Issue Editor’s Note: On Fantasy or Our Mundane Powers of Enchantment
By Atreyee Majumder
I am reading George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones: The Song of Fire and Ice as I curate these essays. Having watched the HBO series based on the fantasy series by George R. R. Martin, I already know the twists and turns of this mammoth, resplendent, complex story. Martin is a master-craftsman no doubt. But I would have difficulty following this complex plot had it not been for the literacy provided by the previous experience of having watched the HBO show. So, essentially, I am rehearsing in my reading of Martin’s novel, characters and tropes and plot twists that I already know will emerge in the course of the book. Then, why is the experience of reading (given that Martin’s writing is arresting to say the very least) pleasurable? Does fantasy reveal a hidden, hitherto unthought-of version of the already known and domesticated reality? Does it reveal a yearning for the familiar just in a different package? Does capital usefully aid in providing such a shiny package? Shinier the package, the more familiar the inner encased item? I get goosebumps reading the scene (spoiler alert!) of little Bran eavesdropping on Cercei and Jaime Lannister’s bedroom conversation and conspiracy against his father Ned Stark, as Bran tries to navigate the height of the fortress from which he is delicately perched, hiding behind the window. I know Bran will fall, but I pretend as if the incident of Bran falling is going to occur in a special way – in a way that my foreknowledge cannot predict. And yes, Jaime holds little Bran’s hand from across the window, before he lets go of him leading Bran to fall a great height from the top of the fortress. And Jaime says: “The things I do for love.” And I am taken aback; it’s remarkably simple expression of cruelty bred by love. But it’s special – this moment. It generates a magic of having found a familiar, domesticated trope but packaged with an element of surprise. Generating a fantastic quality. It is in this power of retelling the familiar in narrative – literary, historical, and indeed the social, that I find the survival of the absolutely fantastic. Fantasy, for me, is crucially contained in the surprising element thrown in with the already known repetitive trope. Even in Game of Thrones, which achieves a masterful height of the fantastic narrative arc, the kings and queens drink goblets of red wine and eat meat and eggs and soup and sometimes even drink tea. Without these aids of the obviously familiar, the fantastic would not stand to our taste. Game of Thrones is infamous for killing off characters that the audience might think of as endearing or might start rooting for at some stage. This repeated disruption of the reader’s emotional arc is placed in a relatively familiar canvas of ambition, intrigue, heightened sex drive, and love and loss. Martin has not changed the canvas of human emotions. Martin has simply walked into a neat jigsaw puzzle and shuffled the pieces in an actively chaotic manner so much so that the earlier picture of the puzzle is no longer easily recognizable. In these six essays that I curate for the Café Dissensus magazine, I show several instances of this aforementioned phenomenon. In each instance, there is a fantastic canvas that hides elements of the already familiar through a repetitive trope. We know to recognise it after having unravelled the surprises of the fantastic packaging. Therein lies the euphoria of immersing in fantasy.
I wrote a concept note for this Special Issue of Café Dissensus remembering Benjamin’s provocation of the phantasmagoria of capital, and expressed my own belief that fantasy can transcend into the realm of the revolutionary. However, I write my editorial essay appended to this issue today, remembering the famous coinage by the Benjamin scholar Susan Buck-Morss’s – dreamworlds and catastrophe. Perhaps, the phrase best describes the time we are living in. An endless pandemic, the ubiquity of statistical terrors, the slow descent of the horrific into the ordinary. These are banal descriptors of the fantastic – the fantastic being, that which exceeds our imaginative capability given a certain historical juncture. The cellphone of the 90s – the brick – appears in Vishnupad’s essay as the bearer of a heady fantasy. It, quite literally, moves around in circuits of fantasy as the digital economy expands across the late 90s, and morphs into the smartphone sometime in the 2000s. Similarly, we find the dark fantasies of a lost homeland (maybe regained in the language of poetry) resurge in the essay by Sheikh Shayan Fayaz on the exile poetry of Agha Shahid Ali. Yet another dark fantasy of entering the fold of modern capital – the fold of the urban – haunts the essay by Virginia Lee and Suvij Sudershan. Manhar Bansal writes of history and historical telling of the past as itself a journey empowered by fantasy – our mundane powers of enchanting time with narrative. R Krishnaswamy pontificates on the human faculty of creation/imagination using the instance of science fiction. And lastly, Sandeep Banerjee writes on the inextricable links between the real/realistic and the fantasy/fantastic. He especially shows a macabre production of the Indian national song, Bandemataram, by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee that paints a picture of a motherland of fertility and plenitude in the real backdrop of famine and hunger. Fantasy, we show in these six essays, is a routine herculean effort that empowers the human condition to re-arrange the real in a manner creating conditions for its own re-enchantment.
Atreyee Majumder is a poet, writer, and anthropologist based in Bangalore. She teaches sociology at the National Law School of India University.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.