I'm going back to pick up on what Matt wrote several posts ago. Matt, when I tried to copy your first post above into my Macintosh SimpleText window, it said the document was too large for the application! I had to switch to BBEdit!
As you note, making a simple decision about your characters' profession suggests an awful lot about them. But extrapolating from 'dentists' to 'upper middle class, well educated' is similar to extrapolating from 'wizard' to 'older man, knows many secrets'. In either case, there's a pre-existing context. And if you want to do something different you have to establish how you've modified your context. The point is that in both cases you're working to establish an illusion, a context, that'll satisfy the reader; one which won't disrupt the willing suspesion of disbelief.
Why is a Wizard necessarily an older man? Only because Gandalf is. If the reader is more familiar with Harry Potter or The Earthsea Trilogy, then the wizard could be quite young. The context for wizards is other stories we've read. The context of a dentist, on the other hand, includes young and old, male and female, attractive and homely, quiet and voluble. I think, then, that the context from other fantasy stories lacks the richness of real-life context.
This is a tricky point. I agree literature transmits wisdom. But I find it often transmits most when it's at its most foolish. I don't believe that a theocratic world-empire is the ideal form of government -- except when I'm reading Dante, who does believe this, and makes his case so eloquently and beautifully it'd be churlish not to believe it. Until my eyes leave his words.
The point I want to make here is that the wisdom the best literature transmits is usually something subtler than what its writer intended. And that considering the question of whether literature transmits foolish ideas is ... well, let's say 'irrelevant to the question of whether it succeeds as art.' Is Wagner's work anti-semitic? Even many people who say 'yes' still accept those works as great artistic achievements.
I agree that it's a tricky point. Like I said, I've neglected Dante. But if he argues well for his theocratic world-empire, his argument is instructive even if his conclusion is rejected. But if the author's reasoning ability itself is seriously flawed, as Dave Sim's is in Cerebus, then the argument of the work is much less instructive.
I'm reluctant to simply shrug off wrongheaded ideas in literature as simply not mattering; but since we, the readers, don't have a monopoly on wisdom, we should approach great works with an open mind and a receptive ear. Merchant of Venice and Taming of the Shrew betray some very backward and even dangerous attitudes on the part of Shakespeare, but they are nevertheless great works.
In the long run, I don't think you really answered the question I posed. That was: if realism is superior to fantasy, what happens when somebody writes a story about a wizard that he or she claims is literally true? A blanket dismissal of such writers as fools or superstitious strikes me as insufficient; not because it's necessarily wrong, just because it says nothing about the work they may produce.
As a matter of fact I illustrated a story by Harvey Pekar for American Splendor titled 'Easter Island,' in which the first half of the story is from the POV of a woman who believes she may have been abducted by space aliens. She never actually saw the aliens or a saucer, but had a strange time gap one afternoon in the desert. The story portrays the episode.
Philip K. Dick's Valis, as I recall, is a somewhat fictionalized account of what he believed to be his own personal experiences with an alternate reality and supernatural beings. I never finished it for some reason, but I wouldn't assume it was not a valuable work.
Joe: It is quite possible to write a realistic story that portrays a belief in the supernatural in an unbiased or advocative way. It is not so easy, however, to write a fantasy story that encourages skepticism and a rational, scientific viewpoint.
Matt: I'm actually not entirely sure about this. There's a whole sub-genre of fantasy that deals with situations where 'the magic goes away', usually as science, the scientific viewpoint, or industrialisation arrive on the scene. There are writers like M. John Harrison (who I haven't read, but have read of), who write fantasy in which the fantasy world must be rejected and the mundane real world must be chosen precisely because it is real. I will concur that most fantasy doesn't do this, but I don't see why it's necessarily more difficult to write than any others. It's juust that most fantasy writers are, I suspect, uninterested in writing these stories.
I don't think 'magic goes away' stories really represent a skeptical point of view; they're actually a defense against skepticism, 'protecting' supernatural phenomena from skepticism by restricting them to the past.
