We Americans seem to live in a United State of Denial. As coastlines erode, hurricanes gain strength, and rageful boy-men in white hoods pretend to be heroes, huge numbers of us remain complacent—until our cable bill goes up.
Naturally, those among us too alarmed to sleepwalk through our apocalyptic time work frantically to awaken the rest. No easy job, that.
In fact, an additional danger awaits awakeners who bring dire warnings: that of such consuming preoccupation with injustice and disaster that, in time, whatever does not bear on them seems trivial, impractical, and foolish. Discernment of urgency, nuance, and complexity then fall under the shadow of an unwitting absolutism.
Here in the States, this absolutism often mixes with the lingering Puritanism brought to these shores by stern Pilgrim Fathers also known as Dissenters. The result is the saturnine judgment that anyone not neck-deep in misery is guilty of being inauthentic or, worse, unrealistic. Fear, outrage, and sanctimony then become the only correct emotional responses to the adversity we inflict on each other.
This puritanical Saturnism is harmful for several reasons. It pushes away allies. It carries around unrelieved gloom. It snowballs into depression and burnout. It projects a split between Us and Them, forcing Them to carry what we deny about ourselves. It mistakes cynicism for realism. Instead of listening, it judges, rejecting all who do not promote its ideology. By doing this, it unconsciously acts out its internalized persecutor instead of moving forward into healing.
Taken far enough, Saturnism demonizes imagination. It makes everyone who is optimistic, ebullient, enlivening, and joyful wrong. It shackles our capacity to dream.
One of its favorite targets is fantasy, which it regards as escapist. Sometimes, it is. The extreme is when a parent spends so much time raising fantasy children in an online game that his real children go hungry. But to reduce all fantasy to escape demeans imagination as thoroughly as escapism does. It also neglects the opportunity to discover the meaning within the symptom, the message in the escape.
This missed opportunity was not lost on J.R.R. Tolkien. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories” he criticized “the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used.” Escape in “real life” is often practical and even heroic, he insists, as well as difficult to blame unless it fails:
Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.
In one of his letters he pointed out that to use the Ring of Power against the Enemy, no matter how worthy the cause, risks turning into the Enemy.
In truth, “escapist” fantasy has often played a pivotal role in challenging injustice. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a work of fiction, helped turn the Civil War into a moral opposition to slavery. Black Beauty improved the fees of badly paid horse taxi drivers in London. The original Star Trek series frequently criticized sexism, racism, and xenophobia. Environmental activists have cited Tolkien’s own The Lord of the Rings as inspiration for preventing what’s left of Earth’s greenery from being dug up and paved down into Mordor.
Tolkien was influenced by the Kalevala, a collection of Finnish folk tales that inspired the independence of Finland by giving it back its heritage.
Writing about a Gnostic gospel as a protest literature, scholar Karen King observed that
The Gospel of Mary presents a biting critique of how power is exercised in the lower world under the guise of law and judgment…The mythic framework of the Gospel of Mary allows the spiritual, the psychological, the social, the political, and the cosmic to be integrated under one guiding principle: resistance to the unjust and illegitimate domination of ignorant and malevolent Powers.
One could argue—and I have—that retelling fantasy tales, including fairy tales, folk tales, and myths, can be more persuasive, evocative, and reality-changing than dry facts and charts. The brain retains story content well; and when hearing a story, we enter into the imaginary space shared by tellers and listeners. This sharing brings to bear our full emotional capabilities. Here I follow Ursula K. LeGuin, who in The Language of the Night said:
At this point, realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence. A scientist who creates a monster in the laboratory; a librarian in the library of Babel; a wizard unable to cast a spell; a space ship having trouble in getting to Alpha Centauri: all these may be precise and profound metaphors of the human condition. Fantasists, whether they use the ancient archetypes of myth and legend or the younger ones of science and technology, may be talking as seriously as any sociologist—and a good deal more directly—about human life as it is lived, and as it might be lived, and as it ought to be lived. For after all, as great scientists have said and as all children know, it is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception, and compassion, and hope.
Australian education professor Steve Shann wrote some fiction with three of his students and discovered educational possibilities:
The writing of a piece of fiction is an attempt to draw on intuition, imagination, and metaphor to see more deeply into an aspect of the experienced world. It involves wrestling with what emerges in order to put it through some kind of refiner’s fire to test its authenticity. It is the methodology of the novelist and the poet. It is Proust coming to understand family, love, and memory; Tolstoy making sense of war; Rilke opening his eyes to the invisible and numinous. (from “A Mythopoetic Methodology: Storytelling as an Act of Scholarship,” Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education).
