Marsupial Pockets, Pachyderms, and Infinite Turtles: World Building in Fantasy

In Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein mock the deist clockmaker analogy—the universe is like a clock and thus there must be a clockmaker—by asking why the universe isn’t analogous to a kangaroo. Such an analogy, they suggest, would force interesting conclusions, namely, that the universe  “was born of another universe after that universe had sex with a third universe” (36). (While I know that Cathcart and Klein are laughing at the absurdity of their analogy, I kind of like the idea of a baby universe nestling in the pouch of its marsupial mother.) Fortunately for us, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld isn’t just analogous to a giant turtle; it’s actually carried on the back of one. And, in The Light Fantastic (1986), this world does seem to have sex and reproduce at a cosmic scale.

Come, and trip it as you go,

On the light fantastick toe.

(John Milton, “L’Allegro”)

Discworld, of course,  rests on the back of four rather large elephants who in turn stand on the shell of Great A’Tuin, a colossal—“ten  thousand miles long”—turtle that swims through space. One thing is for sure: Discworld brings the world-building aspect of fantasy into sharp relief.

The initial nod might seem to be toward ostensible medieval notions of a flat world, or European notions of Hindu creation myths involving elephants and turtles supporting the world.  Certainly, in the 1927 essay Why I am not a Christian, Bertrand Russell ridicules what he characterizes as the “Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise.” Why not construct a fantasy world out of the cloth of the most antiquated and ridiculous caricatures of a world view?

It might have seemed easy to Russell, but it isn’t so easy in retrospect. What do we really know of elephants and turtles in Hindu cosmology? How do we know what is literal and what is symbolic? A modicum of humility is warranted when confronted with alternate cosmologies, whether Hindu or Ojibway creation myths.

In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking’s tells us the following story:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

Without leaving the crazy silliness of it all behind, we begin to find ourselves in heavy territory. The remarkable absurdity of this world-image jars certain philosophical conceits by invoking infinite regress and paradox. Donna Haraway deploys a variant of our Discworld image to characterize science:

As my colleagues put it, science is practice and culture (Pickering 1992) at every layer of the onion. There is no core, only layers. It is “elephants all the way down,” in my purloined origin story about science. “Elephants all the way down” is an aphorism from the Indian origin story that has the world supported on the back of a pachyderm, who is, in turn, supported on another elephant, and so on, ad infinitum. Everything is supported, but there is no transcendent foundation, only the infinite series of carrying all there is. (“Enlightenment@science_wars.com: A Personal Reflection on Love and War”  126)

The Light Fantastic begins with our heroes catapulted over the edge of the world into outer space in pursuit of the big questions: Where is A’Tuin going? And what is the Great A’Tuin’s sex? While the second question is never answered, the plot of the novel answers the first one.

The central crisis in this novel focuses on the appearance of a bright red star in the sky, the fear that A’Tuin is going to collide with this star, and various but mostly  inept attempts to prevent apocalypse. (Unlike the sun that rises and sets every day on the Disc, and which the wizards estimate to be about a mile across, this red star is very large, even bigger than A’Tuin.)

And as the star waxes, magic wanes: “Magic is weaker here, on the littoral of light.”  In the cities, where panic sets in and cults of the red star grow in size and power, wizards are killed or forced to flee.

Rincewind is a wizard who can’t cast spells because he once read the Octavo, a book with eight great spells, and one of the great spells in this book hid in his mind. In The Light Fantastic, the wizards want to read all eight spells to ward off the red star, but the spells don’t want to be read, so they try to prevent the wizards from finding Rincewind. Rincewind is accompanied by Twopenny, the world’s first tourist; his luggage, a trunk (or chest) made from the “timber of the sapient pear tree,” which follows Twopenny everywhere; Bethan, a chiropractic former Druidic candidate for human sacrifice; and the geriatric and toothless Cohen the barbarian.

There are a large number of similarities between Pratchett’s The Light Fantastic and other fantasy worlds.  For instance, Hayao Myazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (ハウルの動く城 or Hauru no Ugoku Shiro, from Ghibli Studios) strongly resembles the magical traveling shop in The Light Fantastic. Both Howl’s Castle and the magical traveling shop seem to mediate between worlds and places. Akin to the reworking of science fiction that occurs in Spider Robinson’s Callahan’s series and Douglas Adams The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy , Pratchet’s Discworld series is a comedic and satirical parody of fantasy that pokes fun at the clichés to create humour and subverts generic conventions to produce novel effects and insights that are picked up by later writers.

