Taking the fascism out of fantasy

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CC-BY-NC 4.0

Adrian Daub’s recent piece for Longreads, Here at the End of All Things, has been sitting with me for a few days now. There’s something about it that I can’t shake, that keeps coming back to me as I’m reading on neo-fascism and the American right.

The first resonance came from reading Wouter Hanegraaf’s blog post on Julius Evola, the godfather of Italian neo-fascism and required reading for American Spencerites. Evola espoused “Traditionalism”, a violent, dark, and tautological vision of society borrowing from a grab bag of influences, from Nietchzean philosophy to Hindu cosmology.

I don’t know enough about Evola’s system to provide a summary of it here -- for that, Hanegraaf’s post is a good introduction -- but it would seem that Traditionalism is a deeply imaginative system. It rejects modernity, materialism, and scientific knowledge as degenerate, favouring instead a self-justifying network of myths grounded in essentialist views of society.

My takeaway from my first encounter with Evola was that this is a system dependent on immersive believing, a kind of magic idealism. It requires devotion to concepts incongruous with the mundaneness of daily life. Evola would have us believe that history moves in great aeons, over the course of which the forces of modernism continually degrade and defile Traditional principles of hierarchy and determinism, until momentous, myth-making revolutions mark their resurgence.

Ultimately, the intention, we can assume, is to ascribe purpose to the millions of minor insults and offences borne by Traditionalists in a rapidly modernizing world, to connect their suffering with a mythological narrative over which, through the construction of his argument, Evola has final say. But with the benefit of postmodern hindsight, Evola’s ubermyth and other prevailing quasi-fascist conspiracy theories seem something more mundane -- they seem like fantasy.

I hadn’t quite thought about this connection until I read an essay by a British scholar of fascism, Roger Griffin, on what Evola shares with Tolkien.

Griffin quotes literary critic William Dowie, who described Middle Earth as “an effort to transport us from a positivist, mechanist, urbanised and rationalist culture into one in which man is in contact with his own desires and the significance of the cosmos around him.” Griffin continues:

It is this that the protagonists of a countercultural Right seek in their masters. … Central to the cult of figures such as Tolkien and Evola is the nostalgia for a total world view, a holistic understanding of existence, warm and 'alive', immune to the icy winds of scepticism and relativism that waft from the official institutions of culture and learning.

Evola and Tolkien alike offer their readers a “safe space”, where history maintains its power as a “comprehensive statement of human destiny,” immune from the forces of criticism. Their works live in a liminal space between religion and history -- the volkish realm of folklore, perhaps -- wherein the creator of the imaginary has totalitarian control over the vision and purpose of the world.

But importantly, neither reject the real world entirely; instead, they map their fantasies onto familiar reference points, rooted in the deeply misogynistic and colonial viewpoints of their time.

This is important for Daub’s point about the inherent satisfactoriness of looking at maps of imaginary worlds -- often, they contain a story that is intuitively graspable. The vast, unconquered lands to the east; the hero’s home, to the west; the improbable geography of baddies surrounded by mountains; the terra incognita of the eastern waters: all this is rooted in a Western cultural memory of the pre-modern perspective, in which the world is undiscoverable and infused with mystery and meaning.

Could this nostalgic memory be the ground on which Traditionalism and other neo-fascist ideologies are built? Daub explores a certain negative proof of this in the fantasy worlds seeking to upend the colonial subtext of Tolkien’s mythological archetype. He describes the feeling of first opening a map of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea:

I recall a feeling of vertigo at the fact that I couldn’t tell whether the edges of the map were perhaps also the ends of the world. The atoll could’ve been surrounded by endless ocean, or just by more islands. I couldn’t say which possibility frightened me more.

Daub’s anxiety reflects how references to well-known cultural myths and real-world history are essential in classical fantasy worlds. Looking at a map of Earthsea, it’s hard to imagine what historical precedent we could reference to evaluate the meaning of the narrative action. But why do we need to do that at all? Isn’t the point of fantasy its strangeness, after all?

To me, at least, each of these is fascinating, challenging, engaging, but not intrinsically satisfying in the same way as Tolkien’s world, and Daub says as much himself. They are not grounded in the dominant, underlying myths still surviving decades of postmodernism and revision; they are definitionally opposed to it.

What these worlds serve to do is unground the imagination from its old archetypes. It means imagining within them is more work and requires deeper, counterfactual questions. But if the rigid, Eurocentric imagination is the seed of Evola’s totalitarian Traditionalism, perhaps unboxing our imaginary worlds is the first step to developing a postmodern mythology or, even better, a critical folklore.

As Griffin puts it:

'Metahistory' will not simply wither away... [it] deserves to be treated seriously by all disciplines concerned with history if only so that the conditions of Enlightenment humanism and liberalism are as firmly rooted and thriving as exotic fledgling Traditions that strive to supplant it. The past is not dead but alive and kicking.