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



Although seemingly contradictory, the following notions are actually mutually reinforcing: every work of art is the product of the imagination, which is itself an integral part of reality; every work of the imagination captures some reality, even without the author willing it so.

The truth of these axioms is by now no longer debatable, since virtually no one questions the fact that art, all art, is a social artefact. It is an axiom that begins with Aristotle and his mimetic notion of plausibility—which encompasses not just what has happened but what can happen as well—and continues with Mendieta and Núñez and Lévi Strauss, to name just two of the sociologists of differing cultural backgrounds that Armand Cuvillier covers in his fascinating study titled Sociología de la cultura,49 passing through Kant who “does not believe creation is possible without society”50 and the arguments of Adam Schaff: “No one has ever been able to think without language,”51 i.e., outside a socially created and ultimately socially conditioned mental construct. And so, any attempt to get “behind the real world” as Spitzer puts it in reference to Salinas’ inner world, any “second vision” as Juan Ramón Jiménez called it anticipating what was perhaps the most important aesthetic movement of the twentieth century, starts with an ineluctable and inexorable Reality whose flexure is imagination, the imagination that is (quantitatively greater, had it been possible to measure) at the very base of “fantastic imagination,” what Tolkien called fantasy, which always “is based on a concrete fact... the keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make”.52 Metaphor or premonition? Borges observed the following about the work of Michaux: “We ought not to speak of fantastic literature, since fantasy is an unavoidable part of what we have agreed to call reality. Moreover, are we ignoring the question of whether the universe is in the realm of the real or the fantastic”?53

We began this work with an interpretive notion of “imagination,” as the alternative for achieving an aesthetic, a human and certainly metaphorical term for Horace’s mens divinior where the fantastic is born: “In the origins of the fantastic is ... that kind of unconscious desire to terminate the Creation only in order to continue the work of the Creator.”54

Imagination, then, is the basis and the context of all the arts. It is the evolving element, the quintessence, of those four other functions for adapting to the real: Thought, Sensation, Sentiment and Intuition. “The imagination is the true seed bed of science,” Einstein proclaims when calling for an “artistic vision” for the sciences, as Saint-John Perse would recall in Stockholm,55 for “to imagine is to re-create reality.”56

Judging by what the main scholars of the fantastic have said thus far, however, the fantastic does not seem to have its center of gravity in any of these categories. It presents itself to us as a conjunction, in the etymological sense (oneiric conjunction) of the real and the imaginary—which, as we have just said, is a component of reality—but never an alternative, since the fantastic has no epicenter, no axis mundi that is part of all cosmogony (Mircea Eliade) precisely because it has no system.

The ambiguity, then, is obvious: permanently fixed within reality, the fantastic presents itself as an assault, as an insult to that very reality by which it is circumscribed. Lacking a more explicit term, we have coined a term for this ambiguity: descripture. The fantastic descripture presents itself as a vital element in the approach to the fantastic and as a catalyst of its dynamic.

When referring to Barthes’ signaler, we had suggested that a fantastic descripture would be, modus operandi, an equilibrium that encompasses both the fantastic symptom and the mode of transmission or manifestation of that symptomatic.

We can trace this idea to what Freud called das Unheimliche.57 Not to lose our thread, so to speak, in a detailed retelling of this text that is so important to understanding the fantastic essence, we will simply say that this particular study is perhaps the most important critical essay of the many that Sigmund Freud would write on the topic of aesthetics, especially on what he himself described, on the first page of his essay, as “some particular province of that subject... a rather remote region of it and one that has been neglected in standard works” and that, as Schneider suggests, would be the “uncanny” province of aesthetics.

Unheimliche in a broad sense means that which designates at once both a text and a concept; (a form and a substance; a significant and a signified; a scripting (writing) and a description: a descripture). Applied to art in general and literature in particular, ”...the unheimliche can be anything in the literary text that is beyond the realist norms of the narrative (fantasy, science fiction, marvelous)”.58

(From all the evidence, the word unheimliche does not translate into Spanish. Marie Bonaparte, the first translator of Freud into French, found the same difficulty in the case of French, and proposed the idea of “disturbing strangeness” (“inquiétante étrangeté”) as its closest equivalent. All the Spanish-language bibliography consulted leads us to think that in Spanish, the few times this Freudian concept has been discussed, apart from purely clinical analysis, either the Bonaparte solution has been used or the expression “irreducible strangeness” that Caillois suggests in Au coeur du fantastique.59 In the Freudian text itself, moreover, we unfortunately find the author’s own itemization of what he considers to be the equivalents of the German’s unheimliche in several languages; thus, using the Tollhausen German-Spanish dictionary (1889 edition) he finds that unheimliche is the same as: suspicious, foreboding, lugubrious, sinister. We said unfortunately because these suggestions do more to confuse than to help. Being mere grammatical guidelines, they thwart the quest for the Freudian concept of unheimliche. Likewise, the work by Bernard Merigot that we cited in footnote 57, does not meet our needs, since in our judgment it does not approach Freud’s unheimliche from the conceptual angle, even though its intention was to find a place for the fantastic based on the concept of unheimliche. It is the concept that one must aim for when working with this word in a language other than its original.)

