Fantasies of Times, Places, and People

I used to have fantasies of other times.   For example, I used to read Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music”.  In it the German philosopher describes archaic Greece as a dawn time or morning world when people had a unified culture and where they understood the metaphysical role of tragic art in transmuting existence.  Later in my life I had fantasies about the Brooklyn of my father’s boyhood (the 1930s) and imagined there was an informal toughness informing the deeds of men, and an unrefined poetry to the life of the streets of New York’s youth.   When I was a (nearly) orthodox Jew I imagined in the past the lures of an overly cognitive engagement with reality had not caused human beings to fall into self-made prisons of narcissistic thought.   In that time — when was it exactly?  the Chassidic communities of the nineteenth century?  the middle ages in Safed?  Roman Palestine? biblical Judaea? — man did not need to think but dwelled in un-self-conscious dialogue with the absolute.

I had fantasies of other times and places when power, and unselfconsciousness, and spontaneity and honest emotion reigned.

Sometimes I had fantasies of other people too:  a Hindu mystic, a girlfriend, a teacher, a rabbi.  I imagined they were better, more authentic, purer, more in touch with their mojo, more rhythmic, more musical, less neurotic.

All these fantasies as it turned out were complete bullshit.  Let’s start with Nietzsche’s archaic Athens.   Archaic Athens was a society riven by class warfare, where manipulative cliques lied about what they were doing, ripped each other off and used religion mythology and art as weapons for social control.  The New York of my father’s youth was as neurotic as the New York of my youth.  Roman Palestine was a time when a society reeled under post-traumatic stress; the Judaea of the Bible an ancient kingdom as full of bloodshed and petty politics as any other.

Yet if I was able to fantasize about spontaneity, grace, emotional depth, informality, earthiness, beauty, primal mystery and honest human relationships I must have had them somewhere.  Somewhere inside me they lived as an unacknowledged fragment.  I was unable to pay the price in self-knowledge for these goodies so I saw them in magic places, magic times, and magic people.

The only magic is here.   For me that’s the best place for it, because it’s where I’m typing this.  As for other people I can do worse than quote my Grandma Do, who whatever her faults, never asked anybody else to save her.  “All the world’s queer save thee and me.  And sometimes even thou art a little queer.”

God knows whom Grandma Do was quoting.  She was born in 1894 (in Staten Island) but lived most of her 101 years in Brooklyn, playing bridge, and a thunderous piano.


7 thoughts on “Fantasies of Times, Places, and People

  1. N.S. Palmer says:

    Regardless of the place or the era, people are flawed creatures. We have our moments of grace, courage, love, and glorious achievement, but then we fall down again, as if to remind us that we are not gods. We came from dust and we will return there one day.

    In the cases you cited, I don’t disagree that it is “bullshit,” but only with its negative implication. To dream of a better society, of better people, of kindness and civilization, can lift us out of the mud, however briefly. It is a moral aspiration disguised as a statement of fact.

    We’ve never had a perfect society in the past, and it’s improbable that we ever will in the future. Plato was right that society is human nature writ large. Society is imperfect because we are imperfect. It cannot be otherwise. But if we face our imperfections, we can do better. We can try to live up to our dreams. We will often fail. But we will sometimes succeed.

    Ray Bradbury wrote something in his story “The Toynbee Convector” that rang true to me:

    “You see the point, don’t you, son? Life has always been lying to ourselves! As boys, young men, old men. As girls, maidens, women, to gently lie and prove the lie true. To weave dreams and put brains and ideas and flesh and the truly real beneath the dreams. Everything, finally, is a promise. What seems a lie is a ramshackle need, wishing to be born.”

    • Why not honestly face that they are aspirations? When we place the perfect world in the past doesn’t that lead to a different course of action? (e.g. preserving its remnants, being suspicious of change, blaming ourselves for not being as good as the ancestors?)

      • N.S. Palmer says:

        That’s a tough question. I had to think for a while before coming up with an answer that even I don’t consider very good.

        The easy part is that 19th-century people who idealized ancient Athens weren’t being dishonest; they were engaging in a variation of the biased remembering that we all do just because our minds work that way. When we contemplate anything, we tend to focus on the parts that are important to us, either because of their inherent interest or because we think they’re relevant to our lives and our era. Classical scholars admired the philosophy, culture, and (selectively perceived) political ideals of ancient Athens, so when they thought of ancient Athens, that’s where their minds went. People who idealize the recent past, times they actually experienced, do the same kind of thing.

        One thing that’s relevant is that however abstract our thought gets, it’s still anchored in concrete experiences, and it applies doubly to our emotions. I know, for example, that I’ve never seen and (in this world, at least) will never see a perfect circle. But if I focus on the imperfection of all existing circles rather than the non-existent perfect circle, I find myself a bit discouraged about things. I believe that even if I know better, I unconsciously pretend that perfect circles exist. In the same way, even a fictional ideal society (especially if we’re a bit deluded about its reality) is more motivating than the goal of the slightly-less-imperfect society that is all we can really achieve. As Captain Picard once said before a great battle with the Borg, “That’s a conceit, but it’s a helpful one.”

  2. Mikey says:

    Maybe there’s a time in your life for fantasies and a time for action, and you just naturally slip out of the frame of mind to fantasise. A fantasy is a bit like a mental playtime; you know it’s not true but it gives you an opportunity to experiment with no risk.

      • Mikey says:

        Hm. Interesting. Maybe there’s two parts there. The thinking it’s true which is delusion, and the living in the unreal world, which is fantasy. It’s certainly not good to have delusions about people you know, but having fantasies about places – well it doesn’t really matter if they’re true or not does it? The point of fantasising is that you’re wandering around in a place deciding if you want its values to become part of you or not, with no risk of anything going wrong. You can’t hurt those imaginary places, they can’t hurt you. I think that’s ok.

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