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Kamarck, Edward (ed.) / Arts in society: confrontation between art and technology

Schmerl, Rudolf B.
[Editorial comment: who's afraid of fantasy?],   pp. [176]-[183] PDF (9.3 MB)

Page 181

income levels, immigrant experiences,
and economic data to glimpse the nature
of Dearborn's illness. In fact, such
analyses might obscure our understanding
of the vision each of those pistol-packing
Dearborn mamas must have in her head as
she steadies her aim and squeezes the
trigger. What we know about Dearborn's
pathology comes not only from our
own lives, which we rationalize and lie
about all too often, but also from
the wider, because more sharable,
experience provided by literature. White
psychoses about Negroes - the
cause of the cause of the riots - have
been laid bare by white as well as
black writers, most obviously, perhaps,
by Faulkner ("Dry September" serves as a
powerful example), but also by
far less gifted writers, for instance,
Sinclair Lewis in Kingsblood Royal.
Kingsblood Royal is a very bad novel, but
it contains a summary of white
fantasies about black Americans that seems
to me to make the riots far more
understandable than the mountains of
statistics being gathered about life in
the ghettoes.
Why, ultimately, are white people, even those
we like to characterize as being of good
will, so pessimistic about the chances for
rapid progress in the quality of life
available to their black fellow citizens? The
answer usually has something to do
with history, that is, the Negro's
history, as if it were separable from the
history of the country in which the Negro
has been created. What nonsense. What
people in the history of the world has
started with more disadvantages and
climbed more rapidly in such a
short time? The pessimism of whites
of good will may be justified, but it should
be related to whites, not Negroes.
Ellison's Invisible Man, in its very title,
suggests how our national vision is
obscured by fantasy. To give up his various
fantasies about Negroes, the American
white man would have to re-define
himself, and the only conclusion he could
come to -a negative one, that he is
not black- would confront him with the
necessity of forging an identity
for himself on the basis of what he
is, not on the basis of his superiority to a
figment of his imagination. That appears
too much to hope for. What the racial
situation in our country illustrates,
among other things, is how deeply
satisfying the terrors of fantasy
can be. That black Americans are not
immune from these fearful pleasures,
although of course in different form,
should surprise not even social scientists.
Until comparatively recently, Western
civilization was dominated by a vision
of the future totally unlike the
visions that obsess us now. The future
of collectivities was not in question,
only the future of the individual. He was to
go either to heaven or to hell,
and there was considerable argument
about whether he had any say in the matter.
The Christian religion has not played
any tangibly important role in determining
the choices men make for some years
now, and the futures we are asked
to contemplate are not our own
as men and women, only as citizens,
workers, parts of a machine. We have not
been able to find a substitute for
religious belief that does not minimize
the importance of the individual.
If orthodox faith is abandoned, one
alternative to facing the metaphysics
outlined by Bertrand Russell in "A Free
Man's Worship" is to dance around
a golden calf, disguised by the names of
nation, party, race, or class,
in the grosser instances, and by
the names of progress, destiny, human
spirit, evolutionary potential in the more
subtle ones. The work of the responsible
fantasist - and I include those writing
such scripts as "Dr. Strangelove"
as well as those whose media are perhaps
more enduring - is comparable to that
of Moses, to call our golden calves by their
right names, to interrupt our
fantasies with the harshness of the truth,
and to continue to search for the
Promised Land. The search may be
all we have.

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