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Collection: INTERAMER
Number: 55
Year: 1997
Author: Harry Beleván
Title: The Heirs of Ariadne



While it is true that “one of the first properties of the scientific method is that it does not require observation of all instances of a phenomenon in order to be able to describe it,” so axiomatic to critical analysis that we repeat “It is not the quantity of observations, but the logical coherence of a theory that finally matters”22, then we can say, without fear of bias, that our analysis in this chapter will necessarily confine itself to certain sources of study of the fantastic that we might regard as elementary.

However, as undertakings such as this require, we have thoroughly consulted the vast majority of the French, English, German, Soviet, United States and Spanish-language sources that have, in one way or another, examined (or tried to examine) the fantastic and from these we have selected, for this chapter on general notions, those that to us seem to be genuine treatises on the subject.  For economy’s sake, we thus mention only a few and have had to bypass important works—anthologies and essays—on the fantastic, such as the book by Borges-Bioy Casares-Ocamp;23 the interesting work by Ana María Barrenechea, titled “Essay on a typology of fantastic literature”24, in which the author defines the fantastic as the factor that transforms facts in a narrative into something abnormal, unnatural or unreal and thus confounds the “law of opposites”; and the book that she wrote with Susana Speratti on La Literatura fantástica argentina25. The value of other books, such as Littérature fantastique by Georges Jacquemin,26 essentially lies in the well classified references they provide. Then there are authors like Mario Vargas Llosa, whose many insightful ideas about the four planes on which the “imaginary real” occurs (one of them being the fantastic)27 expand, clarify and frame the critical thinking of Alejo Carpentier, particularly Tientos y diferencias,28 where Carpentier justifiably attacks all those functionalist authors who speak of the fantastic in codes that are nothing more than the world turned upside down. The Antología del cuento extraño by Rodolfo Walsh; El cuento fantástico by Emilio Carrilla; and Cuentos fantásticos argentinos by Nicolás Cócaro,29 are three works of unparalleled critical value and illustrate how far the analysis of the fantastic has evolved, particularly in the Spanish language. Reference should also be made to the prologues/studies in anthologies of the literature of the fantastic in Germany, France, England and elsewhere, particularly the analyses by Anne and Hugo Richter, by Jacques Van Herp and Charles Nodier’s classic essay in La France fantastique.30 We have read, too, the very useful papers presented at the XVI Congress of the International Institute of Ibero-American Literature, held in Michigan in 1973. Salient among them are: “Carpentier and magical realism” by Roberto González Echevarría; “Fantastic Literature, magical realism and the marvelous real,” by Enrique Anderson Imbert; “Magical realism and the fantastic in contemporary Hispanic-American fiction,” by Nelly Martínez; “Adolfo Bioy Casares’ Evasion Plan: representation of representation” by Alicia Borinsky; “Fantasy and Magical Realism” by Lucía Inés Mena; “Macondo, philosophical egg,” by Luis Harss; “Magical Realism: some formal observations on the concept,” by Arturo A. Fox; and “Magical realism or fantastic tale,” by Celia Zapata.31 All these essays take different avenues to explore the vast universe of the fantastic. Their scholarliness and insight demonstrate that the fantastic is not some esoteric world where only initiates dare tread. Finally, there is the book by Jacques Bergier, Le matin des magiciens a popular, whimsical book32 wherein the well-known French theosophist “uses magical and fantastic indiscriminately to describe that invariably ill-defined realm of literary irrationalism,” as J. Ignacio Ferreras33 quite correctly points out. Bergier thus contributes even more to the confusion surrounding the already blurred and obscure borders between science fiction, fantastic, oneiric, extraordinary, surreal and magical.

Again, what follows are not detailed analyses of texts. We shall confine ourselves to the main ideas that seem pertinent to our work and that might guide—open up, alter or confirm—our own vision of the fantastic.

A.— Tzvetan Todorov: The fantastic: a structural approach to a literary genre

Apart from a wealth of knowledge, especially on the method for interpreting the texts that he analyzes, in his book34 Todorov compiles what we might call conceptual givens which, as we shall see, are not always reflections of ideological givens, as the author seems to suppose.

This is a serious mistake when one is trying to grasp a concept as elusive as the fantastic, but a mistake committed by almost all the critics whom we have examined. This includes not just those whom we will look at in this chapter—who may be the most obvious exceptions—but also those whom we shall touch upon in our discussions, like P.G. Castex in Le conte fantastique en France,35 P. Penzoldt in The Supernatural in Fiction,36 and of course all the others mentioned earlier.

Todorov is a particularly interesting case to study. On the one hand, his book is perhaps the most exhaustive critical work of the many written on the subject thus far. Also, he neatly runs down the virtues and defects of the most recent trends in new European criticism (as do Bellemin-Noël and Bessière).

For the propaedeutic we are trying to establish in this study, we need only concern ourselves with the main points in Todorov’s thinking, which we shall quote, as we shall in the case of the other authors discussed further on:

1. — “The fantastic is a name given to a kind of literature, to a literary genre (...) Thus, the concept of genre is fundamental to the discussion which follows.” (p.3)

2. — “Either he [the person who experiences the event] is the victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination—and the laws of the world then remain what they are; or else the event has indeed taken place, it is an integral part of reality—but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us.... Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the fantastic for a neighboring genre, the uncanny or the marvelous. The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event. The concept of the fantastic is therefore to be defined in relation to those of the real and the imaginary.” (p. 25)

3. — “There is an uncanny phenomenon which we can explain in two fashions, by types of natural causes and supernatural causes. The possibility of a hesitation between the two creates the fantastic effect.” (p. 26)

From these first ideas, we can say that Todorov regards “fantastic literature” as a literary genre, a notion that he considers “fundamental”. Todorov, therefore, speaks to us of two categories which will eventually become cornerstones of his arguments: the uncanny and the marvelous. He also speaks of an “illusion of the senses” and “reality,” “natural laws,” “supernatural causes” and an “apparently supernatural event” that forces the fantastic concept, according to him, to define itself “in relation to those of the real and the imaginary”. The reader is served up a variety of terms that are never explained, those things we call conceptual givens: reality, imaginary, supernatural ... Making the necessary concession, we can, however, overlook them since Todorov also points us in a very basic direction: the “duration” of the uncertainty and the possibility of hesitation, both implicit in the concept of the fantastic.

