“the fantastic”

“An excerpt from Tentacles Longer Than Night [Horror of Philosophy, vol. 3] (Zero Books, 2015)

It’s all in your head. It really happened. These mutually exclusive statements mark out the terrain of the horror genre. And yet, everything interesting happens in the middle, in the wavering between these two poles – a familiar reality that is untenable, and an acknowledged reality that is impossible. The literary critic Tzvetan Todorov calls this ambiguous zone “the fantastic,” in his seminal work of same name. Discussing Jacques Cazotte’s 18th-century occult tale Le Diable amoureux, Todorov provides a definition of the fantastic:

In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know, a world without devils, sylphides, or vampires, there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world. The person who experiences the event must opt for one of two possible solutions: either he is the victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination – and laws of the world then remain what they are; or else the event has indeed taken place, it is an integral part of reality – but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us.

While Todorov is primarily concerned with analyzing the fantastic as a literary genre, we should also note the philosophical questions that the fantastic raises: the presumption of a consensual reality in which a set of natural laws govern the working of the world, the question of the reliability of the senses, the unstable relationships between the faculties of the imagination and reason, and the discrepancy between our everyday understanding of the world and the often obscure and counterintuitive descriptions provided by philosophy and the sciences. The fork in the road is not simply between something existing or not existing, it is a wavering between two types of radical uncertainty: either demons do not exist, but then my own senses are unreliable, or demons do exist, but then the world is not as I thought it was. With the fantastic – as with the horror genre itself – one is caught between two abysses, neither of which are comforting or particularly reassuring. Either I do not know the world, or I do not know myself.”


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