The looming red star anticipates George R. R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings where a red comet hangs over the sky and is variously interpreted by different characters. Martin’s comet reverses the loss of magic in Pratchett’s The Light Fantastic: instead, the comet corresponds with the rise of Daenerys Targaryen and the return of the old powers to the continents of Westeros and Essos.

Akin to J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Martin’s sprawling epic fantasy series engages in serious world building. The similarity is evident in their preoccupation with mapping and history–their effort to provide a complete fantasy world. Similarly, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea offers tantalizing maps and an ontology: the linguistic being of Earthsea is the very basis of the fantastic.

Map of Earthsea

The waning of magic associated with the red star in The Light Fantastic is also reminiscent of Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore, the third novel in the Earthsea Quartet published in 1972, and Gorō Miyazaki’s 2006 Studio Ghibli film Tales from Earthsea (ゲド戦記 Gedo Senki) which fuses The Farthest Shore with Le Guin’s fourth Earthsea novel Tehanu.

What is striking about these variant crises in Martin’s Westeros and Le Guin’s Earthsea is that they involve changing worldviews. In Westeros, it is mostly a matter of forgetting why people 8000 years ago would  go to the effort to build a wall that is 300 miles in length and more than 700 feet high on average. But it’s also a matter of the magic having gone out of the world, so the sensible world view is one that rejects such silly nonsense. But what if things change and the sensible worldview is wrong? What if a worldview produces blindness to a threatening reality? It is similar in Earthsea where magic is fading from the world, and wizards have been discredited. In both cases, the fantasy trope of magic represents an alternative to a failing worldview. In Tales from Earthsea, Le Guin’s critical feminist revision of patriarchal magic in Tehanu is enacted in tandem with the crisis in worldview. Indeed, the crisis is resolved by way of the awakening of Therru to her true being, by asserting the feminine. 

Magic has been a prominent figure of Enlightenment rationalist discourse for several centuries. It marks the antipode of reason. James Randi put it this way: “Science is best defined as a careful, disciplined, logical search for knowledge about any and all aspects of the universe, obtained by examination of the best available evidence and always subject to correction and improvement upon discovery of better evidence. What’s left is magic. And it doesn’t work.” (The Mask of Nostradamus 66) The problem with his statement isn’t what it says about magic.  Randi is emphasizing a dichotomy with science on one side and magic on the other, and this simplified way of organizing the world into either this or that immediately forgets a few things.  Science doesn’t always work. Science is often motivated; indeed when it becomes the lackey for big business or defence departments it can become downright myopic and dangerous.  Donna Haraway’s account of being assigned to teach an undergraduate biology course at the University of Hawaii is helpful here:

I was part of a team of young faculty, led by a senior teacher, who had designed a course to fill an undergraduate general education science requirement for hundreds of students each year. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, home of the Pacific Strategic Command that was so critical to the Vietnam War with its electronic battlefield and chemical herbicides, this University of Hawaii biology course aimed to persuade students that natural science alone, not politics or religion, offered hope for secular progress not infected by ideology. (126)

She goes on to observe that she couldn’t teach the course this way because she was “acutely aware of how intimately science, including biology, was woven into [the Vietnam War]—and into every aspect of our lives and beliefs” (127).

Perhaps most important—and what falls out of Randi’s dichotomy—is that there are so many things that “work,” but for which we don’t have a scientific understanding.

Randi is a great sceptic, but is he a good scientist? Certainly the tactics that he used against  the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research in the late 1970’s have been criticized. The McDonnell Laboratory was set up to investigate paranormal phenomena. As Jim Schnabel shows, in “Puck in the Laboratory,” Randi had two conjurers present themselves to McDonnell Laboratory claiming they possessed “psychokinetic (PK) and extrasensory perception (ESP) abilities” (468).  The Laboratory was initially somewhat taken by the two conjurers, but eventually applied tighter controls, under which the PK and ESP effects couldn’t be replicated. Despite the fact that they discontinued their study of the pair in 1982, Randi held a news conference in 1983 in which he announced his hoax, apparently in an attempt to publicly humiliate the McDonnell Laboratory (470). As Schnabel observes, the “episode received wide media coverage, and when the McDonnell Laboratory’s funding expired in 1985, it was not renewed” (470).

