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Notes on Fantasy

I have always yearned for escape. Reading this post from Carl Neville recently reminded me of that. I don’t want to make some kind of major claim toward epiphany, a discovery of who I really am, what I’ve really wanted; such things are not only philosophically suspect but simply boring. Everyone does them, and they don’t get more engrossing the more strength we give to them, staking out our identity around some kind of monism of intent. Instead, what I’m trying to describe here is the identification of a schism between worlds, or multiple schisms.

First there is that of adulthood, the point at which, from the kind of drifting obsolescence of childhood we are catapulted into reality, from the daydream into a world of machine-locked routine and ruthless competition. It doesn’t feel like a divide at the time, largely because you don’t notice, but at some point the whiplash kicks in; our dreams are sold out, our stupid hopes turned into dust, and we have to crack on and make it in the world of work. This is, personally, something that I eventually struggled with, but grew into a deep distrust for. If there’s one thing that I remember really strongly about New Labour’s still much vaunted focus on education, education, education, it is the cloying, awful feeling of being railroaded into a “career”. 

The moment where a careers adviser laughed when I intimated I wanted to go to university stands out particularly, but the general annoyance I always had was being alone among my peers in the deep distrust I had [but couldn’t necessarily explain] for normality, everything I hated about that grey suit the deputy head wore all the time, the kind of insistence that if we wanted to make it, we had to accept compromise. Selling out was not an issue, in fact it was encouraged. If there was an underlying term behind education at that time, it was “career”. Anything and everything was transformed into a way to mold us into gladiators, to be sent out into the pits and against the mercy of boardrooms and managers. The explicit funnelling of education into so much wood-chip to be fed into the compactor fomented in me a long-standing dislike of the world in all its deathly banality, and in some respects I entered into something of a war of attrition in which it was a question of whether it could, over time, break down my teenage illusions, or whether I could just drift past its security channels and get out unharmed…

This meant escape. There was a heavy aspect of this in my retreat into the art classrooms, my decision that to hell with everyone’s insistence on business ambitions and preparing for interviews, I was going to be an artist, a philosopher, or something like that, didn’t matter, just as long as it allowed me to enter some other world away from this one. I spent my youth in libraries, in video games, engrossed in worlds as far away from my own as I could muster, whether it was prehistory, feudal Japan, Gormenghast or Tolkien, and I largely aspired to create worlds of my own. If reality was so dull and horrifying then I would create another.

Eventually, this was funneled into the serious world of contemporary art. Eventually finding myself in the art school I’d been told was a futile hope, I was struck gradually by a disappointment, a disappointment rooted in fantasy. I had, in my naivite thought of this world as something that must be exciting, bohemian, something more rewarding than than the normal channels everyone seemed to insist I followed, only to find that the same creeping malaise of reality was everywhere, infesting every corner and every alternative. I still found myself attempting to escape. My “existentialist phase” as I might now address it, tongue partially in cheek, was a direct confrontation, in retrospect, with this disappointment. Every alternative I wanted to find was not what I was supposed to be doing. Creating worlds was brutally subjugated to the command of representation. If I couldn’t find them here I’d look to the mythologized cafes of Paris, to bohemian intellectuals and avant gardes that seemed a million miles away from this sterile, scrubbed environment.

It’s taken quite some time of detours, drifting and breakdown from that point to discover where that escape actually lay, to in any respect identify what I was searching for, and if anything it yet again puts me on a collision course with fantasy. When I read Mark Fisher’s Weird and the Eerie perhaps a year or so ago now, a distinction within his definition of the weird was of immediate interest to me. This is between the weird and the fantastical –

“Fantasy is set in worlds completely different from ours – Dusany’s Pegana, or Tolkien’s Middle Earth; or rather, these worlds are locationally and temporally distant from ours. The weird, by contrast, is notable for the way in which it opens up an *egress* between this world and others.”

In principle, I find little to disagree with. Formally, this is true, a basic distinction of the fantasy is a disconnect from reality, that it is a world entirely distinct from this one rather than explicitly connected to it. Yet, something that emerged from this statement for me is the consideration of fantasy exactly as something that maintains a thin thread with the world from which it is conjured. Tolkien famously hated allegory, and insisted that Lord of the Rings was in no way intended as a work about any real life conflict, and yet the fact he had to draw this distinction at all renders it questionable. The fantasy implies an escape; even if, unlike weird fiction, this escape isn’t explicit in print, it is forever implicit in the creation of the fantasy itself.

Rather than a nagging point of contestation with Fisher’s observation, this is something I would extend into an unfurling of Fantasy as a form into something far more complex than it is often given credit for. Michael Moorcock’s famous critique of Tolkien, Epic Pooh, remains a turning point for me in my engagement with the genre specifically. The nostalgia for a “lost land” in Tolkien and other English writers in the same vein is something that is difficult to ignore once you see it, and it opens up, not a dismissal of fantasy but one of many distinctions within fantasy. Moorcock’s disdain for the sentimental romanticisms of Tolkien is to identify a Fantasy constructed as a yearning for something lost, in which we hark back to a long gone middle england in the hobbit holes and cabbage patches of the shire as an escape from the scouring, the onset of industry and modernity in the fiery depths of Mordor. We build worlds from materials, from ideas and fragments of worlds already available to us; the thin membrane between fantasy and reality begins to tear.

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