Political Activism in Fairy Stories

A reprint of an article from 2007. I post it again because while the specifics of the discussion between Mr VanderMeer and Mr Baker may or may not be any longer of interest, the general point eternally recurs:

*   *   *

The well-regarded Jeff VanderMeer writes, with honest insight, that his youthful theory about writing, namely, that it should be free from reference to current events, free from political activism, was not bourn out in his growth as a writer.
He says that on a subconscious level, his fiction did not become vivid unless he wrote about the effects of dictatorship, war, colonialism, the erosion of personal liberty; all topics touching on politics. To eliminate politics entirely from his stories would have the effect of making them too stylized, mannered and artificial.
He concludes that politics has a place in fiction, including fantasy, but he stops short of saying a relevance to current politics is necessary for fiction. Art can still be done for art’s sake.
… I haven’t yet answered the question I posed before: Is it important for fantasy, or fiction generally, to be relevant in this way? The answer is a resounding, No, it isn’t. The instinctual idea I had as a teen and young adult about Art for Art’s sake, the idea that character and situation are paramount, that some truths transcend politics — that’s all valid.
R. Scott Bakker writes a rebuttal of this last sentence of Mr. VanderMeer, and says that an absence of politics shows a lack of curiosity, or perhaps a lack of insight.

I say perhaps because I cannot interpret him with certainty.

His means of expressing himself are droll, and so I here quote him at length. Make of this what you will:

… If every aspect of our lives is political in some way, and “truths” are one of those aspects, doesn’t that mean, contrary to VanderMeer’s resounding assertion, that no truths transcend politics? Isn’t VanderMeer trying to eat his cake and have it too?

Sure he is. The important question to ask is why.

When you teach something like Popular Culture, as I did not so very long ago, the first thing you need to overcome is the common intuition that most commercial cultural products are examples of a magical thing called “Entertainment Pure and Simple” — what is essentially the mass market version of “Art for Art’s Sake.” For instance, how could Professional Wrestling or Andromeda or Hockey or American Idol 5 possess a complicated political subtext? Surely these harmless pastimes are “simple,” unblemished by the political mire we see on the nightly News.

Well, if you think anything is simple, you’re the victim of an out and out illusion… Everything is more complicated than it seems, trust me. The only thing that makes anything seem “simple” is the limitations of our particular perspective…That’s why we once thought the Earth was the motionless centre of the universe.
He goes on in like vein for a while, ending with
So why did VanderMeer pull his horse up short so close to the finish line? Why does a part of him remain stuck in his teenage perspective believing that some truths do transcend politics, that something, anything, can be for its own sake?
He ran out of questions.
The esteemed Mr. VanderMeer, showing more courtesy and craft than I possess, met this criticism by penning an amusing bit of dialog with an Evil Monkey, who makes sufficient ridicule of the dumb pomposity of “He ran out of questions” that it would be painting the rose for me to add anything further.

But I cannot resist pointing out the logic: Mr. Bakker’s position contradicts itself in two ways.

First, the statement “everything is complex” is a statement of remarkable reduction. Basically, the whole cosmos in all its glory is reduced to one word—all is complex. It is, in fact, a simple statement, and, like most simple statements, simply wrong. Life is not as simple as simply saying “everything is complex.” Some things are complex, and some are simple.
His chosen example is a sufficient testimony for that. I need call no other witnesses to the stand: Ptolemy in his geocentric model of the universe scribbled over the seven concentric heavens with cycles and epicycles, the motions of the same and the other, triune, conjunction, opposition, and placed both the sphere of the fixed stars and an invisible prime mobile beyond that, which he describes in baffling sexigesimal computation. It was a complex system. Newton in his godlike brilliance reduced the model of Copernicus and Kepler to three simple laws, including both sublunar and superlunar bodies in one system. In other words, at least one thing complex at first glance turned out to be simple upon analysis.

