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com/doc/6567551/Fantasy-Uncanny-Pomo POSTMODERN FANTASY, IDEOLOGY, AND THE UNCANNY ©1997 George Aichele Postmodern narrative takes its readers to the brink of a language they cannot read that portrays a universe they cannot understand. Just beyond a postmodern narrative, fantasy would find its pure state, and at that vanishing point it would completely cease to mean anything (Olsen, “Postmodern Narrative” 101). FANTASY AND THE POSTMODERN The narrative functioning of the fantastic is a crucial index or symptom of the parasitic relation between postmodernism and modernist ideology. Fantasy replaces the coherent space of modernist reality with a paradoxical, non-referential space – a fragmented, multiple space, a bottomless abyss – that resists through infinite regression the modern human habitation. This is the space of what Sigmund Freud identified as “the uncanny.” Fantasy is the fragmentation, the undecidability, and the chaos within the postmodern.1 As a postmodern narrative, Franz Kafka’s story, “The Metamorphosis,” exposes the fantastic as intrinsic to language and literature, and as subversive of genre identity. The modernist ideology that has dominated Western thinking during the last two centuries or more is profoundly metaphysical. Modernism defines its ideology in relation to an understanding of reality, for which the world and the conscious self within it are integral, intelligible, and complete.2 Modernism separates thought from action and art from life, in order to allow the first member in each pair to lead to the second, and in so doing the modernist ideology defines a conception of reality determined by the opposition to, and the marginalization of, the fantastic. For the ideology of modernism, fantasy is the attempt to escape from reality. The “secondary belief” that fantasy requires, according to J.R.R. Tolkien – one of the great modernist theorists of fantasy – depends upon a primary belief, which Tolkien did not describe but which must include belief in the extratextual reality of the world. The good news (evangelium) that Tolkien held to be the great blessing granted by “fairy1 Compare Hume 124-141. By limiting her comments to a single category of recent literature, Hume indicates the modernism of her own position. See also Jackson 9, 164. 2 See, e.g., Blumenberg. stories” was more important to him than the deadening technocracy of the “primary world” of everyday reality. Nevertheless, even that good news is secondary to the reality of the primary world. The modernist ideology locates the meaning (the signified) of a text within the physical material of the text (the signifier), carefully placed there by its author, like a message in a bottle, or better yet, a soul in a living body. The metaphysical and even theological aspects of this metaphor have important consequences. As the analogy suggests, the text’s meaning is far more important than the matter that “contains” it. The author is the god of the text, and the text’s meaning derives from the author’s will for it – that is, the author’s intention.
However. . The interpretation of the sign is not. but rather that the reading of the story embodies the ideologies that readers bring to it. or forgotten within the known (Lyotard 81). in its turn. it is a reading. not a decodage. a meaning but another sign. the distinction between “history” and “fiction” is itself one of the products of modernist thinking. the absent Author. ad infinitum (de Man 127-128). Modernism attempts to overcome this threat of logical and linguistic non-reference through the promise of an extratextual authority: rational or empirical Truth. The priority given to the fantastic by postmodernism is a crucial point at which the modernist ideology is inverted and deconstructed.must be re-conceived. parasitic relation to the modern3: the postmodern is not that which comes after the modern. Postmodernism disrupts the modernist illusions of reference to a reality beyond the text. and this reading has. see also Serres. These are the referents of literary realism. Not only the nature of fantasy as a literary genre.Ellipse. an unlimited semiosis: the dead Father.Realism is not the same as reality. so postmodernism cannot escape from the ideology of the modern. The postmodern exists in a non-binary. but rather that which goes beyond the modern by going “through” it. In fact. Also important are Hassan and especially Olsen. Therefore. the missing Transcendental Signified. The postmodern seeks to make the known unknown. not through mystification but through the endless rediscovery of that which is unknown. To take postmodernism seriously requires a rethinking of literary fantasy. By emphasizing the referential ambiguity of the story. just as postmodernism is not the sequel to or entirely distinct 3 Nowhere is this made clearer than in Lyotard’s book. The modernist ideology understands and defines narratives in terms of their relationships to reality. excluded. penetrating and disrupting modern reality. according to Hans Robert Jauss (596-99).Yet the semiotic distinction between signifier and signified that underlies the modernist ideology also threatens that ideology with a loss of firm connection between the signifier and the signified. the fantastic hints that there is no meaning at all contained in the story. and this becomes apparent in the postmodern concept of “unlimited semiosis” (Eco 3). and it places this confusion above an abyss of an infinitely receding origin. to be interpreted into another sign. for [Charles] Peirce.Aichele article page2 from modernism. but the metaphysical and ideological significance of fantastic narratives. For . and so on. The modernist ideology invents both realistic fiction and historical narrative. Therefore realism involves a set of beliefs – an ideology. the ideological connection between signifier and signified is not a firm one. Realism is the representation of a reality beyond the text in a narrative. The fantastic narrative confuses and refuses the ideological distinction between reality and fantasy.