My focus on Discworld is intended to highlight the fetish for world-building that is one of the striking features of so much fantasy. Beginning with medieval revival, which exploited the supposed irrational worldviews of the so-called Dark Ages  between the decline of the Roman empire and the Renaissance, fantasy plays a delicate game of inhabiting the familiar and rationalizing (or often just positing) the remarkable.

Marion Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon offers a vivid case in point. The story carefully follows the traditional storylines established by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chrétien de Troyes, Sir Thomas Malory, Alfred Tennyson, and others, but it diverges by shifting the point of view from which the story is told to that of Morgaine (Morgan Le Fay). Most of the geography of the world is familiar—post-Roman Britain. This is a world that is already fantastic—dragons, headless knights, Merlin—because it reiterates the conventions of medieval romance. But Bradley modifies the “already fantastic” by identifying it with the Celtic matriarchal Avalon, and especially the Lady of the Lake and her priestesses of the Goddess. The rest of the world—the new patriarchal and Christian world—falls out of the fantastic for the most part.

This precise revision of the fantastic in Bradley corresponds with the removal of Avalon from the world, just as the fairies, in the book,  were themselves displaced at an earlier time. The power of the Goddess isn’t questioned or problematized, which makes sense because Morgaine tells the story.

In some ways, the novel is akin to a protracted version of Borges’ “The Witness,” which marks the transition from a pagan to a Christian worldview.

In Bradley, magic is redeployed as a feminist trope: while we’re invited to suspend our disbelief and accept its literal power, it symbolizes the feminine and a worldview that is antithetical to patriarchy.

One the most compelling incidents in The Mists of Avalon occurs to Morgaine after she is pregnant with her half-brother Arthur’s son. Twice, Morgaine becomes lost on the isle of Avalon and finds herself in a fairy world.

Avalon and the “elf-mounds” that lie beside or behind it are adjacent or overlapping fantasy worlds.

“There are now two Britains, Igraine: their world under their One God and the Christ; and, beside it and behind it, the world where the Great Mother still rules, the world where the Old People have chosen to live and worship. This has happened before. There was the time when the fairy folk, the Shining Ones, withdrew from our world, going further and further into the mists…” (13).

The alternate ways of seeing the world are merely false or eradicated, but they remain latent in the geography, traps or havens for the unwary. Morgaine tells us that “only an occasional wanderer now can spend a night within the elf-mounds, and if he should do so, time drifts on without him, and he may come out after a single night and find that his kinfolk are all dead and that a dozen years have gone by” (13).

Morgaine’s own experience of the elf-mounds is one of the genuinely fantastic sequences in the novel:

To this very day I have never known how many nights and days I spent in the fairy country—even now my mind blurs when I try to reckon it up. Try as I may I can make it no fewer than five and no more than thirteen. Nor am I certain how much time passed in the world outside, nor in Avalon, while I was there, but because mankind keeps better records of time than the fairy folk, I know that some five years passed. (407)

Given Bradley’s descriptions of Avalon and the fairies, we might wonder if “world” is even the proper word. Perhaps enclave or pocket would make more sense. Are these fantasy pockets? Pockets within pockets. Tom Shippey might call them polders: adapted from the Dutch technique of reclaiming land from water, fantasy polders  are “demarcated by boundaries…from the surrounding world” (Encyclopedia of Fantasy qtd. In Shippey 166-7). In “Threshold, Polders, and Crosshatches in the Merlin Codex,” which elaborates a model of fantasy in terms of “boundary situations,” Shippey cites a range of related terms including thresholds, crosshatches (one of China Mieville’s favourite words), wainscots (Harry Potter), and portals (think Alice in Wonderland and Narnia).

We could explore each of these ideas at length, but the key to The Mists of Avalon  is that the pocket or enclave or receding but still occasionally accessible realm is a literal recollection of an older worldview. (I wonder if palimpsest might be the right word—thinking of H. D.’s Trilogy.) The new world that replaces it—the Celts replaced the faeries, the Romans replace the Celts—is a physical manifestation of a set of beliefs about the world. In this sense of worldview, the pockets or polders become “worlds”—and such worlds become inherently geopolitical.