Ironically, a summary that very much approximates the concept of unheimliche that Freud develops through his fascinating study can be found in, of all places, a source that Freud dismisses as incomplete: a work by Emil Jetsch, Zur Psychologie des Unheimlichen, published in 1906, fourteen years before Freud’s work. Freud writes that Jetsch “ascribes the essential factor in the production of the feeling of unheimliche to ‘intellectual uncertainty‘” (dixit Freud, emphasis added). Schelling elaborated upon this idea and is also cited by Freud: “everything is unheimliche that ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light.” These concepts convey to us an unmistakable sense of “uncanniness” that we might call the English equivalent of Freud’s unheimliche and of the French inquiétante étrangeté. (Borges considers the untranslatable English epithet “uncanny” to be the synonym of unheimliche when discussing William Beckford’s Vathek, where Borges senses the “supernatural horror” that the German and English adjectives capture. However, it seems casuistical to claim that the idea of supernatural horror is the equivalent of unheimliche. Clearly Borges admires the English language and the English author he is discussing; but we also sense that he ought not to have felt obliged to consult Freud in order to write Otras inquisiciones...)

Unheimliche transcends its original sense of disturbing strangeness or odd ambiguity by means of the textual slippages of which we spoke earlier, the “self-referent” that is the very source of the congenital ambiguity (“self-ambiguity” or tautological ambiguity) from whence comes the intellectual perception of the uncanny (“intellectual uncertainty”: Jetsch) inherent to the fantastic. This perception would be different (in itself and from itself) when it is purely existential (“das Man erlebt”) or read (“von dem Man liest”).60 Apart, then, from a sense of the real (“Sachlichkeit,” according to Freud), unheimliche suggests a “dereistisch” (a concept put forward by Bleuler and also cited by Freud), which we might translate as “derealization” and which operates as the contextual equivalent of hesitation of the real.

It seems to us that a concept that parallels (and may be an extension of) the Freudian notion of unheimliche is the notion of “déjà vu.” Since it was never mentioned by Freud, no literary critic who has studied unheimliche has ever examined the relationship of déjà vu to the fantastic. And yet the neurotic symptom that the most recent research in the field calls déjà vu may be even more relevant to the sense of uncanniness and ambiguity than unheimliche. Déjà vu—we note in passing—61 is a mnemic illusion that gives the sensation of a previously lived experience (déjà vécu), a situation in which the individual in whom the symptom occurs has no knowledge of said experience but nonetheless “recalls” or “sees” it as a (supposed) previous (an “already seen”) experience of that same situation. This trick of memory, if judged as a para-amnesia, is also, in our view, a kind of unheimliche, an uncertainty or ambivalence about one’s intuition that is the common reaction to one’s perception of the fantastic.

Our research seems to indicate that Freud was unaware of this neurosis (a “normal neurosis,” we might say, allowing ourselves the contradiction since the sensation is so common to humans), although it would surely have to be classified among his antisomata. The essay titled Das Unheimliche, at least, makes no mention of it. Freud, moreover, apparently believed in an “everyday fantastic”.62 So we shall leave the analysis of the term we are suggesting for some future study—always in connection with the fantastic—, thereby yielding to the Freudian concept of unheimliche.

In the difficult job of situating the fantastic descripture, the most elementary notion of Goldmann’s genetic structuralism can clear up some things for us. Lucien Goldmann contends that in every man-made structure there is always the potential for the genesis of another structure: “We, and with us the subject, are immersed in the everything, and the object, the world made up of the activity of the collective subject, is in the subject that is being derived”.63 This is precisely the concept that unheimliche as a grammatical reference captures; but—and this is what concerns us—it also captures the text-concept duplicity, in other words, the descripture! We are now in a position to formulate the following premise: this very peculiar type of writing—description—writing at the “real” level and description at the “dereal” level, in the Freudian sense of these expressions—this equilibrium that suggests an osmosis of the two and of which the word unheimliche is the bivalent expression, is what we call a fantastic descripture, i.e., a verbal deconstruction64 or “writing level” that dislocates the reading experience or “reading level” as a kind of “alternating current” () or vacillation between that writing and that reading.

What makes this descripture original—i.e., what it has that other literary textual forms do not, is the following:

a) Textual slippages (words speculative words);

b) Explosion or “scandalization” (Caillois) of the writing through instabilities that, by vacillating between the “real” and “dereal” (dying reality  new reality: Engels) illustrate the dialectic that we spoke of earlier;

c) Certain literary genres, generally those best able to reveal that “disturbing strangeness” or “unusual ambiguity” mentioned earlier.