Instead. “The fantastic therefore implies an integration of the reader into the world of the characters. .Poetics 179ff. as postmodernism fragments and dissolves modernism from within. literary fantasy must be a peripheral genre. for the duration of the reading. The relation between the implied reader of a narrative and any actual. in which one is unable to determine whether a narrative phenomenon belongs to the realm of the “uncanny” or to the realm of the “marvelous” (Fantastic 31-33). as it is for modernism. among others. the moment of hesitation always confronts the reader of the story.) However. Brooke-Rose seeks to supplement Todorov’s analyses in the direction of postmodern literature and theory. The actual reader is never identical to the implied reader. this hesitating reader is what Wayne Booth calls the “implied reader. clinging to the edges of “literature. eating away its “proper” substance.”5 The actual reader is able to merge with the implied reader only insofar as she can suspend disbelief and accept the referential world of the narrative as reality. and what is ambiguous in his book is sometimes contradictory in hers. a plurality of non-centers. For the ideology of modernism. even after the initial shock of it has passed. Postmodernism destroys the metaphysical unity and identity of the modern concept of reality. that world is defined by the reader’s own 4 See also Todorov.postmodernism. historical reader. Both Jackson and Brooke-Rose have developed fantasy theories in relation to Todorov’s. However. who stands outside of the story and is inevitably more or less aware of the indeterminacy of the narrative phenomena. in Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”: the reaction of Gregor Samsa’s family to his bodily transformation. (For example. TODOROV Valuable steps toward a postmodern approach to literary fantasy have been taken by Eric Rabkin and Tzvetan Todorov. Todorov argues that literary fantasy appears as a moment of hesitation or uncertainty. Jackson is less cautious metaphysically than Todorov. producing a response of amazement or uncertainty.Aichele article page3 ambiguous perception of the events narrated” (Todorov.” who is a function of the narrative itself in an “implied dialogue” with the “implied author. This is the fantastic “escape.” according to Rabkin (43). and it ceases also to be a distinct genre.” However.4 This moment of hesitation – it is always a present moment (42) – frequently confronts a character in the fantastic story. fantasy ceases to be peripheral. but only eccentricity. fantasy subverts any beliefs we may have about reality. Instead.Fantastic 31). fantasy is no longer the consequence and the symptom of a metaphysical binarism. The reader who halts before this fantastical choice is not the actual. and so there can be no center. . extratextual reader (and between the implied author and the actual author) is always problematic.
and Kathryn Hume. has no other counters to play with but fixities and definites.Fantastic 13). A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P. or vampires. Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P. and The Act of Reading. 1978). is that the fantastic is in fact not a genre at all. confronting an apparently supernatural phenomenon (25). In other words. According to Todorov. The Implied Reader. These would include Tolkien. and blended with. marvelous stories are “realistic” about the .Aichele article page4 creation” (49). and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will which we express by the wordchoice (167. there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world. it is not reducible to a psychological process. even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead. and he generally describes the fantastic as a historical genre. Whether or not the fantastic is a genre at all may be unclear. Fancy. Todorov’s views stand in contrast to those of modernist critics. sylphides. at times he appears to consider the fantastic as a theoretical genre. … The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature. the fantastic appears as a breakdown of signification – a disruption of literary realism. Irwin. Colin Manlove. In a world which is indeed our world. according to Todorov. he identifies genre with what Northrop Frye calls literary “mode” (Todorov. but rather that the fantastic lies in the impossibility of identifying certain stories in terms of the generic “reality” to which they refer. It is essentiallyvital. the one we know. for whom the fantastic is secondary to historically and culturally governed perceptions of reality. fancy takes the (primary) reality given through one’s senses and reason and modifies it through an act of will. a structure of the logic of narratives. a world without devils.insofar as the actual reader is unable to identify with the implied reader. produced primarily at the end of the nineteenth century in Europe. . W. there may never be a moment of hesitation. According to Coleridge. but nothing else. . For the most part. and the actual reader may entirely miss the fantasy. The fancy is indeed no other than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space. . The marvelous presents a supernatural world as though it were real. but the marvelous and the uncanny are distinct genres. A version of the same concept is apparent in Tolkien’s claim that we produce a secondary world through an act of “sub5 See also Wolfgang Iser. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former .and inter-textual. However. 1974). all of whom draw in one way or another on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous distinction between “fancy” (fantasy) and imagination in chapter XIII of the Biographia Literaria: The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception.R. and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite IAM. Thus he is somewhat inconsistent in his use of the word “genre. nor is it historically or culturally relative.” What Todorov’s analyses suggest. Fantasy in this limited sense is both intra. Todorov distinguishes between “theoretical” and “historical” genres. however. on the contrary. the fantastic concerns a fundamental ambiguity of genre. Coleridge’s emphases).
