Tales, imagination and the system of surrogates

The stories to be written, the pictures to be painted, the music to be composed, the foolish and mad things you say, will always be men’s highest peak, their authentic flag. Those idiocies you say will always be the thing that distinguishes us most from beasts, no matter they are completely useless; or maybe just because they are. Even more than the atomic bomb, the sputnik, the space rockets. And the day those idiocies will be done no more, men will have become naked, wretched worms as in the stone age.

Dino Buzzati, The wizard

Are you Italian? You can read the original article in your language, hoping it still exists.

What’s the meaning of selling fancy? A book, a film and perhaps even a videogame are this: condensed imagination, extracted from the mind of its creator and shaped in a form that can be conveyed. It’s fundamental to wonder how much good is there in such a passion, that sees protagonists both the sender and the receiver; how can a similar activity involve everyone, and how to coordinate it with an likewise important side of thought, the analytic and scientific one, often considered irreconciliable with art across the centuries, now superior, now subordinate. How to behave with the dematerialization of art - such as with electronic formats, that for strange reasons frighten somebody; and how to compare the aesthetic sense that stories can arouse with the way in which they are instead instructive. Can our brain see as beautiful something we cannot draw any benefit from?

These questions should be written in a more general form of reflection about art, and more in detail about the art of telling stories; however, they can all be taken back to the problem of autenticity. The forms in which the surrogates of being display themselves are a lot, but they’re almost always material, tangible; stories, instead, are much more abstract, and for a curious coincidence even much more powerful. In order to understand which kind of stories could influence us listeners as a surrogate, we need to understand the role played in them by imagination, i.e. the creation of possibilities. Imagining is creating possibilities without realizing them, or - as it would be more correct to say - before realizing them. William Blake said what men called God was nothing but imagination, and he thought the original sin was not consciousness of good and evil, but abandoning this visceral tension of men towards knowledge.

How can something so active and free become the mean of transmission of a surrogate? The problem is also related to the evolutionary meaning of imagination. Why do we all love conceiving new universes where some events happen? Because this way we transform an impossible occurrence in a potential one (potentiality), which is the first step to make it a future occurrence (actuality); we extract it from the unfeasible magma of nothing inside the sphere of being able to be thought, that is, in a word, of being. Imagining new events brings to change, which, as the key for improvement, is always favoured by natural selection.

And, in human evolution, imagination is born with the first attempts of explanation, i.e. with myths: it’s as if people, in their need to understand, tried and tried again, imagining, in the attempt to arrive to an answer closer to the truth. This explains why stories, and in particular the ones from tradition, such as fairy tales, are the most precious heritage mankind has: because an answer given by who preceded us lets his successors keep asking the question. The animal which invented first a rough tale - destined to grow large through descendants - to answer his own curiosity is the man before all scientists in the world should kneel down.

Perverted Platonism

Animated by this unstoppable engine, stories encapsulate models of behaviour and patterns of definition of truths, handing them down in time and gradually changing with them. As an expression of this tension of man to shape the world around them, stories become surrogates when imagination starts becoming a replacement of reality, instead of its amplification. If activity is by its own definition creative, imagination can become an instrument of the human search for protection, creating alternative realities as consolation. There are daily used expressions that pass themselves off some social claims of the art for art’s sake trend: “escape from reality”, “the wings of fancy”, “let themselves go with imagination” are all sentences told by the less suspectable people, revealing a sad and deep disappointment regarding life: Leopardi could have agreed, yet Wilde, so meanly called into questions, would have immediately threateningly raised his dandy stick. “Art is immoral”, “Art is an aesthetic experience” doesn’t mean “The world is ugly, so we invent another one - pretending it’s real - where things go as we wish and we are happy”. This sort of imagination is the one inspired by those stories who are distinguished for being consumer’s items. Clive Staples Lewis, in his famous essay On three ways to write for children, pointed out with great acumen the worst way ever to tell stories: giving his readers what they want. Where “what they want” means what their irrational, hedonistic instinct longs for to fill the gaps in their mind - firstly, again, the wish for safety and fulfilment. People like Flaubert, Baudelaire or Francois de Sade would have certainly said imagination is that indeed: a world in which moral has no value.

So bad that - among others - Lewis himself, in his naivety, broke the rule he himself estabilished, as shown by this passage casually chosen (all right, I acknowledge it, not really casually) from one of the last chapters of his lucky book series The chronicles of Narnia:

You may have been in a room in which there was a window that looked out on a lovely bay of the sea or a green valley that wound away among mountains. And in the wall of that room opposite to the window there may have been a looking glass. And as you turned away from the window you suddenly caught sight of that sea or that valley, all over again, in the looking glass. And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones: yet at the same time they were somehow different - deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know. The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more.

I hope you felt the same disgust as me while reading the excerpt: I remember reading it for the first time, as a child, and having the unpleasant impression that there was some misunderstanding, and that the author didn’t really mean what he had written, and in some way he should have meant the opposite. Now I can explain that nausea to myself: it’s actually that superfluous part, that detail not worth noticing, which makes the universe outside the mirror so worthy of being lived, so true. Can the world be ugly? This means it’s perfectible, not rejectable. Creating a mirror-world doesn’t only not improve the situation, but it’s also a cowardly attitude, a vulgar Weltschmerz.

