Critical Discourses of the Fantastic, 1712–1831

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Later chapters add further complications to the relationship between fantasy and modernity, with the fantastical raising challenging epistemological questions about the nature and perception of reality. In Wordsworth's case the fantastical was viewed as a developmental stage in which the mind has become jaded by reality, but ultimately such an indulgence allows it to return to Nature with a renewed sense of wondrous reality.

Despite some meticulous analysis there are a couple of points that would have benefitted from a little more development. While Sandner convincingly presents the fantastical as historically contingent, his accompanying sense of modernity remains oddly static throughout.

His afterword belatedly introduces a typological model of the fantastic. That said, this remains a thought-provoking book that challenges our understandings of the antecedents of modern fantastical literature. Kincaid University of Southern California J. Show full title. The fantasist must be very well versed in legends and fables, antiquated romances, and the traditions of nurses and old women Again, the power of the fantastic resides in the poets creation of something new and original out of nothing, but also in its raising of the specter of a superstitious past supposedly laid to rest by the refinement of modem understanding.

The purpose of the fantastic for Addison is to raise a pleasing kind of horror in the mind of the reader and amuse his imagination with Connecting the psychological to the cultural, Shakespeares works become the. The peculiar power of the fantastic is to bring up into our memory the stories we have heard in our childhood and those secret terrors and apprehensions to which the mind of man is naturally subject The fantastic is activated by a mixture of memory and story, built on the return of childhood fears that had seemed left behind by the reasoning adult and modem culture and on secret terrors that Addison indicates naturally underlie the mind.

Modem skeptical humanity should be immune to the secret terrors of the fantastic, but is not. Addison takes up two lines of reasoning on why this is so. First, Addison proposes, in a proof directed toward a positivist, scientific discourse, that the presence of the impossible in fantastic literature only represents the actual presence of the unknowable and invisible world of the spirit in the natural world. Addison writes: Men of cold fancies and philosophical dispositions object to this kind of poetry that it has not probability enough to affect the imagination.

But to this it may be answered that we are sure in general there are many intellectual beings in the world besides ourselves, and several species of spirits that are subject to different laws and economies than those of mankind.

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Fantastic literature opens the mind to speculations concerning what science does not yet and may never know, the workings of different laws and economies But, second, Addison indicates that the fairy way of writing is not even attempting to represent such truth at all but is, rather, simply providing a pleasure that has no regard for truth or falsehood. Addison writes of impossible representations in fantastic works: At least, we have all heard so many pleasing relations in favor of them that we do not care for seeing through the falsehood and willingly give ourselves up to so agreeable an imposture.

Addisons answers are again contradictory, revealing the odd, uncanny position of the fantastic in modem culture. The fantastic at once defines modernity in contrast to its very backwardness and supposed childishness, its seeming unimportance, and yet the fantastic also haunts modernity with its presentation of unassimilable and wholly different laws and economies, its secret terrors and pleasures that also naturally underlie, and so define, the modern mind.

Addisons criticism marks the fantastic as the oddity of original genius, as antiquated, as female, and as childish. Built on childhood fears, the fantastic requires the genius of a Shakespeare as informed by the fabulous past recorded in both ancient romances and the Mother Goose tales of nurses and old women; the fantastic enacts a counter-tradition to the real manner In particular, the association of fantastic literature with childhood would prove crucial to the later development. By the late nineteenth century, much fantastic literaturesuch as John Ruskins King of the Golden River , Lewis Carrolls Alice in Wonderland or, to use a slightly late example, Kenneth Grahames The Wind in the Willows is written exclusively for children as their special province.

Whether the fantastic is positioned in childhood or in the superstitious past may seem to make little practical difference to the genre. In both, the fantastic is related to the immature and irrational; in both, the fantastic is realized as nostalgia. The development of the child into the reasoned adult and of primitive culture into modern civilized society have an obvious if invidious parallel structure.

However, the nineteenth-century emphasis on childhood as the province of the fantastic opens up the unrealizable but still powerful possibility of the modern adult satisfying a natural appetite for the fantastic through contact with actual children, still innocent and imaginative, or through recollection of ones own childhood as Wordsworths poetics in particular will advocate.


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The eighteenthcentury emphasis on the superstitious past situates the fantastic in a radically lost pre-history. The eighteenth-century fantastic thus not only embodies an appetite for otherness, or for the surprising, or for a supposedly innocent childhood 1 The three works mentioned are written, in fact, for particular children. Primary nineteenth-century and Edwardian critical works claiming the fantastic as the special province of children include Charles Dickens, Frauds on the Fairies ; John Ruskin, Fairy Stories ; and G. Chesterton, Fairy Tales On children and fantasy in the nineteenth century, see F.

Knoepflmacher, eds.

