The Fantastic I

I think I’ve mentioned before that the book I’m writing at the moment is on fantasy and dream in modern literature, and there seems to be quite a bit of the fantastic floating around in the book blog world at the moment, not least the Slaves of Golconda‘s latest, Bruno Schultz’s Street of Crocodiles. Now, the fantastic in literature (and by that I mean ghosts, spirits, bizarre phenomenon, acts of impossible metamorphosis, inanimate objects coming to life, etc) is often considered to indicate a story that tries to ‘escape’ or ‘transcend’ reality by constructing an alternative world. Our first response is to see the fantastic as belonging to a set of literary concerns that have nothing to do with life as we live it, or the reality of our political or cultural situation. Perhaps this is because the fantastic is often associated with the world of the child, and children are forcefully excluded from engagement in what adults consider to be most ‘real’. Well, think again; the fantastic is actually very tightly enmeshed with what is most intolerable or constricting about real life.

What the fantastic really expresses is a struggle against the limits of the world in which it was written. It often expresses the fears and anxieties that the contemporary social context inspired in its author, or else it spoke of an unbearable lack that begged for compensation; a lack of freedom, or a collapse of previously reliable forms of authority. In this way, fantasy literature is very good at showing us the basis on which the order, or rule of any society rests, for it performs, for a moment, a rampant, uncontrolled form of disorder, or misrule, a terrifying glimpse of what is most illegal, of what lies beyond the law. Whether this is the dead walking, or the drinking of human blood, or animals performing the same feats of language as human beings, fantasy shows us the scaffolding of beliefs and rules that keep us safe and in control in the reality we know. Are the dead really dead enough? To what lengths will man’s inhumanity to man go? Fantasy tests the boundaries of the known world to see whether or not they are in danger of breaking and letting unimaginable horrors in.

But the ties that bind are also those that constrict. It’s not surprising that authors like Kafka or Schultz, both of whom had traumatic childhoods, should be attracted to the fantastic. The irrational dictates of overly authoritarian parents are often translated into mad worlds where unreason rules; lack of love can lead to landscapes which remain locked in stubborn winter; the experience of extreme anger can find expression in spirits that burst into flames. Essentially these are moments when fear, anxiety or incomprehension take on a material form. It’s easy to see how terrified children, who lack the language to express what is happening to them, find their emotions taking on symbolic form in later life.

Whilst the fantastic can speak of personal torment, it also tells the tale of cultures in transition. One of the most defining periods of fantastic literature occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century in France. At that point France had been through a series of damaging and destabilizing revolutions; belief in monarchy as a form of government was destroyed, as was the peoples’ faith in a new form of Republic. The Catholic church was fast losing its power over the populace, and fathers were being challenged as heads of the family. In short, the fantastic at this point in history reflected a crisis in patriarchy; kings, heads of state, God and the father were all losing their grip on authority, and what would happen next remained unclear but threatening. As the old structures of order and control began to crumble, fantastic literature spun tales of malignant ghosts, vampiric women, statues that came to life and journeys to the centre of the earth. After all, if what had seemed set in stone now proved to be malleable and impermanent, it was possible to think that anything, just anything could happen. It’s a perfect example, I think, of how fear and possibility exist on two sides of the same coin.

What interests me particularly is that at the end of the twentieth century we began to see a real revival in the genre of the fantastic. What does this tell us about our own moment in history? What transitions are we undergoing at present and what regulations and limits are we testing? Some would say we are entering the era of the posthuman, that our old sense of humanity as perfectible and continually improving itself has been replaced with absolute investment in technology to take over as our guiding force. But I think that’s a post for another day…

21 thoughts on “The Fantastic I

  1. It is interesting how literature –especially the fantastical is really just a response to what is happening in our society. But maybe it should not be so surprising after all.

  2. LK – you’re very welcome. It’s such a fun genre to work with. Danielle – it is a surprise when you first think about it, but then it all falls into place. I’ve got lots of work to do to get to the bottom of it still!

  3. A fantastic post! It shows just how close we still are to that small camp-fire with the glittering stars above, the Sabre-toothed tigers roaming the dark and only our spears to protect ourselves. We had to invent Gods so that we did not spend our entire lives cowering from the shadows. We had to learn how to bury our dead so that they or their spirits would not come back to harm us.

    Every time there is a change in our society, we revert to those fearful skin-clad beings who were our ancestors just 600 generations ago.

  4. I would read that book…

    Perhaps by going back to the roots of Romance and “the fantastic” writers can finally release themselves from the literature of Modernism-and-after.

  5. Also signing up here for your book, and further posts on the fantastic. It’s fascinating stuff, and I’m sure 21st century literature is going to throw light on our changing relationship with technology. I just read TC Boyle’s Talk Talk, which talks about identity theft, not in any non-realist way, but I’m sure there’s much more of that to come. Ghostly bloggers, anyone?

  6. Archie – you’re so right. The fantastic is bound to something entirely primitive within us and those old, old responses to threat and the unknown. Only you put that better than I did. Carl – thank you! and thank you for the link too, which was indeed extremely interesting to me. Marly – what an intriguing thought. Because the fantastic awakens something very profound in us it may well be understood as a response to the play of surface that is postmodernism. That’s really set me thinking now. Charlotte – I would really like to read that T C Boyle novel! I quite agree that there’s a marked turn in fiction towards exploring the new sense of identity that’s sprung from our reliance on computers, technology and the internet. Bring it on!

