Fantasies against the absurd
In Suicide and the absurd Benjamin Laskar successfully makes the case that Stephen Donaldson’s psychodrama, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, is at the same time high fantasy and an existentialist piece of writing.
But isn’t high fantasy a projection of an ideal as “absolute truth”, immune to empirical refutation? How can high fantasy not be evidence of that “philosophical suicide” Camus deplored? For Donaldson, as for Tite Kubo, high fantasy is an internal struggle dramatized as external events. When one is honest about that struggle, fantasy is not escapism. This is the short answer. The long answer is below.
Recall what “philosophical suicide” is for Camus: the abdication from reason involved in the refusal to recognize “the absurd” for what it is. The absurd is the gap between the human need for meaning and the world’s fundamental lack thereof. The two terms upon which the absurd emerges are one’s own thirst for meaning and the world’s silence. A heroic existentialist attitude recommends both terms to be continuously kept active in one’s mind and acknowledged by reason. Reason (understood much like ‘perception’) should not be suspended even for one moment.
W. Senior (in Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Variations on the fantasy tradition) cites Egoff’s distinction between Actual life and Life in Truth (Actual life and “Life in Lie” in the existentialist terminology): “Actual Life is not perfectly ordered. It is in fact most often immoral and amoral. Issues are seldom clear cut. Judgement is as capricious as justice. Endings are sometimes happy and sometimes sad.” On the other hand, Life in Truth is a depiction of the world as it should be and a training on how one should live one’s life. It makes issues clear, based on two great opposing forces.
Uncontroversial examples of fantasies: everything ends well; anything that happens ‘has’ to happen’; the desktop picture of someone in a promising pose that reigns supreme over the bitter experience of repeated rejection; the image of an authority that reigns supreme; the firm belief that future will certainly bring some particular ‘us’ together. These are projections, idols, obsessive projects and statements of faith that are held immune to the criticism of experience. Call all of these “strategies of escape from empirical refutations” and take “strategy” in a large sense covering psychological behavior triggered unconsciously. Interesting examples of fantasies include narcissic attitudes: the firm belief that I can ‘always’ find a better partner; the firm belief that those who do not love me are blind or otherwise lacking; the firm belief that nature will always be there to be enjoyed; the firm belief that I will ‘always’, have my body to enjoy and be enjoyed by others. Controversial examples of fantasies include absurdist attitudes such as the firm belief that everything ‚must’ end badly; that ‘everything’ is pointless; the firm belief that future will certainly bring ‘us’ apart. Absurdist attitudes differ from the heroic existentialist in that they project the absurd rather than confront an already manifest absurd. But this will become clear later on; for now concentrate on the uncontroversial examples.
Are escape strategies guilty of the running away from the world, guilty of cowardice in the face of the manifest absurd?
Evaluating two attitudes against one another requires an impartial arbiter
In defending the legitimacy of fantasy against charges of escapism Tolkien insists on its practical character: “escape is as a rule very practical and may even be heroic” says he in Fairy stories. “In real life it is difficult to blame it unless it fails; in criticism it seems to be the worse, the better it succeeds.” What Tolkien proposes is to look at how effective or practical the attitudes turn out to be the test of life.
In doing so, Tolkien makes philosophical progress. He realizes that in judging two contending attitudes (here escapism versus heroic existentialism, the permanent conscious confrontation with the absurd) we need a third neutral standard, (not necessarily “higher”, but neutral). When choosing between lying or telling the truth — when judging a mendacious attitude against an honest one — one must find a third neutral arbiter, say, their relative utility, or some other third standard. Merely denoucing lies as un-truthful would beg the question.
A second suggestion I derive from Tolkien’s proposition is that if we wish to be precise in our evaluations (escape versus recognition and confrontation with the absurd), we should circumscribe judgement to particular contexts of life and defer talk about what works better “in general”, or “as a rule” for later. This observation forces us to criticize the term “philosophical suicide”, in that it implies permanence. A temporary suppression or warding off of the absurd, even if irrational, is more like sleeping than death.
Getting back to the first point, that of impartial arbiters, think of situations in which escapism may do better than an open confrontation of the absurd. I can think of two, one is that of conflictual encounters and the other is the sense of or the promotion of community.
