On our 4th video: Ali Baba

In making these videos the ultimate challenge is to express visually the idea of signs and their meanings out of which Tolkien drew The Hobbit. But it is a slow process learning the art of video and we are still a way from such integration of theory and practice.

In our fourth video the theory is removed from view and the focus is purely on comparison of literary practice. The video investigates the shared structure of two doors – one hidden, the other marked – in the stories of Ali Baba and The Hobbit. 

The final discussion concerns Tolkien’s reversal of the narrative order of the two doors: a door is marked by a robber in the second part of the story in the Arabian Nights but marked by a wizard in the opening pages of The Hobbit. Reversing the order transformed a miserable mark made by a robber, the story-point of which is that it fails, into a magical mark that begins the spell of a story.

The theory for now removed from view is found in the first pages of a classic textbook of Victorian philosophy, the Logic of J.S. Mill (1843).

By the late 1920s, when Tolkien imagined his story, the Ali Baba story was already a philosophical cliche. When the robber chalks a mark on the house of Ali Baba, wrote Mill, his intention is analogous to when we impose a proper name (e.g. name a child). Until around 1900, philosophers addressing proper names engaged with Mill’s literary analogy as well as his theory (Husserl is one of the last to discuss Ali Baba’s door). But after Frege obliterated Mill’s idea of a proper name there was little philosophical interest in the analogy. By the 1920s reading this passage of Mill must have been like attending a Gilbert and Sullivan opera in Tolkien’s day or watching an episode of West Wing in the age of Donald Trump.

But Tolkien would not have allowed philosophy to distract him from a story, and I am convinced that he read this passage in the Logic and raised his eyebrows at Mill’s peculiarly half-baked reading of the Arabian Nights.

The key claim in the video that the robbers who mark the door of Ali Baba should have marked the house on a map is presented as my own insight. Actually, it is what I take to be Tolkien’s verdict on Mill’s reading of the Arabian Nights.

What Tolkien taught me in reading this passage of J.S. Mill is that, contrary to readings that insist that the robber’s mark is actually a cypher meaning something like ‘here is the house of the man who burgled us,’ Mill is completely correct that the robbers of the story make something like a meaningless mark.

However, Mill completely fails to see that if the mark made by the robbers is meaningless it is because it is a mark made by illiterates, which is to say, a mark made by people who do not know how to make a mark.

Mill’s choice of analogy raises the question whether his theory of names is founded on an illiterate conception of marks and signs.