The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Introduction à la littérature fantastique, first published in French in 1970 and translated as The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre is a literary history book by Tzvetan Todorov in which he explores the notion of the French fantastique.

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.

Contents

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 with yes:

“Scientific method allows does not require us to observe every instance of a phenomenon in order to describe it; scientific method proceeds rather by deduction.”

But 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:

French scholar Harry Morgan's [1] 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." Todorov builds most of his case around French writers Cazotte, Balzac, Gautier, Mérimée, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam and Maupassant Germans Arnim and Hoffmann, the Americans Poe, Bierce and James, but excludes all British writers apart from the Henry James. Todorov does not mention Dickens, Collins, Stevenson, Doyle, Kipling, Stoker, Machen, Blackwood, de la Mare, Hodgson and Dunsany. Morgan goes on "Not one single Belgian (Ray, Owen, Ghelderode, no modern Americans (Merritt, Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith).


   Since structuralism in literary studies is largely of French origin, this attempt to ruin its reputation takes as its motto the words of a Frenchman, Pierre Bertaux: "At one time it was hoped that the beginnings of a formalization of the humanities analogous [to that of the sciences] could be expected from structuralism. Unfortunately, it appears today that precisely the loudest advocates of structuralism have let it degenerate into a mythology—and not even a useful one." I fully agree with this verdict. However, inasmuch as it is difficult to expose in a single article the barrenness of a whole school of thought—one moreover which has spawned divergent tendencies, since every author has his own "vision" of the subject—I will limit myself to dissecting Tzvetan Todorov’s book The Fantastic. The author begins by deriding the investigator who would, before proceeding to description of a genre, engage in endless reading of actual works. Todorov’s "sample" of works discussed, as displayed in his bibliography, is astonishing. 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. Hoffman, 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. --Stanislaw Lem via http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/4/lem4art.htm [Jan 2007] 


The fantastic as a means to cross boundaries

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 order to describe his character's necrophilia, the whole ambiguous business of vampirism. -- page 159 

That the pretext 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 Todorov ==

The Marvelous vs. the Uncanny

According to Tsvetan Todorov, a certain hesitation exists throughout a Gothic tale: the hesitation of the reader in knowing what the rules are in the game of reading. Can our understanding of familiar perceptions of reality account for strange goings-on or do we have to appeal to the extraordinary to account for the setting and circumstances of the mysterious story? At the novel's close, the reader makes a decision, often apart from the character's or narrator's point of view (see unreliable narrator), as to the laws that are governing the novel. If she decides that new laws of nature must be in place for the phenomena to occur, the novel is classified in the genre of "the marvelous," also called supernatural accepted. If she decides that the laws of nature as she knows them can remain unchanged and still allow for the phenomena described, the novel is in the genre of "the uncanny," or supernatural explained.
   Examples:  Comparing the works of Horace Walpole and Clara Reeves illustrates the difference between "marvelous" and "uncanny" works.   Walpole's The Castle of Ortranto resides in the genre of the marvelous, or supernatural accepted, adopting new laws of nature for the setting and circumstances.  Clara Reeves' 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. She, in fact, consciously set out to rehabilitate the extravagances of Walpole's Gothic vision in Otranto.
   For more on the debate see UVa's "The Uncanny and the Fantastic." --http://www.georgiasouthern.edu/~dougt/goth.html#mar [Jun 2006]
   In his book The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1975), Tzvetan Todorov offers the following definitions of fantastic fiction:
       "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)."
       Todorov distinguishes the fantastic from two other modes, the uncanny and the marvelous. While these modes have some of the ambiguity of the fantastic, they ultimately offer a resolution governed by natural laws (the uncanny) or the supernatural (the marvelous).
       "[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)." --http://www.unc.edu/~bardsley/ghosts/todorov.html 

On Lem on Todorov:

   Historically speaking, prior to what we refer to as the "Enlightenment," there could be no such hesitation. 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). --http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/6/lemtodorov6forum.htm 

From Terry Heller's 1987 Delights of Terror:

   In the marvelous tale, according to Todorov, events take place that violate the reader's conceptions of natural laws, but the characters behave as if the events were normal. Both Todorov and Rabkin point out that this is the fictional world of the fairy tale. Indeed, in "Hansel and Gretel," no one questions the existence of a rich witch in the woods who builds a house out of food to trap children or of a white bird to lead the children to her or of a duck to help ferry them back home. Likewise in Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles (1950), there are no questions about the possibility of space travel, though it had not yet happened when the book was published. The existence of Martians, the physical conditions on Mars, the possibilities of interactions between humans and Martians -- these are just as marvelous as witches and obedient wild ducks. Bringing science fiction and fantasy into the marvelous along with fairy tales, shows the mode's extensiveness. We might go even further by mentioning the marvelous sympathy among some members of the Bundren family in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying or the marvelous power of poetic justice in Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Like Todorov's uncanny genre, his marvelous genre shades off into all of literature, where the marvelous appears in many guises, depending to some extent on what constitutes natural law for any particular cultural group. --http://www.public.coe.edu/~theller/essays/delights/dt3.html [Jun 2006] 

See also: gothic novel - Todorov - fantastic literature - uncanny

SIPs

fantastic - fantastique - fantastic literature - genre theory - gothic novel - the uncanny - Tzvetan Todorov - the marvelous - literary theory - structuralism


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