Friday, May 5, 2017

The Taxonomy of Dreams

A man steps out from around the corner. He is tall and thin, with wiry red hair and a face you won't remember, and he is not your father. You know you have to run. And so you run...

I no longer remember how old I was when I dreamed of the red-haired man. In the uncounted years since, I have almost never remembered my dreams. When I do, it seems that I am always running from something, some malevolent, consumptive force. The pursuer is always different, but also always the same. He—delights in sending me through doors, into boxes. Like a shadow, it nips at my heels.

Fantasy is the taxonomy of dreams. It is what they become when they have been pinned down. Like a butterfly stuck to a board, a dream that has been fixed in words is dead, for it can no longer move. Like a butterfly stuck to a board, it can still be beautiful. But how much more beautiful would be the living butterfly?

Ursula LeGuin instinctively knows—or perhaps has remembered from childhood—the interrelation of fantasy and dreams, as all fantasists who are not hacks must, I think, at some level. She acknowledges as much in her essay 'The Child and the Shadow:' "The great fantasies, myths and tales are indeed like dreams: they speak from the unconscious to the unconscious, in the language of the unconscious—symbol and archetype." Until the very end, this quotation is, I believe, fundamentally true, and the world would perhaps be a better—or at least more well-lettered—place if more aspiring fantasists took them to heart. At that third to last word, however, 'symbol,' I must object. At best, it is imprecise diction, beneath what I would expect of LeGuin, and at worst it betrays a deep inconsistency in her argument.

The concept of 'symbol' is alien to dreams. It is less alien to fantasy, but even there, it only rode language's coattails in. The issue is that a symbol, as a matter of definition, must have a referent. Even those symbols which are thought of as being without referent are in truth merely ciphers, for which the referent has been obscured and hidden—a referent has existed, even if it no longer does, and in theory could exist once more. Dreamstuff, by contrast, if we consider it as a thing in itself—which we must, for fantasy to have value—has no referent. As LeGuin herself points out in reference to the archetypal shadow, the things we dream do not signify singly. Rather, each points to a multitude of contradictory concepts—"sister, brother, friend, beast, monster, enemy, guide." This is not a unique feature of dreamstuff, but applies equally to anything which could be considered 'real.'

In the corner of my room, near my laundry basket, sits a half-empty bottle of detergent. Does it symbolize cleanliness? One could say yes, because I clean with it. Does it symbolize dirtiness? One could say yes, because I dumped it haphazardly in the corner. Does it symbolize capitalism, science, history, the decline of morals, post-WWII American imperialism, Jesus on the Cross, the condition of humanity writ large? One could say yes, because one could say anything, really. The bottle of laundry detergent is not a symbol. It is a bottle of laundry detergent. I can create a symbol to overlay the bottle of detergent, but the symbol would not be the bottle. It would be my own creation, and were it removed, the bottle would still exist, in all of its infinite dimensions. So too with dreams, and thus with fantasy.

This is where the problem comes into LeGuin's argument. The butterfly, of course, is already on the board, and it will not get any more dead. However, as LeGuin continues to put pins into it, it becomes hard to see the pattern on its wings. She knows that this is a problem, and writes that she believes that some lesser fantasies "force reason to lead where reason cannot go," but even as she does so she is committing the same fault. Consider her reading of The Lord of the Rings. She draws a number of parallels within the story, linking characters and groups to their supposed shadows: "Against the Elves, the Orcs. Against Aragorn, the Black Rider. Against Gandalf, Saruman. And above all, against Frodo, Gollum." LeGuin argues that while these dualisms may appear simple by what she calls "daylight ethics," they should instead be taken as part of a "psychic journey," whatever that means. In doing so, however, she ignores the fact that all of the things she has named are things in and of themselves, no less so than the detergent bottle, despite being fictional. We do not see Aragorn as a great man because he opposes the Black Rider—with whom, other than the fact that they are both kings, I see little connection—but because he doubts himself and yet presses on as best he knows how. We do not love Gandalf merely because he stands against Saruman, but because he refuses tyranny and keeps his faith in the power of small acts of goodness; we love him because he resists becoming Saruman, and we could love him for that reason without ever having seen Saruman in the flesh. Even Frodo's slow fall to the temptation of the Ring happens in his own person, and while Gollum's existence enhances the savor of it, it is not essential. Of the examples she cited, the only one that I think truly gives LeGuin a case is that of the Orcs and the Elves. There, if anything, the fault is Tolkien's own, for making it too easy to draw lines between the two. We—and also the characters in the story—have the luxury of saying, "That is not an Elf. That is an Orc," ignoring the ugly fact that, though twisted horribly, Orcs are Elves, and thereby allowing the latter to remain, if not untarnished, then at least flawed in only beautiful and poetic ways. In any case, Aragorn's 'shadow' is not the Black Rider, but Aragorn, just as Gandalf is Gandalf's, Frodo is Frodo's, and the Elves, ultimately, are the Elves'. By positing their darkness as existing in forms external to themselves, LeGuin in fact engenders the very simplicity she attempts to argue against.

