Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Personality of JRR Tolkien: classic creative genius

That JRR Tolkien was a first rank creative genius is a matter of judgment at this stage; but there are reasonable grounds for suggesting that this is by now close to being an established objective fact based on consensus and influence - for instance, TA Shippey makes a strong case in 'Author of the Century'.

HJ Eysenck, the eminent psychologist, wrote a book about Genius (1995) shortly before his death and synthesizing a lifetime's research; where he described the typical features of a creative Genius whether in science or the arts. As well as needing 'luck', the Genius also needed very high intelligence (IQ), a strong ego, and - most controversially - Eysenck argued that creativity was associated with a moderately high level of the personality trait termed Psychoticism.

Very high Psychoticism is associated with psychotic mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and also with antisocial psychopaths; very low Psychoticism includes all sorts of traits which are generally regarded as socially desirable such as a friendly and empathic personality, self discipline and conscientiousness. An extremely high level of Psychoticism would usually rule out creative achievement. In general, it is better to be low in Psychoticism oneself, and to have neighbours low in Psychoticism; however, moderately high (but not very high) levels of Psychoticism have one very positive feature: that of enhancing creativity.

For Eysenck, creativity is part way to insanity, in the sense that the weird experiences and crazy ideas of insanity are an extreme version of the processes of creativity. Creativity is therefore seen as a version of the thought processes occurring during dream, the wide ranging associations between material. He also notes that creative people have much higher than average levels of psychotic illness, alcohol and drug usage - and various other signs indicating that the trait of creativity is associated with a tendency towards altered states of consciousness.

Most people who are high in pure, wide-associative-field creativity are not able to achieve much with it, due to low intelligence or the other aspects of a high Psychoticism personality. So there is a very important distinction between creativity and creative achievement - and most highly creative people do _not_ achieve highly; not least because their creativity is usually associated with antisocial traits and rather poor self-discipline.

It is the rare combination of high creativity with high IQ and a strong sense of self (ego strength) which potentially allows high levels of creative achievement. From here on I will say nothing more about ego strength (which is a poorly defined concept) and focus on combination of high IQ and moderately-high Psychoticism as a basis (although not the whole story) for high creative achievement.

In surveying the Notion Club Papers in particular, but in the context of everything I have read by and about JRR Tolkien, I would regard him as a classic creative Genius: with a very high IQ and moderately high Psychoticism.

That Tolkien had a very high IQ would not be disputed by those who know of his biography and very rapid ascent to academic eminence; and the reports of those who knew him. High general intelligence is associated with the ability to understand and learn very rapidly, to solve novel problems, and to reason abstractly. Tolkien was always perceived, and from a young age, as extremely quick-witted.

However, I would argue that Tolkien also showed signs of moderately high Psychoticism such as a tendency towards experiencing altered states of consciousness, and moderately low levels of self-discipline and conscientiousness as evidenced by his truly amazing lack of ability to finish projects in which he was not very interested - such as the Clarendon textbook about Chaucer, over which he spent several decades before abandoning unfinished, or the preface to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (which could have been finished in a few days but was delayed for about a decade until Tolkien died before publishing it). The new Chronology of Tolkien's life (in the recent JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide) is replete with similar examples.

This trait of moderately low conscientiousness goes back to school days and his early university career where, despite his high intelligence and ability, he took two attempts to achieve a financial award to attend Oxford, and even then failed to get a scholarship but instead attained a lower level of funding called an exhibition. And his first university course was 'classics' - the conventional high status Oxford degree, but which did not much interest Tolkien. After scraping a low second class mark in his first set of classics examinations (and only getting that high a mark due to the philological part of the course - otherwise he would have received a disgraceful 'third'), Tolkien switched to an English degree mostly consisting of his beloved philological studies - and excelled from that point onwards, receiving a full Oxford Professorship (the pinnacle of his profession in the UK) at the remarkably early age of 32 (and despite his years of service in the 1914-18 war).

In other words there is a consistent pattern throughout Tolkien's life of very high achievement when doing things that he loved, combined with a near-inability to do things which he did not love. This is a classic pattern of moderately-high Psychoticism seen in many (but not all) creative Geniuses - they do _not_ excel at things that do _not_ engage their deepest interest. Another example was Einstein, whose early scholarly career was somewhat mediocre until the point when he could work on exactly that subject which most engaged him. Einstein was of course - par excellence - the epitome of an imaginative, visualizing, intuitive creative genius.

Therefore Tolkien, like many creative geniuses, could work incredibly hard and fast on topics which deeply interested him; but was almost unable to get himself to work on topics which - although he felt a duty to do them - did not interest him deeply.

