Waiting For The End: A Tale of the Weird

©Chris Mars – Paintings

I had not thought death had undone so many.

-T. S. Eliot

I understood that from now on I belong to those who have ‘troubled the sleep of the world,’ and that I could not count upon objectivity and tolerance.

-Sigmund Freud, Letter to Ernest Jones

Tilly came to visit me again this morning. I was having a hard time adjusting. She told me it was like that for everyone at first. I wanted to say: “Not for me. It wasn’t supposed to go down like this. I had a life, a good life. My work. My family, It was a good life; well, at least it was my life, and things were on the uptake, things were getting better.” But no, then this thing happened. Blam… alive one moment, and… well, you know the biz… sink or swim as they say. Well I wanted to keep on swimming. I’d grown used to it. Comfortable. Then this…

Maybe I should back up to the beginning…

Continue reading

The Tick-Tock Man: A Weird Tale

“Only a cynic can create horror — for behind every masterpiece of the sort must reside a driving demonic force that despises the human race and its illusions, and longs to pull them to pieces and mock them.”

-Letter from H.P. Lovecraft to Edwin Baird

Maybe I should’ve realized then that my life was going nowhere fast, but as in everything I did I tried to hide that fact from myself. I’d get up, shower, shave, put on a decent gray suit and black tie – the usual invisibility shell I’d been using for years. I’d enter work and smile my masked smile, joke with the guy in the cubicle next to me – Frank was him name, I believe? – for a few minutes; and, then I’d go into my own cube as if it were a monastic cell and shut the rest of the world out of my mind for the rest of the day.

I’m not sure when I noticed things were beginning to change. It wasn’t like I could see a physical difference in the objects around me. I didn’t. It was more a feeling – a vague one, at that. It’s like those strange moments when you catch a glimmer of something out of the corner of your eye, but it is moving so fast that by the time you turn to see what it is – it’s gone, poof. Then you have to ask whether it was just your overactive imagination; believe me, you don’t want to go there, but we’ve all been there – haven’t we?

Then there was the clock on my desk. After all these years – I noticed it. Not that I hadn’t noticed it before. No. I looked at it all time, looked at the one on my computer, looked at the one up on the office wall above Judy’s cube. Time was a preoccupation with me. No. This was different – it wasn’t so much about looking as hearing. Suddenly I kept hearing the tick-tock of the clock over and over and over again to the point I had to stop it or else. I picked it up and slammed it down as hard as I could on the desk. It seemed to stop, or at least it wasn’t as noisy. Then I thought to myself: “What am I doing, this is sheer lunacy?” So I picked the clock up examined it carefully to see if the crystal was cracked or the facing scratched, wound it back up and locked it away in my drawer and left it there.

I remember going to the lavatory for a few minutes. I wasn’t gone that long at all. When I returned there it was – the clock. Sitting there on the desk as if I’d never put it away. A friend had given it to me years ago as a gift. She said it was a rare item. A one of a kind. She’d found it in one of her travels to some country of the Far East. She didn’t remember where. Said it came with a curse; or, at least that is what the shop owner had told her. They’d both laughed at such antics. He told her the clock once belonged to a Princess of ancient China. That a famous toy and clock maker had made it especially for her, and that it was built to keep her alive as long as she took care of it – and, didn’t anger it. It was said that the Princess kept the clock safe for years and years, that she’d put it in an alcove just above her bed where it kept time to the Dragon never yielding to its flames. That is until she fell in love with a young Prince.

The Prince had moved her to his palace and she’d brought her dowry and her clock with her. Everything had gone on fine for many cycles of the turning wheel of time, but then a day came when the Princess had accidentally discovered her lover, the Prince, in the arms of another woman. She’d been so enraged she’d come back to her quarters and begun shredding everything, her clothing, her art, her furniture, her bed, until she came to the object she valued most in her life: the clock. She knew of the curse, and she knew she wanted to get back at the Prince. She picked up the device and without thinking she threw it from the balcony of her room onto the rocks and sea far below.

From that day forward the Princess became ill and a few days and weeks later, even after the Prince had called in the best and brightest doctors, sorcerers, witches, and ancient necromantic seers: she died of unknown causes in an excruciating form – she turned to jade, to stone. The Prince so distraught over the death of his beautiful lover felt there was some ancient curse upon his House. He summoned all his soothsayers and wise men to discover the problem; and they told him of the old toymaker’s clock, and of this man who had loved the young Princess from afar, but due to his age and station in life could only offer the one thing he had to give – the promise of immortality. The clock held the ancient powers of chaos and creation within its mechanical works, a magickal device of cunning and sorcery that bestowed the semblance of life for a price; that price being the dark and terrible secret of death itself which would extol a malignancy upon those who betrayed its confidence. For those who betrayed the device it meant becoming a living death in stone; an immortal statue of jade within which one would be aware for all eternity.

The Prince had the old toymaker and all of his clocks summoned before him. The old man was forced to share the story of his corruption and of the device. The Prince entreated him to break the spell upon the Princess, to release her from her living abomination. But, sadly, the toymaker said this was beyond his power; that the daemon of the clock held the power, and that only it could release her. The Prince angered beyond his young years had without warning slid his katana out and swiftly sliced the head off of the toymaker. He’d wrapped the clock up – which had reappeared after his lover’s mutation in her jade hands – and wrapped it in the old man’s shawl and floated both down the Yellow Yangtze River. That was the last anyone had heard of the clock and its tale till the shop keeper’s great uncle who’d been a traveling merchant had found it and the slain toymaker in the river. The clock seemed such a wonderful object that the old merchant had scooped it from the dead man and hidden it among his things. The merchant had a dream that night and the old toymaker had come to him and told him the tale of the clock and of its curse, that anyone who angered it would surely die as it would die at the appointed hour of the tiger: absolute zero. There and only there did time stop, and freeze into nothing; to remain there throughout all eternity along with its victim alone with the daemon of the clock.

The shop owner Pooh-poohed such old wives tales, said it was just one of those tales to tell your children on a late night when the moon was dark, and the owls and mice in the rafters were hooting and pattering. And, yet, she’d felt a little uneasy about it later, even made sure she wrapped the clock up safely and stowed it away in her traveling chest nice and tight. By the time she’d arrived back home after her journey she’d forgotten all about it. Until she’d given it to me, along with the unnerving tale of Princesses and demons and owls and mice and dark moons and curses.

Continue reading

The Suicide Machine

The Universe is nothing else than a suicide machine created by a blind and fugitive monstrosity, whose veritable death throes generated the body of this universal catastrophe we now live in as fragments or shards of its dying embers, ash of its black light.

-©2016 S.C. Hickman, The Infernal Journals of Thaddeus Long

Thomas Ligotti will offer a surmise onto the strange necrotheology of the German philosopher Philipp Mainländer (born Phillip Batz), echoing a strain of Gnostic or Buddhist thought underpinning much of 19th Century Philosophy, saying: “Perhaps the Blind God was an unreliable narrator of weird tales. He did not want to leave a bad impression by telling us He had absented Himself from the ceremonies of death before they had begun. Alone and immortal, nothing needed Him. Yet, He needed to bust out into a universe to complete His project of self-extinction, passing on His horror piecemeal, so to say, to His creation.”1 He’ll comment on this amalgam of Catholic, Gnostic, and Pessimist speculation of Mainländer’s – remarking,

No one has yet conceived an authoritative reason for why the human race should continue or discontinue its being, although some believe they have. Mainländer was sure he had an answer to what he judged to be the worthlessness and pain of existence, and none may peremptorily belie it. (CHR,

The inability to posit an optimistic or a pessimistic reason for the continuation of the human species has left humanity in a quandary, oscillating between two poles like dark divers from some infernal picture show; members of a cult of death that keep on keeping on, only because of the ennui and the lack of vital thought or action necessary to decide one way or the other. So instead we have ritualized our world around certain age-old fetishes that our desires can grasp onto to maintain the status quo – if nothing else. As Ligotti delightfully relates: “Ontologically, Mainländer’s thought is delirious; metaphorically, it explains a good deal about human experience; practically, it may in time prove to be consistent with the idea of creation as a structure of creaking bones being eaten from within by a pestilent marrow.” (CHR, 38)


1. Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror. Hippocampus Press. Kindle Edition. (CHR)

 

Cosmic Horror: Spinoza, Poe, and Lovecraft

Nothing exists of which it cannot be asked, what is the cause (or reason), why it exists.

-Baruch Spinoza

Spinoza: Sufficient Reason

The Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) stipulates that everything must have a reason, cause, or ground. Spinoza would add to the epigraph above that since “existing is something positive, we cannot say that it has nothing as its cause. Therefore, we must assign some positive cause, or reason, why [a thing] exists—either an external one, i.e., one outside the thing itself, or an internal one, one comprehended in the nature and definition of the existing thing itself.”1

Spinoza in Axiom 7 appeals in his  explanation – previously stated, that it is a variant of the “ex nihilo, nihil fit” (“from nothing, nothing comes”) principle, and stipulates that an existing thing and its perfections (or qualities) cannot have nothing or a non-existing thing as their cause. So would this for Spinoza preclude any form of relation with an inexistent? We know that in the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, Spinoza allows for one unique item to be without a cause. In §70 of this treatise, Spinoza argues:

[T]hat Thought is also called true which involves objectively the essence of some principle that does not have a cause, and is known through itself and in itself. (II/26/33–4.)

Continue reading

Clark Ashton Smith: Visionary of the Dark Fantastic

To throw light upon the mysterious essence of the writer who has been overpowered by his daemon, to elucidate the true nature of the daemonic, I have inconspicuously delineated the dark inheritance of his escapades into the unknown.  The writer who soars upon the pinions of an uncontrolled daemonism is not one who is himself undaemonic, there is no art worthy of the name without daemonism, no great art that does not voice the music of the infernal spheres.

-Stefan Zweig,  The Struggle with the Daemon

Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams;
I crown me with the million-coloured sun
Of secret worlds incredible, and take
Their trailing skies for vestment, when I soar,
Throned on the mounting zenith, and illume
The spaceward-flown horizons infinite.

-Clark Ashton Smith, The Hashish-Eater 

It’s hard to imagine just how prolific Clark Ashton Smith was in the various areas of art, poetry, and prose within which he established himself as an exemplar of the dark fantastic. In poetry alone his work is without doubt the last of the last great Symbolist from an era that stretched from Baudelaire to W.B. Yeats, from the Pre-Raphaelites to Austin Osman Spare. I see that S.T. Joshi and other editors have brought out a three volume edition of his poetry and translations (before his mentor George Sterling died he’d already become well known for his translations of Baudelaire), along with five volumes of his collected weird tales and one of his miscellaneous writings in other genres and sub-genres. But it is his five volumes recently published of his fantastic tales, his essays, letters, etc. of which I’ve been interested in of late. Many in his own time failed to understand him or his work properly, but much did. Many of the avant garde regarded his work, and especially The Hashish Eater, as being a mere extension of Sterling’s; Witter Bynner’s half-joking references to “the Star Dust Twins” are typical. This did not prevent the publication of Smith’s work in venues such as the Yale Review, Poetry, Smart Set, and Laughing Horse, and it was no stranger to popular anthologies and even school and college textbooks.1

Le Sprague de Camp considered him one of the “Three Musketeers” of the Weird Tale, along with H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Yet, unlike the other two he never seemed to register on the psyche of readers. Some say it’s because he never created a mythos like Lovecraft’s Cthulhu or Howard’s Conan series, and yet he was by many aficionado’s (me included) the better stylist and prose writer, as well as more imaginative in displaying a command of world building and sheer control over the details of his explorations into the noumenal or unknown. For him the fantastic was not escapism – not in the sense of the Inklings or their sub-worlds; no, his was an exploration by indirect means of that vast invisible area we would term the speculative regions of the cosmos around us. Because of a false view of reality that after Kant reduced the cosmos and environment to the phenomenal and visible its taken a couple hundred years to come to the end of that circle of symbolic closure. Now in our time we’ve once again opened the doors to the unknown and impossible realms that our brains usually filter out because of our disposition toward hunger and reproduction. Yet, do to this caveat that our brains filter out most of the signals that surround us we are essentially blind to all but a small fragment of the Real. It’s in the work of this that those voyagers of the fantastic excelled; rather than in escape from reality, they chose to open up the aspects of reality that our cultural dominators chose to close off as taboo.

Continue reading

Grotesque Modernity: Saturnalia in the Ruins of Time

From the second half of the seventeenth century, we witness a process of progressive decline, degeneration, and impoverishment of the ritualistic forms and carnivalesque attractions in popular culture… The distinct carnivalesque view of the world together with its universality, its brazenness, its utopian character and predilection for the future begins to transform itself into a mere festive mood. The festival has virtually ceased to be the second life of the people, its temporary renaissance and rebirth.

-Mikhail Bakhtin, L’oeuvre de Francois Rabelais

No one knows when it ended, when the world began to forget itself, and people lost their sense of the festive, the carnivalesque. Some say Time just stopped moving one day. I know, I know… time is a fabricated thing, an invention of farmers and agriculturalists, of star gazers and priests, magicians and shamans; time the great round, the swirling plover of the Great Bear chasing the tail of the Dragon; the sweet movement of the Milky Way pouring its light into the Big Dipper; Time, the Redeemer that Shelley once sang: “Their errors have been weighed and found to have been dust in the balance; if their sins were as scarlet, they are now white as snow: they have been washed in the blood of the mediator and the redeemer, Time.”

No more. The river ran dry long ago, the cities of the plain sit idly in the shadows of a silent order, a realm of eternal NOW. Dust and emptiness stretching disconsolately to the edge of oblivion.  The crumbling ruins of Time, the Redeemer decayed and broken, slipping away into ruin and chaos; falling away into that cold blank abyss where nothing returns, where rebirth and the hope of some hint of renaissance and festive carnivals no longer exist much less remember their calendric cycles. One critic voices pity that Bakhtin did not go into the subject of this ‘virtual’ end of the historical Carnival in greater depth.1 How can this be? Since the Enlightenment philosophers and politicians both have told us repeatedly that we are living in the progressive era, and that the older view of history as prophetic or millenarian end game or religious apocalypse gave way to a new future oriented history: one that not only promised us a secular Utopia that would bring history to a happy ending, but also the promise of steady improvement, an end to disease and pain, and a world based on egalitarian values and justice and economic emancipation; an endless future of technology and technics with no foreseeable end in sight.2 Promised a world of industry, health, and plenty we’ve come instead to a time of want, depletion, and degradation at the hands of the very machinic civilization that Instrumental Reason built. Instead of carnival and festivity we labor under austerity and want, death, fear, and the hothouse wars of terror and revolution everywhere. An age more grotesque and macabre, than sublime.

Continue reading

Pierrot & the Dandy: Figures of Decadence

No one was more reproachful than he of a pose, a “cassure,” to use a vulgar word which exactly expresses our thought, whether in a dandy or in a voyour, in a great lady or in a daughter of the people. He possessed in a rare degree the sense of modern corruptions, in high as in low society, and he also culled, under the form of sketches, his flowers of evil.

-Théophile Gautier, Charles Baudelaire, His Life

Here is a description by Théophile Gautier in his biography or monogram of his young protégé, Charles Baudelaire:

His appearance was striking: he had closely shaved hair of a rich black, which fell over a forehead of extraordinary whiteness, giving his head the appearance of a Saracen helmet. His eyes, colored like tobacco of Spain, had great depth and spirituality about them, and a certain penetration which was, perhaps, a little too insistent. As to the mouth, in which the teeth were white and perfect, it was seen under a slight and silky moustache which screened its contours. The mobile curves, voluptuous and ironical as the lips in a face painted by Leonardo da Vinci, the nose, fine and delicate, somewhat curved, with quivering nostrils, seemed ever to be scenting vague perfumes. A large dimple accentuated the chin, like the finishing touch of a sculptor’s chisel on a statue; the cheeks, carefully shaved, with vermilion tints on the cheek-bones; the neck, of almost feminine elegance and whiteness, showed plainly, as the collar of his shirt was turned down with a Madras cravat.

