Fantasy and Escapism


Fantasy books, TV shows, and films all provide entertainment and escapism. I enjoy fantasy but I’m troubled by this notion of escape – of using art to “wind down” and “switch off.” It seems to me that this is potentially deadening to the human spirit: making a habit of retreating every evening so that you can become dead to the world. Is reality so terrible that you need to escape from it? (Rather than face reality so that I can change it, I seek a means of escape.)

My favourite fantasy author is Michael Moorcock. In his preface to the Eternal Champion series he writes:

I wrote these books rapidly and with pleasure. Although they have continuing themes and develop certain ideas, they were conceived as entertainments, to be what I hope is intelligent and imaginative escapism.

I enjoy the books for the themes and ideas, but the escapism is always pleasurable. And that troubles me. And escapism as temporarily “switching off” is just the surface: the human being’s desire and capacity for escape runs deeper.

Susan Sontag’s “The Imagination of Disaster” is an essay about sci-fi films. But it contains this paragraph about fantasy in general:

Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin spectres. For one job that fantasy can do is to lift us out of the unbearably humdrum and to distract us from terrors – real or anticipated – by an escape into exotic, dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings. But another of the things that fantasy can do is to normalise what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it. In one case, fantasy beautifies the world. In the other, it neutralises it.

Reality can be both dull and terrifying. Fantasy can beautify the world so that, for a moment, it no longer appears dull or terrifying. Or escapism can take a deeper and more sinister form: not just a distraction (an evening’s “switch off,” a few hours of delight after a hard day) but a repetition of this trick of distraction from reality, so that reality becomes neutralised, so that we become detached from it, so that we are no longer capable of feeling, in reality, the gut-wrenching boredom or terror that we used to. (Remember how bored you could get as a child? And part of growing up is learning to suck that feeling up without complaining. Until finally you no longer get that feeling. “If you can wait and not be tired by waiting …” Remember how frightened you could get as a child? “Growing up” means neutralising the world.)

I’m interested in fantasy because it can offer more than escapism. For all Moorcock tells us his books were written as entertainment, they are more than this. The fantasy writer’s vision is not just a perspective on the world, but a world in itself. This is the dilemma: a new world is a promising place to escape to. But more than a world, more important, are the dreams these writers offer their readers. A powerful dream lingers with the dreamer, and we as readers carry these dreams with us day by day. It’s those themes and ideas that linger in our minds as dreams that empower us to face reality with courage, and offer more than those tempting dreams of escape.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Know Thyself


Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Know Thyself” seems to offer up two possible interpretations, and I wonder whether Coleridge believed self-knowledge was possible or not.

The poet asks “Say, canst thou make thyself?” and urges his reader to “Learn first that trade.” Self-creation, it seems, comes before self-knowledge. A human being is not merely made, but self-made.

But is self-knowledge possible even after you have made yourself? The poet describes “Man” as all “Dark fluxion, all unfixable by thought” and merely a “phantom” in his being. Self-knowledge then seems hopeless, and better then to “Ignore thyself, and strive to know thy God!” For “What hast thou, Man, that thou dar’st call thine own?” All belongs to God.

If this were the whole of the poem’s message, then it would be clear: a human being is unknowable, and so self-knowledge is impossible. The poem would carry a Platonic message: the world of flux and change is unknowable, and all that can be known are the eternal Forms that come from God.

But there is a line in the middle of the poem. If you have first made yourself then “Haply thou mayst know what thyself had made.” On the one hand, this “haply” (meaning “perhaps”) might be ironic: perhaps you might know what you’ve made, but what you’ve made of yourself will still be phantom and illusion, and therefore cannot be the object of true knowledge.

On the other hand, if we take this line without irony, the poet could be saying: perhaps you will know what you’ve made, but only if first you have sought knowledge of God. The final line of the poem, that command to forget yourself and seek God, would be the poet’s clue as to how self-knowledge is possible, describing the essential first step on the path to discovering what you truly are as a human being. The first step is to be humble before God, and know thyself as one of God’s creatures.

