The Fourth Tribe (Or, Going for Baroque)

by rsbakker

So I’ve had this tripartite way of dividing fantasy fans for some time now. There’s the largest constituency, the Adventure Junkies, who want their fantasy to be as kinetic as Clive Cussler. Then there’s the two smaller constituencies: the Weird Junkies, who love smoking from the possibility-for-possibility’s sake bong, and there’s the World Junkies, who want something massive and, most importantly, believeable. I’ve always considered myself a member of the latter tribe, though I’ve never had any issue with the former two. These ‘tribes’ are simply a crude heuristic, of course, a way to regiment and discuss what is in fact an amorphous mass of readers. Personally, I like kineticism, and I sincerely enjoy the possibility bong, but for me, it all comes down the World. The Second Apocalypse isn’t shaping up to be a monstrous metaphysical whodunnit for no reason.

So this is the scheme I’ve been using. Then, via Adam’s Wertzone I was led to the conservative Big Hollywood site and a fascinating little article by Leo Grin entitled “The Bankrupt Nihilism of our Fallen Fantasists.” Grin, apparently, has decided to turn his back on contemporary fantasy, which he believes has been thoroughly coopted by ‘liberal decadence.’ His thesis is rather nicely summed up, I think, by the following:

Soiling the building blocks and well-known tropes of our treasured modern myths is no different than other artists taking a crucifix and dipping it in urine, covering it in ants, or smearing it with feces. In the end, it’s just another small, pathetic chapter in the decades-long slide of Western civilization into suicidal self-loathing. It’s a well-worn road: bored middle-class creatives (almost all of them college-educated liberals) living lives devoid of any greater purpose inevitably reach out for anything deemed sacred by the conservatives populating any artistic field. They co-opt the language, the plots, the characters, the cliches, the marketing, and proceed to deconstruct it all like a mad doctor performing an autopsy. Then, using cynicism, profanity, scatology, dark humor, and nihilism, they put it back together into a Frankenstein’s monster designed to shock, outrage, offend, and dishearten.


Now Adam in his blog response quite rightly points out that more than a little nihilistic despair colours both Tolkien’s and Howard’s work: Even as a kid, I read them as celebrations of things lost, as longwinded eulogies. Given this, you might say that Grin thinks this is fantasy’s vocation, to endlessly eulogize, and that writing that strays into the baroque or revisionary are not only morally and imaginatively bankrupt, they are symptomatic of some great disease of the soul that is presently claiming the world and humanity.

Sound familiar? It should if you read fantasy. This particular salad of attitudes and concepts – moral certainty writ on a cosmic scale – is precisely what you find in almost all premodern works of fantastic fiction, everything from Upanishads to the Holy Bible. Consider the hyperbole. Consider the way he structures his oppositions in the above quote: on the one side you have the sacred, the treasured and the cruciform, while on the other side you have, well, shit and piss.

Pure purity and abject pollution.

Humans are apparently hardwired for this stuff (Pascal Boyer, for instance, has interesting things to say about the psychology and neuroscience of contamination with reference to religion), which is probably why Grin’s declarations resonate with so many Big Hollywood readers. The important thing to remember, however, is that these are intuitions that we all share, more or less. It’s simply the ‘more’ or ‘less’ that determines where we fall on the cultural-political spectrum.

(Note that I’m only referring to a very specific brand of conservatism here. Given the findings of cognitive psychology and neuroscience, it’s hard not to see cultural conservatism as anything other than our conceits and vanities raised to a political ethos. We good. You bad. We chosen. You left behind. We saved. You damned. Our scripture, 100% divinity guaranteed. Your scripture, devil spawn. We pure. You mongrel. And the list just gets more and more embarrassing.

Fiscal conservatism, on the other hand, is a guess (one that I no longer share after 30 years of the Middle-class’s dwindling economic power) that could very well be right (and likely is, when it comes to specific issues)).