Inter. each of these genres demands a distinct understanding of reality. this fantastic moment cannot be sustained. consistent world. In contrast. the realities referred to by the marvelous and the uncanny. Hoffman’s story. The fantastic text presents the implied reader – and often a character in the narrative as well – with an undecidable choice between two contradictory realities.Fantastic 31. Unlimited semiosis becomes manifest in narrative self-referentiality. “The ‘Uncanny. fantasy permits only “nearly .” Freud notes. Freud was not primarily concerned with literary theory. Therefore both the uncanny and the marvelous require belief. the genre of the uncanny presents bizarre events happening in the everyday world. and the bond between actual reader and implied . quoting the Saragossa Manuscript). but they are just as real. The ability of the actual reader to share the near belief of the implied reader is a crucial measure of the actual reader’s experience of fantastic hesitation. Thus the uncanny and the marvelous are completely incompatible with one another. The sorts of beings and events that are represented in a narrative of the marvelous may be quite different from those in the more common types of realistic narrative. but complicated interplays between literature and lived experience appear throughout his essay. The fantastic moment can survive only as long as generic indeterminacy does. Instead of referring to a single. but the reader cannot remain in a state of near belief.supernatural. It interrupts all reference to extratextual reality. within which the union of signifier and signified can occur. because both the uncanny and the marvelous refer to (very different) “genres” of reality. TODOROV AND FREUD There are important similarities between Todorov’s fantasy theory and Freud’s theory of the uncanny.. The hesitation of the reader before the fantastic results from the reader’s inability to decide what is real. as a story. Nevertheless.Aichele article page5 reader is most tenuous. to determine the selection between them.. However. ideological forces – press the reader to move on to a deciding of the undecidable narrative. and seems uncomfortable with. the story refers to a contradiction between worlds (genres) and to its own unsuccessful efforts. the narrative cannot maintain itself at the point of the reader’s hesitation. According to Todorov. The fantastic is unstable and must eventually destroy itself. believing” (Todorov. “The Sand-Man. within the frames of that genre. In other words. the fantastic story refers only to itself. Near belief is neither belief nor unbelief.and extratextual forces – that is.’” much of which is devoted to a discussion of E. both the uncanny and the marvelous are referential genres. although they are extremely unusual. the complex relation between the literary uncanny and the psychological uncanny: . Thus at the moment of hesitation between the two referential genres. In the moment of near belief the story is most purely fictional. and the point at which literary fantasy becomes psychological fantasy. these events can be (and often are) explained in purely natural terms.A. and each implies a distinctive metaphysics. for which the primary world is the only world that exists.T. and the story eventually is resolved into either the uncanny or the marvelous. In contrast.
