Postcards from Rivendell

Picture of a black horse

This is a picture of a black horse. It symbolizes nothing. It is a record of an aspect. In other words, it does not identify black horses, much less a particular black horse, because it does not refer to the structure of aspects which constitutes black horses or Daisy the black horse.

Black-horse picture

This is a black-horse picture. It symbolizes black horses, and therefore refers to the entire structure of aspects identifying black horses. Though this one does not, such pictures may refer to a particular structure of characteristics identifying Daisy the black horse.

Mount Rainier

This is a topographic map of Mount Rainier. It is a record of an aspect (relative prominence). Therefore it is necessarily a picture of Mount Rainier. It also refers to the entire structure, from the chemistry of volcanic rock to the origins of the volcano’s name. Therefore, it is necessarily a mountain picture, a volcano picture and a Mount Rainier picture.

Any map which is a map has these features: it presents a viewpoint in reference to the global structure of viewpoints on its subject. The name superimposed on the map’s collection of contour lines directs the user to a European nobleman in whose honor a Pacific Northwest volcano was named. Knowing now that the map in hand is a map of a Pacific Northwest volcano, one can guess, based on geologic and physical chemistry aspects of those peaks, what the climbing might be like on the steep, North face of Mount Rainier.

In addition and necessarily, if I travel to a certain longitude and latitude on the map, I will know what sort of ground I will be standing on: rock or ice, steep or flat. Because, I have a picture of that ground on the map.

Maps constitute our reality, if we wish to speak of anything as real. It is an interdependent reality, not an independent reality, and especially not a mind independent reality. The idealists can postulate archetypical forms for everything under the sun. Dualists can insist on a mental substance. Yet, the world maps the same without these outside props. Bishop Berkeley could be right; God could be making it all up as he goes along. But, when we stub our toes on a rock, our consciousness conjures a map featuring the stone’s painful hardness, without reference to any divine-creative aspect. At best, the activities of the deity are notations on the border of a chart which is already complete.

We employ cartography across the board, charting all things, from Northwest volcanoes to attitudes. Sometimes, we even use fictional maps in our depictions of sentimental features of our experience. A map of Middle Earth, for instance, does not record any aspect of anyone’s experience. It does provide a background of relationships upon which various categories of experience are charted. The landscape’s precipices, snowfields and swift waters sketch out fear, endurance, and fidelity.

Features on the map of middle Earth fictionalize geologic structures as building blocks for a depiction of interpersonal relationships and personal attitudes. To be successful, the fictional features need to reference our maps of geology just enough to bring along the emotional content. The Misty Mountains must seem cold and treacherous. Rivendell must feel like an old growth forest. Done well enough, an arrangement of fictional elements can make us wonder what truly separates the constructed world from the world of primary experience.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of images depicting Rivendell. But of course, there are no pictures of Rivendell. There are not even Rivendell pictures, as there is no structure of aspects to reference regarding Rivendell’s locality. What the artist does when they depict Rivendell is a reconciliation. Images of Rivendell constitute an attempt to match up the artist’s motive with the elements of the artist’s experience. Tolkien simply acts as a guide. He lays out the emotional manifestations which the topography must encompass.

The reason for fictions like the diverse images of Rivendell, should be obvious. When we examine our motive, we confront a brute fact. Our methods, which aim to explain, suddenly fail, and we are forced to construct a proper narrative instead. Such is the case with artistic fictions, and such is the case with moral fictions as well.

We move from one psychological state to another without understanding how we arrived at the start or why we left it. So, our reflections prove reactive, and our notions of introspection are fallacies at heart. To reconcile motive and experience, we must fall back on our depictions of Rivendell, and our moral narratives.

The method of our psychological cartography yields a much different product than we get from our geographical cartography. Our map of Mount Rainier provides a record of an aspect in reference to a global structure of aspects. Our depictions of Rivendell suggest emotions which record our psychological motion through the landscape. Our psychological cartography necessarily gives us something secondary: the structure of experience resulting from motive expressing itself, as it flows freely or is thwarted by the cliffs, streams and woodlands on the page.

Because we can explain the sensations, whether the depiction of Rivendell makes us feel warm or cold, sad or inspired, we find it easier to speak of those sensations as primary. We say that the depiction moves us to the attitude in question. That is not accurate. We move and our sensations constitute the wake of that motion. The generative element of our experience is not responsive. Even our wistful feelings upon viewing the ancient trees of Rivendell are not responses, but results.

All talk of morality is a Rivendell picture.

It looks like a place, in other words, a suitable cartographic subject. But, as Hume and Moore pointed out, our moral depictions lack the associated structure of aspects required. Moral depictions are secondary representations, just like Rivendell, which is a secondary representation of interpersonal relationships and personal attitudes. Instead of precipices, snowfields, and rushing streams, moral pictures sketch out a desirable motivational ecosystem. And because of the opacity of motive, moral pictures always remain flawed in their representation, though they represent their secondary subject as well as any art might.

It is no great error to talk about a moral sense, or human thriving, or the tally of global well-being. These things represent the aspiration of our expressive impulse. We can use such terms consistently, as long as we do not begin to mistake those depictions as proper cartographic subjects.

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