So, fantasy; just a childhood – or childish – escape? As some would have us believe. Those who claim they do not hold with the fantastical, that people should ‘get real’, seem somehow to maintain that their perception of reality is superior to those of us pathetic fantasists – and thus so are they. These arguments, both for and against, have been long rehearsed and discussed in enough places; it seems redundant to go over them again, but I will attempt a few ideas of my own (though probably advocated by plenty of others unbeknownst to me).
I was hunting for quotes for the expression of ideas to put on prayer flags for my piece that became Flowing Free, and one of the places I started with were in various books on surrealism. As the sayings on prayer flags need to be positive, many quotes were unsuitable, but I did come across one (which I know I’ll have read before, but didn’t remember) by André Breton from the First Surrealist Manifesto (1924):
“What is eye-opening about the fantastic is that there is no fantastic, there is only reality.”
You don’t have to believe in the exact (or even vague) tenants of Breton’s thought to be taken with its cardinal point: there is no division between reality and the fantastic. Reality is fantastic – the fantastic is reality. They are both one and the same.
This idea is not new; any study of religion will reveal the concept of the divine in the mundane (perhaps the Cathars less than most); and poets and thinkers from almost every millennia have understood this. It is only as the nineteenth century progressed that there rose to prominence counter-arguments. I’m not talking about science as such, thought there were scientists (and still are) who are reductionist, but Darwin was not, Einstein was not; astrophysics certainly is not. It was more in the rationalist political and economic sphere that this debasement of what it is to be an imaginative human grew. Mostly one that would traditionally be classed as ’the left’.
I would like to make it absolutely clear that I am not for one moment trying to excuse the political right here – there are so many examples of the far right’s debasement that can be found by even the most perfunctory search – but I would suggest that they were more likely to be employing ideas of the fantastic in their attempts to achieve and maintain power. And I am well aware of the Surrealist Movement and many individual Surrealists’ involvement in the politics of the left in the 1920s and 1930s. A marriage that always seemed to me to be mutually-exclusive, if not mutually-antagonistic. Just because they had the same enemies, it did not make them easy bedfellows.
But from Marx onwards such concepts as ‘Historical Materialism’ and ‘Marxist archaeology’ reduced history and humanity down to this-and-then-this-and-this-must-follow concept. All inevitable. Not all those antagonistic to fantasy or the fantastic are Marxists of course, and few people are as appalling as Mao, Stalin or Pol Pot even when they are Marxists (or apologists for such base and brutal destroyers), all holding that there is no place for their concept of the fantastic in adult reality. Except, they also dwell – or dwelt – in the fantastic, at least as much as most people:‘Year Zero’, the ‘Cultural Revolution, the ‘Great Purge’ are nowhere near most people’s experience of reality. Indeed I would suggest that the main differences between those three individuals (and plenty on the right) and most of us are the scale and murderous intent of their beliefs and actions.
So, we all dwell in differing aspects of the fantastic whether we admit it or not. So I claim, though I’m unsure it can be proved.