“The creation of imagined worlds,” he concludes, “was a valid way of discovering aspects of the real world inaccessible to more rational methodologies.”
”Even granting all that,” argues the Saturnian critic, “who has time to fantasize when the house is burning down?”
In actuality, some of our strongest voices do exactly that. In a deeply moving part of Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl writes about standing outside with a fellow concentration camp prisoner as the sun rises: “How beautiful,” murmurs the other man, “the world could be.” Frankl worked on his first book while imprisoned in the camps. Eloquently protesting state violence against people of color, Martin Luther King Jr. did not stop there: he showed us what the Beloved Community of inclusion and justice could look like. He dreamed. Imagination.
When Apollo 13 suffered a dangerous oxygen depletion, technicians at Mission Control in Houston brainstormed a solution using spare parts available to the imperiled astronauts. Imagination.
In 2007, Anti-Racist Action members dreamed up a creative response to Neo-Nazis planning a demonstration in Knoxville. Marchers calling for “White Power” were met by a parade of clowns throwing white flour into the air. The clowns also produced white flowers and calls for “Wife Power.” The Neo-Nazis left. Imagination.
Even poor children fantasize and play. Imagination is a basic human need.
Although I did not grow up in poverty, I survived eighteen years of domestic violence, and on particularly bad days only the fantasy of growing old enough to move out helped me live through being terrorized at home.
Let us remember that lack of imagination, which means lack of empathy and foresight, is a big part of why children are hungry, why societies remain racist, why the polar ice caps melt, why the house is on fire. The notion that fantasy is impractical in crises is itself a Saturnian fantasy disguised to slip past practicality policing out stopping everyone suspected of being dangerously lighthearted.
Without visions of possibilities awaiting us, without hope that tomorrow can be better than today, we lack a container for holding catastrophic news. Bombarded by images of dismal events, we succumb to numbing of mind and soul. We might even retreat to the child psychology of leaving change up to the authorities or their experts. But as the blind preacher shouts out in the novel Children of Dune, we are the only help that remains.
If our species does not survive global warming, our demise won’t overtake us because we lack laws, procedures, or political programs. We will either perish for abandoning our ability to dream, having failed to imagine and work toward a healed world for us to dwell in, or survive and flourish by the power of imaginal liberty.
Incidentally, I like to imagine that it’s not always about us, especially our mental selves. Our stories may well outlive us, as they do with every passing generation. Our fantasy images need us for their realization. They too want to live.
Let me finish by inviting our Saturnian friends to reconsider their ban on tending uplifting possibilities. The following excerpt from Hermann Hesse’s novel The Glass Bead Game (also published as Magister Ludi) features wise protagonist Joseph Knecht, whose last name means “to serve,” gently admonishing a cynical friend lost in despair and reluctant to dream:
You are averse to serenity, presumably because you have had to walk the ways of sadness, and now all brightness and good cheer strikes you as shallow and childish, and cowardly to boot, a flight from the terrors and abysses of reality into a clear, well-ordered world of mere forms and formulas, mere abstractions and refinements.
But, my dear devotee of sadness, even though for some this may well be a flight, even if the majority among us were in fact of this sort--all this would not lessen the value and splendor of genuine serenity, the serenity of the sky and the mind. Granted there are those among us who are too easily satisfied, who enjoy a sham serenity; but in contrast to them we also have men and generations of men whose serenity is not playful shallowness, but earnest depth…
Such cheerfulness is neither frivolity nor complacency; it is supreme insight and love, affirmation of all reality, alertness on the brink of all depths and abysses; it is a virtue of saints and of knights; it is indestructible and only increases with age and nearness to death. It is the secret of beauty and the real substance of all art. The poet who praises the splendors and terrors of life in the dance-measures of his verse, the musician who sounds them in a pure, eternal present--these are bringers of light, increasers of joy and brightness on earth, even if they lead us first through tears and stress.
This kind of cheerful serenity is what I have been concerned with ever since I began dimly to sense its meaning during my student days, and I shall never again relinquish it, not even in unhappiness and suffering.