On Fantasy I: Broad vs Narrow Realism
I came across an interesting question today. Does Romantic Realism, Ayn Rand's ideal in literature, necessarily imply a condemnation of fantasy, as a genre of literature? Is her view of art, as something that should portray Man as he "could and should be", incompatible with popular works of fiction like Harry Potter, Star Wars and Game of Thrones, because they include unreal elements?
Yes. And also no.
Before addressing the more interesting "no", it's important to explain the yes. As Rand points out in her Romantic Manifesto, romantic writers have traditionally used supernatural tropes as a way to reconcile the portrayal of heroism in fiction with its denial in reality. If an artist accepts, explicitly or implicitly, the idea that real people cannot be heroes, yet still has an idealistic desire to portray heroism, he can "blame it" on a supernatural aspect. The reasoning is something like "sure, real people can't be heroes, but this guy makes things float with his mind, so he is an exception to that rule".
To the extent that fantastic elements are a tool to justify unreal heroism, they make a piece of art worse.
With that said, I believe there is something to be said in favor of fantasy, to the extent that it is realistic. To explain what I mean by "realistic", I need to establish the difference between what I, for lack of better terms, am calling "narrow" and "broad" realism.
Narrow realism is the belief that art should portray reality as it is right now, has been, or can be in the foreseeable future. In this perspective, the portrayal of a dragon or a spaceship is silly at best, and evasive at worse - after all, it makes no sense to portray something that isn't real, unless someone is attempting to "escape" into a fictional world.
Although fantasy, and fiction in general, can be used for escapism, I believe this view shares the same flaws of what naturalists call "realism": it misses the essential aspects of existence. A naturalist would object to the portrayal of a heroic man, on the grounds that "it is not real". However, even if we disregard the fact that there are real heroes out there, this complaint would still be misguided, as art should portray what CAN be. Even in a world devoid of a single hero, a writer can identify Man's rational essence, and imagine a hero that could exist.
I believe broad realism does just that: it identifies what is essential about existence. Take George Martin's Song of Ice and Fire as an example. The books are clearly fantasy - there are no dragons or zombies in real life - but the plot is still considered by many to be extremely "realistic". Why is that?
I believe the answer lies in Martin's ability to abstract the essential aspects of existence. His world is not whimsical. His "dragons and zombies" have identity, and strictly obey causality - they are not "deus ex machina" devices, that enable a character to alter the plot by feeling alone. His characters are realistic human beings, in the sense that they are unapologetically volitional, and range from the lowest of thieves to the smartest of heroes. Their actions have realistic consequences, as a good person dies if he repeatedly acts irrationally, bad people are constrained in their success by the nature of their evil, and good, well-thought out action brings about a better state of affairs.
I'd even argue that, the more fantastic a novel is while retaining the essence of reality, the more it can explore this aspect. The many worlds of a Star Wars-like universe, for example, show what different worlds, developed under different circumstances, could be like, based on our fundamental understanding of how worlds work. It's many different races show us what rationality could be like, if it developed on beings other than the clever monkeys we are.
This post is already pretty big, so I will continue the thought tomorrow, talking about the fundamental trade-off between fantasy and narrow realism.
- April 2nd, 2020
On Fantasy II: Symbolic vs Direct Language
To conclude my thought on romantic realism and the fantasy genre, I must recall the purpose of art.
Art is a selective recreation of reality, based on the artist's metaphysical value-judgements - his most fundamental, and often subconscious, views about existence, people and life as a whole. Why? Because it gives concrete form to our highest abstractions, and enables us to experience them directly, as we do percepts.
Art is a way for us to experience abstraction more directly.
What does good fantasy do? Whether you're talking about a religious myth or a popular novel, it uses fantastic elements as metaphors for real subjects. While a realistic novel can bring love, as a general abstraction, to a more concrete level by portraying a specific romantic event or relationship, a fantasy novel can make it even more concrete by portraying a cupid - an actual physical entity.
Although it makes it easier to represent abstractions concretely, fantasy comes with a cost. While the metaphor of an undead enemy, like Tolkien's Sauron or Martin's Night King, might give the abstraction of death more concrete form, it also requires a second mental process to relate the symbolism to real life - to give the plot real meaning. There's no sense in thinking about undead kings, but there is sense, for example, in Martin's depiction of many lords engaged in petty political conflict, while ignoring the real enemy - death.
A more realistic novel, like Atlas Shrugged, represents abstract ideas by describing particular instances of it, not through metaphor. As such, it does not require symbolism to be "unpacked" as much - it describes entities as entities, actions as actions, events as events, etc. There are, indeed, many abstract ideas to unpack in a realistic novel, and symbolism plays an important a role, but the plot itself is a coherent, self-sufficient description of events.
This is the fundamental trade-off between fantasy and realism in art. While fantasy enables an artist to give abstractions an even more concrete form, it also introduces the cost of extra mental steps. Realistic art, on the other hand, can be taken at face value, but leaves less room for symbolism.
- April 3rd, 2020