What Use is Fantasy?

I come here tonight, ladies, on a mission to redeem a word. Is there anything less appealing than the notion of the fantastic as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, which tells us that it refers to “what exists only in the imagination, to the unreal or what is perversely or irrationally imagined?” Not very promising, is it? Yet, strangely enough, the English and French words for fantasy derive from the Greek, “phantasia,” which means, perhaps surprisingly, “making visible.” Is it the function of fantasy only to make visible the unreal, the perverse, the irrational? Let us take a couple of test cases.

In the summer of 1816, a party of poets and story tellers, attempting to combat the bad weather that was spoiling their stay in a villa on the Lake of Geneva, decided to have a story telling contest. Nothing like a good old gothic tale to pass the dreary evenings in those pre-television days! Now this was no ordinary bunch, you understand, but a party that included some of England’s most celebrated characters: Percy Shelley, the poet; the notorious Lord Byron; a strange doctor named Polidori; and a young woman of only nineteen, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the feminist, none other than Mary Shelley, the great poet’s second wife. The gothic stories unfolded, but young Mary Shelley had some trouble thinking one up. Her failure to do so soon became embarrassing– what was wrong with her imagination? Then one night the group began to talk of the experiments of Dr. Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, who made some vermicelli squiggle around in a bottle by means of an electrical charge. What miracles might be wrought by this new source of power? Perhaps a corpse might be reanimated, they speculated, perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, and imbued with vital warmth? What happened next we learn from the words of Mary Shelley herself:

Night waned upon this talk and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the bounds of reveries. I saw–with shut eyes but acute mental vision—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy half-vital motion.

And when she opened her eyes Mary Shelley returned to the visibly present, immediate, outer reality.

. . . the very room, the dark parquet, the closed shutters, with the moonlight struggling through, and the sense I had that the glassy lake and the white high Alps were beyond. I could not so easily get rid of my hideous phantom. . . on the morrow I announced that I had “thought of a story. I began that day with the words: It was on a dreary night in November. . .

With those words, Mary Shelley began to compose a work that far transcended anything done by her more famous companions during those days of inclement weather. Lying in that room in the Villa Diodati, responding to the influences which stole into her mind while she was in that state of near sleep which today we call the hypnogogic state, Mary Shelley had begun to compose Frankenstein, a story enshrining one of the greatest myths of western civilization, This story not only virtually created the literary genre of science fiction, but gifted modern society with a parable that has become central to our twenty-first century human condition. Shelley’s novel lays bare the chief sources of western society’s Promethean dilemma: it shows how we have become victims of our own godlike creativity. It speaks to us about the dangers of machinery, about the perils of human creativity linked to hubris. It provides us with a memorable and terrifying image of runaway creation. More recently, it has furnished many feminist critics with a key model exemplyfying the guilt, joy and suffering involved in any woman’s creative act, whether she creates a child or some work of art or invention. All this, mind you, began with a message from the unconscious, with an unbidden spectre from the imagination, with something that defied logic and common sense, but insisted on making itself visible to Mary Shelley as she lay in her bed–in the hypnogogic state between waking and sleeping–on that moonlit night on the Lake of Geneva. In short, it began with a fantasy.

We move forward to the middle of the nineteenth century, to 1865 and another famous example. To the case of the German chemist, Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz, who had been researching the molecular structure of benzene. As Kekulé sat one day nodding before his fireplace; he had a dream. in which he saw a snake biting its own tail. From this dream came nothing less than Kekulé’s closed-chain or “ring” theory of benzene, which has been called “the most brilliant piece of prediction to be found in the whole range of organic chemistry.” A speculative idea, an image, a fantasy structure of ancient vintage arises in the psyche of an individual, none other than the ancient symbol of the ouroboros, the snake biting its tail. This is translated into one of the foundation principles of modern chemistry. As the philosopher Michael Polanyi points out, the history of science has more than a few such ideas, speculations that owe almost nothing to experiment and almost everything to the imagination. There is an element of strangeness, almost of spookiness, present in the visions of Mary Shelley and the chemist Kekulé. It could even be said that both of them had “perversely and irrationally imagined,” and yet we are indebted to them for ideas which have nourished our rational perceptions of nature and of our own society. They, and others like them, were able to tap the visionary power (a power that lies in each of us), to make visible a new reality.

