In praise of fantasy

There’s a case to be made that acting out results from a failure of the mind. By acting out, I refer to an umbrella term, comprised on the one hand of behaviors deemed unhealthy or destructive by mental health principles, or a leaking, in another sense, of mental nuclei, into the atmosphere, into the psyches of others. Why? Because the purpose of acting out is to express something.

Fantasy is not a form of acting out. Not really. Fantasy, writes author Michael Bader, has a compensatory function; it replaces behaviors rather than fuels them. It serves repression while simultaneously illustrating its failure. This is an important idea, this paradox, especially for those who fear imagination, and wonder what it will stir and then collapse. Are violent fantasies really dangerous? Perhaps, for those few individuals whose minds overflow with impulse; whose minds cannot contain energy and contradiction. For the unimaginative, thought informs behavior, as if there were no division between thought and action, and therefore no room for choice. And that’s a two-fold problem with addiction: it squashes both choice and imagination.

Voyeurism offends for several reasons. One reason is that voyeurism is an uncreative, passive act. It is the lazy expression of a frightened audience, living vicariously through the actions of others: heroes and villains, playing out love and hate. Sex and violence are traditionally forbidden acts, except in defined contexts, and so literary and visual arts must follow rules, identify and exhibit the right contexts, stylize the choreography versus capturing mere reality, and assume some manner of moral stance. Stylizing violence has been easier, somehow: its artifices are well-contained in sports, in movies and in television, and if a culture has had many victories in the realm of violence (many wars it has won, for example), then there are many heroes to celebrate, thus dignifying annihilation. The plight of victims can be observed also, but it makes for lesser entertainment. Note the absence, for example, of an all-encompassing novel or film about the holocaust*, as there is no way to give it a happy ending.

The term happy ending has a crude sexual meaning. Part of my work is with clients (mostly men), whose sexual imaginations have been lost to the world of that bastard genre, pornography. Fantasy is effortful. Relative to spectating, it fatigues, relies too much upon a sexuality that is within oneself. To these men, I often pose the question, “what happened to fantasy, to imagination?” Some gaze back at me with quizzical expressions, querying my naïvete, and wondering if I can possibly understand the scope of their loss. The loss relates to broken memory, a reliance upon a visual record, and a breakdown of narrative, leading to a stolid, joyless experience of images. There is fear: an unconscious, neurotic belief that memory can’t be held, and that dreams drain away. A kind of hoarding seems like the answer to an empty core. I find myself discussing compromises: a negotiated plan involving restrained double-takes in public, a looking away from visual cues, or a measured duration of concentrated looking.

We look away, consistently, from that which we should examine. We gaze longingly at that which merits only a glance.

*a paraphrasing of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, who abandoned his early nineties film, Aryan Papers, declaring the project too depressing, too big, for cinema. He further noted that Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, which seems to cover much of the holocaust story, is actually a tale of exceptions—those who survived.

Graeme Daniels, MFT

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