The Fantastic in Literature and Philosophy

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Harry PotterI’ve written a couple of posts in the past on philosophical themes in Tolkien (Incidentally, there’s a thread going at the Philosophy Forums/Online Philosophy Club discussing philosophical themes in Lord of the Rings right now), and had fun going off on the supernaturalism tangent on our last episode, even though I don’t see the force of Wes’s objection to Harry Potter over the “magic” used in, say, an action film. So long as you set up the rules enough so that the reader/watcher understands enough, then you can have suspense/drama. I read the Oz books to my kids (yes, there are many more than one), and though they’re very creative, there’s pretty much no suspense at all, though that may have more to do with the tone of the books than to how the magic is unexplained or inconsistent.

In general, I buy into the fantasy theory (maybe I heard this from a Stephen King article? or an article about him? I can’t recall) that more explanation is not always helpful; leaving something mysterious means we fill it up with our darkest fears and deepest yearnings, whereas laying it open makes it mundane and potentially not that cool (witness Dylan’s fury re. midi-cholrians). With all these supernatural elements, I think the trick is to artfully match the detail exposed to these competing audience needs (to understand what’s going on and so feel invested vs. having the magic elements remain magical). This is not inherently a futile enterprise; the conflict is not grounds for dismissing the genre as such.

OK, so why do we as philosophy enthusiasts care? Is it just a matter of a surface-level aesthetic similarity between the weird ideas in philosophy and the weird ideas in fantasy/sci-fi, and relatedly, a tolerance in the reader for something beyond the everyday? The capacity for writing philosophical/social thought-experiments into vivid stories, or directly exploring possibilities re. the metaphysical state of the universe? I’ve generally noted a correlation between interest in philosophy and other “geek” interests, but also know a number of people who take their philosophy as more generally an outgrowth of culture, of mainstream artsy literature and “serious” music and all that. The difference may come down to different attitudes towards adulthood.

Certainly my own tolerance for the genre extends beyond sci-fi or fantasy that could be considered substantially philosophical. Any story with some element of the fantastic has always had an aesthetic appeal to me, or rather, if I know for sure that a story will for sure stick only to the facts of the realistic world, then it has to work harder to interest me. True stories, and moreso made-up stories that might as well be true, very often read like biographies or histories, which will only be as interesting as the person or historical period or events were. Too many “slice-of-life” stories seem to me to be more like watching the neighbors go about their daily, boring business… or worse, watching the neighbors grieve over their dead child or endure the Holocaust or succumb to various strains of corruption and discord. There’s certainly a strong humanistic purpose to enduring such depressing scenes, but it’s rare I’ll actually become a fan of such work.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Comments

  1. dmf

    April 19, 2012

    along these lines I like Isabelle Stengers’ idea of philo as speculations not on the merely probable but on the possible, one related idea/capacity that I think could use more philo work is the willing suspension of disbelief.

  2. Burl

    April 19, 2012

    dmf :
    along these lines I like Isabelle Stengers’ idea of philo as speculations not on the merely probable but on the possible, one related idea/capacity that I think could use more philo work is the willing suspension of disbelief.

    I think that this statement captures the spirit of Whitehead’s many works. His writings were dense (he would probably prefer to say intense), but the title of one of his more popular works, Adventures of Ideas, suggests it is his wish to approach with speculation.

    I am not sure it was Isabella, but one of his female followers (Langer??) said that W should be read mythologically.

    • dmf

      April 20, 2012

      there is an excellent conference with Stengers, Rorty, and Haraway on Whitehead and the invention/re-purposing of terms/concepts on itunes from Stanford. The power of the creation of new metaphors/concepts may be the “magic” of philosophy.

      • dmf

        April 20, 2012

        Rorty there has an excellent discussion via Wittgenstein on language and the dismissal of imagined distinctions/dichotomies like those between experiences and concepts, the concrete and abstractions, freewill and physics, and freeing us to use different discourses/living-options for differing purposes/tastes.

  3. Burl

    April 19, 2012

    “Metaphysical categories are not dogmatic statements of the obvious; they are tentative formulations of the ultimate generalities” (PR 8).