Fantasy can never be pure dream. Dreams are in constant motion, and to write a dream is to bind and thus to kill it. If the dreams cannot be alive, however, that does not mean that they cannot be real—not parables, not simulacra, but things in themselves, bursting with greater complexity than the conscious mind can conceive or hold. Fantasy can still be a thing in itself, as can everything in it, and it must be considered as such. It is not language, for language merely calls to it. It is not symbol, for it is that which precedes symbol. It is, for it is, and to reduce it is to reduce the world. It is not a coincidence that bad fantasy has a strong association with fascism. Consider Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream. An alternate history novel, The Iron Dream posits a world in which Adolf Hitler, instead of becoming Chancellor of Germany, moved to America and became a pulp fiction writer. His science-fantasy novel Lord of the Swastika is presented metafictionally throughout the text. Upon The Iron Dream's publication, many fantasy and science fiction readers wrote to Spinrad expressing their admiration for the novel-within-a-novel, not as a work of satire, but as a book in its own right, despite its bad prose and its thinly-veiled Nazism. The continuance of this trend in contemporary fantasy readership can be observed in the case of Vox Day and his Rabid Puppies organization, the faux-populist awards show trolls. Notably, the increasing complexity and 'thing in itself'-ness of modern fantasy rates highly among their complaints, though not in those precise terms.

These things matter, not only on the page but off it. While LeGuin is a good enough writer to avoid falling into the trap she's laid herself here, in this case her criticism is dangerously lacking. In fantasy, as in life, you will not find your shadow displaced into some convenient other, for it is the nature of shadows is to always be there when you look down, attached to you by the feet. That is what LeGuin misses. In the story of the child and the shadow, the shadow does leave and take on a character and history of its own, but then it returns home. In the end, the shadow always comes home.

You do not know how long you have been running. Time is illusory. Every step, he's been behind you. Sometimes, you haven't seen him, but he has been there. He does not draw closer. He is waiting. Why can't you remember his face?

You run up your home street, towards your driveway, and he is there, in front of you. You did not see him arrive. He is holding a box precisely large enough to fit your head. He throws it to the ground, and the top opens. Three black dogs emerge. The man who is not your father stands back as the shadow dogs lunge at you, and as they drag you into the darkness of the box, he looks on with approval.

—Nathaniel Eakman


  1. I think you mean taxidermy. I agree with your criticism of fantasy as symbol, even though I like LeGuin's reading of the shadow characters. But it is symbolic readings of fantasy, not fantasy that is the problem, so I am not convinced that fantasy is the taxidermy of dreams--maybe better, fantasy is a waking dream? RLFB

    1. No, taxonomy was the word I meant; I think that's part of where you're coming from with this comment. If you've ever seen a taxonomic collection of butterflies, that's what I'm alluding to in this piece. If not, there's a very lovely picture here at []. I wouldn't necessarily say that fantasy having a taxonomical function is a problem; taxidermy is simply the preservation of a dead thing, but taxonomy is a kind of classification, which can be valuable or even necessary to understanding the thing in question, but at the same time limits its possibilities. That, I think, is what fantasy does to dreams, and like a butterfly in a taxonomic collection, a dream must be dead before it can be properly catalogued.