The Fantastical Real

My cousin Luke is wandering India (I shouldn’t say wandering, what he is doing is substantially more than that, but it sounds poetical). He spends his time there interacting with people in ways I never could and which frankly astound me, experiencing the way this unique and really very hard-to-believe planet functions on a level whose implications continue to floor me. I tried to convey this to Luke in a post on his weblog, but I didn’t nearly manage to express the profundity of the feeling I get from hearing about what he does there and considering it on a personal, emotional level.

I’ve touched very gently elsewhere in this log on my attitude towards spirituality, and have trampled like a herd of elephants elsewhere in this log on many other people’s attitudes towards same, which attitudes I perceive as unhealthy and at times destructive. (I feel conceptually about elephants in person in their own habitat as opposed to in our fake ones the same way I imagine Sam Gamgee feels about the Mumak–and that feeling fits into this subject somewhere too. I asked Luke to take some pictures of elephants for me. I hope he does. But that’s neither here nor there.) I would like very much to clarify my position on the subject of spirituality, to elaborate both for myself and for those I have undoubtedly pissed off exactly how the concept of the transcendent fits into my worldview.

And yes, this whole topic is also inextricably wound up in the way I deal with and produce fantasy and fiction. That moment where Sam meets the Mumak, and others like it in fantasy fiction I could enumerate endlessly save that I would very quickly run out of fingers and toes, are the reason I love fantasy, the reason I read it, the reason I write it. It doesn’t have to touch my heart like that for me to enjoy it–it may simply engage my mind, or my gut–but when Susan and Lucy romp with Aslan in the fields above Cair Paravel, when Arha and Tehanu chase the stray goat along the cliffs of Ogion’s farm, when Eilonwy gives up her wishing ring to stay and grow old with Prydein’s new king–that’s when I know I’m doing the right thing with my life. I remember distinctly the first time I came to the end of The High King, and ran into my mother’s room to explain to her what happened, so that she could reassure me that I wasn’t crying for no reason, that I wasn’t, in fact, a sissy. Mothers, I since have learned, are not the most impartial advisors when it comes to such things. Nevertheless, she said exactly what I needed her to, exactly what the teacher told the poor little girl who said she hated books because they made her cry: “You don’t hate books. You love them so much it makes you cry.”

Let me give you one more true anecdote from my own life and then try to bring this back to Luke. I recently got a new job way out in the woods in the Berkshires in a farmhouse with six cats and several llamas. It’s a long drive to get out there. Once upon a time I would have raved and raged at the prospect of losing a total of an hour and a half out of my day just sitting in the car. Only now I’m driving on back roads, where often I’m the only car in sight, and all around me there are huge green-limed stones and tall, straight pines melting into gold and orange maples and blue skies and the curves of hillsides with woodsmoke rising from chimneys. And I’m going to a place where I like what I do, I’m in control of what I do, where everything has a face and an emotion attached and my presence is a palpable help to the people around me, not just a knot of turbulence in the surrounding abstractions. I started working there at the height of fall color, in late October. Driving to and from work the first few days, I literally cried at the beauty of it. I cried.

Now, there are those who would call me a sap or a sissy for something like that, and there are those who would prefer to pretend it hadn’t happened so they wouldn’t have to think about it. The former, I fear, are lost causes to this whole spirituality thing. Likely they’ve already given up what religion they were brought up into and have taken on cynicism and practicality in its stead. And that’s fine. It’s tragic. They’re missing out. But there is certainly a great part of me that agrees with them. The latter group, on the other hand, I think are actually more likely to have some spirituality of their own that they’re misusing. And I’m entering dangerous territory here, but I’d venture to say they’re the ones in need of help.

Would you begin to feel rather uncomfortable and start working on conversational exit strategies if someone confided in you that communion with Christ brought them to tears? I might not, depending on how well I know the person–but I’m talking about knowing them really very well. It’s a matter of sincerity, of intelligence and individual centeredness. The average person, I’m pretty sure, would want to avoid the subject like the plague. The problem, or one of them at least, is the whole co-optedness of the christian religion, and on a larger scale of organized religion in general. There are motives to consider–motives to avoid. So you brush such comments off and turn the discussion away to the infinitely safer worship of things like Ferris Wheels and the Sunday funnies. The danger in doing so is that the more often you do it the less likely you are ever to give the subject the consideration it deserves.

