Reading Comprehension 016


This was to be a talk about fantasy. But I have not been feeling very fanciful lately, and could not decide what to say: so I have been going about picking people's brains for ideas. "What about fantasy? Tell me something about fantasy. "And one friend of mine said,  "All right, I'll tell you something fantastic. Ten years ago, I went  to the children's room of the library of such-and-such a city, and asked for The Hobbit; and the librarian told me, 'Oh, we keep that only in the adult collection, we don't feel that escapism is good for children.'

My friend and I had a good laugh and shudder over that, and we agreed that things have changed a great deal in these past ten years. That kind of moralistic censorship of works of fantasy is very uncommon now, in the children's libraries. But the fact the children's libraries have become oasis in the desert doesn't mean that there isn't still a desert. The point of view from which that librarian spoke still exists. She was merely reflecting, in perfect good faith, something that goes very deep in the American character: a moral disapproval of fantasy, a disapproval so intense, and often so aggressive, that I cannot help but see it as arising, fundamentally, from fear.

So: Why are Americans afraid of dragons?

Before I try to answer my question, let me say that it isn't only Americans who are afraid of dragons. I suspect that almost all very highly technological peoples are more or less anti fantasy. There are several national literatures which, like ours, have had no tradition of adult fantasy for the past several hundred years: the French, for instance. But then you have the Germans, who have a good deal; and the English, who have it, and love it, and do it better than anyone else. So this fear of dragons is not merely a Western, or a technological, phenomenon. But I do not  want to get into these vast historical questions; I will speak of modern Americans, the only people I know well  enough to talk about.          
I wonder why Americans are afraid of dragons, I began to realize that a great many Americans are not only anti fantasy, but altogether anti fiction. We tend, as a people, to look upon all works of the imagination either as suspect, or as contemptible.
"My wife reads novels. I haven't got the time."
"I used to read that science fiction stuff when I was a teenager, but of course I don't now."
"Fairy stories are for kids. I live in the real world."
Who speaks so? Who is it that dismisses War and Peace, The Time Machine, and A Midsummer Night's Dream with this perfect self-assurance? It is, I fear, the man in the street- the hardworking, over-thirty American male-the men who run this country.
Such a rejection of the entire art of fiction is related to several American characteristics: our Puritanism, our work ethic, our profit-mindedness, and even our sexual mores.

To read 'War and Peace' or 'The Lord of the Rings' plainly is not "work"- you do it for pleasure. And if it cannot be justified as "educational" or as "self-improvement, then, in the Puritan value system, it can only be self-indulgence or escapism. For pleasure is not a value, to the Puritan; on the contrary, it is a sin.
Equally, in the businessman's value system, if an act does not bring in an immediate, tangible profit, it has no  justification at all. Thus the only person who has an excuse to read Tolstoy or Tolkien is the English teacher, because he gets paid for it But our businessman might allow himself to read a best-seller now and then: not because it is a good book, but because it is a best-seller -it is a success, it has made money. To the strangely mystical mind of the money-changer, this justifies its existence; and by reading it he may participate, a little, in the power and manner of its success. If this is not magic, by the way, I don't know what is.
The last element, the sexual one, is more complex. I hope I will not be understood as being sexist if I say that, within our culture, I believe that this anti fiction attitude is basically a male one. The American boy and man is very commonly forced to define his maleness by rejecting certain traits, certain human gifts and potentialities which our culture defines as "womanish" or "childish." And one of these traits or potentialities is, in cold sober fact, the absolutely essential human faculty of imagination.
Having got this far, I went quickly to the dictionary.

The Shorter Oxford Dictionary says: "Imagination. I. The action of imagining, or forming a mental concept of  what is not actually present to the senses; 2. The mental consideration of actions or events not yet in existence."
Very well, I certainly can let "absolutely essential human faculty" stand. But I must narrow the definition to fit our present subject. By "imagination," then, I personally mean the free play of the mind, both intellectual and sensory. By "play" I mean recreation, re-creation, the recombination of what is known into what is new. By "free" I mean that the action is done without an immediate object of profit- spontaneously. That does not mean, however, that there may not be a purpose behind the free play of the mind, a goal; and the goal may be a very serious object indeed. Children's imaginative play is clearly a practicing at the acts and emotions of adulthood: a child who did not play would not become mature. As for the free play of an adult mind, its result may be War and Peace, or the theory of relativity.
To be free, after all, is not to be undisciplined. I should say that the discipline of the imagination may in fact be the essential method or technique of both art and science. It is our Puritanism, insisting that discipline means repression or punishment, which confuses the subject. To discipline something, in the proper sense of the word does not mean to repress it, but to train it- to encourage it to grow, and act, and be fruitful, whether it is a peach tree or a human mind.
I think that a great many American men have been taught just the opposite. They have learned to repress their imagination, to reject it as something childish or effeminate, unprofitable, and probably sinful.
They have learned to fear it. But they have never learned to discipline it at all.

Now, I doubt that the imagination can be suppressed. If you truly eradicated it in a child, he would grow up to be an eggplant. Like all our evil propensities, the imagination will win out. But if it is rejected and despised, it will grow into wild and weedy shapes; it will be deformed. At its best, it will be mere egocentered daydreaming; at its worst, it will be wishful thinking, which is a very dangerous occupation when it is taken seriously. Where literature is concerned, in the old, truly Puritan days, the only permitted reading was the Bible. Nowadays, with our secular Puritanism, the man who refuses to read novels because it's unmanly to do so, or because they aren't true, will most likely end up watching bloody detective thrillers on the television, or reading hack Westerns or sports stories, or going in for pornography, from Playboy on down. It is his starved imagination, craving nourishment, that forces him to do so. But he can rationalize such entertainment by saying that it is realistic- after all, sex exists, and there are criminals, and there are baseball players, and there used to be cowboys- and also by saying that it is virile, by which he means that it doesn't interest most women.
That all these genres are sterile, hopelessly sterile, is a reassurance to him, rather than a defect. If they were genuinely realistic, which is to say genuinely imagined and imaginative, he would be afraid of them. Fake realism is the escapist literature of our time. And probably the ultimate escapist reading is that masterpiece of total unreality, the daily stock market report.

Now what about our man's wife? She probably wasn't required to squelch her private imagination in order to play her expected role in life, but she hasn't been trained to discipline it, either. She is allowed to read novels, and even fantasies. But, lacking training and encouragement, her fancy is likely to glue on to very sickly fodder, such things as soap operas, and "true romances," and nursy novels, and historico -sentimental novels, and all the rest of he baloney ground out to replace genuine imaginative works by the artistic sweatshops of a society that is profoundly distrustful of the uses of the imagination.


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