Fantasy and the Home of the Spirit

by reichorn

Aphorism of the Day:

“He was a modern man, and the world of our ancestors was no longer the home of his spirit and his heart but his historical object.”

– Wilhelm Dilthey


(Another guest-blogger post by Roger Eichorn.  Now with 50% less philosophy!)

What makes fantasy fantasy?

I doubt there’s any single satisfactory answer to this question.  It seems to me that ‘fantasy’ is, to use a Wittgensteinian phrase, a ‘family resemblance’ concept: it signifies a cluster of distinct (yet related) features or qualities that works of fiction can exemplify in a variety of ways.  If that’s right, then we shouldn’t try to force the pegs of ‘round’ fantasy and ‘square’ fantasy and ‘triangular’ fantasy into any one definitional hole.

Now, back in 2003 and 2004, I attended the Blue Heaven writers’ workshop run by Charles Coleman Finlay.  Blue Heaven is exclusively for workshopping speculative-fiction novels: over the years, it’s midwived such books as Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, Paul Melko’s The Walls of the Universe, and Catherynne Valente’s Palimpsest.  One of my fellow attendees back in ’03 and ’04 was Benjamin Rosenbaum.

I forget which year it was, but I remember Ben proposing, one lazy afternoon around the dining-room table, what we might call a ‘phenomenological’ definition of fantasy: rather than thinking of fantasy in terms of features or qualities exemplified by texts, we ought to think of it in terms of the experience produced by reading.  (Unfortunately, I forget what Ben proposed as the ‘experiential criteria’ of fantasy.)  I objected that the phenomenological-definition approach must fail, because it would relativize the concept of fantasy so much as it render it meaningless: if fantasy were defined in terms of evoking experience E in reader R, then we would have to accept that, if R’s reading of Lord of the Rings failed to produce E, then it’s true that, in R’s case, Lord of the Rings would fail to qualify as fantasy.  Call this the ‘paradigm’ worry: Lord of the Rings is the very paradigm of fantasy novels—that is, it’s practically definitional of what fantasy is; thus, we shouldn’t accept any definition of fantasy that would allow for the possibility that Lord of the Rings ends up not being a fantasy novel.

Ben agreed with me, and I still think the argument is convincing.  Even so, Ben’s phenomenological or experiential conception of genre has stuck with me all these years.  I think there’s something profoundly right about it, even if it fails to provide us with definitions.  What I want to suggest here is that there’s an interesting parallel between certain paradigmatically definitional features of fantasy and one sort of experience fantasy can provides for its readers.

A common feature of fantasy novels can be captured in terms of Weber’s distinction between ‘enchanted’ and ‘disenchanted’ worlds.  The world as revealed to us by natural science is thoroughly disenchanted: stripped of purpose, meaning, and agency—stripped of personhood.  Pre-scientific worldviews tend(ed) to fall somewhere along the ‘enchantment continuum’ between, say, hard-nosed Protestantism and full-blown pantheism.  As Bakker is fond of pointing out, the ‘world’ of Lord of the Rings is, in terms of its fundamental metaphysical structure, virtually identical to the ‘world’ of the Hebrew Bible or (less contentiously, though with no greater truth) the ‘world’ of Norse mythology.  Indeed, it is even tempting to offer up this feature of fantasy as definitional.  (The commonly heard claim that no story lacking magic can qualify as fantasy is a version of this view, I think.).

Another, more loaded way of thinking about Weber’s enchanted/disenchanted distinction is in terms of the difference between the world showing up for us as our ‘home’ and the world showing up for us as merely an ‘object’ (or collection of objects); the difference between the forest as ‘sacred grove’ and the forest as timber.  I have in mind here Hegel’s story about how the world shows up for Perception as opposed to how it shows up for Understanding.  For Perception, which is the ‘form of consciousness’ in which ‘commonsense realism’ finds its natural home, the world is a world of things-with-properties: the world, in other words, is what it appears to us to be.  The way we see the world (literally) is true, and therefore we can find ourselves at home in that world.  For the Understanding, however, the world as it truly is is something other than what we see, something other than that ‘world’ in which we live, move, and have our being: it is some sort of supersensible Beyond.  In the twenty-first century, the obvious example is the ‘world’ of quantum mechanics.  The world as revealed by science—by the rationalistic Understanding—is not only disenchanted; it is also—or perhaps therefore—profoundly alien to us: it dismembers the commonsense world of Perception; it transforms our Home into a mere Object, leaving us stranded, homeless, in a world in which we’ve lost ourselves, a world in which we fail to find ourselves peering back at us.

Restated in these terms, then, a common feature of fantasy novels is that they depict world-as-home, not world-as-object.  It seems to me that this feature is paralleled by an experience that the best fantasy novels provide us with.

The best fantasy novels, in my view, are homes, not mere objects.  Sharp, psychologically astute ‘literary’ novels can be fascinating objects, but by and large they don’t provide readers with a world.  It’s this ‘world-disclosing’ potential of fantasy that explains, I think, why those of us who have learned to read and love fantasy often find ourselves returning again and again to the same fantasy book or series.  We may discover in the books new psychological or thematic nuances, just as we might if we were to re-read a modern ‘literary’ novel—and this might be part of the enjoyment of re-reading—but it seems to me that that’s secondary to the urge to revisit a world, as opposed to reexamining an object.

The best fantasy novels are not just windows onto enchanted worlds; they also provide us with the experience of returning home.