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Ghosts, Figments, and Echoes: A Meandering Phantasy

“Fantasy is an exercise bicycle for the mind. It might not take you anywhere, but it tones up the muscles that can. Of course, I could be wrong.” – Terry Pratchett

“In reinventing the world of intense, unreproducible, local knowledge, seemingly by a denial or evasion of current reality, fantasists are perhaps trying to assert and explore a larger reality than we now allow ourselves. They are trying to restore the sense — to regain the knowledge — that there is somewhere else, anywhere else, where other people may live another kind of life.

The literature of imagination, even when tragic, is reassuring, not necessarily in the sense of offering nostalgic comfort, but because it offers a world large enough to contain alternatives and therefore offers hope.” – Ursula K. Le Guin

It’s probably obvious that I am a great admirer of Ursula K. Le Guin; I quote her frequently and often cite her works as touchstones or as worthy companions when discussing other works and writers. I discovered her quite early in my literary life and I think she was the first author who profoundly shook me up. I put two of her books on my list of 10 suggestions for the recent NPR poll on SF & Fantasy and think she’s a grand choice for a Nobel Prize (even if I don’t much like the Prize itself). She has been a massive influence on my approach to writing and my critical perspective on literature.

But I only know her through the words she has written and that I have absorbed. I have created an Ursula K. Le Guin in my mind. To me she is a Mobile of the first order and a wizard of great efficacy and wisdom. Even when I disagree with her (which happens more as I grow older and sit with her words, and read others’ responses to them [such as Samuel R. Delany’s critique in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw]) she is that durable personage of sagacity and profound wit. I have created an Ursula K. Le Guin in my mind that is sometimes hard to resist, especially when she writes something that, while deeply affecting to me, is also a bit of rubbish.

What I mean is exemplified in the quotation above. It is quite true that many fantasists do create other worlds for us to explore, and that even the dark ones can contain a sort of hope in them. But these lines are not a truism; there is plenty of fiction that does not fit that mold. There are many authors who do not write to create alternative forms of conjured local knowledge that establish divergent contexts for the exploration of alterities and, by contrast, our own actuality. They write to entertain, to excite, to distract, or to titillate; they are not about “trying to assert and explore a larger reality than we now allow ourselves.” Thus, what Le Guin describes is not what some fantasists strive for, which makes me sad because (a) I think more of them should strive for that; and (b) that realization makes my own personal Ursula K. Le Guin a bit less authoritative.

Maybe that’s a good thing.

Perhaps this is too abstract, too orbital in its perspective and approach. I want to discuss something that feels substantial but is really a product of imagination, like my mind’s conception of Le Guin. When I think of her influence, or it arises when I am reading or listening to something, I feel haunted by her words and ideas. Even though I know not every writer can achieve her lofty goals, I want them to, and the spectre of Le Guin urges me to look at their writing in comparison to those objectives. She is not the only one in there, of course; there is a chorus of “voices” resounding in the thought-chamber of my skull, almost all of which my imagination has summoned from the memory of their written words (such as a gnomic, elemental Samuel R. Delany, who sometimes provide counterpoints to the Le Guin avatar). This is what I want to talk about: the phantasy we create from the fantasy we read.

The term phantasy has been used in psychoanalysis, but I am appropriating it to demarcate what I am talking about (rather artificially, I admit) from the genre of fantasy and from the psychological process of fantastizing to demarcate a specific process of convergence and a construction of inner vision with public symbols and shared meanings. Fantastika in all of its myriad permutations and misnamings is a primary inspiration for my own personal phantasy and provides the symbols and ideas that create the figments of imagination that cohere when I read or cogitate on certain subjects. The sense of play and the essential feel of phantasy is both in-line with the psychoanalytical application of it and my own experience. But this capacity for phantasy is part of our imagination’s makeup and I think it stays with us throughout life but is, I fear, increasingly underused. I want to better understand how the imagination works, how it benefits us, how it can go awry, how it can atrophy.

What I want is to use Terry Pratchett’s exercise bicycle, wrongness and all.