It is simplistic indeed to dismiss all errors as being caused by a lack of curious attention to complexity. Ptolemy’s reasons for the geocentric model were due to the ease of calculation, the lack of visible parallax against the fixed stars, the absence of wind or other sensation of motion of diurnal rotation. He came to the conclusion supported by the available evidences of the time, before the invention of the telescope, before the discovery of the Galilean satellites. Since Ptolemy specifically discusses a heliocentric model in his appendix to the Almagest, one cannot say he did not raise the question. In the general case under discussion, Mr. Bakker’s argument, if reduced to a syllogism, would read as follows:

  1. Everything is complex; nothing is simple.
  2. Everything can be discovered to have an ulterior political motive and meaning, including allegedly innocent entertainment.
  3. Therefore everything is simply politics: everything is simple.
I cannot interpret this figure for you: the conclusion #3 simply does not follow from the major and minor premises. Unless the words have a different meaning in different sentences, #1 and #3 are about as stark a contradiction as one is likely to meet outside a logic textbook illustration of an error.
Mr. VanderMeer says that he discovered that his art cannot be restricted to merely non-political subjects. Of its own nature, his stories grow to encompass all the human condition, of which politics is a part. In other words, Mr. VanderMeer is saying something complex and insightful. Mr. Bakker upbraids him by saying the world is complex and that therefore everything is simply politics. A more simplistic analysis cannot be imagined: Mr. Bakker claims that everyone who disagrees with his judgment is dull or slothful of wit, unable or unwilling to be curious.
If Mr. Bakker is saying no more than that everything touching human relations of power and law has a political ramification, he may have a good point, provided either that one broadens the definition of ‘politics’ to include all aspects of human life dealing with power and law, and further provided that one ignores all aspect of human life unconcerned with power and law. Of course, as Mr. VanderMeer points out in redirect, once any term is so bloated as to encompass all meanings, it means nothing.
Perhaps I misread Mr. Bakker. Here is another quote:
Narratives are about human interaction, about people trying to solve the riddles of desire and obligation and circumstance that bedevil us all — just like politics. The choices the protagonist makes are always political choices, insofar as they turn on the same network of assumptions that underwrite our daily lives. And insofar as pretty much everything you do in your daily life possesses social origins and social consequences, nearly every choice you make is a political choice as well.
If put in syllogism form:
  1. Narratives are about solving the riddles of desire, obligation and circumstance
  2. Politics is about solving the riddles of desire, obligation and circumstance
  3. Ergo narratives are politics.
This is the formal logical fallacy known as the undistributed middle. All Englishmen are men; all Frenchmen are men; ergo all Englishmen are French.
We also get a glimpse of the Bakker definition of ‘politics’ in this passage: politics is whatever “turns on the same network of assumptions that underwrite our daily lives; every choice possessing social origins and social consequences.”
The dictionary gives the definition of politics as the art of governing a state. The word originally comes from the Greek word for city, polis. In general, politics deals with the constitution of civic affairs: laws and customs by which public order is maintained, the virtues by which the men triumph in war, the economy by which men prosper in peace. The other common meaning is “Intrigue or maneuvering within a group in order to gain power.”
Is this the whole of life? Maneuvering for power over one’s fellows, or using that power according to the art of administration? Are there no books save for law books, no words save for propaganda? If so, here is a cosmos as narrow as a coffin.
If you are going to reduce everything in life to one thing, at least make it an interesting thing. For Nietzsche, everything was will; for Hegel, everything was the Absolute; for the Theosophist, everything is god; for the Buddhist everything is nothing; for Parmenides, all is one; for Heraclitus, all is many. Robert Heinlein more than once announced that everything in life could be reduced to sex and sexual competition. If there is only going to be one god in the pantheon, Venus is more interesting than Caesar. (But even she becomes dull when she is inflated to include all the things she is not: witness the tedium of Mr. Heinlein’s later work.)
There is no way to reconcile this, the ordinary dictionary definition of the word, with Mr. Bakker’s broad definition “every choice possessing social origins and social consequences.” Is baking a loaf of bread a political choice? It is not something Robinson Crusoe does in isolation: it possesses social consequences, especially if I am social enough to share my bread with a needy neighbor, or break it and give thanks.
However, Mr. Bakker is clear enough to include a qualifier. ‘Nearly’ every choice you make is political. ‘Pretty much’ everything you do is political.
What, praytell, is excluded from this all-encompassing totality? He does not say.
The second contradiction in his stance, however, is admitted by this qualifier. If ‘nearly’ everything is politics, ergo there is at least one thing, however limited, which is not. If a writer (fantasy or not) writes about this one non-political thing, then he falls into the very exception that Mr. VanderMeer admits which Mr. Bakker denies.
Let us reflect on what falls outside the orbit of politics.
We can think of some well-known examples of what type of men seek solitude, and escape from the struggles in the courts of the potent and the markets of the wealthy: the dreamer, who seeks visions; the artist, who seeks beauty; the philosopher, who seeks truth; the saint, who seeks holiness. However, saints and philosophers and even storytellers often return from their lonely caves to preach and proclaim and perform in the agora, and set the multitudes to tumult.  All but one: the fantasist. Of all works of words, the telling of tales that have no reality aside from what fantasy and imagine gives to it, are the tales least concerned with the mundane affairs of Earth.
Indeed, the point of fantasy is to have no earthly point: it is when we want refreshment from the dull iron struggles of Earth that we seek the haunted air of deathless isles, or pause in twilight beneath the silent pines and ache to hear the horns of the elfland blowing, or see the swan-sailed ships vanishing at the margins of the uncertain purple seas, adrift beneath opalescent crescent moons, seeking other worlds.
