Sunday, August 9, 2015

Magic is afoot

This post is by way of turning the radio transmissions of twitter into a recording. By no means should you expect a conclusive argument.

Put into vaguely reasonable prose-form and edited/expanded slightly, here are some things I said on twitter the other day:

Magic is a pervasive human experience; whether it's "real" in the terms that have had faddish currency in the past few centuries is irrelevant to this fact. I think this is one of my problems with "genre fantasy" (some related problems with which I've touched on before): it's written primarily by and for rational positivists who hold magic in disdain — the condescension to the "subject matter" is built in.

This is probably a large part of why Rachel Pollack is so exceptional to me. In a novel like Unquenchable Fire I doubt that she "believes in" the specifics of the magic she's writing about (which after all only exists in the way it does in the novel because something happened to the world that did not to ours), but magic itself is a living presence in her life. She doesn't assume she's above what she's writing — and you can feel it when you read.

And another thing (which I've also touched on from time to time: twice in this post, say) is that when there is a felt reality to the "fantasy" it feels insulting to call it fantasy — tantamount to saying, "we know better." I'm not steeped in the rhetoric of fantasy so this might be an outsider's ignorance; maybe there's nothing in calling a work "fantasy" that precludes belief, but this is the uncomfortable way it always strikes me.

(If you'd like to reconstruct it and the several discussions that branched off of it, good luck, but it begins here; a follow-up today begins here.)

One of the many interesting responses I got (see note below) was from David Hebblethwaite, who among other things said "Whenever I read a folk tale, I'm struck by how little resemblance genre fantasy bears to it" — an experience I share. Now, in some respects this is only to be expected, as the world that produced these folk tales has by and large departed, but in other respects it is a damning critique of a "genre" — and here I think that often ridiculous word applies — that wants to have it both ways, to claim a continuity with that world and to stand in a position of superiority over it: to colonize these abandoned landscapes at the same time as the positivism they share sets them on fire.

I suppose this argument might sound strange, coming from someone who has written so extensively about how important science fiction — in many ways the most positivist of all literatures — is to him. To me though it comes down, at least in part, to a question of belief: science fiction is written by people who do "believe in" science, while fantasy fiction is written mostly by people who so axiomatically disbelieve magic that they describe what they themselves are writing as fantasy! (Which, if we wanted to get etymological, could lead to interesting places, but current usage weighs heavily.) And beginning with that belief, science fiction is — sometimes — often accidentally — able to experience the kind of movement I talked about in my above-linked post about the differences between those notoriously and often delightfully intertwined fields, sf and fantasy.

[The words Buffy Sainte-Marie turned into the greatest of all songs, as they originally appeared in Leonard Cohen's novel Beautiful Losers.]

Too much of what is called "fantasy", it seems to me, seeks to speak the mountains' dancing while out of the other side of its mouth saying god (broadly speaking) is dead. And even those individual works that do not, it again seems to me, are made to do so every time they are described as fantasy. I suppose what seems needful is, to go to an example, the thought and work of writers (by which I do not mean only writers of fiction) able to think as deeply about the role magic and landscape and godness (among other things) play in human life as the brilliant musician Elysia Crampton does in this glorious interview — thought and work that understands what she says not merely as aesthetically pleasing but as literal, urgent truth in the fullest, newest, most ancient of senses.

Many strong men lied. They only passed through Magic and out the other side.

[Many thanks to David Hebblethwaite, Cecily Kane, Jo Lindsay-Walton, Kip Manley, Aishwarya Subramanian, Jonah Sutton-Morse, and everyone else who engaged with me on twitter and elsewhere about this. I don't necessarily incorporate any of their thoughts specifically in this post — which after all is little more than a gesture at the event of thought having occurred — but they are all on my mind, and without them the thought would likely have vanished entirely.]

UPDATE: Talking with Kip and Jonah (and reading some beautiful blog posts of Kip's, like this one and the ones linked to in it) has made me realize that I've been much too simplistic on the question of belief, which is not an either/or — I didn't leave enough room for the struggle with it. I stand by what I said about axiomatic disbelief, but doubt is another thing entirely and not to be diminished — as is desire (which I'm embarrassed to have missed, seeing as I have much more desire than belief myself).

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