Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The oldest road -- 5

Science must go abroad in the world in the company of art. Both science and art are acts of the imagination, both invent what J. R. R. Tolkien called a Secondary World, a world that exists side by side with the Primary World of direct sense experience. A Secondary World is a kind of reflection in the mirror of imagination. The Secondary Worlds of science and art have different sorts of ties with the Primary World, which can perhaps be best described by the words general and particular.

In the Secondary World of science, the sarsen stone is a fragment of a now-vanished overbearing stratum lodged in geologic space and time; the sarsen takes its scientific meaning from what it shares with every other sarsen -- the ties that bind "sarsen" into the entire panorama of physics, chemistry, biology, geology, meteorology, and all the rest. Those ties are vibrant and strong. The Secondary World of science does not allow much jiggering; it is like a finely tuned violin -- loosen one string and the whole instrument goes flat. Loosen one string and the whole orchestra goes wrong. Every instrument in the orchestra of science is tuned to the same key. This is why I was able to learn soething about sarsens before I ever left home, from books and maps.

The Secondary World of art is a grey wether shadowed by morning sun on a hillside in the Marlborough Downs. It is not irrelevant to the Secondary World of art that the stones look superficially like sheep; it is precisely this looseness of description that stopped us in our tracks and touched a chord in us that resonates to a particular beauty. Grey wether: the very words evoke a sense of a particular time and a particular place; it might have been Gandalf striding across that hill. The Secondary World of art is not a fine-tuned orchestra; it is a solitary walker in the Marlborough Downs whistling on the wind.

Art, fantasy, enchantment: in his essay on fairy-stories referred to above, Tolkien uses the words more or less interchangeably. The enchantment of art "produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside," writes Tolkien. Enchantment does not destroy or even insult reason, he says; it neither blunts the appetite for, nor obscures the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary, "the keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy it will make." Much of the fabulous success of Tolkien's Middle-Earth trilogy derives from the author's scholarly and scientific knowledge of language and myth.

Unfortunately, for all of its virtues and values, the Secondary World of science tends to promote by its usefulness the notion of possession -- control denoting ownership -- and this as much as anything is the source of our environmental difficulties. The Secondary World of art rejects possession. What the artist seeks is the enchanter's secret knowledge of the Earth's own truth, and through the Earth the artist hopes to come to a more truthful understanding of self. Only when we come to understand that each thing -- each stone, each tree and leaf, each handful of earth -- has its own truth, both general and particular, will we respect the integrity of the natural environment and discover what it means to live as part of an enchanted landscape.

(Tom has added a gallery of Ridgeway pics. Set slide show to max size.)