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 “fairyCompare 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.
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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. 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. Modernism attempts to overcome this threat of logical and linguistic non-reference through the promise of an extratextual authority: rational or empirical Truth. These are the referents of literary realism. Realism is not the same as reality. Realism is the representation of a reality beyond the text in a narrative. Therefore realism involves a set of beliefs – an ideology. The modernist ideology understands and defines narratives in terms of their relationships to reality. In fact, the distinction between “history” and “fiction” is itself one of the products of modernist thinking, according to Hans Robert Jauss (596-99). The modernist ideology invents both realistic fiction and historical narrative. However, the ideological connection between signifier and signified is not a firm one, and this becomes apparent in the postmodern concept of “unlimited semiosis” (Eco 3). The interpretation of the sign is not, for [Charles] Peirce, a meaning but another sign; it is a reading, not a decodage, and this reading has, in its turn, to be interpreted into another sign, and so on, ad infinitum (de Man 127-128). Postmodernism disrupts the modernist illusions of reference to a reality beyond the text. The postmodern seeks to make the known unknown, not through mystification but through the endless rediscovery of that which is unknown, excluded, or forgotten within the known (Lyotard 81). The postmodern exists in a non-binary, parasitic relation to the modern3: the postmodern is not that which comes after the modern, but rather that which goes beyond the modern by going “through” it, penetrating and disrupting modern reality. Therefore, just as postmodernism is not the sequel to or entirely distinct
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Nowhere is this made clearer than in Lyotard’s book; see also Serres. Also important are Hassan and especially Olsen, Ellipse.
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from modernism, so postmodernism cannot escape from the ideology of the modern. To take postmodernism seriously requires a rethinking of literary fantasy. The priority given to the fantastic by postmodernism is a crucial point at which the modernist ideology is inverted and deconstructed. Not only the nature of fantasy as a literary genre, but the metaphysical and ideological significance of fantastic narratives, must be re-conceived. By emphasizing the referential ambiguity of the story, the fantastic hints that there is no meaning at all contained in the story, but rather that the reading of the story embodies the ideologies that readers bring to it. The fantastic narrative confuses and refuses the ideological distinction between reality and fantasy, and it places this confusion above an abyss of an infinitely receding origin, an unlimited semiosis: the dead Father, the absent Author, the missing Transcendental Signified. For postmodernism, fantasy is no longer the consequence and the symptom of a metaphysical binarism, as it is for modernism. Instead, fantasy subverts any beliefs we may have about reality. For the ideology of modernism, literary fantasy must be a peripheral genre, clinging to the edges of “literature.” However, as postmodernism fragments and dissolves modernism from within, eating away its “proper” substance, fantasy ceases to be peripheral, and it ceases also to be a distinct genre. Postmodernism destroys the metaphysical unity and identity of the modern concept of reality, and so there can be no center, but only eccentricity, a plurality of non-centers.

TODOROV Valuable steps toward a postmodern approach to literary fantasy have been taken by Eric Rabkin and Tzvetan Todorov, among others. Todorov argues that literary fantasy appears as a moment of hesitation or uncertainty, 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).4 This moment of hesitation – it is always a present moment (42) – frequently confronts a character in the fantastic story, producing a response of amazement or uncertainty. (For example, in Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”: the reaction of Gregor Samsa’s family to his bodily transformation, even after the initial shock of it has passed.) However, the moment of hesitation always confronts the reader of the story. “The fantastic therefore implies an integration of the reader into the world of the characters; that world is defined by the reader’s own See also Todorov, Poetics 179ff. Both Jackson and Brooke-Rose have developed fantasy theories in relation to Todorov’s. Jackson is less cautious metaphysically than Todorov, and what is ambiguous in his book is sometimes contradictory in hers. Brooke-Rose seeks to supplement Todorov’s analyses in the direction of postmodern literature and theory.
