Sunday, September 12, 2010

To Dream the Impossible Dream: Opening Arguments against Realism

By Claude Lalumière 

"To Dream the Impossible Dream: Opening Arguments against Realism" is a primer for "Against Realism: Hard SF, Autobiography, and Other Questionable Strategies for Writing Fiction," a longer talk that Claude will present on Saturday, 23 October 2010, at the Toronto SpecFic Colloquium.
Genteel society loves realism. That alone should be enough of a call to arms for writers -- indeed, all artists, as iconoclasts by definition -- to strive against it. Here, I will briefly introduce why I mistrust realism, and why I believe it to be an insidious distorter of human expression and lived experience.
I use "realism" in its broadest sense, to encompass not only movements such as American Realism, Naturalism, Social Realism, their legacies, and their descendents -- such as Hard SF and one of its recent subsets, the Mundanes [i]--  but all artistic expression that values the comforting verisimilitude of consensus reality over the disquieting uncertainty of truth -- although few, if any, of realism's adherents and defenders would acknowledge that such is the consequence of a realist approach to art. And by "truth" I do not mean the sophistic illusion called "objective reality" but rather that utopian, romantic, and quintessentially quixotic quest not to understand but to intuit the complex, ever-changing, and fundamentally unknowable web of life and existence of which we are part, thus embracing a sense of wonder, awe, compassion, and even terror. In essence, "to dream the impossible dream." [ii]
The rise of realism in the nineteenth century was motivated partly by "a reaction against romanticism" and "an interest in scientific method." [iii] It will come as no surprise, then, that, as a vocal detractor of realism, I am an unabashed romantic and that my profound and unshakeable atheism encompasses a mistrust of science, its dogmas, and its societal project.
Furthermore, "Purporting to be undistorted by personal bias, Realism believed in the ideology of objective reality." [iv] Although I hope that few thinkers would now explicitly or knowingly adhere to such a naive proposition, it betrays a fundamental unease that still influences and holds sway over the decidedly anti-romantic biases of genteel institutions such as English departments, university writing programs, mainstream literary awards, and literary criticism.
Our individual and collective memories are formed by storytelling, by the stories we tell ourselves and each other. These narrative memories -- about our origins, our aspirations, our defeats, our victimizations, our victories, our kinships -- are the building blocks of our sense of identity, both as individuals and as societies. States, religions, and other forms of identity-based authority notoriously mistrust art, try to dictate what art should or should not express. Such authorities maintain dominance through narratives of collective identity.
Even when it purports to have a progressive agenda, realism, which is necessarily measured against consensus reality, reinforces dominant narratives and thus the institutions validated and empowered by these narratives. Non-realist art, by its very nature, transgresses the boundaries of consensus, identity, and social order, potentially threatening the hegemony of ruling ideologies and, at a personal level, putting into question identities constructed under its aegis.
Of course, I realize there are many shades between these extremes of realism and non-realism, of comforting and transgressive, and many permutations that complicate such a simplistic dichotomy. After all, yes, non-realist art can be used as a tool to validate regressive agendas, and realism can illustrate troubling inequities. Even in such a case, a non-dominant group, too, tends to form its own micro-hegemony and tightly control transgression from its proposed worldview -- and that can include controlling the art that purports to express that group's cultural identity by demanding that it conform to its brand of realism, to its realist narratives. 
Realism, then, being by its very nature rooted in the hegemonic worldview that defines it, remains a primarily reactionary and dominating force that gnaws at the romantic and transgressive roots of so-called "genre" fictions and, more broadly, impedes the potential of individuals and communities to transcend the limits imposed by normative narratives of identity.

In the opening paragraph, I equated "artist" with "iconoclast" -- and I fully recognize my own bias in this matter. I do not consider "art" the work of so-called "artists" whose creations serve to reiterate or reinforce without question the status quo, the dominant worldview, or an entrenched societal paradigm. Art should be the vehicle on our quixotic quest for the unattainable truth. It is by nature restless. It can never be satisfied with where we are. It must forever, at any cost, propel us elsewhere -- where there be dragons. In such dangerous waters, realism can only blind us and thus imperil our survival.


Claude Lalumière is the author of the collection Objects of Worship, the Fantastic Fiction columnist for The Montreal Gazette, and the editor of eight anthologies, including the Aurora Award nominee Tesseracts Twelve: New Novellas of Canadian Fantastic Fiction. With Rupert Bottenberg, he is the co-creator of Lost Myths, which is both a live show and an online archive updated every Thursday. Claude's The Door to Lost Pages, a novella, will be released by CZP in spring 2011.
"To Dream the Impossible Dream: Opening Arguments against Realism" is a primer for "Against Realism: Hard SF, Autobiography, and Other Questionable Strategies for Writing Fiction," a longer talk that Claude will present on Saturday, 23 October 2010, at the Toronto SpecFic Colloquium

Objects of Worship
by Claude Lalumière

Twelve strange, eerie, sensual stories by a bold new voice in weird fiction. Capricious gods rule a world of women. Zombies breed human cattle. The son of a superhero must decide between his heritage and his religion. Young lovers worship a primordial spider god. The apocalyptic rebirth of the god of the elephants. Monstrous chimeras roam through a devastated future Earth. A retired fisherman caught in the middle of a conflict between gods and superheroes. Teenagers struggle to survive a surreal ice age . . .

[ii] "The Impossible Dream," from Man of La Mancha (1972), lyrics by Joe Darion, music by Mitch Leigh.
[iii] Donna M. Campbell,"Realism in American Literature, 1860-1890,"
[iv] "Realism (Arts),"

1 comment:

  1. It would be nice to follow you to Toronto in attendance for this intriguing existential discourse!