4. — “... which brings us to the very heart of the fantastic. 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.” (p. 24)

5. — “Either total faith or total incredulity would lead us beyond the fantastic: it is hesitation which sustains its life (...) The fantastic, therefore, implies an integration of the reader into the world of the characters; that world is defined by the reader’s ambiguous perception of the events narrated.” (p. 31)

Between the reference to the “heart of the fantastic” and what, according to Todorov, the term per se implies, Todorov has cited Castex, Louis Vax and Roger Caillois, using their premises to build his own case.

6. — “The fantastic ... is characterized ... by a brutal intrusion of mystery into the context of real life.” (dixit Castex).

7. — “The fantastic narrative generally describes men like ourselves, inhabiting the real world, suddenly confronted by the inexplicable.” (dixit Vax).

8. — “The fantastic is always a break in the acknowledged order, an irruption of the inadmissible within the changeless everyday legality.” (dixit Caillois).

Todorov immediately passes judgment on these concepts, describing them as “identical” (p. 26), when all he actually does is to give us another “identical” case when stating: “These definitions are all included within ... events of two orders, those of the natural world and those of the supernatural world.” (pp.26-27). Todorov, then, is guilty of the very thing he criticizes in others, since: a) Castex, according to Todorov, uses terms like “mystery” and “real world” without first defining them, even though Castex says that is where the fantastic lies; b) Vax talks of a “real world” and of “the inexplicable,” assuming we all know what he means by those expressions; c) finally, Caillois always, according to Todorov, refers to an “acknowledged order,” “the inadmissible” and “the changeless everyday legality” without specifying his concepts, even though he speaks of the fantastic being a break, an irruption within these things. And although Todorov admits that his own definition “still lacks some distinctness” (p. 27), he nonetheless suggests that the premises of his subsequent theories are based on what Soloviov and Henry James suggested, thus defining the fantastic “as a dividing line between the uncanny and the marvelous” (p. 27). While he criticizes Castex, Vax and Caillois for having tried to transform the fantastic into a “substance” (sic), Todorov himself makes the same mistake since expressions like “the uncanny and the marvelous” are just as much substance as notions like “mystery,” “real world” or “acknowledged order” bandied about by the authors he criticizes.

9. — “The reader’s hesitation is therefore the first condition of the fantastic.” (p. 31)

10. — “The fantastic is a particular case of the more general category of the ”ambiguous vision”. (p. 33)

In our view, in these brief passages Todorov finally touches upon the fantastic episteme (what he calls “the fantastic” in the pure state). Unfortunately, he barely grazes that “pure” fantastic; more concerned with getting at the forms and themes of the fantastic than its essence, Todorov immediately “deflates,” for lack of a better word, such important concepts when he asks the following question: “... is it necessary that the hesitation be represented within the work?” (p. 31) And so, rather than pursue that rich vein that he discovered when he hit upon the idea of uncertainty or hesitation to get at the essence of the fantastic, Todorov, like the vast majority of scholars of the fantastic—and many of those he challenges—opts instead to devote himself to ascertaining the effects, the causes, the modalities, the forms and the themes of the fantastic; in other words, the representativity of the fantastic rather than the fantastic essence, the epistemological “in-it-self”37 of the fantastic after which one can approach the forms and the themes that the fantastic can take or suggest.

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

It is true that this “definition of the fantastic” establishes a genre criterion; yet the notion of genre has yet to be defined. For this, Todorov turns again to other authors whose arguments he refutes:

12. — “A tale is fantastic if the reader experiences an emotion of profound fear and terror, the presence of unsuspected worlds and powers” (dixit Lovecraft). After quoting Penzoldt, who merely echoes Lovecraft, Todorov again cites Caillois who, according to Todorov, would propose, “as a touchstone of the fantastic ... the impression of irreducible strangeness” (dixit Caillois) (p. 35). He concludes this line of reasoning with a quote from Schneider: “The fantastic explores inner space; it sides with imagination, the anxiety of existence, and the hope of salvation.” (p. 36)

It is true that Todorov’s final argument—quote 11—which he himself describes as “our definition” is more consistent, insofar as the search for a genre is concerned, than these generalities from the aforementioned authors. As for Caillois, again we observe that while he has always given us some interesting angles, he has unfortunately never defined the specifics of his thoughts on the fantastic. The same can be said of Schneider. Let us, however, reserve our judgment of these authors until we have probed them at greater length.

As for Lovecraft—and Penzoldt, too, since there is nothing in this English writer that his American counterpart did not say first—, his was an utterly simplistic and narrow vision of the fantastic. Unwittingly or not, Lovecraft’s critique is nothing more than a painstaking justification of his own fiction. He asserts that: “The weird tale...[is] founded ... on a profound and elementary principle,” i.e., fear.38  We fail to understand why, in quote 11, Todorov felt compelled to prove his point by comparing it to undefended premises put forward by other scholars of the fantastic...

We said that on several occasions Todorov touches upon what he calls “the fantastic in its pure state”; each time, however, he disregards the direction suggested by the notion of hesitation and opts instead for a genre criterion that, from the beginning of the book, he endeavors to portray as a “fundamental concept” to any discussion of the fantastic. Even more astonishing, however, is his suggestion of an obviously teleological concept, in other words, one entirely determined by the conclusion and completely at odds with his original theory:

13. —“[The fantastic] seems to be located on the frontier of two genres, the marvelous and the uncanny, rather than to be an autonomous genre.” (p. 41)

Further proof of our assertion is that even though for the first fifty pages of his book Todorov speaks to us of the fantastic genre, or of ways to approach it, he now poses the question:

14. “...how valid a definition of genre may be if it permits a work to “change genres?” (p. 42).

And with unexpected casualness, Todorov, who consistently argued that “the concept of genre is fundamental to the discussion” of the fantastic (quote 1), will conclude by asserting that:

15. — “There is no reason not to think of the fantastic as an evanescent genre.” (p. 42)

Some commentary is called for here. We shall say simply that it seems to us that there can be nothing “evanescent” about a genre. The proof is provided by the author himself, with his rigorous and precise definitions of what he considers to be the nearest genres to the fantastic, i.e., the marvelous and the uncanny, thus undermining the fantastic as genre (even if only an “evanescent” one) in an obviously unintentional fallacy—but a fallacy all the same—of the kind that appears in a number of passages in his book...