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ambiguous perception of the events narrated” (Todorov, Fantastic 31). The reader who halts before this fantastical choice is not the actual, historical reader, who stands outside of the story and is inevitably more or less aware of the indeterminacy of the narrative phenomena. Instead, this hesitating reader is what Wayne Booth calls the “implied reader,” who is a function of the narrative itself in an “implied dialogue” with the “implied author.”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, for the duration of the reading. This is the fantastic “escape,” according to Rabkin (43). The relation between the implied reader of a narrative and any actual, extratextual reader (and between the implied author and the actual author) is always problematic. The actual reader is never identical to the implied reader. However, insofar as the actual reader is unable to identify with the implied reader, there may never be a moment of hesitation, and the actual reader may entirely miss the fantasy. Fantasy in this limited sense is both intra- and inter-textual, but nothing else; it is not reducible to a psychological process, nor is it historically or culturally relative. Todorov’s views stand in contrast to those of modernist critics, for whom the fantastic is secondary to historically and culturally governed perceptions of reality. These would include Tolkien, W.R. Irwin, Colin Manlove, and Kathryn Hume, 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, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former . . . It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead. Fancy, on the contrary, has no other counters to play with but fixities and definites. The fancy is indeed no other than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space; and blended with, and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will which we express by the word choice (167, Coleridge’s emphases). According to Coleridge, fancy takes the (primary) reality given through one’s senses and reason and modifies it through an act of will. A version of the same concept is apparent in Tolkien’s claim that we produce a secondary world through an act of “subSee also Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader. Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P, 1974), and The Act of Reading. A Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P, 1978).
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creation” (49). According to Todorov, the fantastic concerns a fundamental ambiguity of genre. For the most part, he identifies genre with what Northrop Frye calls literary “mode” (Todorov, Fantastic 13). Todorov distinguishes between “theoretical” and “historical” genres, and he generally describes the fantastic as a historical genre, produced primarily at the end of the nineteenth century in Europe. However, at times he appears to consider the fantastic as a theoretical genre, a structure of the logic of narratives. Thus he is somewhat inconsistent in his use of the word “genre.” What Todorov’s analyses suggest, however, is that the fantastic is in fact not a genre at all, but rather that the fantastic lies in the impossibility of identifying certain stories in terms of the generic “reality” to which they refer. In other words, the fantastic appears as a breakdown of signification – a disruption of literary realism. In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know, a world without devils, sylphides, or vampires, there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world. … The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural phenomenon (25). Whether or not the fantastic is a genre at all may be unclear, but the marvelous and the uncanny are distinct genres, according to Todorov. The marvelous presents a supernatural world as though it were real; marvelous stories are “realistic” about the supernatural. 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, for which the primary world is the only world that exists, but they are just as real, within the frames of that genre. In contrast, the genre of the uncanny presents bizarre events happening in the everyday world. However, although they are extremely unusual, these events can be (and often are) explained in purely natural terms. Thus the uncanny and the marvelous are completely incompatible with one another. Nevertheless, both the uncanny and the marvelous are referential genres, because both the uncanny and the marvelous refer to (very different) “genres” of reality. In other words, each of these genres demands a distinct understanding of reality, within which the union of signifier and signified can occur. Therefore both the uncanny and the marvelous require belief, and each implies a distinctive metaphysics. In contrast, fantasy permits only “nearly ... believing” (Todorov, Fantastic 31, quoting the Saragossa Manuscript). Near belief is neither belief nor unbelief. The hesitation of the reader before the fantastic results from the reader’s inability to decide what is 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, and the point at which literary fantasy becomes psychological fantasy. In the moment of near belief the story is most purely fictional, and the bond between actual reader and implied
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reader is most tenuous. The fantastic text presents the implied reader – and often a character in the narrative as well – with an undecidable choice between two contradictory realities, the realities referred to by the marvelous and the uncanny. Instead of referring to a single, consistent world, the story refers to a contradiction between worlds (genres) and to its own unsuccessful efforts, as a story, to determine the selection between them. Thus at the moment of hesitation between the two referential genres, the fantastic story refers only to itself. It interrupts all reference to extratextual reality. Unlimited semiosis becomes manifest in narrative self-referentiality. According to Todorov, this fantastic moment cannot be sustained; the narrative cannot maintain itself at the point of the reader’s hesitation. The fantastic moment can survive only as long as generic indeterminacy does, but the reader cannot remain in a state of near belief. Inter- and extratextual forces – that is, ideological forces – press the reader to move on to a deciding of the undecidable narrative, and the story eventually is resolved into either the uncanny or the marvelous. The fantastic is unstable and must eventually destroy itself.