Defining differences between the two characterizations of the genre should not obscure the continuity of historical development from one to the other, from the association of the fantastic with the cultural past to its association with childhood by the late nineteenth century; but nevertheless, the differences must be kept in mind, for they change the genres emphasis subtly but importantly. Because critics of the fantastic generally locate the formation of the genre in the Romantic era, the role of the fabulous and uncanny past in the function of the fantastic, both in the eighteenth century and after, remains a neglected area of study.

As Stephen Prickett makes clear in On the Evolution of a Word in his Victorian Fantasy , fantasy does not become descriptive of a genre until the late nineteenth century. The term fantastic becomes a common name for the genre or anyway of a mode negatively related to mimesis only in the twentieth century.

Hoffmanns fantastic story The Sandman not coincidentally, a German Romantic tale, affirming Romanticism as the limit for critical work on fantastic literature. How can the terms fantastic and uncanny be applied to eighteenth-century literature?

How can Addison be presented as discussing fantastic literature if the fantastic does not yet exist as a genre? Modern fantastic literature, it can be noted, embodies precisely the tension attending Addisons definition of the fairy way of writing between the claims of the purely imaginary and superstition. On the one hand, fantastic literature presents itself as an interior literature arising self-contained from the faculty of the imagination. Fantastic literatures declared position as purely imaginary or unrealistic clearly underwrites the persistent charges against it as escapist.

Further confusing the issue, the fantastic can be considered descriptive of all literature, realistic or not, tracing its history back to Greek origins.

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In this general sense, all imaginary activity is fantastic, all literary works are fantasies. Literary fantasies have appeared to be free from many of the conventions and restraints of more realistic texts: they have refused to observe unities of time, space and character, doing away with chronology, three dimensionality and with rigid distinctions between animate and inanimate objects, self and other, life and death. The primary example of the latter is Tolkiens Christian gloss of the fantastic in his essay On Fairy-Stories , which discovers in fantasys difference from reality a glimpse of the other world of the spirit.

In The Republic, Socrates explains that the mimetic poet, who only makes a copy of what the craftsman makes which is itself but a copy of the ideal , should be excluded from the Republic; by implication, the fantasist is yet another step removed, even further from the ideal. In The Phadreus, Socrates, when asked to give rational explanations for fantastic mythical tales, refuses to even try, claiming that seeking to know oneself is simply a better use of ones time. For a discussion of the relationship of mimesis to fantasy from Plato to the present, see Kathryn Hume, Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature , esp.

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Part I, pp. The Classical Age also produced an important though limited defense of the fantastic that has determined fantasys place in literature generally. Aristotles criticism of the marvelous marks an interesting and important contrast to Plato. As Douglas Biow writes, Aristotle, generally considered the first literary theorist of the marvelous, stood squarely on the side of realism in his Poetics Mirabile Dictu: Representations of the Marvelous in Medieval and Rennaissance Epic [], 3. However, although Aristotle does not embrace the fantastic, his Poetics lays out some of the main arguments against Platos dismissal of the marvelous.

Aristotles criticism allows for the impossible on formal grounds, for though it is an error to include the impossible, the error may be justified, if the end of the art be thereby attained. Aristotles argument that the marvelous is a traditional part of the epic and tragedy, and that it serves the needs of art if not life, have been important to justifications of the fantastic into the twentieth century.

John Dennis links the divine, the sublime and a host of mythological and fantastic creatures in The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry Samuel Taylor Coleridge attempts to reconcile the imagination and the invisible or divine in his work on Faerie to be found in scattered references throughout his criticism, particularly The Statesmans Manual and Table Talk , and in the gloss to his own important Gothic fantasy, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Primary critical works on the fantastic and the world of the spirit from within the genre proper, besides Tolkiens essay, include George MacDonald, The Fantastic Imagination ; and C.

Rudolph Ottos notion of the numinous in The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the NonRational factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational ; has affected criticism of the fantastic, though particularly the Gothic. Read Free For 30 Days. Documents Fiction 37 views. Flag for inappropriate content.

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Related titles. Jump to Page. Search inside document. Romanticism has often been figured as an origin for the fantastic precisely Critical Discourses of the Fantastic, because it sets the terms for our present discussion, offering, in Wordsworths works, in Coleridges, in Keatss, in Mary Shelleys, in Scotts and Hoggs, and in the works of many others, important ways to explain and explore the imagination and imaginative literature. Javascript is not enabled in your browser. Enabling JavaScript in your browser will allow you to experience all the features of our site.

Learn how to enable JavaScript on your browser. NOOK Book. Challenging literary histories that locate the emergence of fantastic literature in the Romantic period, David Sandner shows that tales of wonder and imagination were extremely popular throughout the eighteenth century. Sandner engages contemporary critical definitions and defenses of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century fantastic literature, demonstrating that a century of debate and experimentation preceded the Romantic's interest in the creative imagination.