for meaning is always eitherHeimlich orUnheimlich.” The uncanny arises as a heterogeneity that is both intimate and secret or hidden.. Along similar lines. This uncertainty is not the same as that between the marvelous and the uncanny. they are to be read quite literally.. This disruption. the human dwelling place. on the level . also reveals what Jacques Derrida calls the “family scene.” but instead it is quite similar to Todorov’s concept of the fantastic. 249)..6 The modernist metaphysical enclosure. On the one hand. a great deal that is not uncanny in fiction would be so if it happened in real life . we find that we did not know at all.) Not unlike Jacques Lacan. however. .[W]e should differentiate between the uncanny that we actually experience and the uncanny that we merely picture or read about.. is turned inside-out. The uncanny occurs at a point where non-understanding comes to light – the failure of . Questions of meaning or reference are less important in poetry than the pure play of language. the space in which language appears. “[P]oetic images are not descriptive. Derrida reads Freud as producing a theory of writing (“the Mystic Writing Pad”) and of the interpretation of the “writing” that is the unconscious. and which have the status of objects. What we thought we knew well.Aichele article page6 understanding is not cleared up. “[t]he rational schema represents the human being as a subject entering into relations with other persons or with things that remain external to him. That which isHeimlich is found to be alsoUnheimlich. a failure of binary opposition. poetry tends in the direction of what Kristeva calls the semiotic. Freud’s “uncanny” isnot Todorov’s “uncanny.. The Freudian uncanny appears whenever the familiar becomes unfamiliar and the comfortable becomes frightening (Freud 220). the home or house. Yet the unconscious is the great Freudian “family scene. there are many more means of creating uncanny effects in fiction than there are in real life (247. Julia Kristeva calls this uncanny disruption of identity a nondisjunction. The Freudian uncanny (GermanUnheimlich) concerns not only that which belongs to the home (GermanHeimlich).” which is the “scene of writing” (Derrida 196ff. This well describes the postmodern revelation of the “unpresentable in presentation itself” (Lyotard 81). such as a “family secret. As Todorov says. .. The material base of language (the semiotic) appears in and through the fragmentation of linguistic meaning (the symbolic).” of the id and of its sublimations. properly binary and univocal. but its object is identified as that which is not understood. which provides a sense of totality and identity. is disrupted and fractured. The literature of the fantastic disturbs this abrupt separation” (Fantastic 116). but also that which is hidden away (alsoHeimlich) (Freud 222-224). In the Freudian uncanny. The similarity between Todorov’s theory of the fantastic and Freud’s theory of the uncanny is heightened by Todorov’s further claim that the fantastic also stands at a point of indecision between poetry and allegory.
The signifier signifies. Todorov claims that the fantastic is fictional. . even if only to reject it (Fantastic 167-168). fantasy is both anti-mimetic and anti-metaphysical. . and it is pointless. it gives that language life. allegory tends in the direction of what Kristeva calls the symbolic.of the verbal chain they constitute. the fantastic questions precisely the existence of an irreducible opposition between real and unreal. there could be no hesitation between the marvelous and the uncanny.).7 On the other hand. to which Todorov’s concept is closely related. to translate this combination into sensory terms” (Todorov. but if the metaphor is sustained. But if this meaning is found in some hidden or indirect reference. by combating the metaphysics of everyday language.. [B]y the hesitation it engenders. the materiality of language (the semiotic) and its power of signification (the symbolic) are at war with one another.Fantastic 62-63). Whence the ambiguous impression made by fantastic literature: . we first of all acknowledge its terms. in order to perform a sacrifice. The poetic image is a combination of words. and literal. content or message dominates the linguistic medium.Aichele article page7 the implied reader did not seek or expect some sort of reference or meaning. In the fantastic. but it does not cohere to any signified.. the fantastic remains bound to the metaphysical binarism of real and unreal. not even on that of their reference. not of things. we must know what to sacrifice.Fantastic 60). chapters 1-2. then the hesitation disappears. for Todorov. Poetic language is essentially non-referential. and thus he keeps one foot on modernist ground. therefore it must be literal. therefore the fantastic must be fictional. Thus there is a fantastic undecidability at the level of reference (what the story is about) and a related undecidability at the level of the text itself. But in order to deny the opposition. and allegorical language refers to extratextual truth. as opposed to allegorical. it reveals an intention to speak of something else besides the first object of the utterance” (Todorov. If 6 See Bachelard. However. it must start from language. The fact that the physical medium can receive at once two opposed meanings (both the uncanny and the marvelous) is a symptom of a fundamental incoherence in language itself. as opposed to poetic. In allegory. “[A]n isolated metaphor indicates only a figurative manner of speaking. the “monotheistic” univocity of coherent meaning. 7 See also Jakobson’s concept of the poetic function of language (69ff. even harmful. In the undecidability between these two forms of language.