TODOROV AND FREUD There are important similarities between Todorov’s fantasy theory and Freud’s theory of the uncanny. Freud was not primarily concerned with literary theory, but complicated interplays between literature and lived experience appear throughout his essay, “The ‘Uncanny,’” much of which is devoted to a discussion of E.T.A. Hoffman’s story, “The Sand-Man.” Freud notes, and seems uncomfortable with, the complex relation between the literary uncanny and the psychological uncanny: [W]e should differentiate between the uncanny that we actually experience and the uncanny that we merely picture or read about. ... a great deal that is not uncanny in fiction would be so if it happened in real life ... there are many more means of creating uncanny effects in fiction than there are in real life (247, 249). Freud’s “uncanny” is not Todorov’s “uncanny,” but instead it is quite similar to Todorov’s concept of the fantastic. The Freudian uncanny (German Unheimlich) concerns not only that which belongs to the home (German Heimlich), but also that which is hidden away (also Heimlich) (Freud 222-224), such as a “family secret.” The uncanny arises as a heterogeneity that is both intimate and secret or hidden. That which is Heimlich is found to be also Unheimlich. The Freudian uncanny appears whenever the familiar becomes unfamiliar and the comfortable becomes frightening (Freud 220). The uncanny occurs at a point where non-understanding comes to light – the failure of
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understanding is not cleared up, but its object is identified as that which is not understood. What we thought we knew well, we find that we did not know at all. This well describes the postmodern revelation of the “unpresentable in presentation itself” (Lyotard 81). In the Freudian uncanny, the human dwelling place, the home or house, is turned inside-out.6 The modernist metaphysical enclosure, which provides a sense of totality and identity, is disrupted and fractured. This disruption, however, also reveals what Jacques Derrida calls the “family scene,” which is the “scene of writing” (Derrida 196ff.) Not unlike Jacques Lacan, Derrida reads Freud as producing a theory of writing (“the Mystic Writing Pad”) and of the interpretation of the “writing” that is the unconscious. Yet the unconscious is the great Freudian “family scene,” of the id and of its sublimations. Along similar lines, Julia Kristeva calls this uncanny disruption of identity a nondisjunction, a failure of binary opposition. The material base of language (the semiotic) appears in and through the fragmentation of linguistic meaning (the symbolic), for meaning is always either Heimlich or Unheimlich, properly binary and univocal. As Todorov says, “[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, and which have the status of objects. The literature of the fantastic disturbs this abrupt separation” (Fantastic 116). 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. This uncertainty is not the same as that between the marvelous and the uncanny. On the one hand, poetry tends in the direction of what Kristeva calls the semiotic, the space in which language appears. Questions of meaning or reference are less important in poetry than the pure play of language. “[P]oetic images are not descriptive. ... they are to be read quite literally, on the level of the verbal chain they constitute, not even on that of their reference. The poetic image is a combination of words, not of things, and it is pointless, even harmful, to translate this combination into sensory terms” (Todorov, Fantastic 60). 7 On the other hand, allegory tends in the direction of what Kristeva calls the symbolic, the “monotheistic” univocity of coherent meaning. In allegory, content or message dominates the linguistic medium. “[A]n isolated metaphor indicates only a figurative manner of speaking; but if the metaphor is sustained, it reveals an intention to speak of something else besides the first object of the utterance” (Todorov, Fantastic 62-63). Todorov claims that the fantastic is fictional, as opposed to poetic, and literal, as opposed to allegorical. The signifier signifies, but it does not cohere to any signified. If See Bachelard, chapters 1-2. See also Jakobson’s concept of the poetic function of language (69ff.), to which Todorov’s concept is closely related.
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the implied reader did not seek or expect some sort of reference or meaning, there could be no hesitation between the marvelous and the uncanny; therefore the fantastic must be fictional. But if this meaning is found in some hidden or indirect reference, then the hesitation disappears; therefore it must be literal. 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. Poetic language is essentially non-referential, and allegorical language refers to extratextual truth. In the undecidability between these two forms of language, fantasy is both anti-mimetic and anti-metaphysical. In the fantastic, the materiality of language (the semiotic) and its power of signification (the symbolic) are at war with one another. 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. However, for Todorov, the fantastic remains bound to the metaphysical binarism of real and unreal, and thus he keeps one foot on modernist ground. [B]y the hesitation it engenders, the fantastic questions precisely the existence of an irreducible opposition between real and unreal. But in order to deny the opposition, we first of all acknowledge its terms; in order to perform a sacrifice, we must know what to sacrifice. Whence the ambiguous impression made by fantastic literature: ... by combating the metaphysics of everyday language, it gives that language life; it must start from language, even if only to reject it (Fantastic 167-168). If “starting from language” means acknowledging the terms of the “irreducible opposition between real and unreal,” then we have returned to the modernist opposition between reality and fantasy. 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, in which “the fantastic started from a perfectly natural situation to reach its climax in the supernatural” (Fantastic 171).

