The Fantastic

As an analytical category, the fantastic cannot be said to strictly exist. Or, more precisely, its existence can only be strictly said, by which I mean that it is, fundamentally, a phenomenon of signification or a mode of “linguistic existence” (what, in fact, is indexed by the very quotation marks that crop up here and throughout this brief commentary).  The term thus immediately implies its intimate relation and its conceptual debt to the literary genre with which it shares its name. In his now classic study, Tzvetan Todorov defines the genre of the fantastic as constituted by an uncertainty over whether a narrated event is real or imaginary; it is “that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event.”1  The emphasis on hesitation and uncertainty here frames the literary fantastic as an experience of a kind of open, empty interval, an experience, we could say, that is not one.  This paradox comes into sharper focus and speaks more clearly to the “linguistic existence” embodied by the fantastic more generally in light of the central contribution that the latter makes to a literary work.  “It permits,” Todorov tautologizes, “the description of a fantastic universe, one that has no reality outside language.”2 The concluding qualification is the crucial point: the fantastic is where the reality of language finds its most perspicuous articulation.  It is, in other words, what speaks the very gap separating linguistic signification from its “real world” referent.

In one of the few theoretical activations of the fantastic, contemporary philosopher Catherine Malabou uses it to formulate an analytical approach that “carries the apprehension and the regime of existence of what cannot be presented” (her subject is the place of change in Heidegger’s theory of Being).3 Using epistemological rather than phenomenological terms, she insists on the way this approach requires that philosophy “imagine what it thinks,” which is not to claim that what philosophy thinks does not exist.4  Rather, the fantastic thinking that she develops gives access to precisely the real of the imagination, the real aspects of thought itself.  The vocabulary of the real and the imaginary that Malabou intertwines to explore the fantastic complements and broaden the literary focus broached by Todorov’s discussion.  If, that is, Todorov details how the literary fantastic compels a reader to “consider the world of the characters as a world of living persons,” he is also describing a textual effect in which the boundaries between language and “real life” become as confused and uncertain as those between “imagination” and “thought” in Malabou’s argument.  More generally, because language as such does nothing other than put a kind of imaginary thinking into play – one in which we are repeatedly asked to conjure up the existence of what it refers to – we might locate it as the very medium of the fantastic as a critical term. In this view, the fantastic thus names the kind of knowledge attained through an engagement with language and its metaphorical structures.  It is even, perhaps, the expression of the intelligence, which might also be to say the real being, spoken by literature itself.

  1. Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, Trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973), 25.  He evocatively insists on the fantastic’s “differential character” since “once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the fantastic for a neighboring genre, the uncanny or the marvelous” (27; 25).
  2. Ibid, 92
  3. Malabou, Catherine.The Heidegger Change: On the Fantastic in Philosophy, Trans. and ed. Peter Skafish (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011), 13. Malabou borrows the term as an index of such an imaginary-real nexus from Roger Caillois; see his “The Natural Fantastic,” The Edge of Surrealism: A Roger Caillois Reader Ed. Claudine Frank (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 349-357.
  4. Ibid, 182.