The Wild Hunt

One of the popular strains of our protracted adolescent sub-culture is called live-action-role playing, or LARP, a type of gaming based on the obsessive need to escape the rigors and constraints of the real world. It involves the fantasy substitutions of roles and personae for the humdrum identities of our own recalcitrant natures. Online avatars are a more passive instance of this desire to transcend the limitations of the self and the captive circumstances of everyday life. But live-action-role-playing brings the passion for this evasion of and deliverance from the quotidian to a whole new level of engagement.

A recent movie dramatizes the LARP phenomenon to perfection. The Wild Hunt is a shoestring-budget Canadian production based on an ancient Norse myth recounting the exploits of a group of phantasmal warriors thundering across the skies. Somewhat more modestly, the film tells the story of a band of young men and women playing at being a troupe of Vikings and Celts and other mytho-historical characters somewhere in the northern forests of Quebec. They adopt heroic names, loll about on fur couches, wear magical cloaks, quaff beakers of ale, dance around bonfires, speak in archaic idioms, invoke the gods, and sally forth to storm castles and wage harmless combat with one another. When chided for the absurdity of his caperings, one of the participants replies, “Well, at least we’re fun losers.” He could not have been more wrong.

Eventually, as real-life relationships begin to emerge in all their untameable complexity, the innocence of the game is lost, jealousies and antagonisms break through the surface of theatrical posturing, and one of the players is gruesomely murdered, his head smashed repeatedly against a rock. Fantasy can never keep reality at bay for very long, which inevitably intrudes with a vengeance. The director’s message is clear. Live-action-role-playing — in effect, a vivid kind of pretending — is a temporary reprieve from the grimly ineluctable world that we find so hard to accept but must come to terms with to ward off unanticipated disaster.

In order to avoid abstraction, we should try to specify what we mean by “reality.” To say without qualification that reality is simply “what is” plainly won’t do, since pretending also is and functions as an element of the given. What we mean in the deeper sense by “what is” requires some amplification. Reality, I would suggest, is defined for us by the advent of the irreversible. Ageing and death are inescapable, unless one is Dorian Gray or Elijah. We cannot go back in time unless we live in an H.G. Wells story or a Michael J. Fox movie. We cannot undo what has been done. We cannot become someone else no matter how hard we may try. In the fantasy world, such things may be possible, but in the real world, regrettably, one cannot underclock and do things over again to create a preferred outcome.

That is precisely why a miracle is a miracle: it purports to reverse in the real world what can only be reversed in fiction, dream or mythology. Lazarus can return from the dead and Orpheus from the underworld. The sun can stand still “in the midst of the heavens” to ensure a military victory. Destiny can be thwarted, if you inhabit Spanish playwright Pedro Calderón’s Life Is a Dream. Groundhog Day can recycle indefinitely to enable the revision of stubborn events. Infinitely recurring simulations, or Source Codes, can adjust the structure of impending reality. One can step into an obverse, looking-glass world where everything is done differently. Miracles — at whatever level of importance they are thought to occur — are subsidized by the powerful human desire to commute reality in favor of the counterfactual and thus to transform or reverse the settled order of the mundane.

Of course, change is a part of life and nature, but there is no eluding the fact that change is also a refractory part of existence and cannot be reversed. Change is an unchangeable aspect of the real and is always uni-directional. In the real world retroversion is contra-indicated — which is what we intuitively understand by “reality.” The constitutive “nature of things” cannot be remade. Though we all know this, the trouble is that we often act as if we didn’t and continually invest in one or another form of live-action-role-playing. No harm done if the illusion is kept under strict control and readily exited; otherwise the losing will not be fun.

The dilemma is obviously compounded when live-action-role-playing becomes a staple of political life and infects the foreign policy of entire national administrations. Enacting a LARP-like geopolitical fantasy on the international stage must invariably produce destructive consequences. Neville Chamberlain, who played the role of the peace maker and assumed that Hitler was a fellow actor, learned that sanguinary lesson to his and his nation’s exorbitant cost, as did the rest of the world — some fifty to seventy million dead. The results of Chamberlain’s folly were irreversible, no less so than is the presence of evil in the world, as he should have expected had he possessed the merest ounce of realism and been able to grasp the “vectors” of human nature. The “anatomy of appeasement,” writes Bruce Thornton in his just-released The Wages of Appeasement, discounts “the permanent truths of human nature expressed through social and political mechanisms.”