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Home Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006) Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
~~ Filtering the Introduction to Fantastic Worlds ~~
I'm a little worried our anthology may come off a little long-winded. Here are a few of its salient points, in my view:
Alternative worlds are valuable to us if we recognize their relationship to the real world. They become "responses" to the real world that we can entertain and ponder. Their ultimate power depends on how artistically accomplished they are, how much power they have to create something aesthetically arresting (beautiful) and evocative.
The first fantastic worlds—MYTH—represent our oldest efforts to cope with FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS about who we are exactly, where we come from, where we're going. What is this world? What is this universe? Why are we here? How did we get here? Why is the world the way it is? What is our place in it? Why do we die? What happens when we die? Of course, there have probably always been "laid back" individuals who didn't care, as long as they had their rack of meat. Perhaps even there were even ancestral secular humanists hiding in their ivory caves somewhere. But there were significant scores of others whose consciousness would not rest, and these were the mystics. The journeys they took and the answers they brought back were the ones that got most peoples' attention. The mystic is the person who has a transcendental mystical experience, a transcendental spiritual union with God, or as Joseph Campbell likes to generically call it, the "ground of all being." The mystic tries to bring that experience back to people in ordinary words that refer to ordinary things. But since the mystical experience is an extraordinary thing, you need extraordinary words, a meta-language, a METAPHORICAL language, that will break through and communicate what is practically incommunicable. The language of mystical experience is myth.
Every fully developed literary tradition—every tradition which has raised literature to the status of art—has fantastic texts dating back to its earliest sacred texts. Myth is the origin of literature, of all the arts in fact. So we're at the groundspring, the fountainhead when we study myth. When you read an ancient tale, and there aren't many in your anthology, unfortunately, you are really connecting with your prehistoric ancestors, because long before these stories were written down—nobody knows how long—they were spoken orally.
introduction explains that the simple progression the textbook follows
is from myth to fantasy to modern literature. Simple enough, but then
Rabkin springs into a microscopic reading of a line from a Tolkien
story, which I fear may have lost some of you. If you had patience,
good for you. There are just a few of his points I would highlight:
Mythical language is not literally true. It was never intended to be literally or historically true. Mythic stories take place in a world outside of time, beyond time, before time (human time, ordinary time). Unless you can literally believe a man was able to begin having scores of children when he was 100 years old, or that another lived past 900, you are probably going to read the stories in Genesis metaphorically rather than literally.
Take the Prometheus story that Rabkin uses as an example. In that story Prometheus steals fire from Zeus to give to man, who he has created, and Zeus is furious. He punishes Prometheus by chaining him to a rock and setting an eagle to eat out his regenerating liver… A brutal punishment. (He's eventually rescued.) Now we may not choose to believe that the story is literally true, but we can still relate to the way it expresses how uneasy we feel about this god-like power we have, this special knowledge which enables us to harness the awesome power of fire. Fire in the story becomes a metaphor for something more abstract, more difficult to pin down, something akin to "intelligence," but more than that. It's the intelligence that's used to develop tools, technologies, how we can harness this powerful natural element and use it to our devices. Animals don't do that, but humans do. Fire is just the beginning. It's a primitive technology in our eyes. But it's a technology. And the uneasiness with technology is what's still with us, what still makes this outdated religious story still psychologically true. Our intelligence gives us godlike powers, and we are not comfortable with that power in our imperfect hands. It's a punishable offense therefore. It's still true today—that discomfort, that uneasiness, except the changes are so fast and furious, we don't have a mythology to catch us up. How blasé are we when it comes to nuclear technology, the atom bomb? Or the power to clone new life in a tube… what do we call that life? Is a genetically engineered human being still a human being? What about stem cell research, or abortion? These are all examples of technologies we've developed as a result of this intelligence we have, and we're not always thrilled about them; we're often uneasy about using them, and even thinking about it gives us the chills. We are capable of destroying the world, redesigning a new "transhuman" that's like us, but not us. That ability raises all kinds of conflicts and the mythic tale is what tries to cope with those conflicts; the tale provides resolution. Prometheus is punished. (But we're not stupid. Later, he's rescued.)
Psychologically, the Prometheus tale is accurate, true, though literally it may seem outlandish, and historically it's nowhere. That doesn't mean it's got nothing to tell us.
Rabkin asks a pertinent question, I think. Is fantastic literature for children? And the answer is yes, and no. It's for all of us.
Children enter fantastic worlds effortlessly because they aren't fully invested in "reality" yet. They haven't grown into it. For children immersed in idealized worlds, the illusions of fantasy are always at hand. You don't have to see it to believe it. Magic is everywhere. Do we simply grow out of that? Yes.
We all move from the childhood state of innocence, a state in which all our needs are magically met (hopefully, for the lucky ones), a state in which we are of central importance. From this vantage point the world seems like a wonderful place. But as we grow older, we discover "realities" that gradually replace this illusion: the world is nice sometimes, and other times it is brutally violent, dirty, disease-stricken, miserable, and unjust. Instead of being of central importance, you discover you are one being among many and that, far from being immortal, you could easily die. This movement from innocence to experience is a universal human passage. Many, many myths deal with it, including Genesis. It's a passage that involves a "reversal" of attitudes, where you think the opposite of what you thought before.
Strangely, fantastic literature employs this very technique of "reversal," except instead of moving us from innocence to experience, it moves us from experience to innocence. This is not a regression. It's a doorway. By making us temporarily innocent again, we can more easily pass into that metaphorical fantasy realm, where a certain kind of truth can be communicated (mystical truths, in the case of myth).
In fantastic tales, reversals can appear in plot, theme, character, style—any which way. They're the lifeblood of the imagination. They are what help us shed the baggage we bring so we can see the world in a fresh new light.
Questions? Contact me.
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