False Dichotomies

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Greetings to everyone from the end of National Novel Writing Month!  Wow, it’s really hard to believe that a month has gone by and, for once, I actually have an almost complete rough draft of a novel.  It still needs work and some scenes, but I think I’ll be able to progress to the editing stage this December and January.  And I’m actually looking forward to it!  My creativity has come back, I’m eager to work, and I’ve been writing over 2,000 words a day more often than not.  Which, like, never happens.  So, I’m really pleased with my progress and hope to have a finished product to show for my effort sooner rather than later.  (Then I’ll go back to Ravens and Roses, I promise.)

Now, on to a topic that has been percolating in the back of my mind for some time:  false dichotomies.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?


                              — “Harlem” by Langston Hughes

Why do reality and
Dreams run parallel
But don’t intersect?

— “Question” by Starsister12

False dichotomies are present in both fiction and everyday thinking, so I believe it’s important to address it.  Perhaps this will seem like old news to some of you, but it bears repeating.  I finally decided to write this entry after reading an interesting article in the online magazine The Fellowship of the King.  The article that caught my attention is “On Fairy Tales: A Rhapsody of Themes from G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis” written by the late artist, author, and illustrator Jef Murray.  I love fairy tales, and while I haven’t read any of Chesterton’s work, I am familiar with several of Lewis’s writings including The Screwtape Letters and his famous apologist work Mere Christianity.

First, I want to point out what I agreed with:

  • I agree that fairy tales are important and that they can be enjoyed by people of all ages, not just children.
  • I agree that there is a lingering stigma regarding adults who read fairy tales and that should be rectified.
  • I agree that we tend to forget how beautiful the world around us is.  We get so busy, wrapped up in everyday struggles and routines that we forget to appreciate the unlikely fact that we are alive.
  • I agree that fairy tales can help bring back some of that magic of childhood when everything around you was new and exciting.
  • I agree that fairy tales can teach very important moral messages, like the importance of being kind and charitable to those around you.

But the article also highlights a topic that concerns me:  the apparently irreconcilable dichotomy of “magic and/or dreams and/or fairy tales” versus “reality.”  For the sake of clarity, I am defining “reality” as the world of adulthood with its daily routine of eat, sleep, work, repeat that often drags us away from things we’d rather be doing.  “Magic” will refer to the wonder, beauty, and awe encapsulated by the natural world, as well as the plot device of spells used in stories.  (By the way, there’s a great blog post by Nerd in the Brain called “The Myth of the ‘Real World'” that you should probably check out.  It debunks the “real world” beautifully.)

In the article, there is a character called “Uncle Alfred,” who seems to be the stand-in for the ultimate humorless curmudgeon of a skeptic.  He is an exercise in hyperbole, but the ideas he’s supposed to embody are painted in extremely negative terms.  Practicality, compromise, scientific inquiry or explanations for phenomena, secular perspective… all of these are decried.  They are presented as the assassins of magic, the killers of dreams.  Uncle Fred implies that believing in the laws of physics rather than the bans of magic or religion means one is free to ignore the laws of decency towards our fellow living creatures.  If Uncle Fred thinks (and acts) that way, then he would be in prison, and rightfully so.  Again, I understand this is hyperbole being used to make a point, but it is still very troubling to me that magic and reality are placed in direct opposition to one another.

This conflict between the world of the imagination and the world of the physical pops up everywhere.  It’s in songs, literature, essays, anecdotes, and commentaries of all kinds.  Heck, I wrote poems about this conflict and despaired of ever getting my reality to match the fairy land in my head.  For a long, long time, I also felt that reality was lacking.  The world conjured by my imagination was so much better, more beautiful, more exciting, more just.  If I had read Mr. Murray’s article at that time in my life, I would have completely agreed with the following statement:

When we look at how the world is presented to us by Uncle Fred, what we’re given is a clinical, cold, uncaring universe that stretches out in all directions. We have cited to us the “laws” of physics, of economics, of aesthetics, of politics; the same sort of laws that govern the movements of machinery, and therefore, the same sort of laws that suggest the “real world” is, in fact, a vast, dead thing; a great rambling automobile plunging headlong down the highway, with no one at the wheel.

With such a description, who would choose Uncle Fred’s “dreary terms” over the vibrant colors and happy ending offered by fairy tales?  I certainly chose the latter; I buried myself in fantasy novels and spent over a decade wishing I was in my own personal customized version of Faerie.

And therein lies the rub, as Hamlet would say.  I was being offered the choice between two extremes with nothing in between.  Black or white, hot or cold, good or evil.  Choose one and choose wisely, lest you crumble to dust.

But it doesn’t have to be either or.  You can have both.

I couldn’t see it at the time because I was in the depths of depression that distorted my view of the world.  It took me a while to realize that I didn’t have to choose either magic or reality.  I could have both, preferably not at their extremes.  I learned that gray, room temperature, and middle ground existed.  Fairy tales might seem to advocate that over-simplified either/or way of thinking, but they don’t have time to get into a long exploration of the complexity of social interaction.  They aren’t meant to; that’s what novels are for.  Fairy tales are short, entertaining stories with simple moral messages.  They exaggerate for effect and toss in elves, fairies, and magic rings to add flavor.

You can see magic and beauty in the world while still knowing the underlying mechanics of how they work.  You can enjoy the beauty of a sunset and understand the orbits of celestial bodies in the solar system.  You can appreciate the scent of a rose and understand that you can detect smell because molecules from the rose are landing on sensory organs in your nose.  You can wish on a falling star and knowing that it’s a ball of ice and frozen gas burning up in Earth’s atmosphere will not diminish your awe one whit.  Learning how to be practical and responsible does not mean you must sacrifice all your dreams and aspirations on the alter of “reality.”  You don’t need to compromise your sense of wonder and gratitude at being alive.  It isn’t either-or.

And we really need to stop presenting this false dichotomy that pits magic and reality against each other.  Trust me, that battle leaves a lot of collateral damage.



One thought on “False Dichotomies

  1. Hi, Kat,

    Thanks for posting the pingback to “False Dichotomies”.

    I definitely agree that the love of fantasy and the love of science are not an either/or scenario, but a both/and. Fantasy is, in a sense, a door-way to broadening our imaginations to new possibilities while at the same time continuing to explore the condition of humanity in different settings. It also explores the concept of “other worlds” in a spiritual sense, via the concept of magical powers that transcend earthly ones.

    However, as you accurately point out, there is a profound sense of the “magical” in our very own universe. In a sense, the workings of nature are very magical, since magic is almost always portrayed as a system grounded in order. The science can be understood at all my the human mind is, in that sense, absolutely magical. And in a deeply Celtic, metaphysical way, I have always felt that through nature, I personally feel closer to the “Magician” who I believe is at the heart of it.

    I do believe that’s what the original author was trying to get across as well, but he was using Uncle Fred more for hyperbole, an exaggeration to make the point that some people can *only* see that which is concrete, what is tangible, what can be scientifically charted. And yet so many other things that cannot be tested or explained evade their attention, such as the beauty of mystery found in love or spirituality or the fairytale. But I really don’t think that Mr. Murray meant any affront to the veracity or worthiness of scientific discovery via the character of dear old Uncle Fred 😉


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