His clothing consisted of a paletot of shining black cloth, nut-colored trousers, white stockings, and patent leather shoes; the whole fastidiously correct, with a stamp of almost English simplicity, intentionally adopted to distinguish himself from the artistic folk with the soft felt hats, the velvet waistcoats, red jackets, and strong, disheveled beards. Nothing was too new or elaborate about him. Charles Baudelaire indulged in a certain dandyism, but he would do anything to take from his things the “Sunday clothes” appearance so dear and important to the Philistine, but so disagreeable to the true gentleman.1

Continue reading

Italo Calvino: Collection of Sand

The fascination of a collection lies just as much in what it reveals as in what it conceals of the secret urge that led to its creation. – Italo Calvino

In a curious travel sketch Italo Calvino relates the story of a woman who collected sand from the various landscapes and geographies of the world. He’s come to a Paris exhibition where she’s arrayed these various hued marvels or curiosities in glass jars with placards relating them to their points of origins:

There is a person who collects sand. This person travels the world and—on arrival at a sea-shore, the banks of a river or lake, or a desert, or wasteland—gathers a handful of sand and takes it away. On returning home, thousands of little jars are waiting, lined up on long shelves: inside them the fine grey sand of Lake Balaton, the brilliant white particles from the Gulf of Siam, the red shingle that the Gambia river deposits on its course down through Senegal, all display their not particularly vast array of nuanced colours, revealing a uniformity like the moon’s surface, despite the differences in granulosity and consistency, from the black and white sand of the Caspian Sea, which seems to be still bathed in salt water, to the tiniest pebbles from Maratea, which are also black and white, to the fine white powder speckled with purple shells from Turtle Bay, near Malindi in Kenya. …

One has the feeling that this set of samples from the universal Waste Land is on the point of revealing something important to us: a description of the world? The collector’s secret diary? An oracular response to myself as I scrutinize these motionless sand-clocks and reflect on the moment I have reached in my life? Maybe all of these things together. The collection of sands that have been selected chronicles what remains of the world from the long erosions that have taken place, and that sandy residue is both the ultimate substance of the world and the negation of its luxuriant and multiform appearance. All the scenarios of the collector’s life appear more alive here than if they were in a series of colour slides. In fact, one would think that this sounds like a life of eternal tourism (and that is just the way that life appears in any case in colour slides, and it is how posterity would reconstruct it if it were only slides that remained to document our times): basking on exotic beaches is alternated with more arduous explorations, in a geographic restlessness that betrays a sense of uncertainty, of anxiety. …

At this point there is nothing left to do except to give up, walk away from the case, from this cemetery of landscapes reduced to a desert, this cemetery of deserts on which the wind no longer blows. And yet, the person who has had the persistence to continue this collection for years knew what she was doing, knew where she was trying to get to: perhaps this was her precise aim, to remove from herself the distorting, aggressive sensations, the confused wind of being, and to have at last for herself the sandy substance of all things, to touch the flinty structure of existence. That is why she does not take her eyes off those sands, her gaze penetrates one of the phials, she burrows into it, identifies with it, extracts the myriads of pieces of information that are packed into a little pile of sand. Each bit of grey, once it has been deconstructed into its light and dark, shiny and opaque, spherical, polyhedral and flat granules, is no longer seen as a grey or only at that point begins to let you understand the meaning of grey.

So, deciphering the diary of the melancholic (or happy?) collector, I have finally come round to asking myself what is expressed in that sand of written words which I have strung together throughout my life, that sand that now seems to me to be so far away from the beaches and deserts of living. Perhaps by staring at the sand as sand, words as words, we can come close to understanding how and to what extent the world that has been ground down and eroded can still find in sand a foundation and model.1


  1. Italo Calvino. Collection of Sand (Kindle Locations 237-311). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

 

Medusamorphosis: The Seduction of Love and Death

medusa-1597-1

Such is the seducer’s strategy : he gives himself the humility of the mirror, but a skillful mirror, like Perseus’ shield, in which Medusa found herself petrified. The girl too is going to fall captive to the mirror that reflects and analyzes her’, without her knowledge.

-Jean Baudrillard, Seduction

Medusamorphosis relates to the mythical figure of the Gorgon Medusa, a key figure of fascination, whose looks were thought to turn living beings into stone. The Medusa incorporates the ambivalent forces of attraction and repulsion that are at the heart of the dangerously seductive and petrifying lure referred to as ‘fascination’. Furthermore, the threat and thrill evoked by this figure support the conceptualisation of fascination and its development insofar as different representations of the Gorgon across historical eras, cultural contexts and across different media point to dominating trends underlying the dread of, or desire for ‘fascination’.1

Fascination is the “act of bewitching,” from Latin fascinationem (nominative fascinatio), noun of action from past participle stem of fascinare “bewitch, enchant”: the “state of being fascinated” is from 1650s; that of “fascinating quality, attractive influence upon the attention” is from 1690s. We know it is associated with “a charm, enchantment, spell, witchcraft,” which is of from European lore and folktales. Earliest used to describe witches and of serpents, who were said to be able to cast a spell by a look that rendered one unable to move or resist. Our legends of the Medusa with a head of serpents typifies this ancient motif, and became an apotropaic charm against the unknown and monstrous in ancient Greece. The Evil eye that binds, that wards off the dark and broken, the lonely and hungry ghosts; the dead among the darkening alleys, the mazes in the stone, circling, wandering, mazing among the endless gaps and cracks in-between times, in-between life and death; wandering across the hidden barriers, the hedgerows between the living and the dead, shifting, not knowing whether they are alive or dead. T.S. Eliot: “I had not thought death had undone so many.”

300px-MedusaIn the Medusa there is an association of beauty and terror, and even Leonardo da Vinci in the Renaissance would show this quality of absolute horror and beauty enfolded in the decay of stone ensorcelled by serpentine hair and frogs her lips and eyes open to the fateful stars above. The cool beauty of the femme fatale is another transformation of chthonian ugliness. Female animals are usually less beautiful than males. The mother bird’s dull feathers are camouflage, protecting the nest from predators. Male birds are creatures of spectacular display, of both plumage and parade, partly to impress females and conquer rivals and partly to divert enemies from the nest. Among humans, male ritual display is just as extreme, but for the first time the female becomes a lavishly beautiful object. Why? The female is adorned not simply to increase her property value, as Marxism would demystifyingly have it, but to assure her desirability. Consciousness has made cowards of us all. Animals do not feel sexual fear, because they are not rational beings. They operate under a pure biologic imperative. Mind, which has enabled humanity to adapt and flourish as a species, has also infinitely complicated our functioning as physical beings. We see too much, and so have to stringently limit our seeing. Desire is besieged on all sides by anxiety and doubt. Beauty, an ecstasy of the eye, drugs us and allows us to act. Beauty is our Apollonian revision of the chthonian.2

Continue reading

The Dark Sublime: The Poetry of Algernon Charles Swinburne

iswinbu001p1

I would my love could kill thee; I am satiated
With seeing thee live, and fain would have thee dead.

-Algernon Charles Swinburne, Anactoria

Algernon Charles Swinburne (April 5, 1837 – April 10, 1909) English poet and critic, outstanding for prosodic innovations and noteworthy as the symbol of mid-Victorian poetic revolt. The characteristic qualities of his verse are insistent alliteration, unflagging rhythmic energy, sheer melodiousness, great variation of pace and stress, effortless expansion of a given theme, and evocative if rather imprecise use of imagery. His poetic style is highly individual and his command of word-colour and word-music striking. Swinburne’s technical gifts and capacity for prosodic invention were extraordinary, but too often his poems’ remorseless rhythms have a narcotic effect, and he has been accused of paying more attention to the melody of words than to their meaning. Swinburne was pagan in his sympathies and passionately antitheist. This is the bare truth of a poet who would epitomize the dark sadomasochistic world of Late Romanticism, otherwise known as English Decadence.

Little read today except by aficionados of that dark realm of the fantastic one wonders at his strange craft, the elegant measure of his line and its  insouciance. Swinburne would fuse French Decadence to reinforce Coleridge against Wordsworth reviving the gothic sublime in all its horrific glory. An admirer of Sade, Gautier, and Baudelaire, Swinburne restored to English literature the sexual frankness it lost after the eighteenth century. After the Victorian defeat of Oscar Wilde the fate of Swinburne was assured. Wilde’s love letter to Lord Alfred Douglas De Profundis would lay bare the dark contours of his own prejudices and fears, presenting his association with young, working-class male prostitutes as a kind of moral and creative lapse, a bout of slumming that distracted him from the free practice of his art: “I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease … I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and meaner minds.” (here) Toward the end of his prison term in Reading he would sum up the art of Late Romanticism (Decadence), saying, “Language requires to be tuned, like a violin; and just as too many or too few vibrations in the voice of the singer or the trembling of the string will make the note false, so too much or too little in words will spoil the message.” Sadly, the fate of Wilde’s outer life would haunt the poetry and writings of Swinburne, which would fall into disfavor as a Late Victorian world of morality and accusation would put a damper on any sense of sexuality in poetry of literature.

Continue reading

Topology of the Unknown: A Fantastic Anthropology

I suggest that the imagination feeds on realia— transforming, transposing, and projecting them into the realm of myth, or maintaining them in the sphere of beliefs that are mistakenly labeled superstitions.

-Claude Lecouteux,  Demons and Spirits of the Land: Ancestral Lore and Practices

I’ve started reading a collection of works by Claude Lecouteux the author of several books on the study of popular beliefs regarding supernatural entities in the Middle Ages, arguing that many of them had their origins in pre-Christian pagan world views that were, of course, expunged, suppressed, and eventually moved underground in fairy tales, legends, popular lore and ballads, etc.. His domain of research includes magic, mythology and folk tales. As a historian of medieval history he began to discover a great many incongruous accounts of ancient pagan beliefs and customs still arising throughout the literature, folk tales, popular ballads and poetry, as well as in many of the various tracts of monks, nuns, and clergy of the period that have for the most part due to our scientific and rationalist cultural matrix been overlooked, dismissed, and left in a scholarly dead zone, hidden an almost invisible except in unread journals and thesis’s etc. As he stated in an interview: “from the 19th century, we find everything, but we have never tried to attend the historic and diachronic dimension, in other words over the course of a long evolution, beliefs, the believers and the impact on their daily lives. However, from texts and archaeological excavations carried out burial sites, I made a panorama specific and amazing stories of ghosts and ghosts in the middle ages. So, I thought it would interest students. Certainly my seminar deals with cultural anthropology, but as soon as I touch these topics here, I expanded my audience to students and teachers of other disciplines.”

He began seeing a pattern of notions, ideas, figures, tropes in the various traditions that had been suppressed and written out of most modern absorption of this sunken literature of the medieval world. Notions like reincarnation, ghosts: the return of the dead, vampires, were-wolves, strange and mythical land spirits, house spirits, etc. All of these the Catholic Church began to codify and in a Manichaean scheme to imprison in a discourse of hell, purgatory, paradise in which the various entities would forever be placed and the folk beliefs associated with the old notions forever silenced.

In the old Germanic imagery, Death is a temporary exile, from where you return you reincarnating in one of your descendants, provided that it is given your name! Otherwise, the child could succumb to a disease. That is to say the weight of beliefs! And the Church has tried to kill the ghosts! If you take the dialogues of Grégoire le Grand, in the middle ages, the ghosts are beside us, on Earth. We talk to them! Coming from a Pope, it’s amazing! Then, from the [?]emesiecle, the Church attempted to imprison them in his Manichaean scheme: the dead among the dead (hell, purgatory and Paradise), the living at home! Without bridge between the two worlds. Literature of Revelations speaks constantly of the manifestations of the dead from the living, even in the 13th century, but most of the time, in dreams. Otherwise, it’s purgatory, and they leave an indelible trace of their passage, like a burn for example. A tip: never shake hands with a ghost!

One advantage that he enjoined was knowing all the Germanic languages. He was able to introduce in his study everything which was narrated in the Scandinavian countries, in the middle ages. Thus, he found texts that have not yet been “Christianized”, reflecting faithfully the mental concerns of people from the 10th to the 12th centuries, out of religious considerations. The Church having not yet managed to banish ghosts in the hereafter, nor to make their purgatory that associates the ghosts to souls in need, he was able to work with the literature of the dead and discovered in it that there was nothing separating or distinguishing the dead from the living: no boundaries of separation between the realms, no purgatory until after the introduction of Christianity. As he’d say

Ghosts have three dimensions: they talk, eat, copulate, mother, fight and enjoy revenge on their human doubles! It’s the true revenant! Because even the semblance of a living, the Ghost is an immaterial being that in the middle ages, mainly manifests in dreams or dreams. Even if in the morning when you wake up, you have evidence that he came to visit you, either by filing an object near you, or injuring you in your sleep! It is impossible to catch him to tackle or to kill… again! However, the revenant is a living death that can kill a second time! And even permanently, with certain methods…

Reading the above I kept thinking of Clive Barker’s famed Cenobites, those erotic monks of hell who torture their victims in love… In the lore of Scandinavia there was a good and bad death. As he’d discover you can’t forget those who come back. Because they have a reason to come back: the need to be Avenged, for they avidly lecture their descendants or to ask for favors, etc.. On the other hand, an idea that is dear and underlying studies he conducted was the notion that as long as the memory of the dead remains, the dead lives. “And when the memory disappears, the death is “mythisé”: if it has been a very good death, the dead one turns into another creature like an Elf and, if not, a Dwarf! Scandinavian texts were very explicit on these metamorphoses.”

Asked about the transcendent realms, of the beyond whether it was singular in the ancient lore like the notions of the Church:

No. There is not a single beyond. You have a fantastic and magical characters. An afterlife of the dead, that is not the same. Etc. It also distinguishes between beyond and other world, to avoid confusion, as far as possible. In-between, there are bridges which is in the transformation of the dead in mythical characters, such as the dwarf, Elves or fairies. For example, the white ladies are fairies, kinds of warning ghosts of death, called banshees in Celtic folklore. The legendary death, so it is a scary tackle world because information go in all directions. Real “mental archaeology” as calls it my friend Régis Boyer, the real work is to find the internal consistency of all these scattered elements. Like a gigantic puzzle that would have thrown in the air and which should now pick up the pieces. Why did we think? This is what interests me! And I finally found an explanation: a design of the very special soul, which derived directly from shamanism. That is to say if it’s old! From here, we kiss the multiplicity of souls in the body. And, according to the texts and vocabulary, which survived and allowed the body to live is his double!

