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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, November 6, 2010


Perhaps the most revealing mistake Tzvetan Todorov makes in THE FANTASTIC is seen both in his book’s subtitle and in his book’s first sentence:

“’The Fantastic’ is a name given to a kind of literature, to a literary genre.”
This is a conspicuous terminological error. The presence or absence of fantasy in a narrative may give rise to specific genres, such as horror and science fiction. But that presence or absence is not itself a genre, or even a super-genre. It is an indicator of phenomenological content within the narrative. Such content can cross genres without changing the common view of them, as with horror, which encompasses both “realistic” and “fantastic” horror-narratives.

But even if Todorov’s assertion were supportable, then given the common opposition of “realistic” literature to “fantastic” literature in modern culture—an opposition which Todorov validates continually throughout his tome—then one would have to deem “The Realistic” to be a literary genre as well. One might respect the audacity of such a formulation, but Todorov is not quite that daring, and though he attacks what he calls “theoretical” notions of genre, he fails to say what precise aspects make a work conform to “reality as it exists in the common opinion.”

I suggest that this position leaves him open to having his motives deconstructed as Todorov’s old mentor Barthes chose to deconstruct a Balzac story in S/Z. My deconstruction of Todorov’s work will much simpler and more direct than Barthes’ rambling dissection of Balzac, however.

I begin by asserting, as did Northrop Frye, that within the sphere of literature no “fantastic” element is any more “real” than elements we deep “realistic.” Within that sphere one element may be more realistic or fantastic than another, but seen from outside they are all the same: literary constructs. Moreover, the “fantastic” elements within a work of a certain type—for instance, Milton’s PARADISE LOST—are not meant to connote a divergence from “reality as it exists in the common opinion” in the same way that some horror-story spectre diverges from consensual reality. Rather, the fantastic elements in PARADISE LOST are meant to transcend the reader’s sense of his consensual reality, depicting Milton’s version of his Christianity’s “true reality,” a reality that underlies the merely apparent world of the consensual. Clearly both Milton and his ideal readers are not going to “hesitate” in guessing whether or not the story of Eden should be taken as “real” or not.

I suggest further that Todorov seeks (perhaps subconsciously) to marginalize the fantastic by seeing it as a generic adjunct to the larger sphere of Realistic Literature, which, as I noted earlier, was the sort of literature that dominated the academic canon in 1970. Throughout THE FANTASTIC that which is “real” is also that which is “rational.” Todorov’s brand of structuralism is certainly of a “little-R” rationalist stripe, so it’s logical that he validates any and all perceptions that support this form of rational cognition. In addition, I suspect that his heavy concentration upon the literary element of “hesitation” is not because it is actually central to the dynamics of what I call the metaphenomenal. Rather, it’s because the struggle between “rational” and “irrational” worlds is what’s important to him.

Only at one point in THE FANTASTIC does Todorov make an assertion that seems to put “the Fantastic” and “the Realistic” on the same plane as literary constructs, and it’s the only point where I can entirely agree with him, though probably not with any of his extrapolations from it. This appears in his final summing-up chapter:

“…we must inquire into the very nature of narrative. Let us begin by constructing an image of the minimum narrative, not the kind we usually find in contemporary texts, but that nucleus without which we cannot say there is any narrative at all. The image will be as follows: All narrative is a movement between two equilibriums which are similar but not identical.”

This is an apt restatement, in valid structuralist terms, of the narrative progress that Aristotle calls “complication and resolution” and that Frank Cioffi explores in terms of science-fiction “anomalies.” Todorov then gives two story-examples, one of which is a made-up sketch of a realistic story while the other is a particular Arabian Nights tale that contains a modicum of supernatural content. However, instead of continuing to see the two narratives as equal, Todorov soon bounces back to his concern with the greater significance of stories within the category of “the fantastic,” stories that oscillate between the real and the unreal. On page 167 he finally makes explicit that this oscillation fascinates him precisely because it indirectly privileges elements of “reality:”

“It is therefore the category of the real which has furnished a basis for our definition of the fantastic.”

But in regards to what the literary “category of the real” contains, Todorov is either silent or incoherent. I’ll just note in passing that Northrop Frye, whom Todorov disdains as merely “theoretical,” is far Todorov’s superior in describing his vision of this category. However, useless though Todorov’s theory is for describing anything but a very narrow range of high-literary horror stories, he did create a valid dichotomy between “the Uncanny” and “the Marvelous” which, with some modifications, can be used to describe both all manner of fantasies without regard for their literary pedigrees.


Gary L. Pullman said...

I agree with you that Todorov's distinction between the uncanny and the marvelous as resolutions to the fantastic, as he defines it, offers a useful point for literary analysis and criticism. My own understanding of Todorov is that he regards the world view offered by modern science as "realistic" and anything else (for example, paranormal or supernatural phenomena) as fantastic; depending upon how the fantastic resolves itself, it is either uncanny (H. G. Wells' "The Red Room") or marvelous (Stephen King's "1408"). It remains fantastic only when this tension between the two possibilities of interpretation (the uncanny and the marvelous) remains unresolved (Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw").

Gene Phillips said...

Yes, that's a good summation of his thesis. And I can see some logic for his dismissal of those critics whom he feels have been too cavalier in classifying the fantastic according to how it makes them feel. But I think his attempt to apply a theory based on real-world cognition, with no place for the affective at all, in effect throws out the baby with the bathwater.