Go to homepage

Archives and other items of interest on this web site



Go to writer's guidelines


  • Magical Realism and the Fantastic (A.B. Chanady)
  • The Fantastic in Literature (E.S. Rabkin)
  • Aminidab (J.P. Sartre)
  • After Kafka (S. Sandbank)
  • [Editor's note: The following synopses only summarize the parts of the authors' arguments that concern The Cafe Irreal. They do not summarize the whole of the authors' arguments]

    MAGICAL REALISM AND THE FANTASTIC: Resolved versus Unresolved Antinomy

    Amaryll Beatrice Chanady

    The fairy tale belongs to the mode of the marvelous, where nothing surprises the characters, since magic is the norm. In the fantastic, on the other hand, the world view coincides with our own and is threatened by an event that doesn't fit into the logical code expressed by the rest of the text. The fantastic can be confused with the uncanny, where the protagonist is terrified of sinister sounds and shapes, but eventually discovers they have a rational explanation (such as in the "Sandman," by E.T.A. Hoffmann) or the scenario where, in the end, we discover that it was "all a dream." Another type of "pseudo-fantastic" is science-fiction, where the apparently fantastic can be explained by science and technology.

    The fantastic forces us to accept two distinct levels of reality in one narrative (our everyday, rational, world and the inexplicable according to our logic). It is similar in this way to the popular legend where the supernatural is presented as essentially different from the natural. They are thus bi-dimensional, whereas the fairy tale is unidimensional. However, unlike the fantastic, the legend does not question the supernatural on the grounds of reason and logic -- it may well find it terrifying, but not because it violates our logic. In the fantastic, however, the supernatural is seen as problematic because it cannot be integrated within the implicit ideological code conveyed by the text. Thus we have antinomy (the simultaneous presence of two conflicting codes in the text). Since neither can be explained in the presence of the other, the apparently supernatural remains inexplicable. The introduction of a single inexplicable event does not produce a sustained antinomy; each code must be developed to the point where it must be accepted. Thus the ambiguity of the fantastic is not in the nature of the object or event, but in the nature of a world ruled (and maintained) by certain norms that are destroyed by something we cannot accept. One of the most important devices for ensuring the reader's participation is authorial reticence, which makes the inexplicable even more disturbing and mysterious. The reader gets only enough information to create suspense, leaving the rest to his imagination. (Garland, New York, 1985)

    Back to the Top


    Eric S. Rabkin

    Though Alice (of Alice in Wonderland) was astonished at talking plants, we moderns (in a science-fiction mode) can see such phenomena as unexpected but orderly -- proving that talking plants are not inherently fantastic; they become so only when seen from a certain perspective (such as Alice's, whose expectations were those of a normal, 19th century child). Thus the fantastic does more than extend experience; the fantastic contradicts perspectives -- it is Alice's astonishment that signals the fantastic.

    By virtue of this direct contradiction of perspectives (what Rabkin calls a diametric reconfiguration), we can distinguish the fantastic from other non-normal occurrences: the unexpected and the irrelevant. Unexpected, literally, means not-expected. When a hitherto unmentioned character wanders into a story (Stephen Blackpool into Hard Times), his entrance is not-expected, but many be quite ordinary (since it is in keeping with the ground rules previously legitimized -- a story about industry may well need a worker). This has little to do with the fantastic. The dis-expected is closer, representing those elements which the text had diverted one from thinking about but which, it later turns out, are in perfect keeping with the ground rules of the narrative. Jokes depend on the dis-expected (e.g. the chorus-girl says to her elderly admirer, "Sir, I must tell you my hand belongs to another." "My dear," he replies, "I never aspired that high."). It is the anti-expected (e.g. the dead, or a plant, speak) that we are calling the fantastic and is that which, as discussed above, contradicts perspectives. Thus the anti-expected is wholly dependent on reality for its existence (even if it is, in a sense, reality turned around 180 degrees).

