The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre  

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"It must further be noted that recent French definitions of the fantastic, if they are not identical with ours, do not on the other hand contradict it. We shall give a few examples drawn from the "canonical" texts on the subject. Castex, in Le Conte Fantastique en France, writes: "The fantastic is characterized … by a brutal intrusion of mystery into the context of real life." Louis Vax, in L'Art et la Littérature Fantastiques: "The fantastic narrative generally describes men like ourselves, inhabiting the real world, suddenly confronted by the inexplicable." Roger Caillois, in Au Coeur du Fantastique: "The fantastic is always a break in the acknowledged order, an irruption of the inadmissible within the changeless everyday legality.""--The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1970) by Tzvetan Todorov

In The Fantastic, Tzvetan Todorov seeks to examine both generic theory and a particular genre, moving back and forth between a poetics of the fantastic itself and a metapoetics or theory of theorizing, even as he suggest that one must, as a critic, move back and forth between theory and history, between idea and fact. His work on the fantastic is indeed about a historical phenomenon that we recognize, about specific works that we may read, but it is also about the use and abuse of generic theory.

As an essay in fictional poetics, The Fantastic is consciously structuralist in its approach to the generic subject. Todorov seeks linguistic bases for the structural features he notes in a variety of fantastic texts, including Potocki's The Saragasso Manuscript, Nerval's Aurélia, Balzac's The Magic Skin, the Arabian Nights, Cazotte's Le Diable Amoureux, Kafka's The Metamorphosis, and tales by E. T. A. Hoffman, Charles Perrault, Guy de Maupassant, Nicolai Gogol, and Edgar A. Poe. --from the publisher[1]

Related e



Introduction à la littérature fantastique (1970), translated the same year as The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, is a literary history book by Tzvetan Todorov in which he explores the French fantastique.


Definition of fantastic literature

Tzvetan Todorov holds that fantastic literature involves an unresolved hesitation between a supernatural (or otherwise paranormal or impossible) solution and a psychological (or realistic) one. His term hesitation is reminiscent of the terms ambiguity and ambivalence used in the definition of the grotesque.

Todorov compares the fantastic with two other ideas: The Uncanny, wherein the phenomenon turns out to have a rational explanation (the supernatural explained) such as in the gothic works of Ann Radcliffe; or the Marvelous, where there truly is a supernatural explanation for the phenomenon (the supernatural accepted).

Genre-theoretical aspects

Aside from dealing with the question of 'what is fantastic literature,' Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic also has a very thorough chapter on the nature of genre and genre theory in general. Todorov starts with a critique of Northrop Frye's concept of genre as elaborated in Anatomy of Criticism.

According to Todorov, the first question in genre theory is:

“Are we entitled to discuss a genre without having studied (or at least read) all the works wich constitute it [the corpus]?”

He answers the question affirmatively and argues that scientific method does not require to observe every instance of a phenomenon in order to describe it; scientific method proceeds rather by deduction.

On the other hand, he also warns that:

“Whatever the number of phenomena (of literary works, in this case) studied, we are never justified in extrapolating universal laws from them.”

After which he goes on to quote Karl Popper and the famous black swan example of inductive vs deductive reasoning:

“no matter how many instances of white swans we have observed, this does not justify the conclusion that swans are white.”

Problem of the corpus

There have been various criticisms regarding The Fantastic's corpus, much of it arising from the translation from fantastique to fantastic:

By Harry Morgan

French writer Harry Morgan [2] argues that "the famous todorovian concepts are a web of errors and contradictions, [...] accentuated by the fact that the choice of the todorovian corpus is aberrant." Morgan argues that Todorov builds most of his case around French the writers Cazotte, Balzac, Gautier, Mérimée, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam and Maupassant; the Germans Arnim and Hoffmann; the Americans Poe, Bierce and James, but wrongfully excludes all British writers apart from Henry James, including Dickens, Collins, Stevenson, Doyle, Kipling, Stoker, Machen, Blackwood, de la Mare, Hodgson and Dunsany; the Belgians Ray, Owen, Ghelderode; and modern Americans such as Merritt, Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith).

By Stanislaw Lem

Stanislaw Lem in "Todorov's Fantastic Theory of Literature" reproaches Todorov’s genre theory and his bibliography, and says "Among its twenty-seven titles we find no Borges, no Verne, no Wells, nothing from modern fantasy: all of SF is represented by two short stories. We get, instead, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Potocki, Balzac, Poe, Gogol, Kafka—and that is about all. What this structural account proclaims to us as the bounds of the fantastic is really quite an antique piece of furniture: the bed of Procrustes."

In Science Fiction Studies # 6 = Volume 2, Part 2 = July 1975, Robert Scholes defends Todorov by stating that:

"It seems to me that the main point at issue between Todorov and Lem involves the number and variety of texts that are going to be called "fantastic." Todorov wants to be exclusive. Lem wants to be inclusive. [...] The essential conflict between Lem and Todorov, as I see it, lies in this area of terminology, specifically in the word "fantasy" itself. Todorov has taken, here, a word normally used to designate a large and spongy tract of literature and given that name to a narrow pathway. [...] Todorov calls the larger territory simply "the imaginary," and he locates his "fantastic" on the interface between the real and the imaginary [....]. If Todorov had called his intermediate genre the "uncanny," or given it some other less broadly designative term, much polemicizing might have been avoided. [...] In ordinary English usage, at any rate, "uncanny" is much closer to the mark. Here Todorov's English translator has not helped much, by translating étrange as uncanny. Still, if we could separate a dispute about names from the dispute about concepts, we might find that there is actually less to dispute about than we had supposed."