RABKIN On the face of it, Rabkin’s views are quite similar to Todorov’s. Rabkin expresses his admiration for and general agreement with Todorov’s analyses, but with a couple of important reservations. On the whole, Todorov considers fantasy to be what he calls an historical genre, 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. Although Rabkin also focuses primarily on works from that time period, and within European and North American cultures, nonetheless he insists that fantasy as a
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genre cannot be defined or confined historically. He argues that works of literary fantasy are to be found at many points in literary history – in other words, Rabkin regards fantasy as what Todorov would call a “theoretical genre,” of which Todorov’s and his own objects of study would be but a few instances.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. This distinction is not uncommon; indeed, Irwin virtually opposes the fantastic to the genre of fantasy. However, many theorists make no apparent distinction. For Rabkin, the fantastic is the reversing of a narrative structure, either theme or character, upon itself, as determined by “microcontextual variations” (Rabkin 36). These variations are produced by “the local affect of reading at any given time” in relation to the established ground rules of the narrative. The fantastic reversal is not the same as the peripety of Aristotle, 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. Instead, the fantastic reverses the ground rules themselves, and therefore it upsets the ability of the narrative to refer to a consistent reality. The fantastic reversal is a reversal of reality – once again, fantasy subverts ideology. Furthermore, according to Todorov, it is the supernatural that makes possible the transgression of narrative ground rules (Fantastic 165). [T]he fantastic is important because it is wholly dependent on reality for its existence. Admittedly, the fantastic is reality turned precisely 180° around, but this is reality nonetheless, a fantastic narrative reality that speaks the truth of the human heart (Rabkin 28). 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; compare Todorov, Fantastic 36-40). Within these perspectives, the fantastic is constituted not merely by the unexpected, but by the “anti-expected” (Rabkin 10). Once again, this reversal is independent of historical and cultural changes in the beliefs or attitudes of readers. The fantastic reversal is made possible by the structure and the language of the narrative itself. According to Rabkin, 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. Rabkin demonstrates how the fantastic serves as a mutative power in genre evolution. New genres arise from earlier genres through reversal of essential ground rules; thus the fantastic serves as a principle of innovation. As readers become accustomed to what once were new forms, their tastes become jaded, and they demand further reversals. These changes are produced through the operation of the fantastic. See also Brooke-Rose 62ff., 342. Other scholars have also used Todorov’s distinctions far beyond the limited range of his own study.
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Genres develop and change throughout history, and each genre has its own life span. However, as with biological species, the appearance of a new literary form does not necessarily mean the end of the older one. Narratives belonging to “older” genres continue to be written and read long after the “newer” genres have appeared. Thus there is a tension between desire for that which is avant-garde and nostalgia for the traditional stories. Fantasy as a genre is the extreme or pure state of the literary fantastic. 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, and then reversals upon those reversals, that their power to refer to reality is undone. “[W]hen linguistic perspectives continually shift within a given text, that is, when the ground rules of the narrative world are subjected to repeated reversal, we have Fantasy” (78). At this extreme, fantasy becomes a genre that reverses the structure of fantastic reversal itself. This is not a return to unreversed narrative structure, but rather the revelation of structure as structure. 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. Once again, fantasy is self-referential: it signifies itself. 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). As a collection of expectations, reality is always generic. It is always ideological. By questioning the truthfulness of every ideology – every reality – fantasy threatens the possibility of our survival. Yet fantasy also questions the meaning and the value of survival itself, and thus it is creative: it makes us human. According to Rabkin, readers recognize fantastic reversal “playing on and against our whole experience as people and readers” (41, also 25). The anti-expected changes “the preconceptions of our armchair world” (10). He argues that the fantastic satisfies our urge for order by giving us a sense of control, a potentially healthy escape from the suffering and confusion of our everyday, extratextual world. “The reality of life is chaos; the fantasy of man is order” (213). This all sounds very modernist – much like Irwin or Tolkien. Yet Rabkin can also say, “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). In “real Fantasy,” semiosis is unlimited.

“THE METAMORPHOSIS” Todorov’s and Rabkin’s theories of the fantastic in literature are not identical, but they are not incompatible, either. Each view offers something that the other lacks.