The point of fantasy is to break out of the sterile confines of the mundane world, which, for all its pomp and pleasure, is too small for us. Those who dream dreams are homesick for strange heavens, find ourselves oppressed by your narrow universe, and must seek beyond its shores to catch a breath of outside air, if in our imagination only.
If closing oneself up in a closet to invent the fictional wars of the demons and witches of the planet Mercury, or the hunt for the hidden god Surtur across the lands and seas of the satellite of the giant star Arcturus, can be called political, well, the word it is a grand enough and vague enough to include, not the government of the messy nations of men, but the promenades and reels of the sun and moon and stars, the fling of baleful comets whose beards shake pestilence across perplexed constellations, the doing of dragons in the core of the earth, the convulsions of timespace at the dawn of cosmos, the convocation of dying universes at the Eschaton, the dance of electrons about the atom, the twittering of pale ghosts by the river Styx, the sighs of lovers, the meditations of mathematicians, the laughter of children, the note of the nightingale all alone in a starlit cedar grove.
Is that all to be encompassed in a definition of politics? We are dealing then not with the politics of men but of the gods themselves, the arguments of Vishnu and Hades, Buddha and Christ over life and death and illusion and truth and everything between.
I note that this definition of politics touches on religion as well. Mr. Bakker informs us:
(And this, by the way, is why so many traditional belief systems tend to discourage questioning: certainty tends to depend on ignorance).
Uh huh. I counted about six hundred eleven questions in the SUMMA of Aquinas before I lost track. It is a writing meant only for beginners, meaning that there are more questions beyond this for the advanced students of this particular traditional belief system. The writings and commentaries of the Buddhists and Taoists and Mohammedans fill up libraries with recondite lore. I notice also that we are told here with much certainty that certainty depends on ignorance. Uh huh. It is not “In my opinion, and I could be wrong, I have noticed in my limited experience that often certainty tends to depend on ignorance.” He seems pretty sure of what the foundations of traditional belief systems are. So he is making a simplistic statement here as well.
In my opinion, and I could be wrong, I have noticed in my limited experience that often politics tends to depend on ignorance. To dishonor the king, to question the authority, to talk back to the master sergeant, to dishearten the team and to spread sedition and rumor, to oppose the will of the people, even when not outright crimes, are always frowned upon. To make questioning the motives and practices of the Ruling Party socially unacceptable, if not illegal, is the principle hallmark of politics. Politics is the art of government; to govern is to compel and persuade obedience. Obedience requires a unity a purpose: no team can win if everyone is a quarterback.
Every other field is life has a place for questions; not politics.
No nation can survive if the mass of the governed are brought into skepticism about the theory and practice of their rulers. Even a democracy, the system out of all possible systems requiring the smallest amount of obedience and civic discipline from the common man, cannot survive if every voter questions the wisdom, justice, honesty, and efficiency of democracy.
Politics is based on faith. Politics, in the final analysis, is about political correctness: the submission to one set of unquestioned principles or another. The vehemence and vituperation of politics comes from this source: each side thinks the questions of the other not merely disquieting, but disloyal, and disloyalty is a danger to the union, health and life of the Leviathan.
Religion, on the other hand, is the result when the dismal questions of life and death and right and wrong, the meaning of life and the vanity of the world, are bravely faced: those very questions that Caesar and all other worldly rulers would forbid us to ask.
When someone talking about politics in fantasy pauses to make an irrelevant slight against religion, a certain suspicion is in order. We should suspect we are seeing a ritual behavior: the comment is genuflection toward the altar of this man’s particular little god. The man to whom politics is everything is (often, but not in all cases) a man to whom politics is his substitute for religion. It is his church and his fellowship and his idol.
And his idol is a jealous one, and will have no others before it, and so the normal people for whom religion is religion, and politics is politics–these normal must be dishonored, in order to honor the idol.
Likewise, the jealous god of the worshiper of politics will not allow art for art’s sake.
In the short space of Mr. Bakker’s article, there was room enough for him to tell us about his class in Popular Culture, but not room enough to give proofs to support his point: to tell us the politic ramifications of Tolkien and Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany, Robert E. Howard and E.R. Eddison and Edgar Rice Burroughs without which those writers could not be properly understood. Come, tell me the political implications of PIRATES OF CALLISTO by Lin Carter, or VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS by David Lindsay?
I doubt not that a fecund imagination could read a political meaning into every little thing: after all, do not the Green Men of Barsoom hold all property in common, like the Bolsheviks? Was not Frodo Baggins the very picture of English rural gentry? I am confident one could read the dream-quest of Randolph Carter to climb unknown Kadath or the dream-flight of Lessingham to Mercury on rainbow-winged hippogriff into some sort of allegory for or against bimetallism or the Caledonian war or the Temperance movement or the Whiskey Rebellion or whatever the newspaper topics of the day might be. All one need do is read the works with no interest in the works.
So the faithful of every religion can do. Medieval schoolmen in their bestiaries can read all sorts of figures and parables into the doings of fabulous beasts, from the charity of the pelican to the resurrection of the phoenix.
Bestiaries are not written as biology, but as homily. As a homily, it might have been bracing for the true believers of Mr. Bakker’s school of thought to hear a real sermon on the homophobia of Hobbits, the imperialism of Earthsea, racism in Oz, or the Nazism of Nehwon; for we skeptics it would have been entertaining, at least, to see the mental gymnastics of the effort that might go into rendering an interpretation. It certainly would have been insightful to see the matter proved, rather than assumed by an undefined definition.
But all we get instead is the informal logical error of Ad Hominem: Anyone not of my opinion lacks curiosity or honesty, and has run out of questions. This is not a proof, or even a considered judgment; it is a sneer.