When later defining what, according to him, constitutes “the fantastic in its pure state” (but shouldn’t that have been established from the beginning, whether as genre or as essence?), Todorov states that the fantastic in its pure state “is represented by the median line separating the fantastic-uncanny from the fantastic-marvelous” (p. 44). He closes with a diagram that allows him not to have to concern himself any further with the “fantastic in its pure state,” however elementary, adding that: “This line corresponds perfectly to the nature of the fantastic, a frontier border between two adjacent realms.” (p. 44) Thereafter, the reader is told how to distinguish the “fantastic-uncanny” from the “fantastic-marvelous” but will never know what the “true nature of the fantastic” is, which the reader should have been told first, before any discussion of the so-called “adjacent realms.”

After the first three chapters of the book, which are the fundamental chapters, the author considers: “Poetry and Allegory” (Chapter 4) and “Discourse of the Fantastic” (Chapter 5), where again, using the unique method suggested by the idea of an “evanescent” quality, Todorov emphasizes the neighboring genres of the fantastic, but not what he understands as the fantastic genre per se. Five more chapters follow: “Themes of the Fantastic: Introduction” (Chapter 6); “Themes of the Self” (Chapter 7); “Themes of the Other” (Chapter 8); “Themes of the Fantastic: Conclusion” (Chapter 9)—all titles that suggest the direction of the entire Todorov study: a primarily thematic direction with some focus on form certain chapters. In other words, his seems to be a concept of the fantastic arrived at through the prosaic dichotomies of form/substance and style/theme.

Finally, in the tenth chapter, titled “Literature and the Fantastic,” the author briefly touches upon some of his most original ideas:

16.— “The fantastic is based essentially on a hesitation of the reader.” (p. 157)

17.— “All narrative is a movement between two equilibriums which are similar but not identical.” (p. 163)

He concludes his thoughts with some odd observations on how “...psychoanalysis has replaced (and thereby has made useless) the literature of the fantastic...” (p. 160), because of the “relatively brief life span” that the fantastic has had since it first “appeared ... around the end of the eighteenth century with Caxotte...” up to “... the last aesthetically pleasing examples of the genre in Maupassant’s tales.” (p. 166).

We shall skip such glaring superficialities as the “uselessness” of a certain literature, or the “replacement” of a literature with another nonliterary discipline, or debatable notions like the apogee and end of the literature of fantastic expression... Todorov ends up with an act est fabula that merely pretends to be an introduction to the fantastic literature, since not only was he unable to define what he meant by the fantastic literary genre, but also never managed to pin down the fantastic as such, with all its fundamental and distinctive features.

B.— Irène Bessière: Le récit fantastique

Irène Bessière’s Le récit fantastique is a recent publication and therefore still appears only in French, which may explain why it has not been disseminated as widely as it deserves and is, perhaps, not so widely known.39 But for those who have studied this work, one thing is certain: this is arguably the most thorough analysis to date on the fantastic in any major language.

Divided into five main parts, The fantastic narrative by Irène Bessière travels the entire complex universe of the literary fantastic, describing the infinite realms in which it can be conceived, from reality and reason to the imaginary and psychoanalysis. With a masterful hand, she illustrates all the possible ways these realms can interact with other catalysts of the literature of fantastic expression.

While our purpose with this chapter is to compile the principal general notions of the fantastic, Bessière’s book is geared especially for the researcher and suffers from one almost insurmountable problem: its language is too often one spoken only in academe. It is terribly difficult for the average reader to penetrate and to extract what might be called the key thoughts, without having to return over and over to the many ideas that led up to and follow from a given key thought... However, as we have said, our intention is not to do summaries of the books reviewed, much less to make a thorough interpretation of their texts. Therefore, let us single out some of the main ideas of Bessière’s critical theory of the fantastic:

1.— “Every study of a fantastic narrative is synthetic; it is not done through recollection or intuition of some artistic law... but through a polyvalent perspective. Examining a fantastic narrative triggers an intellectual uncertainty because it sets in motion conflicting premises that pieced together according to their own coherence and complementarity. It does not define an actual quality of objects or of existing beings and is not a literary category or genre; instead, it presupposes a narrative logic that is at once formal and thematic and that, whether surprising or fanciful for the reader, reflects, under the veneer of pure invention, the cultural metamorphoses of a shared logic and the imaginary. The synthesis does not come from the vast and varied inventory of texts; instead, it comes from the contrast—or conflict—based arrangement of the elements and from the heterogenous implications that, taken together, are what gives the fantastic narrative its appeal and sense of cohesiveness. The fantastic is but one of the avenues of the imagination, whose semantics come from mythography, religiosity, normal and pathological psychology and that for that very reason is no different from those aberrant manifestations of the imaginary and their coded expressions in popular tradition.” (p. 10)

Right away, with this first thought, Irène Bessière introduces the provocative thesis upon which she will build the many chapters of her book. What is immediately understood is that this text, as its name implies, seeks to define the written fantastic, the so-called “fantastic literature”—which we prefer to call the literature of fantastic expression for the reasons suggested in the first chapter and which we shall elaborate upon as we go on—thus narrowing the search for the fantastic symptom exclusively to its textual coherence.

Another suggestion, which Bessière will elaborate upon in theory, is that the fantastic, as we have argued when reviewing Todorov’s work, is not a literary genre at all; “instead, it presupposes a narrative logic” that does not come “from the vast and varied inventory of texts” called fantastic—the thematic approach that we find in Todorov and will find in many other scholars—but rather—and “under the veneer of pure invention”—from a kind of structure of the imaginary (we believe this is a more elaborate version of what Barthes refers to as a “signaler,” which we mentioned earlier).

