More Thoughts on Wish-Fulfillment

The ultimate reading-to-use!
In An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis argues that people should stop judging readers by what they are reading and instead look at how they read.

As I mention in a previous post, Lewis applauds readers who get swept away while reading ("receiving") versus those who read for what it can do for them ("using"). I attempted to find a middle ground in my thesis but I'll be the first to admit that my thesis was a shot in the dark. In many ways, I totally agree with Lewis but I tend to get uncomfortable with labels: describing all readers as "users" and "receivers" is too labelly.

Basically, Lewis detested
Horatio Alger books.
However, at one point in An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis presents one of my favorite arguments of all time: fantasy is less likely to engender a "using" attitude that so-called "realistic" fiction. His point is that people who read fantasy are more likely to see it as an entire, separate world about other people than to mistake the book's action for something that could literally happen to them. He then criticizes boys' and girls' books where the plucky hero(ine) goes to school, becomes popular, and wins all the awards--that type of stuff. Okay, he writes, exactly how realistic is that?

And I think he is right. I also think that a large number of academics perceive literature in exactly the second way: this could happen to me (or you, Ms. Student!).

And here I run up against a wall because actually LOTS of readers--even of fantasy--have that reaction. They don't always literally think the events could happen to them, but they often wish they could. They are drawn to the swashbuckling adventurer, the tough-minded princess, or the wise Roman/Klingon/British captain. They daydream or fan-fiction or speculate about how they would handle their favorite characters' adventures.

And I support that--even while the critic in my head wants to point out the fallacies. I once got into an entirely pointless argument (pointless on my side) when I tried to point out that even if a person lived during Jesus's time, that person wouldn't necessarily meet Jesus. Most people didn't. And many more people died of disease, got killed by storms or pirates or hunger or nutty rulers and/or ended up with leprosy than chatted with the Son of God. I wasn't being pessimistic. Accepting things-as-they-are is nothing to bemoan!

Still, there's a cost to getting to know too much about history. For a long time, I perceived Ancient Rome as far more refined and enjoyable than the Dark Ages. It wasn't. The Dark Ages were moderately more civilized than Ancient Rome; peasants and women had slightly more rights and protections; plus disease was not any MORE rampant, especially since the dictates of medieval religious thought meant that there were WAY more services available in the Dark Ages for the indigent than in Ancient Rome (read It Ended Badly by Jennifer Wright and Rodney Stark's Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History).

Yet the image or aura of the Roman villa, people wandering around in togas, and so on remains part of my internal perceptions. It's the idea, not the reality that remains so attractive. As Eugene states,
"It's not this world but a made-up movie world, a hypothetical model of the universe, where alternative realities can be played out with the promise that 'no animals were harmed during the making of this movie.'"
It's not Madame Curie dying that bothers
me--it's how cold she was!
Consequently, I can totally understand people who want to bury themselves in movies/role-playing/online games about Ancient Rome just as I can totally understand people who want to bury themselves in kings and castles and knights and chivalry--despite the fact that my basic reaction to Renaissance Fairs (okay, ANYTHING before 1950) is "But it was so COLD back then!"

This is where C.S. Lewis and my definition of wish-fulfillment comes into play. Like Eugene, I think it is an immersion in the creative image of another world, whether that world is based on history or fantasy. It may salve an emotion or satisfy an emotional need. It doesn't need to have a direct moral purpose and may prove problematic if utilized as a learning experience or window to "real life." 

For instance, I find the idea of contacting aliens utterly fascinating--not the weird aliens that supposedly experiment on people but the C.S. Lewis and Star Trek aliens that bring new cultural traditions and outlooks to the table.

The little critic in my head points out that after the initial thrill, alien-human contact would focus on trade agreements, legal wrangling over who owned Mars, and pontificating academics accusing everyone of being racist for thinking that aliens are "human-like."

Because nothing is as adorable as the Thermians.
I don't listen to the critic in my head (in this case) because it is the image that enchants me, not any speculations about what alien-human contact would really be like or my worries about the underlying messages/ideologies of Star Trek (sorry, Eugene!). I like to think up stories about liminality: the adjustments and adaptations people make when they leave the center and deal with the "other." The past is too cold, and fantasy is too limited (elves are elves are elves). So I use aliens. It's fun! 

Unfortunately, we live in a culture where practical "use" (how something impacts reality--what it teaches about real life/social conditions/history) reigns. So a wish that doesn't somehow dovetail with "reality" becomes the height of inappropriate behavior. Which is why I admire Lewis for pointing out that semi-realistic fiction might ultimately be less realistic in the long run than entirely non-realistic fiction--reading for "reality" can ultimately be more misleading than reading for personal pleasure. 

1 comment:

FreeLiveFree said...

You mention that the Dark Ages where civilized than Ancient Rome, the entire idea of the Dark Ages was created by Renaissance scholars. The first universities in Europe were set up in the Dark Ages. The Renaissance scholars were just kind of full of themselves and looked down on their ancestors.

About fantasy versus realistic storytelling, author Gene Wolfe once said that all novels are fantasies some are just more honest about it. The idea that a fictional character in a contemporary novel has more existence than a fantasy one is absurd. They are all fiction.