  1. Comment by Xena Catolica:

    “the jealous god of the worshipper of politics will not allow art for art’s sake.”

    This is so well stated an Obvious Truth that I would like to put it on a t-shirt. What I noted in the combox continuation of their debate is that while Mr. VanderMeer’s description of how he writes does not refer to a muse per se, it very much allows the existence of one. Mr. Bakker’s position allows of no muse, no recognition of a story as being in some sense a subject rather than an object. Would I extrapolate correctly from what you’ve said that the jealous god of the worshippers of politics will not allow any muse?

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      That is a fascinating question. I suspect they have the opposite of a muse.

      But please see my column on beauty and ugliness (written but not yet published) which should appear later this month on EveryJoe: http://www.everyjoe.com/author/johncwright/

    • Comment by Brian Niemeier:

      “Mr. Bakker’s position allows of…no recognition of a story as being in some sense a subject rather than an object.”

      An intriguing idea. I’d be eager to hear you expand upon it.

      • Comment by John C Wright:

        I’d like to hear more on that thought, too. I think you are on to something. I wonder if there is an essential part of political correctness which makes it practicianers think all things must serve the greater glory of the Party in the same way and for the same reason that faithful Christians think even their arts, frivolities and entertainments, even their absurd gargoyles, all must serve the greater glory of God. The faithful Christian thinks God is the source of good and the savior from evil; and the pagan political correctoid thinks that power struggles between eternal oppressor and eternal victims is all that life consists of, the only evil that there is (is a political evil, an imbalance of power between the oppressor class and the victim class) and ergo the Party is the source of good and the savior from evil.

        • Comment by Xena Catolica:

          Ah, now I’m going to wish I were a)a brilliant fiction writer, and b) had thought this out carefully before posting, so please consider this preliminary….

          Well, to begin, I don’t think the invocation of a muse is merely literary convention. I cannot speak for the pagans of antiquity, but as a Christian, I think divine inspiration is an objective reality–it happens. The terms describe a relationship between two initial subjects, God and the artist. I understand Tolkien to mean this by his term “subcreation.” (I don’t have Tolkien ready to hand.)

          So what does the dynamic of inspiration cause to happen? Perhaps the creation of another subject, rather than an object. Now, if this were merely a rational event, one intellect working on another, we might get some intellectually autonomous thing, like some juicy bit of mathematics. But a perfect bit of math might satisfy the intellect, but for most people it isn’t moving in any significant way because it doesn’t convey any truth greater than an intellectual truth. (I’m not a math person, so apologies to all the math types I’ve just offended)

          But it isn’t a matter of isolated intellect. All parts of a subject are involved, the rational bits and the non-rational bits. This is probably most readily evident in myth. Bakker’s errors made me think of this, because Mr. Wright demonstrated he reasons poorly, but what Bakker says about audience & politics struck me as reducing composition to an entirely rational/intellectual process–a view of composition by no means universal historically, but certainly one that lends itself to message fiction.

