Valuing the Fantastic

By Levy, Michael | Extrapolation, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview
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Valuing the Fantastic


Levy, Michael, Extrapolation


Valuing the Fantastic. David Sandner. Critical Discourses of the Fantastic, 1712-1831. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011. 191 pp. ISBN 9781409428626. $99.95 hc.

In this thorough and largely persuasive scholarly monograph, David Sandner, author of The Fantastic Sublime (1996) and editor of Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader (2004), traces developing attitudes toward the idea of the fantastic from Joseph Addison to John Keats. He is particularly interested in three relationships: that between the fantastic and the sublime (the topic of his earlier book), that between the fantastic and the realism of the Enlightenment, and that between Enlightenment ideas of the fantastic and those of the Romantic era. He also challenges the contention that, having located the fantastic in a fictional and fabulous past, eighteenth-century critics must therefore define it as not only innately inferior to modernity but, in fact, either worthless or genuinely pernicious. Sandner wants to demonstrate instead that many critics, beginning with Addison, had a much more discerning attitude toward the fantastic than is generally recognized. He argues that the fantastic actually "functions as a discourse of the sublime in literature, arising out of vital arguments about aesthetics in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries" (2). This, he tells us, is a radical claim in that it moves the formation of the modern genre of the fantastic back by almost a hundred years. Furthermore, "rather than functioning as simply a genre important to an era interested in Gothic antiquity and the irrational," his book also "claims fantastic literature as a characteristic mode of Romantic expression and thought" (3).

After setting up his arguments in a brief but useful introduction and then devoting a chapter to defining (perhaps without complete success) the "sublime," the "fantastic," and the related term the "uncanny," Sandner turns immediately to Joseph Addison. In his essay series "The Pleasures of the Imagination," which appeared in The Spectator in 1712, Addison included a piece called "The Fairy Way of Writing," a title borrowed from John Dryden, to indicate a wide variety of fiction and poetry concerned with what Sandner is calling the "fantastic," though this latter term was not actually used much in the period. Addison's essay, Sandner persuasively suggests, should be seen as seminal, a cornerstone for all future critical thought on fantastic literature. In it, Addison argues that "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 modern culture) and on 'secret terrors' that Addison indicates 'naturally' underlie the mind" (8). There's a tension here, though. Adults immersed in the modern, rational eighteenth-century world of the Enlightenment should be immune to fears based in childhood or the past, and yet, Addison insists, such fears "underlie the mind" and are essential to our psyches. Thus, Sandner suggests, invoking not only Freud, but also Tolkien and Todorov, rather than being outdated or vestigial in Addison's view, the fantastic, which is the source of most such fears, actually both "defines modernity" and "haunts modernity" for eighteenth-century readers (8).

The two key definitions of the sublime that are relevant here (although extant in Addison's day) were best articulated by Longinus and Edmund Burke later in the century. The former, whose "On the Sublime" did not become available in English until 1743, argued that the sublime should be seen as rhetorical, that is, as an effect resulting from great art like that of Homer. The latter, in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), argued for the dominance of nature, insisting that language should merely be a vehicle for the conveyance of the sublime as discovered in the real world (for example, the sight of a mountain or a field of dandelions).

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