© Daniel Burgoyne 2012

Notes on the Irreparable

“They’d never be cured. […] They were in a new world. It was the world we live in.” (China Miéville, Embassytown 312)

In the most basic sense, the irreparable is impossible to rectify or repair. It isn’t “fixable.”  In law, the phrase “irreparable damage or injury” denotes a harm for which there is no compensation—no money or action will undo the harm. And yet, in The Coming Community (1993), Giorgio Agamben writes, “we can have hope only in what is without remedy” (my emphasis, 101).The Coming Community Cover

This is a thoroughly shocking statement—one that runs counter to many of the basic assumptions that have informed western thought since at least the Enlightenment.  It also intersects a range of important questions about speculative literature.

Agamben defines the irreparable as follows:

The Irreparable is that things are just as they are, in this or that mode, consigned without remedy to their way of being. States of things are irreparable, whatever they may be: sad or happy, atrocious or blessed. How you are, how the world is—this is the Irreparable.  (90)

This is to generalize the irreparable, to use damage or injury as an epitome to grasp things “just as they are” or things that just can’t be changed. My youngest son was born with Spina Bifida and is paraplegic. As a father, the words I learn to speak are “there is no cure.” How I see the world breaks repeatedly on his condition.  There is no cure for my life either. There is no remedy.

The stakes of the irreparable are difficult to articulate. Here, I recall Robin Blaser’s poem, “Even on Sunday”:

we can thereby return to ourselves a measure of freedom, and take form / the work of a lifetime—in this breaking of boundaries—

against,

as Mayer says, a global disposition of thought toward annihilation, which thinks to admit only majorities in the future and is determined to equate minorities with ‘worthless life’     Worthless are the Jews, there the blacks [and aboriginals], somewhere else (and everywhere) the homosexuals, women of the type of Judith and Delilah, not least the intellectuals keen on individuation . .

‘They should all be gassed’: the expression has crept into everyday language Woman is not equal to man. Man is manly man, whatever is to be understood by that: the feminine man stands out from the race and thereby becomes worthless life. Shylock must be exterminated: the only final solutions are fire and gas….

As a society, sometimes, we begin to learn the irreparable. We begin to accept homosexuality. We begin to open our lifestyles and practices to those with special needs. We begin to think about mental illness instead of pushing it out of sight. Our most insistent ethical positions reject extreme remedies—the Shoah, eugenics, residential schools. These instances widen the epitome, force the irreparable into the open, as it were.

Agamben’s sense of the irreparable—things “as they are…without remedy”—offers a litmus test for speculative literature.

On the one hand, the irreparable serves as a check on the often rampant embrace of the ideal of progress that characterizes science fiction. It isn’t that progress is a problem per se. If we can cure polio, then maybe polio isn’t irreparable. But what is in need of remedy? This isn’t an idle question in an era when psychiatry seems to label ever more disorders and proffer pharmacological treatments; when plastic surgery becomes Reality TV; when in utero sex identification corresponds with gender preference; when disease is “cured” by genetic screening and avoidance; when genetic engineering becomes practice. Even more difficult is the tricky line between imagined remedy and our actual condition, or when we imagine reparation for the irreparable.

The sometimes extreme exuberance of science fiction can be seen in its early comic caricatures such as Buck Rogers or The Jetsons.  From Jules Verne to Peter Hamilton, there is a certain optimism about technology and the prospect of science to master the environment and transcend the human condition.

Optimism in nineteenth-century scientific romance corresponds to the institutionalization of science and its social mandate in that century (see Robert Mitchell’s article on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Queen Mab and the founding of the Royal Institution in London for an example).

Mid-twentieth century works by authors such as Robert Heinlein (see the collection of stories The Green Hills of Earth) often extend such optimism to near realistic depictions of technological triumph. From the Industrial Revolution to the Cold War, science fiction reflects the precipitous rate of change and more often articulates an ideology of possibility that corresponds with emerging global capitalism and rampant consumerism.

Toward the end of the twentieth-century, the vertigo of such imagination often flirts with religion as the genre increasingly promises soul-like technologies. Examples abound in Iain M. Banks where soul technologies allow the Chelgrian species to literally build a heaven in Look to Windward. In Richard Morgan’s Broken Angels or Peter Hamilton’s The Reality Dysfunction, the transcendence of the human Jake Sullybody seems almost complete (if the plots would settle down, that is).  More tempered and contextualized by a critique of progress, James Cameron’s film Avatar (2009) imagines the paraplegic Jake Sully becoming his avatar, a remedy that is perhaps quite subtle but nevertheless a remedy that epitomizes the progressive possibilities of genre sf. (I fully applaud the inclusion of a paraplegic protagonist. I’d also like to become an avatar, which is why Agamben’s placement of “hope” in the irreparable is so difficult to accept.)Jake Sully's Avatar

On the other hand, the irreparable also provides a way to understand how science fiction acts on collective delusions and directly critiques ideas of progress.

