I have recently explored the idea that fantasy may consciously or unconsciously reflect aspects of our ‘real’ world. I argued that the more important reflection is of the unconscious reflecting of the writer’s culture/boundaries etc (their ideology) in the shape and form of the fantasy.
There is a notion of the fantastic as being the unreal—impossible—the ‘not’. But I think fantasy is most effective not when it merely creates impossibility, but when it defies the real. When it accepts and explores its boundaries, and challenges them fundamentally. That requires reflexive authorship. Again, this strikes at why horror can be so effective, because it works within the confines of the real, (presents the bounds) and then defies them by allowing the horrific (the fantastical aspect) to break through. This perturbs the psyche of the reader/characters.
Rosemary Jackson’s Fantasy* presents the idea of fantasy as a literature of subversion—that fantastical/horror elements bring forth what is repressed. Perhaps a mainstreaming of fantasy undermines its power as a revelatory literature. If we accept the tropes of the genre, accepting and embracing its elements and dive into that world uncritically, we become repressed again, just within unfamiliar bounds.
So how is this repression expressing itself within fantasy? By the real cracking its way into the fantastic? By the very fact of its gradual mainstream acceptance?
There must be something we can explore in an author’s fantasies, that reveals his/her own ideologies, and the sociocultural repressions.
Jackson touches on the Freudian concept of evolution, beginning with animistic thinking (magical thinking) and noting that it corresponds to a child’s way of thinking. We revel in the creative and destructive, magical aspects of the world. Causality is not yet understood. Perhaps that very agency of creation and destruction is the repressed aspect that a writer of fantasy is trying to enact. We can create a fantastic world. The only problem is that it ends.
So, in a way, writing about the fantastic is writing about the earlier evolutionary stages, of magical existences, the unexplained and the invisible agency of ‘big other’ actors (e.g., gods, dark lords). We are therefore projecting our own evolution, and vicariously living in an earlier evolutionary stage of our minds, getting back in touch with that mysterious sense that there is something unknown, something greater that is guiding things. But the writer also plays a second role: of being the omnipotent—creation/destruction of the earlier stage (destroying that part of ourselves?)
So it is the very reality of our cultural growth, and the realisation of reality setting in that is being repressed.
In other words, fantasy may be an act of repression, rather than revelation of the repressed.
What value is it then? Just a phenomenon, or is there something we can learn from it? Merely the notion that we all want more agency in our lives, or are there specifics we can enact?
Again, I fall back on the argument that fantasy must remain (or become) subversive. When that subversion itself has been mainstreamed, it no longer fulfils a critical role—it becomes another form of repression. So that reflexive process of always seeking to subvert is vital to an evolving genre.
*Jackson’s book is well worth reading. A little dry in parts, but the introduction and conclusion are exceptional.
Academic writing, or the study of a subject, often falls victim to one of two complementary difficulties—of strong general ideas lost and weighed by overly specific esoteric detail that mires the ideas, or of passionately and relevantly investigated specifics the author is incapable of coherently rendering into a readable whole. I think this book suffers a little of the former.