          But if the cooperation of two subjects produces another subject, that subject has an identity and it’s the artist’s job to receive it, discover it, and uncover it to the reader. Obviously, reason & craftsmanship come into play, or the blighters would just write themselves. In this view, the writer’s commitment to Truth–the Person we worship–is then expressed in service to the subject being willed by God in that particular instance of inspiration. The talent of the author is a gift, a capacity of nature that training and grace can build upon, but the story is a gift in the sense we say a child is a gift. Writing is an act of gratitude.

          I think this has 2 immediate consequences. First, the author’s state of grace influences how well he can receive that inspiration, because that’s true of grace in every part of his life. I say influences, rather than dictates, because God’s power isn’t limited by the sin of an individual. The second is that the artist’s spiritual maturity (not just state of grace vs. state of sin), as well as their technical ability, judgment, etc. is going to be a factor in receiving and making into art that inspiration.

          Disclaimer here for the scrupulous–that doesn’t mean if you’re a bad writer, or a frustrated one, you’re a lousy sinner. Talent/gift and Providence matter a LOT, too. Dante wasn’t a greater saint than John of the Cross, but he was a better poet.

          It also follows from this that criticism–the real deal, not combox opinionating–is also a discipline of service, an act of gratitude. Of course, that works best if the critic practices her craft upon works that are subjects rather than objects, but I can’t imagine why a critic would choose to work on any piece she didn’t find to be a subject.

          I’m kinda wishing I had a Thomist vocabulary to for this. And I haven’t accounted for atheists, but this post can avoid that rabbit hole in its initial foray, I think.

          • Comment by Xena Catolica:

            Thinking about this more & can’t sleep.

            This is all reverse engineering I’m attempting to do. Michelangelo said the sculpture was within the block of marble, and it was his job to remove the extra bits. I think he’s describing something real about the creative process very literally, in which the thing being created already has an identity. I’m not suggesting a story has free will, strictly speaking, so I’m not sure that “subject” is the philosophically precise term for that identity.

            When writers talk about having a Muse, I think what’s being described is having a power to incarnate “something.” Contact with the “something,” in my experience and that of others, shows that it has an integrity, a wholeness, and a vulnerability more typical of living things than objects. My relationship to a story really isn’t tyranny–it makes demands on me in addition of those of craftsmanship.

            Atheists…well, let me first say I have no experience being one, or even serious doubt. But there are some very talented atheists out there, and their talent is certainly a gift from God. Let’s suppose an artist, whom we will call Pat, is an unbaptized atheist,dedicated to the craft and a person of good will. The natural virtues of dedication to craft & good will (and if she’s lucky, the prayers of friends) allow some action of the Holy Spirit. So Pat’s work, contrary to Pat’s belief, may be a means of God’s action in her and through her work to others. The art of atheists can certainly be a means of grace to others.

            The worrisome thing about Pat, ‘though, is that without cooperation, without the far greater graces available through the Christian life, Pat won’t ever be the artist God intended when he gave Pat that gift to begin with. Unfulfilled artistic potential is a tragedy, even if (as charity hopes)Pat has a deathbed conversion.

            Since Mr. Wright has been an artist before & after, his would be an interesting perspective, ‘though perhaps too personal a matter for the blog. Sir?

            My apologies for being prolix. More precise terms/thinking most welcome!

            • Comment by John C Wright:

              I would answer the question, but I don’t understand what you would like to know. I believed in the muse when I was an atheist, since the theory of a so-called unconscious mind, that is, an unconscious consciousness is insolently unscientific and non-empirical. It is defined as something which by definition can never be experience by introspection nor by sense impression direct or indirect, hence by definition can never come into human awareness by any means whatsoever.

              Compared to that blithering nonsense, believing that nine reticent pagan goddesses put ideas into the heads of mad poets satisfies Occam’s razor, and the theory is clear and falsifiable.

              As a writer, atheist or not, I routinely find ideas in my head which clearly I did not invent, which have layers of meaning clearly beyond my inventive power. If they did not come from inside, but process of elimination, they come from outside. The muse will do as a word to refer to the source of inspiration until and unless a clearer word presents itself.

              • Comment by Xena Catolica:

                Thank you for the reply. Did you perceive the experience of composition to change when you became a Christian? that was what I meant to ask.

