This piece is reposted from my old blog, The Thing Itself.
“The anthropologists got it wrong when they named our species Homo Sapiens (‘wise man’). In any case it’s an arrogant and bigheaded thing to say, wisdom being one of our least evident features. In reality, we are Pan Narrans, the storytelling chimpanzee.”
I’ve always enjoyed science fiction and fantasy, even if I don’t get as involved in things like fandom* as I did as an overly-earnest teenager. Nowadays, when I’m nowhere near as much of a reader as a used to be (and when I spend the majority of reading time on trashy crime novels** about murdered girls – your fave is problematic) I tend to get my fantasy fix through gaming, logging more Skyrim hours per week than I’m willing to confess to in a public post.
But sometimes when I’m getting immersed in fantasy worlds, being emotionally invested in fictional characters, or fixating on small aspects of world-building and mythology, I can’t help but be overwhelmed by a sense of pointlessness. Even standard fiction does this to me at times. What is the point in spending so much of your real life thinking about pretend lives? Why is it easier to cry at a wizard dying because of a magical contract than it is to cry at wars on the news, or at the small unfairnesses of life?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and for me it boils down to this:
We obsess over fiction as teenagers, because when you’re a teenager, your life feels too small for your feelings. How can you deserve to be unhappy when all you do is tromp off to school and eat Lunchables? How can there be true pathos in a world with itchy red jumpers and kneesocks?
Being presented with universes in which whole worlds are at stake, or historical scenarios where glamorous women die of broken hearts and curses, gives us a larger landscape onto which we can project our free-floating feelings. You remember how intensely you felt sadness, or happiness, when you were younger? It’s too much for a life in which your greatest external danger is a Bunsen burner. And I’d argue that the same goes for adults.
In the words of Alan Bennett, life is a “long littleness”. For the most part, nothing of note happens most of the time. This isn’t as dreary as it sounds, but it does mean that sometimes you’re going to feel things that need a conduit. As someone who is Clinically Sad, I appreciate having films that help me tap into a sense of universal sadness when I need to channel my baseless emotions. I like to see happiness and misery on an epic scale because it helps me contextualize my own extremity. Obviously this is different for everyone.
But I’d argue that fiction helps us use the bits of ourselves that we don’t get to use in our daily lives. The bits that feel too much, or feel things that are wrong and bad. It helps us to exercise the abilities of feeling that reside, potentially unused, in all of us, and to maybe even finetune our abilities to understand the feelings of others.
If my brainsick interested you at all, you can read much better people saying much better things about this at the links below:
*post about fandom coming soon!
**post about trashy crime novels also coming soon!