Reading C.S. Lewis’s autobiographical Surprised by Joy, I was reminded of a useful distinction between two meanings of the word “fantasy.” One is the meaning I outlined in a previous post, namely a kind of literature that brings one into contact with the Other. The second is the self-indulgent fantasy we turn into the verb “fantasize.” Lewis draws the distinction nicely:
I read twaddling school stories in The Captain. The pleasure here was, in the proper sense, mere wish fulfillment and fantasy; one enjoyed vicariously the triumphs of the hero. When the boy passes from nursery literature to school stories he is going down, not up. Peter Rabbit pleases a disinterested imagination, for the child does not want to be a rabbit, though he may like pretending to be a rabbit as he may later like acting Hamlet; but the story of the unpromising boy who became captain of the First Eleven exists precisely to feed his real ambitions.
What Lewis calls “mere wish fulfillment and fantasy” finds an audience at every age. Mass-produced cowboy novels allow grown men to feel manly and tough; paper-back romance novels allow grown women to feel for a few moments as though their lives have real feeling and passion; and the innumerable and interminable “fantasy” books written for children these days allow them to feel that they are cleverer than adults, stronger than the bullies, and wittier than their older sisters.
Detecting “fantasy” of this type is important, I think. Describing his childhood project of creating an imaginary world called “Animal-Land,” Lewis says:
But imagination is a vague word and I must make some distinctions. It may mean the world reverie, daydream, wish-fulfilling fantasy. Of that I knew more than enough. I often pictured myself cutting a fine figure. …In my daydreams I was training myself to be a fool; in mapping and chronicling Animal-Land I was training myself to be a novelist.
Fantasizing and fantasizing literature train one to be a fool, Lewis says! Why would that be? I can think of three reasons.
- Fantasizing trains you to follow your shallowest desires. The tough cowboy mows ’em out with a six-shooter, and it feels great to be so dominant, so cool, so effective. The witty child protagonist always has that crushing verbal come-back, and it feels great to tell ’em off. These things appeal to the sterile dreams of the hallway, when it occurs to you thirty seconds too late “what you should have said,” or when you imagine yourself just punching that jerk in the face. These are shallow desires. Practicing them by fantasizing makes one a moral midget.
- Fantasizing calms your deeper desires. Some of what we fantasize about is actually good stuff: Wouldn’t it be great to have a deep intellectual life? Wouldn’t it be great to change the world for the better? Wouldn’t it be great to have perfect self-control? But in fantasizing literature, or “fantazy,” we get the emotional sweet of being that person at no cost. We don’t walk through the necessary preludes to an intellectual life, such as as the agony of uncertainty about the most important questions. We don’t suffer the growing pains of the one who really learns to live for others, or the repeated humiliations of the one who, through years of failure, gains self-control. Good literature arouses our desires to be all of these things, makes us realize we are none of those things, and sends us out on a quest to become more. But fantazy offers a cheap outlet. In an almost auto-erotic way, fantazy lets you blow off moral steam, be that perfect person for a few minutes, and go back to everyday life with your need for transformation satiated.
- Fantazy focuses on ego. To the degree that fantazy allows suffering to enter the picture, it is the sickly-sweet suffering of sentiment, a kind of wallowing in self pity while feeling noble about it. But for the most part, fantazy focuses on those aspects of greatness that would get one noticed by others: everybody notices the tough guy, the pretty girl, the smart kid, and so on. That’s why in fantazy the tough guy shoots people and the smart kid talks back, because without that bullet or that smart remark no one would notice how superior I am – oops, I mean how superior the protagonist is. In other words, even comparatively innocent fantazy amounts to practicing vice.
I realize that what I have written here is wide open to misunderstanding. It’s hard to express the thing clearly. So let me conclude with a couple of caveats:
First, I don’t mean that anything short of the Great Books is fantazy. Most good literature encourages the reader to identify with the protagonist; living vicariously through the story is not what makes for fantazy, but living vicariously in a wish-fulfilling way. My wife has read and re-read a book about a woman that slowly loses her memory to Alzheimer’s, and the book’s power derives in part from the fact that the reader identifies with the struggle. But living that experience vicariously is not a wish-fulfillment fantasy by any stretch.
Second, I don’t mean that fantazy has immoral goals all the time. Although it sounds odd, I think there is even a kind of moralizing fantazy. Grown-ups turn fantazy into a kind of propaganda by creating a child protagonist endowed with the most ego-inflating kind of virtue. The little reader pats herself on the back as she imagines herself heroically telling the truth, and how proud her parents are of her for it; giving up her dessert for a younger sibling, and how all the angels are agog; patiently enduring a broken leg, and how the saints themselves weep for her.
This may not be all bad. A child has no moral virtue to begin with, so an appeal to ego may be the necessary first step, like giving out chocolates as a reward for chores (as we do at my house!). But it seems to me good that we see these fantazy propaganda stories for what they are and make sure our kids are also formed by what Lewis calls the “disinterested imagination.”