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The Worlds of Fantasy: Listening to Alien Voices

By R. Krishnaswamy

The Real and the Unreal

We don’t dignify our imagination with the sturdy label of reality. The real is what is tangible and everything else is supposed to occupy a ghostly realm – a no-man’s land where our fantasies roam with no passport to enter the real world. I want to redraw the map to make fantasy and its children an equal citizen with every other object that exists. Maybe there was a time, aeons ago, when an original fellowship existed between gods, monsters and humans. To find out whether, there existed, to borrow from Friedrich Schiller’s poem The Gods of Greece,

“Between men, heroes, gods, harmonious then
Love wove sweet links and sympathies divine;”

we will have to wait for a new kind of historian of the future, which I am not. For now, I want to probe how and why we think our stories, and our myths, our parables, etc. can’t be independent of us in the same way our chairs and tables are. Prima facie, we can see that our tables and our epics and our modern novels are equally an outcome of our productive faculty and both can be shared and exchanged and used. So why the disparity and unfair treatment between the two?

There are two reasons, I think, why this has happened – i.e., why we think stories are ‘subjective’ while things that we can see and feel are objective and why, for example, we don’t teach literature in science departments. One, the idea of production, creativity, or in general terms, the concept of activity itself, has come to be a very anthropo-centric phenomenon. Let me explain. Whenever we go about our daily lives, we realize, if we reflect, that everything which we see and use, from the napkins we use to the trains we take, has had an active intervention of the human mind. Humans have projected their intentions, used their creative power, and spent their time in working, to change things in their raw state to workable and usable items. To create, to produce, or to work has come to mean changing things around from one state of physical existence to another. The activity of working is so fundamental to how we exist that even philosophers, like Marx, Engels, etc. have built their career around explaining the socio-economic consequences of such an activity. Two, combined with such an idea is also the unjustified conviction that what we produce has to be “physical” for it count it to be real.

Though we have let ourselves be colonized by these views regarding the cosmos and our place in it, it is possible to re-orient our attitudes to a more genuine understanding of what creativity means. Can we have a wider view of creative action, similar to what Wallace Stevens has in mind in his poem, Idea of Order at Key West, where he says,

“And when she sang, the sea,

Whatever self it had, became the self

That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,

As we beheld her striding there alone,

Knew that there never was a world for her

Except the one she sang and, singing, made.”

Let us first walk along the boundary-wall of our lives and see what the other-side side of ‘reality’ presents. We see that there are fantasy worlds, either narrativized through language or materially represented through stone or colour, where there exist beings with other-worldly features, horses with wings, lions with human faces, vengeful gods, tragic demons, etc. Unfortunately, though we have populated these worlds through creative intercourse with our imaginative faculty, these creatures are forever imprisoned in those worlds, never to traffic with human life in any effective way. They don’t walk in our streets, and their destinies are not tied to human life in any meaningful way. The art that we give birth to is considered to be merely a product of our sensual and intellectual secretion, never more than the fleeting passion that gave expression to a creative ejaculation. Are our stories and fantasies thus never more than a product of our feelings and emotions – our psychological makeup – whether they be individual or collective? We have in today’s world reduced our imaginative products to merely the outcome of our psychological structure. All aetiological roads lead back to ourselves. Whatever freedom we think we have is ultimately bounded by the natural conditions of our psychological existence. That is why we think creativity and its products are merely subjective. Can we truly free our imagination from the prison of ourselves?

Passive Agents of Creativity

To truly understand creative action, we need to reverse the relation between the self and the faculty of fantasy that is supposedly housed in it. Today, we live in a world where the master creator is the self, with different cognitive and non-cognitive powers. Through the intelligent use of multiple faculties that each human ‘educates’ from an early age, he or she supposedly ‘unlocks’ deeper creative potential, which helps us become the new JK Rowling and the next George R. R. Martin. But is the sense of creativity merely an internal imaginative organ which through the exercise of the right kind of intellectual powers can showcase itself? This internalist logic of explaining the workings of creativity has held us captive for many years. But if we care to review the operation of our powers, actually a different picture emerges.

The alternative picture that can re-position our attitudes towards our acts and products of imaginative creation has to be born out an inversion of the relation between the product of creation and the creator. We always assume that the sculptor ‘makes’ the sculpture, the painter the painting, the writer the novel or poem. To a large extent, this is true and I don’t want to deny the obvious here. But must we always think of creativity necessarily as a productive and active exercise? Artistic creation of any kind is considered to be usually a labour of skill, the end-product of intellectual or somatic exercise. But have we been too captivated by this image of the artist working to externalize his internal thoughts and visions onto external matter? Does writing have to be the translation of inner pictures onto legible graphemes and words? Can’t a sculpture be more than the expression of a sculptor’s inner sensibilities? Why do the characters in the stories we make be merely a figment of our imagination? Can we have our thought live beyond our grasp in a different world?