So already we see prefigured many of the themes and tropes of the modern fantastic from Hoffmann to our current masters of the Literature Fantastique: doubles, plurality of souls, shamanistic time travel, other worlds, etc. He tells us in his travel around Europe that the “country  that has the most ghosts, to the point that people are amazed to see an ethnologist studying the phenomenon and lore, it’s the Iceland!” After that, comes the Norway, the United Kingdom, and other countries. He sent a team of journalists who met a ghost hunter in Iceland, dressed for the ritual of expulsion of the ghost as if it were just a daily routine for the Icelander. Looking at American TV here in the States one finds the same thing with SyFy’s Ghost Hunters, or the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures, etc.. These 21Century ghost hunters pursue haunted houses, office buildings, court houses, prisons, asylums, etc. in search of the living revenant. They use advance imaging cameras, infra-red, sound equipment, specialized magnetic and ion capturing systems, a whole gamut of electronics to supposedly capture ghosts in these localize places. And, millions of viewers tune in every week to see the latest apparition chase some hunter around, or manifest bite or claw marks on their chests or arms, completely convinced that their in touch with either dead people or demons. What’s even stranger they make a living doing this…

When asked about these hunters in Iceland he laughed and said:

Except that this isn’t the fantastic! This is part of their daily lives. There are several decades, in the North of the Iceland, the Government had decided to build a hydro-electric plant. A public survey was conducted. And public opinion overwhelmingly objected to the project, arguing that it was going to bother the genius of the waterfall…

Asked if he is a believer in ghosts… he said: “I’m a Cartesian! We require proof, and so far there is only things that go bump in the night of ghost hunters and fools.” But he adds, “I still believe in literature, in the old ways that seem to live and live in our old tales… so who can say for sure, heh? And, both gods, demons, and ghosts vanish from the mind of man if we neglect them, allow them to disappear from our books, our texts… only then do they truly die the second death, banished from memory and time.”


Some of his books in cultural anthropology, folklore and the history the fantastic:

  • The Secret History of Vampires
  • Demons and Spirits of the Land
  • Phantom Armies of the Night
  • The Return of the Dead
  • The Secret History of Poltergeists and Haunted Houses
  • The Tradition of Household Spirits
  • Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies
  • The Book of Grimoires
  • Encyclopedia of Norse and Germanic Folklore, Mythology, and Magic

Fantastic Authors: Achim von Arnim(1781 – 1831)

Ludwig_Achim_von_Arnim

A German novelist and poet, born in Berlin. He is best known for a collection of folk-songs made with Clemens Brentano. and published (1806-08) under the title of the initial song, Des Knaben Wunderhorn. He studied the natural sciences at Göttingen and Halle, and received the degree of M.D., but never practiced medicine. His first work, Theorie der elektrischen Erscheinungen, showed a leaning to the supernatural, common among the German romanticists, still more strongly marked in his Hollins Liebeleben (1802), and Ariels Offenbarungen (1804). Der Wintergarten (1809), a collection of romantic tales, was followed in 1810 by a striking novel, Die Gräfin Dolores. Halle und Jerusalem (1811) is a humorous romance, and Isabelle von Ägypten (1811) a mediocre novel. Two years later he collected his dramas. In 1817 he produced his last and best romance, Die Kronenwächter, a story of the days of Emperor Maximilian. His works are careless in form, incoherent in structure, and romantically whimsical, but they show a remarkable originality of invention. They were collected, with an introduction by Wilhelm Grimm, in twenty volumes (1839-48). There is a brilliant eulogy of Arnim in Heine’s Deutschland.

Théophile Gautier would say of him:

The genius Achim d’ Arnim, so deeply German and romantic in all the meanings which one can give to this note. A purist of that fire – a Fantastic Écrivain (Writer), whose voice does not have the clearness of a Callot or Hoffmann, but which draws from a life centre based in the extravagant and bizzare world of shadows, a spectral fantastic with the precise contours of a  Tartaglia, Sconronconcolo, Brighella, Scaramouches, the Trousers, Truffaldins and other characters of the grotesque; he proceeds rather in the manner of Goya, the author of Caprichos; he covers a board of black, and, by some skillfully distributed keys of light, he outlines in the medium these garish clusters of darkness in which the spectral inhabitants are hardly indicated, and these figures from which the enlightened side is barely perceptible and detached, and in which the other is lost confusedly in the shadow of sombernous; serious strange aspects in keeping with an intense morbidity, heads of an intimate and insipid charm and decadent grace, masks of sniggerers with worrying cheerfulness, look at you, smile at you and scoff at you at the bottom of this night of nights in a shadow world where vague gleams fray and disperse under a blank sky.

Sadly I have not found any good translations of his works in English. Arnim is considered one of the most important representatives of German Romanticism. His works were collected, with an introduction by Wilhelm Grimm, in twenty volumes (1839–48). Heinrich Heine wrote a eulogy of Arnim in his Deutschland. His works include:

  • Hollin’s Liebeleben (1802)
  • Ariel’s Offenbarungen (1804)
  • Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Folktale Collection, 3 vol., with Clemens Brentano, 1806 and 1808)
  • Tröst Einsamkeit (Book collection of Arnim’s published Zeitung für Einsiedler, 1808)
  • Der Wintergarten (1809)
  • Mistris Lee (1809)
  • Armut, Reichthum, Schuld und Buße der Gräfin Dolores (1810)
  • Halle und Jerusalem (play, 1811)
  • Isabella von Ägypten. Kaiser Karl des Fünften erste Jugendliebe (novella, 1812)
  • Schaubühne (play, 1813)
  • “Frau von Saverne” (story, 1817)
  • Die Kronenwächter. Bd. 1: Bertholds erstes und zweites Leben (unfinished novel, 1817)
  • Der tolle Invalide auf dem Fort Ratonneau (novella, 1818)
  • “Fürst Ganzgott und Sänger Halbgott” (story, 1818)
  • Die Gleichen (play, 1819)
  • “Die Majoratsherren” (story, 1820)
  • “Owen Tudor” (story, 1820)
  • “Landhausleben” (story, 1826)
  • Die Päpstin Johanna (published posthumously by Bettina von Arnim, 1846)

Fantastic Philosophy: The Politics of the Impossible

10-Jarosław-Jaśnikowsk

Even as a child I was drawn to the dark underbelly of the fantastic flowing out of Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Morris, Jules Verne, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, H. Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, Ambrose Bierce, Arthur Machen, and H.P. Lovecraft and his followers…

Yet, with the advent of Lord Dunsany, and the Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and their followers the fantastic seemed to be hijacked into pure fantasy, into a Platonic amalgam of sub-worlds, and sub-creations after some theological speculations and overlays that regressively sought to reduce the world of the impossible and uncertain into the nostalgic returns of mythical medievalism and neo-Christian redemption – a world of nostalgia rather than a forward looking and probing of the political and social world of the present and future.

So there has been this great ongoing divide between the dark fantastic, weird tales, strange and speculative fiction communities and those others. The dark fantastic – at least to me, is the more viable path, the realm that allows for a more open and philosophical, even scientific and speculative opening onto all that is most disquieting in our present civilization and its cultural milieu. It’s as if the authors of the dark fantastic were already secret sharers of that age old spirit of rebellion and skepticism, those dark nihilistic and daemonic beings who down the ages have questioned what is most atrocious and tyrannical in our world, questioned power, knowledge, and the values that bind and keep us from exploring beyond the known, the veil of reason’s limits: outside the limits of finitude in the Great Outdoors of Being.

Sometimes I think of Hermann Hesse’s hermetic fantasy Journey to the East and want to say that instead of this insipid journey toward the transcendent and the sublime we join an opposing tribe, a secret brotherhood and sisterhood of the dark fantastic who have through the ages shared similar passions, and darker paths into the abyss of the erotic, decadent, and impossible; beings who were willing to enter the unknown of our earth, to wander the labyrinths of madness and chaos just the other side of Reason’s limits and finitude; join with these creatures of the autochthonous and chthonic realms, become members of their immanence, wanderers not of some transcendent realm, but rather of the Impossible and Unknown that lies submerged all around us in the earthly abyss like a hellish paradise awaiting its reemergence.

Fantastic Gnosis: Political Exit, Political Fantasy?

For a while now I’ve studied the great fantasies of the ancient Gnostics not as literal myths and theologies of acosmic religious gnosis or soterological mythologies of salvation, but rather as pragmatic portrayals of a philosophical and political program of action that uses the dark fantastic of inversion and subversion of ancient religious systems to both escape and exit the tyrannical dominion of a form of political, cultural, and social control; a way of deprogramming people from the literal death machines of society that have them trapped in erroneous ideological constructs and symbolic orders that feed on their energy and thrive on their physical and emotional life as part of an ongoing parasitism.

Call political gnosis a dark fantasy that helps guide us out of the sub-creations and dungeons of a Reality System that has locked humans in a cave of symbols and beliefs – a Symbolic Order(s) – that continues to manipulate and use humans to drive its own alien and transcendent enterprise and agendas. Think of the various philosophical wars between thinkers of transcendence and immanence that seem locked in some Manichean battle across the millennium. Now one side, now the other takes the upper hand, but in the end we’ve seen the slow reduction of Reality to a singular and monocultural systems of command and control that in our time seem to be unraveling at the edges. The question is: How can we help this along? How to begin pulling apart the woven fabric of this Reality System that has entrapped humans in a system of tyranny and enslavement for millennia? How did we fall into the sub-world, the sub-creation to begin with? And, no, there is no Gnostic Demiurge behind the curtain pulling the strings, no Wizard of Oz hiding behind the illusionary structures and myths of this world. Instead we’ve done it to ourselves, allowed our own incessant urge for perfection and immortality, our need to transcend the human condition, our need to believe in some more perfect utopian world of purity and fulfillment to goad us into this false system we’ve built against an age old enemy – Time. That’s right, we’ve build culture and civilization as a Time Machine, a temporal system of historical continuity and duration to defend us against the impersonal and indifferent monstrosity of the natural universe of death, chaos, and annihilation.

I know, I know… you say: “This is ludicrous, have you gone mad, man? What kind of gibberish are you asking us to believe? This sounds like one of your fantastic stories, some dipping in the jar of phantasmagoria?” Maybe. A possibility? Or, maybe not. What if it is just a handy extrapolation into an extravagant linguistic system to awaken and disturb people, to arouse their interest, to pique their taste for the exotic and extreme? What if it is a foray into the impossible? What of that? One can take or leave such thoughts as I portray (if they be thoughts?). One can walk away and say: “Hickman has gone mad, taken to heart the strange and ridiculous worlds he’s been steeped in for far too long.” Yes, yes… maybe you’re own to something there. But maybe a little madness and excess is what we need. A little disturbance of our sleep, perhaps? A wake up call? A sort of fantastic bomb that suddenly brings one nightmares from within, immanently?

Yet, strangely there are those sub-creators, those of the other party, the reactionary front who seem to think of radical thought as something that needs to be squelched in the nib. I think of such thinkers starting with Eric Voegelin, who in his Science, Politics and Gnosticism: Two Essays castigate what he termed political Gnosticism of modernity, lumping Positivism, Hegelianism, Marxism, and the “God is Dead” movement as variants of the Gnostic tradition of antiquity.1

Ioan P. Couliano in an interesting work on the Renaissance would liken magic and the magician as political actors enabling a new science of phantasms, one in which magic is primarily directed at the human imagination, in which it attempts to create lasting impressions upon the psyche of the masses. The magician of the Renaissance is both psychoanalyst and prophet as well as the precursor of modern professions such as director of public relations, propagandist, spy, politician, censor, director of mass communication media, and publicity agent.2 As he’d suggest

Nowadays the magician busies himself with public relations, propaganda, market research, sociological surveys, publicity, information, counter information and misinformation, censorship, espionage, and even cryptography—a science which in the sixteenth century was a branch of magic. This key figure of our society is simply an extension of Bruno’s manipulator, continuing to follow his principles and taking care to give them a technical and impersonal turn of phrase. Historians have been wrong in concluding that magic disappeared with the advent of ״quantitative science.” The latter has simply substituted itself for a part of magic while extending its dreams and its goals by means of technology. Electricity, rapid transport, radio and television, the airplane, and the computer have merely carried into effect the promises first formulated by magic, resulting from the supernatural processes of the magician: to produce light, to move instantaneously from one point in space to another, to communicate with faraway regions of space, to fly through the air, and to have an infallible memory at one’s disposal. Technology, it can be said, is a democratic magic that allows everyone to enjoy the extraordinary capabilities of which the magician used to boast. (104)

So in this sense we already live in a magical reality, a world constructed out of symbols and belief systems that have become demythologized of their ancient roots in lore and religious ritual and practices. Of course, nothing new here, Adorno and Horkheimer in their Dialectic of Enlightenment would show this demythologization process as a progression from magic to religion to secular enlightenment, etc. As they’d suggest in the earliest popular epics this theoretical element of magic ritual became autonomous. The myths which the tragic dramatists of Greece drew on were already marked by the discipline and power which Bacon celebrated as the goal. The local spirits and demons had been replaced by heaven and its hierarchy. the incantatory practices of the magician by the carefully graduated sacrifice and the labor of enslaved men mediated by command.3

Yet, one asks: What is being commanded? The simple truth of it is – desire. We’ve created in magic, religion, and now secular systems machines to capture desire. But to understand how we’ve been manipulated by our own propensity to desire things, objects, and – yes, transcendence, is to understand first what desire is and does. Alexandre Kojève once taught that human desire is ultimately a desire for nothing tangible but a battle for pure prestige, a struggle to enslave the other’s desire to one’s own.4 In other words desire is intransitive. Objectless, desire seeks only the gratification of it’s own desire for desiring, and seeks to subordinate and enslave other’s desires to its own command and control systems. Let us call this the Prospero Syndrome and follow John Fowles postmodern fantasia The Magus down the rabbit hole.

The plot can be only inadequately summarized. Nicholas Urfe, a youngish, charming, intelligent and rather callous Oxford graduate “handsomely equipped to fail,” takes up with Alison, an Australian girl he meets at a party in London. Their affair becomes serious (“In our age it is not sex that raises its ugly head, but love”). This is more than Nicholas’s effete cynicism can stand, so he leaves Alison to accept a job as an English instructor at the Lord Byron School, a sort of Eton-Harrow enclave on the Greek island of Phraxos, “only a look north from where Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon.”

Bored, immeasurably depressed by the self-revelation that he is not, as he had thought, a talented poet (“I felt no consolation in this knowledge, but only a red anger that evolution could allow such sensitivity and such inadequacy to co-exist in the same mind”), out of phase with the throb of the sultry, white-sunned Mediterranean island.

Nicholas contemplates suicide, then takes to long solitary walks. On one of these walks he meets a wealthy English-born Greek named Maurice Conchis who may or may or may not have collaborated with the Nazis during the war and now lives as a recluse on his palatial, art- encrusted island estate. Conchis is the magus.

The estate is known as Salle d’Attente (the Waiting Room), and it is here that Nicholas is ushered into the mysteries–Conchis’s paradoxical views on life and his eccentric masques which, Nicholas later learns, are called “the godgame.”

The Godgame: Political Enclosures and Sub-Creation

John Fowles was fascinated by the ancient Aesopian fables and their Aramaic roots in didactic political and mystical medievalism.  The notion of a “Domaine Mysterieux” became a central motif of his early works, The Ebony Tower and The Magus in which most of the godgame takes place is constituted by – in a literal sense – the cellar, and also in a wider, literary and semi-mythological way, by the very tale of Charles Perreault’s fairy-tale Bluebeard, first published in 1697 in Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye. John Fowles said later that he had been inspired by the symbolism of a man imprisoning women underground seeing Bela Bartok’s opera version of Bluebeard’s Castle.5

Yet, there may be another reading, far more sinister in which it is not only women, the excluded element within androcratic regimes that is being imprisoned underground, but desire itself and more than that, reality itself that is being submerged below the horizon in favor of a world of simulacrums where desire can be trapped in an eternal present without outlet in a Timeless realm where profit is the only thing that can circulate and nothing can be exchanged but Death – the ultimate currency and sacrifice.

It’s in this sense that the characters in these novels and stories much like ourselves have entered into the godgame, a sub-creation of our real world, where they and we have become bit players in a “meta-theatrical” production that we are blind too, unaware of participating in, and locked in an hellish realm of economic, social, and political enslavement in which desire is the ultimate commodity and tool of corruption. In other words these fables are in many ways enactments of the very political enslavement we are currently experiencing within the Neoliberal world theatre, a cruel realm in which the real world is excluded and only the grand effects of the Industrial Mediatainment complex of World-Wide Communications and Information Systems replace the truth with its simulacrum.

