How Modern Is the Modern Romanian Fantastic?

As everything modern, the fantastic mode, which seems to be still one of our great favorites in these last years of the modern millennium is to be defined through the series of transformations of the traditional forms of the fantastic art. In her excellent reference book Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (Routledge, 1991), Rosemary Jackson begins by reviewing some extremely valuable Russian and French findings in the domain. She refers to Mikhail Bakhtin's allegation (in the 1973 English translation of Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics) that the fantastic is the direct continuator of the Menippean satire with its transgressive, carnivalesque function in modern times, only to show that genuinely modern literary fantasies "have no communal base" (Jackson, 1991, p. 15). And this important observation is followed in Jackson's text by the direct recourse to Dostoevsky's own views on the fantastic literature stressing instead of the transgressive function of fantasy its qualities as "the only appropriate medium for suggesting a sense of estrangement, of alienation from 'natural' origins." For, this time in Dostoevsky's own words, "if there is no soil and if there is no action possible, the striving spirit will precisely express itself in abnormal and irregular manifestations" (Cf. Jackson, 1991, p.17). Further on, a review of Sartre's definitions of the modern fantastic reveals its transformative - as opposed to the escapist - function in relation to the conditions of a purely human existence. "Whilst religious faith prevailed… fantasy told of leaps into other realms. Through asceticism, mysticism, metaphysics, or poetry, the conditions of a purely human existence were transcended, and fantasy fulfilled a definite escapist function. In a secular culture, fantasy has a different function. It does not invent supernatural regions, but presents a natural world inverted into something strange, something 'other'. It becomes 'domesticated', humanized, turning from transcendental explorations to transcriptions of a human condition. In this sense, Sartre claims, fantasy assumes its proper function: to transform this world." (Jackson, 1991, pp. 17-18). After opposing the seductive marvelous to "the particularly disenchanted" narrative form that the fantastic has become in twentieth century works, Rosemary Jackson makes a last point as regards the zone where the fantastic imaginary is placed in the metropolis of fiction in general. She quotes a study on the English gothic by Maurice Lévy stating that "The fantastic is a compensation that man provides for himself, at the level of imagination, for what he has lost at the level of faith" and she concludes together with Georges Bataille, that it is "a negative version of religious myth" (Cf. Jackson, 1991, p. 18). (The human attitude naturally accompanying such inversions of religious myth would be one of radically painful sincerity that has materialized in the twentieth century as existentialism, we should add here). At this point in the discussion about the modern fantastic, one feels the need to explain it also starting not culturally but phenomenally, from its point of insertion in reality and from the kind of epoch it inaugurates. This further perspective will allow us to also test and if necessary refine the definite statements reviewed above about the fantastic mode.The adventure of modern fantasy (whose free synonym is the sensational) begins right where and when the familiar and the commonplace are left behind, just as Freud's explanations on the meaning of the German word unheimlich point out in the essay on The Uncanny of 1919. (This is also one of the first instances when the fantastic theme was analyzed as an independent trend that made a difference by a 20th century theorist, Freud). Freud explores the paradoxically similar meaning of the two German words heimlich and unheimlich as "something which is secretly familiar, which has undergone repression and then returned from it" (Freud, Art and Literature, Penguin, 1990, p. 368), the category of the familiar being both the root and the derived focus of this study. How exactly are the familiar and the commonplace left behind? Never by complete "forgetting" of the commonplace, but it seems, rather by various subtle operations performed on it, which can be defined rationally to a certain extent. Fantasy remains connected to the familiar and the commonplace just as the profane retains its ties with the sacred - if only through the programmatic denial of the complementary term. It seems that a rule of the thumb compels us to acknowledge the persistence, the obstinate endurance of something that has once existed in reality, in the shared history of mankind, which cannot be suspended or wiped out at will unless it is by a cataclysmic, cosmic shock - which has not yet been the case in recorded history as yet. Jackson herself refers her readers, to Coleridge's remarks along the same lines on what he calls Fancy and corresponds to our intuitions on fantasy: "[Fancy]", Coleridge states in the Biographia Literaria "is a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and place, blended with and modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word choice." (Cf. Jackson 1991, p. 20). A few paragraphs further, the idea that the fantastic "scrutinizes the category of the 'real'" is expressly presented too. (op. cit., p. 21) This means that daily experience is not directly or strictly contradicted by the fantastic stream: there are varying degrees in the detachment, looseness, soaring of the fantastic in respect to the soil of everyday experience, ranging from the mere de-familiarization of the familiar to its downright negation. In traditional fantasies whose function was called