Terrifyingly Indifferent: Reflections on Middle Earth After Camping

Lord of the Rings is not known for its subtle layers of moral complexity. There is no flicker of doubt regarding Sauron’s evil plans or the innate goodness of hobbits. JRR Tolkien was consistent in his use of clear moral coding both with characters and with world building which is particularly clear in the contrasting forests of Mirkwood and Lothlorien. It is a view of nature that is either wholly malevolent or wholly benevolent. There is a power in Tolkien’s forest that moves a reader to either fear or awe and occasionally a bit of fearful awe. The forests of the real world are not accompanied by such clear moral coding but is often able to provoke very similar emotions when one is immersed in them. The nature of the real world is indifferent to people, beautiful without the implication of virtue and dangerous without necessarily being out to get you.Read More »

Confronting the Terror of the Infinite: The Romantic Poets and Interstellar

In the grand scheme of the universe humans are very small and probably lacking any degree of importance – a fact that humanity has been aware of and sought to minimize through an understanding of the world we exist in. The works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth look back on a concept developed by Immanuel Kant out of even earlier models: the idea of sublime beauty in ideas or places that are terrifying in scope but also ultimately positive to experience. For the Romantic poets this was a notion that was heavily connected to nature and the place of humans as simply an observe in a natural world that they cannot change but much more recently the sublime seems to appear in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar film. These are artistic explorations of the natural world and of philosophical ideal that can be simultaneously frightening and inspiring.

The idea of the sublime is traced back to the Greek philosophical tradition but the concept as it is used today in philosophy originates with Immanuel Kant. He built on the work of earlier philosophers who viewed the sublime as a general kind of terrifying beauty and developed the sublime into something that is tied to the cerebral rather than the physical world. However, throughout these developments the central themes remained the same – the world is frightening but also aesthetically impressive. As with many important and enduring philosophical concepts the sublime seeped into the artistic tradition. The early English Romantic poets explicitly aligned themselves with exploring the concept of the sublime while later poets and artists of other disciplines show strong influences from the philosophical tradition without explicit ties.

Representations of the sublime in art is much more closely relate to the natural world than it is to the largely theoretical sublime that Kant wrote about. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were close friends and collaborated over a shared fascination with the sublime. Wordsworth was captivated by nature, its seeming infinite complexity or beauty while Coleridge stayed closer to Kant’s conception of the sublime with a focus on bleak landscapes like deserts or oceans. It is Coleridge’s approach that is most closely related to Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar which released in 2014, 180 years after Coleridge’s death. Nolan films are always masterfully created which supports the kind of terrible beauty that is showcased in the movie. It is a movie that doesn’t shy away from the science of the universe and both the characters and the audience are both in awe of and frighten by the uncaring universe that is revealed.

There is a continuity in the natural world that is fascinating to the Romantic poets. The Rime of the Ancient Sea Mariner has repeating lines throughout of the sun rising and setting over the drifting ship. While some of Wordsworth later works grapple with his sense that there is a part of the natural world that he is consistently just a few moments too late to see. There is a sense that time, and nature are moving on without the observer and that feeling comes through in Interstellar as well because the characters are constantly trying to manipulate space-time phenomena to their advantage. Much of the plot of Interstellar hinges not just on human created technology but also on the potentially overwhelming inner workings of the universe. Where cryo-sleep and years of space travel can make the protagonists a mere seven minutes late to stage a rescue operation on a distant water world.

Even separated by several centuries the Romantic Poets and Nolan seem to share a fascination with the uncaring world around them. They both seek to represent their view of the world to an audience and they have arguably succeeded. The Rime of the Ancient Sea Mariner in particular is a poem that most English students will encounter and Interstellar is quickly becoming a gateway for young people into the sciences. This may not indicate that wider society is suddenly going to start having intellectual discussions about the nature of beauty and the sublime but it does show that the central principle remains solid: we are fascinated by the awe inspiring power of the universe and all the ways it doesn’t care if we die.

Looking into the overwhelming power of the natural world, or the natural universe, is an exercise in willpower and sometimes fear. In Interstellar, the characters are not scared by what they don’t know, they are confronting the terrors of a universe that is uncaring of human concerns forcing humans to just try and find a way to continue along inside of it. This is the same essential problem that the early romantic poets are exploring, nature exists in its own terms and especially at the time of writers like Coleridge and Wordsworth there was very little humans could do to try and tame it. However, those poets as well as modern creators like Christopher Nolan capture the concept of the sublime, a world that is enormous, terrifying and beyond our control but also ultimately beautiful and worth examining.