If “starting from language” means acknowledging the terms of the “irreducible opposition between real and unreal. This modernist conception may be found also in Todorov’s limitation of fantastic literature to a rather small number of texts produced during a limited time span. Instead. The fantastic reversal is made possible by the structure and the language of . it is the supernatural that makes possible the transgression of narrative ground rules (Fantastic 165). many theorists make no apparent distinction.8 Rabkin also distinguishes between fantasy as a narrative genre and the fantastic as a component or dimension of many different genres and individual works of literature. according to Todorov. the fantastic is reality turned precisely 180° around. RABKIN On the face of it. A narrative’s ground rules are established within the text through the use of language (the “grapholect”) that frames a set of perspectives (Rabkin 20. the fantastic reverses the ground rules themselves. Although Rabkin also focuses primarily on works from that time period. For Rabkin. The fantastic reversal is a reversal of reality – once again. Furthermore. but this is reality nonetheless.” of which Todorov’s and his own objects of study would be but a few instances. which remains within the fundamental ground rules established by the narrative and its genre and which is embodied in the implied dialogue that constitutes the story.Fantastic 36-40). either theme or character. and therefore it upsets the ability of the narrative to refer to a consistent reality. [T]he fantastic is important because it is wholly dependent on reality for its existence.Aichele article page8 genre cannot be defined or confined historically. indeed. fantasy subverts ideology. nonetheless he insists that fantasy as a . a fantastic narrative reality that speaks the truth of the human heart (Rabkin 28).” then we have returned to the modernist opposition between reality and fantasy. as determined by “microcontextual variations” (Rabkin 36). This distinction is not uncommon. but with a couple of important reservations. the fantastic is constituted not merely by the unexpected. The fantastic reversal is not the same as theperipety of Aristotle. He argues that works of literary fantasy are to be found at many points in literary history – in other words. but by the “anti-expected” (Rabkin 10). However. Admittedly. the fantastic is the reversing of a narrative structure. Rabkin regards fantasy as what Todorov would call a “theoretical genre. These variations are produced by “the local affect of reading at any given time” in relation to the established ground rules of the narrative. Once again. Rabkin expresses his admiration for and general agreement with Todorov’s analyses. the incarnation of a position in the logic of narratives that emerged in Europe in the middle of the nineteenth century and died out early in the twentieth century. in which “the fantastic started from a perfectly natural situation to reach its climax in the supernatural” (Fantastic 171). Within these perspectives. Irwin virtually opposes the fantastic to the genre of fantasy. compare Todorov. and within European and North American cultures. Rabkin’s views are quite similar to Todorov’s. upon itself. Todorov considers fantasy to be what he calls an historical genre. this reversal is independent of historical and cultural changes in the beliefs or attitudes of readers. On the whole.
extratextual world. As readers become accustomed to what once were new forms. The genre of fantasy defines a literature that refers fundamentally to itself and therefore only very ambiguously to any “other” – such as extratextual truth or reality. as with biological species. Narratives belonging to “older” genres continue to be written and read long after the “newer” genres have appeared. It is always ideological. Fantasy as a genre is the extreme or pure state of the literary fantastic. Rabkin demonstrates how the fantastic serves as a mutative power in genre evolution. fantasy becomes a genre that reverses the structure of fantastic reversal itself. the appearance of a new literary form does not necessarily mean the end of the older one. According to Rabkin. These changes are produced through the operation of the fantastic. He argues that the fantastic satisfies our urge for order by giving us a sense of control. the fantasy of man is order” (213). The anti-expected changes “the preconceptions of our armchair world” (10). 342. It arises when fantastic reversal is “exhaustively central” to a narrative (Rabkin 28) – when the textual instances of a genre have become so highly convoluted through reversals of ground rules.. Other scholars have also used Todorov’s distinctions far beyond the limited range of his own study. . New genres arise from earlier genres through reversal of essential ground rules. and each genre has its own life span. we have Fantasy” (78). This all sounds very modernist – much . This is not a return to unreversed narrative structure. “The reality of life is chaos. Yet fantasy also questions the meaning and the value of survival itself. a potentially healthy escape from the suffering and confusion of our everyday. Once again. Rabkin argues that this fantastic ambiguity cannot itself be perceived: “[r]eality is that collection of perspectives and expectations that we learn in order to survive in the here and now” (227). but rather the revelation of structure as structure. that is.Aichele article page9 Genres develop and change throughout history. However. the fantastic operates to a greater or lesser degree within individual texts of non-fantasy genres and also as a principle in the historical formation of all genres. their tastes become jaded. and they demand further reversals. Thus there is a tension between desire for that which isavant-garde and nostalgia for the traditional stories. 8 See also Brooke-Rose 62ff. and then reversals upon those reversals. readers recognize fantastic reversal “playing on and against our whole experience as people and readers” (41. that their power to refer to reality is undone. According to Rabkin. and thus it is creative: it makes us human. reality is always generic. At this extreme. By questioning the truthfulness of every ideology – every reality – fantasy threatens the possibility of our survival.the narrative itself. when the ground rules of the narrative world are subjected to repeated reversal. As a collection of expectations. thus the fantastic serves as a principle of innovation. also 25). “[W]hen linguistic perspectives continually shift within a given text. fantasy is self-referential: it signifies itself.
