Friday, February 20, 2009

the mystery of freedom

WARNING: Major spoilers appear in this post.

My buddy Charles wrote an excellent post titled "On Limitations" that deals at least in part with a theme I've encountered through my many re-readings of Stephen R. Donaldson's fantasy novels-- especially his First, Second, and Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. The theme is the mystery of freedom, and in order to understand where Donaldson is coming from and how he meditates on this issue, I need to provide you an overview of Donaldson's narrative world.

The protagonist of the First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever is the eponymous Thomas Covenant, a man from "our" world who, around the age of 30, had a successful career as a writer before he contracted leprosy through unknown means. Covenant's wife Joan left him, along with their infant son Roger, and Covenant himself became a pariah in the small American town in which he lived.

In the First Chronicles, Covenant journeys to an alternate Earth-- specifically, to a realm known simply as the Land-- four separate times, in each case by being rendered unconscious through some means or other. In the first book, Covenant apparently faints in front of a car. In the second book, Covenant's journey occurs when he trips inside his house and hits his head. In the third book of the trilogy, Covenant is summoned to the Land twice-- first after hitting his head on a rock, then a second time after succumbing to rattlesnake venom. In the Second Chronicles, Covenant is stabbed in the chest in "our" world; his impending death facilitates his passage to the alternate Earth. A companion from our world joins him: Linden Avery, a doctor who has only recently moved into Covenant's small town, and who is not afraid of Covenant's leprosy. Linden is the primary protagonist in the Second Chronicles; most of the narrative occurs from her point of view. Her translation into the Land occurs during the same incident in which Covenant is stabbed: Linden is struck with a rock by the same group assaulting Covenant. In the Final Chronicles, only Linden journeys to the Land-- in this case, by being shot in the chest while trying to rescue her adopted son.

The passage between worlds evokes CS Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. As happens in Narnia, time in Donaldson's Land moves faster than it does in our world: a single day in our world equals a year in the Land. Some sort of metaphysical boundary-- the "wind between the worlds," as it's known in the Second Chronicles-- separates our world from the universe in which the Land resides. The alternate world is also nestled within a different metaphysical structure: something we never see, but which is known as the Arch of Time. How this works or what such a situation looks like is never clearly explained. Perhaps it can't be.

The beings of the alternate Earth vary in their beliefs as to whether there exists a Creator. Many of them do know of a being called the Despiser, who is something like a satanic presence. The Despiser, true to his title, hates the cosmos in which he is trapped, and speaks of his "Enemy," who we can assume is the Creator. The relationship between the Despiser and the Creator is never entirely clarified; the Despiser is sometimes referred to as the son or brother of the Creator, who was cast into the alternate universe by the Creator when the latter discovered that the Despiser, perhaps working alongside the Creator, had been sowing banes into the Earth-- concentrated malice in the form of stones or other objects. The alternate Earth also contains lesser evil beings that are independent of the Despiser, whose motives are often twisted in the service of Despite; they willfully or inadvertently aid the Despiser in achieving the ruin of the Land, and perhaps eventually the entire Earth.

The Despiser's ultimate goal is to escape from this time-bound prison, perhaps simply to regain his primordial freedom, but just as likely to wreak vengeance against his father or brother: the Creator, his Enemy. Every action this malefic figure takes is designed to weaken the fabric of the Law of Time, which is the law of sequence, cause, and effect-- the very substance of the Arch of Time in which the Earth resides. The First and Second Chronicles are the story of the Despiser's failed attempts to shatter the Arch; in both cases he is thwarted by the Land's at-first-unwilling champion, Thomas Covenant, who loses his life in the Second Chronicles, but manages a post-mortem defeat of Lord Foul.

Despite his status as a cosmic being that doesn't belong to the universe in which he has been trapped, Lord Foul the Despiser is constrained by the Law of Time, a fact that frustrates him, driving him to the limits of sanity. This constraint means the Despiser is unable to transcend Time in order to know the future exactly, which is why Covenant (and, later, Linden Avery) is able to foil his plots twice. Foul is able to predict certain outcomes through a type of middle knowledge (knowledge of consequent counterfactuals based on actual initial conditions), but Time itself prevents Foul from absolute knowledge of whether his plans will unfold exactly as he wishes.

