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Enchanting the Everyday

Enchanting the EverydayIn the spring installment of the Dean's Faculty Forum series, Professor Susan Napier explores the relationship between fantasy and reality.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [03.13.09] Are fantasy and reality completely distinct from one another? According to Susan Napier, the professor of Japanese studies who presented at this spring's Dean's Faculty Forum on March 10, "enchantment cannot always be split off from the rational world."

The event was the seventh installment of the Dean's Faculty Forum series, which School of Arts and Sciences Dean Robert Sternberg described as an opportunity "to highlight the diversity and breadth of faculty research."

In her talk, entitled "Of Owls, Rings & Grand Theft Auto: The Uses and Abuses of Enchantment," Napier cited three well-known works of "conservative" fantasy: the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien; the Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling; and the videogame "Grand Theft Auto."

Conservative fantasy, Napier explained, is "fantasy that exists in a kind of framework; that has meaning in which your actions [and] your choices express certain values." Such fantasy may aid our understanding of what cultural scholar Slavoj Zizek deemed the "traumatic real," or the burdens, complexities and resentments that characterize society.

Watch video from the Dean's Faculty Forum (Requires Windows Media)
Susan Napier (46:51) | George Scarlett (12:22) | Q&A (21:03)

Napier referenced the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, to explain the intersection of fantasy and the traumatic real. Feeling alone and in disbelief, she turned to a favorite childhood book, the first installment of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "The Fellowship of the Ring."

One passage, in which the wizard Gandalf discusses the evil character Gollum, particularly stood out to Napier. "Many that live deserve death, and some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death and judgment, for even the very wise cannot see all ends."

"By wanting to read this passage so much, I'm not in any way suggesting that I felt any need to excuse, or rationalize, or justify the actions," Napier explained. "What I did need at that time was to see reactions other than panic, confusion, [and] fear... a different way to approach evil."

Such writing, said Napier, is "hardly simplistic," a trait that academics often attribute to works of fantasy. This complexity, she argued, is further evidenced by the magical ring of invisibility in "Lord of the Rings," which "serves as a metaphor for power and the abuse of power," or the owl messengers in the "Harry Potter" series, which comment on a societal obsession with technology.

Furthermore, Napier argued, immersing one's self in works of fantasy can offer unique ways to deal with real-life dilemmas. From the dementors of "Harry Potter" that suck away hope in "a brilliant de-familiarization of depression," to the conscience demanded of the "Grand Theft Auto" protagonist, Napier believes that fantasy allows us "to go beyond the borders of reality and explore aspects that can be quite disturbing in a relatively safe place."

"Works of enchantment," Napier said, "can roll back the curtain of what at times seems an increasingly straitened reality marked by division, fear, and mistrust, to expose another version of ourselves in a world of infinite possibilities."

Relating Napier's description of fantasy to the fantasy of children's play, Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development Chair George Scarlett then offered his response as a discussant for the forum.

"The capacity to be transformed by the conservative fantasy worlds of others," he argued, "is fostered not simply or even mainly by early exposure to fantasy worlds, but by young children constructing their own fantasy worlds in their play."

Scarlett noted research demonstrating the positive effects of play on development, even when play content may be violent or disturbing. Fantasy play in youth, he said, helps us to eventually understand the fantasy work of others.

Moreover, Scarlett continued, fantasy helps children create meaning in their own lives, turning "dysfunctional ways of being in the world into highly adaptive ways of being in the world."

It is in this complex fashion that the worlds of enchantment and everyday life inform one another.

"In our fantasy," Napier said, "we can learn about our reality."

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