Of course, there is a long tradition of critique in science fiction, and dystopias weigh heavier than utopias. We tend to remember Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984, while we neglect the extreme advancements of humanity in some of Olaf Stapleton’s utopian novels, such as Star Maker (1937). At the turn of the century, it was Futurama in the place of The Jetsons. (We can’t seem to get rid of The Jetsons, but still.)

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein doesn’t celebrate progress; it questions it by interrogating the psychological and social perspectives of Victor Frankenstein and Robert Walton. H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine measures human society and homo sapiens using evolutionary time scales. Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Player Piano (1952) articulates anxieties about machines making human labour irrelevant. In the novels of Phillip K. Dick, paranoia becomes the modus operandi.

On the whole, in general, we can consider the irreparable in science fiction in a way that almost makes common sense, whether we question its puppy-like exuberance for  flying cars and communicators (I mean cell phones) or find ourselves “breaking boundaries” and apprehending the irreparable or its hope.

For fantasy, the irreparable vexes the tension between escapism and disclosure (of the unconscious). It offers a counterpoint to the commonplace assessment that fantasy is about escapism.  Do we not think that fantasy is escapist at root? Even those who love fantasy and study it repeatedly inscribe the line beyond which the story becomes escapist. Before he recognized the possibility of “radical fantasy,” the Marxist critic Frederic Jameson argued, in “Magical Narratives: Romance as Genre” (1975), that the genre of fantasy is “archaic nostalgia.” Afterward, in “Radical Fantasy” (2002),  he retained the line but offered some hope.  Recently George R. R. Martin observed that it’s hard to imagine Hobbits having sex, echoing one of Carl Freedman’s lines of discontent, in “A Note on Marxism and Fantasy” (2002), that Middle-earth is “a thin and impoverished world” lacking sexual desire, class conflict, religious or political belief, and psychological complexity, “which is to say Middle-earth leaves out most of what makes us real human beings living in a real historical society” (263). Ouch.

I’ll question this claim at another time—it requires a detour into the work of Ien Ang and Janice Radway. For now, I’ll let it represent the escapist vector of fantasy; how fantasy obscures the irreparable by allowing us to become distracted. The reason Marxists hate this is obvious: it resembles the classic Marxist formulation of ideology as false consciousness.

So, how can we possible take fantasy seriously when it comes to the irreparable? Let’s start with explicit examples of traumatic injury. In The Fellowship of the Ring, on Amon Sûl  (also called Weathertop), the Witch-king of Angmar, one of five attacking Nazgûl, stabs Frodo with a Morgul blade. In Rivendell, Elrond tends to Frodo and prevents him from dying or perhaps, as Aragorn suspects, turning into a wraith, but the wound never fully heals. The recurring trauma of this wound is part of the reason for Frodo’s departure for Valinor after the War of the Ring. Obviously Frodo goes through a lot and the Morgul-blade scar is only one part of his inability to stay in the Shire and his need to leave Middle-earth, but it is emblematic of the irreparable harm he experiences. Frodo changes.

Less tangible, the trauma that inheres in the Stoor-Hobbit Sméagol in his metamorphosis intoGollum the creature we know as Gollum is a brutal instance of the irreparable. Peter Jackson’s rendering of Gollum helps explicate the problem of the irreparable, both the lack of a remedy and a type of hope that inheres therein. In one scene, Sméagol and Gollum engage in a classic split-personality argument that Sméagol seems to win: “Leave now and never come back!“ But, of course, Gollum comes back.

Early on, Gandalf and Frodo discuss Gollum in a manner that touches on some of what I`ve noted with regard to remedies and hope. Frodo wishes that Gollum had been killed, while Gandalf is more cautious.

‘But this is terrible!’ cried Frodo. ‘Far worse than the worst that I imagined from your hints and warnings. O Gandalf, best of friends, what am I to do? For now I am really afraid. What am I to do? What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!’

‘Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.’

‘I am sorry,’ said Frodo. ‘But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.’

‘You have not seen him,’ Gandalf broke in.

‘No, and I don’t want to,’ said Frodo. ‘I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.’

