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What is the Relationship Between Fantasy and History?


Map of Earthsea, from Ursula K LeGuin's The Earthsea Cycle


It seems obvious to say this, but there is a way in which art - literature, visual art, music - seems to both fit its time and, if it is any good, be ahead of its time. If that is true, and I think it is, what does it mean to say that, and does saying it help us think about the relationship between art and history, or art and culture, or art and life?


What is the relationship between art and history? We are so often given simplified accounts. Art is within history, but pushing against the walls of its own enclave; art is a distant star coaxing the waters of the terrestrial globe; art is here, history is there, they orbit each other, but how can we describe their interaction?


Choose your metaphor. But regardless of the plasticity of our thinking, there is a there there, and history changes, and art changes with it, or vice versa. How so? Think about how much time passed as medieval art passed across the room of history like a breeze in an attic; then imagine how quickly we switched from Abstract Expressionism to Pop art to Conceptual art, or Fauvism and Impressionism and Post-Impressionism and Cubism. Why all these isms; or, why didn't medieval art have so many isms?


I wonder if technology has played a role in speeding up our culture, while also playing a role in destroying culture. There was the atom bomb, and there is Gutenberg, or newspapers, or (with reservation) the Internet. Kids try on different identities every day: am I goth, am I a jock, am I [fill in the blank], and if I am [fill in the blank], what does that say about the kind of music I listen to, the books I read, the people I trust?


It seems a bit fakakta to claim that this is a new development, since I did not myself live in medieval times or, if I did, I do not have any memory of it. And we could make plenty of arguments against what I'm saying. For example, there is a critic named Gary Saul Morson whose work I admire, and he wrote a book about Tolstoy and Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina in our time. It changed the way I thought about Karenina as a character, but it also made me think about the novel in a new way. In that book of literary criticism, Morson argued that one of Tolstoy's greatest achievements was his ability to capture, or represent, the felt texture of actual lived time. Meaning, as you traveled through War and Peace, or Anna Karenina, it literally feels like life, and that means the feeling of time feels natural. It's like reading a description of eating a grapefruit, and feeling as if it is the greatest description you have ever read of what it actually feels like, tastes like, to eat a grapefruit; but in Tolstoy's case, Morson argues, Tolstoy does this with life.


I think Morson is right. And he strengthens his argument with a cool concept - "tiny alterations of consciousness." He argues that the felt texture of life involves tiny alterations of consciousness. We grow as individuals, and growing is an endless inching forward, a tiny stitching, a pencil writing a word each day.


But if Tolstoy captures the feeling of time, and the feeling of time involves tiny alterations of consciousness, and if it was that way in the 19th century, why would it not be that way in medieval times; and, if so, why do we have so many more isms?


I wonder if the way individuals grow is the same, but at our historical moment there are more options available for us to grow. Back in the day, Christians were Christians. There was no such thing as a Jewish Buddhist. There were no white people in the land called the United States of America. Nowadays, we can try on new identities like code switches. We can fly to Paris; we can talk to a friend in Africa; we can watch a movie about a story involving a couple navigating a canoe in a different imaginative world.


Fantasy brings out the starkness of the reality of different imaginative worlds. When there is a war in Ukraine and Teletubbies (I'm mostly hopeless about popular culture, forgive me), it seems safe to say that we are constantly courting a form of apocalyptic nihilism. What else can fill the void, literarily, than a mode that gives us blendings of routes into the unknown, out of a kind of hopeless fury at the known? Speculation is not a mug's game: the best imaginative writing, in whatever mode - Kabbalah or the novel or whatever else - happens out of a need, and the need happens because of pain or trauma and the bewilderment attendant upon those experiences. Nihilism breeds meaning, but meaning is uncapturable.


And fantasy nourishes the heart. People turn to fantasy, I would think, for the same reason people write or read anything else - it gives them hope, it is honest, and it is imaginative. If you can stream a song from the air through plastic circles while walking down a street past a shoe store while children die in hospitals in Ukraine and Putin sits in a suit in a chair and says words, it seems sensible that a speculative mode would help us understand our current selves.

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