Fantastic Worlds: From the Surreal to the Transreal

The fantastic implies an integration of the reader into the world of the characters; that world is defined by the reader’s own ambiguous perception of the events narrated.

-Tzvetan Todorov – The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre

The quote above entails absorbing the reader into the fantastic worlds of the characters, but what if the reverse were true; what if what is needed is to integrate the fantastic world of the unreal – allow those uncertain characters and events that seem to shift between the marvelous and uncanny – into our world, allow both the natural and unnatural or transnatural to intermix in that uncertain duration – that interval of time, we in our unknowing, call the fantastic real?

The Surrealists once believed they were constructing a bridge to the fourth-dimension, an inter-dimensional bridge of art, poetry, dance, and imaginal impossibilities. They believed that the ancient arts of the Great Work – of Alchemy and transformation, metamorphosis and magical systems of sigils and hidden knowledge’s could allow them to attain this transitional movement between worlds. For them the mundane world of utility and work were a dead zone where people were sleepwalkers and zombies roaming the machinic realms of dark hellish realm. Instead they sought to break out of this restricted world of commerce, to escape the humdrum realms of work and enter into the world of creativity and invention.

Rereading Tzvetan Todorov tonight reminded me of these various movements. I came across his notion of being caught up in an impossible situation or inexplicable event, drifting between natural and transnatural explanatory modes; shifting between the uncanny or marvelous, or figural or literal tropes without reaching for one or the other nor a factual reason for this ineffable impossibility is to be left in that uncertain twilight zone of the fantastic. The key is being able to live in that transitional state that Deleuze would capture in the use of the conjunction “And…”:

“A rhizome has neither beginning nor end, but always a middle (milieu), between things, inter-being, intermezzo. The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance. The tree imposes the verb “to be”, but the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction, “and… and… and…” This conjunction carries enough force to shake and uproot the verb “to be” […] to establish a logic of the AND, overthrow ontology, do away with foundations, nullify endings and beginnings.”

 —Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari

Rereading this passage reminded me once again that John Keats the Poet had already accomplished a more succinct definition in his now famous letter:

“Several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason — Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”

John Mee once said of Keat’s stance that “the provisionality of the correspondence might be taken as a triumphant demonstration of negative capability, recording Keats’s ability to project himself into different roles and live in a state of creative uncertainty, but these letters also seem to express a deep sense of insecurity, which frequently took the form of a desire to escape the fever and the fret of the life around him.”

Todorov in his now classic statement says much the same in that we oscillate between the uncanny (natural, psychological) and the marvelous (supernatural, unreal):

Screen Shot 07-13-16 at 01.41 AM

Todorov tells us three things are required for the fantastic event. First, one must oblige the observer to consider the world of characters as a world of living persons and to hesitate between a natural and a supernatural explanation of the events. Second, this hesitation may also be experienced by a character; thus the observer’s role is so to speak entrusted to a character, and at the same time the hesitation is diagrammed, and becomes one of the themes or leitmotifs – recurring motifs of the work. Third, the observer must adopt a certain attitude with regard to the text: he will reject both the marvelous (“allegorical”) as well as the poetic (“figurative, uncanny, psychological”) perspectives or interpretations.

Yet, if we assume as I suggested in the beginning that we’re no longer dealing with the reading of a book, but rather the role of the reader/interpreter is of the actual world around us seen from a parallax view in which the marvelous and uncanny, transnatural and natural dimensions intermingle or mix then one begins to understand and attain the view of surrealism – of our world opening onto a greater world that encompasses it. Of the noumenal shining through the shadows around us. Not to be confused with any notion of a Platonic world beyond outs, but rather our world seen as it is with rational thought no longer binding our perceptions to the ratio of logic and naturalistic vision.

Yet, one must take great care and not revert to metaphysics or old value systems of symbolic or allegorical import, but rather to open up the gap in the Real or Transreal and allow a space of uncertainty rather than certainty to shift one to either the transcendent illusions of the marvelous, nor to reduce this uncertainty to the psychological biologism of the uncanny; rather, we should as in Keats remain in the fantastic dimension of the Transreal itself where  negative capability allows us to remain in “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”.

Walter Pater in his high aesthetic work The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry related it this way, the wavering moment of uncertainty should be expanded, our “one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us.” He’d go on to say:

Victor Hugo says: we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve—les hommes sont tous condamnes a mort avec des sursis indefinis: we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among “the children of this world,” in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion—that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of this wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art’s sake, has most; for art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.

This is to live in-between savoring each moment as it passes without closing it off, without suborning it to some natural or unnatural event, but rather oscillating in the fantastic realms of creativity and invention, grace and the movement of desire; yet, unlike Pater I would add that the Ugly be given it’s due, that the realms of the macabre and grotesque should not be left out. The earthiness of the old art forms, of the poetry of Villon with its enchantments of sex and death, love and wastage should be included, too. All of life should inhabit the pulsation of this enduring moment of the natural and the impossible. This is nothing more and nothing less than participating in the open-ended ongoing creation of the  fantastic world within which the marvelous and uncanny share in a dimension at once surreal and transreal.