The Trouble with Pleasure

Aaron Schuster in his new book The Trouble with Pleasure tells us that at the heart of Freud’s theory of mental life he describes three levels of desiring: —that of desire and its dissatisfaction, the struggle for recognition that constitutes the ego, and the crafty enjoyment of the drives. (KL 202) He goes on to describe Freud’s theory of drives, etc. saying that among all the ailments and afflictions recounted there, there is one kind of complaint that enjoys a particular privilege: the neurotic complaint. Inexplicable tics and bodily ailments, irrational fears, obsessive and intrusive thoughts, sexual malaise, entrenched guilt, and generally self-defeating behavior: in examining these various ills, Freud discovered that the neurotic complaint has a peculiar structure. In spite of their grumbling and dissatisfaction, his patients proved stubbornly attached to the conditions from which they suffered, and Freud claimed that they were, in ways unbeknownst to themselves, deeply complicit in their own discontent. This is one of the most revolutionary aspects of psychoanalysis, whose full implications still remain to be discovered today: to consider those afflicted with psychopathologies not merely as passive victims of an illness, but as the unwitting architects of their own unhappiness. As Freud writes, while the ego “says to itself: ‘This is an illness, a foreign invasion’” and is thus unable to understand why “it feels so strangely paralyzed,” analysis reveals that the malady is actually “a derivative of [the neurotic’s] own rejected instincts.”  What appears to be externally imposed is nothing other than the mutilated product of one’s most intimate desires and fantasies. In other words, at a certain (unconscious) level, symptoms are very much wanted and “enjoyed.” (KL 202-216)

In other words you get what you deserve, you are the architect and prime mover of your own misery and discontent, that no one is imposing any chains on your freedom and that the world you have chosen to live is as Leibniz once defined it “the best of all possible worlds,” the world you yourself chose to live in and have your being, the world of your most intimate desires and fantasies.

Sub-Worlds, Sub-Creation

From the time of W.H. Auden, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, fantasy literature was seen as fulfilling a desire for a ‘better’, more complete, unified reality and as an art form providing vicarious gratification. This transcendentalist approach was part of a nostalgic, humanistic vision, of the same kind as those romance fictions of George McDonald and others of the Nineteenth Century. The moral and religious allegories, parables and fables informing the stories of Tolkien and Lewis move away from the unsettling implications which are found at the center of the purely ‘fantastic’. Their original impulse may be similar, but they move from it, expelling their desire and frequently displacing it into religious longing and nostalgia. Thus they defuse potentially disturbing, anti-social drives and retreat from any profound confrontation with existential dis-ease.6

Movement into a marvellous realm transports the reader or viewer into an absolutely different, alternative world, a ‘secondary’ universe, as Auden and Tolkien term it. This secondary, duplicated cosmos, is relatively autonomous, relating to the ‘real’ only through metaphorical reflection and never, or rarely, intruding into or interrogating it. This is the place of William Morris’s The Wood Beyond the World, Frank Baum’s Wonderful Land of Oz, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, Fritz Leiber’s Nehwon, Tolkien’s Middlearth in The Lord of the Rings, Frank Herbert’s Dune, the realms of fairy story and of much science fiction. (Jackson, 42-43)

These forms associated with the neo-Christian vision of the Inklings is to build up another universe out of elements of this one, according to dystopian fears and utopian desires, rather like Swift’s satirical methods in Gulliver’s Travels. Their other world, however new or strange, is linked to the real through an allegorical association, as an exemplification of a possibility to be avoided or embraced. The basic relation is a conceptual one, a linking through ideas and ideals. This is the basic notion of a Symbolic Order.

Much of what is termed post-Marxist thought of such thinkers after Lacan, such as Deleuze, Laclau, Mouffe, Žižek and so many others offer us a  version of the symbolic turn inherited from the structuralist era that was as much an obstacle as a vehicle for the various political projects to be discussed in this essay. The structuralist understanding of the symbolic is incapable of conceiving forms of critical thought and action that could disrupt hegemonic ideological forms, as structuralism takes these to be constitutive of our subjectivity itself.7

According to Breckman post-Marxism involves a confrontation between the relatively rigid semiotic concept of the symbolic order and looser, less formulaic and less deterministic ideas of the symbolic. (Breckman, pp. 12-13) These more open concepts tap the complicated legacy of the symbolic turn, a history with roots deeper than the twentieth century. The polyvalence of the concept of the symbolic opens up the terrain of post-Marxism: on one hand, the view of the symbolic as a “gargantuan” matrix, a ubiquitous ideological grid. As Breckman states it:

…the symbolic draws on roots in aesthetic and religious thought to indicate a special kind of representation, a representational form that oscillates between creating a certain kind of presence and remaining permanently flawed, shot through with that which it is not and cannot be. Viewed in this way, the symbolic opens the possibility for reorienting critical theory toward radical democracy, conceptualizing the power of symbols to body forth ideas, while at the same time viewing the social space as open and unmasterable. (pp. 13-15)

Many have portrayed postmodernity as intrinsically allegorical (which would be to say antisymbolic) because it has forever foreclosed on the fantasy of immediacy, presence, identity, and transcendence.8 All through the nineteenth century we discover in the Romantics, Decadents, and Symbolists a tension between symbol and allegory, which of course was a feature of the Romantic era itself, frequently hardening into an opposition. And, by extension, the notion that the postmodern age is allegorical rests inherently on a contrast to a modern age that was symbolic. It should be clear from the present discussion that it is a mistake to elevate one dimension of Romantic symbol theory above the polyvalence that lies at its core: the symbol is simultaneously a figure that concentrates and disperses meaning; it is a powerful figure, not just one sign among all others, but one that has the paradoxical power both to present or body forth and to accentuate the gap between the sign and the signified.

It would be this gap between the sign and the signified that would haunt the twentieth century. This sense that our thoughts about and reality itself had forever been severed, and we were now for better or worse living in constructed worlds – worlds where the social and cultural systems we seem to take for granted are machines of capture, machines that capture desire. We are living in an artificial world that feeds off our desires and manipulates our physical and mental life as part of a system of knowledge and power (Foucault) of which we are no longer the masters (if we ever were?).

Jean-Paul Sartre, in The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination would tell us that acts of creation are in fact negations of the existent, acts of positing a “thesis of irreality.”9 This view ultimately opens directly onto basic themes of Sartrean existentialism, for even though the imaginary suffers an “essential poverty” compared to the fullness of perception, the imagination is nonetheless the basis of our existential freedom because it is the source of man’s transcendence of the real; though the imaginary may be the source of enslavement to our own fantasies, it is also the source of the spontaneous freedom of consciousness in the Sartrean universe.

The notion of irrealism has generally been used to describe something which, while unreal, is so in a very specific or unusual fashion, usually one emphasizing not just the “not real,” but some form of estrangement from our generally accepted sense of reality. Some argue that irrealism should not be confused with anti-realism, that it is defined as being a type of existentialist thought and literature in which the means are continually and absurdly rebelling against the ends that we have determined for them. An example of this would be Franz Kafka’s story The Metamorphosis, in which the salesman Gregor Samsa’s plans for supporting his family and rising up in rank by hard work and determination are suddenly thrown topsy-turvy by his sudden and inexplicable transformation into a man-sized insect. Such fiction is said to emphasize the fact that human consciousness, being finite in nature, can never make complete sense of, or successfully order, a universe that is infinite in its aspects and possibilities. Which is to say: as much as we might try to order our world with a certain set of norms and goals (which we consider our real world), the paradox of a finite consciousness in an infinite universe creates a zone of irreality (“that which is beyond the real”) that offsets, opposes, or threatens the real world of the human subject. Irrealist writing often highlights this irreality, and our strange fascination with it, by combining the unease we feel because the real world doesn’t conform to our desires with the narrative quality of the dream state (where reality is constantly and inexplicably being undermined); it is thus said to communicate directly, “by feeling rather than articulation, the uncertainties inherent in human existence or, to put it another way… the irreconcilability between human aspiration and human reality.” 10

One last point is the notion that we are living in a sub-creation, an artificial sphere of information, images, representations, fabrications constructed out of fragmentary aspects of the real world. Luciano Floridi coined a term Infosphere that 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.11

The Godgame: The Matrix and the Pale King

Who will ever forget the moment that Neo awakens into reality. Neo is initially so distressed my Morpheus’s explanation of Zion as the real world and the Matrix as illusion he becomes disoriented and confused. Once disengaged from the neural interactive program of the Construct, Neo staggers and falls on the floor of the Nebuchadnezzar crying out, “Don’t touch me. Stay away from me. I don’t want it. I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it”. So intense is Neo’s feeling of confusion that he vomits – a literal expression of his sense of abjection.12

Neo’s reaction is not just disorientation due to the misrecognition of Zion as reality and the Matrix as fantasy, it is also due to the distress and anxiety caused by the loss of physical boundaries upon which his subjectivity is based. Rather than an individual with a discrete organic body, Neo finds that he is a composite entity, part human and part machine. The electro/ mechanical umbilici that connected Neo to the vast network of the Matrix destabilise his sense of self by blurring the boundaries between his body and the malevolent machine. Awareness of this situation is a moment of horror for Neo, not just because the machine he was attached to is monstrous, but also because he realizes that his body is part of the monster. (Williams, p. 68)

This sense that Neo is now disconnected from the Matrix of which he was a mere battery, a system of biopower that the machinic civilization – that had replaced and enslaved the human population after the great wars – is thrust into Neo’s consciousness with all the abject horror that such a revelation entails.

Andrew Culp in his Dark Deleuze reminds us that philosophically, connectivity is about world-building. The goal of connectivity is to make everyone and everything part of a single world.13 As he states it:

When connectivity is taken as a mantra, you can see its effects everywhere. Jobseekers are told to hop on to the web (“ While your resume can help you get the interview for a new job, a fully optimized LinkedIn profile can bring you more business, more connections, and can increase your professional reputation!”). Flat hierarchies are touted as good for business management (“ Power is vertical; potential is horizontal!”). And the deluge of digital content is treated as the world’s greatest resource, held back only by unequal access (“ Information wants to be free!”). As perverse as it sounds, many Deleuzians still promote concepts that equally motivate these slogans: transversal lines, rhizomatic connections, compositionist networks, complex assemblages, affective experiences, and enchanted objects. No wonder Deleuze has been derided as the lava lamp saint of “California Buddhism”— so many have reduced his rigorous philosophy to the mutual appreciation of difference, openness to encounters in an entangled world, or increased capacity through synergy. (Culp, KL 142-149)

In a connected world there is not distance, to time, no sense of movement. What we are witnessing according to Floridi is an epochal, unprecedented migration of humanity from its Newtonian, physical space to the infosphere itself as its Umwelt, not least because the latter is absorbing the former. As a result, humans will be inforgs (i.e., informational organisms) among other (possibly artificial) inforgs and agents operating in an environment that is friendlier to informational creatures. And as digital immigrants like us are replaced by digital natives like our children, the latter will come to appreciate that there is no ontological difference between infosphere and physical world, only a difference in levels of abstraction. When the migration is complete, we shall increasingly feel deprived, excluded, handicapped, or impoverished to the point of paralysis and psychological trauma whenever we are disconnected from the infosphere, like fish out of water. One day, being an inforg will be so natural that any disruption in our normal flow of information will make us sick. (Florid, pp. 16-17)

Floridi seems happy about this situation, a member of those scholars who form and shape the Neoliberal fantasy and seek to instill its illusionary force. Yet, even he admits that after the fall into this sub-world of the neoliberal fantasists, this global Matrix of machinic civilization that those who find themselves disconnected may like Neo suddenly find themselves “deprived, excluded, handicapped, or impoverished to the point of paralysis and psychological trauma whenever they are disconnected from the infosphere, like fish out of water”.

In Place of a Conclusion…

David Foster Wallace in his last and unfinished novel The Pale King offers us through one of his characters the nightmare of our present moment:

‘No, you’re missing the genius of it. It’ll all be played out in the world of images. There’ll be this incredible political consensus that we need to escape the confinement and rigidity of conforming, of the dead fluorescent world of the office and the balance sheet, of having to wear a tie and listen to Muzak, but the corporations will be able to represent consumption-patterns as the way to break out— use this type of calculator, listen to this type of music, wear this type of shoe because everyone else is wearing conformist shoes. It’ll be this era of incredible prosperity and conformity and mass-demographics in which all the symbols and rhetoric will involve revolution and crisis and bold forward-looking individuals who dare to march to their own drummer by allying themselves with brands that invest heavily in the image of rebellion. This mass PR campaign extolling the individual will solidify enormous markets of people whose innate conviction that they are solitary, peerless, non-communal, will be massaged at every turn.’14

In this nightmare vision even the revolution is a commodity in the endless Reality TV series that has become our lives.

I’ll return to this theme in Part Two with further divagations on how we might get out of this mad house we created for ourselves. Stay tuned…


  1.  Voegelin, Eric. , Politics and Gnosticism: Two Essays. Gateway Editions; Gateway Ed edition (March 27, 2012)
  2. Couliano, Ioan P.. Eros and Magic in the Renaissance. University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (November 15, 1987)
  3. Dialectic of Enlightenment . Stanford University Press; 1 edition (March 27, 2002)
  4. Schuster, Aaron. The Trouble with Pleasure (Short Circuits) (Kindle Locations 127-128). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.
  5. Charlotte Nolsøe Høegh. Godgames Revisited – The Early Oeuvre of John Fowles. (University of Copenhagen, 2009)
  6. Jackson, Dr Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (New Accents) (p. 9). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition
  7. Breckman, Warren. Adventures of the Symbolic: Postmarxism and Democratic Theory (p. 12). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.
  8. Gail Day, “Allegory: Between Deconstruction and Dialectics,” Oxford Art Journal 22, no. 1 (1999): 103–118.
  9. 33. Jean-Paul Sartre, The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination, trans. Jonathan Webber (New York: Routledge, 2004), 10–11.
  10. Evans, G.S. and Alice Whittenburg, “After Kafka: Kafka Criticism and Scholarship as a Resource in an Attempt to Promulgate a New Literary Genre,” Journal of the Kafka Society of America, 31/32(1+2):18-26.
  11. Floridi, Luciano. The Ethics of Information (p. 6). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.
  12. Williams, B Conrad. What is the Matrix? (Jean Baudrillard and Simulation in the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix Series) (p. 68).  . Kindle Edition.
  13. Culp, Andrew. Dark Deleuze (Forerunners: Ideas First) (Kindle Locations 135-142). University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.
  14. Wallace, David Foster. The Pale King (p. 147). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

Notes:

Death of a Scholar (An Aside)

Couliano across several works would seek out ways of understanding this magical science of mass deception, manipulation, and control. Some say he was even murdered because of his radical views and stance, having been outspoken in his own homeland of Romania. Much of Culianu’s political activity remains vague, such as why he phoned someone in Medellin, Colombia, the capital of the world cocaine cartel, shortly before he died. Also unclear is the nature of his relationship with Mircea Eliade, whom he knew to have been an active supporter of the Romanian fascist Iron Guard movement. Detailed biographical material on Culianu leaves us convinced that the most remarkable thing about his life was its grotesque ending in a university toilet stall. Odds are it was the work of the Romanian Securitate secret police, but to this day the investigation is a mystery without conclusion. (see: Eros, Magic, and the Murder of Professor Culianu, Ted Anton)

Either way his work has been praised by such writers and thinkers as Umberto Eco, Harold Bloom, and others for its inventive and powerful scholarship and political and social acumen.