To see the difference between a highly intelligent person like Tolkien with moderately high Psychoticism/ high creativity and lowish Conscientiousness; and a person of similar intelligence but with low Psychoticism and high Conscientiousness - one need look no further than his friend CS Lewis.

Lewis could make himself work hard and regular hours even on matters which bored him but which he felt he ought to do - for example correspondence - at which he laboured for about 2 hours per day in later life. Meanwhile Lewis was publishing around a book a year plus scholarly articles and journalism: a vast volume of _finished_ work.

Yet Lewis was not so creative as Tolkien. He is of course much more creative than most people; but in comparison with Tolkien his fecundity was more a matter of selecting, combining and extrapolating from his vast fund of knowledge. And Lewis had a tendency to lapse into pastiche, which is evidence of his lower mode of creation (Tolkien by contrast would lapse into bathos - which is more the mark of a first rank creative genius when having an off-day - think of some of Wordsworth's lamest poems...).

Lewis did have 'visions', or images - from which his fictions often arose (eg the vision of a faun with a parcel which was elaborated into the Narnia books) - but Lewis was not in the same league as Tolkien in terms of creative imagination: the ability deeply to imagine a believable world (believable to the reader and inhabitable by the reader because it was believed and inhabited by the author).

One can also see this in their poetry - Lewis was a skilled versifier, while Tolkien was a lyric poet who at times (albeit rarely, like all but the greatest lyric poets) achieved greatness (e.g. Three rings for the elven kings...', or 'Where now the horse and the rider?").

Like other true lyric poets, Tolkien in his own poetic loves focuses on very specific phrases which have a mystical depth and resonance for him, such as "éala éarendel engla beorhtast / ofer middangeard monnum sended" or "Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað" . This, I take it, is evidence of the highly creative mind, that finds wider associations than usual mortals can discover.

By contrast, Lewis - although a greater and more productive critic of English Literature than Tolkien - seems to me both to interpret as well as write poetry much more narrowly and literally - more as if it were a technical form of prose (which of course is true of almost all so-called-poetry, almost all of the time - i.e. most soi disant lyric poetry is a kind of manufactured fake, displaying borrowed plumes).

Tolkien has often been described as if he were a rather dull character who never did much - that is probably most people's take home image from Humphrey Carpenter's biography. A rather typically stuffy and inhibited English Professor of his stuffy and inhibited era. But the truth is far in the opposite direction: JRR Tolkien was an extraordinary man, with an extraordinary mind, and living at an extraordinarily vivid and creative time - he was not just intellectually brilliant but _wildly_ creative.

In my opinion, when we think of what Tolkien was like, or of who Tolkien most resembled, we should be making comparisons with other imaginative, creative, idiosyncratic geniuses of something like the stature of Einstein. Yes, really.


dimwoo said...

Hi Bruce,

I've read Humphrey Carpenter's biography and Tolkien's Collected Letters, and have the impression (and I'm not sure if it was mine or from a comment of Carpenters, probably the latter) that Tolkien suffered greatly for his art, and oscillated perpetually between anxiety that his work (fictional and administrative) must be done and a strong desire to be free of it, and just read and potter about and go for long walks...

It's relevant that in 'Leaf by Niggle', seen by Tom Shippey as highly personal and autobiographical, that Niggle, who can never get things done, is put through a purgatory by which he slowly learns the self-discipline to impose a routine and manage tasks effectively.

I think I remember rightly though that one of Tolkien's teenage friends from the T.C.B.S who eventually died in WW1 charged Tolkien with 'keeping the flame': developing their ideas and loves and writing them down. In that way Tolkien had an imperative that drove him onwards and which he couldn't ignore.

Wurmbrand said...

Sensible observations, but I wonder a bit. Lewis created several convincing "mythoses" --

the Narnian; the eldilan; that of Glome; one might also cite the Screwtapian and the Great Divorcian.

All of these could readily have been developed further, and indeed in some cases have been. They would nourish sequels, etc.

With Tolkien, one has the Middle-earth mythos, which Tolkien elaborated -- but perhaps not endlessly after all, as he seems ultimately to have come to impasses. The Middle-earth mythos is largely an elaboration of the myths of the Silmarils, the Rings, the fate of the Elves, the lost Road, and the Hobbits, all beautifully interrelated.

You're probably right, but the latter -could- be debated a bit!

Bruce Charlton said...

@W - well it *could* be debated - but I don't think anyone who loved both T and L's work would dispute that T had achieved a higher level of creativity in his world. Indeed, there are those (more widely read than I, and including Lewis) who say that in *this* respect Tolkien is unmatched in world literature. The creation of a larger number of worlds at a lower level of verisimilitude is much commoner, and not really the same thing.