In a conflictual encounter with Medusa, Perseus can get a real grip of her only because he is able to evade visual direct confrontation. The myth talks powerfully that strategies of direct confrontation are sometimes ineffective and fatal. Perseus understands that. As a fathers of existentialism, Nietzsche would probably not glorify such non-confrontational victories. But he should at least acknowledge them as victories when they are so. Could it be that history does not provide any famous examples of “superhumans” precisely because permanent confrontation with and facing of the absurd (continue looking when it hurts) makes one too weary in the long run of life to make history? History seems rather to be made of acts of faith and the clashing of “ideals”, all of which would be probably described by Camus as “great escapes”. My favorite example is the struggle between Pope Gregory and Henry. Pope Gregory’s great fantasy, religion, may be a reaction to reality but instead of being “facile wish fulfillment” in isolation, it is highly creative of the actual world to the point of making civilization. If it is a matter of fact, not of value, we can imagine Nietzsche acknowledging the extent of that creativity. A dilemma for a Nietzschean existentialist rests elsewhere: if in a conflict between superhumans, the will to power and dominion is more effectively served by the “escape” strategy, should one employ it? The answer is simple: in situations when escapist moves and avoidance strategies are more successful, those who afford to be avoidant, escapist, to take leaps of faith, or to shield the uncomfortable by looking away, will supersede the others. Whether “humans” will supersede “superhumans”, or whether “superhumans” can be non-confrontational and take a “philosophical nap” are merely semantic quarrels.
A second impartial standard against which we can evaluate the relative effectiveness of escape and of the continuous facing of the absurd is one that both Camus and high fantasy writers find worthwhile: the sense of community. Laskar cites Camus in Nuptials says that “meaning, love, and happiness are awakened in man when he becomes exposed to Nature and that “realizing the importance of nature also causes him to realize the importance of others”. Fantasy and escape strategies in general foster a sense of belonging to the world, and try to universalize responsibility. Camus had his own historical context to react to, but zooming out history, he must have acknowledged that some communities are successful, peaceful, prosperous and sometimes fantasies are precisely what knits them together.
Thus, the two impartial standards suggest that escape may sometimes be a successful practical strategy of dealing with the absurd.
This is at best a partial response to the existentialist. The existentialist cares about winning certain conflicts and promoting certain communities, but not as much as to accept the cost, even if for a brief interval, of dishonesty and untruthfulness.
But what if escape strategies were possible without the suspension of reason?
Escape strategies do not deny the absurd; they refuse to be affected by it
Egoff’s distinction between actual life and life in fantasy suggests that the upholding of fantasies is not a cognitive statement of what is actually the case, but a moral statement about what should be the case. To work effectively, escape strategies must render cognitive queries inactive, block out the perception of a world devoid of meaning and project the wish in the real world. Projection is an engagement of what Wittgenstein calls “religious belief”. Unlike opinions about matters of fact, which operate at the cognitive level, Wittgenstein suspects religious beliefs are active standards of what should be, operating at the performative level. Unlike opinions about public facts — opinions that, if we are reasonable, are somehow forced into us by their passing some public standards of cognitive acceptability — religious beliefs are normative standards born and grounded in one’s own private emotional experience and from there forced out into the world. In the same vein, Eric Rabkin in Descent of Fantasy notes that believability of our fantasies is not a matter of truth of one’s assertions but of one’s place in the social fabric, a place defined by one’s own experience and attested to by one’s own life story (apud W. Senior, Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Variations on the fantasy tradition).
If we accept that fantasy works at a different level than the cognitive, then engaging escape strategies is possible without the suspension of reason. A temporary suppression of the perception of the absurd should not be seen as philosophical suicide, and neither as philosophical sleep. Following the metaphor reason – perception, we don’t die and neither do we sleep when we choose to look away. I may acknowledge a piece of reality as real and absurd, but fend it off. If I choose to look away from a naked piece of the absurd, I know exactly what I look away from. I am not denying the existence of the phenomenon at the cognitive level. Looking away is a performative move. Perseus could say to Medusa: “the reason I do not speak to you is that you do not exist“. There is no cognitive error involved. Neither is there an attempt at isolating oneself from the belief that Medusa actually exists the way she does. On the contrary, it is a forceful imposition of a normative standard, a “strike with the shield” as it were, which counts as performative rejection but cognitive recognition and authentic interaction with the source of the absurd. There is no escapism in active blocking moves during fights, only cognitive and performative discipline.
