Why do people read fantasy?
The typical answer is that people are searching for ‘escape.’ Fantasy represents, many would say, a retreat from the harsh world of competition and commerce. Another answer is that fantasy provides, like much fiction, a specific kind of wish-fulfillment. Fantasy allows us, for a time, to be the all-conquering warrior or the all-wise sorcerer. The problem is that neither of these answers in any way distinguishes fantasy from other genres of literature. Fantasy, I would like to suggest, offers a very specific kind of escape and wish-fulfillment, one connected, moreover, to its profound role in the great machine which we call contemporary culture.
Fantasy, I will argue, is the primary literary response to what is often called the ‘contemporary crisis of meaning.’ And as such, fantasy represents a privileged locus from which one might understand what is going in our culture in general.
What is the crisis of meaning? Since the Enlighenment a few centuries ago, we have witnessed a dramatic shift in our culture, a signature characteristic of which is the rise of science. Science as a socio-historical phenomenon is related to the crisis of meaning in a least two ways: 1) the disenchantment of the world; and 2) the monopolization of rationality.
Since the Enlightenment, science has quickly replaced all of our prior ‘intentional’ explanations of the world. Events are no longer the results of some spiritual agency, where thunder, for instance, might equal the ‘anger of the gods,’ but rather the result of indifferent causal processes. To say that the world is disenchanted is to say that it is indifferent to human concerns. Where our ancestors saw the world as extended family, as more cryptic members of the tribe, we see the world as arbitrary and inhuman, utterly disconnected from the puny tribe of human agency.
It is the power of science to explain, and the technological dividends those explanations have reaped, which has led to science’s monopolization of rationality. The only socially legitimate truth claims that remain to us are scientific truth claims. To be rational in our society, is to be ‘scientifically minded,’ to reserve our judgement on the truth or falsity of various claims pending ‘hard evidence.’
The problem, however, is that science does not provide value, does not tell us what is good or bad, right or wrong. And so we find ourlselves in a curious quandry: the only socially legitimate means we have to make truth claims has become divorced from questions of value. Certainly there are some very reasonable sounding moral philosophers and theologians out there with innumerable claims to the truth of this or that moral principle, but the fact that they can never agree on anything demonstrates to us the futility of their rationalizations. Only the evolutionary biologist can give us a scientific theory of morality: morality is an illusion which generates the requisite social cohesion necessary for the successful rearing of offspring. There is no ‘good’ or ‘evil,’ not really, only the successful transmission of genetic material.
The power of science to monopolize rationality has reached such an extent that one can no longer ask the question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ and still be ‘rational.’ Since there is no scientific answer to this question, and since science is the paradigm of rationality, the question becomes irrational, silly, the subject matter of Monty Python spoofs.
Thus the crisis of meaning. The world we live in has been revealed by science to be indifferent and arbitrary. Where we once lived in a world steeped in moral significance, now we live in a world where things simply happen. Where once the meaningfulness of life was an unquestioned certainty, the very foundation of rationality, now we must continually struggle to ‘make our lives meaningful,’ and do so, moreover, without the sanction of rationality. Questions of the meaningfulness of life have retreated into the fractured realm of competing faiths and the ‘New Age’ section of the bookstore. In our day in age, the truth claim, ‘My life has meaning,’ is as much an act of faith (which is to say, a belief without rational legitimation) as the truth claim, ‘There is a God.’
It is no accident that fantasy is preoccupied with our pre-Enlightenment, pre-crisis past. The contemporary world is a nihilistic world, where all signs point to the illusory status of love, beauty, goodness and so on. This is not to say that they are in fact illusory, only that at a fundamental level our culture is antagonistic to the claim that they are real. Nihilism is a fever in the bones of contemporary culture, afflicting all our assertions of meaningfulness with the ache that they are wrong.
Fantasy is the celebration of what we no longer are: individuals certain of our meaningfulness in a meaningful world. The wish-fulfillment that distinguishes fantasy from other genres is not to be the all-conquering hero, but to live in a meaningful world. The fact that such worlds are enchanted worlds, worlds steeped in magic, simply demonstrates the severity of our contemporary crisis. ‘Magic’ is a degraded category in our society; if you believe in magic in this world, you are an irrational flake. And yet magic is all we have in our attempt to recover some vicarious sense of meaningfulness. If fantasy primarily looks back, primarily celebrates those values rendered irrelevant by post-industrial society, it is because our future only holds the promise of a more trenchant nihilism. One may have faith otherwise, but by definition such faith is not rational. Faith, remember, is belief without reasons.
Reading fantasy represents the attempt to give meaning to one’s life by forgetting, for a time, the world that one lives in. In the escape offered by fantasy one glimpses the profound dimensions of our modern dilemma. Fantasy is the primary expression of a terrible socio-historical truth: the fundamental implication of our scientific culture is that life is meaningless.
If so many religious groups are up in arms about Harry Potter, it is because they see in it a competitor–and rightly so. Fantasy novels can be construed as necessary supplements to the Holy Bible. In a culture antagonistic to meaning, the bald assertion that life is meaningful is not enough. We crave examples.
Copyright© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 R. Scott Bakker, sffworld.com. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.