2.— “The fantastic narrative is its own motive, as with any literary narrative; the semantic description ought not to liken it to or classify it with testimony or thoughts on extra-natural phenomena or with the discourse of the subconscious mind: it is directed from within, by a dialectic of reality-building and derealization that are the author’s creative intention.” (p. 11)

3.— “Fantastic fiction thus creates another world with the words, thoughts and realities of this world.” (p. 11)

4.— “One must bear in mind that the fantastic narrative is not defined merely by implausibility or impossibility, neither of which can be comprehended or defined, but by the juxtaposition and contradiction of various truths; in other words, under scrutiny, shared conventions are called into question and invalidated... And so it invariably thrives off realia, off the everyday...” (p.12)

5.— “Every description is a confirmation, a reconstruction of the real; as evocation, it summons up another reality.” (p. 13)

6.— “To be truly creative, the poetics of the fantastic narrative presupposes an assessment of the objective premises (religion, philosophy, esoterics, magic) and their deconstruction: not by means of intellectual argument... but by defining them as a set of systems of signs wholly incapable of uttering and transforming, in the world of rules and order, the event at the heart of the fantastic drama. There is no fantastic language in itself.” (p. 13)

From these pivotal arguments, let us draw the following theses: a) the fantastic comes from within the story itself, “by means of a dialectic” that ‘floats,’ for lack of a better word, somewhere between reality and “unreality;” (in Chapter V, “Symptoms 2,” when examining the Freudian unheimliche, we shall discuss at greater length Freud’s concept of “unreality” and the idea of floatation—“doubting” according to Bessière, or what we call “hesitation” or “vacillation”—as the decisive factor in what we call the fantastic descripture); b) there is no fantastic language in itself, in other words the fantastic (as we suggested in Chapter II) does not have the elements that make up a system of meanings that could induce us to think of a “fantastic language”; c) the importance of what the author calls “shared conventions” and “objective premises,” which we will describe as “collective consciousness” when refuting the genre theory as a point of departure for any study of the fantastic, i.e., reality.

7. — “The fantastic event imposes a decision, but the manner of the decision is not implicit in the fantastic event, because it eludes description. The fantastic generalizes the logic of a process that in fact pertains to the realm of morality and law, religious beliefs, because in the beginning the fantastic is confused with a study of the validity of the sacred word or moral absolutes.” (p. 20).

8. — “The fantastic narrative is, as Henry James suggested in The Turn of the Screw, the first turn of a screw that never stops turning.” (p.21).

9. — “The fantastic narrative is in the most widespread and most absurd community discourse, where everything that cannot be said in mainstream literature is found. It uses the most varied themes: a place of banal ghosts, it is built upon a vast collective vacuum” (p. 25).

10. — “By its theme, the fantastic narrative demonstrates its literarity, the very narrow function of the text and its nature as verbal object (...) Its almost constant causality and antinomy establish the territory of the reader’s freedom. Reading becomes an intrusion into the book, a way of establishing a personal territory.” (p. 26)

11. — “The author of the fantastic narrative can be likened to the magician who shows so as to better conceal, who describes in order to transcribe the indescribable (...) The fantastic narrative operates by a threefold principle of style: verbal, syntactic and semantic.” (p. 33)

From this we can infer that the reader is given a paramount role: “Reading becomes an intrusion into the book,” because (if it is true that the decision imposed by an event in the realm of the fantastic is not a function of the event itself, in other words, of the narrative that conveys it), that decision is in the reader, who thus finds the literature of fantastic expression to be the type of narrative that offers the best chance of participating literally—literarily—in the construction (deconstruction) of the narrative he or she is reading.

12. — “The antinomy of the fantastic narrative is in the interplay of a dual literary device, the implausible and a truth that is at once empirical and meta-empirical. To paraphrase Sartre, the marvelous narrative is nonthetic; in other words, it does not present the reality that it represents... On the other hand, however, the fantastic narrative is thetic, i.e., it presents the reality of what it represents: a precondition for the narrative that underlies the interplay of much and nothing, negative and positive... This falsely thetic viewpoint propels the notions of ambiguity and hesitation between the natural and supernatural, which is how Todorov defines the fantastic, and are therefore secondary. The fantastic narrative does not seem, then, to be ”a dividing line between the marvelous and the uncanny,” as Todorov suggests. Instead, with its hidden lie, it seems to be the place where thetic narrative (realistic novel) and nonthetic narrative (marvelous, fairy tales) converge.” (p. 37).

13. — “The vagueness of the description [the author is referring to the mechanism whereby the fantastic emerges in the telling of a narrative, when an explanation of facts is confused with an exposition of motives], which in no way lessens the certainty of the unusual, fuses the effect of unreality with the realistic motivation and demonstrates that the imagination cannot contrive images, new representations; it can only work with those available to it (...) The discourse is the articulation (or the signifier) of a system that is implied but not specified. The fantastic theme is, then, a ‘connoted system’ whose ‘very level of expression consists of a system of meanings’ (p. 183). [The quotations within Bessière’s own analysis are her citations from Roland Barthes.]

14. — “The fantastic narrative thus creates an order and a coherence that are not the same as those of either a fable or a novel of realia.”(p. 204).

15. — “What makes the fantastic narrative unique is that it denounces reality’s disparity and, in words alone, depicts a higher order.” (p. 205).

16. — “Whereas the structure of a novel is the syntax of conduct and behavior, the structure of the fantastic narrative is one of interpretation; because of its apparent autonomy as extra-text, it translates the rupture of the plausible understood as a system of meanings and the implausible where the socio-cultural  codes to  be developed  or  changed  are to be found.” (p. 214).

Doubtless any reading of a large, original book like that of Irene Bessière is always polyphonic. Trying to separate the many readings that texts like this suggest onto several levels, means running the terrible risk of creating entities that cancel each other out. Nonetheless, we have ventured to choose one of the several levels on which this book can be read, to highlight some of the basic theses that we believe are at the core of Irene Bessière’s critical thought process. We have already covered some of the basics that the author has suggested, such as the nonexistence of a “fantastic language” or the impossibility of establishing the fantastic as a literary genre. They will undoubtedly be helpful in developing our own thoughts on the fantastic essence. Our one regret is that as she developed her theories on the fantastic, Bessière never proposed getting at the essence of that fantastic, although her original and thought-provoking route will be useful to us when explaining our own ideas.

C.— Louis Vax: L’art et la littérature fantastique

The same conceptual vacuum found in Todorov we find again in L’art et la littérature fantastique,40 another book that takes detours down the overused avenues of the dichotomous approach to the literary fact: substance and form, theme and style... Yet, Louis Vax does have a talent for presenting his theories in a particularly orderly fashion. The result is a practical and pleasant book, if only to acquaint oneself anew with the forms of the fantastic.

