Fantastika in the World Storm


Centre for the Future presents
Cultural Landscapes/Fiction Without Borders

Amercan Center
20 September 2007

Here is what I’m going to do: I’m going to argue that story tellers and readers have seen our planet — ever since it first became visible around 1750 — primarily through the huge range of tales of the fantastic that I’m here calling fantastika. I will then draw some conclusions, and end up here in Prague.

Part One will argue that it is possible to describe fantastika as the necessary form of planetary fiction since 1750.

Part Two will outline the narrative grammars that I find most useful when I write about the three main forms fantastika now takes: Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror (which I’d prefer to call Terror, but it’s too late now). I think these grammars reveal something of the nature of story which speaks to the difficulties we all face as we try not only to conceive a better world, which is easy, but also to live in one, which is not.

Part Three deals further with the relation of story to world. If the models I’m suggesting make any sense at all, Horror (or Terror) is the most relevant of the three genres when it comes to adumbrating the dilemmas we face in 2007: because Horror is about our resistance to the truth: a resistance which lasts until we are left naked in the real world: which is where the story ends.

And what do we do then?

There is a kind of Part Four as well, I guess, consisting of two questions that surface as soon as we mention Fiction and Landscape — the two discourses which draw us to together here — in one breath. First: How can a genuine storyteller, given the obvious fact that only bad worlds are storyable, possibly contrive to talk about a Landscape which is a place to stay? Second: Who among us trying to create sustainable worlds could possibly care about stories, which never depict them?

Some answers come to mind immediately.

At least two of the authors here in Prague have written works which contradict any easy assumption that a world which is sustainable is a world which is beyond story. Pamela Zoline expects to publish next year a version of her long-meditated novel, Occam’s Beard, which is devoted not only to the story of the achievement of peace but the greater project of describing peace as life not closure. John Crowley’s vast four-part novel Aegypt (1987-2007) seems for much of its length to search of an inner grammar of story of the world by which the world can be endlessly transformed. (One of these transformations climaxes heartbreakingly, in 1620, in a Prague that could never happen, though the Prague of 2007 seems to remember that Prague.) But in the end (like Prospero casting down his wand) Aegypt sinks into an exquisitely described civil silence beyond story, a gravid silence in the soil of things, and only after two hundred pages do we awaken again into Time, out here again, in this place we must try — against the odds? — to heal.

Part One:Fantastika and the World Storm

I will start by defining fantastika in a way which may seem obvious, but is not: Fantastika consists of that wide range of fictional works whose contents are understood to be fantastic. We know of course that myths and legends, folklore and fairy tales, beast fables and fantastic journeys, supernatural romances and utopian speculations, ghost stories and god stories have been integral to the long narrative of Western Civilization from the very start: but no example of any of these forms of story laid down before the eighteenth century was ever I think given a name which calved it off from the mainstream of culture.

Up until about 1700, in other words, we did not categorize works of art according to their use of (or failure to use) material that might be deemed unreal. After that point, in English literature — please forgive my sticking to what I know — a fault line was drawn between mimetic work, which accorded with the rational Enlightenment values then beginning to dominate, and the great cauldron of irrational myth and story, which we now claimed to have outgrown, and which was now primarily suitable for children (the concept of childhood having been invented around this time as a disposal unit to dump abandoned versions of human nature into).

This cleansing of the cauldron led of course to huge misprisions of the past — it was during the eighteenth century that William Shakespeare was reconceived as a child-like genius, an idiot savant, partly because he broke the rules of Tragedy, but also because he wrote his plays prior to any cultural consensus that informative obedience to ascertainable reality ultimately told us more about our human experience of the world we inhabited than any myth or fairy tale or fabulation could possibly do. If The Tempest (*1611*) had been written a century later, it would not have been staged. Prospero could not have cast down a wand in 1750 which was simultaneously a walking stick and a magic staff: because the two were not commensurate: moreover, it was perfectly ascertainable that a stick is a stick, and that there is no such thing as a magic staff. QED.

