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



The complexity of the notion of genre transcends the specific purposes of this essay. However, as we have repeatedly said, the concept of genre is problematic, since it would seem to imply an apparent contradiction on our part: when getting at the notion of fantastic descripture we said (Chapter V) that it should belong to some literary genre; but earlier, when analyzing the various studies done on the fantastic (Chapter IV) we had insisted that the fantastic, contrary to what the vast majority of scholars would say, is not a literary genre...

Without getting into a debate about genres, let us simply say that they do not fit the dynamics of the fantastic as we have described it. Something more needs to be said, however, because there are those, like Todorov, who contend that “the concept of genre is fundamental to any discussion” of the fantastic. It is obvious, therefore, that one has to consider the possibility that a so-called fantastic genre may exist, if only to settle the matter once and for all.

This does not mean that we have to come up with some definition of literary genre; we need only refer the reader to those studies—contradictory, complementary, convergent—that have undertaken this type of analysis; everything from the rash generalizations made by Ferdinand Brunetière in L’évolution des genres, for whom “every genre develops and dies as a lone species without ever concerning itself with its neighbor” as Gerard Genette72 points out, to the disquisitions and dissections of Winthrop Frye, Brunetière’s opposite and for whom “genres” are “categories” that reduce the literary piece to two main “series” or “modes of fiction”—details that Todorov quite ruthlessly analyzes in his own study of the fantastic, demonstrating first an apparent concordance only to better reveal the inconsistencies in Frye’s system in Anatomy of Criticism—.

While on the one hand we subscribe to the theory of M.F. Guyard, an eminent comparatist, to the effect that nowadays “the notion of genre is being erased by the notion of technique,”73 on the other hand we do not consider ourselves sufficiently qualified to dispute the various classifications that have been made of the literary genre: theater, poetry, essay, novel, story, criticism, etc. That being the case, we could hardly deny them for the simple fact that in our judgment they are more properly called techniques than genres. (It is, however, difficult for us to comprehend how so many scholars can reconcile the notion of what we call “genre-form” with the notion of “genre-technique”: if, for example, Todorov believes that one literary genre is the novel—either because of the form or architecture of the text—and if at the same time he considers the fantastic—or the “fantastic—marvelous,” which is the same in this case, i.e., theme or content of the modality of narrative—to be a genre, too, then how is he able to judge, for example, Potoki’s Manuscript Found in Zaragoza to be, as Todorov contends, “a book that magisterially inaugurates the period of the fantastic narrative”74 and a “fantastic novel” (meaning “genre genre”), without falling into a kind of pleonasm, a gratuitous redundancy, a “mutual periphrasis,” as he himself might call it? Continent and content overlap, irreconcilable, in what turns out to be a new and not-very-convincing intentional fallacy, since a word like genre can hardly embrace what is routinely referred to nowadays as form and substance).

Of course, we are not dismissing the notion of genre. Quite the contrary: genres or techniques, those “category structures” (L. Goldmann) will become the Gestalt of the fantastic, the essential pilot agents, the mechanism or artifice through which the fantastic will make the reader aware of itself as symptom, by means of what we shall call reading provocations. Thus, genres must organize the same correspondences necessary to reveal the fantastic descripture, even though, for the very same reasons, the fantastic will not—indeed cannot—be a specific genre of literature but rather an expression that can emanate from/in any technique or genre. This would prove that the fantastic, as we argued, does not have a set of elements that constitute a system of meanings that would function as a language, a word that we can now replace with the word genre to demonstrate that the fantastic cannot function as a genre.

The following does not pretend to be an exhaustive list of all the reasons why we could say that the fantastic is not a literary genre or technique. We shall say only that in our judgment the fantastic is not a genre because:

a) As we conceive it, it cannot transform the distinctiveness of its descripture into a general system, in other words, the intangible fantastic symptom cannot be governed by general laws of cause and effect;

b) there can be no “fantastic choice” in either author or form as there can be with any literary genre;

c) the fantastic has neither geography nor history, so that there need be no referential context of civilization—social, economic, religious, folkloric, etc—to perceive it fully;75

d) it does not succeed in maintaining its effects, its symptoms, within a linear economy; instead, it must invariably discover its mechanisms (a sine qua non of its existence), thereby ceasing to be fantastic;

e) expanding upon item a), the fantastic does not have literary coordinates: authors share only one thing, their inevitable tool, language; but the fantastic descripture can hardly be regarded as a framework or be said to have symptoms that, like science fiction, detective novels, and Gothic novels, for example, (everything that has a common or similar textuality) would form the leaves of a single generic clover.