The general lines of Vax’ thoughts about the fantastic are as follows:

1. — “Let us not attempt to define the fantastic; not even the authors of the Checklist of Fantastic Literature have ventured that far (...) Rather, let us try to stake out the domain of the fantastic by identifying its relationships with its adjacent forms, the poetic, the tragic, etc.” (p. 5)

The introduction obviously goes right to the point: this book will not attempt a definition of the fantastic; instead, at most it will try to “stake out the domain of the fantastic by identifying its relationships with its adjacent forms”. (In our view the motive is unsatisfactory because it is puerile: just because so prestigious a publication as the one that Vax cites does not “venture” to define the fantastic does not mean that any attempt to do so is invariably doomed to fail; when a critic encounters some problems that restricts him, he has to try to conquer it; taking risks is part of the job...)

2. — “Enchantment” (“féerique”) and “fantastic” are two species of the marvelous genre.” (p.5)41

3. — “The fantastic thrives off the conflicts between the real and the possible (...)  Fantastic  art  brings  imaginary  terrors into  the  real  world.” (p. 6)

4. — “The utopian and the fantastic are based on imagination, but both genres stay well away from each other.” (p. 16)

5. — “The aficionado of the fantastic ... does not look from the outside in; instead he allows himself to become involved (“envoûté”). What rises before us is not another world; it is our own world undergoing some kind of metamorphosis.” (p. 17)

Compensating for one gross contradiction—where first the fantastic is a species within the marvelous genre (quote 2) and then suddenly becomes a genre itself (quote 4)—are two interesting thoughts: the notion of a conflict between the real and the possible (even though this “possible” is composed, according to Vax, of “imaginary terrors”) and the idea of envoûtement, which we have translated as magic spell or charm. The French term suggests a kind of seduction or fascinating allure that has the effect of an unexplainable participatory spell on the one who perceives it).

6. — “It is commonly said that fantastic literature has to deal with a limited number of themes (...) The same motive—the devil, for example—can be fantastic, comic, tragic (meaning lyrical). The motive matters less than the way in which it is used.” (p. 24)

Apparently, for the author the form or manner of the fantastic is a matter of capital importance. If that is the case, then it is unacceptable that “the same motive” should be rendered in a variety of forms and manners. If, as Vax argues, the fantastic is one of those forms, how then could there be “fantastic works” that are comic (which is how he describes those of Heine, Wilde, Matthews), tragic (Stevenson, Mérimée), and lyrical (De la Mare and Goethe), when they would have to be either fantastic or comic, either tragic or lyrical? The notion of genre as applied to the fantastic creates an obvious impasse, so we can again raise the same objections we made of Todorov when questioning his concept of genre.

7. — “The fantastic thrives by insulting reason.” (p. 29)

8. — “Adults put together a crude but relatively coherent world for himself (...) When one of those certainties seems to be denied by a fact—be it real or illusory—the result can be the chill of the supernatural. However, the fantastic does not just go after the impossible because it is terrifying, but also because it is impossible. To desire the fantastic is to desire the absurd and the contradictory. The impossible made real has ceased to be impossible and so loses its fantastic quality.” (p. 31)

Not to dwell upon what would otherwise be an unacceptable lack of rigor on the author’s part—asserting without proving his assertions—we shall simply say that this last thought is a repetition of what was already suggested as a functional definition of the fantastic: to desire the absurd and the contradictory.... Since it cannot be a definition, we take it then as a concept of genre that Louis Vax would put forward following the interesting notion of scandalization.

9. — “Without the desire for the fantastic truth the latter does not exist.” (p. 35)

10. — “Generally, the fantastic is allusive and suggestive of something other than itself.” (p. 36)

A second contradiction—the will/allusion juxtaposition that makes us wonder whether what one can desire is the fantastic or the allusion that it implies; in other words, the “something—other—than—self” that, according to Vax (and correctly so, despite his use of the intrusive hedge “generally” in the sentence) produces the fantastic, or at least the allusion of that fantastic.

11.“Whereas the fantastic is already flourishing in medieval art, it does not make its appearance in literature until the eighteenth century, which may prove beyond any doubt that the word fantastic does not have the same meaning when applied to art as it has for narrative, just as the individual does not react the same to a painting as to a story.” (p. 39)

It is difficult to understand how a spatial notion would prove that the pictorial fantastic is different from the literary fantastic, although were the fantastic a genre, it seems to us that the laws that it would generate should be universal, as that is one of the essential properties of the notion of genre. (Suffice it to say, by way of example and explanation of what we are saying, that Max Ernst is Breton and Teleman is Hölderlin, as there is a genre in each case that includes them and transcends the period and, most of all, the artistic form through which they reveal themselves.)

Instead, we believe that Vax’s argument is (involuntary) proof of the contradictory notion of genre which the author is using to consider the fantastic—a mistake, we repeat, that we find in most scholars of the fantastic. According to Vax there would be several fantastics... But the historic evidence the author offers in support of his case would merely seem to suggest that the “Guttenbergian sensitivity,” as McLuhan would call it, turns up late, nothing more...

12. — “The antinomy of the fantastic is apparent. Realistic art, which strives to represent things as they present themselves to us, has nothing of the fantastic about it. On the other hand, art that is totally detached from the real, swings too freely between arabesques and color. The moment of the fantastic is when the imagination is busy tearing apart the real, despoiling it. Then we have the impression of a subversion, of some monstrous parody.” (p. 41).

In Chapter VI (Propaedeutic, 2) of this study, we make a case for the fact that nothing can occur that is “totally detached from the real”; whatever it is that makes us think we can escape our lot as social beings is nothing more than our own intellect’s optical illusions. Hence, we reject the notion that at the extreme end of the spectrum of “realistic art” is another art “totally detached from the real” because it is merely an appearance— appearance as a product of the real. These thoughts lead us to the notion of subversion.

13. — “Fantastic literature is the daughter of incredulity.” (p. 72).