But it is not only Sigmund Freud who tells us that what is repressed will come back; the ancient tale of Antaeus, who returns redoubled in strength every time Heracles casts him to the Earth, says much the same thing. There is a beauty in the eighteenth century Enlightenment, but it is an Apollonian beauty, the beauty of the intensely described, a beauty achieved through refusal and exclusion and measure and argument. It makes forward planning possible, but also garden suburbs; it engineers the rise of Western Civilization over the past four centuries, but it also blueprints the gulag. And after 1750 or so, as might be expected, a consciously subversive reaction sets in.

Stories begin to surface which subvert the ordered world above; which contradict the closed mundanity of the work produced during the Apollonian Ascendancy; which say there is more to the world than the dressage of proper measure. These stories re-import all the old material, the irrational, the impossible, the nightmare, the inevitable, the haunted, the storyable, the magic walking stick, the curse; and through these reborn forms and strategies we sight, like stigmata surfacing through porcelain, the gross bodily parts of Dionysos, the repressed Twin or Doppelganger who mocks Apollo in his toga: just as fantastika itself apes and mocks and tells the terrible true understory of the world we of the West have entered.

An author like Horace Walpole — whose The Castle of Otranto (*1764*) is the first mature British Gothic — was obviously aware that the form he had created made merciless fun of the harmony of the old world. But it is not just mockery: the exorbitant transgressive rambunctiousness of Otranto, and of the five thousand further Gothics published in Britain before 1820, say something else too. In every blatantly disharmonious passage they tell us that it is inherently difficult to understand the world: they tell us that the world is too difficult for Apollo, that reality escapes the ruler. This is of course the message of Aesop. It is also the message of the cruelest of all nineteenth century writers of fantastika, Hans Christian Andersen.

Andersen is of course a great author; but I mention him here in particular because of the characteristic panic hurry of his tales, which marks him as a paradigm of fantastika over the last two and a half centuries. Andersen writes as though the ground was not safe beneath the feet, and that if we don’t keep moving something is going to catch up with us. He hardly ever mentions Twins or Doppelgangers (I think because the thought of them frightened him so much) but when he does he speaks as directly to our condition in 2007 as does Franz Kafka, or Vladimir Nabokov, or W G Sebald.

This brings us to the world storm.

1750 is not only the year in which fantastika began to be written as a weapon against the owners; it also marks the point when Western Civilization begins to understand that we do not inhabit a world but a planet. It is from this point that science — astronomy, physics, geology, biology — begins to shape our understanding that we are a species on a rolling ball, that the past is deeper than we can conceive and that the future is going to rip us apart. (Science fiction does not begin in the discovery of Space, but in the discovery of Time: terroristic meditations on the conjoining of Ruins and Futurity dominate the first decades of the genre.) So science takes the ground from underneath our feet; and fantastika, with its heated and cartoon immediacy of response to instability and threat, responds instantly to the vertigo of this new knowledge. Fantastika vibrates to the planet. It is the planetary form of story.

Something else begins to happen around 1750 as well: the engines of change represented by the scientific and industrial revolutions begin palpably to increase the speed of history, until it races. The planet begins to shake in the storm; change burns the soles of the residents; things alter so fast that we in the matured West are no longer able to sort our lives, which begin to haunt us. Amnesias — both like and unlike those that blinded Oedipus or Leontes — begin to haunt the residents of the planet and their gated communities; it is no accident that Twins and Doubles and Doppelgangers begin to nurse their injuries throughout fantastika: because the Twin is what we leave behind when life is so fast we cannot remember where we come from. This is the guilt of Apollo.

Part Two: Model Instructions

Each of the three main modes of written fantastika in the twenty-first century — Fantasy; Science Fiction; and Horror — is badly named, in English at least, which is part of the reason I’ve begun to prefer the term fantastika, though we’re probably stuck with the names we’ve got. The three narrative grammars that I’ve worked out over the past fifteen years were intended to loosen the lockjaw of this bad nomenclature, to make it easier to track some of the movements of story I think are typical of these three large long-lived changing modes. I’ve described some of this modelling before — most conspicuously in a number of connected essay/entries in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (*1997*), and in The Darkening Garden: a Short Lexicon of Horror (*2006*) — and will try to be brief here.

I should note that these models are iterations of story, not architectural layouts of the visible shape that one might think each mode should adhere to. I should also add that they are themselves narrative: they read consecutively, and they are designed to gain as swiftly as possible the goal that stories themselves all share: the last And Then which ends the tale. Each model is divided into four parts, and each model can be laid over its siblings, like a palimpsest.