by Sartre escapist and we could simply call transcendental, the elevating needs of religious faith inaugurated a vertical climbing into the supernatural space and the qualitatively superior time - the absolute future or eternity. In children's fantasies, nursery rhymes and fairy tales there is also climbing - on stairways to heaven - or traveling, as with the old Mother Goose just a little bit higher up from the earth level, "on the back of a very fine gander", through the air, into a more delightful space whose inner projection is, according to Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, the realm of fulfilled human desire. In our recent modern fantasies, however, the fantastic de-familiarization of "reality", as Freud himself showed, is caused by the troubled psychology of the individual - in the case of the uncanny feelings or literary texts, the return of the repressed from the earlier stages of the ego development, narcissism or the yet undifferentiated animistic self, this defamiliarization - undesired and undesirable - being one of the consequences of the outburst into consciousness of the subconscious contents. This is in keeping with Sartre's label for the secular fantastic as "disenchanted".Another observation: if the fantastic leaves behind the order of reality we must do justice to it and judge its nature in its own terms, and not according to the neighboring reality it just hovers over. So we have to repeat that the structure of fantasy is explicable in terms of human subjectivity, and not just by comparison with the objective environment. The esthetic representations of fantasy are thus representations of the human private space, of interiority which we like to use for our own purposes, as the case may be, to possess it with all/any of our faculties and share it out again. Because the defining momentum of the fantastic is given by its reaching inwardly to the remotest, farthest distance that the mind can project at a given moment and from its vantage point by an act of maximum, bold appropriation and by reaching towards or even beyond the limit. The surprising fantastic has the structure of the human imaginary itself.This projected, reproduced individualism further involves a particular kind of aesthetic encoding and reception of information which is defining for contemporary fantasy. It is typical for the fantastic that it is configured by Foucauldian "strong" power relations which are opposed to, and even complementary to, the "weak paradigm" or loose model for the world of representation proposed. Thus, for a literary fiction to be fantastic in the strictly modern sense it should present itself from the vantage point of a carefully constructed performative - read aesthetic - frame capable to compensate for its loose, arbitrary, virtual, spectral semantic. Consequently, the spatio-temporal hallucinations of the original - in both senses of the word - self-contemplating self should be accompanied in the genuinely modern fantasies by expressive violence, didacticism, effective artifice especially devised so as to completely envelop, entrap, control the senses of any potential receiver who, in addition, should be a connoisseur in order to be entitled to play the fantastic game. Obviously, the ideal partner in the contemporary fantastic game should be in the know as regards the causes, the initial point or stimulus of the experienced fantasy, the medium/media employed - for literature, read "the idioms and ideologies" - so as to share in the paralogical paramyths (the latter, Max Ernst's coinage, in the recent Bucharest exhibition at the National Art Museum) or, if you prefer, so as to share in the "pure associations" of the fantastic mode's aesthetic identikit. Similarly, the reader should be able to identify with the writer qua writer and become a writerly reader, as Roland Barthes put it, in all the self-reflexive post-modernistic hybrids that are all of them touched by the surrealist, anti-rational, anti-orthodox avant-garde spirit of modernity. But then, we need to draw the line between the postmodernist literature's self-reflexiveness and "the fantastic self-contemplation of the self", as we have called it earlier. In fantasy, it is still the natural self - or the spatio-temporal environment that is contemplated, transformed, in Sartre's view. It is still a game with the familiar, the contingent of natural law is still the one that fantasy disturbs. Nature and man's daylight, reflective identity is touched, toyed with in the fantastic mirage, as it opens a window to the problematic, remote natural which should be called "the other", "otherness", "alterity" - or in Dostoevsky's terms at the beginning of this introduction, "man's estrangement", his striving spirit amidst a disturbing nature where "there is no soil and no action possible " (also cf. Jackson, 1991, p. 17).Back to the fantastic mode or aesthetic category, then, the last consequence of its descent upon the earth, into merely subjective immanence in our radically modern times is the proliferation inside the fantastic mirage of the power relations, the ordinary, familiar interhuman relations inside a secular world. The dreams of the late modern man are also power dreams, uncomfortable more often than not, dreams rooted in the experience of survival and competition. So is the language of numerous fantasies, be they, in Tzvetan Todorov's classification inclined more towards the supernatural marvelous, the unnatural fantasy or the ultimately natural uncanny. The language of power is dictatorial, whether it is so in hiding, trying to seduce or in the open, and even more, in the violent extreme . This is why of all the participants to the fictional literary action the character and the reader are placed in fantasies in the discretionary power of the narrator or implied