It was the first week of the semester and my roommate using his last few moments of freedom from deadlines to play video games. One of the installments of Final Fantasy, specifically. It was a gorgeous game, perhaps using every ounce of the graphic card in the cutting edge console. The in-game architecture stood stretched toward the sky, a sky that had luminescence of the ocean at sunrise, as the idealized-human avatars battled their way through a series of foes, one bad guy popping up at least every minute. Although I personally had never played any of the fourteen games in the Final Fantasy series, I remember sitting mesmerized as I watched my roommate tromp through a world that was at once beautiful and hostile, believable yet impossible.
When asked if I wanted to start a file of my own, I compared the seriousness of my syllabus to the frivolousness of this fantasy. I immediately declined.
I laugh in the face of escapists. “Afraid of a little reality, are ya?”
As a teenager, I did not indulge in science fiction nor fantasy. My primetime entertainment diet consisted of reality TV competitions, the evening news and the occasional sitcom. I made it through Book 3 of the Harry Potter series before I got bored of the tantalizing sensation of imagining myself as a fly-on-the-wall pupil at Hogwarts Academy.
The summer of 2007, the one before my senior year, I read Don Quixote, a 17th-century novel about a man, Alonso Quijano, who reads so many romantic novels on chivalry that he falls in love with the idea of becoming a knight himself. This fantasy transforms the way he sees the entire world, so that his tired and skinny work horse becomes the wonderful steed “Rociante”, the common farm girl Aldonza Lorenzo becomes (albeit not to her knowledge) his destined love “Dulcinea del Toboso”, some innocent windmills become hostile hulking giants, and Alonso Quijano himself becomes “Don Quixote of La Mancha”.
It is one of the few books I can remember laughing at. Impressive, of course, seeing as the humor had to survive not only translation into English, but centuries of historical and cultural change.
That same summer, I was in Chicago for the first time. I was on a experiential learning trip where I was being exposed to all sorts of social issues, issues like gentrification and mass incarceration. Our group visited sites like Cabrini-Green and the Cook County Department of Corrections.
That same week was the U.S. premiere of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. While my friends back in Oregon donned their wizard garb and lined up for the midnight showing, I may have silently laughed from the pedestal of my nitty-gritty reality. “What a bunch of modern day Don Quixotes.”
The world is a beautiful and broken place. We might not be able to define things like love, joy and peace, but we do experience them from time to time, and certainly we know when these things are lacking. There seems to be a simple goodness in the complexity of life, even if it only teases a great many of us.
Because the world is beautiful, why would we want to be anywhere else then here?
Because the world is broken, what could be more important than trying to fix it?
Why in the world would we want to escape into the impossibility of fantasy?
The image of my college roommate playing through Final Fantasy burned itself on my mind. Scenes of the game would be on mental replay throughout the entire semester and the next. What I thought was a mere diversion for him had spawned a whole set of questions for me.
This particular roommate may have been a video game enthusiast, but he was able to put the controller down and enjoy life as it was. There seemed to be nothing of real-world evil in his time spent fighting the forces of evil. Even if most of the characters in the game were astonishingly physically attractive and would qualify as a sexy date for any of us mere mortals, I do not think my roommate was playing in order to succumb to lust. If anything, his hours spent in the realm of Final Fantasy seemed to reinvigorate him with a joie de vivre for the rest of his week.
What was the function of fantasy in my roommate’s life?
Why in the beautiful, broken world does fantasy exist?
Was I being too harsh on fantasy?
While I pondered these questions in the day, I had recurring dreams at night. Specifically, dreams of tunnels.
In my dreams, I would wander through the world as I normally knew it, as if I were awake. But suddenly, I would stumble upon a tunnel, perhaps in a nook or sometimes in the alleyway between two buildings. Of course, this tunnel was meant to be traveled through, even if it was only as big as a crawl space. Once I made it through the tunnel, I would find myself transported. To a party, to a puzzle, to another country.
These tunnels were not mere escapes, they were places between places. Like a wardrobe in a spare room, or Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, what I thought was lifeless was an opening to a world beyond my limited imagination.
Why could I not keep the tunnels out of my mind?
The next year, I successfully convinced my on-campus neighbor that we were working on a tunnel between the basement of her house and ours. What was a simple story turned into a faux construction project (consisting of a draped cloth on the wall, traffic cones and chalk writing cautioning “Under construction — do not touch!” She never bothered, of course, to check if such a tunnel had made it over to the dark corners of her basement. Yet, she believed in its existence, sometimes asking my perplexed roommates when they came over if they had taken the tunnel. It was only on finals week, on the cusp of receiving our college degrees, that I finally revealed to her that the whole thing was a farce.
People ask me why, as a fourteen-year-old, I gave up on Harry Potter at Book 3. The series was a literary rite of passage for my generation, and I stopped not even halfway through the tunnel.
My answer has always been: because I choose reality over fantasy. But, upon recent reflection, that answer is not the whole story.
Reading Harry Potter, I was never enchanted by the magic. Rather, what cast its spell on me was the near-adult independence these youth had. The fact Harry got to go on life-or-death adventures with his closest comrades. And, as the casting director for the movie series confirmed, Hermione seemed cute.
As a part-time youth worker, I spend a lot of time trying to understand the mental processes of fourteen-year-old boys. And, if I can crack the code of what was going on in my fourteen-year-old mind at this time, I think what led me to put Harry Potter down was because I thought I could make this fantasy world of Hogwarts my own reality. I could make my own independence. I could make my own adventures. I could find my own Hermione.
I became my own Don Quixote.
I am a curmudgeonly realist who thinks fantasy is a type of escapism which is a type of cowardice. Take the world as it is, only as it is! Fantasy fuels that capitalist insatiability for more / more / more.
My gasped logic breaks down, however, when faced against the imagination of an innocent child. A child for whom fantasy is normal. For whom, fantasy is a part of growing up.
So, the new logic becomes: hopefully, we never stop growing up. And so, hopefully, we never outgrow fantasy.
Why is the world a beautiful yet broken place? Because (and, here, I borrow from Daniel Bell Jr.), we suffer from desires that are fundamentally distorted.
We suffer from greed – the desire for the absolute.
We suffer from lust – the desire for a desire.
We suffer from pride – the self-defeating desire for the self, which ultimately is the desire for nothing at all.
I’ve undergone a paradigm shift. The way I see it, in a world such as this, fantasy is not merely a coping mechanism. Nor is it an exercise in “what-would-I-do” problem-solving, any piece of fiction or non-fiction can serve that purpose.
Rather, if I may venture an exploratory thesis, fantasy done right is a place for us to restore our desires.
What do I mean by that? Like anything with a reference to Harry Potter should be, the final installment of this series of mediations is going to have to be a two-parter. If you get impatient for “On Fantasy, Part II”, go back and check out the rest: On Notifications (!), On Questions (?), and On Decisions (/).