On FB David Roden posted a link to The Guardian’s article Transrealism: the first major literary movement of the 21st century?  Which got me to thinking. It had a link to Rudy Rucker’s old A Transrealist Manifesto. As the article states it “Transrealism argues for an approach to writing novels routed first and foremost in reality. It rejects artificial constructs like plot and archetypal characters, in favour of real events and people, drawn directly from the author’s experience.” We’ve all seen Reality TV where we passively watch other people living out fantastic or extreme lives and events that otherwise would never happen, contrived and choreographed affairs that seem doubly scripted to allow the illusion of life and the voyeuristic decadence of seeing the thing we all wished we could live, a distancing move that allows us to identify with the charade yet unable to actually perform or enact its enchantments. A pure lie that that binds us to the workday cycles of our mundane worlds of apathy and passivity.

So we need to reverse this, allow our lives to break free of work and utilitarian goals and enter into our own fantastic lives, not as some representational system of fictional possibility (i.e., living out role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons, etc.). No. Instead, we need to open the gap into the Real, unbind the fetters of our techno-commercial systems of reason and ratio that limit and delimit the horizon of our lives, police our emotive and intellectual perceptions, that bind us to a reduced vision of the earth and our lives. Rucker suggests What he suggested by “Trans” aspect is to invent a new set of tools, and with these “fantastic devices it is actually possible to manipulate subtext. The familiar tools of SF — time travel, antigravity, alternate worlds, telepathy, etc. — are in fact symbolic of archetypal modes of perception. Time travel is
memory, flight is enlightenment, alternate worlds symbolize the great variety of individual world-views, and telepathy stands for the ability to communicate fully.” As he says in his manifesto: “This is the “Trans” aspect. The “realism” aspect has to do with the fact that a valid work of art should deal with the world the way it actually is. Transrealism tries to treat not only immediate reality, but also the higher reality in which life is embedded.”

Yet, he is still bound within the two-world theory of Plato in this notion of immediate and higher reality. We need to move out of the metaphysical and into the Real, the gap of creativity and invention itself. This need of an ongoing creation and process of unbinding ourselves from the constructed prison of work and enslavement to capitalist profit and plutocracy, and the invention of a new world where life and creation are situated in the transreal dimensions. As Rucker suggests: Transrealism is a revolutionary art-form. A major tool in mass thought-control is the myth of consensus reality. Hand in hand with this myth goes the notion of a “normal person.”

The normal person is the conformist, the creature of habit and custom, the sleepwalker through existence that lives on the bottom tier of creativity, plodding through life enjoying a hedonistic consumerist vision of existence; seeking sex, money, and rock-n-roll… A life bound to the pleasure-pain of this closed world of Capital. As Rucker tells it “the idea of breaking down consensus reality is even more important”. He continues:

This is where the tools of SF are particularly useful. Each mind is a reality unto itself. As long as people can be tricked into believing the reality of the 6:30 news, they can be herded about like sheep. The “president” threatens us with “nuclear war,” and driven frantic by the fear of “death” we rush out to “buy consumer goods.” When in fact, what really happens is that you turn off the TV, eat something, and go for a walk, with infinitely many thoughts and perceptions mingling with infinitely many inputs.

Thinkers like Noam Chomsky have dealt with media control for years. From the early work of Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays wrote his book on Propaganda that allowed a passive US audience that wanted nothing to do with war, to be manipulated through media – newspapers, magazines, radio, etc.; and, then to move after the war into commerce with the invention of advertising manipulation; and, and, and… to the point that our lives are enclosed in a giant machine of manipulation some term the Infosphere. As Luciano Floridi reports it:

Infosphere is a neologism I coined some years ago on the basis of ‘biosphere’, a term referring to that limited region on our planet that supports life. As will become clearer in the course of this book, it is a concept that is quickly evolving. Minimally, it denotes the whole informational environment constituted by all informational entities (thus including information agents as well), their properties, interactions, processes, and mutual relations. It is an environment comparable to, but different from, cyberspace, which is only one of its sub-regions, as it were, since it also includes offline and analogue spaces of information. Maximally, it is a concept that, given an informational ontology, can also be used as synonymous with reality, or Being.1

This constructed world of false consciousness and propagandaized ideology that has slowly enclosed the global commons, and become ubiquitous within and without the electronic nexus of networks and mediatainment systems is the ontological object that enslaves us in a world of work and utilitarian goals set by Oligarchs, Plutocrats, and the establishment system of Government and Big Business that pervades the planet. It’s this invisible prison we need to break out of using the tools suggested by Rucker and others… Lacan and Zizek would term it the Symbolic Order. The great task of our time is to dismantle and destroy the current system of enslavement that traps our desires, captures our wants and needs and provides us with only minimal survival while the rich .01% live in luxury.

Now is the time to break out. For just as the discovery of a new reality demanded to
be expressed by a new fantastic surrealism, the creation of a new transrealism has in our time disclosed a brand new fantastic reality not as some world beyond ours nor a sur-reality just to the side or below, but rather as the power and capability within us all to shape and create a realm of communicative transrealism together.

  1. Floridi, Luciano. The Ethics of Information (p. 6). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.


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