I think a fantasy story undermines skepticism and a rational, scientific viewpoint because it inherently includes events and creatures who violate the laws of science; a skeptic or scientific type character in such a story will inevitably be proven wrong.
Now I have to make a distinction here between fantasy and so-called 'hard' science fiction; in the latter, the outre event or creature is shown to have a rational scientific basis.
(Assuming Kingsley Amis' definition of science fiction, 'Science Fiction is that class of prose narrative treating of a situation that could not arise in the world we know, but which is hypothesized on the basis of some innovation in science or technology, or pseudo-technology, whether human or extra-terresial in origin.' For more definitions, check out http://www.panix.com/~gokce/sf_defn.html .)
Joe: And I think there's a certain amount of dishonesty in an author who writes fantasy as a way of expressing their own beliefs in the supernatural. They seek to have it both ways-- they are asking the skeptical reader to 'suspend their disbelief' for the duration of the story, while at the same time encouraging the credulous reader to believe they are glimpsing a fantastic realm that actually exists.
Matt: I don't know that that's dishonest so much as self-contradictory. In fact, I don't really understand what you're getting at in this example. You mean the way C.S. Lewis supposedly encoded Christian ideas into his Narnia stories? Is there a writer that you're thinking of who does this? It seems to me that it's up to the reader to decide what they want, which was my point -- whatever the author thinks of his work, it's really the reader who has the final verdict.
This is a pet peeve of mine. The work that most comes to mind is the X Files, in which Fox and Skully endlessly debate about science and the supernatural, and of course, the supernatural always wins. In one episode, referring to a scientist they were investigating, Fox said, 'This guy's dedicated his life to debunking extra-terrestrial phenomenon. So when he found physical evidence of extra-terrestrials, WHY DIDN'T HE DESTROY IT?' That's right, Fox-- scientists are always destroying evidence that contradicts their theories! (Sigh!)
I have to take issue with the separation of significance into three areas. What I was trying to suggest was that abstract ideas might themselves represent, or be used in representing, 'a source of knowledge and wisdom about the world'. I think most significant wisdom from storytelling is produced in this way -- stories establish their abstract ideas, then explore them, manipulate them, or contrast them in order to bring out their meanings.
I agree that abstract ideas can be a source of wisdom. But I'm doubtful that the most signifigant wisdom from storytelling is produced this way. That is, I'm doubtful that entirely abstract ideas are necessarily the most profound. I think it's the relationship of the ideas to human beings, in credible ways, that is the source of the most profundity.
For example, two hypothetical time-travel stories. In the first story, a man goes back in time to prevent a terrorist incident; each time he changes something in the past, something else comes along that is worse. Finally he manages to make the right change and thwart the terrorist; but he has learned that time travel is tricky business!
In the second story, a woman travels back in time to try to prevent incidents that led to the breakup of her marriage. But with each 'fix' she applies, the marriage becomes more miserable. She eventually comes to realize that the breakup of her marriage was inevitable, and that no fixing was possible.
It depends upon the writer of course (Robert Heinlein wrote something similar to the first story, 'By His Bootstraps') but I think the second story would more likely be profound, because the idea of time travel is interwoven with something real-- the relationship of two people in marriage.
...it's far from clear that realistic fiction is an easy mesh with pure form. If anything, I'd suggest that 'pure form' doesn't really mesh with the bounds of realism; pure form is almost inevitably going to shade over into fantasy at some point or other.
I guess this depends on what 'pure form' means. It could be taken to mean purified form, such as a Krazy Kat strip. But I was referring instead to an exceptional use of artistic style. I just think realism has an edge over pure fantasy, because context is such a powerful tool.
Right! Well said! That was what I was trying to get at. Now, if the scenario of a divorce may be made to feel real even without the actual experience of a divorce, why not a scenario involving a wizard or other fantastical element? If, as you say, the author has good instincts about the human condition.
