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The word "irreal" occurs in the English language, as it does in Spanish, French, Czech and others, but it is no more common in English than the fiction we use it to describe. Webster's Third International Dictionary gives the simple definition, "not real," and, equally succinctly, you could say that irreal fiction is non-realistic. That, however, does nothing to distinguish an irreal story from a sword and sorcery tale or a ghost story.

In The Art of Fiction John Gardner uses the term irreal, along with the terms Kafkaesque expressionism and surrealism, to describe types of non-realistic literature. He says that irrealism, in particular, describes the formalist work of writers like Borges and Barthelme. In all of the forms of non-realistic literature, however, Gardner sees a tendency to translate "details of psychological reality into physical reality." Further, he says that the type of reality imitated in these non-realistic forms is that of our dreams. Because the term surrealism is, at least where literature is concerned, associated with concepts introduced by Andre Breton (such as automatic writing) that do not concern us directly, and expressionism is already attached to an artistic movement which is only tangentially related to what concerns us, we have chosen to use the word irreal to describe works of fiction in which physical reality reflects psychological reality in a manner that imitates the reality of a dream. Maybe we need to clarify.

Erich Fromm, in his book The Forgotten Language, says that in our dreams the sensory experiences of seeing, hearing, etc. stand for or symbolize inner experiences, feelings and thoughts. In other words, he says that dreams are constructed in a symbolic language in which we express inner experiences as if they were sensory experiences, as if they were something we were doing or something that was done to us in the world of things. The world outside is used as a symbol for the world inside. This symbolic language, according to Fromm, is an international and universal language, the only language all human beings have in common and the language in which our dreams are created. Some of the symbols, he says, are universal, with an intrinsic relationship between the symbol and that which it symbolizes, the way water is so often used to symbolize life. This is because there is a correspondence between an emotion or thought (say, our relief when crops grow abundantly) and a sensory experience (say, rain on a dry day). Such symbols occur in our dreams and also in myths, fairy tales and symbolic works of literature. Then there are the accidental symbols which are highly personal and in which there is no intrinsic relationship between the symbol and that which it symbolizes. These also occur in our dreams, but Fromm says that accidental symbols are not likely to be used in myths, fairy tales or symbolic works of literature because they are so specific to the individual and are not readily understood without lengthy comment from the writer. However, we contend that, in irreal fiction, the dreamlike nature of the work is sustained precisely by the writer's use of accidental symbols without comment. Borges' labyrinth, Kafka's bureaucratic mazes, Carrington's horses all seem to come from intense personal experiences but are used in fiction as they would occur in a dream--without comment and with intense emotional and psychological import. As a result, irreal fiction, like dreams, is both deeply personal and truly international. Each individual writer has a set of symbols that he or she works with, just as each person's dreams reflect a highly individual set of life experiences. But the symbolic language itself and the way it is used is universal -- everyone dreams, regardless of where she or he lives or when. So, too, the overall rubric of irreal fiction is as recognizable in a story by Argentinian writer Luisa Valenzuela as it is in a story by Japanese writer Kobo Abe. What then are the qualities irreal fiction shares?

It is, in a way, as hard to specify these qualities as it is to relate the content of last night's dream. However, there are a few things that are clear. First of all, irreal fiction puzzles the reader and makes her or him think the way a particularly arresting dream does. This fiction challenges the reader by presenting the world, not in terms of an exact mimetic representation of what we see everyday but in a way that undermines our very sense of what is real. Although it is not always apparent, dreams tell a story, as Sartre notes in The Psychology of Imagination, and they are not just a random jumble of images culled from the subconscious; therefore, the conventions of storytelling, such as character, plot and setting, are important, at least to some extent. There is, of course, room for the absurd, for humor and nonsense. Not all dreams make sense. Nor are they gravely serious. Finally, ambiguity is important, since things are not spelled out for us in dreams but must be mulled over and learned from.

Irrealism, then, gives us highly individual stories from widely international sources told with great imagination by drawing on the universal language of our dreams and the intensely personal symbols of the writer. The Cafe Irreal hopes to find and to present irreal fiction from around the world, so that both the word irreal and the fiction we use it to describe will become much more commonplace in the English language.


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