Monday, August 12, 2013

Fantasy and Metaphysics

A tea party with the Mad Hatter

What is real? 

In our culture, we confront this question daily. We look at our red-headed waitress and wonder what color her hair is--really. A dog in a fedora--is that picture real or is it Photoshopped? That soulful song playing on Pandora--is it a real saxophone or a synthesizer?  We get an email asking for a donation and we wonder if the charity is real or a scam. We look at paper money--in a currency that is no longer asset-based--and we wonder if the money has any real value.

I was a small child when my family got our first television set. Magical black and white images flashed on the screen. How did those little people get inside the box? A commercial for cherry pie prompted me to walk up to the tv and put my hands on the pie. Then I tried to wipe my hands off on my dress, and everyone laughed. I guess that was one of the first times I had to confront the nature of reality.

Fantasy literature gets at the heart of metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that asks, "What is real?" 

Fantasy asks us to accept—for a time, while we’re reading a story—something fantastic as real. That a spider can spell words with her web. That a girl can step through a looking glass into another world. That animals can talk. That once the earth was inhabited by elves, dwarves, hobbits, and the occasional curmudgeonly wizard. 

A furry-footed hobbit

I just returned from a writing conference that opened with a mixer to introduce the writers to each other. We each had to choose a random question to answer from the questions on printed cards. My question was, "Do you feel an allegiance to any other country than the one you live in?"

I asked in return, “Does Middle-earth count? 

Someone said, “For you it does.” 

Okay, I admit it. Some of my most meaningful experiences have happened aboard the Dawn Treader with Reepicheep the mouse. Or trekking across the red plains of  Malacandra with a language professor named Ransom. Or fighting dragons with the Wizard of Earthsea. Or tessering through time and space with Meg Murray and Calvin O'Keefe.

What is real? In the movie The Matrix, machines have achieved global supremacy and imprisoned the surviving men in a “reality” generated by a computer program. And in The Truman Show, a man grows up from baby to adulthood without knowing his life is being lived on the set of a reality show. It's kind of hard to watch these stories without wondering just how real our own reality is. 

In fact, fantasy is probably the best vehicle for pondering serious questions about reality.

When I read a Grisham novel, I find myself in a world of lawyers and courtroom shenanigans. Though the stories are fictional, I have some sense that they could actually happen. The world of a Grisham novel is not all that different from the world I live in. I guess you could say that world is fairly realistic.

But when I read fantasy, I am often transported to a world quite unlike my daily experience. I may find myself on a different planet or a parallel universe where fishes grant wishes and carpets can fly. The fantasy world may be nothing like the "real world," or it may be just like it--except that marshmallows have magic powers or a junkyard is a portal to another dimension. 

I believe it is this sense of other-worldliness that helps us to step out of our ordinary lives and thereby see our own world more clearly.

Is this the ultimate escapism and denial--to cast off even the laws of physics and the limitations of my daily life?  I think it's much more than that. 

It's a way of thinking about what's real and about what really matters. It's a way of sneaking a glimpse into a higher kind of reality than the one we often know in this life--a reality where the weak are strong and the poor are rich; where foolish things confound the wise; where death is a beginning, not the end; where love and justice prevail; where happy thoughts can make you fly.

What is real? This is a question with no easy answer. It's a dialogue that has been going on for ages of man. And fantasy is a great way for writers and readers to continue the conversation.