Monday, October 28, 2002

By pure luck I get to argue my point in more detail. Tapped today linked to this piece in the Washington Post which the writer at Tapped calls a defense of science and technology over fantasy, while the author at the Post sees it also as a defense of regular life and ordinary people over magic and elves.

I have no particular interest in Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, or Harry Potter, while the author, Chris Mooney, admits to being a fan of all of them, films included. But they're all predicated on a misconception of the value of mythology and of fiction itself: that of the escape 'from' daily life and 'into' Meaning. Fantasy is made up, and the point of mythology is that it's handed down. A myth tells the story of the people who made it. The Bible is the story of its own creation and of laws, and fiction writing as an art is the description of the world and time that made it. As most novelists will tell you, the value of literature is in description, not plot. You don't create depth, you describe it. I read an essay once by a critic who was a fan of Tolkien. He talked about another well known critic who distained him. I forget the names. "He made it all up" the friend said. To my shock the writer added, "I don't know what he meant".  Fantasy writers conflate the value of the story with the plot and by trying to 'create' meaning, end with illustration.

The arguments against technocracy are complex. But writers for liberal mouthpieces like Tapped are all too willing to lump imagination together with fantasy, and many fans, as idealist and idealistic as the technocrats they oppose, are all too willing to agree. Both are wrong. Fantasy doesn't argue against technocracy; humanism argues against both.
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The first link is dead, (the text below via archive.org) and the other was changed. It's good for now but may not last.

Tapped
TECHNOLOGY VS. FANTASY. Don't miss this article from The Washington Post's Outlook section, by Prospect contributing writer Chris Mooney. He writes about the tension in fantasy writing -- particulary the Harry Potter books -- between technology and science, which authors like J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien generally cast as distortions of reality, and the imagined fantasy world, which they cast as the apotheosis of it. Tapped knows Mooney as a science writer who loves Lord of the Rings, so this is a piece only he could write.
Posted at 11:21 AM
Mooney: There's Sheer Wizardry In Us Muggles
...Rowling's critique of people like the Dursleys owes a great deal to two other British writers of fantasy, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Both writers believed that fantasy and the imagination -- in stark contrast with technology and modernism -- can help us access a deeper, more magical and enchanted existence. As biographer Humphrey Carpenter described Tolkien's views: "Only by myth-making, only by becoming a 'sub-creator' and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbor, while materialistic 'progress' leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil." Or as Ron Weasley advised Harry in a letter: "Don't let the Muggles get you down!"

To be honest, Muggles actually fire me up. I find charm in their foibles. And I don't see anything wrong with people devoting themselves to their jobs and wanting something to show for it -- even if that something is a flashy car or an iMac or a fancy kitchen appliance.

Rowling lives in a different moral universe. The daily grind and worldly possessions, particularly mechanical ones, distract Muggles from the truth. Thus in a letter to his godfather Sirius Black in "The Goblet of Fire," Harry describes how Dudley threw his PlayStation out the window in a fit of rage: "Bit stupid really, now he hasn't even got Mega-Mutilation Part Three to take his mind off things." By contrast, the wizarding world is depicted throughout the Harry Potter books as a place of archaic rituals and devices. Technological gizmos don't work on the grounds of the wizard school, Hogwarts, and the students go around scribbling on parchment with quills. No Palm Pilots for this bunch, clearly.

At the risk of sounding like Vernon Dursley, I must confess to being puzzled by this. Don't scientists, those who lay the groundwork for technology, peer more closely at reality than anybody else -- often uncovering fundamental truths about the essence of life? Aren't some of our cars and appliances occasionally things of elegance, at least as much as, say, a broomstick? ...

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