    Besides the three mentioned above, we still have one other kind of non-normal occurrence in a narrative: the irrelevant. Irrelevant occurrences violate a basic ground rule of all art: every element of a work of art tends toward the organic impact of that work of art. If this rule were reversible, we might well have a new source of the fantastic. However it is not. We must distinguish between the apparently irrelevant and the truly irrelevant. The apparently irrelevant functions cooperatively within the organic whole of the narrative (e.g. the witty non-sequitur) and is thus not irrelevant at all. The truly irrelevant tends to be excluded not only from art but from all experience (e.g. it is often untranslatable, for where there is no frame of reference, man apprehends almost nothing). As gestalt teaches us, there is no narrative world or physical world without a set of ground rules by which to perceive it.

    One might look for a fantasy among fairy tales, but their use of the world of enchantment negates the possibility of their being true fantasy. Within the world of enchantment, everything happens according to rules: "[The fairy tale hero] doesn't ponder over the mysterious forces or where his helpers have come from; everything he experiences seems natural to him..." (Max Lüthi). The ground rules are not ever-changing and reversed (as in Alice in Wonderland) and thus it isn't true fantasy. (University Press, Princeton, 1976)

    Back to the Top

    AMINADAB (or The Fantastic Considered as a Language)

    Jean-Paul Sartre

    What must the nature of the fantastic be in our time if it leads a French writer (Maurice Blanchot, author of the novel Aminadab) to find himself, upon adopting fantasy as his mode of expression, on the same terrain as a writer of Central Europe (Franz Kafka)?

    So long as it was thought possible to escape the conditions of human existence through asceticism, mysticism, metaphysical disciplines or the practice of poetry, fantasy was called upon to fulfill a very definite function. It manifested our human power to transcend the human. The object thus created referred only to itself. It did not aim at portraying anything, but only at existing. Though certain writers did borrow the language of fantasy for the expression of certain philosophical and moral ideas in the guise of entertaining stories, they readily admitted that they had diverted this mode of expression from its usual purposes and that they had created an "illusionist" fantasy.

    For Kafka, also, a transcendental reality existed, but it was beyond our reach and served only to give us a sharper feeling of man's abandonment in the realm of the human. Blanchot in Aminadab rejects all transcendence and thus the fantasy of the postwar disillusionment resigns itself to transcribing the human condition. At the same time the genre was pursuing its own evolution and getting rid of fairies, genies and goblins as useless and outworn conventions. For Blanchot there is only one fantastic object, man. And not the man of religion or spiritualism, but natural man, man as he is given.

    If the fantastic is now limited to expressing the human world, is it not going to be bound by new conditions? When a person deals with the human world (Sartre's example is a cafe), he or she is confronted with various implements, utensils, and machines. These implements, by definition, are supposed to do something. In the case of a pair of scissors, this something is to cut and trim various types of material, and when one picks up a pair of scissors to cut a piece of paper in half, the scissors represents a means to an end. The means functions as matter, and form -- mental order-- is represented by the end.

    To describe the world topsy-turvy we will have to show ends crushed by their own means -- where objects reveal their own instrumentality, but with an indiscipline and disorderly power, a kind of coarse independence that suddenly snatches their end from us just when we think we have it fast. For example, the scissors, instead of cutting the paper in half, changes into a stone as soon as the protagonist tries it. Frustrated, she decides to wrap the stone in the paper instead, but as soon as she tries to do so the paper turns into a pair of scissors, and so on.

    If the reader, while reading a story of this kind, thinks that it is all a practical joke played on the protagonist, or that the protagonist is suffering from some form of psychosis, then we have lost the game. But if he has the impression that these absurd manifestations appear as normal behavior, then he will find himself plunged all at once into the heart of the fantastic -- the fantastic, then, is the revolt of the means against the ends. Absurdity, on the other hand, is the complete absence of ends -- it is an object of clear and distinct thought and belongs to the right-side-up-world, as the actual limit of human powers. In the eccentric and hallucinating world we are trying to describe the absurd would be an oasis, a respite, and thus there is no place for it. I cannot stop there for an instant; each means refers me constantly to the phantom end by which it is haunted, and each end sends me back to the phantom means through which I might bring about its realization. I am unable to think at all, except in terms of slippery and iridescent notions that disintegrate as I behold them.