Fantastic Chronology: A List (1900 to 1949) Part Four

bosch

Continued from Part Three…

  • 1900 Sigmund Freud publishes The Interpretation of Dreams, issuing a
    caution to all lovers of hallucinatory fantasy. F. Anstey’s The Brass Bottle
    toys with the idea of letting an intrusive fantasy get out of hand. L. Frank
    Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz suggests that if you live in Kansas,
    the grass might be greener on the other side of the portal.
  • 1902 Kipling’s Just So Stories inject a healthy dose of nonsense into the
    business of fabulation. E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It adapts Ansteyan
    fantasy for young readers. Arthur Machen’s Hieroglyphics explores the ecstatic dimension of enchantment.
  • 1904 J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan explores the psychological politics of escapism. W. H. Hudson’s Green Mansions and H. G. Wells’s “The Country of the Blind” bid farewell to lost races.
  • 1905 Lord Dunsany’s The Gods of Pegana goes in for secondary creation
    on a large scale in lapidary form. The launch of Winsor McCay’s comic
    strip Little Nemo in Slumberland adapts fantasy to a new and exceedingly
    hospitable medium.
  • 1907 George Sterling’s “A Wine of Wizardry” sets out a manifesto for
    fantasy in a suitably decadent style and demonstrates that the readers of
    Cosmopolitan are small-town folk at heart.
  • 1908 G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday demonstrates that the
    spy story is an unsuitable medium for religious allegory. Kenneth Grahame’s
    The Wind in the Willows demonstrates that animal fantasy is the last viable
    refuge of Arcadian fantasy. Dunsany’s “The Sword of Welleran” attempts to
    recast chivalric romance in the mold of heroic fantasy. William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland demonstrates the utility of leaky portals.
  • 1909 Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird demonstrates that fantasy is
    stageable, provided that one takes a sufficiently impressionistic approach.
  • 1910 Walter de la Mare’s The Return and Algernon Blackwood’s The
    Human Chord fuse occult and existentialist fantasy.
  • 1912 James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold revisits the Irish Arcadia and finds it slightly tarnished. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes provides a key model of the Noble Savage.
  • 1914 Anatole France’s The Revolt of the Angels provides literary satanism with its masterpiece, shortly before the outbreak of the Great War in August; shortly thereafter, Arthur Machen’s “The Bowmen” illustrates the hazards of fantastic indulgence in a time of great social stress. The Vorticist periodical Blast is founded, taking esoteric allegory to new extremes.
  • 1915 Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem and Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis
    illustrate the anxieties bred by war. Jack London’s The Star Rover celebrates escapism. Machen’s The Great Return suggests that Wales was never in greater need of a grail.
  • 1917 James Branch Cabell’s The Cream of the Jest employs portal fantasy to mock the follies of American mores.
  • 1918 A. Merritt’s “The Moon Pool” employs a definitive portal fantasy to issue a manifesto for escapist fantasy in pulp fiction. The Great War ends in November.
  • 1919 Stella Benson’s Living Alone indicates the need for postwar reenchantment. James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen continues his symbolist satirization of American mores and is fortunate enough to excite stern opposition.
  • 1920 David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus modernizes metaphysical allegory. The Capek brothers’ Insect Play and Hugh Lofting’s The Story of
    Dr. Doolittle provide contrasting templates for modern animal fantasy.
    Jessie Weston’s scholarly fantasy From Ritual to Record makes an important contribution to the ideology of Celtic Arthurian fantasy.
  • 1921 Barry Pain’s Going Home takes sentimental fantasy to a new extreme.
  • 1922 Eric Rucker Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros demonstrates several
    new extremes to which transfiguration of epic materials might go. David
    Garnett’s Lady into Fox modernizes theriomorphic fantasy. Ben Hecht’s
    Fantazius Mallare celebrates the perversities of delusionary fantasy.
  • 1923 Weird Tales begins publication.
  • 1924 Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter gives Faerie a crucial
    symbolic role in the politics of re-enchantment.
  • 1925 Margaret Irwin’s These Mortals and Christopher Morley’s Thunder
    on the Left reverse the conventional direction of portal fantasy in order to
    highlight the moral effects of disenchantment.
  • 1926 Ronald Fraser’s Flower Phantoms considers the metaphysical implications of erotic fantasy. Hope Mirrlees’s  Lud-in-the-Mist revisits the symbolism of forbidden fruit. Thorne Smith’s Topper adapts Ansteyan fantasy to an American milieu. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes casts the Devil as a loving huntsman.
  • 1927 John Erskine’s Adam and Eve adapts Edenic fantasy to the purposes of modern satire. Herman Hesse’s  Steppenwolf suggests that the magical Theatre of the Imagination might hold the answer to problems of alienation. T. F. Powys’s Mr. Weston’s Good Wine offers a revised account of divine benevolence.
  • 1928 Wyndham Lewis’s The Childermass transfigures Dantean fantasy
    for the modernist era. Robert Nathan’s  The Bishop’s Wife imagines that
    even angels can fall in love. George Sylvester Viereck and Paul Eldridge’s My First Two Thousand Years explores the ways in which an accursed wanderer might profitably employ an extended sojourn in the world. Lewis Spence’s The Mysteries of Britain collates the scholarly fantasies underlying modern Celtic fantasy.
  • 1929 Aleister Crowley’s Moonchild provides a key example of occult fantasy informed by scholarly and lifestyle fantasies. Robert E. Howard’s “The Shadow Kingdom” offers a tentative template for sword and sorcery fiction.
  • 1930 Charles Williams’s War in Heaven demonstrates that genre thrillers
    might benefit from a dash of religious fantasy.
  • 1931 T. F. Powys’s “The Only Penitent” suggests that the moral rearmament of the confessional might work both ways.
  • 1932 Robert E. Howard’s first Conan story establishes a more authoritative exemplar for sword-and-sorcery fiction. John Cowper Powys’s A Glastonbury Romance explores the potential of reckless mythological syncresis.
  • 1933 C. L. Moore’s “Shambleau” hybridizes planetary romance and mythical fantasy. James Hilton’s Lost Horizon establishes a new escapist myth.
  • 1934 C. L. Moore’s “Black God’s Kiss” feminizes sword and sorcery
    fiction in graphic fashion.
  • 1935 Charles G. Finney’s The Circus of Dr Lao employs a circus as a
    mirror to various hidden aspects of the American Dream. Herbert Read’s
    The Green Child remodels the underworld of Faerie in surreal fashion.
  • 1936 Evangeline Walton’s The Virgin and the Swine demonstrates the
    utility of Celtic fantasy in the dramatization of post-Frazerian scholarly
    fantasy.
  • 1937 J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit; or, There and Back Again sets a crucial precedent for modern immersive fantasy. Stephen Vincent Benét’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster” sets up a crucial title fight between the Devil and an American lawyer.
  • 1938 T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone provides significant new models of education and wizardry. Mikhail Bulgakov writes The Master and Margarita, knowing that he will be unable to publish its satanic rebellion against Stalinism. J. R. R. Tolkien’s lecture “On Fairy Tales” offers an unprecedentedly robust apologia for fantasy literature.
  • 1939 Unknown provides a vital arena for the development of chimerical fantasy. Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds takes metafiction to new extremes. James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” provides a classic description of everyday escapism. World War II begins in September.
  • 1940 Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Silvina Ocampo compile a showcase anthology of international fantasy literature. Robert Nathan’s Portrait of Jennie provides a key example of sentimental fantasy.
  • 1941 The United States becomes embroiled in World War II in December.
  • 1942 C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters breaks new tactical ground in
    propagandistic Christian fantasy.
  • 1943 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince provides a parable of
    enchantment destined to become the best-selling book of the 20th century.
  • 1944 Neil M. Gunn’s The Green Isle of the Great Deep wonders whether
    heaven itself might be endangered by the spirit of Fascism.
  • 1945 C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce redraws the map of Dantean fantasy in a calculatedly unmelodramatic style. George Orwell’s Animal Farm adapts animal fantasy to modern political allegory. Charles Williams’s All Hallows’ Eve places the war-torn world in a melodramatic metaphysical context. In August, World War II is concluded with an unprecedented melodramatic flourish.
  • 1946 Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan sets a new standard in Gothic grotesquerie. Mervyn Wall’s The Unfortunate Fursey lends a new sophistication to humorous fantasy.
  • 1948 Fletcher Pratt’s The Well of the Unicorn begins the sophistication
    of American heroic fantasy.
  • 1949 Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces maps the essential features of the heroic quest. The Magazine of Fantasy is launched
    (becoming The Magazine of Fantasy Science Fiction after its second issue).

One | Two | Three | Four


-Stableford, Brian. The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. (Scarecrow Press, 1989)

Fantastic Chronology: A List (1850 to 1899) Part Three

16-Jarosław-Jaśnikowski-Surreal-Paintings-of-Fantastic-Realism-www-designstack-co_jpeg

Continued from Part Two…

One | Two | Three | Four

  • 1851 John Ruskin’s King of the Golden River provides the cardinal English example of an art fairy tale.
  • 1853 Richard Wagner begins his operatic transfiguration of Nordic fantasy in The Rheingold.
  • 1854–56 Éliphas Lévi’s Dogma and Ritual of Transcendental Magic provides a handbook for modern lifestyle fantasy.
  • 1855 Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” furnishes a key source of enigmatic imagery.
  • 1856 William Morris’s account of “The Hollow Land” lays down a template for the design and decoration of secondary worlds.
  • 1857 Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal pioneers decadent style.
  • 1858 George MacDonald’s Phantastes lays down a template for didactic
    portal fantasy.
  • 1859 Éliphas Lévi’s History of Magic completes his couplet of scholarly
    fantasies, adding theory to practice.
  • 1860 Paul Féval’s multilayered and chimerical  Knightshade demonstrates the elasticity of metafiction.
  • 1861 Bulwer-Lytton’s  A Strange Story reclaims, with interest, what
    Éliphas Lévi had borrowed from Zanoni.
  • 1862 Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” explores the symbolism of “forbidden fruit.” Jules Michelet’s La Sorcière demonstrates that real historians
    can fake history more skillfully and more extravagantly than mere pretenders.
  • 1863 Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies explores the utility of phantasmagoric imagery in Christian fantasy.
  • 1865 In response to George MacDonald’s suggestion that he too might
    produce something akin to The Water Babies, Lewis Carroll prepares Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for publication, achieving something quite
    different.
  • 1866 Sabine Baring-Gould’s Curious Myths of the Middle Ages provides
    easily accessible imaginative fuel for contemporary fantasists. Théophile
    Gautier’s  Spirite pioneers paranormal romance. William Gilbert’s  The
    Magic Mirror exemplifies the Victorian attitude to wish-fulfillment fantasies.
  • 1867 Henrik Ibsen’s  Peer Gynt demonstrates the difficulty of putting
    fantasy on stage.
  • 1869 Jean Ingelow’s  Mopsa the Fairy exemplifies the sentimental aspects of the Victorian fascination with fairies.
  • 1870 Frank R. Stockton’s Ting-a-Ling founds an American tradition of
    children’s fantasy.
  • 1871 Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass takes “nonsense” to new extremes of logical effect.
  • 1872 George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin exemplifies the
    darker aspects of the Victorian fascination with fairies.
  • 1874 Gustave Flaubert publishes the revised version of The Temptation
    of Saint Anthony, featuring a more comprehensively modernized image of
    the Devil.
  • 1876 Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark gives nonsense its verse epic.
  • 1877 Madame Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled lays the foundation for a scholarly and lifestyle fantasy of unprecedented complexity. Mrs. Molesworth’s
    The Cuckoo Clock refines didactic portal fantasy for children.
  • 1878 Max Adeler’s “Mr Skinner’s Night in the Underworld” adds an
    American irreverence to humorous fantasy.
  • 1880 Vernon Lee’s “Faustus and Helena” sets out a new theory of the
    functions of the supernatural in literature.
  • 1882 F. Anstey’s Vice Versa employs humorous fantasy to expose the follies and impostures of Victorian attitudes. Gilbert and Sullivan’s light
    opera Iolanthe arranges a cultural exchange between the fairy court and the
    House of Lords. Wagner’s heavy opera “Parsifal” completes the set of his
    mythical dramatizations.
  • 1883 Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio explains the difficulties involved in becoming human.
  • 1884 Oscar Wilde’s “The Sphinx” takes a tour of the cosmos of the contemporary imagination.
  • 1886 Rider Haggard’s She takes the lost race story into new fantastic territory. Marie Corelli’s A Romance of Two Worlds pretends to revitalize religious fantasy while luxuriating in wish fulfillment.
  • 1887 Oscar Wilde’s account of “The Canterville Ghost” sophisticates the
    humorous ghost story.
  • 1888 Richard Garnett’s The Twilight of the Gods displays the scope of
    contes philosophiques dressed with a sharp satirical wit and a blithely
    decadent style. Robert Louis Stevenson’s  Strange Tale of Dr. Jekyll and
    Mr. Hyde adds a new dimension to moralistic fantasy. A. E. Waite’s Elfin
    Music summarizes the tradition of English fairy poetry.
  • 1889 Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court breaks
    new ground in didactic timeslip fantasy.
  • 1890 James Frazer publishes the first version of The Golden Bough, supplying a mythical account of the evolution of magic and religion destined
    to inform countless historical fantasies. Anatole France’s Thaïs brings the
    ideals of Christianity and Epicureanism into sharp conflict. Andrew Lang’s
    Blue Fairy Book launches an encyclopedia of the sources of modern children’s fantasy. William Morris’s The Story of the Glittering Plain brings
    the Hollow Land up to date.
  • 1891 George du Maurier’s  Peter Ibbetson celebrates the power of
    dreams to activate wish fulfillment. Oscar Wilde exemplifies the thesis of
    “The Decay of Lying” by publishing The House of Pomegranates and The
    Picture of Dorian Gray.
  • 1892 “Amour Dure” and “Dionea,” in Vernon Lee’s Hauntings, set new
    standards in decadent erotic fantasy.
  • 1893 W. B. Yeats’s The Celtic Twilight celebrates the mystical survival,
    in spirit, of the Irish Arcadia.
  • 1894 Fiona MacLeod’s The Sin Eater and Other Tales and Episodes argues that Scotland was also part of Britain’s Arcadia, although William
    Morris removes it to The Wood beyond the World. Rudyard Kipling’s The
    Jungle Book brings animal fantasy to a new pitch of sophistication.
  • 1895 H. G. Wells’s The Wonderful Visit employs an angel as a critical observer of Victorian folkways. John Kendrick Bangs’s A Houseboat on the
    Styx credits Dante’s Inferno with New York’s urbanity. Marie Corelli’s The
    Sorrows of Satan sympathizes with the Devil’s aristocratic ennui.
  • 1896 M. P. Shiel’s  Shapes in the Fire and Laurence Housman’s  AllFellows deploy decadent style in very different ways. Gerhardt Hauptmann’s
    The Sunken Bell struggles heroically with the problems of staging fantasy.
  • 1897 Bram Stoker’s Dracula invents a monster of unparalleled seductiveness.
  • 1898 Aleister Crowley joins the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn,
    bringing a dash of Rabelais to the world of English lifestyle fantasy. H. G.
    Wells’s “The Man Who Could Work Miracles” offers a definitive analysis
    of the tragedy of wish fulfillment.
  • 1899 Charles Godfrey Leland’s Aradia mixes Michelet and Frazer into a
    heady new cocktail for scholarly and lifestyle fantasists.

One | Two | Three | Four


-Stableford, Brian. The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. (Scarecrow Press, 1989)

Fantastic Chronology: A List (8th Century to 1900) Part One

2010_geometry31

First in a two part chronological listing of fantastic works situated on the one hand by the marvelous and mythical epics, tragedies, comedies, and tales; and, on the other the slow demythologization or secularization of the marvelous into psychological, nihilistic, and other modes of the modern fantastique. Part one deals with those works up to 1900. I am indebted to Brian Stableford’s excellent The A to Z of Fantasy Literature which details out this history and its main authors from antiquity to the present.

