Merlin advising Arthur
How do you see the world? Looking at the major issues we face—global warming, AIDS, terrorism, overpopulation, unemployment, renewable energy, the environment—do you view the world as “too broke to fix” or still within our capabilities to drastically improve and correct?
The books writers write are often impacted by their world views. Some agree with Jean-Paul Sartre’s statement that “Man is a futile passion.” In fact, looking at most of the fiction published during the last hundred years or so, I suggest that most authors either agree with Sartre or think the public agrees with Sartre and wants to read stories that corroborate this world view.
In my latest post on Sarabande’s Journey, World of Wonder finding ‘Life in Truth,’ I wrote that “a lot of mainstream fiction has fled from wonder, pulled by science, technologies and difficult-to-solve world issues into realism, powerlessness, despair and alienation.” Some of this fiction gives us happy endings, but they’re usually small endings in a sea of troubles. That is to say, the lovers who will live happily ever after will do so as long as the screwed-up world allows it.
The alternative proposition to readers and writers who agree with Sartre is neither naiveté nor the false believe that life will save warring factions from themselves if only the parties involved will sit down and sing “Kumbayah” together. While naiveté and “Kumbayah” bring their adherents many positive moments and, perhaps the illusion of positive action, they are—I believe—taking a bury-your-head-in-the-sand approach to the problems of the world and, worse yet, to their own personal development.
In my novel Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey, my protagonist—who is trying to create a magical cloud inside his apartment—is advised to close his eyes. Why? Because as long as he sees that the cloud isn’t there yet, he’ll become more and more convinced he can’t create it. When he stops looking, he’s successful.
Now, I would never suggest that we stop being aware of the world’s problems and thereby give up on all the logical, science-and-techology-based approaches to solving them. Instead, I prefer the approach advocated by mythologist Joseph Campbell: “We’re not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves. But in doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes.” As long as we, as individuals, focus on the huge problems of the world for which we see no viable solutions, we not only feel more alone, but more powerless as well.
Whether or not you were around or not during the 1960s, you’re probably aware that Washington, D. C. and/or the Kennedy administration was often referred to as “Camelot.” Rightly or wrongly—and regardless of political viewpoint—the Camelot we hoped for was on a par with the heroic dreams of the legendary King Arthur and his noble knights. Perhaps our hope was based on all the wrong reasons and perhaps it had too much “Kumbayah” and “Make Love Not War” in it, but it was hope. Hope has, it seems to me, become a rare commodity in both our lives and our fiction.
Looking at the rhetoric, few people believe that America as either a dream or a hope or a goal will ever become the Camelot of our imagination. Variously, it’s too late, too broke to fix, or too besieged by problems no man or woman or group can solve. In the minds of many, America is rather like the tragic world of King Arthur in Tennyson’s epic poem Idylls of the King. Epic fantasy author Stephen R. Donaldson summed up Camelot, as viewed by Tennyson like this:
Tennyson’s technique is to take a genuine, honest-to-God “epic” character (Arthur) and surround him with normal, believable, real human beings who lie and cheat and love and hate and can’t make decisions. So what happens? The normal, believable, real people destroy Arthur’s epic dream.
Donaldson suggests that many of us think we’re not capable of doing anything else because we believe that since “man is a futile passion” that we are powerless and incapable of creating a living, breathing real Camelot. He writes fantasy, in part, to demonstrate that man is capable of being an effective passion.
An Alternative to Sartre
I quoted storyteller Jane Yolen in my latest Sarabande’s Journey post, so those of you who read that will, I hope, forgive the repetition. In her book Touch Magic, she says that Life in Truth (as opposed to the world we see with our eyes) “tells us of the world as it should be. It holds certain values to be important. It makes issues clear. It is, if you will, a fiction based on great opposites, the clashing of opposing forces, question and answer, yin and yang, the great dance of opposites. And so the fantasy tale, the ‘I that is not you,’ becomes a rehearsal for the reader for life as it should be lived.”
My philosophy of life does not include the viewpoint that men and women are powerless or that they don’t matter or that “evil” and “blame” are independent forces out there in the real world. As an individual, I believe in Life in Truth; that is, among other things, both a Joseph Campbell approach and a Jane Yolen approach. In my contemporary fantasies, The Sun Singer and Sarabande as well as in my magical realism adventure Garden of Heaven: Odyssey, I focus on stories with intense—and sometimes horrible—personal trials. And yet, my characters also find answers, answers that focus on themselves rather than on those who would destroy them or the world they believe in.
While I write contemporary fantasy rather than epic fantasy, I agree with Donaldson’s point of view about the value of fantasy fiction. His characters look within for answers, and this allows them to see the “real world” just the way it is while simultaneously seeing their dreams; that is to say, the world as it should be.
Paradox or not, I can reconcile Life Actual (the so-called real world) and Life in Truth, and understand clearly that while I don’t have what it takes to solve the large issues of the day, I am learning all that I need to know to solve the problems of myself. One day, as long as I don’t stare too intently at the problems themselves, the worlds of reality and of imagination will become one.
sharp-edged fiction without the futility