14. — “The ideal fantastic art is able to sustain the state of indecision.” (p.98)

15. — “One of the constant themes of the fantastic...: our real universe must be inexplicably disconnected.” (p. 117)

The three notions reinforce each other. Let us retain the notions of incredulity and indecision, as well as the notion of inexplicable disconnection, even though the latter does not seem to be so much a constant theme of the fantastic, as Vax suggests, as a notion of formative recurrence.

At the close of his book, in the section titled “Conclusion,” Louis Vax reflects upon the way to approach the essence of the fantastic:

16. — “Two solutions ... are possible ... To bring them about, one has to leave the realm of the essence of things for the lesser realm of the meaning of words. First solution: the lexical definition. This is simply turning to the dictionaries or ascertaining how the word is used in writing or speech. However, the meanings of the word fantastic are very different (...) With such broad meanings, this solution is short on precision and exactness. The second solution is to arbitrarily determine the meaning we intend to give a word, formulating a stipulative definition (...) This is a somewhat better solution as it allows one, if not to describe an essence, then at least stake out a field of investigation that is sufficiently homogenous (...) The realm of the fantastic described in this book encompasses works that are particularly chilling because they employ some negative axiological experience for aesthetic ends (pp.120-121).

In these closing arguments it is interesting to see how Vax was aware, as he completed his book, that the highest plateau on which to examine the fantastic would have been the essence (sic). However, as if overwhelmed by a bad conscience, the author proposes two ways to get out of “the realm of the essence of things,” each as superfluous as the other, since: a) the lexical definition does not presuppose “simply turning to the dictionaries or ascertaining how the [fantastic] word is used...”; and b) a stipulative definition or verbal definition can be inferred without having to “arbitrarily determine the meaning.”

In lieu of the effort to “get at an essence,” Vax has substituted the quest for a fantastic something as the particularly chilling product (or form) that is the result of a “negative axiological experience” (content).

D. — Marcel Brion and the world of the fantastic

The essay that Marcel Brion wrote as the “Preface” to the catalogue titled “Bosch, Goya and the Fantastic,” prepared for an exhibit of paintings in Bordeaux, France in 195742 is a tight, seminal study of the pictorial fantastic, from Arcimboldo and Bosch to Picabia and Tanguy. It is the work of a creative mind that approaches critique more as aesthete than scholar: the musings are often lyrical. More than explain his ideas on the fantastic, Brion’s language, the product of a visionary imagination, creates free-standing images. Brion is unique in that he uses the suggestion of the pictorial expression of the fantastic to develop some theories about the fantastic in general:

1. — “Reason and fantastic seem to establish themselves, one in relation to the other, on the basis of antinomical positions, but their relations differ according to the meanings attached to the word reason, the word nature, the word reality, the assorted cultural milieux.” (p.xvii)

Commenting on Dürer’s etching Melancholy, Brion writes the following:

2. — “Melancholy’s visionary gaze sees far beyond the horizons of reason, toward the unarticulated world of the chiaroscuro, darker perhaps than night itself since it retains the illusion of light, disconcerting as all in-between states are, where precise definitions hesitate.” (p. xix)

He has other thoughts on the fantastic as well:

3. — “The fantastic element is in an absence, not a presence; it is a lack (“un manque”), a hole, a vacuum. This vacuum is all the more distressing because it is the inexpressible, the indeterminable; the vertigo that it produces by putting breath into ... man’s imagination suggests a presence that is imperceptible, indiscernible so that its wonders can be neither defined nor depicted.” (p. xxii)

4. — “The fantastic makes its presence known in an infinite number of domains and can take an infinite number of forms to materialize and communicate itself.” (p. xxvii)

5. — “Contrary to standard opinion, the fantastic is never gratuitous; it never is, even though the two words have the same root, the equivalent or relative of fantasy. Fantasy preserves an innocence that the fantastic lost the moment it made a pact with ... incongruousness.” (p. xxix)

While these are all thought-provoking ideas, we find the basic ones to be the concept of hesitation, the concept of the ambiguity of the absence, the concept of the nongratuitous nature of the fantastic phenomenon and, especially, that key definition to distinguish between two similar concepts that are frequently confused: fantasy and fantastic.

E— Marcel Schneider: Discours du fantastique

Marcel Schneider’s is a creative mind and, like Marcel Brion and Jorge Luis Borges, approaches literary criticism as a “writer of the fantastic,” whereas Todorov and Louis Vax do not.

The “Discours du fantastique,” which appeared for the first time in La littérature fantastique en France and was then expanded and corrected to appear in Schneider’s latest book titled Déjà la neige,43 is an essay written with all the gusto and imagination—but also limitations of a technical nature, so to speak—of a poetic mind heedless of any critical method that might infringe upon the intimacy of the discourse. In this sense, then, this work is the diametrical opposite of the book by Irène Bessière. We will quote from this text, nevertheless, because its author (“a prince of the fantastic” according to Claude Mauriac) is obviously one of the men who has most interested himself in this school of literature, as this essay shows. Its chief premises are the following:

1. — “The fantastic always ... takes us from the known to the unknown.” (p. 9)

2. — “The fantastic ... reveals itself as a crack, an irruption of the irrational within the rational economy of the universe.” (pp. 10-11)

3. — “Roger Caillois ... concludes that the intervention of the supernatural cannot happen without evoking terror; he makes terror the one criterion for the fantastic.” (p. 11)

4. — “Those who share Nodier’s view believe that terror is not the only criterion for the fantastic; delirium, vision, ecstasy all seem to them to be equally appropriate since for those who share Nodier’s view the fantastic exists of and by itself, apart from science, esoterics, magic. It is a particular mode of knowledge that has a perfection of its own.” (p. 11-12)

5. — “(The fantastic)... is a substance, as Saint Thomas would say, or even a category as defined by Kant.” (p. 12)

6. — “George Sand gave her understanding of the fantastic in her Essay on the Fantastic Drama ...: ‘The fantastic world is not outside, or up or down; it is within us, it moves everything, it is the soul of all reality.’ The fantastic is the art of transcending anguish,  hallucination and fixation.” (pp. 12-13)

With these first words, Schneider has already defined his idea of the fantastic, if only by reference: as the opposite of Caillois (in other words, opposing the equation terror = fantastic) and as a disciple of Charles Nodier (the fantastic as a particular mode of knowledge) and of George Sand (the fantastic as an integral part of reality). However, as we shall see later, Schneider is much closer to Caillois than to those whom he claims as his mentors...

