Academic journal article Extrapolation

"Two Sought Adventure": Fritz Leiber and the Architecture of Fantasy

Academic journal article Extrapolation

"Two Sought Adventure": Fritz Leiber and the Architecture of Fantasy

Article excerpt

This article explores the relationship between fantasy and ideology by reading Fritz's Leiber's "Two Sought Adventure" (1939) in the context of the contemporary pulp fiction market. Depression-era concerns about capitalism, Fascism, and his later theories of the fantastic. Anticipating recent formulations of fantasy as a genre containing the potential for social critique (but also as fraught with reactionary impulses), Leiber suggests that, while fantastic literature may have the potential to free society from the chains of dominant ideology, this capacity should be constrained lest the violence of that revolution spill into the social and political realm.

You in that rusty cuirass, what said you? They laugh at us and jeer at Fantasy? Well, let them. When haven't men going somewhere been laughed at? Stiffen your backs, scoff at the scoffers, pay them sneer for sneer. Best, burnish your armor till it reflects back an image of their stunted, monstrous selves, set 'gainst those mountains they insist aren't there, and they run off in headlong stumbling flight, their insane laughter echoing in their ears. (Leiber, "Fantasy on the March," BL II zoo)1

Writing near the start of the atomic age, caught within a web of values and discourses which seemed to eclipse the very possibility of fantasy, Fritz Leiber in his "Fantasy on the March" nevertheless expresses a jingoistic optimism that fantastic expression can not only identify the mind-forged manacles that bind society, but break them. Leiber argues that the dominant cultural view of fantasy writing in 1948 is that it puts one "out of touch with life" and amounts to only "a flight of childish, superstitious dreams" (199). The attitude he hopes to instill in his readership is, predictably, rather different. Fie posits that fantastic literature is best seen as "equipment for an expedition" of the mind through which we can identify the obstacles that bind our imaginative and ideological horizons (those "mountains [society at large] insist aren't there"), and also surpass them, either through a psychological analysis enabled by the experience of fantasy (spelunking through the "Caves of the Mind" that tunnel deep within and even beyond this barrier range) or some other process that will eventually take us to the other side (202-03). He's uncertain what we might encounter there: perhaps "A golden valley, Eden of new gods? A Pit of horrors, ringed by peering giants? Or just another valley such as this ..." Equally possible, though, is that we will see only darkness, "the unimaginable void of voids"-that there is nothing beyond these boundaries we erect and then refuse to see (203). This last prospect seems to delight Leiber most of all.

In particular, Leiber singles out capitalist ideology and its attendant ritual as the main opponents to the emancipatory capacity of fantasy:

You hear it everywhere. It rises from the very ground, like gases from a bog. Cajoling voices promising to you the satisfaction of each last desirethe money-voice of film and print, white-breasted advertisement, and the sky-tainting lies of radio. They promise all wonder and you get: a candy bar and a plastic comb. They promise ecstasy and you receive: a Buick and a Chemtoned home. They really say: wonder is dead, be thankful for a square meal and a roof over your head; romance is dead, too, there's really nothing interesting left in the world for you; so we'll furnish you (at a price, quite nice) with some toys (attention, girls and boys!) to keep you (yes, you!) from getting too blue, to occupy your mind until you die. (201-02)

Leiber suggests the siren song of "the money-voice" distracts with a few paltry toys and keeps the subject from the mountain-climbing expeditions of fantasy until it's too late to question or imagine anything new. Lantasy amounts to a mirror (a burnished cuirass) in which is reflected the monstrosity of those caught within the capitalist delusions that lie outside the circle of fantasy. …

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