‘Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring.`  (LOTR, Kindle ed. 72-3)

Gollum is not cured. In the end (and sorry for the spoiler), he destroys the ring because of the very corruption it has exerted on him. Here, somewhat oddly, we encounter an example of hope in the irreparable on a grand, world-changing narrative scale.

But we`re still on the far side of that line, in the escapist end of fantasy. Not unexpected, we find the irreparable as an explicit theme in what Jameson calls radical fantasy.

yagharek_by_moonwildflowerThe plot of China Miéville’sPerdido Street Station is driven by the plight of the Garuda (a type of bird man) Yagharek, whose first-hand story frames and interleaves the main narrative. Yag has had his wings cut off as punishment for his crime, and the novel`s protagonist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin goes to extraordinary lengths to allow him to fly again. You`d think that flying wouldn`t be so difficult in a fantasy world with a number of flying creatures (and  other stuff), especially when the candidate was a bird-man. You`d almost be wrong. It’s damn hard. But later, when Isaac has the technical means of flight worked out, he`s persuaded that he shouldn`t do it. It is no slight distinction. Eugenics is technically possible, but should we engage in it? In conclusion, Yag declines an offer that would allow him to fly. Instead he accepts the city of New Crobuzon as his “home” and himself as a “man” (623). It is this acceptance of the irreparable that I think of when Agamben speaks of hope.Perdido Street Station cover

At the far end of the spectrum from fantasy-as-escapism lies fantasy-as-unconscious-expression. Regardless of what we may think of Freud, his theory of the unconscious provided a way to take dreams seriously—to treat them as akin to stories about the psyche and its troubled negotiation of libidinal desires and social norms. His theory of the uncanny pushes this into waking and reading experience, where repressed contents such as “infantile complexes…are once more revived by some impression, or when primitive beliefs which have been surmounted seem once more to be confirmed” (“The ‘Uncanny,’” Part 3).

One of the unsatisfactory aspects of Freud’s theory of the uncanny is that the fantastic is a type of hallucination or symptom of the unconscious that marks a deviation from the reality principle. In order to get beyond this sense of deviation—in order to appreciate the fundamental importance of the fantastic to whatever we take to be reality, we need to turn to Jacques Lacan.

In Lacan’s model of the psyche, we are separated from the Real when we enter into language, and this separation means that we are always in a condition of lack. In the most basic sense, fantasy compensates for lack by generating objects of desire that we think will fill our lack and reconnect us to the Real.

Lacan’s revision of Freud treats the unconscious as a language: “the unconscious is structured like a language” (“Seminar XX” 48). In his “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,’” Lacan insists that “the unconscious is the Other’s discourse” (Ecrits 10).

The big Other designates radical alterity, an other-ness [that] cannot be assimilated through identification. Lacan equates this radical alterity with language and the law, and hence the big Other is inscribed in the order of the symbolic. Indeed, the big Other is the symbolic insofar as it is particularized for each subject. The Other is thus both another subject, in his radical alterity and unassimilable uniqueness, and also the symbolic order which mediates the relationship with that other subject. (Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis  133)

This modification of the unconscious dramatically resituates the nature of dreams.  Slavoj Žižek puts it this way:

for Lacan, the only point at which we approach [the] hard kernel of the Real is indeed the dream. When we awaken into reality after a dream, we usually say to ourselves ‘it was just a dream’, thereby blinding ourselves to the fact that in our everyday, wakening reality we are nothing but a consciousness of this dream. It was only in the dream that we approached the fantasy-framework which determines our activity, our mode of acting in reality itself. (The Sublime Object of Ideology 47)

So, it is in dreams that we apprehend how our fantasy structures our desire:

It is…fantasy itself which, so to speak, provides the co-ordinates of our desire–which constructs the frame enabling us to desire something. The usual definition of fantasy (‘an imagined scenario representing the realization of desire’) is therefore somewhat misleading, or at least ambiguous: in the fantasy-scene the desire is not fulfilled, ‘satisfied’, but constituted (given its objects, and so on)–through fantasy, we learn ‘how to desire’. (Žižek 118)

Elsewhere, Žižek describes these coordinates of desire as “the site of my truth” (How to Read Lacan 3). For Lacan, he tells us, the unconscious is “the site where a traumatic truth speaks out…an unbearable truth that I have to learn to live with” (3).

Alice and the curtain

© Daniel Burgoyne 2012