. Why should it be that the products of human thought can accurately correspond to the sensible world and its inner workings? Why should natural processes be intelligible? Such questions are why we have philosophy.

You have probably already noticed an important clue about the limitations of mathematical language. At the heart of mathematics and logic is correspondence. A = A. It is identity and definition, which is saying what something is, of picking out its specific and unique ensemble of distinguishing characteristics. It is saying that the thought of what a particular formal expression describes, say E = mc^2, is the same as some law-bound process or behavior we can measure in the world.

Were human language absent of all translucence, if all that was sayable and understandable were expressions with no transparency, then we would never invent or tell stories. We would never write verse or sing songs. We’d have emotions and we’d find ways to express those feelings in the manner of other animals, but we’d not have evocative language at our disposal for creating the vehicles by which we share our fears, joys, desires, regrets, and all the stuff of our inner lives. Our history would be worse than that taught by Professor Binns. Our conceptual vocabularies would have no grasp of something like beauty. Moreover, we’d have a much narrower experience of the truth.

If the Book of Nature is written in the language of mathematics, then what Book is written in translucent language, in poetic diction? Is it the Book of Humanity, of what it means to be human? That’s the general consensus we faculty reached, though there are matters to clarify about what exactly that entails. (Now which language was I just using in that sentence? — clarify, exactly, entail.)Doxy

Consider, then, translucence as that property of our stories, our folk and fairy tales, our fantasy literature, our poetry, that we encounter when we pause to savor a particular line or passage, the play of its sounds with its meaning, the thoughts suggested by the musicality and artistic flourish on its surface, the exquisite subtleties. There are the “big ideas,” thematic connections forged within the broader realm of Story and Faerie. And there are the occasional and surprising moments when it seems the poet or author is speaking directly to us, privately, as if  some of the most important experiences in our lives were not just our own, but shared.

Translucence may contribute to the frequent disparity between authorial intent and readers’ responses. Writers, if you’ve attained to that Elvish craft, then be warned: your work will not agree to be bound to the meaning you intend for it. What depths lie therein will bubble up into the consciousness of your readers, the visitors to the world you’ve created.

Finally, truths that are delivered through translucent language have the capacity to liberate us from a too-narrow view of the world, to challenge and ennoble us, to transform our aspirations and vision of what it means to be human. If the truths of discursive thought–mathematics, logic, science, philosophy–are luminous to the mind, then the truths of imaginativity are luminous to the heart.

Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”

Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure. “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?”

Harry Potter Presentation: Hermione Granger

[LC] Prof JBH delivered this talk on skepticism as a quality of Hermione Granger in Jan 2013 for SkeptiCamp Phoenix. The video for his presentation is available here. We’re still working with the wardrobe staff about his kit for these Muggle events. The irony that faculty from an institution like Hogwarts Prep would appear before a group of convinced skeptics should not be lost on anyone. We appreciate Prof JML providing cover for our colleague’s identity.

Click on the title slide to download the ppt file:


Two Hunger Games Presentations

I can’t help comparing The Hunger Games to the two landmark, but very different, dystopias, Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. This is in large part because of Neil Postman, who examined the effects of television on American society in his oft-cited work, Amusing Ourselves to Death. (A 1985 interview with Postman is well worth your time; it’s in two parts.) Like Postman, I think Huxley rather than Orwell has us pegged, and I think Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy is an interesting case study of Postman’s thesis because THG has strong Orwellian and Huxleyian themes, and I argue that there is an narrative struggle between the two.

My first presentation was a TEDx Full Spectrum talk given in Feb 2012 at Barrett Honors College at ASU. I examined THG in light of Ellul’s critique of the technological society. In one of his last works, The Technological Bluff, Ellul uses the provocative phrase “terrorism in the velvet glove of technology.” I explained and applied this concept to a reading of THG. The presentation visuals are scant (it was a 20-minute talk), and unfortunately the video is inaccessible, though some may be able to scare it up from Vimeo. In due time I will append some written notes to accompany the slides.

The second presentation, however, is accompanied by my speaker’s notes. This talk was given at Barrett Honors College at the premiere of the Catching Fire movie. Here I jump back and forth between Orwell and Huxley to show how both elements are present in the film and in the marketing of the movie franchise. I’ve expanded this second presentation into a conference paper that may be coming to a venue near you next year.

Click on the slide to download the corresponding Powerpoint file:





And my speakers notes (pdf) to accompany “Weapons of Mass Diversion.”