I assume that a skilled author would be capable of making a wizard scenario feel real. But that isn't what I was taking issue with-- I've never said that fantasy can't be used to create an engaging and entertaining story. I was referring to the relevance of the situation-- since wizards aren't real, they can only be indirectly relevant to the reader. But since married couples are real, the reader's encounter with a fictional married couple who 'ring true' can add to their understanding of real life.
...you note that there's no "inherent conflict between a work echoing our personal experiences and also transcending them." I thoroughly agree with this. This is what I think fantasy does: transcend our personal experiences. As a never-married 29-year-old, who has seen none of his friends going through divorce, stories about these subjects are just about as fantastic to me as stories about wizards.
Experience of a happy marriage is pertinent to understanding a troubled marriage. After all, most troubled marriages start off being happy, and oftentimes seem happy on the surface even after they become troubled.
If I can elaborate on this point: whenever I read a story, I have to make such a tremendous imaginative leap that the question of whether the story is fantastic or realistic harldy matters. Trying to think myself into the place of another human individual is radical enough. The question of whether the individual inhabits the world I do, or the world that used to be, or a world that never was, or a world that might be, is essentially trivial.
Oddly enough though, many readers seeking entertainment and escape are drawn to fantasy and science fiction (myself included.) They obviously don't think the distinction is trivial. To reiterate a point I made above, if you think A=B, you not only have to satisfy the likes of me, you have to satisfy fantasy fans like Dumas.
And I will expand on that here: The standard in both cases is not literal truth, but the emotional or intuitive truth sensed by the reader. 'Sensed' is probably too sober and too passive a word. 'Revealed', in the sense of a religious revelation, may be more like it. Emily Dickenson once said something like 'When I feel that the top of my head has been blown off -- that is poetry.' And that's what I'm trying to say: when a story does that, that's a good story, never mind whether the means were realistic or fantastic. Both of these means may produce that sensation of revealed truth, and neither, that I can see, has any particular advantage in causing it.
That's not true for everyone. Some of us, at least, will judge a realistic story on whether or not it is a fair representation of reality. For example, in the story of the troubled marriage, if the wife visits a divorce lawyer, and he gives her legal advice that is complete bull, it is probably going to spoil the story for intelligent readers, even if the legal bull makes for a better story. Of course, a really good author can get away with taking some liberties. I don't know if the legal advice in 'The Postman Always Rings Twice' was real or bull, but Cain made me believe it, even though it seemed far-fetched.
Joe: But if the novel [Anna Karenina] had contained fantasy elements, it would have completely destroyed that credibility.
Matt: ...are Hamlet's or Macbeth's soliloquies undercut by the fantasy elements in their stories? If Anna Karenina presents us with knowledge and wisdom, what about Hamlet and Macbeth? Or Prospero?
I never said good drama couldn't have fantasy elements. But the truth of Anna Karenina arises out of credibility of the situation, specifically the effect of her adultery on her social position in the society. Just where would you suggest we place a ghost or witch in Anna Karenina so that it would not undermine the credibility of the story?
Joe: In working with these archetypes, the author must either exploit them for their simplistic, escapist value; or critique them by a reversal of the circumstances, as in Don Quixote. But a work rooted in conventional formula can almost never escape those formula.
Matt: What I meant was that I see no reason why an author "must" be restricted to the two uses of the archetypes that you suggest. Is Prospero exploited for "simplistic, escapist value"? I would suggest not...
Note the use of the phrases 'conventional formula' and 'almost never.' Great authors usually don't resort to conventional formulas, and are wily enough to get away with it when they do.
What I was trying to address with my original remarks is what would be better termed 'genre expectations.' Whether they like it or not, authors operate in the context of previous works the reader's familiar with.