I find this poem interesting for the relationship it posits between knowledge, creativity, and faith. All were important for Coleridge, it seems, but one must be wary of raising knowledge, or at least self-knowledge, above all things.

I find this poem interesting for the relationship it posits between Self and God, with the former being nothing without the latter. And what is God, for Coleridge? Reading his poems it seems that “God” signifies the source of all self-making and self-knowing, so that Coleridge is presenting a Platonic picture after all, with God as the eternal Good at the centre of all creation.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Above and Below


If Henry Miller’s Nexus begins in a slough of despair, in its final chapters the rays of hope begin to emerge. The day he’ll leave for Europe is approaching, and knowing he will be leaving soon makes his remaining days in New York seem rosy.

He’s out for a walk, taking in his surroundings: “The river below, the seagulls above. And above the gulls the stars invisible.”

He’s still not keen on New York itself: his mind is more concerned with those stars far above. The city streets he still finds repulsive. Down here are the beat and broken people of America: “Once again the weary pedestrian wends his way homeward, pockets empty, stomach empty, heart empty.” Above is hope: the possibility of escape from these shores, to Europe and beyond.

For now, it’s just he and Mona who will escape: the rest of humanity can follow later. For now, he just needs to regain body and soul so he can write his book, the “real” book, that might just shake up the world enough to save its shattered people.

Looking across at the city he sees a vision of the city become a huge “orchestra pit” which “is rising, all sixty-four players donned in spotless white. Above, the stars are beginning to show through the midnight blue of the domed ceiling.” They were up there all the time! Even in these skies! Even here in New York City!

But though the stars can shine even here, the people of New York won’t know how to make use of them: “The greatest show on earth is about to be ushered in, complete with trained seals, ventriloquists, and aerial acrobats.” The same old tacky affair that Miller detested, that sapped the spirit, that he would find himself morbidly drawn to from time to time nonetheless: the spectacle, the show, the price of the ticket, the promise of a momentary escape into an idiot’s fantasy …

Everything waits for Henry in Europe: “Sophocles, Aristotle, Plato … Hegel, Marx, Lenin …” Everything? It will turn out that Henry had everything he needed right here, all the inspiration he required. “As above, so below”: Henry seems to have forgotten this piece of wisdom for the time being. He can see nothing of the stars among his fellow Americans.

Yes it was all here, even in America, but he was missing a “body” and a “soul” able to make use of it. He’ll find that body and soul in Europe, then return to find the light that was here in the earth all along …

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Notes on Susan Sontag’s “On Style”


There’s always a distance between the work of art itself and the reality it represents. This distance is “inhuman,” says Susan Sontag: it’s artificial, belonging to the representation and not coming directly from lived reality.

But Sontag wants us to understand that the art work’s distance is not a retreat from reality, but a movement towards it. For too long art has been thought of as something aristocratic, standing aloof from the concerns of the everyday world. And the distance between representation and reality seems to confirm this. Not so, says Sontag: the fact that there is distance does not mean that there is no connection between art and life.

If the work of art is moving towards reality, then why would there be any distance in the first place? This is a difficult question to answer, because it all depends on the artist in question. An artist is born, for whatever reason, with a certain distance between her and the world, and this is why she must create: to bridge the gap.

“Every style is a means of insisting on something,” writes Sontag. Style means “repetition” and “redundancy”: we can observe an artist’s style to discover what particular obstacles she encounters between herself and the world, what her mind gets stuck on. Art reflects the obsessions that make an individual.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Arthur Machen’s “Meditations of a Tavern”


In Arthur Machen’s The Hill of Dreams, Lucian Taylor is a struggling writer prone to daydreaming.

He deliberately seeks out obscure books, to learn the most useless knowledge he can find. He is sick of modern society and its day-to-day – the obsession with money-making and stupid utilitarianism. And his choice of literature is a reaction against all that.

