Another 37, Day 21
A little boy stands on a mound of dirt at the edge of the park. It’s near dusk, and the trees and the fence posts make shadow puppets with the light of the setting sun. The boy’s arms are spread out, and he whirls around the mound like he’s flying. He runs up the side, then races back down down. His movements have a child’s fluidity, lacking effort, lacking grace. It’s too chaotic to be a dance, too wild to be a practice. I know exactly what he’s doing, because I did it a thousand times. At one point he jumps off and chops at the air with a “ha!” I smile, and I hope whatever dragon or manticore or fiend of the lower air he’s fighting, it’s finally been slain.
I recognize this boy because I was exactly like him when I was small. I found the world boring. But I was never bored. Reality was thin and dry and so often tasteless, but the multiverse inside my imagination went on forever. I’m an adult, now, but I haven’t really changed. I can no longer rush around a featureless patch of ground and stay entertained for hours fighting the chimeras of my fancies. Mounds of dirt are no longer enough for me, and I am bored much more easily. But I haven’t really changed. I still will rarely choose the straight path to reality when there is a door into the fantastic just off to the left, even if the door isn’t really there. And I’m not alone. I’m part of a generation who, in this way at least, never grew up.
I think I was a fairly extreme example, but you only need to look to the most popular media to see the truth. Once upon a time fantasy stories were the exception. In the media that saturated my world growing up there was an assumption that mostly everything took place on boring old earth and followed the mundane rules. There were plenty of exceptions, of course. But they felt like exceptions.
Not anymore. We’re surrounded by fantasy. We’re soaking in it. To take the most obvious example, big blockbuster movies that don’t have a supernatural or super science element are nearly nonexistent these days. The days of Speed and Die Hard 3 as the big events is over. Now we have Lord of the Rings and The Avengers. The most popular drama on television is full of swords and kings and dragons.
There is something deep here that speaks to the worldview of my generation and the ones after us, now that I’m old enough to put an “s” on the generations after me, and people my age run an awful lot of society. Something deep that is not entirely obvious.
“People like fantasy” is the common explanation, or else the even more glib, “Um…have you heard of Star Wars?” These explanations aren’t wrong, but they also aren’t complete. What does it take to enjoy fantasy, fully and completely? Why is it that this was not always the case, and why is it true now?
First and foremost, it requires a specific trait. A trait that has no name. If you don’t possess this trait you might enjoy fantasy, but you will always prefer realistic fiction because you can never take fantasy seriously.
When I say “seriously,” this doesn’t mean that the work in question needs to be somber, or serious, or Profound. I just mean that it is capable of saying something worth saying, something meaningful. You can watch a well regarded superhero film such as Captain America: Winter Soldier and enjoy it a lot, but depending on your worldview, and whether or not you possess the all important trait in question, you might have one of the following reactions:
1: Winter Soldier was a fun summer popcorn flick that I enjoyed very much for its spectacle, its witty dialogue, and its non-stop thrills.
2: Winter Soldier was a fun summer spectacle that was also a surprisingly effective political thriller that made some interesting points about corruption in politics.
The trait is sometimes called suspension of disbelief. That’s part of it, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Someone without this unnamed trait can enjoy a movie like Winter Soldier, but cannot regard it as meaningful or relevant to the real world because there are people in costume with superpowers. These things are unrealistic and objectively ridiculous, and that rules it out as something serious.
On the other hand, someone with the trait doesn’t feel, emotionally or intellectually, that costumes and superpowers rule out the ability of a work of fiction to be meaningful. The suspension of disbelief allows you to engage with a story despite crazy and impossible happenings, but it isn’t enough to take it seriously. It takes more.
I’ve always had this trait, and so many of my peers possess it. Honestly I have trouble talking about media with anyone who doesn’t. Growing up it was a problem for me, because so little of the entertainment world felt satisfying. There was plenty of fantasy fiction out there, but only the occasional film and very, very little television.
Now we have an enormous amount because so much of the audience possesses this trait. We are capable of taking a story about elves fighting orcs just as seriously as a story about cocaine smuggling. And in some ways, that is a terrible place to be. Because if the trait burns strongly enough within you, you start to crave fantasy. Because inside fantasy the possibilities are endless, and the story-space is enormous.
Whether it be a love story or a spy story or a slice of teenage life, I am far more likely to get bored if it follows the mundane rules. Why would anything be so limited? It’s like painting with only two colors. Cooking with only two flavors. I look at the world this way because I have this trait. I don’t know that it’s better to be this way. Maybe it is, or maybe it isn’t. I’m not interested in putting a judgement on it.
But you can only understand the state of modern media if you understand this trait. If you assume that it is escapism or a love of kid’s stuff, you don’t understand it. Escapism does come into play, but no more than with any form of entertainment. If you think Lord of the Rings is escapism but not Shakespeare, or The Godfather, or a night drinking wine and eating expensive food, then you don’t really know what escapism is.
As for kid’s stuff, it used to be that kids were the only ones who had time for imagination. Once you grew up you had to ditch all of that and get down to the business of life. We don’t live in that world anymore. Maybe it’s because we are collectively wealthier. Maybe it’s because we have a lot more time on our hands. The point is, we no longer have to give up the world of imagination.
There was an unspoken assumption growing up that eventually I’d grow out of fantasy and superheroes. I hated the idea, and when I reached a certain age I noticed that there was no pressure to do so. No one was forcing me, and what’s more, everyone I knew felt the same way. We discovered that we could play Dungeons and Dragons and talk endlessly about Batman and still pay bills, drive cars, have kids, and run companies.
So we didn’t give up our imaginations, nor did we tame them. We can no longer entertain ourselves with a mound of dirt. Now, we have to write about our dragons. We have to draw them and render them in CG fighting movie stories for all the world to see. And now that we can, the dragons aren’t going anywhere.