Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Master-slave dialectic in Tolkien

I've been asked by more than one person to say a little more about this rather throwaway blog comment.

The so-called 'master-slave dialectic' is from Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit: google it and you'll find a wealth of sites and definitions and analyses. It has been widely interpreted, actually; a fact which is in part an index to the extent that nobody's entirely sure what Hegel means by it. So: there's a Wikipedia entry on the term:
The Master-Slave dialectic (Herrschaft und Knechtschaft in German; also translated Lordship and Bondage) is a famous passage of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. It is widely considered a key element in Hegel's philosophical system, and has heavily influenced many subsequent philosophers. It describes, in narrative form, the encounter between two self-conscious beings, who engage in a "struggle to the death" before one enslaves the other, only to find that this does not give him the control over the world he had sought.
The 20th-century French (well, Russian) philosopher Alexandre Kojève made a great deal of the master-slave dialectic. In Michael S Roth's words:
'As in all his works, [Kojève] adopted the master/slave dialectic from Hegel's Phenomenology as the schema for organizing change over time. In this schema, man is defined by his desire for recognition-a desire that can be satisfied only with the conservation of its object-and his will to risk his life in order to satisfy this desire. Kojeve used the master/slave dialectic as an allegory of human development: There is bloody battle followed by the rule of the master over the working slave. The master, however, cannot satisfy his human desire, because he is recognized by a mere slave. Eventually, the slaves take over, but they remain in servitude in relation to their work. Real freedom comes only through universal recognition of all and each as citizens. Each moment of the master/slave dialectic is at the origin of an ideal type of justice: Mastery is the basis for "equality" (Droit aristocratique); victory of the slave is the basis for "equivalence" (Droit bourgeois); citizenship is the basis for the synthetic justice of equity. Thus, Kojève extracted what he took to be the crucial dialectic in the Phenomenology, and used it to emplot the evolution of right and the connection of this evolution to things human.' ['A Note on Kojève's Phenomenology of Right']
Other thinkers have taken it as a kind of allegory for the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity; others (more justifiably, I thinnk) argue that the social context of what Hegel is saying is vital. Here's the relevant bit of Terry Pinkard's Hegel's Phenomenology: The Sociality of Reason (CUP 1994), or rather Howard Tuttle's summary of it:
In Chapter 3, "Masters, Slaves, and the Subjective Point of View" Pinkard shows that it is necessary to understand Hegel's famous master-slave dialectic as something more than an epistemological relation between a knowing subject and an independent object. Such a relation must always be defined in a social context. The dominance of the master over the slave is a fact that demands the social recognition of both parties. Each has found, according to Pinkard, "that he cannot identify what is his own without reference to the other's point of view -- without, that is, reference to the sociality common to both" (p. 62). The objective point of view which seems to be established by a higher dialectical reason is actually grounded in the social assumptions of the parties involved.
I could go on, but won't. Indeed, I could write many thousands of words about the master-slave dialectic in Lord of the Rings, but really don't have time to surely don't need to: the lineaments of such a reading are fairly obvious, I think.

Which is to say: Lord of the Rings is clearly a book very much concerned with questions of mastery and slavery, a novel precisely about the proper and improper boundaries of power, about relationships between masters and servants. Sauron's evil manifests predominantly in a desire for mastery; and the novel construes pairs in dialectical power-relationships that work through antithetical inversions, often violently, or in the larger context of violence and death -- Frodo and Sam (where the salient is the section where Sam thinks his master dead and takes the ring, becoming the master at exactly the point where Frodo is becoming more and more like Gollum); Saruman and Gandalf; Saruman and Wormtongue; Frodo and Gollum; Aragorn and Boromir; Aragorn and Denethor. In each case, and to different degrees, consciousness becomes self-consciousness, partial knowledge is sublated into a higher, more coherent knowledge (wisdom, we might say, although it is rarely, in Tolkien, a thing of comfort). Indeed, part of the mode of eucatastrophic writing is the delay of the getting of wisdom to the very end: as with Sauron, moments before the destuction of the ring, 'all the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash' [III:223].

All of this takes place in the novel under the 'higher' rubric (formally speaking) of the Ring, and the way its 'serving' function -- the usefulness of being able to make oneself invisible -- necessarily turns about to the point where it is the ring that is the master and the wearer who is the servant. The ring, of course, stands as a sort of emblemmatisation of the principle of master-servant domination, or oppression; and one of the memorable aspects of it is the way its domination becomes written on the body via a particular mode of Hegelian 'death struggle', an ageless withering, a nightmare-death-in-life existence ... the "abstract negation" of life itself. Contradiction and resolution can only happen, in the novel, via a moment of what amounts to self-mutilation: Frodo having become Gollum, the master the servant -- or rather, a kind of conceptual short circuit is effected with Frod and Gollum literally struggling (as master/servant) in order to discover who will become the servant of a higher master (the Ring). The contradiction is resolved not via a Hegelian negotiation and recognition of interdependence, but by the literal dissolution of (Gollum's) body and the ring in fire.

This in turn opens the book to a much more radical reading (politically, or ideologically speaking) than has often been the case with critics, fixated as they often have been on Tolkien's personal traditionalist, Catholic and conservative affiliations. It's not Epic Pooh; it's sword and dialecticsorcery, Hegel-Fantasy.

One more thing: reading the text this way, it seems to me, opens a different perspective on the way the novel ends (something rather splendidly, if ludicrously, brought out by the Return of the King movie, with its interminable, groundhog-day-ish cycle of recirculating endings). That is to say: LotR is a book that ends its own history; it stages 'the end of history' in its imaginative world in more thoroughgoing way than any other novel I can think of. Kojève (of course) had his own ideas about 'the end of history and the last man'; the last man, for our purposes, being Sam; and history ending as a synthetic working through of a particular historical dynamic (master-slave).


D J Harrison said...

Yeah, but Hegal didn't think of everything. It's not as if he was, like, really clever or anything. As for the ring, well, being invisible is OK as long as nobody can see you. The main point Tolkien makes is that rational human wills are autonomous. Some might say this makes him a bit of a Kant.

Adam Roberts Project said...

I can't argue with that. Why, even your spelling of 'Hegel' is a radical re-interpretation of this figure! And Kant. Yes, there's no getting away from Kant.

Incidentally, are you really a DJ? As well as being a northern writer? That's very cool.

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