On Fantasy

Clark Ashton Smith

We have been told that literature dealing with the imaginative and fantastic is out of favour among the Intellectuals, whoever they are. Only the Real, whatever that is or may be, is admissible for treatment; and writers must confine themselves to themes well within the range of statisticians, lightning calculators, Freud and Kraft-Ebbing, the Hearst and McFadden publications, NRA, and mail-order catalogues. Chimeras are no longer the mode, the infinite has been abolished; mystery is obsolete, and sphinx and medusa are toys for children. The weird and the unearthly are outlawed, and all mundane impossibilities (which, it may be, are the commonplaces of the Pleinds) have been banished to some limbo of literalistic derision. One may write of horses and hippopotomi but not of hippogriffs; of biographers, but not of ghouls; of slum-harlots or the hetairae of Nob Hill but not of succubi. In short, all pipe-dreams, all fantasies not authorized by Freudianism, by sociology, and the five senses, are due for the critical horse-laugh, when, through ignorance, effrontery, or preference, they find a place in the subject matter of some author unlucky enough to have been born into the age of Jeffers, Hemingway, and Joyce.

Let us examine these amazing dicta, fathered, as they must be, by people whose literal-mindedness can be surpassed only by that of their "four-footed betters." Surely it is axiomatic that in thought or art we deal not with things themselves, but with concepts of things. One may write, like Villon, of Muelde Meg and the Fair Helm-Maker; or, like Sterling, evoke Lilith and the blue-eyed vampire: in either case, only figments of the poet's mind are presented. It is for the creator, not the critic, to choose that image or symbol which suits him best. People who cannot endure anything with a tinge of trope or fantasy, should confine their reading to the census-returns. There, if anywhere, they will find themselves on safe ground.

To touch on other considerations: why this thirst for literalism, for nothing but direct anthropological data, which would proscribe the infinitudes of imagination, would bar all that can lift us, even in thought, above the interests of the individual or the species? Does it not imply a cosmic provincialism, an overweening racial egomania?

Indeed, if all things fantastic or impossible are to be barred as literary subject-matter, where is one to draw the line? Many thinkers who lived before Freud, and some who live contemporaneously with him, have maintained that the world itself is a fantasy; or, in De Casseres' phrase, a "superstition of the senses." Gautier has pointed out that we live only by illusion, by a process of seeing ourselves and all things as they are not. The animals alone, being without imagination, have no escape from reality. From paretic to psychoanalyst, from poet to rag-picker, we are all in flight from the real. Truth is what we desire it to be, and the facts of life are a masquerade in which we imagine that we have identified the maskers. The highest intellects have always delighted in poetic fancy and philosophic paradox, knowing well that the universe itself is multiform fantasy and paradox, and that everything perceived or conceived as actuality is merely one phase of that which has or may have innumerable aspects. In this phantom whirl of the infinite, among these veils of Maya that are sevenfold behind sevenfold, nothing is too absurd, too lovely, or dreadful to be impossible.

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