The crazy thing is that Grin actually doesn’t think it’s the vocation of fantasy to eulogize. Why? Because eulogies are for funerals, and the ancient ethoi you find in Tolkien and Howard are most certainly not dead, even though their so-called ‘successors’ are bent on suffocating them with their ‘soil.’

This is why (perhaps) the nihilistic despair that seems to obvious to most readers of Howard and Tolkien misses him entirely. Good is still good, and evil is still evil, no matter what those ‘college educated’ nihilists/relativists say. This is a sentiment that has, I would wager, tipped the balance of more than one election.

Grin seems to be an honest-to-God ‘Flat-Brainer’: someone who literally thinks that his yardstick is not bent, that he has not only won the Magical Belief Lottery, he has obviously done so.

Which is to say that Grin is passing judgment on fantasy from a fantasy world – or worlds, as the case might be. The first is the fantasy world where, despite being one more me-me-me schmuck like everyone else, he is obviously right unlike everyone else. The second is the fantasy world where the entire parade of human conceit, everything from our sense of moral certainty to the spiritual inferiority of the Other, possesses objective weight.

Which is why he uses the language and the attitude that I’m continually try to work into my fantasy world! Why I think the above quote is so awesome.

The ‘nihilism’ that Grin blames on decadent individuals (who also happen to be his political competitors) is as impersonal as can be, the result the forces unleashed by the Enlightenment twins of science and capital. Someone like him is bound to see ‘liberal contamination’ everywhere he turns, simply because, like our less tolerant ancestors, he needs to personify those things he does not like. But you don’t need liberal conspiracies or social dystopia to explain the evolution of contemporary fantasy. The transformation of ‘earnest art’ into forms than are progressively more baroque and revisionary is something you find in pretty much all genres of artistic expression. Familiarity breeds boredom, if not contempt. Humans stranded with old equipment come up with new games to play.

Thus the paradox: People are generally allergic to complexity and uncertainty, and so crave the apparent simplicity and certainty delivered by the Same. But they are also allergic to monotony, and so begin to improvise, to complicate and to surprise. ‘To go for baroque.’ The severity of these allergies depends on the sensibilities of the individual: we react to our reading, then rationalize accordingly, typically using what themes that dominate our thinking otherwise. Grin sees contemporary fantasy as the expression of liberal decadence. I see Grin’s diagnosis as the expression of our all too human cognitive shortcomings.

Me right. He wrong! So very wrong!

(This is where my decadent liberal preoccupation with irony shows its contaminating hand).

What Grin has showed me is that there is fourth tribe of fantasy fans out there: the Nostalgia Junkies. I’ve spilled more than a few gallons of electronic ink over the years suggesting that much of fantasy’s appeal lies in the way provides readers the kinds of worlds that humans are prone to cook up in the absence of science, worlds adapted to our psychology, rather than vice versa. Scriptural worlds. Pondering his essay I couldn’t shake the sense that it was more the tone of Tolkien and Howard that he was missing, not the ideological content (which he seems to so clearly misread). The very tone that I have worked so hard – too hard, according to some critics – to recreate in my own fantasy fiction. Elevated, and serious unto lugubriousness.

The tone of Believers.

Either way, he demonstrates  what makes fantasy not simply exciting, but so damn important as a literary genre: it appeals to a set of psychological tendencies that the human race can no longer afford. The Fourth Tribe (which we all belong to in varying degrees) is the one that not only resists adaptation to changing socio-cultural conditions, it is also the one most prone to condemn that change, to confuse its parochial intuitions for universal truth, and most troubling still, to personify – which is to say, to hold some identifiable group accountable for its all too human confusion and discomfort.

Fantasy, you could even say, could be the most socially relevant literary genre in the 21st century, insofar as it actually reaches the human constituency that will have the most difficulty adapting to the profound transformations to come. The Grin Demographic.

Not only is Grin wrong, he is living proof that I could possibly be right!

At the very least, he certainly has my brain’s rationalization module working in overdrive…