Critical Discourses on the Fantastic, 1712-1831

Critical Discourses on the Fantastic, 1712-1831. David Sandner. London: Ashgate, 2011. $99.95. 191 pp. 9781409428626.

Reviewed by Joe Young

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 31.1/2 (#119/120) (2012): 183–186.]

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. Hogg, by contrast, sees the fantastic as an intrinsic, enduring part of the cultural legacy both authors seek to perpetuate; by confining it to the past he argues that Scott has created mere nostalgia, “a weak and nostalgic gesture, full of meaning but emptied of effectiveness” (110). He has no intention of repeating Scott’s mistakes, however. Rather than recording (or creating) the fantastic past that Scott championed, he hauls fantasy into the present-day world and weaves a tale “about the fabulous present, the supernatural modernity that both defines the present and fragments it” (114). Hogg’s use of the fantastic in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner leads Sandner to position this self-styled folklorist and humble Ettrick Shepherd as a sort of “nascent post-modernist.”

In other chapters Sandner offers similar analysis of writers such as Horace Walpole, Mary Shelley, William Wordsworth and John Keats. He also offers thought-provoking commentary on such issues as the eighteenth-century ballad controversy. His precise conclusions vary from subject to subject (his assessment of Wordworth’s argument that fantasy whets the modern imagination’s blunted appreciation of reality is especially interesting) but the overall theme of the book remains constant. That theme is that the fantastic, largely by dint of being emblematic of a vanished superstitious past, became a key plank in the construction of the self-conscious modernity of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. What Sandner traces through his analyses is the development of the notion of the supernatural past as the crucial counterpoint— positive or negative— to the skeptical modernity of the intellectual milieus that these authors inhabited. Rather than a recrudescence of a neglected literary idea, the Romantic endorsement of the fantastic can therefore be resituated as the closing address in a century-long debate over the precise admissibility and function of an inherently, self-consciously modern method of meditating on the sublime. This is a challenging idea, and it will be up to individual readers to decide how convincing they find it. Nevertheless the sheer bulk of the evidence Sandner presents—and, as mentioned earlier, the detail with which he interrogates it and draws out its nuances—seems likely to defy any straightforward dismissal. This is an audacious idea solidly presented.

Sandner goes on to offer a theoretical framework for the ongoing hold that the fantastic so obviously exerts on the modern imagination. The impact of fantastic narratives, he argues, inevitably boils down to the issue of how the reader’s imagination responds at the moment it is confronted with a manifestation of what has been held since the eighteenth century as emblematic of the vanished superstitious past. This being accepted, Sandner suggests a loose taxonomy of the fantastic based on the sort of response the modern imagination has (or is intended by the author to have) to that confrontation, be it with Gil-Martin, a ghost, a hobbit or a hippogriff. He proposes four such categories of response: possession, domestication, fragmentation or dispossession. Basing a literary taxonomy on reader response rather than authorial composition is an interesting (and, as far as I know, innovative) idea, and Sandner’s explanation of his terms and reasoning for them appears sound. Nevertheless it is also rather brief, confined entirely to his fourteen-page afterword; the reader must wait for the third-to-last page of the book for his explanation of dispossession. The impression is that this system was something of an afterthought prompted by Sandner’s analysis of his sources, as it may well have been. Precisely how useful this framework is remains to be seen via application to actual, individual texts; Sandner has only given himself space to do so in a very cursory manner.

Such is also the case with regard to the “convincing account of how and why the fantastic came to be marginalized in the wake of the Enlightenment” promised by the cover blurb. The fantastic’s nineteenth-century retreat from respectability is alluded to on various occasions but not discussed in any detail. Sandner does note that “the history of Romantic criticism records an ambivalent response to the fantastic” and that “recent Romantic criticism implicitly renews the charge of ‘escapism’ against the genre” (3), thus providing some commentary on the respectability of the fantastic among contemporary critics. There remains a 150-year gap in the history of the fantastic that he fails to address. He certainly neglects what seem to be prefect springboards for such discussion. For example, he notes Johnson’s claim that modern authors should be able to “keep up curiosity without the help of wonder” and thus should not concern themselves with the outmoded methods of “heroic romance” (81). After analyzing Johnson’s statements, however, he reaches the conclusion that “Johnson does not disallow the fantastic because it fails to move the reader with its fevered ’incredibilities.’ On the contrary, the fantastic may move the reader all too well, or all too deeply” (86) Sandner insightfully notes that Johnson, “perhaps the most famous literary critic of the nineteenth century” (81), would not have made such a comment if there were no fantastic narratives to warn his readers against, or if he genuinely felt they would fail to engage skeptical modern imaginations. This adroit location of a discontinuity between official and unofficial attitudes towards fantasy is interesting. Has Sandner located the origin of modern society’s ambivalent insistence on dismissing fantasy as the preserve of fandom and marginalized “geek” subcultures while turning Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings into some of the most lucrative intellectual properties in history? He does not develop this point, which seemed to me to be a missed opportunity.

Such reservations are minor, however, and perhaps say more about my research interests than the shortcomings of Sandner’s book. Sandner proves his core point—“that the fantastic…arises out of vital arguments about aesthetics in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries” (2)—rather well. The debate over where modern fantasy comes from is complicated and ongoing; Critical Discourses on the Fantastic, 1712-1831 is a challenging, insightful, subtle, intriguing contribution to that discussion. Sandner offers interesting readings of a number of authors, makes a solid case for his own ideas and provides fertile ground for further commentary on those and other issues. The book rewards attentive study and can be recommended as a contribution to literary theory, a compilation of author studies and as a valuable investigation into how and why this genre of ours was originally formulated.


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