All these above questions, from a common-sensical perspective, have a straight-forward answer. The answer is: our fantasies, however artistically expressed, remain subjective expressions of a person’s sensibilities. We think the artistic fantasy that a person or a society produces may have a literary or artistic grammar of its own but ultimately, they have to be understood as revealing solely details about the time, place and the person(s) who made it. As much as we appreciate and respect the fantasies of different writers and artists, the license of artistic products to explain themselves extends only to the historical and psychological causes that produced it. The reason that we are convinced that our fantasy is only a mediator for our imaginative exercise is because we have come to think of any kind of activity as merely the result of the purposeful intervention of humans over inert matter. The birth of technology can be traced back to this idea that there are things which are passive which merely exist with meaningless inertial force until they are ensouled from the outside with active purpose and intent. Colours merely exist in the natural world but to create a work of art, it is argued, one needs to ‘combine’ different colours to produce something. Creation is thought to be active while everything else is passive. In passivity lies mere dormancy, like a person who is sleeping. She needs to be woken up so she can be active. But on the other hand, Susan Howe believes that at the

“Occult ferocity of origin

Inarticulate true meaning

lives beyond thought

linked from beginning”

Plasticity of Creativity

But creativity as people like Aristotle, way back 2500 years ago almost, in his work De Anima, wrote, need not necessarily be something that has to be active. It can be passive as well. Let us see why or how passivity is so crucial for creating anything. Creativity is a tool like other tools. Nevertheless, it is in a way fundamentally different from our everyday tools like hammers, levers, screwdrivers, saws, etc. The latter are used for a purpose. Hammers can only be used to hit nails and a saw can only be used to cut things. We can’t use a saw to drive a nail in a wall nor can we use a hammer to cut wood into two. That is what makes us say tools come with a purpose and they are fixed in the scope of what can be accomplished with them. Tools can’t be used for any purpose which is another way of saying they are fixed and are not plastic in their serviceability. But unlike tools, the creative faculty, we can see, operates with a different logic. In the hands of different artists and writers, creation brings out different products. This can’t be said of hammers or screwdrivers. A hammer can only be used to push nails into something and whoever is wielding a hammer can use it only for that purpose. There is a certain plasticity to the creative faculty which makes it quite pliable in different hands.

When we think of hammers, we think of them needing an ‘active’ intervention from us humans for it to fulfil its purpose. Hammers, like other everyday tools, lie about, we say, in the workshop until we use them to activate some purpose or use. An axe won’t chop wood on its own. You will have to make the axe do it. Thus is born the idea of activity where to do something has come to mean someone using a tool to accomplish an aim which is generated out of intentions or desires. To be active is to therefore use different tools to do different things – cut down trees, build houses, re-direct rivers, construct dams, make cars, etc. The history of the modern world is merely a catalogue of the tools and the products that those tools have produced. But the creative tool which potentially exists in all of us is unlike hammers, axes and screwdrivers in that, it can work in different contexts to serve different ends. Unlike other physical objects, creativity is a power that can work with different material, almost all one can say. There is no material that our creative power feels alienated to. All is grist to its mill.

It is this suppleness, if you will, that makes the act of creation not wholly a ‘active’ process but a ‘plastic’ skill. Plasticity in its semantic connotation involves the idea of being able to take on forms, i.e., be malleable. Creativity is plastic because it has this potential to suit its avatar according to what the context is. The reason I say there is a certain element of passivity involved in creation is because for art to be produced, an artist needs to be in tune with the material she is working with, the constraints of the environment in which she is working, her own artistic idiosyncrasies and abilities. She will have to be ready to imbibe different forms of influences to be able to create the best piece of work that she can. Her creative product is truly free and original only when she becomes, so to speak, the most pliable instrument for art itself. Art in a way has to shape her as she shapes the material in front of her. Whether she is writing or sculpting, as she uses her hands to inscribe creative ideas on to matter, she will have to use the creative resources that are at hand for her use. These creative tools to work well have to be capable of forming and re-forming according to the demands of artistic excellence. And that is possible only if the artist is able to make herself a transparent medium for the expression of art. The artist is not so much a creator as a mediator for art.

As much as creativity speaks through the artist to create new worlds of fantasy, it is equally important that creativity to be truly individualistic, has to answer the ‘call’, so to speak, of every artist or writer. The artist calls forth this power of creativity to work through her and produce a work of art. The artist here is both the passive medium for creativity to work through as well as the active producer of the work which creativity in its passage through her, helped create. The artist is someone who can both call the ‘spirit’ of creativity and listen to its language. She is in the privileged position of being the organ for creative worlds to present themselves in. Creativity is therefore like a séance. It works through people and people have to know how to call upon it.

What does this say about our imagination and its products? If what we have said regarding the creative language and its ghostly location is true, then when a writer is sitting at her table to write her fiction, she is not so much ‘producing’ a work of fiction but being the channel for the work of fiction to work through her. This may sound outlandish but is the logical conclusion of what we had said earlier regarding the plastic nature of creativity. To tell a story is nothing but to hold a conversation with characters who all exist in different worlds. Fantastical characters occupy a world just like ourselves, waiting to talk to us. Just because they can’t be sensed with our ears and eyes doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It is almost like we are the way-station for fantasy to go from one world to another. How they ‘really’ were in their own world we can never truly know and what worlds they will occupy after us, we can’t know either. But magical personas and fanstastical characters are always traveling across a (non)-space whispering stories, singing songs and making merry. It is our creative radio which needs to pick up that signal and relay to others. They populate a different kind of cosmos where ordinary space and time is warped. The world of creativity will always be an alien country.


R Krishnaswamy is a philosopher based in Delhi; he teaches at O P Jindal Global University, Sonipat.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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