Religious ecstasy–personal communion with the incomprehensible–whatever you want to call it, it’s a category of experience akin to, yet entirely distinct from sex, drugs, love, grief, exertion or terror. Now, I’ve got an idea what your average christian might say to my equating tears for the beauty of a hillside in autumn with a holy sacrament, transcendence with transfiguration–but what else can I call it? What’s more, I’m not nearly finished stretching this parallel. I’d like to put both what Luke is doing in India and what Lucy and Mr. Tumnus are doing in Narnia into the same category. I’d like to demonstrate that religion is what I call fantasy, and that furthermore, the kind of reality my cousin Luke encounters in Delhi and Pune and Sevagram on a daily basis, mitigated (for us at least) through the ubiquitous blog though it may be, is the same thing.

Really, the first leap shouldn’t be all that difficult, though I don’t doubt it will meet with contention. Indeed, I hope it does. Religion is the belief in the beyond the palpable. Or rather, it was–in its pure form, at its inception. And fantasy, on a superficial level at least, is… shall we call it the capacity for pleasure in the beyond the palpable? Now, whether religion’s purpose is pleasure, whether in the incredibly long term or the short, we won’t get into here. But surely the Rapture, at least, must be counted a pleasurable experience. Surely religious ecstasy, though according to the textbook definition that includes only such rare emotional states as that of Joan of Arc on the pyre I haven’t experienced it firsthand, must not be entirely a misnomer, and must therefore bear some structural resemblance to sexual release. And if I can reach an emotional state I perceive to be of comparable intensity in imagining the sensation of burying my hands in Aslan’s mane, shouldn’t I have every right to draw parallels? Maybe Aslan isn’t the best example, he being Christ once removed, or vice versa, and me being the prepubescent Susan, who we know will grow up to renounce Narnia and get married and go lax in her archery practice and generally lose any value as a vessel for the reader’s empathy, being a rather absurd and perhaps disturbing notion from both a gender-stereotypical and a traditionalist fantastical standpoint. But this is neither the time nor the place (well, perhaps it is the place) to dissect that particular neurosis.

Then why not bring in Reality? If I can burst into tears of joy (which I flatter myself there are some in the world who will never have the privilege of experiencing except through the mitigation of literature which of course they won’t be enjoying nearly as much as they should) at the sight of a beechgrove ablaze in gold, then what excuse have I to draw a line between that glorious grove and the imagined shores of Valinor–or, for that matter, the gates of Eden, or the Silver City? Is it really all that significant a difference that the latter paradises are forever forbidden me except in imagination and/or death, while the former waits but twenty minutes’ walk from my front door? What is that difference? What is it, really? I propose it to be nothing more than whether I who imagine those eternal shores can take such joy from that mere image as I can from walking the mossy earth beneath the boughs, or for that matter driving past them on an empty road swept with falling leaves on my way to personal fulfillment.

This is rather a longer digression from Luke and India than I’d intended–and it could easily go longer. But it need not. Luke’s experience among the outcasts is what religion used to be and still is only for the very lucky, what that blazing yellow beechgrove is for me, what the thought of little Bilbo Baggins among the great elves and wizards on the Last Ship to Valinor is for so many. In this age of weblogofied reality, of the inescapable marketing slot, the ginormous scintillating My Ugly Uncle’s Ass With a Face Painted On It Takes Over Your Mother’s Job ad dancing like six coked-up thai prostitutes in oh about the bottom 33% of Charlie Brown’s Christmas, I’m afraid that anybody who tries to tell me unmitigated reality is not religion is going to get laughed off the stage. This thing we do every day, this isn’t reality anymore. What Luke does on the other side of the world, that is–and for that alone, I’m capable of experiencing the same kind of transcendent fantasy that made me cry as a kid, the same kind of transcendent reality that makes me cry in the woods on a cold winter’s day, just by reading Luke’s odd, oh-so-human, oh-so-wise and thoughtful and simple narration, and looking at the pictures of him with his hair dyed black among people who see mumaks on the streets every day and haven’t the first idea what the hell is fundamentally wrong with this place on the other side of the world where everybody drives monstrous shiny things bigger than elephants to work every day at the cost of a fraction of a human life per mile. And the weirdest thing about it is I don’t know whether it ought to make me happy or sad to be living in a world where such a thing is possible.

“Then, unbelievably, I saw something I thought only existed in my imagination: a bicycle whose chain was rerouted, via gears, to spinning a table saw. One person rides the bike, another person cuts wood. I felt like I’d seen the loch ness monster, or a purple elephant with two heads, or a giant squid.”
–Luke, HKE, 12/4/2004

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