He reads medieval occultists and alchemists, and he is often seen pacing up and down in his garden, muttering to himself, dreaming strange dreams in the daylight. Modern human beings have faded and shrunk for him, so that they seem little more than flies that buzz about him. It’s his own peculiar dreams that sustain him, and he cares nothing for the dream of modern society.

Many of his own dreams concern the ancient Roman settlement that would have stood on this site, now the location of a small Welsh town and its environs. It’s while imagining ancient Roman life that he has his “Meditations of a Tavern.” He can see the Roman tavern packed full of drinkers and serving boys, and most of all he is concerned with the smells, colours, and sounds of the place. The Latin sounds beautiful to him, the wine jars are described in all their various colours, each reflecting in its own way the sunlight that comes in through the open door. And it’s here we get the dazzling description of the exterior of the tavern:

“Outside, the vine tendrils shook on the white walls glaring in the sunshine; the breeze swept up from the yellow river, pungent with the salt sea savour.”

And, aside from the sounds and smells and colours, he notices the gestures of the people here: they move their hands when they speak. He realises that this has nothing to do with expression – the Latin language is adequate to getting their meaning across to each other. It’s something else, which doesn’t quite become clear until his reflections on literature toward the end of this section of the book.

I’ve mentioned Machen in one of my posts about Henry Miller; Miller was very taken by Machen, and writes about him in Nexus. He admired Machen’s reflections on literature, as something that expresses the inexpressible, almost against the will of both writer and reader. Machen writes:

“As the chemist in his experiments is sometimes astonished to find unknown, unexpected elements in the crucible or the receiver, as the world of material things is considered by some a thin veil of the immaterial universe, so he who reads wonderful prose or verse is conscious of suggestions that cannot be put into words, which do not rise from the logical sense, which are rather parallel to than connected with the sensuous delight.”

Just as the gestures of the drinkers in the tavern add something to the words they speak, though extraneous to the sense, so something is always added to the greatest literature, something that we struggle to explain, but which adds to the experience of the work.

Machen and Miller weren’t the only ones to chase this special something. Kathy Acker writes of the difference between expression and communication, and how the key to writing, for her, was focusing on the latter. Writing books, for Acker, is like writing an email to a friend: you write with the reader in mind, as a loving gesture to them. You’re trying to get something across to the other, to share something. It’s this human motivation, for communication, that spurs good writing.

Expression, on the other hand, is something inhuman. Something solitary. I have this great truth, I myself, and I must express it. Unlike the desire to communicate, the desire for expression can eclipse the other, the other people that, in truth, you are writing for.

Miller took a long time finding success as a writer, and no wonder: he was following Machen’s dream, struggling to express the inexpressible. I wonder whether it all became possible for him when he realised that it’s not about expression at all: that if you honestly put down the words as they come, if you wrestle with the communication side of the matter – as if writing a letter to a friend, and Miller was a prodigious letter writer – if you take care of the basics, then the rest, the unknown and mysterious element, will follow.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Book Review: Significant Other by Isabel Galleymore


Isabel Galleymore’s Significant Other is about the modern human being and her relationship to nature.

When the poet is “walking with the ocean below” she is walking with the ocean. She asks the ocean questions, to which “the ocean blinked” in response.

This is what you get when you anthropomorphise nature: the shock of an alien response, when nature turns out to be only itself, and not your dream of it.

Say you took that step, or say you fell,

wouldn’t she move you miles in herself?

The ocean has her own purposes. Or none at all. If you let her, she will pull you into her until you can no longer breathe, until finally, lifeless, you are washed up on the shore.

The human individual is something opposed to nature. But that leaves us alone, to find our own answers. And what is a human being taken alone, in herself?

Even among human beings there is otherness.

I turn your words although

the line you spoke was simple

Language is something strange because it belongs not just to me but to all of us, and intention is often hidden behind use. And yet we must struggle with questions of meaning in order to make sense not just of others, but of ourselves.

The human individual is nothing without what is strange and other.