*Fantasy*. Many of the great fantasy writers of the last century were shaped by the experience of World War One; the attitude of J R R Tolkien to the world storm of his time is anguish and anger; he and other great fantasy writers turn away from the world to shame it. Here are the four phases:
1) Wrongness. Some small desiccating hint that the world has lost its wholeness.
2) Thinning. The diminution of the old ways; amnesia of the hero and of the king; the harvest fails, the Land dries up; diversion of story into useless noise; battle after battle.
3) Recognition. The key in the gate; the escape from prison; amnesia dissipates like mist, the hero remembers his true name, the Fisher King walks, the Land greens. The locus classicus of Recognition is Leontes’s cry at the end of The Winter’s Tale (*1610*) on seeing Hermione reborn: “O she’s warm.”
4) Return. The folk come back to their old lives and try to live them.

*Science Fiction*. The basic premise is that the world depicted has an arguable relation to the history of the real world. The underlying impulse of twentieth century SF has been to view the world in this manner in order to see what’s wrong; and then fixing it. SF is the most optimisitc of genres. SF bronco-busts the world. It rides the world storm. I’ve cobbled a narrative model for SF out of other writers’ work. Though it uses a different terminology, this model closely resembles an earlier model constructed by Farah Mendlesohn for similar reasons in her essay, “Is There Any Such a Thing as Children’s Fiction: A Position Piece” (2004).:
1) Novum. Darko Suvin’s term for that aspect of the SF world which differs measurably from our given world.
2) Cognitive Estrangement. Suvin’s term — modified from Vikor Shklovsky and Bertolt Brecht — for arguable and therefore structured defamiliarization of the world, which derives in part from the fact of Novum, and which allows the defectiveness of the ruling paradigm to be seen whole.
3) Conceptual Breakthrough. Peter Nicholls’s term, from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (*1979*), for the thrust of release when a defective paradigm collapses and the new world — the true world — is revealed. A sense of wonder is often felt, sometimes in spaceships.
4) Topia (U- or Dys-). The Jerusalem whose gates have been opened by conceptual breakthrough for those who have won through. From this point life is going to be led in accordance with the truths discovered.

*Horror* may be the purest response of fantastika to the world storm: because the true sound of any great story in the genre — like Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (1899), or Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (*1912*), or Gustav Meyrink’s Walpurgisnacht (*1917*), or Stephen King’s The Shining (*1977*), or D M Thomas’s The White Hotel (*1981*), or W G Sebald’s Austerlitz (*2001*) — is the sound of History leaving Eden. When Kurtz cries out “The horror, the horror!” in “Heart of Darkness” it is because he sees the history of the new world entire, it is because he stands in the eye of the world storm. But he does not look away. The four iterations of Horror are:
1) Sighting. Some small sour lesion in the world is suddenly visible, even in daylight.
2) Thickening. The protagonist is mired deeper and deeper in the falseness of the world. The plot literally thickens around him. Fatally, he may think he understands himself, but in fact every move he makes deepens his amnesia, which coils through Thickening like fog; intensifies his resistance, his golem-like rigidity at the threat of change. It is a Gnostic phase: the truth is occluded, which allows us to lie to ourselves constantly.
3) Revel. The story saves us. The rind of the world is peeled off, we see our true face in the mirror, carnival rules, what we see is what we get, the high are made low: where we belong. There is an almost infernal glee in learning the simple dreadful monistic clarity of the truth. Compared to the foggy parsimonious Marlow, Kurtz is pure glee.
4) Aftermath. Tolkien looked up from the trenches and called it shame. Those unable to escape from prison call it the world.

That’s twelve terms in all, which is a lot, even though they’re suggestions not laws. So I’m going to take thirty seconds more and tabulate them, which is how they come together in my mind’s eye:
1) is Wrongness, or Novum, or Sighting.
2) is Thinning, or Cognitive Estrangement, or Thickening.
3) is Recognition, or Conceptual Breaktrhough, or Revel.
4) is Return, or Topia, or Aftermath.