  4. David Buchanan

    April 19, 2012

    I took a couple of psychology classes in the Religion department with a Jungian professor and if she’s right then the Harry Potter series is one of the most thorough and detailed mythological systems available. Despite her instruction in both classes and my admiration for Joseph Campbell, however, I just don’t get it. So much of the symbolism seems arbitrary to me.

    I read the first four or five books to my son but we both got so bored with it we didn’t even bother to watch the final movie, even though the Netflix DVD sat around the house for weeks. Not sure if this is related to Wes’s complaints but I could never make much sense of the system of magic or, when it did make sense, it was trivial.

    Lord of the Rings is even worse. It’s like taking nine hours to say, “greed is bad”. Maybe someday, hopefully, I’ll see the brilliance of these epic tales and be embarrassed by these remarks.

    • Bruce Adam

      April 21, 2012

      Does anyone else share my respect for the “Once and Future King ” trilogy by T H White. It stands head and shoulders above Tolkien or C S Lewis.

  5. David Buchanan

    April 20, 2012

    Yesterday the Detroit Free Press interviewed William Shatner about his one-man show, “SHATNER’S WORLD: WE JUST LIVE IN IT”.

    “For the show, I’ve reread (Robert Pirsig’s) “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values.” It’s an extraordinary read. That book, there’s no way of simply putting it, but it’s really about the philosophy of staying in the moment. What it has really done for me is it reminds me to refresh the material. That’s been a main reason why I’m constantly changing things in the show.”

    Makes me wish I had a motorcycle with a warp-drive engine. How much a babe (i.e. lady nerd) magnet would that be?

    http://www.freep.com/article/20120419/ENT05/204190337/Five-questions-with-actor-William-Shatner

    • David Buchanan

      April 21, 2012

      Yes, I think it’s fairly obvious that science fiction and fantasy are both forms of the mythological. As we all know, I suppose, Star Wars was constructed on the basis of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces” and the hero’s journey, the monomyth, can be found in just about every story we know, from Hamlet to the Wizard of Oz. Buddha and Christ aren’t so different from Dorothy or Luke Skywalker. When I took a course on the hero’s journey we students were offered a broad range of classic tales to study, from Gilgamesh to Blade Runner. I chose to extract the hero’s journey from Apocalypse Now. Never had so much fun writing a term paper.

      Of course a lot of this stuff is just a fantasy of power and control and as far as the ego is concerned it hardly matters if this power come in the form of technology (Batman, James Bond, Captain Kirk) or magic (Harry Potter, Merlin). Scotty can beam me up and Samantha can wiggle her nose. Either way, I’m instantly transported from one place to another.

      • Burl

        April 21, 2012

        As I read your comment, somehow it strikes me to ask so what about the case for the anti-hero? Is this related to a nihilism of the adventuresome spirit? Is this absurdity?

        Do you have a similar listing of anti-hero exemplars like for heroes?

        • Burl

          April 21, 2012

          More specifically. I meant is this absurdity as described by modern philosophers?

          • Burl

            April 21, 2012

            Is this the seething potency of OWS and Tea Party…

            “The urge to heroism is natural, and to admit it honest. For everyone to admit it would probably release such pent-up force as to be devastating to societies as they now are.”

            On heroism (and its absence) http://alpha.fdu.edu/~jbecker/classics/beckerhero.html

          • David Buchanan

            April 22, 2012

            Why are you asking about anti-heros and the tea party? I don’t see how that could be relevant.

  6. Burl

    April 22, 2012

    OP is about human interests that often lead to speculative fantasy where, as you bring up, the hero archetype often presides.

    I was hoping to make two different points:

    1,How do fictions where an anti-hero preside compare/contrast w/ all the ones with heroes are central (inspiring v nihilistic, absurdity, etc.)? There are many. My favorite is Ignatius Reilly.

    2.Just the opposite of my sentence about the OP, a work of speculation in anthropology can lead to expressions of truths about human behavior w/r heroic desire (and its cultural mandate) and its real ramifications (e.g., OWS).

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