A free fantasy, one might argue, is a potent fragment, that may well have the potential to be integrated in a complete imaginative process, leading to a breakthrough, a new discovery.

Alas, I believe that our contemporary thinking still harbours great suspicion of so-called fantastic ideas and images, especially those tinged with darkness and menace. We hesitate to

allow our children free range among the great fairy tales and folk tales because we perceive these stories to be full of violent fantasy. We worry if our older children get too involved in their role-playing games. Unlike our native peoples, we seldom take our dreams seriously. We insist that education “train young people to deal with reality.” Yet if I may paraphrase the jesting Pilate, and ask”what is reality?” I’m sure you would not be very confident in giving me an answer.

Evgeny Zamyatin, the great Russian writer, observed with wonderful insight: “today the apocalypse could be published as a daily newspaper; tomorrow we shall calmly buy a ticket for a journey by sleeper to Mars. Einstein broke space and time themselves from their anchors and the art that grows out of this present-day reality–can it be anything but fantastic, dreamlike?” “Nevertheless,” (Zamyatin continues) “there are still houses, boots, cigarettes, and next to the office which sells tickets to Mars is the store that sells sausages. Hence the synthesis of the fantastic with the everyday in contemporary art. Every detail is palpable; everything has its measure, weight and smell; everything is bursting with juice like a ripe cherry, and yet, out of rocks, boots, cigarettes and sausages we have the fantasm, the dream.”

Our world is indeed, as Zamyatin says, a fantastic world. It is a world, where some of the latest theories of physics seem as zany as the works of Lewis Carroll, and, in the form that my friend David Peat describes them, just as entertaining. It is a world where everything happens on television, so that another of my talented friends, the wonderful Hungarian-Canadian writer Robert Zend, (whose posthumous collection of stories is appropriately called Daymares) could write about a family that watches the end of the world on the TV in their living room, undisturbed by the fact that it is apparently happening to them. It is no wonder that the characteristic literature of our day, post-modernism, exemplified by the so-called metafiction, revels in the fantastic, in absurdity, in the juxtaposition of the commonplace with the outré and the bizarre. It is no wonder that the icons of popular culture are touched by fantastic imaginings: the rash of “sightings” of Elvis Presley, seen at the drugstore or train station. No wonder our popular tabloids describe UFO visitants who abduct the unsuspecting and take them to an other world. (When we consider it in detail, that world much resembles the other world of our traditional folk tales and myths). It is no wonder that many of the profoundest of contemporary literary visions are fantastic ones: we all feel innately, even if we cannot always articulate, the frustrations of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, who awakes one morning to find himself turned into an insect. We can experience the wonder and even terror in the writing of the great Argentinean Borges, who writes of a library of Babel, a universe of information, constructed of corridors and unending passageways where texts are endlessly multiplied and human nature is dwarfed by the sheer bulk of its outpourings.

In this respect the line from past to present is a direct one: fantasy and the fantastic are perennial components of our culture. For if we look at the literary works which are the foundation of our civilization we find great injections of the most fantastic material, some of it very dark and violent indeed. I need only mention the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, first recited probably as early as the early pyramids or Stonehenge, which tells us of a journey to a dark forest to fight the dragon-giant, Humbaba, of encounters with man-scorpions and of a voyage across the waters of death. I need only mention The Odyssey, with its cannibal giants, its sea-demon and whirlpool, and its journey to Hades. Or the Epic of Beowulf in which the hero must explore (and I quote the Burton Raffel translation) “windy cliffs, wolf dens, where water pours from the rocks, and groves of trees growing out over the lake are all covered with frozen spray, and wind down snakelike roots that reach as far as the water and help keep it dark.” The great poet who composed those lines full of bitter reality also gave us a vision of a hidden world that we might do well to keep in mind. He wrote: “At night that lake burns like a torch. no one knows its bottom. no wisdom reaches such depths.” And yet that poet demonstrates without a doubt that unless the depths of that darkness be explored the shining halls of Herot can never be safely occupied by mankind.