One | Two | Three | Four

Part One: 8th Century to 1900

  • 8th century BC The Homeric epics are recorded, establishing the notion
    of literary genius and launching the tradition of fantasy literature. The
    works of Hesiod, including the Theogony, record the wider substance of
    classical mythology.
  • 6th century BC The fables credited to Aesop are recorded.
  • 5th century BC Aeschylus founds the tradition of tragic drama; his notable works include a post–Trojan War trilogy featuring Orestes, whose
    tribulations are further described by Euripides. Sophocles contributes a
    trilogy about Oedipus. In 423 B.C., Aristophanes’ ground-breaking humorous fantasy The Clouds wins one of his several prizes for satirical comedy.
  • 19 BC Virgil’s Aeneid imports Roman ideals into a sequel to the Homeric epics.
  • c10  AD Ovid compiles  Metamorphoses, a theme anthology recycling
    mythical tales, including the story of Perseus and Andromeda.
  • c65 The wandering protagonist of Petronius’s Satyricon encounters various leftovers of classical mythology.
  • c150 Lucian satirizes traveler’s tales in the “True History” and writes
    “Lucius; or, The Ass,” a licentious tale.
  • c165 Apuleius’s transfiguration of Lucian’s “Lucius,” The Golden Ass,
    elaborates the story considerably, interpolating the original allegory of
    “Cupid and Psyche.”
  • c425 Longus writes the Arcadian fantasy Daphnis and Chloe.
  • c725 Beowulf, written in a language ancestral to English, provides a key
    example of a local hero-myth.
  • c850 The Voyage of St. Brendan offers an account of an Irish expedition
    to a series of marvelous islands, providing a popular exemplar of a traveler’s tale with quest elements.
  • c1090 The Elder Edda provides a poetic version of the foundations of
    Nordic fantasy.
  • c1130 The earliest surviving manuscript of The Song of Roland, transfigures the defeat of Charlemagne’s army by Basque forces in 778, describing a valiant but hopeless rearguard action by Roland and his comrades.
  • c1135 Geoffrey of Monmouth’s pioneering exercise in scholarly fantasy,
    History of the Kings of Britain, supplies the primal seed of Arthurian fantasy. Geffrei Gaimar’s similarly imaginary History of the English includes
    the story of Havelok the Dane.
  • c1165 A letter is allegedly received by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, signed by Prester John, the ruler of a Christian kingdom in
    India. The fake letter—an instrument of propaganda intended to drum up
    support for the Crusades—is widely copied, its account of Prester John’s
    kingdom provoking a good deal of scholarly fantasy.
  • c1170 Marie de France produces her Breton lays, many of which employ
    the Arthurian court as a backcloth; Sir Orfeo hybridizes Arthurian romance
    with the classical materials that provide the other major inspiration of
    French verse romance. A clerk known as Thomas writes The Romance of
    Horn, an account of unjust dispossession followed by heroic exploits, culminating in eventual reinstatement. The earliest texts composing the Roman de Renart lay the foundations of modern animal fantasy in their elaboration of fabular accounts of Reynard the Fox.
  • c1185 Chrétien de Troyes dies, leaving The Story of the Grail (aka Perceval) tantalizingly unfinished and awkwardly entangled with the similarly
    unfinished Gawain, provoking the production of thousands of literary fantasies and hundreds of scholarly fantasies.
  • c1210 Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal imports Chrétien’s account of
    the grail into German, co-opting Prester John as the grail’s guardian and
    making him a cousin of Parzifal’s son Lohengrin. A French Cistercian
    monk expands Chrétien’s story vastly in The Quest of the Holy Grail, making the grail quest a major endeavor of Arthur’s court.
  • c1220 Snorri Sturluson’s Icelandic Prose Edda, together with the Germanic  Niebelunglied and Scandinavian  Volsunga Saga, completes the
    foundations of Nordic fantasy. The French romance of Huon of Bordeaux
    introduces a chivalrous hero to the fairy king Oberon.
  • c1225 Guillaume de Lorris begins composition of The Romance of the
    Rose, an allegorical visionary fantasy based in classical sources.
  • c1275 Jean De Meun completes a much-expanded version of  The Romance of the Rose, which is extensively copied.
  • c1298 The death of Jacobus de Voragine, the compiler of The Golden Legend and the inspiration of much subsequent Christian fantasy.
  • c1300 The White Book of Rhydderch provides the earliest written source
    for the substance of Celtic fantasy.
  • c1307 13th October: Knights Templar throughout France are arrested,
    charged with heresy, and tortured by crown inquisitors to force confessions, providing the seeds of countless secret histories and fantasies of diabolism.
  • c1320 Dante’s Divine Comedy provides a key model for afterlife fantasy.
  • c1355 The Marvellous Adventures of Sir John Maundeville exemplifies
    the fantasized traveler’s tale.
  • c1370 The story of Gawain and the Green Knight provides a key exemplar of English Arthuriana and a significant exercise in obscure allegory.
  • c1375 The Red Book of Hergest adds the second foundation stone of
    Celtic fantasy; it includes “Peredur of Evrawc,” which recycles Chrétien’s
    Perceval.
  • c1387 Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales introduces fantasy—as
    well as naturalism—into the nascent tradition of English literature; the
    tales display a clear understanding of the various functions of calculated
    fabulation.
  • Early 15th century The first version of the chivalric fantasy Amadis of
    Gaul is written, probably in Portugal; the original is lost but serially expanded versions in Spanish and French boost the novel-length version to
    international popularity.
  • 1485 Le Morte d’Arthur, bylined Thomas Malory, refashions the massive
    body of Anglo-Norman Arthuriana into a continuous and more-or-less coherent prose narrative, deemphasizing its supernatural elements but providing modern fantasy with its most important taproot text and exemplar.
  • 1492 Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World demonstrates that not all traveler’s tales are ludicrous.
  • 1494 Matteo Boiardo dies, leaving his epic poem Orlando Innamorato
    unfinished.
  • 1515 The lifestyle fantasist styling himself “Nostradamus” publishes his
    first set of quatrains, laying down a rich vintage for future scholarly fantasists.
  • 1516 Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso picks up where Boiardo left
    off, taking chivalric romance to new extremes of elaboration and exoticism, spicing them with sophisticated wit.
  • 1532 François Rabelais’s  Pantagruel begins a series of parodic satires
    that provides a crucial exemplar for Swiftian satire and Voltairean contes
    philosophiques, and for lifestyle fantasists avid to adopt the guiding motto
    of the Abbey of Thelema (“Do As Thou Wilt”).
  • 1550 Gianfrancesco Straparola’s  Nights offers literary versions of 20
    folktales, including texts of Puss-in-Boots and Beauty and the Beast.
  • 1587 Johann Spies publishes a fantasized account of the career of an obscure German scholar, founding the genre of Faustian fantasy.
  • 1590 Edmund Spenser publishes the first part of The Faerie Queene, allegorizing contemporary culture in the form of a fairy romance. Sir Philip
    Sidney performs a similar allegorical service for the myth of Arcadia.
  • 1593 Christopher Marlowe is murdered, leaving behind  The Tragical
    History of Dr. Faustus, a transfiguration of Spies’s Faust Book.
  • 1595 William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream offers a new
    blueprint for English fairy literature.
  • 1605 Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote pillories chivalric romance as
    a kind of folly, but concedes that if nostalgia is a mental disease there is a
    tragic dimension in its cure.
  • 1611 Shakespeare’s The Tempest produces a key model of the figure of
    the Enchanter—an important archetype of philosophically inclined wizards—and supplies him with an equally influential exemplary household.
  • 1634 Giambattista Basile’s  Pentamerone recycles many folktales
    recorded by Straparola and adds many others, including versions of Snow
    White, Cinderella, and Rapunzel.
  • 1654 Justus van den Vondel’s epic drama of the rebellion in heaven, Lucifer, is couched as a complaint against Puritanism.
  • 1667 John Milton’s epic account of the rebellion in heaven,  Paradise
    Lost, turns the ideological tables on Vondel.
  • 1668 Jean de la Fontaine’s Fables recycles works by Aesop and Pilpay,
    supplementing them with many new examples in a more cynical and satirical vein.
  • 1678–79 The first part of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress revives and
    modernizes the tradition of medieval Christian allegory.
  • 1691 Robert Kirk writes his account of  The Secret Commonwealth of
    Elves, Fauns and Fairies, which languishes unpublished until 1893.
  • 1696–98 Madame d’Aulnoy’s sophisticated satirical fairy tales found a
    fanciful tradition in French literature.
  • 1697 Charles Perrault’s collection of moralistic tales adapts folklore to
    the function of “civilizing” children.
  • 1701 Antoine Galland’s translation of the adventures of Sinbad the
    Sailor adds a vital new element to Madame d’Aulnoy’s brand of fantasy.
  • 1704–16 Galland’s  Thousand and One Nights provides the foundation
    stone of Arabian fantasy.
  • 1707 Alain-René Lesage’s Asmodeus; or, The Devil on Two Sticks displays considerable sympathy for the eponymous devil and provides an important model for supernaturally assisted tours.
  • 1726 Jonathan Swift’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver sets a crucial precedent for English satirical fantasy.
  • 1730 The posthumous publication of tales by the exiled Count Anthony
    Hamilton—who had died in 1720—provides significant exemplars for
    French writers of Gallandesque satires and entertainments.
  • 1746 Voltaire’s “The World as It Is” pioneers the tradition of fanciful
    contes philosophiques.
  • 1752 Sir Francis Dashwood establishes the Friars of St. Francis of
    Wycombe (nicknamed the Hell-Fire Club by its detractors) at Medmenham Abbey, setting an important precedent for modern lifestyle fantasists.
  • 1757 Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our
    Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful considers the venturesome exercise of
    the imagination as a psychological necessity.
  • 1764 James Ridley imports Gallandesque fantasy into English in Tales of
    the Genii, bylined Charles Morell. Horace Walpole represents the moralistic Gothic fantasy The Castle of Otranto as a translation of an Italian manuscript.
  • 1765 Thomas Percy’s  Reliques of Ancient English Poetry provides a
    classic compendium of English ballads.
  • 1768 Voltaire’s “The Princess of Babylon” leavens a  conte
    philosophique with fantasy for entertainment’s sake.
  • 1772 Jacques Cazotte’s The Devil in Love provides a crucial example of
    sympathy for a seductive devil.
  • 1782 Johann Musäus issues the first volume of his collection of German
    Folktales, prompting the brothers Grimm to start their collection.
  • 1785 Rudolf Eric Raspe’s Baron Münchhausen provides the tall story
    with its literary paradigm.
  • 1786 William Beckford’s Vathek gives Arabian fantasy a decadent twist.
  • 1787 Charles Garnier’s collection of  Imaginary Voyages is launched,
    providing a library of philosophically informed traveler’s tales.
  • 1793 William Blake publishes the first of his “prophetic books.”
  • 1795 Johann von Goethe publishes his Märchen, providing a key model
    for the “art fairy tale.”
  • 1797 Ludwig Tieck’s “The Faithful Eckhart” transfigures material from
    Musäus to create a new German hero-myth.
  • 1798 Nathan Drake’s Literary Hours describes the “sportive” element of
    Gothic fiction. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s  The Rime of the Ancient
    Mariner appears in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads, exemplifying the
    fantastic aspect of British Romanticism.
  • 1799 William Godwin’s  St. Leon introduces moralistic alchemical romance to the medium of the three-decker novel.

One | Two | Three | Four


-Stableford, Brian. The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. (Scarecrow Press, 1989)

 

 

 

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky: The Fantastic Stories of Russia

Thought I’d start a new series highlighting authors of the fantastic that may or may not be on your radar. If you’ve not heard of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky then read on…

SIGIZMUND KRZHIZHANOVSKY (1887–1950), the Ukrainian-born son of Polish emigrants, studied law and classical philology at Kiev University. After graduation and two summers spent exploring Europe, he was obliged to clerk for an attorney. A sinecure, the job allowed him to devote most of his time to literature and his own writing. In 1920, he began lecturing in Kiev on theater and music. The lectures continued in Moscow, where he moved in 1922, by then well known in literary circles. Lodged in a cell-like room on the Arbat, Krzhizhanovsky wrote steadily for close to two decades. His philosophical and phantasmagorical fictions ignored injunctions to portray the Soviet state in a positive light. Three separate efforts to print collections were quashed by the censors, a fourth by World War II. Not until 1989 could his work begin to be published. Like Poe, Krzhizhanovsky takes us to the edge of the abyss and forces us to look into it. “I am interested,” he said, “not in the arithmetic, but in the algebra of life.”

The Letter Killers Club:

The Letter Killers Club is a secret society of self-described “conceivers” who, to preserve the purity of their conceptions, will commit nothing to paper. (What, after all, is your run-of-the-mill scribbler of stories if not an accomplished corruptor of conceptions?) The logic of the club is strict and uncompromising. Every Saturday, members meet in a firelit room filled with empty black bookshelves where they strive to top one another by developing ever unlikelier, ever more perfect conceptions: a rehearsal of Hamlet hijacked by an actor who vanishes with the role; the double life of a merry medieval cleric derailed by a costume change; a machine-run world that imprisons men’s minds while conscripting their bodies; a dead Roman scribe stranded this side of the River Acheron. But in this book set in an ominous Soviet Moscow of the 1920s, the members of the club are strangely mistrustful of one another, while all are under the spell of its despotic President, and there is no telling, in the end, just how lethal the purely conceptual—or, for that matter, letters—may be.

The Autobiography of a Corpse:

This  collection of eleven mind-bending and spellbinding tales includes some of Krzhizhanovsky’s most dazzling conceits: a provincial journalist who moves to Moscow finds his existence consumed by the autobiography of his room’s previous occupant; the fingers of a celebrated pianist’s right hand run away to spend a night alone on the city streets; a man’s lifelong quest to bite his own elbow inspires both a hugely popular circus act and a new refutation of Kant. Ordinary reality cracks open before our eyes in the pages of Autobiography of a Corpse, and the extraordinary spills out.

Memories of the Future:

Written in Soviet Moscow in the 1920s—but considered too subversive even to show to a publisher—the seven tales included here attest to Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s boundless imagination, black humor, and breathtaking irony: a man loses his way in the vast black waste of his own small room; the Eiffel Tower runs amok; a kind soul dreams of selling “everything you need for suicide”; an absentminded passenger boards the wrong train, winding up in a place where night is day, nightmares are the reality, and the backs of all facts have been broken; a man out looking for work comes across a line for logic but doesn’t join it as there’s no guarantee the logic will last; a sociable corpse misses his own funeral; an inventor gets a glimpse of the far-from-radiant communist future.

The Return of Munchausen:

In Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s update, the Baron returns in the troubled twentieth century, where he will rediscover the place of imagination amid the tenuous peace, universal mourning, and political machinations of the aftermath of World War I. “To me,” he claims, “the debates of philosophers, grabbing the truth out of each other’s hands, [resemble] a fight among beggars over a single coin.” Transcending truth, the Baron instead revels in smoke and mist. He is a devotee of the impossible and a worshipper of “Saint Nobody.” But lost as he is in the twists of his imagination, can the Baron heal Europe through diplomacy—or at least hold a mirror up to its absurdities?


