Saturday, December 10, 2016

Tolkien's Gollum and Arendt's "The Origins of Totalitarianism"

Given its erudition, immensity, dense prose, and close-packed print face, Hannah Arendt's still controversial The Origins of Totalitarianism is anything but a fast, easy read.The same could be said of the masterwork of another brilliant academic, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, though the fantasy epic can certainly lay claim to providing substantially more in the way of entertainment. In the past few weeks, Arendt's opus has catapulted to best-seller lists, though it was originally published in 1951. We are in dark times and the choices we face are weightier and have more potentially far-reaching consequences than perhaps ever before in my lifetime. In such times, it is not uncommon to turn to the comforting world of the fantasy novel, with its Manichean struggles, exquisite and unpolluted landscapes, magic, and triumph of the forces of goodness.

But Tolkien too lived through dark times. The Lord of the Rings was first published in 1954-55, but the writing of it occupied Tolkien from 1937 - a momentous year in terms of the history of fascism, given that in that year Virginia Woolf published Three Guineas, the gifted intellectual Antonio Gramsci died after eleven years in a fascist prison, and Hitler held a secret meeting to plan the expansion of Germany across Eastern Europe - until 1949, when wartime rationing was finally coming to an end in Great Britain. Perhaps the greatest of many great achievements encompassed within the creation of Middle-earth, the character of Gollum is one of the most complex and fascinating in all of literature. The brilliance of the creation of Gollum is burnished further when thinking of The Lord of the Rings as a saga against totalitarianism.

Though Tolkien resisted facile interpretations of his work, it seems clear that the immense struggle undertaken by Great Britain and her allies against the Nazi war machine had a deep impact on his writing. Between the scars of the past traumas of World War I, which left Tolkien, like his good friend C.S. Lewis, in perpetual mourning for their dead companions, and the shadow cast by Nazism, the darkness in The Lord of the Rings has a palpable, searing quality. The evil of Sauron, entrenched in his stronghold of Mordor, in the east (the geography seems significant: not only is Germany to the east of the United Kingdom, but Hitler aimed first at eastern expansion, hoping to postpone the invasions of western countries until he'd secured more territory, a goal thwarted by the stubborn intervention of the British), is portrayed as intent on a totality of power. This totality is expansionist and military in nature and Sauron determines to destroy all potential threats to his power, including all those who might think for themselves, who might feel love or compassion or a sense of honor, and all forms of culture and merriment. Warfare is conducted species against species; civilians are not spared, nor children, nor the elderly. Even a wise man like Saruman, once Gandalf's mentor, converts to Sauron's vision of a conquered Middle-earth; in this, he recalls Heidegger, Arendt's teacher, mentor, and lover, who was a devoted Nazi and anti-Semite.

But in these dark times, I believe that we should cast our eyes on Gollum. Gollum, enslaved to the ring, locked in an unending struggle to obtain and possess the ring and an equally soul-breaking struggle to extract himself from the cruel demands of the ring, strikes me as the terrifying prototype for the ordinary man brought under the extreme pressures of totalitarian ideology. Unlike the orcs, born and bred in the sweltering volcanic rock of Mordor, knowing nothing and wishing to know nothing but brute strength and obedience to their master Sauron, Gollum was once a hobbit, of all the creatures of Middle-earth the most innocent.

Before continuing, I must point out that it is essential to note that Arendt's analysis of totalitarianism is almost purely secular, while Tolkien, a devout Catholic, intentionally revised his magnum opus to reflect his religious beliefs. This is important to understand because there is a divergence in terms of the conclusions of the two works. While Arendt pleads with her readers to think, to reject monolithic ideologies and be cognizant always of the signs of incipient totalitarianism, and thus sees totalitarianism as a threat that has not been laid to rest by any means, Tolkien's Catholic beliefs lead him in a different direction: defeat evil, and a new world will be born, one that will have its flaws and its struggles, but one in which the like of Sauron will never be seen again. This is a vision founded in Christian conceptions of good and evil. If Tolkien's vision were applicable to our workaday world, it would seem that we have not yet even met Sauron on the field of battle; a glance at what is currently happening in Syria alone ought to quickly dispel any ideas of a progression towards a peaceful world. If Tolkien's understanding of moral progression points us rightly, then neither Hitler nor Stalin nor any other historical dictator has been our Sauron, for total warfare is still with us. However, one must realize and remember throughout reading and comparing these books that Arendt rejects absolutely simplistic notions of historical cause and effect. Only in a fantasy world, springing from the imagination of a man, a mere man and no god, can such historical argumentation ring true. With these caveats in place, let us turn to Gollum.