The fantastic, then, appears as eminently reflexive: it exists to the extent that there is self-consciousness (introspective consciousness)76 that probes its own in-itself.  The fantastic is the realization of self, the awareness that by requiring a definition, a handle in/by the reader, it lasts only for the duration of the hesitation, the uncertainty, a kind of “reflexive faltering,” after which it necessarily will become the literary genre that has (involuntarily, one might say) served as the vehicle of the fantastic.

Todorov, then, would be right to say that a concept of genre is fundamental to any discussion of the fantastic, but only if the object of investigation are the modes or forms of expressing that fantastic and the themes that reveal it, but not, as we pretend, if the object of the search is what we have agreed to call the fantastic episteme. We are not interested in establishing a morphology of the fantastic—which would be a sterile exercise for the reasons we have explained—but in trying to grasp the essence, the essential properties of that fantastic, i.e., everything that is itself and peculiar to it.

As for the genres within which the fantastic generally moves, the analyses have focused on the operational words that in themselves are a grammatical compendium of their own functions; they have not, however, grasped the constitutive elements of those genres. Scholars speak of the marvelous genre, the magical genre, the terror genre, the uncanny genre, and others, reviewing their scope in detail when a brief summary would have sufficed. There are, after all, conceptual givens about which every individual has a pre-established notion, and no literary precept or rule is necessary.

This is important, we believe, because in most critics’ explications there is a finalism that determines terminology based on the definitions presented. They seem to lock themselves into sterile laboratories of their own contrivance, without taking into account the general notions available about the proposed “genres,” and thus confuse forms, themes, styles, categories, genres, .... and essences. We therefore believe that any attempt to classify genres must begin with the most widespread cultural notions available on the proposed terms; (this premise does not apply to our own analysis of the fantastic, however, since from an epistemological—and not generic—perspective, “general notions” inform only the method of investigation but not its subject). Let us briefly examine this suggestion by way of a seemingly unrelated example.

Jean Piaget taught us that logic is not innate in the child; we might even go so far as to say (mindful that we are drawing conclusions from single premises) that nothing is innate in man—just as “nothing is a fortuitous confluence of circumstances”—since it is man himself who most needs the notion of a civilizing legacy to grow and develop to fulfillment. Thanks to genetic biology—as recently developed by Henri Laborit77 and others—we know now that there is something that we have been calling a cumulative conscience—civilization in the broadest sense of the word—that shapes, builds and nurtures the Sartreian essence of every human being. In other words, behind every individual—and we mean behind in the literal sense, i.e., before birth and through those retrospections that Freud would call “phylogenetic properties”—there is a cumulative psyche that predisposes the newborn toward a certain perception of the universe around him. This means that (to a greater or lesser degree; precisely how much we could not say), every individual is born with biological—cultural essences that over the course of his lifetime he will simply confirm, refute or improve upon—essences that are a vision of the world that, albeit pre-determined, is by no means finite. This vision is therefore just a first, primary assessment of the universe. Just one step beyond this initial assessment comes the axiological classification that every human being, whether he wants to or not, makes—and makes himself—of the world. It is just one step from there to the values we attach to words, for example, since those values come to us in large part culturally pre-determined. (Here, yes, Todorov is correct when, in speaking about artistic creation, he asserts that: “It is inconceivable, nowadays, to defend the thesis that everything in the work is individual, a brand-new product of personal inspiration, a creation with no relation to works of the past,”78 inasmuch as nothing is individual or innate; instead, at the foundation of all human activity lies a general conscience that informs what each “collective subject” [L. Goldmann] will transform—and ultimately add—in the cumulative process. That subject’s development is tied to a given civilization.)

Although they seem not to have any bearing on the theme of the present study, we bring up these general ideas because, while anyone is free to formulate “stipulative definitions” (L. Vax) of things, those definitions must still conform to minimum collective parameters. Where words are concerned, some kind of legitimacy has to be required, because for any analytical inquiry one has to find (or try to find) some system that can accommodate all the references; in other words, one has to make at least an attempt at “ontologizing ... the logic of our ordinary use of referring expressions.”79

The so-called marvelous, magical, terror genres—or any other, for that matter—are all subject to a verification by the critics, although the collective conceptual givens behind those genres must always be taken into account, especially at the terminology level.80 One more reason that confirms for us that the fantastic can hardly be compartmentalized as a literary genre! Hence, nothing has been more useful to us than these very brief reflections on genres. If it is true that “Genres are precisely those relay-points by which the work assumes a relation with the universe of literature,”81 then we can say that the fantastic is one of those relay-points that interconnect the works of the various genres in which the fantastic is manifest only and precisely because it is not a genre itself. Otherwise, what then would be the relay-point, the axis between the marvelous, the magical, the terrorific and all those genres that so assiduously carry and transmit the fantastic?