If fantasy is “pornography of the mind”, does that mean we shouldn’t read Lord of the Rings?
Seeing the title: you might say, what? Is he saying that all imagination and fantasy is pornographic? Well — what do we think about imagination? Have a quick look through your Bible or in the ascetic Fathers for something about the imagination and you may be surprised. There’s a good chance you won’t find the word “imagination” in your English translation of the NT at all. And in the ascetic Fathers, you are likely to find it coupled with the term fantasy and used in universally negative contexts. This is shocking to our modern sensibility because of our neo-Romantic glorification of the individual imagination and individual self-expression.
We tend to use the word “imagination” positively — and even the word fantasy can be used either positively or negatively.
The literal definition of the word “imagine” is to create an image for oneself. Given all we’ve said in this series about the image, or icon, and the possibility of using either iconographic or pornographic ways to see and understand Creation, it should be clear why this may be a negative thing… it depends on whether we are seeing the image as something that points beyond itself, and if it we do see it pointing beyond itself, it depends what it is pointing towards — what its archetype is.
So to be clear: I’m not saying that imagination in the sense of creativity is pornographic; quite the opposite: as I’ve said before, we are not only creative, we are co-creators with God in all that we do — but we can use that God-given creative power either for good or for bad. And fantasy… for example there’s the genre of fiction called fantasy — think of C S Lewis’s Narnia series, or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: fantasy can serve the purpose of using an imaginary situation as a veil to reveal a deeper truth or meaning. The question in this case as to whether it is a good thing or a bad thing depends on how true — how in accord with ultimate Reality — that deeper meaning is. So being co-creators that are fallen creatures means we can use our creativity in cooperation with God’s creative power or we can use it apart from God…
So why does the concept of imagination and fantasy have such a negative connotation in the ascetic literature of the Church? I think there are two basic reasons. One I have already mentioned: the danger of creating an image which tempts us away from our focus on God, either through objectifying or idolising our own creation, or by being a conduit to the demonic spiritual rather than the divine world. The second reason is related: the ascetic fathers’ spiritual maturity is leading them to a consideration of pure prayer, or imageless prayer. And at this point, they tell us, any image — no matter how good in itself — becomes a distraction from the imageless communion with God that is experienced in pure prayer.
Pure prayer at this point is an anticipation of that day when we no longer need to “see through a glass darkly” as St Paul puts it — that is, we can see directly only shadows and veils; icons and images that lead us in faith to the perception of what is beyond. In that day, we no longer “see through a glass darkly”, we “see face to face.” (Just like we might keep a photo of a loved one close in his or her absence, we may even kiss it, but when the loved one is present, our focus is on him or her in person.) So in the meantime, the icon is, according to the hymns from Vespers for the Sunday of Orthodoxy, both “the safeguard of the Orthodox faith” and a source of healing.
Imagination is a capacity of the soul, and a reflection of the image of God in us. Like all the capacities of the soul, it can be used to grow closer to God (to be a veil that outlines what lies beyond) or it can create a barrier (a mask) in front of the face of God, blocking our relationship. In other words, it can be used to aim for the target but it can “miss the mark”. It can be a part of developing my love of God and neighbour (including my enemies!) or a path to lose myself and my ability to truly relate by inflaming and exercising the passions.
So, while being aware that imagination can be used positively or negatively, let’s have a look at some of the dangers of imagination and fantasy in general.
St John Climacus describes fantasy in this way:'A phantasy is an ecstasy of the nous, when the body is awake' - St John Climacus Click To Tweet
A phantasy is an illusion of the eyes when the mind [μυαλό] is asleep. A phantasy is an ecstasy of the nous [νους], when the body is awake. A phantasy is a vision of something which does not exist in reality.”
The last point of his — a fantasy is a vision of something which does not exist in reality — is almost exactly the dictionary definition of the word in English.
Fantasies can come to us waking or sleeping, though of course we have much more direct control over fantasies while we are awake. A phantasy is an ecstasy of the nous, St John Climacus tells us. The nous, often translated into English as mind, and sometimes called the “eye of the heart” we might describe as the organ of iconographic seeing. The nous is the centre of our soul, or heart, the point at which we can be connected most directly to God — which is also to say, connected with ultimate Reality. The issue with imagination or fantasy comes when it fills the nous, focusing us on what is unreal… missing the mark of what is real, and thereby cutting us off from God at our root.