Let's consider this in another context. Say you want to write a realistic story about a man who happens to be a private investigator. It's not your intent to write a mystery story-- that just happens to be the character's profession. But if you don't want to mislead the reader, you'll have to handle this circumstance in some way-- otherwise the reader will go through the whole story expecting a dead body to pop up. That's what a genre expectation is; and if you're not writing a genre story, it presents a serious complication.
I can cite instances of fantastic work as successful (or more successful) than any I can think of in the vein of realistic fiction, and then suggest reasons why they may be successful. I think that's all either of us can do; as you may gather, the reasons you put forward for the superiority of realism aren't as solid for me as they are for you. And the reason, frankly, is precisely because so much fantastic work has succeeded so well.
This remark was what I had in mind when I wrote above that, for some, since both A and B have achieved C in the past, it cannot be determined if A or B is more likely to achieve C in the future. I don't think this follows; I think it's useful and interesting to evaluate A and B.
If you can suggest reasons why B might be more successful than A, (or is successful, irregardless of A) by all means do so. I'm certainly not unreceptive of this.
If you'll forgive me, I'd have to say that this is indeed pretty arbitrary. Taming of the Shrew is on the list but not A Winter's Tale? Where are the Henry IV and V plays? Well, let's see what we've got.
I have to confess that this arbitrariness is shaped by my recollection of the plays. I read A Winter's Tale (30 years ago!), but can't remember a thing about it; same for the Henry's (although I remember that Falstaff was introduced in one of those history plays...)
Joe: I'd be interested to hear how a story about a wizard can be a source of knowledge and wisdom, since wizards don't exist.
Matt: Well, I'll take a crack at this. When I look at Faustus, however briefly and in whichever version, I see a meditation on power, knowledge, and corruption. Although the specific form this takes has to do with a wizard, the metaphorical suggestiveness extends squarely into the real world.
That's the point I've been trying to make-- a realistic story comments on the world more directly. A fantasy comments on the world by metaphor. (Of course a realistic story can also comment on the world metaphorically.)
I would have to say that the wisdom of fantasy is no different than the wisdom of realism in this respect.
Do you not think there is wisdom in making distinctions when distinctions are in fact possible? Do you really think we are better off assuming that A=B, end of discussion?
Joe: If your father was a wizard, don't you think your relationship to him would be substantially different than it is to a flesh and blood dad who has to work for a living, and who may not be all that exciting to be around?
Matt: No. Because I think there's something exciting, and something mundane, in the very notion of 'father'.
Excuse me, Matt, but you really seem hell-bent on not acknowledging any distinctions between A and B. And you seem to be saying that a relationship to a father is driven by universal considerations, and has nothing to do with the circumstances of the individual.
But, as you aluded to in your example of Faustus, a wizard is a power fantasy, and having a powerful dad is different from having a working class dad who has to obey a boss.
True, you can bend and twist the wizard archetype so that he might have all the characteristics of a working class dad. But what's the point? Why not just present a working class dad in the first place?
Joe: ... I think something is lost when we try to separate our philosophy and understanding of the universe from our day-to-day existence.
Matt: This is a good point. But in the long run I can't agree with it, because -- as I noted somewhere back in the monster post above -- everybody else's day-to-day life will be different than mine just because they're different people...
Matt, I think you've misunderstood the context of my comment, even though you preserved the context in quoting me. Madget wrote, 'Ultimately, the realism of those authors gives structure and context to the art of the tale at hand, serves as a particular conduit for the aesthetic, emotional, intellectual, and indeed, mythical currents of artistic energy -- it does not possess particular value in and of itself, save for a kind of utilitarian accumulation of neutral information about our own world.'
What I was trying to say was that the information he refers to is not neutral, and that something is lost if we separate philosophy from it.
There may be some purpose, in some cases, for inventing a fantasy existence as a context for presenting a particular philosophy and understanding of the universe. But I think it's blindness to assume that it makes no difference, that it's 'neutral', that one existence is as meaningful as another, that make-believe and reality carry the same philosophical weight.
Madget, I'll reply to your latest post sometime soon.