NY Times: Review of Autobiography of a Corpse and Books on Amazon

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

The Paraxial Realm: Dostoevsky’s Fantastic Truth

I think many of us are like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, in that we live outside the symbolic order that the majority of people on this planet seem to accept without thought or bother. Like the dead we wander the threshold lands in-between two-worlds: the world that most call ‘reality,’ and the other world – the world we can’t quite live in but know exists submerged in the underground just below the false one that the great majority cover over in their ruinous wastelands of capitalist luxury and mediascapes. Or as Jackson says of Dostoevsky:

Dostoevsky insists upon his fidelity to ‘truth’: ‘What other people call fantastic, I hold to be the inmost essence of truth.’ Dostoevsky undermines and corrodes the heart of a public ‘reality’. As with Mary Shelley, Gaskell, Dickens, Kafka or Pynchon, it would be misleading to dismiss Dostoevsky’s bleakness as personal nihilism. His figures are estranged from the social, occupying a ‘paraxial’ realm, because they do not feel themselves to be integrated within the symbolic order.

Dostoevsky’s un-covering of this meaningless, entropic zone uses fantasy rather more directly as a subversive mode than it is found in Lytton, Stevenson or Wells, where it is almost immediately re-covered. He pulls the reader towards a vision of a world other than this one, an ‘unreal’ underground reality, between life and death, from which all cultural order seems an absurd imposition. Such estrangement is not chosen: it is the consequence of a dissatisfaction with the ‘real’ as secularized, urban, atheistic, and ‘unnatural’, with what the underground man terms ‘our negative age’.

-Rosemary Jackson,  Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion

Frankenstein & the Modern Fantastic

the-frankenstein-

Frankenstein marks the establishment of a tradition of disenchanted, secular fantasies, becoming increasingly grotesque and horrific. It is haunted by a loss of absolute meaning, repeating a desire for knowledge and for ultimate truth, but it deflates and deforms this desire through the travestying form of the monster itself, a grotesque parody of the human longing for the more than human. … Mary Shelley’s novel reverses and denies the Romantic quest for gnosis. A vast gap is opened up between knowledge (as scientific investigation and rational inquiry) and gnosis (a knowledge of ultimate truths, a kind of spiritual wisdom), and it is in this gap that the modern fantastic is situated. In Frankenstein the ‘other’ who is created by the self is no supernatural or superhuman being, but an amalgam of bodily shreds and patches, a collection of mortal remains, the disjecta membra of a dead society raised up again as the living dead. Self as other is recorded here as a grotesque, unredemptive metamorphosis, as mere travesty, parody, horror.

-Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion


Fantastic Politics: Subversion, Symbolic Order, and Exit Strategy

Building on Lacan and others Rosemary Jackson in Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion will express the underlying truths of our fractured age of anxiety and dissolution. She’ll read in the fantastic works of literature the strange paths taken by singular individuals seeking a way out of the straight-jacket of our false symbolic order, our civilization’s global hell:

Literary fantasies from Sade onwards are driven by precisely this kind of restless dissatisfaction. They express a desire for the imaginary, for that which has not yet been caught and confined by a symbolic order, yet the self-mutilation, cruelty, horror and violence which they have to employ to re-turn to the imaginary suggests its inaccessibility. Their awareness of the problem of representing the ‘real’ draws attention to the relation of signifying practices to that order and its constitution, for with the removal of a fixed notion of ‘character’, the problem of fictional representation is stressed. A fantastic text tells of an indomitable desire, a longing for that which does not yet exist, or which has not been allowed to exist, the unheard of, the unseen, the imaginary, as opposed to what already exists and is permitted as ‘really’ visible. Unlike the symbolic, the imaginary is inhabited by an infinite number of selves preceding socialization, before the ego is produced within a social frame. These selves allow an infinite, unnameable potential to emerge, one which a fixed sense of character excludes in advance. Each fantastic text functions differently, depending upon its particular historical placing, and its different ideological, political and economic determinants, but the most subversive fantasies are those which attempt to transform the relations of the imaginary and the symbolic. They try to set up possibilities for radical cultural transformation by making fluid the relations between these realms, suggesting, or projecting, the dissolution of the symbolic through violent reversal or rejection of the process of the subject’s formation.

What if rather than on the level of the singular subject we see this process in the larger context of global civilization itself, of the collective subject of the various forces that seem to be tearing each other apart, the reactionary fronts of the religious fundamentalisms (i.e., the monotheisms of Jewish, Christian, Islam) that seem to want to impose their order upon the liberal humanist world; the liberal humanist world in dissolution through the slow and methodical self-reflection within its cultural critiques in the arts, philosophy, normativity, sciences, etc. that seem to be rewriting the very conception of subject and subjectivity in both individual and singular, as well as collective and political, social, and cultural domains; and, the instigation of the strange non-knowledge of that lies the other side of the human condition, just outside the constricted limits of the extremes of atheism or religious forms of life and thought. We seem to be at that point where the Symbolic Orders of both secular and religious civilizations are coming apart at the seams, and each is reacting to this situation through violent and cruel reductions to war and fundamentalist impositions of their vying Reality Matrix’s. If Zizek is correct (and I believe he is to some extant) what is needed is to disturb the current Symbolic Order to the point that it bursts and we can replace it with what has been hidden in the ruins of its fraying world-view for a long while now.

Reactionaries and Progressives alike seem to be failing us, seem to be falling into arch defiance of the truth that we are all succumbing too. The Symbolic Order that was built up over centuries that came to a head in the eighteenth century as the Enlightenment belief in instrumental Reason is giving way to something new, the power of the liberal humanist civilization is decaying and fraying at the edges through the power of its own self-critical apparatuses. It has been reversing and replacing the base conceptual frameworks it constructed over two-hundred years ago, and in the process other more primitive and religious fundamentalisms based on ancient ideologies and normative visions are testing the boundaries of this great behemoth. Liberal humanist civilization is dissolving in our time which is leading both reactionaries and progressives to extreme visions in seeking to stay the tide of this dissolution.

It’s my own contention that the literature, philosophy, and arts of the fantastic can shape this world vision, open us to the incomplete and unfinished symphony of reality, allow us to make the transition, guide us in this in-between time of the failing Symbolic Order, and help in shaping the new more open order replacing it. We are in that interregnum period or between-the-acts stage of transition in which the world seems to be entering a topsy-turvy, chaotic, and failing or crumbling world; one falling into war, fundamentalist reactionary and progressive visions, and a world-wide global civil-war among ethnic, social, and national conclaves based on age-old religious and political strife’s.  But in even in the midst of this break up of the old order we are seeing in fact reversing in its course, one revealing the decaying and artificial lies, propaganda, and illusionary systems of belief and ideology upon which civilization has been based for far too long. Even the madness of our current politics there is a sign of hope, at once a Bakhtinian moment of carnival when the center cannot hold and chaos and laughter sprout everywhere, even as tears and tragedy romp across the world in strange and fantastic forms of metamorphosis and transformative ways beyond telling.

The fantastic is not an escape from reality, but an opening up of new realities, of new forms of social, political, and visionary modes of being toward reality. Reality is not a cage for thought and feeling, not a prison house within which the rich and powerful can command and control the feedback loops of some industrial mediatainment complex and thereby the vast populations of the world. No. The fantastic is about subverting these vast systems of power and control that seek to keep us ignorant and asleep in a world of consumption, slaves to our desires for more and more and more. The earth does have its limits and we will confront them willy-nilly whether we like it or not. The corrupt world that capital built is falling apart at the seams and the writing is on the wall of what is coming with climate collapse and the depletion of our earth’s natural resources. We must discover new ways to meet these challenges and being able to navigate the real with a larger symbolic order based on an open and unfinished vision of the world and universe is what the fantastic is about. It offers nothing more than a way out of our present predicament, an exit into reality rather than a closure in the hell hole of modern neoliberalism’s dark fantasia of an austere hell of debt and poverty.

The Dark Fantastic: The Wild Lands of the Monstrous Other

Ever since I was a young my mother read to us from the lore and myths of those old tales of Lang and Grimm at night. And, of course, like many there were the humorous and fabulous, the marvelous and wondrous adventures of Aladdin and Scheherazade from the Thousand and One Nights to while away the hours, but it was  the darker worlds of ghosts, shadows, vampires, werewolves, doubles, partial selves, reflections (mirrors), enclosures, monsters, beasts, cannibals that sent shivers up my sister and my spines, those tales that both fascinated us and filled us with dread and terror that seemed to last into the nights and days, that seemed to haunt us long after the reading, and seemed at times to take on a life of their own; enter into our dreams and our day to day fantasy life, follow us like strange characters from another time, another world. This sense of being fascinated, bewitched, charmed and caught in a malevolent spell under the malicious sorcery of some strange force, some dark magick surrounding me in the invisible realms just outside my sight that draws me on as if something deep and uncanny within me seemed to belong there, live there, come from that space between things; some gap or void in the Real in which the dark ministrations of ancient powers seemed to exist just outside the veil of Reason and the comfort of home and the homely.

For Freud what is encountered in this uncanny realm, whether it is termed spirit, angel, devil, ghost, or monster, is nothing but an unconscious projection, projections being those ‘qualities, feelings, wishes, objects, which the subject refuses to recognize or rejects in himself [and which] are expelled from the self and located in another person or thing’.1 Through secularization, a religious sense of the numinous is transformed and reappears as a sense of the uncanny, but the psychological origins of both are identical. Literary fantasies, then, have a function corresponding to the mythical and magical products of other cultures. They return us to what Freud identifies as an animistic mode of perception, that thought process which characterizes primitive man at an evolutionary stage prior to his concession to a ‘reality principle’. Freud writes that we ‘attribute an “uncanny” quality to impressions that seek to confirm the omnipotence of thoughts and the animistic mode of thinking in general’ (Totem and Taboo, p.86).

Against Freud’s too positive reading of the uncanny from the side of reason, or his ‘reality principle’ is the work of Hélène Cixous who links a structural understanding of the uncanny as a mode of apprehending and associates fantasy to grotesque art: ‘The grotesque is a structure . . . it is the estranged world, our world which has been transformed’. The uncanny, however, removes structure. It empties the ‘real’ of its ‘meaning’, it leaves signs without significance. Cixous presents its unfamiliarity not as merely displaced sexual anxiety, but as a rehearsal of an encounter with death, which is pure absence. Death cannot be portrayed directly: it appears in literature either as figura (emblem) such as the medieval memento mori skeletons, or as mere space. This is materialized as a ghost: ‘the immediate figure of strangeness is the ghost. The ghost is the fiction of our relation to death made concrete.’ Das Unheimlich is at its purest here, where we dis-cover our latent deaths, our hidden lack of being, for ‘nothing is both better known and stranger to thought than mortality . . . “Death” has no shape in life. Our unconscious has no room for a representation of our mortality’. (Jackson, p. 68 see: Hélène Cixous. Fiction and Its Phantoms: A Reading of Freud’s Das Unheimliche (The”Uncanny”):New Literary History, Vol. 7, No. 3, Thinking in the Arts, Sciences, and Literature. (Spring, 1976))

Even as a child I remember one of my first dreams introduced me to that strange and uncanny dimension. I can still remember the terror I felt in waking up from a bad dream or nightmare in which I’d felt being overwhelmed by something other, something uncanny that was at the same time “old and familiar,” as if I had met a part of myself – my real self in that dream; but that in the moment of (mis)recognition, realizing it wasn’t me at all but rather some strange and monstrous thing – something at once daemonic and godlike – that sought to take my place and imprison me in the dark realms forever. It was at this gut wrenching moment that I awakened, sweating and crying out for help…

Strangely what terrorized me with such fear was this feeling that when I woke up I was no longer me, that I’d become this other thing, this other being; that it had taken my body and was even now taking over my life and mind – my very soul. Only later as I grew older would I hear of the notion of changeling. The notion of the double, of being replaced by some daemonic being, some dark and nefarious creature out of the nightmare lands. This notion that one was no longer one’s self, that one was an other would haunt me through my young childhood and into my adulthood. Of course my parents tried to soothe me, convince me it was all a bad dream, a nightmare, that I had seen a strange design on the closet door that reminded me of this bald man. That there are no worlds below ours, that the world is just as it is and will always be. Yet, I remained uncertain. It is this uncertainty that has remained with me to this day. What is reality, what dream? Who can be sure? Is it the mere caprice of daily worries as Freud suggest, a mere excess of an overwrought brain working out its own strange rhythms? Or, something else? That would lead me to explore those fantastic dreamworlds of the ancient and modern weird, those tales that seem to hint of darker worlds below our own, of places and spaces that hint of our actual life outside the work-a-day utilitarian reality of our cultural and social commitments: the realm of habit, custom, and sociality. Does it exist? Is it just a semblance, – a refraction of the brain’s twisted skein? Or something else? Something much darker and uncanny?

I don’t think we in the West are alone in this sense that just outside the sun lit worlds of our everyday gaze is something eerie, something strange and malevolent just below the threshold of existence, something lurking in the dark waiting, watching, calculating, monstrous. Of course we find these tales everywhere from China, India, Australia, Indonesia, Africa, the Middle-East, Russia, Europe and the Americas. One can spend years studying the anthropologists who wrote of both ancient and modern ritual and practices of past and present indigenous cultures around the world. We know that certain darker transgressive impulses were part of this uncanny world of our ancestral pool: incest, necrophilia, androgyny, cannibalism, recidivism, narcissism and ‘abnormal’ psychological states conventionally categorized as hallucination, dream, insanity, paranoia, were all part of the black light of this human heritage.

Magic, witchcraft, shamanism, voodoun practitioners, Oracles, devinarii, scyers, bone scravens, skinwalkers, vagrs, outlaws, dead, etc. who practiced various dark arts using natural substances, or what Richard Evans Schultes once termed the “Plants of the Gods”. The use of hallucinogenic or consciousness expanding plants has been a part of human experience for many millennia, yet modern Western societies have only recently become aware of the significance that these plants have had in shaping the history of primitive and even of advanced cultures. In fact, the past thirty years have witnessed a vertiginous growth of interest in the use and possible value of hallucinogens in our own modern, industrialized, and urbanized society.2 (9)

Michael A. Rinella in Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens would bring to light the impact of ancient drugs on early Greek Religion and Society. There had been many studies of the use of entheogens in the relation of religious and ceremonial practices of various cultures around the world but this one at the intersection of religion and what would become the beginnings of our origins in a Culture of Reason or philosopophia begin here where the Dionysian and Eleusinian Mysteries held sway. Rinella would suggest that the use of the term pharmakon by Plato and his mentor, Socrates, would be in direct competition and agon with its use in the Eleusinian Mysteries.3 He would follow the work of Carl A. P. Ruck whose work The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries spoke of the use of a pharmakon, the kykeion (i.e., Ancient Greek drink of various descriptions. Some were made mainly of water, barley and naturally occurring substances. Others were made with wine and grated cheese. It is widely believed that kykeon usually refers to a psychoactive compounded brew, as in the case of the Eleusian Mysteries.).

Plato on the other hand would demythologize the pharmakon, as well as the traditions of Empedocles, the Shaman priest who spoke of a literal metempsychosis or transmigrations of souls from body to body through which anamnesis and purifications techniques were to be applied to bring to remembrance one’s past lives and free one from the burdens of existence – much in the same manner as Buddha under the Bodhi Tree remembered all his own past lives, etc. Plato would abstract out of this religious practice a new secular and mundane practice of the ‘love of wisdom’ that would guide the young ephebe not to some knowledge of past lives, but rather to a knowledge of the eternal Forms, accessed not through some hallucinogenic pharmakon brew but rather through and initiation into the ways of Reason.