“I am most like myself when likened.” Because really there is no other way to be yourself. “They say it’s because I’m afraid to be alone.” But those who believe they are alone and free of others are only fooling themselves.

Galleymore is telling us throughout this book: you really only learn the deepest truths about yourself from the study of what is other than you.

Every one of these poems has some natural element in it – the ocean, a starfish, a bee – and in every poem nature has something to tell us about ourselves. The poet observes and reflects upon nature, and invites her readers to reflect upon it too.

And when we reflect, we discover the strangeness of nature. Things aren’t so simple as they first appeared, and nature is strange underneath the simple attributes humanity has bestowed upon it:

Accordingly, schoolchildren were instructed

to rip up their books, releasing

alligators from their anger,

bees from their busyness,

cats from their curiosity …

Galleymore is inviting us to see things fresh, rather than through the same old clichés. It’s important to see the real connections between things, rather than just lazily imposing attributes derived from familiar human experience.

… [T]he bridge that links

this part of earth with the next

are the final words of the final poem in Galleymore’s collection. And so fitting for a book all about the connections between things, and how the awareness of these connections can give us a deeper knowledge of ourselves.

One poem has words taken from Isabelle Stengers, philosopher of science and writer about chaos:

Each identity:

an allusion to the other


The reciprocal capture

between bee and flower

are lines that speak of difference, and the fact that there is no knowledge of anything in itself without knowledge of what is other than it. That goes for ourselves, as much as for anything else.

We live in a world now where everyone is connected, and it can seem sometimes that the quiet reflection required for self-knowledge has become impossible, or only possible if some radical action is taken – technology detox and mindfulness are preached in a desperate bid to save us from ourselves. We’re all acutely aware of the implications of chaos theory, so that the tiniest minutiae have now the greatest meaning, and the continual flitting from one object to the next is as essential and compelling as it is maddening.

Galleymore offers us a subtle investigation of the dialectic of identity and difference. On the one hand: the natural world is thoroughly other than us, and it is foolishness to anthropomorphise it. On the other hand: how can we get on (as writers, but especially as human beings) if we don’t liken ourselves to the things around us? That Galleymore never gives us a solution to the paradox is fitting: firstly, because there is none. Secondly, because it is the back and forth between one position and another that truly makes us human.

(The lines I’ve quoted are from the poems “Ocean,” “The Ash,” “Say Heart,” “No Inclination,” “Are We There Yet?” and “Nectaries.” The poems are all to be found in Isabel Galleymore’s Significant Other, which was published by Carcanet this year.)

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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Truth and Literature


Henry Miller is obsessed with truth. And yet he wants to write literature! Literature is something other than truth. “Then to hell with literature!”

Writing his novel, Henry is all the while obsessed with the idea of the real book he will one day write. It won’t be a novel. It will be utterly unlike anything he has written so far.

Up to now, the real book has been written in the mind only, in an ink which is “invisible” as well as “indelible”. So far he has only lived this book, since he cannot yet write it, except in the mind.

He has this notion of “writing in the mind only”: an idea so crazy, an insane kind of talk born of desperation. Henry is desperate to be a writer, though he has written nothing of note. So he tells himself he is writing all the time, in the mind only. And so he is a writer after all.

Whether or not Henry really is a writer yet, he is certainly a reader. He is inspired by Arthur Machen, who writes that what is important in literature is the inexpressible which, nevertheless, is somehow expressed. “A troublesome though inseparable accident … the indefinable, inexpressible images which all fine literature summons to the mind.”

Besides what the writer is consciously doing to create sensations in the reader, something else occurs, something deeper. It seems to just happen, and yet of course it is born of the writer’s genius. The presence of genius means that the words are bound to conjure up something deeper even than what is intended. It’s the presence of this extra depth that makes a written work great and timeless.

This idea must have given hope to Henry, who himself was struggling to express the inexpressible. And people tell him again and again that he has genius, and he seems to believe it. He knows he is not a writer yet, but he has something, and so Machen’s words are another ray of hope for him.

(Image is from Pixabay.)

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