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



Given that its basic purpose is communication, every language must have a single lexicon and a logical syntaxis that allows one to convey a meaning, a signification. Both functions are combined, for example, in the preposition, at once both a grammatical and logical element. But within ordinary language—common speech, the language of communication or the language of commerce in the Hegelian sense (“die Umgangssprache”)—we find “speculative words,” i.e., polysemes with multiple meanings. An example would be the word sense, for example, which refers both to the ideal meaning of a word and to a mechanism or faculty of perception.

These ambiguities, which fly in the face of any cognitive model, are called “textual slippages”.16 These are precisely the indicia of some “other language,” which is not the language of understanding, of distinctions, of single meanings and, ultimately, of grammatical logic; this “other language” has its precise discourse in the “speculative word” fantastic.  “If language, and in particular literary language,” writes Blanchot in reference to the notion of textual slippages (although that is not his name for it) “were not constantly advancing toward its death, it would not be possible, for it is this movement towards its impossibility which is its condition and its basis.”17  In the textuality of the term fantastic we find a “dialectical opposition” that must also be discussed.

By dialectical opposition we are referring only to the most elementary, traditional Marxist notion and applying it exclusively to the literary interpretation that concerns us. We know that the Marxist dialectic shows that the unity of opposites is always relative, because if the struggle between the aspects of a given opposition is carried to a certain decisive level and goes beyond certain limits, it will also destroy the old qualitative balance and symmetry of opposites, and thereby transform the contradiction and ultimately bring about an entirely new order. Let us take a literary angle on Engels’ statement about history:  “...All that is real in the domain of human history becomes irrational in the course of time, is therefore already irrational by definition, is infected in advance with irrationality; and everything which is rational in the minds of men is destined to become real, however much it may contradict existing apparent reality... All that exists deserves to perish.”18 (Of course, this assertion is debatable grammar-wise; under the influence of Kant, it associates “reality” with “necessity” and “the right to existence” with the “rational nature” of any factor; but for our purposes this Marxist orientation is relevant insofar as it explains the “textual slippage” that operates in certain words like fantastic. To better illustrate, let us say that the “textual slippage,” which is uncommon, operates equally within (with/in) a word like “thing”: devoid of any original reference, we use words like “things” [phatic communication] to mean something alien to “whatever exists ... as a separate entity,” according to the dictionary definition; the same thing is true of words like “principle” or “problem,” true polysemes ...)

That textual slippage that the fantastic elicits takes the reader from an original level of the term—the word itself—or “known” level, to an “unknown” level—“speculative word”—through a detailed description that keeps the reader on the tangible plane, on the level of the “real,” giving him or her a sense of security first, then gradually introducing descriptive elements to cause the reader to vacillate or hesitate about that sense of security. (As we shall see later, the notion of vacillation or hesitation is fundamental to any approach to the fantastic. We find that vacillation or hesitation in specific studies of the fantastic, and shall only mention them in passing here, as those studies contain very specific analyses. For example, Robert Volmat, in his fascinating study on “Psychopathological art,” which he quite correctly subtitles: “A psychopathological approach to the fantastic,” shows us how, in fantastic paintings done by psychotics, the first step is invariably to “obliterate the real world... We are contemplating the destruction of our reality. The annihilation process is geared to destroying our world and to restoring chaos. There is, at the same time, another, concomitant process in the opposite direction, a process of building a new and different world.”19 In an equally casuistical analysis of the sensation of the fantastic that masks produce, Marcel Brion writes: “The mask is a concave form that man puts before his face to disguise one being and produce another [...] A powerful tool of the fantastic, replacing one persona with another, implying the complete disappearance of the old so that only the new appears, also implying that the representative and the represented are one: this is the effect that the mask produces.”20  Then, too, we have the literary “mise en abime”—a key concept in the work of Michel Butor and, by extension, in recent French fiction—whereby a psychological and poetic revolution of sorts is undermining the everyday, ordinary, explainable universe, shifting or vacillating from the old order to another entirely new one.)21

From these first observations—always about the terminology that concerns us, not yet the episteme—we can infer that the fantastic always departs (let us no longer say originates with, since we have already discarded that possibility) from writing, but not in the broad sense of writing—poetic, narrative, etc.—but from a textual-writing, a language that generates itself and that generates the fantastic in the body of the text (hence the need to differentiate the Hegelian “Umgangssprache”—which might even be the language of all literary forms—from the particular fantastic language or writing; hence, too, the need to pinpoint the notion of textual slippage by employing the Marxist historical approach we mentioned earlier).