Gollum is incapable of rejecting the advance of power, even when it is relatively benign, except through violence. This is the cruelest mark the ring has left upon him, crueler even than the mangling of his body. While Frodo insists on referring to him by the name he held as a free hobbit, Smeagol, Gollum himself appropriates the word 'sneak' to refer to himself after Sam hurls it at him in a moment of anger. In response to Frodo's pained expression of pity, "'Smeagol has to take what's given to him,' answered Gollum. 'He was given that name by kind Master Samwise, the hobbit that knows so much.'" Without a higher power to obey, Gollum wallows in confusion and so he takes up whatever crumbs of instruction he finds, even as he rebels, even as he despises those who exert power over him. When he breaks away, it is to resort to brutality, violence that he always subsequently regrets and revisits upon himself in hopeless retaliation.

Gollum loses his ability to rule himself, and yet the ring, once taken from him, exerts an ungovernable attraction. Prevented from bowing completely to its influence, Gollum desperately seeks another power to rule over him and thus with Frodo he is "pitifully anxious to please," prone to overpowering tears whether he pleases or displeases the hobbit who, possessed of the ring, becomes his master by proxy. Gollum's self has been annihilated, so much so that he refers to himself in the third person; Gollum is a nobody because he can no longer fit together the shattered shards of Smeagol. "What totalitarian ideologies therefore aim at is... the transformation of human nature itself," writes Arendt. In the case of poor Smeagol, the transformation is horrifying. Every feeling, any sensation beyond the merest urges of biological necessity, crush him, for they drag him away from the ring, the ring he worships even as it terrifies and tortures him.

For Gollum to feel the slightest compassion, the slightest emotional tug towards another creature, he must experience pain.  "A strange expression passed over his lean hungry face. The gleam faded from his eyes, and they went dim and grey, old and tired. A spasm of pain seemed to twist him, and he turned away, peering back up towards the pass, shaking his head, as if engaged in some interior debate. Then he came back, and slowly putting out a trembling hand, very cautiously he touched Frodo's knee--but almost the touch was a caress. For a fleeting moment, could one of the sleepers have seen him, they would have thought that they beheld an old weary hobbit, shrunken by the years that had carried him far beyond his time, beyond friends and kin, and the fields and streams of youth, an old starved pitiable thing." In these brief moments, Gollum almost recovers his hobbit-ness, his integrity as an individual, but inevitably the ring exerts its impossibly seductive force.

The pain he feels never suffices to destroy the chains of Gollum's enslavement. “Nothing is more difficult and rarer than people who, out of the desperate need of loneliness, find the strength to escape into solitude, into company with themselves, thereby mending the broken ties which link them to other men," writes Arendt. Gollum, so desperately lonely that he fears his own threats, never quite manages to mend those ties, though he tries with Frodo's help. Alone with himself, what remains of Smeagol is always cowed by the wraith-like fierceness of the slave Gollum. True converse with himself is impossible.

Gollum dies still in thrall to the ring, still lashed to its sinister chains. His final moment of ecstasy as he repossesses the ring is equally a moment of the profoundest agony. "And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail precious, and he was gone." Gollum quite literally can no longer exist without the ring; if the ring is destroyed, so must be Gollum. They meet the same fate: dissolution in hellish waves of lava in the deep chambers of Mount Doom.

Even so, the ring's effects were not universally obviously bad. Possession of the ring promises a sort of immortality and Smeagol lives for an astonishingly long time, well over five hundred years, due to the influence of his precious. The price paid for a long life, something much coveted for instance by Bilbo and essentially every hobbit and human character, is the total loss of what one could charitably term 'humanity.' This immortality mirrors the twisted immortality promised by totalitarian death cults: die for it, one is promised, and you will live forever. And yet that life is a perversion of life: for Gollum, an existence of torture, loneliness, and terror; for the men and women under a totalitarian regime, an equally barren existence in which all thought and feeling is crushed, squeezed, and destroyed until all that remains is a robotic shell.

Gollum's corruption, far more than Frodo's determination and Christ-like sense of mission, prevents Sauron from recapturing the ring and attaining total domination. This is the terrifying truth of totalitarianism: a human once under the thrall of totalitarian rule can only be redeemed through the destruction of the very thing that sustains his life, that narrates and delimits the scope of his being. Gollum is the man who comes under totalitarian power; he is not born into it; he is seduced by it. That is why he came "to love and hate the Ring, just as he loved and hated himself." Let us remember Gollum, now and in the months to come, for if we teeter on the brink, espy the glimmer of a shining object and seek to possess it, we risk not merely our lives but our reasons for living, not merely our freedoms but our very souls. "Even a single individual can be absolutely and reliably dominated only under global totalitarian conditions,”Arendt writes, but it is up to us to make sure that such conditions never come to be.

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