Some Aspects of the Literary Fantastic

Poetry Ireland News July/August 2010

In the film Moon (wr/dr Duncan Jones 2009) Sam Bell has been alone for three years on the far side of the moon, overseeing an automated mining operation. One day while out on the moon’s surface, he crashes his vehicle and hits his head. He wakes in the infirmary on the base, where he is cared for by a robot attendant. When he’s recovered, he goes out onto the moon’s surface again, and discovers a crashed vehicle with himself inside, still alive. At this moment he enters the fantastic, and the audience shares his perplexity and terror. Later, when an explanation for this event has been given, though we feel safely restored to a predictable world, albeit set in the future, we regret the mystery’s passing.

Sam Bell inhabits a science fiction universe. In Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1915), the world in which Gregor Samsa lives is realistic, until he turns into a giant beetle. When the fantastic so disrupts the realistic, the claim of the latter as a valid replication of the outside world is revealed to be shaky. It is as much artifice as the genres it dismisses as unrealistic and inferior, and is in fact the flimsiest and easiest to subvert of all the genres. The most resilient are those that most closely approach strangeness and the condition of dreaming.

Yet it is a fact that realism has become the dominant genre to such a degree that most people consider it to be the only genuinely literary genre, all others being marginalised. Realistic literature has become the literature of the establishment — it sustains capitalism and the class system, for instance, by incorporating them into the very fabric of its narratives, it has become the paradigm of the social order, the very norm of being. Imaginative genres that interrogate and destabilise realism are subversive, and their readers apt to be sidelined as society’s misfits and dreamers.

Realism assigns what is other than itself to the remoteness of a Heaven, Hell or Fairyland that it then dismisses as unreal, having no sensible place in human affairs. The fantastic restores that rejected other to the world in unpredictable and outrageous forms, relocating it firmly within the individual imagination, to which it restores the respect it once enjoyed. Within the last century, with the progressive weakening of the colonial powers, an upwelling of the marvellous, emerging from the former colonies in the form of magic realism, has made inroads into realism’s hegemony. 

Realism is a traffic from the external world to the internal, where the outer world acts as a template to shape and restrain the imagination. The fantastic reverses this flow, unbinding the imagination and enabling the inner world to reach out and reshape the outer to its own desires and imperatives. 
Fantasy literature (such as Tolkien’s or C S Lewis’ works) and science fiction, are both set in fully imagined worlds with their own consistent laws and rules, and to this degree imitate the order within realism. An irruption of seemingly impossible events can disrupt these genres too, though they are much more tolerant of such interventions than is realism. Realism remains the primary target for an unruly marvellous in both magic realist and fantastic literature. In a magic realist text, the reader might be astounded by some impossible event, but the characters within the narrative will take little notice: such things are normal for them. In fantastic literature, (as we have seen) both the reader and the characters will be astonished, and the reader will identify with and be disturbed by the characters’ tribulations.

Tzvetan Todorov, in his essential The Fantastic (1975), suggests that the fantastic exists in a place of hesitation between a natural and a supernatural explanation of an event that seems to defy rationality. Sam Bell on the moon, has been alone for three years, has had occasional hallucinations and has recently hit his head, so could he be mad? Or has some strange unseen power caused a rival version of himself to spring into being? We cannot decide, and experience the cold breath of the uncanny.

For poetry there are special problems, because metaphor misbehaves in a fantastic universe. The shy man who becomes a lion on the field of battle in an ordinary poem, would be read as becoming courageous. In a poem of the fantastic, the shy man may well have turned into a full-grown lion, complete with claws and teeth. Allegory is problematised, interpretation becomes uncertain, and metonymy becomes perhaps the trope of choice. Metamorphosis in particular comes into its own, almost forced into being by the singular properties of this literary universe. 

Strangeness and a sense of the uncanny have always been indicators of proximity to the mysteries, and our most profound spiritual and psychological depths cannot be plumbed using the language of realism. When the living mystery inside us talks to itself, it does so in the dark, and uses the language of dreaming.

Roderick Ford is an award-winning Welsh poet based in Dublin. Ford's most recent collection is The Green Crown, which will be launched on Thursday 9 September in Damer Hall, 112 St Stephen's Green, D2.

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