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



More than a semeion—that particular nature of “signs” as defined by everyone from Saussure to Julia Kristeva, and mainly by Gottlob Frege and Cassirer—we understand the fantastic as a signaler, as defined by Roland Barthes, since the fantastic does not bring anything to a closed system like semiology, as it only gives off “signals” and “symptoms”. In this first foray into an analysis of the fantastic, the latter cannot be regarded as having a set of constitutive units that together comprise a system of meanings that would function “in the way of” a language (a “fantastic” language, so to speak), as there are no specific rules, as we shall see, that can be singled out as parameters of the dynamics of the fantastic. Between the fantastic symptom and the text that reveals it, is what Umberto Eco called “the concept of sign as a combination of a significant and a signified”7 (emphasis added), without this presupposing some semantic organization of the fantastic. Our name for that signaler is the fantastic descripture8, a functional mode that embraces both the “symptom” (the only one dealt with in the Barthesian terminology) and a particular modality for transmitting that symptomatic. Descripture is a term of our own which we shall dwell upon later.

Being fundamentally cenesthetic, the fantastic, perhaps more than any other cognitive perception, has been approached by critics whose hermeticism has done more to confuse than to clarify. This “critique for critics” by certain exegetes of the fantastic has transformed the object of study into a porcelain figurine—a hermeticism that gives the fantastic a tautological quality. Paraphrasing what Malraux suggested once for symbol, one could say that the lesson we learn from most studies done on the fantastic is that: “The fantastic expresses that which can only be expressed by itself.” (Considering what we were just suggesting about the notion of reference, this apparent boutade by Malraux is more than mere irony. In effect, it seems to us that the gnoseological deconstruction of the fantastic has tremendous similarities to that of the symbol, if what we are after is the constitutive essence of one and the other, that which we shall henceforth call, indiscriminately, essence or episteme.9 “All keys to symbols are part of symbolism itself” asserts Dan Sperber,10 who draws on ethnological practice for examples in his lucid analysis of the symbol. Sperber demonstrates how the notion of a signal/associated standard meaning pair provided by the classic theoreticians of the metaphor [Freud and Levi-Strauss, according to Sperber] is an attempt to build a symbolic language based on a set of symbols, which is not feasible: according to Sperber, symbolism is a reference point, not a language; it is a system of signs that serves to organize our experiences consciously. Thus, a symbol can hardly be confined to a single, specific standard meaning since, according to Sperber, rather than signifying this-rather-than-that it always signifies this-and-that.)

We have suggested a similar construction for the examination of the fantastic by asserting that it is not a language because it belongs to the world of the imaginary. In this respect, two different phases of the symbol are discernible, which illustrates to us an analogous paradox operating in the fantastic. Every culture is organized on the basis of a set of symbols and that infinite number of associations that ranges from the name of each individual to traffic signals is just one set of codes or keys that conveys to us an equal number of meanings substantiated in reality, always giving us a particular, finite vision of the world. This is what Carpentier would call the “scale of proportions” in and through which men identify with others and with objects; “everything in which the parts are joined by a current of secret sympathy,” as Octavio Paz wrote.11 At the same time, however, the symbol always has, paradoxically, a hidden face that is the shadowy side of its being and that borders on the imaginary: “Symbolism, genuine symbolism,” exclaims Priestley, “can release meanings at various levels but will always have a meaning that cannot be fully grasped.”12 There being no universal structure of the imaginary, therefore, the fantastic, like the symbol, always has a hypothetical inwardness, a “lining” of representations that have an infinite number of possible interpretations; metanomies of reality, the fantastic and symbol open up countless degrees of probabilities. And so, the hypotheses for establishing the consensus omnium of the fantastic—the criterion of certainty that, we believe, is arrived at only when the essence of things is reached—must be premised upon the fact that there are no rules governing it.

If it is true that any explanation is an attempt to reason through the object—good or bad, true or false, is beyond the point—and if, as we suggested earlier, the fantastic is fundamentally a cenesthetic expression,13 then we must beware of one pitfall, which is that any explanation of the term will almost invariably be too narrow.

We have seen how slippery the notion of origin can be as an avenue to the fantastic. And so, the first line of the first chapter, titled: “The fantastic” in the book by Louis Vax reads as follows: “We shall not chance a definition of the fantastic”.14 Jean Bellemin-Noël begins his essay “Notes on the Fantastic” by stating that: “Any synthesis of what we call ‘the fantastic’ is actually premature, as the research is still in progress.”15 (Although we have already set the dictionary aside, we should note that the it is cautious to the point that it fails to fulfill its most basic purpose, defining certain adjectives like “fantastic,” “magic,” “marvelous” in a factitive way, without delivering any truly functional reference for those adjectives.)

What, then, is the fantastic?