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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...

Friday, March 4, 2011


“The fantastic is always a break in the acknowledged order, an irruption of the inadmissible within the changeless everyday reality.”—Roger Caillois, AU COEUR DU FANTASTIQUE.

In this essay I discussed parallels between Kant’s concept of the sublime and my concept of “the uncanny,” in terms of how both could be produced purely from affects within an experience of any kind. Both can suggest that the experience is “beyond nature” in a Longinian affective sense, without a literal violation of causality’s “acknowledged order,” as one sees in the category of “the marvelous.”

Shortly later this essay covered parallels between the Kantian sublime and "the mythic," which refers to all narratives that possess high symbolic complexity like that of archaic myths. I emphasized both in that essay and earlier ones that "the mythic" could appear in any of my three phenomenal categories, just as was the case for the sublime:

To expand on the caution I expressed before, this parallel does not imply identity, for the sublime can appear in any work regardless of its phenomenal category. I mentioned Maugham’s book THE RAZOR’S EDGE, which contains the sublime affect even though it’s an entirely isophenomenal work, while Poe’s HOUSE OF USHER, a work of uncanny metaphenomenality, has its own sublimities. The same aesthetic applies to the marvelous form of the metaphenomenal, but I stress that a work is not automatically sublime just because it contains marvels that do transcend causality.

All that said, it should be obvious that there's some quality about my two metaphenomenal categories that is *not* shared by the "odd man out," the isophenomenal. And as it happens, Caillois also supplies the best word for this quality, when he defines fantasy in terms of "an irreducible strangeness."

My choice is deliberately ironic. Stanislaw Lem asserts that "étrange," the French word for "strange," is the actual word used by Todorov for his category "the uncanny." Possibly the translator thought Todorov was tossing around so many Freudianisms that the critic would not be averse to the association with Freud's famous formulation of the quality he called "umheimlich", "unfamiliarity," which was translated as "uncanny" for this 1919 essay. I would tend to agree that the translator was right, considering this observation by Freud:

"Thus heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops in the direction of ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich. Unheimlich is in some way or other a sub-species of heimlich."

Clearly this is in total agreement with this Todorov statement:

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

Thus it would seem that Todorov's "étrange” is very reducible to such influences as Freud’s infamous “family romance.”

In his 1978 work THE FANTASY BOOK, Franz Rottensteiner also cites Caillois: “Fantasy in the narrow sense, as defined by Caillois, is directly contrary to reason, describing events not susceptible to rational explanation by natural laws.” As I have not read Caillois aside from a few translated excerpts, I have no clue as to what works fall into Caillois’ concept of fantasy that is “irreducibly strange.” I would hope that a work like Poe’s HOUSE OF USHER, which I judged to be “uncanny” here, would qualify: that Caillois would not, unlike Todorov, consider that USHER falls into “the category of the real” simply because Poe supplies the reader with possible “rational explanations.”

Rottensteiner provides a quote from another writer whom I have not read in full: one Lars Gustafsson, whose essay, “On the Fantastic in Literature,” appeared in a collection of essays a year before Todorov’s THE FANTASTIC was published. Rottensteiner finds Gustafsson to be in agreement with Caillois:

“The fantastic in literature doesn’t exist as a challenge to what is probable, but only there where it can be increased to a challenge of reason itself: the fantastic in literature consists, when all has been said, essentially in showing the world as opaque, as inaccessible to reason on principle.” Rottensteiner supplies one example that Gustaffson found “fantastic,” a work by the artist Piranesi, but obviously this doesn’t give one enough to evaluate Gustaffson’s criteria in depth.

However, Gustaffson’s contrast between the “probable” and the “reasonable” is interesting. I’ve stated that “All fictional narrative concerns the atypical,” and functionally all three of my phenomenality-categories may be considered differing iterations of atypicality, though I generally use “the atypical” as short for the “base atypicality” that rules the world of isophenomenal causality, a.k.a. “the acknowledged order.” This is the world governed by what Gustaffson calls “what is probable,” as should be suggested by my observation from this essay:

“The pleasures and pains of character identification are in no way altered with respect to whether the story seems utterly fantastic, somewhat fantastic or not fantastic at all. However, the reader’s aesthetic perceptions are affected by their perception as to what phenomena are possible in the fictional world.”

A narrative world governed entirely by rational causation never deals with “reason” as a mode of being. It cannot, for nothing in that world can challenge reason; in that world there can only exist varying degrees of probability. In the two levels of the metaphenomenal, however—though of the “utterly fantastic” or “somewhat fantastic”—reason, at least in its commonplace form, is challenged.

True, in the essay “On Fairy Stories” Tolkien is careful to state that fantasy “does not destroy or insult Reason.” Still, while LORD OF THE RINGS may present a world which is in some ways more “reason-friendly” than that of Poe’s USHER, in Middle-Earth commonplace reason is transcended by the forces of magic and magical entities. So in Tolkien’s world, the combat between “reason” and “unreason” is won by “unreason” simply by the act of depicting the marvelous as unquestionably real. This principle applies no less to science-fictional works wherein the marvel is explained by some science that is at the time still hypothetical, in that this hypothetical science is still outside the bounds of the acknowledged order.
In uncanny works the “reason/unreason” battle results in a draw. Cognitively the metaphenomenon does not totally dispel causation, but it can and does do so in the affective sense Thus it is fair to speak of both categories as sharing the quality of “strangeness,” for both challenge rationality and causation to some extent, while atypical works merely challenge one’s notion of probability.

Side-note: My above ruminations about how I’ve used “atypicality” make me aware that I shouldn’t use the same word for both a general category and a specific category within that category. From now on, what I’ve called “general atypicality” is better described as “the anomalous,” drawing on Frank Cioffi’s use of that term.

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