                I promise not to theorize upon the answer. When I reread this morning what I’d written last night, the superiority of metaphor was clear, despite my desire for systematics. A better response of mine might have been to say a story is like a critter that takes up residence in my head, separate from the muse. It’s like a living thing, and if I treat it like it’s alive, it will be alive on the page.

                • Comment by John C Wright:

                  I don’t understand the question. What composition? Do you mean the way I write? It is the same. My motive for writing is slightly nobler, since now I wish to glorify God rather than myself, but that would be the same had I been a cobbler or a wheelwright.

  2. Comment by Legatuss:

    All Englishmen are men; all Frenchmen are men; ergo all Englishmen are French.
    Englishman: “Oh yeah, Waterloo, what do you say to that!”
    Frenchman: “Hastings.”

  3. Comment by R.Carter:


    I am a little embarrassed to say that I actually enjoy Bakker’s fantasy work even in spite of the fact that I know he is writing it to be ironic on some sort of ridiculous meta-scale. It is often tedious, pretentious, and filled junk philosophy and unnecessary phallic imagery, and yet still I read on. I did not give even G.R.R. Martin so much slack.

    But the man? The man seems utterly silly, and his hypothesis presented in the article above is not even his most absurd. Not by a long-shot. Of course, I am referring to the Blind Brain Hypothesis, and I can recommend this as reading material for anyone looking for a good laugh.

    • Comment by Mary:

      As Saul Bellow observed to Wayne C. Booth, about the “implied author” discussed in Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction, it’s no wonder that the implied author is often a better person than the actual existing one — what with all that careful revision.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      If you believe my theory of the universe, it is not the writer, but his muse, who writes the books. In that case one can enjoy the writer’s books with endless enthusiasms, no matter what reservations one has about the writer.

      • Comment by R.Carter:

        I like that.

        Of course, I now suspect that my muse may be living on Yuggoth and only communicating with me via primitive radio signals. It certainly takes her long enough to get back to me when I need help.

      • Comment by Booch Paradise:

        And even aside from that theory, it’s still quite common to see that many great artists are morons when it comes to politics or philosophy. Regularly their works flat out contradict their spoken beliefs.

        The way I look at it is that there are 2 parts of the mind, the articulated and unarticulated. The articulated part of the mind is where we have our thoughts that are open to examination, but is almost entirely unable to act. The unarticulated part of the mind acts with ease, but is very difficult to examine. And basically everyone has holds contradictions between these two halves of their mind. So I would say that a person like Bakker has a spark of briliance in the unarticulated half of his mind that comes out in his books, but has no part in the inane political and philosophical ramblings he engages in, which belong entirely to his articulated mind.

        • Comment by Mary:

          That explanation, indeed, is even older:

          When I left the politicians, I went to the poets; tragic, dithyrambic, and all sorts. And there, I said to myself, you will be detected; now you will find out that you are more ignorant than they are. Accordingly, I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them – thinking that they would teach me something. Will you believe me? I am almost ashamed to speak of this, but still I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. That showed me in an instant that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them. And the poets appeared to me to be much in the same case; and I further observed that upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise. So I departed, conceiving myself to be superior to them for the same reason that I was superior to the politicians.

          However, I have once too often discovered a writer’s true views, forthrightly stated, made their fiction unreadable because I could see the finger on the scales.

        • Comment by Tom Simon:

          Some of the psychologists studying the creative process make a similar distinction. They speak of the ‘open mode’, in which creative activity occurs, and the ‘closed mode’, which is analytical, critical, and basically ignores anything that it hasn’t got the tools to deal with rationally.

          The trouble with these people is that the only work they seem to do in the open mode is their creative work; the rest of the time they are in the closed mode. And the closed mode depends on things like the rules of logic, which have to be learnt. A modern Leftist in the closed mode has shut off access to his genuine feelings, which might be noble and redeeming, or at any rate mitigate the nonsense demanded by his philosophy. What’s worse, he has never been taught how to reason correctly or even how to appreciate reason. So he spends his time in the closed mode mucking about in a plodding way, ‘reasoning’ from the rules of his ideology to determine how he ought to feel about an issue, instead of consulting his whole self to find out how he actually does feel. Then he tries to discipline himself by sheer willpower into feeling what he believes he ought to feel.

  4. Comment by MissJean:

    Well, Mr. Wright, as often happens, your commentary on a debate is often deeper and more elucidating than the debate’s “arguments.” I read the comments on VanderWorld and Mr. Bakker wrote this, “I call anything that involves relations of power between individuals and groups ‘political,’ and I think it’s clear that such relations permeate all social interrelationships. I also think that Art and Truth are social through and through. Are you suggesting otherwise?”