  7. “What the fantastic really expresses is a struggle against the limits of the world in which it was written.”

    You have just nicely summed up for me what I have been trying to formulate for Schulz’s book. I loved the fantastic elements and the way they suddenly launch themselves away from reality while still telling us something about that reality. I echo everyone else, I think your book sounds “fascinating”

  8. I’m eagerly awaiting a post on Radcliffe since I remember you’re reading The Italian (it was that one, right?) — and I say that because I thought of the gothic when you were talking about the fantastic appearing in response to social change. It’s common to read gothic literature of the late 18, early 19C as a response to the disruptions of the French Revolution. I do hope you’ll write something about Radcliffe!

  9. Can I mention Stephen King again? In Danse Macabre, his non-fiction meditation on the horror genre, he makes a point similar to yours: Horror comes at particular moments of social stress. Thus the 1950s giant monster movies revealed a fear of what repurcussions might occur from nuclear testing (giant ants running amok, for instance). He oversimilifies it, I think, making it almost seem as if horror is a too-neatly-bound set of pop-psychological reactions, but he does have a point. So many of our stories of the fantastic today are built on the disruptions caused by technology, government, non-government entities. I definitely want a copy of this book when you’re done. Maybe two or three!

  10. This is such a wonderful post (especially for someone who likes to write the fantastic). I like Hobs’s Stephen King theory. I would add to it that maybe we see a renewed interest in this type of writing because people are feeling very restrained these days, despite the myth of living in free societies.

  11. I also wonder, to some extent, if the horrific and the fantastic aren’t ways for us to explore safely our worst case scenarios. If, as the hobgoblin mentioned above, horro is a reaction to social stress, then maybe its just another way of dealing with our fears in more manable ways. For instance, the idea of another world war is overwhelming, frightening, sickening…but monsters in caves in the movie the Descent are also overwhelming, frightening, sickening and if we can sit through that movie, well, maybe we can make it through real-life worst case scenarios? Maybe both fantasy and horror allow us to identify with heroes and imaginging our survival in worst case scenarios, as opposed to the opposite?

  12. Interesting points. I believe that the rise in Gothic fiction in the mid-1800s was a reaction to developments in science (a la Darwin) and modernism — sort of a reference back and defiant acknowledgement to what we don’t understand versus what science and the rationale mind says we can understand. Something similar, I venture, is happening now. My own guess? We are seeing the end of the natural progression of technology benefiting the world — a balance has been tipped and now we must make moral and ethical decisions around technology development: What will benefit, what will not, what is right and what is wrong and for whom and why? This, at a time when organized religion is generally failing to address these issues, is causing sociostress and fueling underlying fears.

    But that’s just my own little opinion.

  13. Stefanie – thank you! And it was reading the Slaves’ accounts of the Schulz that made me think of posting on the fantastic. It did sound a fascinating, if challenging, read. Dorothy – I will most certainly be posting on the Radcliffe. The Rebecca West has won me over somewhat at the moment, but I was enjoying The Italian a lot and am looking forward to getting stuck into it next. Bikeprof – You’ve been such a help to my thinking for this book I think you (and Dorothy) deserve a reader’s copy! King’s point is a good one – as you say, it’s probably not quite so simple, but the causal effect is undoubtedly accurate and true. Emily – I think you’re quite right. We are oddly limited, even by our own attempts at liberality (no phrase quite equalling ‘Enjoy yourself!’ in its crippling effects). Courtney – that’s a very interesting point you raise. Horror movie critics do argue that identifying with the victim can be a odd but effective way of playing out our fears and surviving them, just as you suggest. LK – you make me think of something I read just yesterday, that said there was no question now that we would go on to make machines far more powerful than human beings. The real concern was, why should we want to do this? You’re quite right to think that whenever society appeals most strongly to the power of reason, artists are ready to remind us all that reason has a dark underside that is just as formidable.

  14. Oh, ok, well, I read on the internet that his father suffered from very poor health, and that his wife was therefore forced to run the clothing shop they kept, leaving Schulz in the charge of a sadistic maid. He was considered very odd at school, a loner who was laughed at behind his back and he lived a very reclusive life. I suppose that might not amount to much compared to the sufferings of other artists, but I thought it might be enough to spark an already overactive imagination.

  15. That’s a great post. I’ve been getting back into the horror genre lately and namely Stephen King; I finished the sixth book of the Dark Tower series and I’m currently reading “Lisey’s Story.” I haven’t read King in a long time, which is nice. He was the first adult author I ever read seriously, so I always come back to him sooner or later.

    And since you mentioned traumatic childhoods, I seem to have read somewhere, years ago (maybe it was in “Danse Macabre”) that King had a traumatic experience as a child. As the story goes, when he was seven or so, he came home one day after seeing his friend hit and killed by a train. Supposedly, his mother told him this story, but he claims to have no memory of it. It would explain a lot, especially stories like “The Body.”

  16. Brandon – you and Bikeprof tempt me to try Stephen King. I am a bit of a wimp with horror because I’m afraid of not being able to sleep at nights, but he is such a legend, I know I ought to get over myself one of these days! Interesting biographical information too.

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