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:

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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.



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