1/13/10

Goya on Fantasy


"Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels."

-Francisco Goya, Epigraph to "Caprichos 43"

I was reminded of this reading Anthony Storr's Solitude (where it is quoted). From Storr:

"In the field of science... there are two kinds of fantasy [he is speaking of hypotheses, which are a variety of fantasy, as he has it]. The first reaches out to the external world, and, by maintaining a connection with that world which corresponds to its real workings, becomes a fruitful hypothesis. The second, making no such connection with the external world, is ultimately dismissed as a delusion.

"These two kinds of fantasy can also be distinguished in the arts. When a great writer like Tolstoy uses his imagination to tell a story and to invent characters which both deeply move us and which become immortal, we rightly suppose that his fantasies are connected with external reality and illuminating that reality for us. On the other hand, we recognize that the fantasies of lesser writers, perhaps manifesting themselves as 'thrillers' or 'romantic' novels, have little to do with the real world and may, indeed, be no more than an attempt to escape from it."

But Goya's epigraph has fantasy allied to reason, not the "external world," and is therefore a much clearer (and more expansive, and for that reason, better) criterion for distinguishing between the "great" and the "lesser." This "external world" is as much a "fantasy," as Storr has already himself defined it, as his "escape[s]" would be. The only merit specific to this "external world" is that it is supposedly reproducible ("verifiable," another fantasy) by more prosaic minds.

It is when the fantasy coincides with reason, with our inner state, however vague that may be, that we perceive something as "true" or "great," scientific truths no less than aesthetic ones.

Susan Sontag summarizing Claude Levi-Strauss:
"Myths are not descriptions but rather models for description (or thinking)-- according to the formula of Levi-Strauss logical techniques for resolving basic antinomies in thought and social existence. And the converse is also true: all explanatory models for fundamental states of affairs, whether sophisticated or primitive, are myths."