So fantasy that takes our focus away from the real to the unreal darkens our nous, pulling us away from communion with God. And an example of this kind of fantasy is much fantasy about relationships, sexual or otherwise. While icons bind me to ultimate truth and Reality, fantasy’s grasp on reality is tenuous: what starts as a vision of something improbable in reality can quickly become an idea with an ever-shrinking basis in reality. Spending time fantasizing, then, reduces both the opportunity for communion and the ability to participate in it. Venerating an icon has the opposite effect: to venerate is to imagine — in the sense of bringing to mind — something of the ultimate Reality that is beyond our senses. An icon makes what it portrays really present in contrast to a fantasy, which can take the place of reality.To fantasize about a person is to fail to see the person as a person Click To Tweet
To fantasize about a person is to fail to see the person as a person. Just as in pornography, it is to objectify, to fail to relate, to fail to love… it is the opposite of venerating the icon.
In a fantasy I objectify the person I fantasize about… I fail to give anything of myself; there is no real relationship. I see without being seen. In an icon, I am the one seen — the reverse perspective of the icon means I am the one at the vanishing point of the perspective. I am seen through the window of the icon as the saint looks out at me from the vastness of eternity. When I fantasize, nobody sees me.
Sexual fantasy is pornography of the mind. And just as with pornography, this is sexual abuse. Christ said that just to look at another woman with lust is to commit adultery with her (Matt. 5) – and this is without her consent, so it is not too strong to say that to sexually fantasize about a woman or any other person is to rape her in my heart, and likewise, to look at a pornographic image or video of a woman is to rape her in my heart.
Fantasy, like pornography, is theft and leaves the person who has become an object violated.
So when I fantasize, I do not only avoid the relationship I desire, but I abuse the one I desire. Moreover, in doing so, I build these aspects of behaviour into my character and person. Recent neurological studies have demonstrated that imagining something actually has a very similar effect on the brain to actually experiencing it. Sometimes, people with violent or destructive sexual desires have been told that to fantasize about them is good, as it makes it less likely they will act them out in reality. However this is bad advice. To fantasize about something not only increases the desire for it, it lays patterns in the brain increasing expectation of experiencing it, and even the ability to do it. In fact, I should avoid even thinking about fantasies I have had. St John Climacus advises, “Let no one get into the habit of thinking over during the daytime the phantasies that have occurred to him during sleep; for the aim of the demons in prompting this is to defile us while we are awake by making us think about our dreams.”Anything that re-imagines Creation apart from God creates an obscene writing: a pornographos. Click To Tweet
These destructive kinds of fantasies do not have to be sexual to be pornographic, of course. As we said before, anything that takes a part of Creation, which is meant to be iconographic — a writing about God, and separates it from its root in the ultimate Reality of God is creating an obscene writing… a pornographos. It might be a fantasy about becoming rich — winning the lottery, for example… or a fantasy about becoming extremely witty in order to put down someone who has offended me… there are many ways I can misuse my creative power to image in my mind something that has that ever-decreasing connection to reality, darkening my nous and breaking my communion with God.
So how do I avoid fantasizing in this negative, anti-iconographic way? One important piece of advice repeated by many ascetic fathers throughout history is the need to cut off such an intrusive thought at the root. Elder St Paisios described these thoughts or images as being like aeroplanes circling around us: the key thing is not to let them land. So we shouldn’t entertain such a thought or image even for a second, as to do so gives it entry into the nous. The easiest time to fight is now, never later! So as soon as the image appears, we can make the sign of the cross, invite the presence of Christ into the nous: when Christ was tempted by intrusive thoughts, he referred at once to the presence of God, using quotes from Scripture. Fantasy is often a symptom or a symbol of personal isolation, so as well as inviting the presence of God, we can engage with reality and real people around us, contact a friend, arrange a time for confession.
It’s important to acknowledge that our misdirected desires will often create the opportunity for fantasies to arise, so we should be ready for them! So without dwelling on them, let’s be aware of what our particular fantasies and day-dreams tend to be, and whether they bring us closer to union with Christ or move us further away. And when we catch ourselves falling into a fantasy or day-dream of this type, let’s try inviting Christ in and letting his light fill the darkness in our souls.