    ...The atmosphere in such works is so stifling because of the exclusion of "impassive Nature." The protagonist never gets a glimpse of forests, plains, and hills. How restful it would be if they could come within sight of a mound of earth or a useless piece of matter! But if they did, the fantastic would immediately vanish; the law of this genre condemns it to encounter instruments only. Also excluded is the isolated person -- the hero must be surrounded with men who are instruments. The reader, referred from the implement to the man, as from means to end, discovers that man is, in turn, only a means. As a result, the universe of the fantastic seems like a bureaucracy. (From: Literary Essays by John-Paul Sartre, Philosophical Library, New York, 1958)

    Back to the Top

    AFTER KAFKA: The Influence of Kafka's Fiction

    Shimon Sandbank

    To Walter Benjamin, Kafka's parables have "a similar relationship to doctrine as the Aggada (sections of the Talmud and Midrash with stories, folklore, maxims) does to the Halakhah (concerned with religious laws and regulations). They are not parables, and yet they don't want to be taken at their face value; they lend themselves to quotations, and can be told for purposes of clarification. But do we have the doctrine which Kafka's parables interpret and which K.'s postures and the gestures of his [Kafka's] animals clarify? It does not exist; all we can say is that here and there we have an allusion to it. Kafka might have said these are relics transmitting the doctrine, although we could regard them just as well as precursors preparing the doctrine." If, in Kafka, movement and gesture were presented as semantically self-sufficient, or, obversely, their symbolic meaning determinable, there would be nothing new about this way of writing. What makes it entirely new is that it always points to a truth beyond itself but never commits itself to the truth to which it points. His stories present themselves as interpretations, point to a text beyond them, but are deprived of the doctrine they represent. They are so many pointers to an unknown meaning.

    To relate this to some prevalent distinctions (Rimmon: The Concept of Ambiguity), there is a threefold gap at the center of Kafka's stories: at the level of events as they appear in the text (what the Russian formalists call the sjuzet), at the level of the events in their original "natural" order, before they were artistically shaped into the text (fabula) and, most important, at the level of theme. A temporary gap at the level of sjuzet is finally filled in, after many arrests and retardation. But the filling proves illusory and the gap is reasserted and finalized. It now turns out to be at the level of the fabula itself, a permanent gap. The absurd nature of the gap makes the reader want to treat the story as symbolic, makes him want to translate it into another mode. Various clues scattered about even seem to suggest this is possible, but it proves fruitless. And yet he is not a purely self-reflexive writer, as Kafka's work is guided by an undeniable metaphysical impulse. The themes it evokes -- and evades -- may be psychological or political no less than metaphysical, its very resistance to a reduction to any one of them is a measure of its holistic, metaphysical drive. Were it not for the fact that the doctrine Kafka was after was the total meaning of existence, the total truth of ontology rather than the partial truths of psychology, ethics or politics, he could have had a doctrine, not only its "relics." The fact that his stories resist thematic extrapolation is inseparable from the fact that they are metaphysical and concerned with the world as a totality.

    Even Kafka's successors are unable, or unwilling, to write the radically skeptical type of fiction that is his great contribution to literature. They cannot, or will not, bear too much unknowing, the withdrawal from all theme, the renunciation of all reason. They end with some comfort, however paradoxical: Camus' absurd, Borges's illusionistic mysticism, etc. (The University of Georgia Press, Athens, 1989)

    Back to the Top

    Homepage | Archives | Theory | Links | Guidelines

    copyright 1998 The Cafe Irreal all rights reserved