The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Fantasy and reality, Part two

Posted on: August 22, 2007

Incidentally, I finished part one of Don Quixote! *applause, band plays, confetti falls* It was comical how shocked I was when I finished the sonnets and then there before me was a new title page. I checked twice to make sure. Go team!

Apologies for splitting this excerpt into two posts. I did the first one on a different computer which made the first part look a lot longer.


Let us take three types of men walking through the same landscape. Number One is a city man on a well-deserved vacation. Number Two is a professional botanist. Number Three is a local farmer. Number One, the city man, is what is called a realistic, commonsensical, matter-of-fact type: he sees trees as trees and knows from his map that the road he is following is a nice new road leading to Newton, where there is a nice eating place recommended to him by a friend in his office. The botanist looks around and sees his environment in the very exact terms of plant life, precise biological and classified units such as specific trees and grasses, flowers and ferns, and for him this is reality; to him the world of the stolid tourists (who cannot distinguish an oak from an elm) seems a fantastic, vague, dreamy, never-never world. Finally, the world of the local farmer differs from the two others in that his world is intensely emotional and personal since he has been born and bred there, and knows every trail and individual tree, and every shadow from every tree across every trail, all in warm connection with his everyday work, and his childhood, and a thousand small things and patterns which the other two — the humdrum tourist and the botanical taxonomist — simply cannot know in the given place at the given time. Our farmer will not know the relation of the surrounding vegetation to a botanical conception of the world, and the botanist will know nothing of any importance to him about that barn or that old field or that old house under its cottonwoods, which are afloat, as it were, in a medium of personal memories for one who was born there.

So here we have three different worlds — three men, ordinary men who have different realities — and of course, we could bring in a number of other beings: a blind man with a dog, a hunter with a dog, a dog with his man, a painter cruising in quest of a sunset, a girl out of gas — In every case it would be a world completely different from the rest since the most objective words tree, road, flower, sky, barn, thumb, rain have, in each, totally different subject connotations. Indeed, this subjective life is so strong that it makes an empty and broken shell of the so-called objective existence. The only way back to objective reality is the following one: we can take these several individual worlds, mix them thoroughly together, scoop up a drop of that mixture, and call it objective reality. We may taste in it a particle of madness if a lunatic passed through that locality, or a particle of complete and beautiful nonsense if a man has been looking at a lovely field and imagining upon it a lovely factory producing buttons or bombs; but on the whole these mad particles would be diluted in the drop of objective reality that we hold up to the light in our test tube. Moreover, this objective reality will contain something that transcends optical illusions and lab tests. It will have elements of poetry, of lofty emotion, of energy and endeavour (and even here the button king may find his rightful place — of pity, pride, passion — and the craving for a thick steak at the recommended roadside eating place.

From “The Metamorphosis”, an essay in Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov.


3 Responses to "Fantasy and reality, Part two"

Congrats on finishing the first part of DQ!

“Indeed, this subjective life is so strong that it makes an empty and broken shell of the so-called objective existence.”

Spoken like a non-scientist! We lab coats happen to find objective reality (which, as far as we can tell, is infinite) quite rich and exciting. What could be more thrilling than to transcend the limitations of our natural senses and observe the greater realities beyond? There is poetry there too but few understand the language.

RE: your comment—

Sci-fi has always been a liminal genre, bridging the gap between the unbelievable and the domestic, so by its nature it is an ever-shifting genre and I’m not surprised to hear of a postcolonial-themed SF collection. It has often been the domain of those writers who wish to editorialize on a socio-political conflict.

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