More Thoughts on Realism and Fantasy

More Thoughts on Realism and Fantasy

Though I’ve understood since childhood that not everybody shared my love of the fantastic, it wasn’t until quite a ways into my adult years that I realized this must be in large part due to differences in how people’s imaginations operate. One spur to this realization was an on-air comment by a local arts-and-culture talk show host that she couldn’t get into a book where things happened that couldn’t in real life (yes, a statement we could unpack at length). At the time I was observing my young son discover stories. It was clear to me that he derived some of the greatest pleasure from precisely those things that never could happen in real life. Moreover, the stories he invented to tell me from two years onward (which I wrote down whenever I could) were gleefully fantastic: night being stolen, his father putting on breasts, the street sucking our house off its foundations. From watching his friends I also was able to see that not all kids do love the fantastic equally; he was close to one end of some bell curve. When the differences show up so early, they start to look like something innate.

The term mimesis is sometimes used to describe techniques of realistic fiction–as imitation, in other words, of something that already exists. All kinds of questions occur here with regard to how people, whether adults or small children, form judgments about what real life consists of and what constitutes an imitation of it, or a violation of its principles. Many of these principles are culturally constituted. Laura Bohannon’s much-anthologized article, “Shakespeare in the Bush,” describes how the Tiv rejected Hamlet as unacceptably unrealistic, on the basis of, among other things, the motivations of nearly every character. Others arise out of an individual’s experience. For those born with synaesthesia, there would be nothing at all unreal about descriptions of numbers possessing color, or (my own case) sounds having a tactile component.

According to Wikipedia, imagination is a “term is technically used in psychology for the process of reviving in the mind, percepts of objects formerly given in sense perception.” In this view, in other words, imagination is mimetic in the purest sense–it “revives in the mind” what one has already experienced. I suspect that the psychologists initially formulating this definition shared the type of imagination described by our talk-show host. For others like my son and myself, the mind is just as prone, or more so, to gravitate to things that one hasn’t experienced, that violate the expectations and principles of real life. The Calvin cartoon in which he has to fend off an attack by his breakfast oatmeal is iconic for me in this regard.

What is that about? In a superficial search of JSTOR, and various science-news sites including New Scientist, Science News, and Discover Magazine, I couldn’t discover any neuroscience research that related to the pleasure experienced through imagining impossible things. The late great sociologist Erving Goffman, on the other hand, did write at some length in his book Frame Analysis on what he termed “negative experience.” By this he meant not bad, evil experiences, but rather what happens when our cognitive frames that tell us “what’s happening now?” are broken in one way or another. It’s comparable perhaps to the concept of negative space in visual art. He quoted a news-filler item about a family who’d moved into an apartment with a lumpy sofa. They came back from vacation to discover the lumps had disappeared… but they now had a large python coiled behind their refrigerator. That moment of shock when the old interpretation dies and one’s notion of reality is in wild flux is one of the things he called negative experience. But he discussed all kinds of other places where people found and even sought it out, including art and humor.

To go all dialectical for moment, formulating a cognitive frame of what something is (for example, oatmeal) necessarily brings into being the possibility of all the things it is not (for example, dangerously animate slime). Like a glass of water that can according to the viewer be either half empty or half full, the experience of life is for some primarily about what something is, and for others, quite often about what something is not. Metaphor, of course, is the bridge between the impossible and meaningfulness…. The experience of coping with the sliminess of oatmeal, in the defenseless mental state of early morning, can seem like an encounter with something dangerously animate, especially if it would be much more fun to imagine that the oatmeal is alive. One can suppose that this inability of the mind (some minds) to stop playing with cognitive frames is the root of much fantastic literature.

I don’t mean by all of this to separate humanity into those of us who love fantasy and the plodding mundanes who will read only the most boring of mainstream fiction. As in many things, human beings exhibit a bell curve of variation. Moreover, fantasy is everywhere in mainstream fiction, and mimesis is everywhere in fantastic fiction, and much as I identify with Calvin, I still most of the time manage to eat breakfast without too many horror-story scenarios glimmering in the morning fog.

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James Enge

I used to know someone who boasted of never reading fiction–not just fantasy, but fiction of any kind. He thought the only things worth reading were “textbooks–things about the real world.” In retrospect, I think maybe it was his way of saying he didn’t read much of anything, but at the time it gave me a somewhat oppressive feeling: the idea of being limited in thought to only those things which one is already sure exist. But one person’s claustrophobic nightmare is another person’s safe haven, I guess.

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