Narrative reality itself is up for grabs. Irwin describes the story as an elaboration on the experienced impossibility of a man becoming a giant bug (81ff. or from another planet. As Kafka says elsewhere. and 2) by displaying the inherent insanity of any totally coherent system or world. but rather that in the fictional world of this story. Todorov calls this the story’s “oneiric logic” (Fantastic 173). “The Metamorphosis. the fantastic story reveals the 9 Modernist theorists also disagree about Kafka’s story. Hume concludes that .Aichele article page10 Reconciliation would be near if we could free Todorov’s views from their historical limitations. who is mysteriously transformed overnight into a gigantic insect (ein ungeheuren Ungeziefer): he is no longer quite himself. fantasy is dangerous. as paradoxical. Kafka’s story well illustrates the genre of literary fantasy. the bullet hits an entirely unexpected target.” This gives to the story a paranoid quality that also appears in many other of Kafka’s writings. Each view offers something that the other lacks. and Christine Brooke-Rose has already gone far in this direction.like Irwin or Tolkien. which therefore misses a distant target by a wide margin.” semiosis is unlimited. In deductive logic.10 Kafka’s narrative proceeds with a rigidity that is absolutely logical. Irwin cites Todorov’s work with approval (55). . Kafka presents Gregor’s situation and its consequences as simultaneously bizarre and normal. “A real Fantasy uses the fantastic so essentially and so constantly that one never escapes its grip into the security of a fully tamed world for more than a moment” (218).” a phrase that appears at crucial points throughout “The Metamorphosis. Compare Irwin’s remarks on the end of the story (85) to those of Todorov. the use of improbable or false premises can lead to wild and impossible conclusions. that is. In contrast. The irony of this writing cuts twice: 1) by way of comparison. Or rather. What makes “The Metamorphosis” fantastic is not the fact that in the real world people don’t turn into big bugs. that makes all the difference in the story – like a gun aimed ever so slightly inaccurately. In “real Fantasy. anything at all can happen.). In Kafka’s narrative world the reader is never certain what the ground rules (the story’s premises) are.9 For Rabkin. The target is reality. like the view of one’s own culture from a foreign country. But it is also true that neither Rabkin nor Todorov has developed a purely postmodern theory of literary fantasy. but with one exception. and the miscalculation is the fantastic. The world of “The Metamorphosis” is an anti-world. a minor miscalculation. even if the argument form is valid. The primary damage is the ideological subversion described above. Gregor Samsa. and violent. As the gun metaphor suggests. either. Yet Rabkin can also say. and this is evident in their differing analyses of postmodern texts such as Kafka’s story. but they are not incompatible. Everything happens “as if. “THE METAMORPHOSIS” Todorov’s and Rabkin’s theories of the fantastic in literature are not identical.” “The Metamorphosis” is a tale of a young salesman. Nonetheless.
Fantastic 171. with any of them. Georges Bataille’s description of Kafka fits Gregor Samsa equally well and also illustrates Todorov’s notion of adaptation: [H]e bowed low before an authority who denied him. although his way of bowing was far more violent than a shouted assertion. the modernist . He bowed. but she also does not know how to interpret Gregor’s and his family’s reactions to each new turn of events. Rabkin does not discuss Kafka’s story in detail. Bataille’s emphasis). They also include Gregor’s strangely peaceful death and the highly uncanny (in Freud’s sense of that word) “family scene” with which the story closes (compare Todorov. Insofar as we can agree. argues at some length that “The Metamorphosis” is an exemplary text of a new. the reader is given no reliable cues by which she might judge the sequence of events that follow Gregor’s astonishing transformation.Neither the primitive fear of the healthy toward the maimed nor the selfish concerns which detach the well members from the sufferer are admirable. .. . one cannot truly empathize. These events include Gregor’s own reactions to his altered body. compare Bataille 129). he calls Kafka a forerunner of the contemporary “worldwide movement toward the fantastic” (180). Todorov. much less identify. Thus although one might feel sorry for Gregor or for his family. it is pleasant to call humanity vermin (96).Fantastic 171). even temporarily. his emphasis. opposing the silence of love and death to that which could never make him yield.Aichele article page11 universal inescapability of illusion (The Trial 276). What this suggests.. is sovereignly what it is (141. and as he bowed. in contrast. but honest readers will admit their inclination toward these responses. From the opening pages of “The Metamorphosis. according to Todorov. and hence will empathize [with Gregor’s family]. However. although he does not use the term. because thenothingness which can never yield in spite of love and death. he loved and died.. 10 For example. the well-known extended syllogisms constructed by Lewis Carroll. The reader not only does not know what to expect as the story unfolds. and the episodes with the lodgers. is postmodern metafictional literature. The overall bleak portrayal of human nature works like a subtractive image. Kafka’s story illustrates theinversion of the fantastic (Fantastic 173). . his sister’s response to his transformed state. According to Todorov. twentieth-century literature that has superseded the historical genre of the fantastic. In this new post-fantastic literature. they remain foreign (Unheimlich) throughout the story.” where Gregor wakes up to discover his monstrously altered state. Hesitation and adaptation designate two symmetrical and converse processes (Todorov. his family’s increasing well-being (which begins with Gregor’s transformation). [I]t is a contrary movement [to that of the fantastic] which is described: that ofadaptation..