We live in a world that seems far removed from the natural terrors of some of these old epics, a world of science and rationality. Yet as Freud and Jung have shown we are as close to that old world as we are to our dreams, to our imaginings. Those two great healers of the soul urged us to take our fantasies seriously, especially the darker ones. I doubt if many story tellers would contradict Freud’s assumption that we most enjoy stories which touch most closely on those two potent aspects of the spectrum of human emotion: fear and desire. We fear that out of the unknown may come something to devour or crush our fragile little egos; we desire pleasure, and build the dream castles of our stories even if our real households fail us.

I doubt if many writers would despise Jung’s notion of the creative unconscious, a source we can tap in moments of quiet inner ranging. This process of encouraging fantasy Jung calls “active imagination.” This is a kind of daylight dreaming done with our eyes open, in which we can follow our fantasies, dark or bright, and sometimes come upon the pure gold of a new insight about ourselves or the world.

The projection of fantasy may occur throughout the creative process, and is not of course limited to its beginnings. There is a well-known phenomenon called “incubation,” in which we find that a problem which we have wrestled with and been unable to solve, is suddenly and, seemingly magically, resolved for us. I would suggest that “incubation” need not always occur in the form of a straightforward rational solution. It may in fact occur as an uprush of imagery, which enables us to reach a deeper solution to some apparent dead-end in our imagining, or our thought processes.”In dreams begin responsibilities,” as Yeats put it. I am not suggesting that we lose ourselves in a labyrinth of unguided day dreaming, but that we go in there without too much self-protection, confident that the Ariadne’s thread of wisdom will unfold for us, and lead us into the daylight with some kind of vision that we can put to use. I don’t deny that to spend all one’s time lost in fantasy is a fair definition of madness, but without the creative leaven of fantasy our sanity will be flat and tasteless, our utility will be useless. We need both what William Blake called “the prolific,” the uprush of imagery that is apparently without order or context, and also “the devourers,” the act of the sorting and constructive intellect, which enables us to relate these far-out and crazy fantasies to some task or problem, for which it may be a spontaneous solution, and even the best solution.

I am sure most of you expected me to come here and speak of fantasy along the relatively narrow band-width of literature itself; but I am afraid that is simply not my style, nor my conviction. Fantasy is something that is fundamentally useful to our culture; it is not simply a placard in that corner of the bookstore we may usually choose to avoid. As a student and teacher of literature, however, I must devote at least some of these comments to a brief explanation of literary fantasy.

The first thing you should know is that the literary fantasy we see displayed in our bookstores is blurred by a misnomer. The proper word for those books with the mildly lurid covers, featuring heroic warriors, maidens with long, braided hair and titles like “night riders of Gorm,” or “the Princess Callisto” is romance. The term romance is burdened with its current disability of being associated with the so-called Harlequin romances, which represent only a very limited subspecies of the genre, and in my view not a very interesting one. Romance, however, refers to stories which from ancient times have told of the marvelous, of the strange, the oddly beautiful and terrifying. It is distinguished from fiction proper, which attempts to give a picture of ordinary life. In The Odyssey, for example, the stories of the cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, and Circe the enchantress are romance, while the story of Odysseus’ meeting with Nausicca on the shore and the doings at the court of her father, King Alcinous, are very close to fiction. Romance elements and fictional elements both infiltrated the modern novel, so that even in the so-called realistic nineteenth century novel there are often scenes that are part of the romance tradition. In the contemporary post-modern novel, romance elements are very predominant: anything may happen and no one expects these books to stick to what is presumed possible.