The fantastic as a pretext for transgression

Todorov contends that authors had to resort to the fantastic in order to cross boundaries and elude censors.

"for many authors, the supernatural was merely a pre-text to describe things they would never have dared mention in realistic terms. (Peter Penzoldt)" We may doubt that supernatural events are merely pretexts; but there is certainly a degree of truth in this assertion: the fantastic permits us to cross frontiers that are inaccessible so long as we have no recourse to it. page 158

Todorov compares a story by Gautier on necrophilia with Georges Bataille's frank account in realistic terms of a necrophiliac near-encounter in Le Bleu du Ciel.

"There is a qualitative difference between the personal possibilities of a nineteenth-century author and those of a contemporary author. We may recall the devious means a Gautier had to employ in [ in One of Cleopatra's Nights ] order to describe his character's necrophilia, the whole ambiguous business of vampirism." -- page 159

That this pretext-function of the fantastic was no longer necessary, he attributes to the rise of psychoanalysis:

"Psychoanalysis has replaced (and thereby has made useless) the literature of the fantastic. There is no need today to resort to the devil in order to speak of an excessive sexual desire, and none to resort to vampires in order to designate the attraction exerted by corpses: psychoanalysis, and the literature which is directly or indirectly inspired by it, deal with these matters in undisguised terms." -- page 160,161

But in the end, he does not wish to map psychoanalysis onto the fantastic:

"In doing so, we have not tried to establish a relation of signification between the two groups (such as: the devil means sex; the vampire means necrophilia) but rather a compatibility, a co-presence." -- page 143

The marvelous and uncanny: supernatural accepted and supernatural explained

Throughout the work, Todorov tries to make a distinction between fantastique, marvelous and uncanny, most of this based on his hesitation paradigm.

In Science Fiction Studies # 6 = Volume 2, Part 2 = July 1975, Richard Astle explains these notions:

"Historically speaking, prior to what we refer to as the "Enlightenment," there could be no such hesitation [essential to the fantastique]. The supernatural was accepted as a part of life. Witches and God co-existed with men and women, and a story could, in Todorov's terms, be "marvelous," but never "fantastic." Examples abound: Sinbad the Sailor, fairy tales, chivalric romances. At the other end—our end—of the nineteenth century, with the psychoanalytic discovery of the unconscious, there is again no hesitation. The witness to bizarre events, or at least the reader of the story, knows them to be the creations of his or her own mind. A story then may be "strange" (étrange, inexplicably translated as "uncanny" by Richard Howard), but, again, never "fantastic," science fiction and Todorov's careless remarks about it notwithstanding. For Todorov, science-fiction is a species of the marvelous, but the sense in which "robots, extraterrestrial beings, the whole interplanetary context" are supernatural is entirely different. Here the marvelous and the strange intersect without creating that cognitive hesitation characteristic of the fantastic, for the explanation of the events, while currently impossible (we as yet know no interplanetary beings) is implicitly rational (we recognize the possibility that we will know such beings in another time).

The website A Glossary of Literary Gothic Terms maps the hesitation paradigm to the gothic novel, and the website The Uncanny and the Fantastic compares the works of Horace Walpole and Clara Reeve to illustrate the difference between "marvelous" and "uncanny" works. The site concludes that The Castle of Otranto resides in the genre of the marvelous, or supernatural accepted, adopting new laws of nature for the setting and circumstances but argues that Clara Reeve's works, on the other hand, fall into the genre of the uncanny, or supernatural explained, citing known laws of nature as reasons for the phenomena described.

Quoting from Todorov:

"In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know....there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world. The person who experiences the event must opt for one of two possible solutions: either he is the victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination-- and the laws of the world then remain what they are; or else the event has indeed taken place, it is an integral part of reality--but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us (p. 25)."
"The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty....The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event (p. 25)."

Todorov later comments:

"The fantastic requires the fulfillment of three conditions. First, the text must oblige the reader to consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural or supernatural explanation of the events described. Second, this hesitation may also be experienced by a character; thus the reader's role is so to speak entrusted to a character, and at the same time the hesitation is represented, it becomes one of the themes of the work--in the case of naive reading, the actual reader identifies himself with the character. Third, the reader must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text: he will reject allegorical as well as "poetic" interpretations (p. 33)."

On the uncanny he says

"[In the uncanny], events are related which may be readily accounted for by the laws of reason, but which are, in one way or another, incredible, extraordinary, shocking, singular, disturbing or unexpected, and which thereby provoke in the character and in the reader a reaction similar to that which works of the fantastic have made familiar (p. 46)." Todorov's definition of the uncanny might be applied to stories in which the character realizes s/he is mad or has just awakened from a dream. Thus, the uncanny is an "experience of limits."
"If we move to the other side of that median line which we have called the fantastic, we find ourselves in the fantastic-marvelous, the class of narratives that are presented as fantastic and that end with an acceptance of the supernatural (p. 52)."

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