and the rational modern space of Gregor’s home has become something unspeakable. and they incorrectly assume – with the singular exception of the charwoman – that he cannot understand them. What “The Metamorphosis” is about is the attempt to find out what it is about.. indeed.Aichele article page12 drastically altered body.Unheimlich. postmodern fantasy disrupts and deviates from the teleology of escape. immobilized and paralyzed. Jackson presents a Freudian analysis of “The Metamorphosis” (158). and yet it does not cease to seem inadmissible to us” (Fantastic 172). and the material body of the sign. one tends to interpret Kafka either theologically (as marvelous) or psychoanalytically (as uncanny).Fantastic 32. now a corpse. we are thus confronted with a generalized fantastic which swallows up the entire world of the book and the reader along with it. and his sister is not horrified by his new appearance. With Kafka. To this corresponds the implied reader’s inability to understand the story – the fantastic hesitation that Todorov describes. As Walter Benjamin noted. like Gregor’s body. Fantastic 174. is swept away with the household garbage. instead she is perplexed about what to feed him. “The supernatural is given. his emphases). either Gregor has suffered the effects of a terribly cruel miracle or else he is profoundly delusional. 12 Compare Todorov.11 “The Metamorphosis” issimultaneously uncanny and marvelous. 281-282. in order to escape from it.ideology that has both made possible the two poles (the marvelous and the uncanny) and established their separation has exploded.12 Gregor Samsa has become a non-human parasite. see also Jackson 161. Kafka’s story likewise must be “eliminated” by the reader. By the end of “The Metamorphosis. “The right perception of any matter and a misunderstanding of the same matter do not wholly exclude each other” (The Trial 271). either theological or psychoanalytic. One central theme of “The Metamorphosis” – and nearly all of Kafka’s stories – is the impossibility of understanding. there are no longer two poles to hesitate between. . 11 See Todorov. Gregor worries more about being late for work than he does about his . the differences between Rabkin and Todorov here are not great. For his family it is as though he never existed. As in many of Kafka’s stories. and therefore it is neither. refuses the readers’ attempts to possess the story by giving it a meaning. However. Benjamin holds that either of these interpretations is in error (127).. .Aichele article page13 CONCLUSION . The ideology of modernism requires that the story yield a meaning – that it reinforce the primacy of reality. However.Fantastic 83-84. it must be given a reading. what in the first world [traditional fantasy] was an exception here becomes the rule(Todorov. the teleology of meaning has become.” Gregor’s transformed body. Gregor’s family is unable to understand him. As Kafka says in a different context. 159-160. like his characters. but both are necessary. that is. Todorov claims that in literature such as “The Metamorphosis” the hesitation between the uncanny and the marvelous has itself metamorphosed into paradoxical identification of each with the other.
