Photo Credit: Fantasy Forest, original picture by RL Fantasy Design Studios, taken June 15, 2010 by RL Fantasy. Note that the photo includes creatures that most people consider can never be, such as a fairy and a flying horse: RL Fantasy Design Studios/Flickr/CC BY SA 2.0
“ ‘Imagination creates things that can be or can happen, whereas fantasy invents things that are not in existence, which never have been or will be.’ ” (Stanislavsky, p. 60)
The quote above comes from one of the founding fathers of method acting, Constantin Stanislavsky, in his book An Actor Prepares. Note that fantasy here refers to the broader definition of the word as something illusionary and fantastic rather than the more genre-based fantasy that encompasses the mythical, supernatural, or magical. I think many people consider imagination and fantasy to be nearly the same, but as the quote above points out, they can be quite different.
Stanislavsky’s opinion of fantasy might seem harsh, but he goes on to explain his reasoning:
“ ‘On this side of it [i.e., our conscious life] we have the simplicity of a limited fantasy; beyond [our unconscious and subconscious life]— the simplicity of the larger imagination. Our freedom on this side of the threshold is limited by reason and conventions; beyond it, our freedom is bold, willful, active and always moving forwards.’ ” (p. 304; emphasis original)
Stanislavsky puts fantasy at the level of conscious experience and therefore limited to a certain degree by what we can see, hear, and feel. Imagination, on the other hand, is part of the unconscious or subconscious, of psychological reality and therefore the possibilities are endless in terms of what we can experience.
In some ways, I think Stanislavsky has a point about the imagination. I wrote a blog post a while back about the potential of art to bring about the possible through the imagination. In her book The Novel of the Future, Anais Nin stresses that “fantasy… is passive, and imagination… is active…” and therefore, “[i]magination is creative” (location 649). She gives a lovely example of this in a story she wrote when she was eleven years old of a daughter who makes up beautiful fantasies about her life with her father, who is blind. When a doctor operates on the father and restores his eyesight again, he sees her stories were pure imagination and that their life is really dismal and poverty-stricken. Nin writes:
“Tragedy? No, when [the father] opens his eyes to the shabby reality, he does not collapse or feel betrayed. He tells his daughter: ‘It is true you described something which was not there, but you described it so vividly that now I can set about to construct our life as you had dreamed it.’ The dream has to be translated into reality.” (location 152)
So in Nin’s story, the imagination created something that could happen.
However, I don’t believe that fantasy is always an invention of what cannot be or will never happen. Sometimes fantasy has an eerie way of predicting the future. A sci-fi film called Soylent Green (1973) illustrates this point. The film is a sci-fi apocalyptic thriller set in New York City in the year 2022. The vision of this great city is a rather depressing one of darkness, pollution, overpopulation, and hunger. Inhabitants no longer know what real food looks like. Instead, they are rationed pseudo-food that neither looks nor tastes like the food we know. There is a great scene between Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson where they are having a feast of real food (including real meat and vegetables), foods that the younger Heston has never experienced before. The film is a frightening prediction of what our world could look like in the face of the kind of environmental destruction that activists have been warning us about for years. Similarly, the 1979 film The China Syndrome became all too real when days after it was released the news reported of a nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania that resembled the one depicted in the film.
I do believe, as Stanislavsky does, that “ ‘[b]oth fantasy and imagination are indispensable to [an artist]’ ” (p. 60). Imagination and fantasy are just a few more vital tools in the artist’s toolbox.
Stanislavsky, Constantin. An Actor Prepares. Aristophanes Press, 2015 (original publication date 1936). Kindle digital file.
Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2014 (original publication date 1968). Kindle digital file.