So began the long war between religion and reason, mystery and philosophy. Yet, even through its long history the darker worlds below the threshold of Reason never were completely expunged or expelled. Through two thousands years of Christian Civilization the dark forces of magic, witchcraft, the use of magical plants prevailed and with them much of the fear and terror of the unknown and forbidden lore of those times would become part of the vast fantasy life of our ancestral pool of fairy lore, mysteries, the occult, dark mysticism, hallucination, madness, the macabre, the grotesque, the tabooed realms of the irrational and the horrific. Yet, it remained…

Even Christiandom, the Jewish World, and the Muslim lands of the Middle-East and Castalian Spain would have their mystical and dark strains of heterological systems. From those strange realms of Gnosticism, Hermeticism, to Neoplatonic theurgy and the streams of various dualisms derived from the ancient Magi of Persia – the lore of Mani and the Magical. There has always been an underbelly to the world of Reason, a realm of the hidden and forbidden, a world of dark entities and outcast rogue thought. In the twentieth century the sciences would try to reduce reality to the physical and mathematical, to oust all other non-reductionist thought for once and all. It failed. All around us philosophy and the fringe worlds of thought are remerging from their silent exile in ways we cannot as of yet fully register. Hints of the old plant gods have once against been making forays into the very heart of Reason’s fortress, the Academy.

One wonders just what it is Reason fears? Is it the dark barbarism of all these monstrous children of the night that seem inevitably to be rising from some hinterland of our imaginaries? As Italo Calvino in his introduction to Fantastic Tales said

As it relates to our sensibility today, the supernatural element at the heart of these stories always appears freighted with meaning, like the revolt of the unconscious, the repressed, the forgotten, all that is distanced from our rational attention. In this we see the modern dimension of the fantastic, the reason for its triumphant resurgence in our times. We note that the fantastic says things that touch us intimately, even though we are less disposed than the readers of the last century to allow ourselves to be surprised by apparitions and phantasmagoria.4

And, yet, popular TV series such as Ghost Adventures or the Dead Files seem to have large followings. Why? Even as academics and philosophers, pundits and liberal secular and atheistic authors deride those who have fallen for various irrationalism’s and religions we discover that the majority of people in the world are and remain deeply rooted in ancient faiths and practices. After two centuries of the Enlightenment the atheistic outlook and philosophies are marginal at best, found only in the elite corp of the top tier of readers, thinkers, and secular pundits. For the rest of the various societies on there is the tried and true imprint of ancient ways. So why did the atheistic view of life with its expunging of gods and God, it’s command and control of reality by way of Reason fail to raise everyone on this planet into its world of light?

Yet, this is not the whole tale, no. Even now these vary same philosophers are lured into the darker corners of thought themselves. From the time of Kant onward there were limits set to what thinkers could and could not do: they termed it finitude. Reason had its limits beyond which it was taboo to go. That realm beyond which it was anathema to go was abstractly termed: the noumenal. A sort of empty placeholder for the great Unknown and Forbidden. Know one talked of it, know one dared. So philosophers stayed within the reasonable realms of the known and the visible, and let the dark and invisible realms shift for themselves. That is till modern sciences themselves came up against that limit and realized they would need to build tools to move beyond the barriers of human finitude. They did. They uncovered strange micro realms of quantum worlds where the known laws of Newton and Einstein no longer applied, where a strange and uncanny realm of mathematical entities lived and played by other rules, rules outside the strict limitations of our cause and effect reality. Einstein would call it madness, tell these other scientists that “God does not play with dice!” Period! Others would laugh and ask, eerily, “But what if he does?”

Tzvetan Todorov, in his Introduction to Fantastic Literature (1970), holds that what distinguishes “fantastic” narrative is precisely our perplexity in the face of an incredible fact, our indecision in choosing between a rational, realistic explanation and an acceptance of the supernatural. The character of the incredulous positivist who often appears in this kind of story, seen with compassion and irony because he must surrender when confronted by something he does not know how to explain, is not completely negated. According to Todorov, the incredible event the fantastic story tells must always allow for a rational explanation, unless it happens to be a hallucination or a dream (a fail-safe device that sanctions just about anything). (Calvino)

Yet, why should it be resolved by reason? What if there are anomalous events that should be left in that ‘in-between’ state between reason and its mystery, what if to reduce it to reasonable explanation is to destroy it, to kill its power, its potential for change and transformation. What if to make reasonable, to abstract out of the unknown a known is to turn it against itself, to make of it a utilitarian fact to be used rather than to allow the unknown to speak to us on its own terms without reaching after fact or reason?

Georges Bataille once believed that all genuine ecstasy is necessarily, and violently, negative. Bataille characterizes ecstasy as a laceration of the ego, a rupture that for a time dissolves the self-contained character of the individual as she exists in her everyday life. It is in the varieties of ecstatic experience—erotic fulminations, poetic effervescence, wrenching laughter, wracking sobs, and other excessive moments—that the self as defined and conditioned by the structures and strictures, the prohibitions and taboos, of profane, workaday life, is lost. Bataille’s writings are dramatic evidence of his relentless pursuit of the self-dissolving negative experience of ecstasy. They repeatedly reveal the sacrificial violence, the profound negativity, that haunts the always excessive moments that he deemed sacred.5 In one of his letters the poet Arthur Rimbaud would remark to his old teacher George Izambard,

Right now,  I’m beshitting myself as  much as  possible. Why?  I want to be a poet,  and  I ‘m working to turn myself into a seer: you won’t understand at all, and it’s unlikely that  I’ll be able to explain it to you. It has to do with making your way towards the unknown by a derangement of  all the senses. The  suffering is tremendous, but  one must bear up against it, to be born  a poet, and  I  know that’s what  I  am.  It’s  not  at  all  my fault.  It’s wrong to say I think: one  should say I am thought.  Forgive the  pun. I is someone else.6

This violent rending of the veil of reason, the ‘derangement of the senses’, this ecstatic realm of sex and violence – ‘erotic fulminations, poetic effervescence, wrenching laughter, wracking sobs, and other excessive moments’ – what is it that is happening here?

The Symbolic World of our Sociality

Some say that even as children we are still close to the ancient ways of seeing and doing, that only as we are transformed, modulated, enclosed and educated – educed into the social world where language, reason, myth, religion, philosophy etc. hold sway, the realm of our habitation – habitus, where habit and custom are grafted onto our neural circuits, and we take up the role of being the name we were named with by either parents or authorities of tribe or nation do we lose touch with the realm of the noumenal. Some never make the transition, some fall by the wayside into different forms of social and private madness between the extremes of various sociopathy or psychopathy. Some are born with obvious physical and biochemical ailments of the brain due to either malnutrition or abuse, or a number of genetic or other causal agents. Yet, the vast majority are not affected either by physical or mental defect or disease and grow up into a world that they belong, a society constructed out of symbolic exchange where various rituals and traditions are brought to bare upon the young to maintain social cohesion and relations among its members. When this is fractured, when the various rituals and cultural mores and norms are broken, when the civilization is slowly splintered into a myriad of sub-cultures like our own the world become topsy-turvy and there is no longer a center to hold things together.

We live in a world of mirrors, a realm of duplicitous and decaying forms of cultural life that seem day by day to be fracturing into new growths and worlds beyond the reasonable expectations of the Enlightenment project. Reason no longer rules our world. The Symbolic whole that once spun its chains of invisible thought around this civilization is coming undone, unraveling before our very eyes. Day by day different sub-cultures are wandering off into unknown zones, forbidden territory of the dark fantastic. The edge worlds of ghosts, shadows, vampires, werewolves, doubles, partial selves, reflections (hall of mirrors), enclosures, monsters, beasts, cannibals are arising in our midst once again like children’s tales that have been unloosened from their mental cages and released into the Unreal realms of our present world.

Through the imposition of prohibitions, and their lifting or suspension on clearly defined occasions, society effects an alteration from a state of individual, profane and utilitarian existence to a raised, higher or even ecstatic state of social or collective being. In these conditions being reaches it most intense states, not just of abandon but, simultaneously, of expenditure, joining or ‘intimacy’ with other beings, an intimacy usually occluded by the demands of individual, productive existence.7 Bataille sought something he termed the intimacy of others. For Bataille, influenced by Gnostic and Manichean dualism, the sacred and the profane are understood as two worlds, not as an opposition within a single ‘real’ or objective world. Notions of a ‘real’ world derive from the profane world, and appear solid and meaningful only on condition that they are not exposed to the sacred or heterological. Notions of ‘reality’ are, in a sense, inappropriate or irrelevant when considering the sacred world. (Pawlett, KL 759)

Yet, for Bataille the Sacred was divided again into a left and right hand path: a path of immanence and one of transcendence. Bataille took the left-hand path downward into the darkness of the abyss, and as the disciple of the monstrous, left sacred revels in “rupturing the highest elevation, and . . . has a share in the elaboration or decomposition of forms” attendant upon intoxication, madness, and artistic profusion. Excessive and
transgressive, the left sacred is that which escapes assimilation or systematization. In this way, like the chthonic god with which it is affiliated in Bataille’s thought, the left sacred is a “low value” that disrupts both the rational order of utility—the “real world,” conditioned by telic thought and dedicated to useful projects—as well as its divinized counterpart, the right sacred. It is at once activated by, and provokes the death of, the closed, individual self—the death that grants the experience of continuity. (Biles, 221)

In archaic times a person who stood outside the law, the culture, was considered ‘dead’ by ordinary people. In many instances the embodiment of these ‘dead’ was the bear or, even more importantly, the wolf. According to old Norse law and even much later, the wolf was deprived of protection of the law. In these barbarous lands of the old Norse the legends would speak of those vargr I veum, or ‘stranglers in the temple’ – outlaws who invaded the safe havens of ancient temples of the heathen gods for sacrifice and plunder. In the Lokisana or the Ragnarök, the ‘twilight of the gods,’ when all order ceased and things were turned upside down, the times of these times was called vargold “wolf’d time by the Voluspa. These dead, the outlaw and vagr, or wolf-men, the stranglers were banished persons became the monstrous breed of lore and legend, those without honor or who belonged to Odin, the god of death and war. The men of Odin were known as the ulfar, ‘wolves,’ or as Tacitus would speak of the hariers, the fighters of the Naharnawals, the black ones of death beyond the pale. These were men who lived outside the symbolic or social order, the lawless killers of fathers, or kin, the dark ones of the frozen underworlds.8

The key here is the separation of two worlds: the world of society and work, and the realm of the sacred outlaw and death. Duerr in his work speaks of it as those within the fence or hedge, separating the domain of wilderness from that of culture. At certain times this fence was, in fact, torn down. Those who wanted to live consciously within the fence, had to leave the enclosure at least once in their lives. They had to roam the forests as wolves, as outlaws and were beings – those touched by the Wyrd (i.e., the sisters of Fate). As Duerr puts it “they had to experience their animal nature” emptied of the symbolic order, the social bonds of shared systems of belief, habit, and custom. (64) For – as he suggests, their ‘cultural nature’ was only one side of their being which by destiny was inextricably bound to their animal fyligja, visible only to him who stepped across the dividing line, entrusting himself to his ‘second sight’ (65). In this sense the animal nature, the fyligja, is the side of a person that becomes available only when the cultural bonds of ones profane utilitarian self identity is relinquished, when one dies to one’s culture, one’s symbolic self and role as a member of society and becomes one who is dead, a vagr or outlaw.

As Duerr attests to speak of this other side, to speak of the fyliga, nagual, or chagri – the other I am is unintelligible to those within the fence of the symbolic world of culture; for them it is sheer madness and insanity, a realm of pure fright and demons where nothing is real. “The nagual,” says Don Juan Matus, “is the part of us for which there is no description – no words, no names, no feelings, no knowledge.” (70) Yet, to enter the wilderness is not to experience this other we are in the way of reason, one cannot speak it, or reduce it to this side of the hedge or fence of culture – one will immerse oneself in it, dissolve the everyday self into the other, and for a time become the other one is. Some speak of it was moving out of the womb of one’s protection and into the dangerous zones of the vastness, the abyss. One returns from such a realm changed, different. One is an other at all times, and without recourse to the former worlds of safety and poverty of imagination that those who do not know still cling to in fright and terror of the darkness outside the fence of civilized reason.

One could say that the authors of the weird, the fantastic, the bizarre hint at the truth of this state of affairs almost as those practitioners of zen koans do with their paradoxical riddles, they convey the pointers beyond the fence, and offer in their dark testimonies only a glimpse into the abysses where one becomes at once monstrous and alive, but only if one is willing to die to one’s utiliatarian world of safety and work. To be free is a terrible thing, nothing less that becoming other – beyond which there is no recourse or redress other than being reborn in the wild lands of the dangerous, decaying, and morbid sacred. To become other is to become monstrous – to absolve oneself of one’s cultural ties, to be reborn in the inhuman power of a universe where the human has no meaning and the only law is that of the jungle. One enters such realms at a cost, at the cost of one’s life, one’s sociality. One becomes a stranger to the others – a power, separate and alone; a daemonic presence among those who remain fixated with the defensive gestures of civilization and its symbolic order. A stranger, a foreigner, an outsider, a social deviant, anyone speaking in an unfamiliar language or acting in unfamiliar ways, anyone whose origins are unknown or who has extraordinary powers, tends to be set apart as other, as evil.

One of the namings of otherness has been as ‘demonic’ and it is important to recognize the semantic shifts of this term, since they indicate the progressive internalization of fantastic narrative in the post-Romantic period. J.A. Symonds saw all fantastic art as characterized by an obsession with the demonic. He referred to Shakespeare’s Caliban, Milton’s Death, and Goethe’s Mephistopheles as ‘products of fantastic art’, and in earlier fantasies it is easy to see that the demonic and the diabolic were more or less synonymous. The term demonic originally denoted a supernatural being, a ghost, or spirit, or genius, or devil and it usually connoted a malignant, destructive force at work.9

‘Otherness’ is all that threatens ‘this’ world, this ‘real’ world, with dissolution: and it is this opposition which lies behind the several myths which have developed in the modern fantastic. Behind the modern fantastic is both a spiritual and political struggle to replace cultural life with a total, absolute otherness, a completely alternative self-sustaining system. The sense that the global order within which humans live and work is a false order, a symbolic order that has them enslaved like zombies in a movie unable to do anything but consume more and more of the products of an illusionary world. The dark fantastic returns us to the hinterlands of freedom, of the wilderness outside the control of the prison keepers of the current global system. It hints at another realm where one can become one’s true self, one’s other more dangerous and non-utilitarian self, and an outlaw and renegade to the current Reality system of governance and control. Those who police the Reality Matrix hunt down those who seek escape and lock them away as insane or criminals of the civilized world. Yet, some ride that hedge, that fence between two-worlds like masters of chaos, and bring back out of the abyss images of freedom, bits of information that helps awaken the sleepers of Time from their long sleep. It is to these that the dark fantastic calls… to those willing to dare all, to follow their minds and hearts into the chaos just this side of madness… out there where one becomes one’s Other…


  1. Jackson, Dr Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (New Accents) (p. 66). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
  2. Richard Evans Schultes, Albert Hofmann, Christian Ratsch. Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers. Healing Arts Press; 2nd edition (November 1, 2001)
  3. Michael A. Rinella. Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens. Lexington Books; Reprint edition (June 5, 2010)
  4. Italo Calvino. Fantastic Tales (Kindle Locations 32-36). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  5. Jeremy Biles (Editor), Kent Brintnall (Editor). Negative Ecstasies: Georges Bataille and the Study of Religion.  Fordham University Press; 1 edition (August 3, 2015)
  6. Schmidt, Paul. Arthur Rimbaud: Complete Works. Harpercollins (June 1, 1976)
  7. Pawlett, William. Georges Bataille : The Sacred and Society (Kindle Locations 209-213). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
  8. Hans Peter Duerr. Dreamtime: Concerning the Boundary Between Wilderness and Civilization. Blackwell Publishers (June 18, 1985)
  9. Jackson, Dr Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (New Accents) (p. 54). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.