the fantastic reversal becomes itself a paradigm.Fantastic 173). present reality and always-fictitious representation. Yet despite these limitations. an anti-genre. That experience is one perceived as continually beyond belief. they are both non-sense. or better. yet both uncanny and marvelous. the undoing of every paradigm. For postmodernism. That which isHeimlich is revealed to beUnheimlich. For postmodernism. fantasy. one of a culture . “Postmodern Narrative” 108). That fantasy continues to exist and readers recognize it as such is due to a partial failure of ideology. but rather it is about the limits of that structure. To explore the limits of narrative is to explore the limits of culture” (Olsen. revealing the desire to believe that lies beneath the reader’s need to interpret the text. both Rabkin and Todorov remain bound to the ideology of modernism and the consequent privileging of reality over the fantastic. For Rabkin. Yet is this not what we must expect if fantastic reversal is itself reversed. Like madness. “The Metamorphosis” displays the incoherence and incompleteness of the written text.” it is because reality itself has become fantastic. If the fantastic can become “normal. Kafka’s story exposes the material linguistic substratum that makes that communication possible and from which the reciprocal illusions of “author” and “reader” are created. fantasy hesitates between two paradigms. The disagreement between Todorov and Rabkin is therefore not about the structure of the fantastic itself. Yet both theories describe a narrative that inevitably must break its own generic boundaries – a non-genre. Perhaps this indicates that a purely postmodern theory of literature is impossible. “the genre of fantasy” becomes a misleading expression for whatever leads the reader to the literary and literal chaos from which all narrative proceeds and that is prior to and essential to every genre. and it reveals the unreality inherent in all language. “The Metamorphosis” shatters the illusion of meaningful communication between author and reader. for to achieve such would require a surpassing and demolishing of this metaphysics. as Rabkin says happens in the genre of fantasy? As a postmodern fantasy. “sane” boundaries between things and words.. both Rabkin and Todorov point toward the place and the role of the fantastic in the postmodern. The impulse behind fantastic postmodern narrative’s strategy of attempting to respond to textual limits implies our culture’s metaphysical strategy of attempting to respond to contemporary experience. “[E]very narrative strategy suggests a metaphysical one . postmodern fantasy disrupts and transgresses conventional. and in reaction against. The fantastic story refuses and deconstructs the reader’s ideology. However.. For Todorov. signifieds and signifiers.” as in “The . fantasy and madness are one. Nevertheless. as during an age of intellectual chaos – a postmodern age (Todorov. Fantasy presents a puzzle for which there is no correct solution.Aichele article page14 Metamorphosis. neither uncanny nor marvelous.Kafka’s story makes explicit and places into question the oppositions that are fundamental to all narrative. One purpose of ideologies is to contain and suppress the reversals and hesitations of fantasy. the survival of fantasy is finally due to the fact that ideology itself arises as.
“Postmodern Narrative” 108-109). Brooke-Rose. although it is commonly suppressed and ignored in the reader’s desire to find coherent meaning – the desire for ideology. I would argue that this perpetuates fantastic undecidability. The Poetics of Space. and of Kristeva (and of Roland Barthes. In “The Metamorphosis. The reader is not comforted by this story. Boston: The Beacon Press. . Coleridge. Robert M. Samuel Taylor. 1983. It plays out endlessly what Rabkin calls the reversal of reversal itself. Postmodern fantasy raises the ideological questions of who we are and should be. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. Ed. and of all language. Georges. Trans. but in a way that does not lead to easy answers – a way that often leads to no answers at all. those of Lewis Carroll. Deleuze. Hans.” Textual Strategies.T. The Rhetoric of Fiction. for it is an ingredient of all literature. Fantasy makes explicit something that is there in all writing.Illuminations. Benjamin. Press. Gilles. whom I have not mentioned) is devoted to the ideological analysis of writing. something inherent in the very technology of writing. Harari. The wholeoeuvre of Derrida. New York: Schocken Books. Trans. 1968. “Semiology and Rhetoric. MA: The M. Biographia Literaria. Josué V. Trans. 1979. NY: Cornell UP.passim. 1964. Josué V. A Rhetoric of the Unreal. which resists our ideological attempts to de-fantasize it (see Jackson 177-179). Walter. Booth. de Man.” the modernist narratives through which we encounter reality and in terms of which we live our lives are deconstructed and left in pieces. is shortcircuited. and the possibility and desirability of a fantasy that comes true. Ithaca. “The Schizophrenic and Language: Surface and Depth in Lewis Carroll and Antonin Artaud. Trans.that perceives itself as undergoing physical and metaphysical erasure (Olsen.Aichele article page15 WORKS CITED Bachelard. 1981. Bataille. 1920. Paul.” Textual Strategies. Literature and Evil. Blumenberg.13 This fantastic play or unlimited semiosis cannot be restricted to the literature of the twentieth century. Gaston. New York: Urizen Books. Chicago: U of Chicago P. 1973. Wayne C. Wallace. Ed. . The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. Cambridge. with a rigor in “The Metamorphosis” (and in many of Kafka’s stories) that is only rarely found elsewhere. see Deleuze. 14 Derrida. of course.I. Harari. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 1961. Alastair Hamilton. Todorov might say that this is consistent with his claim that metafictional literature inverts the fantastic hesitation by demolishing the polarity of the uncanny and the marvelous. Ithaca. Maria Jolas. Christine.14 13 Others would include the stories of Julio Cortázar and Tommaso Landolfi – plus. Harry Zohn. a realized utopia.
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