7. — “The fantastic is the product of and tonic for anxiety. Writers that summon up age-old terrors are neither alienating themselves nor alienating us from what is called humanity (...) Anything that imitates the steps of the unconscious mind comes from the realm of the fantastic.” (p. 17)

8. — “The fantastic is the form that the sense of the sacred assumes at times of skepticism and upheaval.” (p. 21)

9. — “The fantastic does not pretend to be either science or philosophy, not even morality, since it insults practical reason as well as speculative reason.” (p.22)

Two of the ideas expressed thus far reveal similarities between Marcel Schneider and Caillois’ theory of the fantastic: the concept of terror, “age-old terrors” and earlier references to a “a terror that comes in the night of time” (p.17) and to “religious horror” (p. 19); and the insult to reason (which we also find in Vax), the cornerstone of Caillois’ thinking.

10. — “Were the fantastic something of acknowledged value, it would lose all its magic. It needs to inspire hostility and contempt in order to control.” (p. 24)

11. — “Like the devil, whose obsession is to spread the word that it does not exist, the fantastic pretends to have disappeared long ago (...) It is literature’s secret passenger.” (p. 25)

Obviously, this is the notion of the “cursed writer" (“l’ecrivain maudit”) so common, either implicitly or openly, in several authors of the literature called fantastic (Poe, Maupassant, Borges, Michaux and Schneider himself); it is a poetic sentiment more than a critical deduction applicable to the forms through which the fantastic reveals itself.

12. — “Realism represents itself as truth, which is tantamount to representing the fantastic, which is realism’s opposite, as a lie. Realism and the fantastic are not subspecies of morality and are not functions of truth: the debate has to be steered in the direction of the beautiful and the ugly, not the true and the false.” (p. 35)

13. — “The ‘realism is truth’ formula is pleasing to Western minds, ever inclined to confuse morality with art.” (p. 36)

The rest of the essay consists of three chapters devoted entirely to Hoffmann, the creator of the fantastic “genre and category,” as Schneider put it; other chapter titles suggest the author’s intelligence and penchant for dilettantism: “The Invisible Logia”; “Signs”; “Dreams” (“Les songes”); “Apparitions”; “Musings” (“Les rêves”); “The Second Look and the Gift for Prophecy”; and one last chapter titled “The Secret,” where the author puts forward three ideas by way of a conclusion:

14. — “What we seek in the fantastic is not evasion, pretext, much less revenge; we are looking for a secret that is, at once, both the secret of man and the secret of the universe.” (p. 84)

15. — “Horror of loneliness, our experience of something that cannot be explained, fear of dying: the fantastic helps us to use our own affliction to remedy the affliction of being human; it also teaches us how to discover our soul, which becomes a way of inventing the Secret, of transforming oneself into a god.” (p. 86)

16. — “This secret activity, this darkness, these dangers, are all the symbolic equivalent of what the unconscious demands through irrational procedures (...) Like the poetry from which it never divorces itself, it is a means of salvation: it puts us in contact with the unconscious and with the dark sources of life.” (p. 87)

In Marcel Schneider we have one of that group of critics that have at least one common denominator: a vision of the fantastic through Fear; in other words, a fantastic eye that filters its gaze through the prism of terror, or as Lovecraft perceives it and writes of it, Fear. Obviously this is not an inalterable feature for classifying the wide diversity of authors whose differences are, perhaps, more striking than their similarities, but rather a purely practical system. We say only that to a greater or lesser extent, as in Marcel Schneider in whom it is barely noticeable at all, they all have one particular proclivity: the “cosmic terror” as one manifestation of that fantastic. Each writer may call it something different, but it is best captured in the concept of fear as Lovecraft has articulated it.

F— Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Supernatural Horror in Literature

From the very first page of his controversial book titled Supernatural Horror in Literature,44 H.P. Lovecraft, one of the leading (and controversial) masters of “pure terror,” explains his very biased concept of what, in his judgment, a fantastic narrative is:

1.—The weird tale... is founded on a profound and elementary principle whose appeal, if not always universal, must necessarily be poignant and permanent to minds of the requisite sensitivity“, fear. (p. 9)

Lovecraft’s entire vision of the fantastic is, therefore, built around this key concept which is, as we suggested earlier, nothing more than a critical explication of the type of fiction practiced by Lovecraft the storyteller; and so, the particular definition of the ”type of fear-literature“ and of the style that must be used for it is a justification of his own literary devices.

2. — “The type of fear-literature must not be confounded with a type externally similar but psychologically widely different; the literature of mere physical fear and the mundane gruesome.” (p. 15)

3. — “The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones (...) A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentiousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of daemons of unplumbed space.” (p. 15)

4. — “Atmosphere is the all—important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation.” (p. 16)

5. — “The one test of the really weird tale is simply this: whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread.” (p. 16)

The rest of the book is a long critical-bibliographical sojourn through the fantastic as this author perceives it, from “The Dawn of the Horror Tale” (or of the “weird tale,” since Lovecraft uses and abuses both terms), “The Book of Enoch” and the “Clavicle of Solomon,” to “The Modern Masters” where he offers his analysis of a number of authors, among them the formidable Arthur Machen.

G— Roger Caillois: Antología del cuento fantástico

In the Preface to this book, which is so well known to the Spanish-language reader45 who has far less freedom of choice given the very few anthologies or studies of so-called fantastic literature available to him, Roger Caillois, one of the most energetic explorers of the strange universes of the fantastic, has a terror concept of the fantastic, even though he has many times spoken out against the fact that horror and the fantastic are almost invariably equated.

The following are the main theories that Caillois sets forth in his prologue to the anthology of Sixty Tales of Terror:

1. — “This volume is a compendium of... fantastic tales of terror from various countries of the world... For a tale to appear in this anthology, I have set one precondition that is both necessary and sufficient ... the terror must come solely from some supernatural intervention, culminating in the effect of terror.” (p. 7)

From the foregoing one can infer that if, in order to be included in an anthology of fantastic tales, the stories must reflect “some supernatural intervention culminating in the effect of terror,” then for purposes of the anthology that particular type of writing is what, according to Caillois, constitutes the so-called fantastic literature...

