Critical Discourses on the Fantastic, 1712-1831

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CRITICAL DISCOURSES ON THE FANTASTIC, 1712-1831. David Sandner. London: Ashgate, 2011. $99.95. 191 pp. 9781409428626.

IT IS A COMMONPLACE OF LITERARY CRITICISM that the modern fantastic emerged during the Romantic period. The truism is that the rationalism, empiricism and modernity of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment jarred with the literary imaginations of the Romantics, who abandoned such mindsets in their own work and set out in pursuit of the sublime rather than the intelligible. Certainly, many modern and contemporary fantasists owe a great ideological debt to the Romantics in their use of literature to portray and interrogate emotional and spiritual ideals; writers such as Tolkien and MacDonald come to mind here. In an academic context, however, truisms are there to be investigated and overturned. Sandner offers an interesting and, so to speak, enlightening reappraisal of the fantastic as a matter of both literary history and literary theory.

This reappraisal emerges chiefly from a fairly simple--but ingenious--shift of perspective on the fantastic. Rather than discussing it as a reaction to the component ideologies of the Enlightenment, Sandner examines its history as a plank in the intellectual self-image of a number of Enlightenment thinkers. In doing so he demonstrates that the fantastic, if out of sight for much of the eighteenth century, was by no means out of mind. Enlightenment thinkers and writers variously saw the literary fantastic as pleasurable, worrying, annoying, useful or pathetic, and much of Sandner's book is devoted to assessing these attitudes and locating very precise shades of meaning in the writings in which these ideas were expressed.

The bulk of Critical Discourses on the Fantastic is composed of a series of essays, each of which either examines a single writer's contribution to the debate, or compares the contributions of two such writers. In attempting to cover more than a century of crowded intellectual culture, Sandner casts his net wide, analysing the thoughts both of practitioners of the fantastic (James Hogg, Mary Shelley) and of thinkers who found themselves commenting on it such as Joseph Addison and Samuel Johnson. He tends to assume some specialist knowledge of his subject literature. This will occasionally leave those who study later manifestations of the fantastic with a faint feeling of being out of their depth, or of having saddled themselves with unhelpful reading. Sandner's investigation of the moral framework of Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, for example, appears for much of its length to be of scant interest to those not specifically studying that poem. Those studying authors such as Coleridge, Keats and Radcliffe will presumably find much of interest here; those who are not would be well-advised to persevere. Sandner's conclusions are based on careful, well-informed examinations of specific pieces of literature, and he can hardly be faulted for showing his working. Apart from anything else, such discursions obviously indicate his firm grasp on his material.

The chapter comparing the attitudes and works of Sir Walter Scott and James Hogg serves as an exemplar of Sandner's approach. Both writers are, of course, Scottish, both present complicated ideas about Scotland and Scottish society's place in the contemporary world, and both were prepared to use the fantastic in order to make their respective points. Where they part company is on their positioning of the fantastic in relation to their own time and place. Scott, Sandner notes, relegates the fantastic to pastoral Scottish history, deeming it "ill-timed and disgusting" when used outside the context of narratives intended to be read as stories of a historical "popular tradition." (108) The fantastic must be treated with such caution because modern skeptical audiences simply will not believe it unless it is part of what is consciously set up as a historical tale. It therefore becomes a toy, albeit a potentially powerful one, of the antiquarian. …


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