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Reconciliation would be near if we could free Todorov’s views from their historical limitations, and Christine Brooke-Rose has already gone far in this direction. But it is also true that neither Rabkin nor Todorov has developed a purely postmodern theory of literary fantasy, and this is evident in their differing analyses of postmodern texts such as Kafka’s story, “The Metamorphosis.” “The Metamorphosis” is a tale of a young salesman, Gregor Samsa, who is mysteriously transformed overnight into a gigantic insect (ein ungeheuren Ungeziefer): he is no longer quite himself. Kafka presents Gregor’s situation and its consequences as simultaneously bizarre and normal, that is, as paradoxical.9 For Rabkin, Kafka’s story well illustrates the genre of literary fantasy. What makes “The Metamorphosis” fantastic is not the fact that in the real world people don’t turn into big bugs, but rather that in the fictional world of this story, anything at all can happen. The world of “The Metamorphosis” is an anti-world. In Kafka’s narrative world the reader is never certain what the ground rules (the story’s premises) are; Todorov calls this the story’s “oneiric logic” (Fantastic 173). Narrative reality itself is up for grabs. Everything happens “as if,” a phrase that appears at crucial points throughout “The Metamorphosis.” This gives to the story a paranoid quality that also appears in many other of Kafka’s writings. In deductive logic, the use of improbable or false premises can lead to wild and impossible conclusions, even if the argument form is valid.10 Kafka’s narrative proceeds with a rigidity that is absolutely logical, but with one exception, a minor miscalculation, that makes all the difference in the story – like a gun aimed ever so slightly inaccurately, which therefore misses a distant target by a wide margin. Or rather, the bullet hits an entirely unexpected target. The target is reality, and the miscalculation is the fantastic. The irony of this writing cuts twice: 1) by way of comparison, like the view of one’s own culture from a foreign country, or from another planet, and 2) by displaying the inherent insanity of any totally coherent system or world. As the gun metaphor suggests, fantasy is dangerous, and violent. The primary damage is the ideological subversion described above. As Kafka says elsewhere, the fantastic story reveals the Modernist theorists also disagree about Kafka’s story. Irwin describes the story as an elaboration on the experienced impossibility of a man becoming a giant bug (81ff.). Compare Irwin’s remarks on the end of the story (85) to those of Todorov. Nonetheless, Irwin cites Todorov’s work with approval (55). In contrast, Hume concludes that Neither the primitive fear of the healthy toward the maimed nor the selfish concerns which detach the well members from the sufferer are admirable, but honest readers will admit their inclination toward these responses, and hence will empathize [with Gregor’s family]. ... The overall bleak portrayal of human nature works like a subtractive image. Insofar as we can agree, even temporarily, it is pleasant to call humanity vermin (96). 10 For example, the well-known extended syllogisms constructed by Lewis Carroll.
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universal inescapability of illusion (The Trial 276). From the opening pages of “The Metamorphosis,” where Gregor wakes up to discover his monstrously altered state, the reader is given no reliable cues by which she might judge the sequence of events that follow Gregor’s astonishing transformation. These events include Gregor’s own reactions to his altered body, his sister’s response to his transformed state, his family’s increasing well-being (which begins with Gregor’s transformation), and the episodes with the lodgers. 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, Fantastic 171). The reader not only does not know what to expect as the story unfolds, but she also does not know how to interpret Gregor’s and his family’s reactions to each new turn of events. Thus although one might feel sorry for Gregor or for his family, one cannot truly empathize, much less identify, with any of them; they remain foreign (Unheimlich) throughout the story. Rabkin does not discuss Kafka’s story in detail. However, he calls Kafka a forerunner of the contemporary “worldwide movement toward the fantastic” (180). Todorov, in contrast, argues at some length that “The Metamorphosis” is an exemplary text of a new, twentieth-century literature that has superseded the historical genre of the fantastic. What this suggests, although he does not use the term, is postmodern metafictional literature. According to Todorov, Kafka’s story illustrates the inversion of the fantastic (Fantastic 173). [I]t is a contrary movement [to that of the fantastic] which is described: that of adaptation. ... Hesitation and adaptation designate two symmetrical and converse processes (Todorov, Fantastic 171, his emphasis; compare Bataille 129). 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. He bowed, and as he bowed, he loved and died, opposing the silence of love and death to that which could never make him yield, because the nothingness which can never yield in spite of love and death, is sovereignly what it is (141, Bataille’s emphasis). In this new post-fantastic literature, according to Todorov, the modernist ideology that has both made possible the two poles (the marvelous and the uncanny) and established their separation has exploded; indeed, there are no longer two poles to hesitate between. Gregor worries more about being late for work than he does about his
