Friday, June 16, 2017

The Prevalence of Idealism

Normal castle-building itself can be of two kinds and the difference between them in all-important. They may be called the Egoistic and the Disinterested. In the first kind the day-dreamer himself is always the hero and everything is seen through his eyes. It is he who makes the witty retorts, captivates the beautiful women, owns the ocean-going yacht, or is acclaimed the greatest living poet. In the other kind, the day-dreamer is not the hero of the day-dream or perhaps not present in it at all. Thus a man who has no chance of going to Switzerland in reality may entertain himself with reveries about an Alpine holiday. He will be present in the fiction, but not as hero; rather as spectator. As his attention would be fixed not on himself but on the mountains if he were really in Switzerland, so in the castle-building his attention is fixed on the imagined mountains.

C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

In the above extract, Lewis is concerned with imaginative habits insofar as they bear on reading. But the passage interests me for its more general relevance. I've often reflected on the pervasiveness of idealism-- how strange it is that human beings care about the state of the world even where it won't affect them.

I think we care to overlook this phenomenon. Certainly I overlook it, in the sense that it strikes me every now and again as something remarkable. It's quite an endearing trait of humanity. We want the world to be a certain way, not because it will benefit us, but because that's the kind of world we want. This is as true of a liberal secularist as it is of a romantic conservative like myself. Indeed, I've often reflected that I feel more affinity with someone who has an ideology, even one that clashes with my own, than someone who "minds his own business" and nothing else.

I do a lot of castle-building myself and plenty of it is egoistic. Some of it is disinterested. And some of it seems to be on the border-line. For instance, I increasingly fantasize about seclusion, or semi-seclusion, or temporary seclusion. This is nothing new; in my teens I thought Howard Hughes was the bomb, because he did everything worth doing and then disappeared for the rest of his life. (Proust's life sounds similarly appealing-- first the social whirligig, then the cork-lined room-- though I stopped reading his magnum opus pretty early, when I came to an excessively detailed description of a chamber pot.)

With the rational part of my mind, I know that casual contacts are an enormous part of what gives life its flavour and variety. But I also find them increasingly mortifying. Small talk...sharing a lift (elevator) with somebody I don't know very well... dealing with customers, especially on the telephone...meetings and presentations and queues..embarrassment....all that....the older I get, the more I think: "I've done enough of that." How wonderful would it be to leave all that behind forever? Or at least to be able to disappear from it for days at a time?

The day dreams I've developed in this regard are extraordinarily detailed. Sometimes they are literally otherworldly--- a private space station, for instance. Other times they are less fantastical-- a suite of rooms with guards posted outside, usually on the penthouse of a tower so I could look down below. When I was a teenager, I used to enjoy fantasizing about being driven around Ireland in the back of a van by my-- sympathizers? Supporters? In this fantasy, there were always enemies trying to catch me, unsuccessfully. It combined delusions of grandeur with a persecution complex. Other times, I just fantasized about being invisible and thus invulnerable.

Of course, all those messy and awkward and dull interactions are part of what makes life great. But  I still like to indulge this fantasy.

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