    I’m amused that my attempts to get the visiting godchildren to bed at a reasonable hour counts as “politics.” I had no idea that being a godmother meant I was some sort of queen subjugating the Ninnyhammers, nor that the kindly people (both male and female) who’ve held doors for me because I’m clearly injured were engaging in politics – no doubt a display of power to prevent me from warring with them in the post office and the public library!

    As for his comment on Art and Truth, here’s a rhetorical question: If an artist paints in a forest and there’s no audience, is it art? Neither creativity nor inspiration in and of themselves are social constructs; ergo, self-expression itself can be art. When I come across drawings and poetry (or more often, lyrics) hidden inside a messy student’s binder, it doesn’t become “art” because it has been (inadvertently) shared with “society.” Similarly, a single person can recognize Truth even if the rest of society refuses to acknowledge it. To reduce Truth to a social construct is to say that it’s determined by popular vote.

    • Comment by Stephen J.:

      “Mr. Bakker wrote this, ‘I call anything that involves relations of power between individuals and groups “political,” and I think it’s clear that such relations permeate all social interrelationships. I also think that Art and Truth are social through and through. Are you suggesting otherwise?’

      I’m amused that my attempts to get the visiting godchildren to bed at a reasonable hour counts as ‘politics’.”

      Well, if “politics” is defined as broadly as Bakker claims, then yes, anything involving relations between people — including your godparenting — is “political”, barring some hypothetical perfect balance or absence of comparative power. But quite frankly if a definition is so broad that nothing of any significance is excluded from it, then it becomes useless as a (pardon my pun) term of art.

      More to the point, it becomes, like Howard Bloom’s theory of influence, an unfalsifiable criticism. If all art about human interaction is political by virtue of simply being about human interaction, and the only question is how consciously deliberate, specific or explicit the artist’s activism is, then as Mr. Wright notes, any work can be unfalsifiably described as advancing (or fighting) a political agenda. I have always had a deep loathing for this kind of heads-I-win-tails-you-lose advocacy, when I encounter it anywhere outside a joke.

  5. Comment by Raphael:

    I confess to never having liked the phrase “art for art’s sake.” It gives me bad memories of the dull formlessness set before me in my art-school days. But taking it as it’s clearly intended by Mr. VanderMeer, I don’t see why a work can’t be both “political” and “art for art’s sake.”

    Take painting. To me the artist seems like a green herb with his roots thrust deep in the world around him. He takes up all sorts of things, in various senses – color and form, pigments and binder and ground, the appearance of material objects, themes, subject-matter, emotions – and draws them along the pith of his stem, transmuting them, producing in the end an airy crown waving to heaven, a blossom of beauty and grace. The things absorbed are the matter. The unity of the crown, the work produced, is the form.

    Or again, sometimes you can tell a great deal about what an organism eats from its appearance. Flamingos, they say, are pink because they eat so much shrimp. But who would say that flamingos are shrimp?

    Matter and form can’t be divorced from one another, but neither are they identical, not unless all thought is meaningless. Political philosophies, themes, messages, etc., are related to the work itself, if it be a work of art, as matter to form. The form is what determines that this particular thing (a story) belongs to this class of objects (works of art). We are speaking here of objects intended for their own sake and not for their utility, and beauty is the distinguishing mark.

    If the unity of a work owes to its message, then we are looking at propaganda, not art, just as the picture of a nose in a medical textbook is a technical illustration, not a painting. This isn’t to say that a fairy story can’t have a message, any more than to say that a painting can’t have a nose. But if it’s to be regarded as art, then its unifying end must not be communication or illustration or expression.

    Beauty is truth, and truth beauty, but the beauty of truth is not the truth of beauty. The artist, the poet, the fantasist pursue the latter rather than the former, much to the disillusionment of the logicians, mathematicians, and philosophers among us. But in the end all shall be reconciled.

  6. Comment by Pastor:


    do you suppose one can distinguish between political activism and political implication in a story? The Lord of the Rings is not, perhaps, *about* politics, but Tolkien’s views on (say) the toxic effects of socialism and tyranny come through pretty clearly. Likewise (to take an example at random) Awake in the Night Land critiques a philosophy that resembles to an extent modern Progressivism (by putting it into the mouth of a character we are meant to disagree with). Are these not, at least, political elements in fantasy stories? Do you call these stories exceptions, or is your point merely that these elements are tangential to the essential narrative?