Foul is also, strangely, preserved from destruction by the very same Law of Time that constrains his actions. Covenant's first battle with the Despiser ends with Covenant withholding the final blow. "You can't kill Despite," Covenant says. Because the capacity for Despite is inscribed in all the beings of the Earth, and because Foul is trapped on this Earth along with all these beings, Foul's essence will be forever nourished by them. Also, if Foul is as eternal as the Creator, then his eternality in a time-bound universe can only be expressed by his endless persistence in time. This is different from the "eternity" espoused by CS Lewis, who sees true eternity as transtemporal, something free of the shackles of sequence and causation (something like this idea motivates Hindus and Buddhists to free themselves from karma and samsara, the painful churning of existence and causation). Foul's struggles might, however, be interpreted as a striving toward this Lewisian eternity.

The Creator, whom we meet three times in the first two trilogies, is powerful enough to create this alternate Earth and the Arch of Time in which it resides, but after casting the Despiser into that world (note the parallel, here, with the traditional Christian notion that Satan has been given dominion over our world) and then sealing the Earth within the Arch of Time, the Creator can no longer combat the Despiser without putting his hand through the Arch, thereby unmaking his creation.

This is the bind in which the Creator finds himself. He wants to help all the innocent beings in his creation, but cannot do so directly. He selects Thomas Covenant to be the champion from our world who must enter the Land and eventually battle the Despiser. But because of a doctrine called the necessity of freedom, the Creator is unable to persuade Covenant to do the Creator's bidding, lest Covenant become a mere tool of the Creator, thereby also unmaking the Arch of Time and destroying all of creation. Covenant, plunged into this alternate Earth in an extreme example of Heideggerian Geworfenheit, must figure everything out on his own, and make his own choices.

The First Chronicles relate Covenant's internal struggle with the reality of the Land. For him to accept the Land's reality is to risk insanity; in our own world, Covenant has had to learn the strict disciplines necessary for a leper's survival. A leper cannot risk even minor bumps and bruises: unable to feel them, and with a compromised immune system, a leper would quickly succumb to infection and, in Covenant's case, the renewed virulence of his leprosy. In the Land, however, Covenant is quickly healed of his leprosy, and he also discovers that his white gold wedding ring-- which he has insisted on wearing even after his wife has divorced him-- is regarded as a periapt of cosmic might: the wild magic that paradoxically defies Law and supports the Arch of Time.

The Earth's very existence is a combination of Law and Earthpower, concepts analogous to dharma/Tao and ki, respectively. Donaldson isn't clear on whether all beings have Earthpower or are Earthpower, though a certain set of beings, the Elohim, are clearly described as Earthpower incarnate.

Much as the Matrix trilogy did later on, Donaldson sets up the chessboard by associating goodness with freedom, and evil with inevitability. Power, in Donaldson's universe, symbolizes the exercise of freedom. Lord Foul rarely exercises power, preferring instead to formulate plans that require the direct or indirect service of his minions, plans meant to lead his victims along the strait path to destruction. Despite his lack of omniscience, the Despiser displays a supreme confidence in his vision of the future.

A prominent theme in Donaldson's narrative is that great power often entails a reduction of freedom. The Creator himself* is constrained by the rules of the universe he has created, which is why he is forced to send a champion in his stead. Thomas Covenant initially refuses the responsibility that comes with the power of his white gold ring, and eventually realizes (as does Linden Avery after him) that the power he wields has limitations-- limitations inherent in the nature of white gold, but also inherent in Covenant's own nature. All power-- and therefore all freedom-- requires a form through which it can be articulated. Power is never simply power; by analogy, freedom is never simply freedom. All freedom therefore must be expressed within parameters and constraints; all power must have limits even to qualify as power.

In the Second Chronicles, the Despiser seems to have grasped this point. He attempts to stymie Covenant by poisoning him with a venom that increases Covenant's might. Knowing how powerful he is becoming, and knowing that the increase in his potency is not accompanied by the facility to wield it precisely, Covenant is forced to withhold his power in almost every instance where it is needed: only wild magic, which is unconstrained by Law, can shatter the Arch of Time from within the Creator's creation.

