The Transgressive Fantastic

The theoretical work of Julia Kristeva suggests that the non-thetic (non-conceptual and transgressive awareness) can be linked to all those forces which threaten to disrupt a tradition of rationalism. Such forces have been apprehended as inimical to cultural order from at least as far back as Plato’s Republic. Plato expelled from his ideal Republic all transgressive energies, all those energies which have been seen to be expressed through the fantastic: eroticism, violence, madness, laughter, nightmares, dreams, blasphemy, lamentation, uncertainty, female energy, excess. Art which represented such energies was to be exiled from Plato’s ideal state. Literature mentioning ‘the Rivers of Wailing and Gloom, and the ghosts of corpses, and all other things whose very names are enough to make everyone who hears them shudder’ was to have no place in the Republic. The working life of economic slaves, the oppression of women, or any intimation of their suffering, any reference to sexuality or childbirth, were similarly banned from fictional representation. Socrates and his audience agree that ‘We must forbid this sort of thing entirely’ (The Republic, pp.141-2). The fantastic, then, is made invisible in Plato’s Republic and in the tradition of high rationalism which it fostered: alongside all subversive social forces, fantasy is expelled and is registered only as absence. ‘Plato feels his rational and unified Republic threatened from within by forces, desires and activities which must be censored or ostracized if the rational state is to be maintained’.

As Todorov pointed out, fantasy is located uneasily between ‘reality’ and ‘literature’, unable to accept either, with the result that a fantastic mode is situated between the ‘realistic’ and the ‘marvellous’, stranded between this world and the next. Its subversive function derives from this uneasy positioning. The negative versions (inversions) of unity, found in the modern fantastic, from Gothic novels – Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Gaskell, Dickens, Poe, Dostoevsky, Stevenson, Wilde – to Kafka, Cortázar, Calvino, Lovecraft, Peake and Pynchon, represent dissatisfaction and frustration with a cultural order which deflects or defeats desire, yet refuse to have recourse to compensatory, transcendental other-worlds.

The modern fantastic, the form of literary fantasy within the secularized culture produced by capitalism, is a subversive literature. It exists alongside the ‘real’, on either side of the dominant cultural axis, as a muted presence, a silenced imaginary other. Structurally and semantically, the fantastic aims at dissolution of an order experienced as oppressive and insufficient. Its paraxial placing, eroding and scrutinizing the ‘real’, constitutes, in Hélène Cixous’s phrase, ‘a subtle invitation to transgression’. By attempting to transform the relations between the imaginary and the symbolic, fantasy hollows out the ‘real’, revealing its absence, its ‘great Other’, its unspoken and its unseen. As Todorov writes, ‘The fantastic permits us to cross certain frontiers that are inaccessible so long as we have no recourse to it’.

-Rosemary Jackson,  Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion

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