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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...

Thursday, May 2, 2013


“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.”-- Lars Gustaffson, cited in Franz Rottensteiner's THE FANTASY BOOK.

Of course, fairy-stories are not the only means of recovery, or prophylactic against loss. Humility is enough. And there is (especially for the humble) Mooreeffoc, or Chestertonian Fantasy. Mooreeffoc is a fantastic word, but it could be seen written up in every town in this land. It is Coffee-room, viewed from the inside through a glass door, as it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day; and it was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle. That kind of “fantasy” most people would allow to be wholesome enough; and it can never lack for material. But it has, I think, only a limited power; for the reason that recovery of freshness of vision is its only virtue. The word Mooreeffoc may cause you suddenly to realize that England is an utterly alien land, lost either in some remote past age glimpsed by history, or in some strange dim future to be reached only by a time-machine; to see the amazing oddity and interest of its inhabitants and their customs and feeding-habits; but it cannot do more than that: act as a time-telescope focused on one spot. Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new), may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds. The gems all turn into flowers or flames, and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you.-- Tolkien, ON FAIRY-STORIES.

There are fictional works that come as close to pure verisimilitude (as defined by Frye here) as is humanly possible, and many writers follow Zola's dictum that the best fiction is that which adheres to observed reality.  Still, fidelity to nature can be in the eye of the beholder. When I read GERMINAL, I found it incredible that Zola's brutish peasants apparently subsisted on nearly no food at all.  This would be, in the terms I introduced in the above essay, an "incoherent improbability."

In all naturalistic works, both improbability and impossibility can only be sources of incoherence, even in works from a period less demanding than that of Zola's era.  At the climax of THE WINTER'S TALE, the audience is asked to believe that Queen Hermoine, supposedly dead for the last sixteen years,can fool her husband Leontes into thinking she is a statue of herself simply by standing very still. And Leontes seems to be convinced, though he does express curiosity that the sculptor has made Hermoine look the same age she would be in the present, rather than the age she was at her "death."  Some audience-members might jeer at the improbability, while others might cheer.  But in neither case has the improbability served any function comparable to the one Lars Gustaffson assigns to "the fantastic:" that of forming a "challenge to reason" itself.

 This "challenge" is the foremost element which gives rise to the affect of "strangeness" in a fictional work, irrespective of whether or not the work abides by the rules of causality (at least on the "cognitive" level) or thwarts those rules.  In works like GERMINAL and WINTER'S TALE, the "incoherent improbability" cannot challenge causality either in its cognitive or affective senses.  The audience simply passes over these moments of improbability like a fleet of trucks trundling over low speed-bumps.  Such moments have no positive value in themselves: they're nothing but minor instances of "the atypical," instantly subsumed by the straight road of naturalistic typicality.  Because naturalistic works seek to be "iso-real," to imitate consensual reality, their ability to produce the affect of sublimity-- of feeling as if the boundaries of experience have been dizzyingly extended-- is necessarily, as Tolkien observes in the above quote, "only a limited power."

In Tzvetan Todorov's formulation of his Freud-influenced version of "the uncanny" in THE FANTASTIC, a work that even takes an ambivalent stance toward the marvelous has all but capitulated to the forces of causality and reason:

“Although the resurrection of Usher’s sister and the fall of the house after the death of its inhabitants may appear supernatural, Poe has not failed to supply quite rational explanations for both events.”
What Todorov fails to comprehend here is that the "quite rational explanations" in USHER do not dispel the sense of something bizarre taking place, as is seen when the "statue" in WINTER'S TALE seems, ever so briefly, to have come to life.  The slight nods to possible rational explanations in USHER do not the banish the strangeness of the House, with its face-like facade, its doomed occupants and its cataclysmic descent into the tarn.  This is the common element of all of my ten uncanny-tropes.  In each case the uncanny-author plays a game that resembles the game of the advocate of naturalism, in that he does not violate causality.  But he does so not to reify "the real," as Todorov suggests.  He does so to create a "supra-real world," one in which there is a far greater potential for combinatory sublimity than in any naturalistic work. 

I suspect that if any current comics-critics read the above statement, their collective panties would become as twisted as tourniquets.  "How dare you say," they might protest, "say that any of the works you cite as "uncanny" are in any way "better" than any naturalistic work!  Even if THE WINTER'S TALE is not the greatest Shakespeare, it's still greater in every way than all those things you list in TEN DYNAMIC DAEMONS, except maybe the approved canonical literary works by Carroll, Hugo and Melville."  (Current comics-scholars tend to suck on the tits of High Literature without about as much comprehension of the juice of their sustenance than a swaddling infant has.)

Of course, what I've stated is that the potential is always greater, not that every work in the "uncanny" category fulfills that potential.  I've experienced a considerable number of "Lone Ranger" comics and television shows, but with very few exceptions the franchise has only rarely fulfilled the potential of the "supra-real sublime."  However, I have no scruples against asserting that a pop-fiction work like Sax Rohmer's MYSTERY OF FU-MANCHU does tap into a higher level of combinatory power.  Whether or not it's as great or greater than the sublimity-quotient of Hugo's NOTRE DAME DE PARIS scarcely matters to me.  Once a work partakes of  the uncanny phenomenality, that work is dealing with far more than mere "freshness of vision."  Such works are "coherent improbabilities," in which the source of the "strangeness"-- be it a weird house or a weird society, a wildly improbable hero or criminal-- circumvents the causal reality in which that element exists.  I don't know if this will be any easier to understand that my having said that "affectivity exceeds causality," though.

Obviously the "marvelous" phenomenality is one where both the cognitive and affective worlds of the work break with consensual reality, so that the combinatory sublimity here is of an "anti-real" nature.  Sometimes the marvelous phenomenon is relatively minor in its combinatory power: I recently reviewed a 1940 B-horror film called THE APE, in which the only marvelous element was a mad doctor's rather grotesque cure for polio.  But the potential of "anti-real" worlds for combinatory power is always greater than the execution, as Tolkien analyzes in his hypothetical example of a fiction about a "green sun:"

To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.
I've stated before that the three phenomalities are absolutely equal in terms of their potential for mythicity-- defined as the complexity of symbolic discourse-- and in terms of their potential for what I now define as "dynamic sublimity."  But I'm reversing myself on the first of these. The sublimity of combinatory power is not one where equality reigns.  The marvelous possesses the greatest power of this kind, followed by the uncanny, with the naturalistic possessing nothing more than the power to  recover "the freshness of vision."

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