Nowadays, however, we have almost given up the term “romance” for this kind of fiction; instead, we use the term “fantasy” to describe a book in which a thoroughgoing escape from reality is attempted. In a romance, or modern fantasy, two elements predominate: freedom from the tyranny of the possible; and a thorough-going logic in working out the premises, however crazy, that the writer begins with. J.R.R. Tolkien suggests that fantasy may begin when a writer imagines a world with a green sun. but, though this initial act of imagination is important, there is no fantasy unless the writer also imagines a world in which a green sun might exist. In other words, even though the fantasy writer initially dispenses with the conditions or appearances of ordinary reality, he or she must be prepared to offer us a new world with its own coherence and logic.(I should note parenthetically that Alberto Manguel makes a distinction between “fantasy” and the “fantastic,” the latter being the intrusion of the strange and inexplicable into an otherwise recognizable world–Zamyatin’s idea– while he reserves the term “fantasy” mostly for alternative world narratives, which, since Tolkien, have become an important subgenre of popular literature).

Science fiction, however, may be best understood as a sub-genre of fantasy in which the writer carries over a specific social or technological idea into an imaginary world, often located in the future or in far space, or both. It is fantasy still bound by an umbilical cord to a present technological or social reality. In some science fiction the science is very important; in other works, the fantasy is more important; in still others — some of the best— a trembling equilibrium exists between the two elements. How did these species of literature, science fiction and fantasy — which are new versions of the old romances — how did they come to occupy the place they do in our bookstores and marketing of literature? With the rise of the mainstream novel after the Renaissance, interest turned to depicting the life of the rising middle classes and works of thorough-going fantasy were relegated mostly to the margins of literature, though strong fantasy or romance elements, as I’ve noted, continued to linger in the mainstream novel proper. When literature ceased being an elite production and became a phenomenon of mass culture (in the 18th and 19th centuries) fantasy, at least as a separate genre, remained a relatively invisible presence.

In the U.S. A., however, toward the end of the 19th century, with a vast readership to satisfy, publishers began to put out specialized magazines that sold for a few cents and were printed on cheap paper, the so-called pulps. In these pulp magazines the genres of fantasy, detective stories, and many others which had been cannibalized by the mainstream novel began to re-emerge and to find a specialized readership. Such magazines as Golden Argosy, Detective Fiction Weekly, and the many Street and Smith magazines began the process of marketing literature by genres. Such characters as Tarzan, Sam Spade, Dr. Kildare, Doc Savage, Zorro and The Shadow owe their birth to the pulp magazines. In one of these magazines, called appropriately enough, Amazing Stories, Hugo Gernsback began, in 1926, the modern vogue for science fiction. By the time of the Second World War, SF was a well-recognized and firmly established genre, with a subculture of fans and readership, but fantasy writing was still scattered in various places: it existed in mainstream, and also under the cover of SF and in specialized pockets represented, for example, by the magazine Weird Tales. J.R.R. Tolkien, of course, changed all that. He created an heroic quest novel in the form of a modern prose epic, and by incorporating many of the diverse strands of fantasy within one great narrative structure, he singlehandedly created a revival of fantasy, which has leapt into the position of a leading genre, pulling ahead of science fiction, obliterating the western, the sea story, and other such minor genres, although still not rivalling detective fiction for overall popularity with readers.

Now I must confess that I am not a great fan of heroic fantasy, even though I’ve written one, but I can well understand why many young people love it, for it marvelously empowers them., giving them a secondary world in which they can test their own dreams of action, in which they can play out their hopes of heroism and learn how to defeat the dragons of despair, and of cynicism. Fantasy teaches them that they can overleap our trivial world of one-damned-thing-after-another, which for most of us constitutes “the real world.”

To conclude: I make no apology for cherishing my own personal fantasies, even the dark ones. I pay attention to both my daydreams and my nightmares, and even to my daymares, for I believe that fantasy often has the power to make visible what is real, to shake us out of the sleep induced by overdoses of domestic routine, television palaver and office small talk, to free us for a while from the burden of being rate-paying, form-filling responsible citizens. My own fantasies — and other people’s — have the power sometimes to fling me into a state of mind where the world tilts or turns upside down, where suddenly, sharply, I see that the impossible is real and realizable. This, if it is not the beginning of wisdom, is at least the opening of a path. The rest, as usual, simply depends on hard work.

(A speech to the Canadian Association of University Women, in the Centre Block Parliament Buildings, Ottawa, November, 1991)


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