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The Cafe Irreal: Irreal (Re)views

A response to "Defining irrealism"

by G.S. Evans, The Cafe Irreal

In "Defining Irrealism: Scientific Development and Allegorical Possibility," Dean Swinford puts forth a definition of irrealism that in many ways is either similar or complementary to that which guides The Cafe Irreal. Furthermore, his conception and elaboration of irrealism as "postmodern allegory" provides an important and original analysis of the nature and origin of irrealism, whoever does the defining. There is, however, one very real difference between his definition and ours, and this stems from the fact that Mr. Swinford seems to take a largely structuralist approach while The Cafe Irreal takes a largely existentialist and phenomenological approach. Therefore it isn't so much a matter of our actually disagreeing with Mr. Swinford's article as it is feeling that something is missing; namely, the human subject. Thus, while we certainly agree that "the Irreal work differs from traditional allegory because it indicates the extent to which the language of allegory, and therefore the function and exegesis of allegory, is altered by unprecedented changes in the physical world," and that "reconfigurations of the dominant ideological forces informing allegory, most clearly exemplified by the diminishing adherence to an exclusively theologically determined allegorical framework, clearly distinguish medieval allegory from its postmodern progeny," we would take, as our point of departure for defining irrealism, not narratology but the human subject. Therefore, our version for the historical origins of irrealism might run as follows:

Just as the rise of capitalism undermined medieval society and economy (e.g. the guilds, the landed aristocracy) it naturally followed that it also undermined medieval dogma and ideology. A consequence of this, as is described by Mr. Swinford, was the breakdown of medieval allegory and its complex of symbols and meanings. Parallel to this, though, and of profound importance to the development of irrealism was the breakdown of Medieval metaphysics as the scientific revolution took form. Traditionally, according to Andrew Swensen, "A culture's mythic consciousness does not distinguish between the actual and the mythical because the myth is reality for that particular society. Thus, for example, the Ukrainian and Russian peoples in fact believed in the sorcerers, witches, and demons of their folk traditions." In the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, as a scientific world view with empiricist overtones started to predominate, this changed. Swensen, elaborating on an argument made by Ernst Cassirer states that for a reader of a modern author of the fantastic such as Gogol, "the magical motifs and characters are part of the suspension of disbelief; therefore, the reader believes in them within the confines of the text, and the protagonists interact with them as part of the literary mythical action. Yet the reader can withdraw to a point of objectivity and then perceive the symbolic rendering of the given abstraction. This concept distinguishes literature of the fantastic and grotesque from folklore...". Fantastic literature in its modern form, we would argue, was the result of this. And allegory, certainly a major presence in this new literature, became more a tale told by humans to other humans to put forth the specific viewpoint of the writer as opposed to the writer or narrator being the "vehicle" through which a higher Truth, cultural or divine, was expressed.

Irrealism developed on the fertile soil of the new literature, but only after attention had turned to the dream state. In Western culture dreams had largely been considered to have divine or supernatural origins until the middle of the 19th century, when the French physician Alfred Maury showed dreams originated in the human mind, laying the foundation for Freud and other modern interpreters of dreams. Dreams were now seen as something that was very personal, something that was reflective of the individual. Erich Fromm, for instance, argued that we dream in a symbolic language and that, while some of the symbols - such as water, which for obvious reasons often signifies renewal or life - can take on a universal quality; others, "accidental" or personal symbols, are so specific to the individual that they are not readily understood without explication (an example of this might be Dali's burning giraffe, which he first "saw" in a dream). The modern interpretation of dreams, then, allowed for the possibility of using personal, private symbols in literature and, therefore, in our opinion, allowed irrealism itself to become a possibility. After Maury, a writer such as Kafka could utilize these personal symbols and project them on the world as a projection of himself, as opposed to as an interpretation or report of a divine suggestion. And because these personal symbols, put in a literary context, can also have a curiously universal meaning (though a person might not share Kafka's specific anxiety about domineering and officious bureaucrats, they might well recognize and share the emotion or feeling generated by the description from some other context), this literature has had a wide currency. (Though Mr. Swinford hints at the importance of personal symbols in his article, in his discussion of Varo, and also in his master's thesis, in a discussion of Dali, they are mentioned only incidentally and without comment as to where they might come from. The dream state, for instance, is never mentioned in neither article nor thesis.)

This isn't to suggest, however, that this individual consciousness is independent in its formation of private symbols from the "significant changes in the symbolic language utilized by post-modern allegory." We are indeed more likely to use large insects as private symbols after seeing films like Microcosmos just as our detachment and seeming perversion of the natural order will effect both universal and private symbolic schema (indeed, Godzilla's origins lie in Japanese mythology as interpreted through a post-Hiroshima and -Nagasaki lens). The horses that appear in so many of Leonora Carrington's stories and paintings are there because of a childhood spent around horses. How they are used, however, and what they mean are quite different matters and this uniqueness of private symbolic schema suggests to us that irrealism not only cannot attain a constant symbolic vocabulary, such as existed in medieval literature, but would cease to be irreal if it did. Irrealism, in our view, by introducing personal symbols to allegory, not only "extends the domain of the allegorical by reallegorizing from a broadened spectrum of tropes," but takes allegory into a new, more personal and sub-conscious realm.

Work Cited

Swensen, Andrew. "Vampirism in Gogol's Short Fiction." Slavic & East European Journal 37, no. 4 (1993): 490-510.

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