2. — “The fantastic exposes some scandal, some break, some unusual irruption of the inadmissible within the real world.” (p. 8)

3. — “Whereas the fantastic is premised on the world’s integrity, its purpose is to destroy that integrity (...) The essential intent of the fantastic is the Apparition... in the midst of a world where everything was thought to be known and from which mystery was thought to have been eliminated once and for all.” (p. 9)

After establishing a clear and necessary difference between what he understands by fantastic and the other classes of “pseudofantastic literature” (such as, according to Caillois, the “explained supernatural”: Radcliffe, Walpole; the “psychological ... phantasmagoria”: Pushkin; the “biological fantasies”: Erckmann, Wells; and what would come to be called—although he did not call it that—the “literature of anticipation”); Caillois lists the formal categories that, according to him, constitute the literature that “appears suddenly on the plane of pure fiction... on the heels of an image of a world devoid of miracles and governed by hard and fast rules of causality” (p. 12), a literature that in Europe seems to be “a kind of compensation for the excesses of rationalism” (p. 13) and that would eventually be called fantastic literature. The categories listed by Caillois are as follows:

  • The pact with the devil;
  • The soul in pain that must discharge some mission before it can rest;
  • The specter forever condemned to drift aimlessly;
  • Death personified and among the living;
  • That which is indefinable and invisible, but nevertheless has weight, is present, and kills or maims;
  • Vampires;
  • The statute, a mannequin, the suit of armor that suddenly comes to life and takes on a terrible independence;
  • A witch’s curse that brings on terrible, supernatural sickness;
  • he seductive, mortal female phantasm from the beyond;
  • The reversal of the realms of dream and reality;
  • The room, the apartment, the flat, the house, the street, obliterated from space;
  • The stopping, slowing or repetition of time.

Despite the detailed enumeration of scenarios, the author nonetheless argues that “in this category the variations are infinite”. We are thus left with the odd sensation, given the “infinite” variations possible, that perhaps every narrative labeled “fantastic” should be in a class by itself...

What matters is that for Roger Caillois, the fantastic sensation is, above all else, something more complex and sophisticated than a kind of “sensual fear” and is the condition and the basis of the fantastic itself.

Finally, before ending this chapter we should say that for Jean Palou, author of the prologue to Nouvelles histoires étranges, and for Jean Baptiste Baronian, the anthologist of La France fantastique,46 the fantastic, although not perceived entirely in terms of fear, ultimately has a disturbing quality somehow associated with that terror that these and the others authors we have just examined use as the basis of their explanation of the fantastic.

Palou states that: “The world of the fantastic is the world of Poetry and Science... Illusion of forms, illusion of beings that takes the reader and the author down that alleyway where lost souls die in the twilight” (p. 12). Baronian’s thesis is captured in this phrase: “To write fantastic narratives is to make the experience of some catastrophe unavoidable; in other words, perceiving (seeing, living) an event, even a seemingly unimportant one, that suddenly, without reason and for no reason, compromises reality, turns existence upside-down to the point of utter confusion.” (p. 11)

Students of the fantastic are not alone in associating fear with the unreal, although the fantastic is the worse for it: the very authors of many tales of terror label their fiction as “fantastic tales” or “fantastic stories” as did, among others, Hoffmann and Gautier.

Jean Ray summarizes a point of view (a mistaken one in our judgment) shared by many authors and critics of differing periods in time and from different places:

  • Do you believe the fantastic should necessarily create a sense of anxiety?
  • Its purpose is precisely to instill fear!47

To end this chapter about general notions on this note, we seem to be able to deduce that none of the scholars has really strived to grasp the essence of the fantastic. Instead, they dwell on the forms and the themes through which it reveals itself.

We can say, then, that the fantastic as episteme is not found in any of its manifestations, but in a very particular balance of writing and creation of ambience, what we have, for practical purposes, labeled a fantastic descripture. The proof of this lies precisely in the many critics who establish the terror/fantastic association, a genre concept (this is the so-called “Gothic” genre) that can apply to those who regard the fantastic as a specific genre of literature, in other words all the critics (with the exception of Bessière) we have examined here.

It seems to us that to regard fear as the fantastic is tantamount to confusing a symptom with the event of which it is merely an indicia. Fear is often confused with the fantastic, chiefly because man’s innate desire for self-preservation compels him, even unconsciously, to put a name to his feelings in order to understand and control them better. But anything that constitutes objective proof is, for purposes of studying the fantastic, a flawed point of departure that will lead to equally flawed conclusions, like the views of the authors we just analyzed (or like the ideas of those who would always make the fantastic a function of the “unconscious,” the “marvelous,” the “unreal,” the “diabolical,” etc., without explaining the meanings of those terms).

So long as fear is one of the strongest absolutes by which a human being operates, we will never get at the fantastic in its essence, but only perceive it as the axis that connects us to that fear; (the same can be said of the fantastic-unconscious, the fantastic-marvelous and other equations). We can resolve the fear by, for example, assigning the factors that instill the fear the moral values that will expose it, whereas for the fantastic, good and evil are irrelevant since—again, by way of example—opposites are meaningless: the evil that a fantastic symptom can radiate is not the opposite of good. (Here, José Camón Aznar gives us a proof that corroborates our assertion. When, in the Spanish medieval spirit, ugliness was associated with sin to reveal the diabolical nature of Satan, the latter—according to the Spanish professor—lost all that seductive appeal that the strange sensual beauty provided him. Until then his underlying attraction had been his fantastic symptom. By taking on a physical appearance that captured everything that was as horrible and repulsive as anything man could imagine, a more terrifying demon was indeed born, but one utterly devoid of that original fantastic quality.)48

Axiological one, epistemological the other, fear and the fantastic are, therefore, two equilibriums, as Todorov would call them: one can be judged by a particular scale of cultural values, whereas the other is unfathomable because it is intangible. The two equilibriums frequently match, but do not necessarily. The regularity with which the one reveals the other—ultimately the sensation of uncanniness is inherent to both—does not allow anyone to make one contingent upon the other by positing a necessary and inexorable reciprocity between them. The same can be said of the fantastic-marvelous, fantastic-surreal, fantastic-oneiric and all other formulas that claim to explain the fantastic through other categories.