Michael Dirda
Michael Dirda
Critic

Book review: Michael Saler’s ‘As If,’ on literary ‘virtual realities’

At least since the 18th century, there have been periodic complaints that the world has been drained of enchantment. Once, every meadow, grove and stream seemed appareled in a celestial light. People believed in some sort of natural supernaturalism surrounding them, or felt other worlds enriching our own, whether they were the realms of Faery or the Christian heaven.

Then came the fall. Rationalism, new technology, the disappearance of traditional religious beliefs, the population shift from the country to the city, the rise of democratic governments — all leached the marvelous from existence, leaving humanity roiled in the gloomy condition we call modernity.

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Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post Book World and the author of the memoir “An Open Book” and of four collections of essays: “Readings,” “Bound to Please,” “Book by Book” and “Classics for Pleasure.”

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Is there no way to re-enchant our mundane, dreary lives while preserving the myriad benefits of the machine age?

According to cultural historian Michael Saler, during the late 19th century — the fin de siecle — people attempted to do just this through an increasing immersion in the fantastic. Spiritualism, the occult, Eastern beliefs and extreme aestheticism offered various paths back to Eden. But all too often these creeds — like some of their modern successors — required one to surrender reason and independent thought as a prerequisite to entering the lost garden.

As an alternative, argues this brilliant if sometimes densely written book, one might instead turn to an early form of virtual reality. Through certain literary texts, people found that they could immerse themselves in various imaginary or secondary worlds. Moreover, by maintaining a sense of irony, they could experience enriching delight without surrendering to delusion.

In effect, “As If” explores the rewards of participatory fandom, concentrating on three groups: the devotees of Sherlock Holmes, especially the famous literary and dining club called the Baker Street Irregulars; the connoisseurs of H.P. Lovecraft and his Cthulhu Mythos; and the scholarly enthusiasts of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

To some onlookers, people who pretend that Sherlock Holmes existed, who don’t laugh at Lovecraft’s tentacled or piscine horrors, or who take the trouble to learn Elvish should all go out and get a life. One might reasonably answer: That’s just what they’ve done. By periodically inhabiting vicarious realms, they have created a second life, discovered a way to gladden their souls, gained fresh perspectives on the real world and enjoyed a genuine human connectedness with their fellow enthusiasts.

People accomplish this, Saler repeatedly stresses, through the maintenance of “the double consciousness” of the ironic imagination — a willingness to play a game whole-heartedly while understanding that it is only a game. This is, in essence, the same attitude we bring to enjoying a conjurer’s performance: We revel in the tricks and illusions without believing that they are achieved through actual magic.

Such “as if” play, one might argue, is a source of inner enrichment and essential to our full humanity. Virtual communities and environments teach us, in the words of critic Marie-Laure Ryan, “to live, work, and play with the fluid, the open, the potential.”

As Saler points out, “as if” activity requires not so much “the willing suspension of disbelief” as “the willing activation of pretense.” Historically speaking, certain rich, multi-layered works have encouraged such “activation of pretense” through the use of scholarly and scientific paratexts — that is, maps, documents, footnotes, charts, glossaries, historical timelines, photographs, illustrations and allusions to events outside the story proper. This material plethora displayed a playful seriousness and encouraged a serious playfulness from readers.

Saler mentions, for instance, the 19th-century Hetzel editions of Jules Verne. These elaborate, oversize volumes, bound in gorgeously decorated covers (featuring a Vernean collage of elephants, submarines and balloons) and packed with detailed yet evocative steel engravings, are book-worlds that one can live in. As a child, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre adored the Hetzel editions, remembering them as “magic boxes” and little theaters. Such works were spectacular, in both senses of the word.

Books alone, however, aren’t enough to foster an ongoing virtual reality. One also requires “public spheres of the imagination,” places where fans can gather, argue and deepen their understanding of the sacred texts. Often the first such sphere is simply the letters page in a magazine, but before long there are “societies, fanzines, and conventions.”

In the chapter “Clap If You Believe in Sherlock Holmes,” Saler emphasizes that the great detective isn’t just logical, he is also distinctly imaginative. Holmes the aesthete perceives the world as an Arabian Nights realm of mystery, full of a “hidden import” of which he alone is aware. Using the same combination of deduction and imagination characteristic of their hero, members of the Baker Street Irregulars “play the game,” as they call it: When they rigorously deduce fanciful meanings in Holmes’s adventures, they employ the rational techniques of modernity to further a sense of enchantment.

In his Lovecraft chapter, Saler describes the scientific aura surrounding the Cthulhu Mythos, and how later weird-tale writers and readers have added to these stories of Yog-Sothoth and the Old Ones. But he looks particularly at the correspondence, conversations and other exchanges between the author and his admirers — that is, at “the public sphere” of the Cthulhu Mythos — and speculates that the resulting discussions and debates helped Lovecraft mature as a man as well as a writer. Hence, the artistic richness of his later work, his eventual repudiation of his racist views of non-Anglo-Saxons and his newfound sympathy with Norman Thomas’s style of socialism.

For Tolkien, Saler says, “re-enchantment through fantastic Secondary Worlds was not a rejection of modernity, but rather a corrective to its one-sided emphases.” By “cross-dwelling in another world” — Middle Earth — “a visitor could benefit from the perspectives and practices that she might not find in the context of her own world.”

To Saler, Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” is centered on the idea of home, the enchanted realm to which, like the hobbit Sam, we long to return or, perhaps, that we hope to restore. To investigate this theme, Saler surveys Tolkien’s life in terms of his “nationalist, aestheticist, and religious views.” Despite the novelist’s expressed horror at allegorization, Saler views Tolkien’s masterpiece as a paean to a certain kind of English homeyness and decency, threatened by our “robot age” and the economic sway and cultural vulgarity of the United States. However, Tolkien strongly believed that stories, especially “sub-creations” that shape an imaginatively inhabitable secondary world, possess the power to “console, redeem, and inspire.”

Living in the realm of “as if” thus keeps us truly open and affirming as human beings. We learn “to entertain provisional identities, provisional narratives, and provisional worlds.” As a result, we gain an understanding of “contingency and difference” and a wariness of all inflexible, essentialist doctrines.

“As If” doesn’t address the current forms of virtual reality, i.e., computer games and simulated worlds. Perhaps that will be Saler’s next book. In the meantime, “As If” reminds us that, through real play in imaginary gardens, we can enhance the lives we lead in this alienated modern world.

Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Washington Post at wapo.st/reading-room. His latest book, “On Conan Doyle,” was recently published.

AS IF

Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality

By Michael Saler

Oxford Univ. 283 pp. Paperback, $27.95

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