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drastically altered body, and his sister is not horrified by his new appearance; instead she is perplexed about what to feed him. With Kafka, we are thus confronted with a generalized fantastic which swallows up the entire world of the book and the reader along with it. ... what in the first world [traditional fantasy] was an exception here becomes the rule (Todorov, Fantastic 174, his emphases). However, the differences between Rabkin and Todorov here are not great. 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 supernatural is given, and yet it does not cease to seem inadmissible to us” (Fantastic 172). As Walter Benjamin noted, one tends to interpret Kafka either theologically (as marvelous) or psychoanalytically (as uncanny); either Gregor has suffered the effects of a terribly cruel miracle or else he is profoundly delusional. Benjamin holds that either of these interpretations is in error (127), but both are necessary.11 “The Metamorphosis” is simultaneously uncanny and marvelous, and therefore it is neither. One central theme of “The Metamorphosis” – and nearly all of Kafka’s stories – is the impossibility of understanding. Gregor’s family is unable to understand him, and they incorrectly assume – with the singular exception of the charwoman – that he cannot understand them. To this corresponds the implied reader’s inability to understand the story – the fantastic hesitation that Todorov describes. What “The Metamorphosis” is about is the attempt to find out what it is about. As Kafka says in a different context, “The right perception of any matter and a misunderstanding of the same matter do not wholly exclude each other” (The Trial 271).12 Gregor Samsa has become a non-human parasite, and the rational modern space of Gregor’s home has become something unspeakable, Unheimlich. As in many of Kafka’s stories, the teleology of meaning has become, like his characters, immobilized and paralyzed. By the end of “The Metamorphosis,” Gregor’s transformed body, now a corpse, is swept away with the household garbage. For his family it is as though he never existed. Kafka’s story likewise must be “eliminated” by the reader; that is, it must be given a reading, either theological or psychoanalytic. The ideology of modernism requires that the story yield a meaning – that it reinforce the primacy of reality, in order to escape from it. However, postmodern fantasy disrupts and deviates from the teleology of escape, and the material body of the sign, like Gregor’s body, refuses the readers’ attempts to possess the story by giving it a meaning. See Todorov, Fantastic 83-84, 159-160, 281-282. Jackson presents a Freudian analysis of “The Metamorphosis” (158). 12 Compare Todorov, Fantastic 32; see also Jackson 161.
11

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CONCLUSION Kafka’s story makes explicit and places into question the oppositions that are fundamental to all narrative, and it reveals the unreality inherent in all language. That which is Heimlich is revealed to be Unheimlich. “The Metamorphosis” shatters the illusion of meaningful communication between author and reader. Yet is this not what we must expect if fantastic reversal is itself reversed, as Rabkin says happens in the genre of fantasy? As a postmodern fantasy, 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. “The Metamorphosis” displays the incoherence and incompleteness of the written text, neither uncanny nor marvelous, yet both uncanny and marvelous. One purpose of ideologies is to contain and suppress the reversals and hesitations of fantasy. That fantasy continues to exist and readers recognize it as such is due to a partial failure of ideology. However, the survival of fantasy is finally due to the fact that ideology itself arises as, and in reaction against, fantasy. The fantastic story refuses and deconstructs the reader’s ideology, revealing the desire to believe that lies beneath the reader’s need to interpret the text. Like madness, postmodern fantasy disrupts and transgresses conventional, “sane” boundaries between things and words, signifieds and signifiers, present reality and always-fictitious representation. For postmodernism, fantasy and madness are one; they are both non-sense. For Todorov, fantasy hesitates between two paradigms. For Rabkin, the fantastic reversal becomes itself a paradigm, or better, the undoing of every paradigm. Yet both theories describe a narrative that inevitably must break its own generic boundaries – a non-genre, an anti-genre. Fantasy presents a puzzle for which there is no correct solution. For postmodernism, “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. The disagreement between Todorov and Rabkin is therefore not about the structure of the fantastic itself, but rather it is about the limits of that structure. Nevertheless, both Rabkin and Todorov remain bound to the ideology of modernism and the consequent privileging of reality over the fantastic. Perhaps this indicates that a purely postmodern theory of literature is impossible, for to achieve such would require a surpassing and demolishing of this metaphysics. “[E]very narrative strategy suggests a metaphysical one ... To explore the limits of narrative is to explore the limits of culture” (Olsen, “Postmodern Narrative” 108). Yet despite these limitations, both Rabkin and Todorov point toward the place and the role of the fantastic in the postmodern. If the fantastic can become “normal,” as in “The