Laid out like that, as permututions of one Ur Story, like three snakes mutually entwined, each snake undergoing the same morphological transforms, something I hinted at earlier may seem more obvious: that the first three phases make up a progress of story; but that the fourth represents places Story can only point at, like Moses. The implications of this gap between telling and living will shape the final paragraphs of this talk.

Part Three: The Cunning of Amnesia

A man in deep middle age, a German-born academic who never gives his name, tells his story. He has found himself, after a period of profound depression, severed from his life. He travels away from England, where he has lodged for many years, and wanders through contemporary Europe, where he visits dozens of famous edifices — train stations, prisons, zoos, fortresses, spas, museums, colosseums, libraries — which somehow do him harm. Indeed, long before the end of the book — Austerlitz, W G Sebald’s final novel — these whited sepulchres of the official Europe have thickened in his mind’s eye into one great prison-like edifice, a house of the dead whose story resists exposure, a house of amnesia. In his wanderings through this thickening world, he soon meets Jacques Austerlitz, a man so similarly occluded from the story of his own life that the two seem twins. Austerlitz has also been visiting sepulchres that seem blinded — stiff mute effigies of the performance culture of old Europe, a culture that both men feel died half a century earlier. Nothing has cleared the air in Austerlitz. There has been no Revel out of fantastika in this Europe: no gaze of Kurtz upon some harrowing truth: no remembering.

The plot of the novel is simple. The edifice whose unspeakable function has somehow polluted the sepulchres of postwar Europe is an extermination camp north of Prague that the Germans called Theresienstadt. Austerlitz’s mother has died there, his father in another camp; and his long amnesia begins on the day he is evacuated to Wales, in 1939, as a small child. The novel circles through decades up to the year 2000: and only after many years does Austerlitz tell the narrator that, against the greatest of resistance, he has caught a glimpse of his real life; the novel does not tell us if he long survives the exposure. Most of the novel is spent detailing the terrible ingenuity of the amnesia whose resistance has kept Austerlitz from his past; but the deepest insight of the book — effected with an intense non-metaphorical literalism only available to an author of fantastika — lies in its inexorable linking of Austerlitz’s personal traumas to the sepulchral amnesia which has rendered the Apollonian “utopia” of Europe in 2000, which apes but cannot remember, so profoundly silent.

The deep secret of amnesia is that its victims can talk all they want: but we cannot remember what we are saying. Nothing can be learned, or recovered. The abattoir that cut us in two awaits us. The final message of Austerlitz is that here in the heart of the storm of the new century the panaceas we brandish simply proclaim what we cannot remember proclaiming before, that in truth we are waving ghost limbs in a thickening dusk: for we do not know who we are, or where we live.

There is that one small moment of Revel for Austerlitz all the same, in Prague, one small bracing glimpse of pure gleeful truth: he meets an old survivor who is as continuous with his childhood as Prague is continuous with the past of Europe; and she remembers him, just as Prague — a pantomime city which is never silent — seems to remember Europe. But the engines that govern Austerlitz are too powerful, and he is soon gone from her. And it is here, out of the heart of this most terrifing book, that the lesson surfaces: that the active principle that must be dealt with in any modern novel set in the world storm today is amnesia, not recovery. This may not seem good cheer: but it is good to know your enemy.

Recovery is not part of the story of fantastika. It is what happens when the story is told. When we Return to the Land; when we enter the Topia that we have earned; when we learn to breathe the air of Aftermath through our mask: it is then we that we enter the region of Recovery, where we must try to live.

The greatest danger we face there is peace that feels good, because in any human being an internal peace that takes it easy — that does not constantly wrest clarity from the magma and nightmare of the souls within us — that fails to negotiate faithfully with the wronged Twins we leave behind — is exactly amnesia. It is the peace that Sigmund Freud — in Civilisation and its Discontents (*1929*) — associated with the kind of tension reduction offered by Adolf Hitler, or Stalin. For the sake of that peace which a citizen of the Third Reich in 1934 might well have called Recovery, we would in fact abandon any chance of Recovery. We would abandon the kind of world John Crowley created at the end of Aegypt. We would
abandon civilisation.

What the great texts of fantastika offer is what Freud offered: the message that civlization costs, that the truth that makes us free is not identical to self-forgiveness; that civilisation is a constant wrestling with our longing to forget.

That is the best plowshare I know how to figure.

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