Truest of the true. Falsest of the False

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: One man’s fantasy is another man’s self. [postscript: this aphorism was revised because the previous one was shite]

I’m guessing that a number of people find themselves wondering what any of this philosophical or literary stuff has to do with fantasy.

Outside the way epic fantasy colonized and reorganized my adolescent imagination, my interest in the subgenre falls into two general categories. There’s the eclectic nature of its audience, the way it spans so many cultural fault-lines. And there’s the way it fits into the greater puzzle of human history, culture, and psychology.

Scriptural worlds are almost universally anthropomorphic. Why? Because social cognition seems to be some kind of natural default, the primary way we are prone to make sense of complexity. For our ancestors, the world was cut from the same psychosocial cloth as their communities because that was where intuition led them, and they had no reason to suspect otherwise. The rise of scientific inquiry changed all that. As it demolished the credibility of these anthropocentric worldviews, the world necessarily became more and more inhuman, something that contradicted our preposterous sense of self-importance at every turn, eventually revealing a world that cuts against our default intuitions in many troubling respects.

I see epic fantasy as a kind of ‘scripture otherwise.’ A large part of its appeal lies in its iteration of anthropocentric worlds, ontologies that serve our default understanding of the world. All fiction caters to the vagaries of human cognition, but none to such an extent. As such, epic fantasy possesses tremendous social and cultural significance, recording, at almost every turn, the antagonism between modernity and the human soul. Agency is distributed through the natural world (as opposed to restricted to humans or nonexistent). History has a closed narrative structure (as opposed to being open-ended and pointless). Morality is not only objective, but simple and unambiguous (as opposed to intractable or illusory). Events, regardless of scale, are intentional (as opposed to random). Social relationships are local and familial/tribal (as opposed to bureaucratic and incidental). Reality is accountable to human need and desire (as opposed to opaque and indifferent). Epic fantasy, as I like to say, offers us a ‘photographic negative’ of modernity.

The subgenre is often derided as ‘escapist,’ but for me, it’s important precisely because it’s consolatory in such a fundamental, encompassing way. Once its kinship to living scripture as opposed to myth (dead scripture) is highlighted, the absurd proportion of the cognitive stakes involved becomes clear. Where ‘scripture’ is the truest of the true when it comes to narrative, ‘fantasy’ is the falsest of the false, something that is somehow more fictional than fiction.

Only one ontological model straddles this divide: the human. Plug this model into a religious narrative and it commands absolute belief. Plug it into a fictional narrative and it commands utter disbelief. Truest of the true. Falsest of the False.

And this model just happens to be the immovable basis of how we understand others and ourselves…

And this is so fucked up in so many ways that I don’t know where to begin.