The Despiser is hoping for one of three possible outcomes: (1) that Covenant will shatter the Arch of Time through the exercise of his venom-tainted white ring, (2) that Covenant will be rendered absolutely powerless by his absolute power, or (3) that Covenant, having realized the futility of his situation, will willingly hand his ring over to the Despiser. Covenant's solution to this problem is ingenious: he freely gives the Despiser his ring and allows that demonic entity to kill him with wild magic, but when the Despiser aims that same magic at the Arch of Time, Covenant's spirit is there, protecting the Arch and absorbing the blow. Because Covenant's own nature is wild magic-- heralded as the keystone of the Arch of Time-- his spirit cannot be undone by Lord Foul's attack. Quite the contrary, his revenant is strengthened by each attack. The Despiser, maddened by the failure of his plan to shatter the Arch, and being a cosmic entity incapable of surrender, flings wild magic against Covenant again and again, expending his own energy until he flickers and fades out: a second defeat.**

In his Liminality essay, my friend Charles writes the following apropos of the coexistence of freedom and constraints in language:

This will come as no surprise to long-time readers, but I happen to love language. I like working with it, as if it were a malleable metal to be worked into intricate shapes. Sometimes these shapes aren’t always as beautiful as I would like them to be, but I still enjoy working with them. Although I do not write as much poetry as I used to, I particularly enjoy the confined and compressed nature of the art form. I have never been a fan of free verse. I have always preferred poetry with set rhyme and meter. For one, it appeals to the analytical side of my brain (if that makes any sense). More importantly, though, it feels great when I am able to express myself poetically within the confines of a certain meter and rhyme scheme. Poetry that really works within those confines has always seemed to have more power.

And I suppose that’s what it comes down to for me. I find the idea that humanity can overcome its limitations through sheer grit and willpower to be somewhat boring, to be honest—far more fascinating is the idea that humanity’s brilliance lies in those limitations themselves, not in overcoming them. Sure, language may not be perfect, but when a writer crafts a gem of a sentence using that imperfect language, how glorious the result! Think of the music of Mozart or Bach—made by imperfect men using imperfect instruments, and enjoyed by people with imperfect ears.

This is, I think, the mystery and paradox of freedom: freedom entails its own restriction. You cannot have true freedom without also having constraints. You cannot exercise power without channeling that power in a specific way. An artist can do an infinity of things with a mallet, but such a blunt instrument can perform almost none of the things a chisel can do-- or a brush. Each tool contains its own infinity of possibilities, but the nature of each tool limits what can be done with it. Freedom is what happens in and through non-freedom, just as perfection can be found only in the midst of imperfection. These things are not-two.

A long time ago, I described myself as a "closet compatibilist." I think that's still largely true. If we insist on dichotomizing freedom and determinism, then in terms of human ethics, I fall on the side of freedom. But because I also acknowledge the not-two-ness of freedom and its constraints, I admit that freedom must articulate itself in specific ways: the Formless is seen only through forms-- power is articulated as specific powers; language is articulated as specific languages; art is realized as discrete arts; life manifests itself as different living things. As the Heart Sutra says: Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.

Stephen R. Donaldson's meditation on the nature of freedom isn't academic; he does it through the vehicle of narrative, and it's obviously a question he takes very seriously. I do, too, which is why I thought of Donaldson's work while reading Charles's essay.

*In our world, the Creator meets Thomas Covenant in the form of an ancient beggar who appears, from Donaldson's description of him, to be a Hindu monk (the author spent his childhood in India with his father, a medical doctor), though this is never explicitly stated. Donaldson devotes very little narrative time to the Creator; much of what we learn about this being comes through speculations by the people whom Thomas Covenant and Linden Avery meet in the Land and elsewhere, and also through hints given by Lord Foul himself at the very end of the Second Chronicles. At the end of the First Chronicles, Covenant has a conversation with the Creator, which gives us some insight into the deity's character.

**Covenant's defeat of the Despiser in the First Chronicles is more through brute force: his wild magic, once he evokes it, simply overpowers the Despiser's own ancient lore. The battle itself isn't interesting on that score: the First Chronicles is more about Covenant's attempt to reconcile his Unbelief in the Land (because his acceptance of the Land would violate his leper's instinct for survival, leading to insanity and death) and the love he eventually feels for the Land. The final battle is therefore compelling not because of what happens externally, but because of what happens to Covenant internally: he summons the might of his ring because he finally discovers the crux of his personal paradox-- Covenant concludes that his love of the Land is not contingent on its reality. With that resolution in place, Covenant gives himself fully to his passion for the Land, which in turn allows him to summon enough power to defeat the Despiser in magical combat.



Anonymous said...

OH NO POST SO LONG - overloaded computer - NONONO

Charles said...

Wow. You managed to take a lot from what was ultimately an ill-planned and sloppy musing. I thought about not posting it, given how sloppy it was, but now I'm glad I did.

I'd like to revisit the subject later, especially as it relates to the trickster, but I think I'm going to need some time to think about it. The connection is not immediately evident, but I think it is there.