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Define your terms. If, by political implication, we mean anything and everything that reminds of a political topic, as with the examples of the One Ring in Tolkien or the ‘New Learning’ in Awake in the Night, then anything and everything is political. If we mean something meant by the writer and understood by the reader to be an implication of advocacy for a specific party, policy, or polity regarding the laws and customs of the state, neither is political.

      If politics is god, then everything is politics. If God is god, then only stories meant to be read as disguised political tracts are politics, as, for example, ATLAS SHRUGGED or STARSHIP TROOPERS. Does anything in Middle Earth or the Night Land remind you of those works?

  7. Comment by Pastor:

    I would be the last person in the world to argue that “everything is politics”, and I’m pretty sure that God is God. I also grant that most stories do not seem to be intended to advocate for specific political positions in the manner of Voltaire or Rand. There is a difference between a story and a tract.

    But I also think that reality is coherent, and thus the assumptions that subtend a particular narrative not only “remind” me of particular political and philosophical points of view, as if I were simply possessed by an idee fixe, but seem actively to imply it. Tolkien’s story is no tract, and yet it has a politics, a philosophy, an anthropology… To the extent that he is a successful creative artist, these things line up well together, as they do in the world God made, and I don’t see the harm in pointing out and talking about different aspects of the universe his tale implies.

    Really, what I fail to understand is the need for a hard distinction, as if stories could either be political, or not. Cannot politics and religion and philosophy be elements of a story without that story being reduced to propaganda?

    • Comment by Tom Simon:

      Cannot politics and religion and philosophy be elements of a story without that story being reduced to propaganda?

      According to Bakker, NO. He is a political monist; to him, everything is reducible to politics, including truth itself – which is equivalent to saying that there is no truth, only political propaganda. According to anyone with a sane theory of art, however, it is exactly as you say.

      The important thing to remember is that folk like Bakker have a diseased view of politics, which amounts to idolatry. Recall the proverb about the man who has only a hammer. The political idolater believes that it is morally wrong to have any other tool but politics. ‘I am the Hammer thy God,’ his hammer tells him, ‘and thou shalt treat every other thing under the sun as a nail.’

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Cannot politics and religion and philosophy be elements of a story without that story being reduced to propaganda?

      Interesting question. My answer is here: http://www.scifiwright.com/2014/06/a-comment-on-political-activism-in-fairy-stories/

  8. Comment by robertjwizard:

    Bakker is certainly true to his spoken convictions in his books. I attempted to read his Prince of Nothing series years ago and every facet of it was political. I can’t recall any specific political views; if one could be drawn, it would be “politics is all”. It was the usual political intrigue stuff on the premise that everyone has a dagger behind their back.

    The only thing that wasn’t directly political was a miserable little monk-like fellow who kept “falling” between the thighs of prostitutes and various loose women. Although he was on what was ultimately a political mission, so I suppose, ultimately (if I had read far enough), those thighs were of political import as well.

    If you like your tales with no trace of virtue or heroism, he is definitely an author to pursue.

    • Comment by MissJean:

      Refresh my memory, please. Was that the book so clearly based on the first (and perhaps third) Crusade that the bad guy was a charismatic pope-like figure?

      • Comment by R.Carter:

        It borrows VERY heavily from the First Crusade to define the overarching story line. The “good guy” is essentially the ubermensch who sort of fills the role of Bohemund of Taranto but moreso. He conducts himself as a villain in many situations, using those around him to his own ends and then discarding them, but he is technically the protagonist. The antagonists are servants of an ancient and alien evil seeking to permanently sever the material world from the supernatural in order to save their souls from damnation (and they actually figure into the Prince of Nothing Trilogy very little).

        Please note, pretty much everything robertjwizard said is also true, although as the trilogy nears its end I would say that there are a handful of moments which highlight brief flashes of what passes for heroism by Bakker’s standards.

        The Prince of Nothing is a pretty brutal read. The Aspect-Emperor Trilogy actually moves away from some of that and has a character who is genuinely good. Bakker is clearly writing this character specifically to appeal to his audience, giving them someone they can actually root for, but it is a nice change of pace.

      • Comment by robertjwizard:

        You’ll have to rely on R. Carter’s recollection below. It was several years ago and I probably only got 200 pages or so into the book. All I remember is the monk figure traveling around getting laid and some insipid leader and his wicked (and incestuous?) mother.

        I have a real low threshold for the antihero approach to characterization.

    Leave a Reply