For the sake of completeness, I would like to improve my criticism with an example which immediately follows the preceding paragraph:

Everyone else began to run, and they found, to their astonishment, that they could keep up with him: not only the Dogs and the humans but even fat little Puzzle and short-legged Poggin the Dwarf. The air flew in their faces as if they were driving fast in a car without a windscreen. The country flew past as if they were seeing it from the windows of an express train. Faster and faster they raced, but no one got hot or tired or out of breath.
If one could run without getting tired, I don’t think one would often want to do anything else […] next moment everyone saw that he had plunged into the Pool. And helter-skelter behind him, with splash after splash, all the others did the same. The water was not biting cold as all of them (and especially Puzzle) expected, but of a delicious foamy coolness. They all found they were swimming straight for the Waterfall itself.
«This is absolutely crazy,» said Eustace to Edmund.«I know. And yet -» said Edmund.
«Isn’t it wonderful?» said Lucy. «Have you noticed one can’t feel afraid, even if one wants to? Try it.»
«By Jove, neither one can,” said Eustace after he had tried. […]
Just behind him came King Tirian. He moved his legs and arms as if he were swimming but he moved straight upwards: as if one could swim up the wall of a house. […]
Soon they were all on the bank, dripping but happy.

This sudden orgy and intoxication of contentment, described at the beginning of the chapter eloquently entitled «Farewell to Shadowlands» (where Shadowlands is the real world), comes from the protagonists dying and finding themselves in a platonic, perfect world, mirror of the real one and clever metaphor of the Christian Kingdom of Heaven. And what’s this procedure but giving the readers what their edonistic instinct wishes? A perfect world, where the core of the surrogate, a surrogate of life itself, is the gratuitous gain - in the etymologic meaning of «by grace» - of happiness and even more evidently miraculous superpowers. Superpowers! And it’s even more humiliating than in the case - for example - of the superheroes in the comics, who are at least simply no more normal characters placed in a nomal context, with well-defined enemies and problems: in that case what attracts us about them is the estrangement effect; we read their stories because they are a metaphor of ours, because of the wish to be like them; in Lewis’s case, instead, what attracts us and drives the story is the regret for not being like them: a «contemptus mundi» to which the English writer was not alien, but actually a simple consequence of this corruption of the imaginative faculty.

And we could even make an exception and pass over, because - it’s ofted said - art is above all a form of satisfaction for the artist himself, who by means of it gives expression to his own creativity; and moreover, anyone has the right to write - or register or recount, since stories are not limited to books - what he wants to. But here is actually little or no creativity, because there exists a sort of code, a collection of ingrediens, to entertain the reader inducing into him a passive sense of escapism with no artistic skill.

One could make a (incomplete) list of them:

Introducing characters with desirable characteristics. In mediocre writing there are rarely mediocre characters; it is much easier - and it attracts people excessively more - to create some lavish ones, insuperable in any field of their concern, which generally varies according to the literary genre. This way were born the infallible investigators of the detective stories, the young musical masters in the contemporary fiction and, luckiest of all, the so-called «predestined» typical of fantasy novels. In all these cases, if similar characters lived in our reality they would look terribly unpleasant to us, but the fact they live in a fiction to which we individually take part lets us suppress our duty (or our passion) to develop their same skill. They counterbalace our unsuitability with their success.

Normal people facing dangerous moral choices, or dealing with great questions. This point should not be considered too strictly, since it isn’t something negative by itself; it becomes so, maybe, when it is considered as a consolation to replace such elements when they’re absent from our life, or in the context of a greater sense of disappointment. Obviously most people we share our life with have an enormous unexpressed potential, because of a very low actual freedom of choice, frustrated by trivial and often fictitious problems, like social conventions: in this framework, even wishing for problems on a level with our ability can be a reaction, a primitive claim of individualism. And that’s someting we can’t blame anyone of.

The penetration fantasy in everyday life. Maybe the most widely diffused trick, simple and dangerous. It arises from the elementary truth that people inherently tend to be disappointed by the world they live in, considering it almost a trivialization of their merits and expectations. Can we imagine its causes? The strong influence of the religions with a metaphysical foundation, which promise the existence of an otherwordly home people come from and keep returning to, is certainly among the most important factors. Those of us who have grown up with a Christian training can easily understand what I’m talking about: that sense of participation to a great story through which all of us, even in our humble personal destinies, are connected, and everyone has an important role in its fulfilment.

One may argue that, despite delusive, this might be considered a quite decorous way to live: I can’t deny that. Devoting our life to some purpose, feeling connected to things, what art and myths always taught us, is an extremely positive attitude. But why should we renounce to that attitude when our ideal is proved groundless? Why can’t we feel close and destined to something great with respect to an ideal of faithfulness to the earth, founded on us all, instead of something alien? And, above all, why do otherwordly myths still survive? Why can I recognize in such few stories a myth of humanism, a myth that facing the real - and yes, even the ugliness of the real - claims its own will to reshape it?