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Metamorphosis,” it is because reality itself has become fantastic, as during an age of intellectual chaos – a postmodern age (Todorov, Fantastic 173). 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. That experience is one perceived as continually beyond belief, one of a culture that perceives itself as undergoing physical and metaphysical erasure (Olsen, “Postmodern Narrative” 108-109). In “The Metamorphosis,” the modernist narratives through which we encounter reality and in terms of which we live our lives are deconstructed and left in pieces, and the possibility and desirability of a fantasy that comes true, a realized utopia, is shortcircuited. The reader is not comforted by this story, which resists our ideological attempts to de-fantasize it (see Jackson 177-179). Postmodern fantasy raises the ideological questions of who we are and should be, but in a way that does not lead to easy answers – a way that often leads to no answers at all. 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. I would argue that this perpetuates fantastic undecidability. It plays out endlessly what Rabkin calls the reversal of reversal itself, with a rigor in “The Metamorphosis” (and in many of Kafka’s stories) that is only rarely found elsewhere.13 This fantastic play or unlimited semiosis cannot be restricted to the literature of the twentieth century, for it is an ingredient of all literature, and of all language. Fantasy makes explicit something that is there in all writing, something inherent in the very technology of writing, although it is commonly suppressed and ignored in the reader’s desire to find coherent meaning – the desire for ideology.14

Others would include the stories of Julio Cortázar and Tommaso Landolfi – plus, of course, those of Lewis Carroll; see Deleuze. 14 Derrida, passim. The whole oeuvre of Derrida, and of Kristeva (and of Roland Barthes, whom I have not mentioned) is devoted to the ideological analysis of writing.
13

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WORKS CITED Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: The Beacon Press, 1964. Bataille, Georges. Literature and Evil. Trans. Alastair Hamilton. New York: Urizen Books, 1973. Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. Blumenberg, Hans. The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. Trans. Robert M. Wallace. Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T. Press, 1983. Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1961. Brooke-Rose, Christine. A Rhetoric of the Unreal. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981. Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1920. Deleuze, Gilles. “The Schizophrenic and Language: Surface and Depth in Lewis Carroll and Antonin Artaud.” Textual Strategies. Ed. Josué V. Harari. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1979. de Man, Paul. “Semiology and Rhetoric.” Textual Strategies. Ed. Josué V. Harari. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1979. Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978. Eco, Umberto. The Role of the Reader. Bloomington, IN: Indiana U P, 1979. Freud, Sigmund. “The ‘Uncanny.’” Trans. Alix Strachey. Complete Psychological Works, Vol. 17. London: The Hogarth Press, 1955. 219-256 Hassan, Ihab. Paracriticisms. Urbana, IL: U of Illinois P, 1975. Hume, Kathryn. Fantasy and Mimesis. New York: Methuen, 1984. Irwin, W.R. The Game of the Impossible: A Rhetoric of Fantasy. Urbana, IL: U of Illinois P, 1976. Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion. London: Methuen, 1981. Jakobson, Roman. Language and Literature. Eds. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard U, 1987. Jauss, Hans Robert. “Poiesis.” Trans. Michael Shaw. Critical Inquiry 8 (1982):591-608. Kafka, Franz. “The Metamorphosis.” Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. The Penal Colony. New York: Schocken Books, 1948. 67-132. -----. The Trial. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. Revised and additional trans. E.M. Butler. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964. Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. Trans. Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia UP, 1984. Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984. Manlove, Colin. Modern Fantasy: Five Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1975. Olsen, Lance. Ellipse of Uncertainty: An Introduction to Postmodern Fantasy. New York: Greenwood, 1987. -----. “Postmodern Narrative and the Limits of Fantasy.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 1/1 (1988):99-110.
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Rabkin, Eric. The Fantastic in Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1976. Serres, Michel. The Parasite. Trans. Lawrence R. Schehr. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1982. Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic. Trans. Richard Howard. Cleveland: Case Western Reserve UP, 1973. -----. The Poetics of Prose. Trans. Richard Howard. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1977. Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-stories.” The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966. 33-99.

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