Reading in general, of fiction in particular, and fantastika more specifically (perhaps because of its shift in subjunctivity) activates my imagination more powerfully than any other medium. A lot of this has to do with my own history, of making an epistemological break at an early age from a severely totalizing ideological and ontological imagination-structure and seeking something improbable and wild as a metaphorical method of escape. At first, my egress was through space fantasy and sword-and-sorcery: Conan, Solomon Kane (who bridged both my Puritan background and my experiences as a child preacher and evangelist), and even more importantly John Carter, Warlord of Mars, who was so firmly displaced from my world, and with whom I shared a name, that my nascent capacity for phantasy could pull my imagination out of the deep mire of both religious formalism and its monstrous constraints as practiced by my family. This meant initially embracing a visceral, disturbingly macho (even to my juvenile self) body of stories that attacked the precepts that felt like incarceration to my imagination.

I clearly remember two moments in my adolescence when my imagination was ruptured: the first was at a screening of Monty Python’s Life of Brian; the utter irreverence for Biblical truth was like acid that ate away at my my already faltering religious constructions. But what make the structure collapse was, of all things, the UFO scene, which was such a moment of fantastical absurdity, bold and loud and impossible, that a bit of my mind fell in upon itself. The second moment came at the end of a process of excavating and re-exploring that part of me when, after a year of pulp adventures (including Flashing Swords #1, which utterly scandalized me, even as it introduced me to Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser and the Dying Earth), I exhausted the fantasy section of my school’s library and on a whim picked up Robert Heinlein’s Space Cadet. That was the first book of fantastika I read that was obviously a little more than just adventure, and that demonstrated that all of these other worlds had more in them than just a place to run to for a few hours through the gateway of my imagination.

That early process is Terry Pratchett’s exercise bike at work in life. From there, with the prompting of a mentoring history teacher with a massive collection of fantastika, I found what Le Guin talks about in her quotation above. And as I found more of such works, my childhood phantasia became filled with new spirits and notions. What I fortunately stumbled upon, to quote anthropologist Vincent Crapanzano, is “[t]he dialectic between openness and closure” of the imagination, “an important dimension of human experience.” Through that dialectic we create the conceptual ground for our identity, our standpoints, our absorption of the world around us. We do it by listening to ghosts and echoes, drawing on the past to get through the present and lay the groundwork for the future. And yet these things get all mixed up in the process, as nostalgia colors tomorrow, the future seems to infiltrate the now, we revamp the past and bring it back again and again in the avatars and illusions in our mind’s eye. And too often we are taught to shut down that dialectic, to solidify ideas and perspectives and gnarl our imaginations or, worse, have machines imagine for us.

This struggle, this exercise of mind, is what phantasy is all about. It is not just the effects of fantastic literature (or other media), or the practice of fantasizing, but the sum of what flickers and reverberates in our heads. That activity, the creation and application of phantasy, fabricates a conceptual location for us to not just harness but unchain our imaginations, make them stronger and flexible and able to not just be critical but sensitive and productive. My Le Guin-phantasm is imperfect, too rigid at times, as are many of our ideas and influences, but if we think of them as part of a phantasy, of literally making thought visible within our minds so that we can grasp it, then we take them seriously as reflections, distortions, accretions, a theatre and not a fortress. We see in our mind what Le Guin is pushing us to consider, and perhaps learn a bit more about ourselves by realizing the presence of that in our consciousness which, really, is where it always dwells anyway, and is the only place that hope can spring from.

4 Comments on Ghosts, Figments, and Echoes: A Meandering Phantasy

  1. Jeff VanderMeer // September 29, 2011 at 12:10 pm //

    Another thoughtful and useful essay, John. Thanks so much for this continuing series. JeffV

  2. You do good work, sir, in introducing formerly esoteric literary terminology to our readers.

  3. Very good column. Thaks.

    I think Pratchett and LeGuin are saying the same thing, from different perspectives.

    By the way, I spent a wonderful evening with Ursula K. LeGuin and Margaret Atwood last fall. You can too by following this link:

    Go about half way down the page and, you will find a recording from 5 October 2010 of these two doyennes of literature taking great pleasure in each others company. Intellectual sparks and great humor fly through the program. The audience were just along for the ride. What a ride!

  4. Jeff and Paul: Thanks very much! I’m glad the column made sense.

    Rick: That is a great talk. I have to go listen to it again. And thanks!

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