author, often as potential victims. Thus, there is a twofold writerly manipulation of the reader: first of all the one derived from the familiarly secular humanity of the cast, secondly, the one resulting from the inflated, inflamed, expanded subjectivity or, as we called it earlier, interiority that defines the imaginary exercises perceptuels. (For example, in the recent surrealistic exhibition at the National Art Museum mentioned, as illustrations to whimsical or acribiously confessive literary texts, the fantastical vignettes of Max Ernst's surrealism worked as hyperindices or hypersigns or meta- or hyper-texts - they represented associations appended to the letter of the texts, mirrors of the same, enhancements or substitutes. What were they doing there else but offering to the eye, as it were, some exercices post-spirituels ou perceptuels of paralogical deduction, irrational deductions, reductions, combinations, and any still logically describable operations of sorts performed beside the familiar order of logic ? With all these in mind, let us now wonder about the fantastic fictions which have been re-read, re-experienced and translated in the present collection. The 19th century fantasies by Eminescu and Caragiale are, respectively, instances of regression in the Romantic mode of romance, in the first case, to a divine - apocalyptic mythomorphic vision - as Northrop Frye deceitfully calls it in his Anatomy of Criticism, therefore a clear case of mystical escapism, while in the second case, we find an instance of ironic regression, in the low-mimetic mode of folklore realism, to a demonological vision; therefore, an instance of Caragialean sentimentalism, again in Northrop Frye's terms borrowed from Schiller, when he - Frye - calls sentimental any later version of an established earlier literary mode, here the late Medieval chronicle of witchcraft. At any rate, we have to do with seductive fantasies about the possibility of man's transcending the human itself on the vertical or in the axiological key. Is the case of Mircea Eliade's 20th century fantasy any different? The otherness it indicates is equally informed by the myth of recovering the Oriental shambala, the generally lost then exceptionally restored paradise on earth - through ascetism, the act of an individual's ultimate self-possession, which becomes tantamount to self-annihilation. But for the gothic overtones of its open ending, and the documentary scaffolding of the entire text we could simply therefore maintain that Eliade's text is just traditional fantasy informed by the enchanted, seductive fantastic recipe. Individuality is transported here to a completely non-modern otherness: the exotic, seductive otherness of the Orient.Similarly enchanting is Bănulescu's text, a whole novel that deals in foundation myths, borrows a primeval perspective which it hides by the artifice of the curt, dictatorial statements of the Millionaire's narratorial voice. There is a kind of Orient here as well: the more popular shared, communal, perfectly accessible Orientalism of the people's mentality in this part of the world, which combines a rather Oriental lay contemplativity with the Byzantine asceticism.Is it the case then that we cannot easily discover genuine instances of radical, modernist fantasy in the Romanian texts, be they translated here or not? Perhaps we had better redefine modern fantasy to fit the more Eastern, Central European vein based on a different familiar, everyday experience. One cannot ignore the real subversive desire that is ludically and so freely expressed by Stefan Bănulescu's book published in 1977, in the dark and the thick of communistic night which enveloped the would-be Soviet concentration camps that people used to call countries and slept or underwrote there, on the Central and East European fringes. For the writer who breathed in a repressive, dictatorial regime and wrote fantasies to be modern, i.e., radically sincere and original, meant to write in order to subvert the surrounding criminal inertia, to write, in view of the beginning of this introduction, either Menippean satire or fairy tales for the grown-ups grouped together in the respective concentration camps. This is the source for the aura of magic realism that surrounds the novel by Bănulescu.To test this statement we could turn towards one of the surrounding Easterners and interrogate him, too. If we think of Milan Kundera's topical "laughter and forgetting" and add the recent Romanian fantastic books or "laughable loves" or memorial tales to it, we can begin to draw up here, at the end of this compte-rendu on modernity through the fantastic, a graph of the return (or is it just survival ?) in our half of Europe to the satirically subversive and the transcendent fantastic now, at the end of the modern millennium after about two centuries in which everything has been tried in matters of fantasy, from Romantic metaphysical tales and German, then Russian uncanny tales, to Irish gothic horror tales, to (North-)American tales of the grotesque and the arabesque, to French symbolist and surrealist livres and collages, to generalized European absurdist fiction and drama, to South American magic realism (the type of enchanted marvelous, seductive fantasy which we Romanians seem to share in, as Andrei Cornea used to indicate in a column of the 22 magazine of the earliest 90s in respect not to literature but to sociology), to the Italian fantastic thriller in The Name of the Rose. The common denominator of all these recognizable books placed at the end of a text that declared to be about something else is that they are the best sellers of the most modern, latest centuries. For a fantasy to be modern therefore, it will be enough to be a best-seller, which all of our anthologized translations surely are.

by Ioana Zirra