Fantasy and the possible

“Yet the invocation of magic by modern fantasy cannot recapture this fascination, but is condemned by its form to retrace the history of magic’s decay and fall, it’s disappearance from the disenchanted world of prose, the ‘entzauberte Welt’, of capitalism and modern times.”
– Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The desire called utopia and other science fictions [71]

The major works of serious literary fantasy reflect upon this concept of magic-as-waning (John Crowley, Sheri Tepper, Susanna Clarke, et al.). How can this magic be linked properly to its reserve of power, namely human creative power? This creative power has become alienated, and the dialectic of enlightenment applies here just as much to religion because of fantasy’s secular-thus-literary realm of exploration. Well, it ought to explose, but more often the literary fantasy (or just plain fantasy, the literary mulls things over more profoundly than this) will at least reflect on its own alienation. 

John Crowley is a prime example of this in both his masterpiece Little, Big as well as the Ægypt cycle. Susanna Clarke upsets our expectations by positing a final waxing of magic rather than its disappearance from the world, which emphasises all the more how the magical truly has waned from our world and even our imaginations. It is striking that Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was so acclaimed, but what is even more striking was that its reception seemed always to be accompanied by a note of surprise that this, a book that involved magic, was not hopelessly puerile. We could, this raised-eyebrow subtext suggested, actually enjoy something that wasn’t on the Eastenders end of the realism continuum, yet that was not of the dwarves and unicorns variety. It was becoming acceptable to note that there was indeed a literary fantasy that could be read by those coming from the literary vector rather than the other way round, coming from fantasy but being discerning. Previously it was Borges and Calvino who were in this non-purely-realism citadel (acceptable, as Gore Vidal notes regarding another topic, because they don’t write in English, which we might call the language of instrumental reason), but others have joined them. One would hope, however, that as fantasy became literary, non-discussions as to the artistic merit of previous bastions should really become moot (such that we can say J.R.R. Tolkien was not “snubbed“, he simply didn’t deserve the Nobel). 

If we can reflect on the passing of magic in a fantasy text, is this more than a shallow generic narcissism? Does it point to an intriguing approach whereby the old Freudian idea allows magic to be regarded as wish-fulfillment, rather than having little to do with the “thinking through of the dialectic” that Fredric Jameson is proposing. The alienation of magic has much to do with the alienating power of technology and reason, how these forces of industry and enlightenment are regarded as inhuman, rather than as the ne plus ultra of humanity. We might make a connection here with Arthur C. Clarke’s “Three Laws“:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. 
  2. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

This nexus of technology and possibility is left unresolved and unexamined in the realm of magic, and we still put our eggs in the basket of wish fulfillment. That fantasy revists and rehashes the magic-as-waning trope again and again shows that we fundamentally do not understand where we are now, where we have come from, and the fact that imagination is not a diversionary exercise in wish-fulfillment. Fantasy, by its obsessive compulsion to repeat the same ideas again and again is begging somebody to notice it, to see that it matters, that it affected us before, and can again. 

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