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It's common to describe many of the works we're including under the rubric of irrealism -- from Alice in Wonderland to The Trial -- as being dreamlike (that is, evoking the dream state). But this description is too general for our purposes, and here we will seek to clarify it.

First of all, to place the dream-state in context, we regard it as being more than the simple opposite of the "waking state." We also see it as being the furthest point on a continuum of what we would call (after Sartre) "the category of the unreal," which is to say the mental state we enter when we (literally or figuratively) close our eyes to reality and start to imagine. Thus the unreal includes everything from simple daydreaming and personal fantasies to the deepest dreams and hallucinations.

All fiction, to some extent, inhabits the category of the unreal (Madame Bovary, after all, never existed and was therefore a product of Flaubert's imagination). But the realist writer who, for instance, sets a novel in a fictitious town in England and then visits an appropriate English town so the descriptions will be more realistic travels less far into the category of the unreal (does less imagining) than a J.R.R. Tolkien, who not only had to create a whole new world from scratch, but one which he could only visit in his imagination. And yet Tolkien (and the various other genre fantasy and science-fiction writers) are not irreal writers. For, having imagined a new world, a Tolkien proceeds to make it so real and concrete for us (by giving it laws, mythologies and governments) that we could visit it, if it existed, like we would visit an exotic island -- surprised by the customs of the people and the creatures that inhabit its jungles, but feeling very much as if we were in the category of the real. Like the realist writer, he tries to concretize the unreal.

The irreal world, by contrast, cannot be concretized. We cannot bring the norms and mores of the waking world into its realm without altering its very nature. Imagine Lewis Carroll elaborating on the Queen of Hearts and her "government" in the same way that Tolkien did with Thorin and his rule over the dwarves -- the Queen would have to be given legitimacy and real power, since as she is portrayed in Alice she has none of either, and governments cannot in reality function without them. Tolkien emphasized the wisdom and dignity of Thorin, as well as the sacred bonds between subject and king, to legitimize Thorin's government and the loyalty of his subjects, thus bringing the norms and mores (even if idealized ones) of the waking world into the work. For the reader making his way through the continual paradoxes and absurdities of Carroll's work to then encounter a similar description of the Queen would be like waking up from a dream, except in this case one would be "waking up" into a different, more realistic form of fiction. If we ever dream about governments, after all, we do not generally dream about the particulars of their hierarchies or ideologies, but about their momentary manifestations of pomposity and ineffectiveness (something like Carroll) or their impersonal, irrational and abstract threats to our well-being (as in Kafka or Abe). To actually explain the functioning of a government or ruling apparatus, even if it is composed of dwarves, and the government is distinctly medieval, is to utilize the rationality of the real world and therefore destroy the dream-nature of irreal fiction. As Sartre says, the dream (and therefore, what we are describing as irreal fiction) "is the odyssey of a consciousness dedicated by itself to build only an unreal world...a privileged experience which can help us to conceive what it would be like to lose our being-in-the world, of being deprived of the category of the real."


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