ETA: I don’t hold many of these opinions anymore–I cannot, in all seriousness, call myself a postmodernist (and I wasn’t much of one even back then). However, I still think the below article is interesting enough to leave online, and it addresses some issues that are worth further exploration. – November 2013
For a long time, I considered myself an adversary of postmodernism. Mostly, I think, because the word and ideology got obscured with overuse, appropriated by the sorts of people who wear scarves in the summer and tartan-patterned berets. Postmodernism and pseudo-intellectualism seem to go hand in hand. It is only quite slowly that I came to realize, much to my own horror, that I am a postmodernist, both in my approach to history, and in my views on fiction.
Fantasy often gets unfairly labelled as reactionary, conservative, and nostalgic. For my own part, fantasy seemed a means to wind back the clock to a time before the world went wrong and settled on the road to modernity. What I’ve come to realize is that fantasy, in fact, does no such thing. Rather, it recasts our own world, reworks the here and now, through the process of re-enchantment.
To understand re-enchantment, we need to look at what postmodernism reacts against, namely, the dis-enchantment of modernism, the attempt to boil the world down into a set of universal truths. The hard structures of the social sciences often tried to do this: empirical history in the style of Leopold von Ranke (who went as far as to name it “scientific” history), the historio-economic base/superstructure interactions of Marxism, the application of Freudian psychoanalyst tools towards literary theory, all an effort to explain the world according to some rational (or at least consistent) underlying framework. Modernism struck away mysticism by providing explanations; Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1976) is an extreme example, where magical tales all became expressions of repressed sexuality. Narratives were not something to be enjoyed, but rather, something to be explained.
Poststructuralism and postmodernism reject the search for universal truth, instead pointing to a plethora of truths, and hence a multiplicity in meaning and reaction represented by the story. Polish Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman provides the best explanation:
Above all, postmodernity can be seen as restoring to the world what modernity had so presumptuously taken away; as a re-enchantment of the world that modernity had tried hard to dis-enchant. […] The war against mystery and magic was for modernity the war of liberation leading to the declaration of reason’s independence. […] At stake in the war was the right to initiative and authorship of action, the right to pronounce on meanings, to construe narratives. To win the stakes, to win all of them and to win them for good, the world had to be de-spiritualized, de-animated: denied the capacity of the subject. […] It is against such a disenchanted world that the postmodern re-enchantment is aimed. (Intimations of Postmodernity x-xi)
Fantasy is a reaction to the modernist “taint” on literature, when a story could no longer just be a story to be taken seriously, it needed to express some sort of meaning. Some sort of truth. Walter Benjamin recognized this when he noted “The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out,” and “ [t]he earliest symptom of a process whose end is the decline of storytelling is the rise of the novel at the beginning of modern times,” (“The Storyteller” 3).
Patrick Curry, in “Tolkien and his Critics: A Critique,” makes the (seemingly) unlikely connection between The Lord of the Rings and the rise of postmodernism. In his view, The Lord of the Rings is not only an anti-modernist text, but “a coherent fictional critique and alternative…to the exhausted myth of modernity” (21), achieving postmodernist ends in a way effectively superior to the works of self-identified postmodernist authors such as John Fowles. Since “postmodernism has also restored the crucial importance of narrative, the way by which we produce and find meaning…the tedious authorial reminders of textual artificiality…often identified with postmodernity are actually a ritualistic and compromisingly modernist attempt at demystification” (27). Fantasy does not do this, rather presents an impossible narrative with complete sincerity. By doing so, fantasy creates a true sense of wonder in the reader, sweeping them along the narrative through an alternative, mystic version of reality. In this manner, fantasy brings back the “epic side of truth and wisdom” Benjamin wrote we had lost. Stories, once again, could be stories told without bounds, without need for any core truth. That, in essence, is the process of re-enchantment: creating narratives that bring a sense of mystery and wonder to the world around us, the same mystery and wonder modernity has (unsuccessfully) attempted to quash.
The grand narratives of modernity have, over the past century, been broken. The attempt “to supply essentially complete accounts of our progress towards the realisation of the truth” has led to “too many broken promises, and too many terrible ‘successes’” (Curry 20). The critical sneer at fantasy comes from the same source as attacks on postmodernity, because it represents a threat to the rationalist world we tried so hard to create, because it reveals an uncomfortable “truth”: that our great modernist project has failed.
Yet, just like the urge “postmodernist” writers have of pointing towards the artificiality of their texts, we also find some fantasy writers feeling the need to de-mystify their own, to dis-enchant fantasy, and to rely on the same tired argument of childlike fantasy against realist modernity. They rely on the same “modernist dread of being thought infantile” (Curry 18), and feel the need to “deconstruct” fantasy, to make it more adult—but adult, in this construction, means modernist.
China Mieville makes his outspoken statements against Tolkien because Tolkien did not adhere to the structuralism inherent in Marxism, and thus paints Tolkien as backwards-looking (once more, giving the illusion of a history that marches on, that lives necessarily improve with time). Yet Mieville understands that the creation of a “ systematic secondary world” such as Middle Earth “allows for a unique and – at least potentially – uniquely engaged kind of reading. Readers can inhabit these worlds, and become collaborators in the process of constantly creating them” (“Tolkien – Middle Earth Meets Middle England”); this is the “storytelling” Benjamin spoke of, the ability for the reader (or the listener) to participate in the narrative instead of remaining bound to it. What Mieville describes is often labelled by modernists “escapism”, that ability to take part in the narrative. However:
Tolkien and his admirers (many of them leftists) gave his escapism an emancipatory gloss, claiming that jailers hate escapism. As the great anarchist fantasist Michael Moorcock has pointed out, this is precisely untrue. Jailers love escapism. What they hate is escape. (Mieville)*
I can only assume Mieville works under a different definition of escapism than that espoused by most modernist critics of fantasy. Compare the above to Kenneth Burke, who noted “people have gone on too long with the glib psychoanalytic assumption that an art of ‘escape’ promotes acquiescence. It may, as easily, assist a reader to clarify his dislike of an environment in which he is placed” (Counter-Statement 119). Or, as Tolkien wrote himself, “[w]hy should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?” (“On Fairy-Stories” 20). Is the second example, then, escapism? The jarring nature of Mieville’s argument appears in his own works: on one hand, fantasy, mysticism, re-enchantment, on the other, the need to connect to “real world” class issues, sacrificing narrative for attempts to reveal “truth”: disenchantment by Marxist structuralism.
We can be thankful that the disenchantment of fantasy never quite succeeds, because disenchanting fantasy is such a contradiction of terms. Fantasy, as a form of literature, is perhaps the greatest literary expression of postmodernism, both in its popularity, and in its power. Imaginative literature has become a dominant literary form in tune with the rise of postmodern thought, spanning a wide range of works from the magic realism of Salmon Rushdie to the earlier heroic fantasy of Robert E. Howard to the high fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien; all took part in the process of re-enchantment. That many postmodernist academics would rather not recognize this, and many would-be fantasy authors as well, is another matter entirely.
*I find this comment amusing when, in 1943, Tolkien wrote “[m]y political opinions lean more and more towards Anarchy (philosophically speaking, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)…I would arrest anyone who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind”)” – I’m not sure what Michael Moorcock’s reaction would be to Tolkien calling himself an anarchist, and it’s not an idea easily entertained in Moorcock’s essay “Epic Pooh.”
“The Uses of Re-enchantment: Fantasy and Postmodernism” by Michal Wojcik is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.