The plot of the first book of Donaldson’s Chronicles wraps around the objective of reclaiming (the staff of) Law from (a puppet of) the great Despiser. What could an existentialist Despiser despise the most? Escape strategies. Camus, as humanist, is not a despiser of people’s strategies of coping with things, but, if he cares about humans, can he recommend looking at the Medusa? Is not heroic existentialism personally damaging? Someone like Camus can dispense with escape strategies safely as long as nature — with the order and beauty it brings along — is there for him, available to be enjoyed. Laskar cites Camus in the Myth of Sisyphus asserting that nature offers man a key to the belief that life is worth living: “and here are the trees and I know their gnarled surface, water and I feel its taste. These scents of grass and stars at night, certain evenings when the heart relaxes – how shall I negate this world whose power and strength I feel?” “Being able to appreciate Beauty is one way to resist despite” says a fantastic character in Lord Foul’s Bane; Camus would agree and add that beauty is in nature.
But what if at some point, nature ceases to provide beauty? Donaldson’s hero becomes a leper and is thus denied the enjoyment of nature. The existentialist out of all people should know that “leprosy” comes unexpectedly in many forms. Nature also denies the hero the enjoyment of his own body. Moving to more usual examples, what if the world repeatedly refuses to acknowledge just how beautiful the narcissist happens to be? Here is a quote from Ellis’s Imperial bedrooms: “I mean, you’re a nice-looking guy for your age,” Kit says to me, “but you don’t really have the clout.” Banks considers this. “I guess people find this out sooner or later, right?” “Yeah, but they’re always replaced, Banks,” Wayne says. “On a daily basis there’s a whole new army of the retarded eager to be defiled.” The narrator of Imperial bedrooms, a hollow exploitative narcissist, can always find others to share in his/ her own fantasy (himself / herself) for brief intervals. But no matter how good the path overall, it is a downward path. With age, some form of leprosy quietly installs. When the world repeatedly refuses to validate one’s fantasy, repeatedly refuses to “find” the narcissist as already beautiful enough, then the narcissist may be forced to recognize that beauty must be ‘built’ in some different way. One song in Lord Foul’s Bane plays “Beauty is not possible without discipline / and the Law which gave birth to Time / is the Land’s Creator’s self-control.” That ” Law gives birth to Time” means that the discipline required in building beauty is also capable of bridging the present to the future, a bridge over the chasm of the absurd.
Moving from esthetic to moral values, fantasies, including the myth of Perseus and Medusa, are instructive if read as dramatizing the parts of one’s own soul. When existentialists say freedom is absolute and morality relative, as humanists, they should surely relativize morality to the human subject, not to the parts of the human soul. If humanists care about the human psyche as a whole, then they should recognize that some kind of personal ethics – an ethics not below the personal level — is essential for the good life of the human being. Any personal ethics requires strength and self-discipline, and sometimes the imperative is to look away from one’s own Medusa.
Fantasies and escape strategies are legitimate precisely because they are useful in bridging over the absurd. In that authentic confrontation (albeit an “avoidant” one), the number of faithful believers required per particular fantasy – be it a particular religion, narcissism or love relationship — is typically greater than one. Certainly, it always matters which those fantasies and which those faithful believers are exactly. But deserting from a community of faith merely for heroic existentialist reasons would be a sad mistake. If one member in the community of faith defects, rather than „proving” the absurd, she brings it about. The hero in Donaldson’s fiction, called to build meanings (see Schmidtz’s Meanings of life), refuses that there is any such role at all. As if in an attempt to prove meaninglessness, he rapes a young woman. What the rape actually disproves though, is not the meaningful character of lives, but his previous diagnostic of sexual impotence. Potent enough to beget the absurd, he learns he has the power to build meanings over the absurd, meanings that, once created, allow him to walk upon.