From the “A-chrony” to a “Synchrony” and Vice Versa: The Proximity of the Beyond or Fantastic Literature and the Question of Time – The Invención de Morel Example

If time can be perceived and expressed or «used» – exactly because of its conceptual nature – in more than one ways in everyday life, this can only take larger proportions when it comes to literature, a field where time serves (?) human imagination. If fiction is a lie, so should fictional time be. Whether the discussion is about the ways in which time is «used» to construct the plot and to be able to communicate it or about the different concepts of time depicted in literary works what is essential here is how reality affects fiction and vice versa. If time is a construction then fiction is one of the principal ways of giving different examples of its function as such. In that sense, fiction is one of the means to transgress experienced reality and demonstrate other ways of being. But what happens when literature or – to be more precise - fiction achieve their extreme form?

The Extreme Nature of the Fantastic

Fantastic literature[1] had – almost always – to do with superstition, with the idea that there is something outside our own tangible world that can become present in it. What, though, seems to be the paradox here is that the fantastic genre rose with the end of the old era, in the 18th century, when people stopped believing in witches, ghosts and monsters. As Maurice Levy points out, the fantastic can only manifest itself after the definite affirmation of the reason’s rights over the human domain – since it has to do with transgressing it –; only then did it appear exactly because man used the imaginary to compensate himself for the loss of his belief (cf. A.F.E.A. Du Fantastique à la Science-Fiction Américaine, Paris, Didier, 1973, pp. 14f). In this case though, how does it function in relation to the reader and reality? For, as fiction in general and - even more intensely - the fantastic refers to nothing but itself, although its point of departure is the current conception of reality, that is everything people (in a society that produces such texts) «currently» recognize and conventionally accept as such (that of course means that a fantastic text may not be considered to be of that sort in every context possible – since different societies perceive reality in different ways, the fantastic produced in each may not comply with the criteria of the other/s). In that perspective, one has to take into account the particular nature of such works: they carefully construct a «normal» universe in order to «deconstruct» it through the introduction in it of the fantastic, the imaginary something that is not considered as real, that does not belong in it, that is based, not in the margins of but, outside this environment. Since this is what makes a text fantastic, we have to accept that the fantastic text is indeed founded on «nothing» (mainly tangible but also «conceptual») but, still, it needs the «real» as a field of action, it needs order to become able to create disorder. The fantastic needs the real in order to transgress and «harass» it. In that sense a fantastic text is not a re-presentation, since it does not describe something real; it is mere presentation, for it is characterized by the complete lack of any denotation (cf. Bessière, Jean. Quel Statut pour la Littérature?, Paris, PUF, 2001, p. 132). The imaginary or supernatural world is something not only completely outside everyday life but also man’s beliefs. The only place where this invisible, «non-existent» universe is to be found is human imagination.

In this sense, ways had and still have to be found in which we will not only be able to allow the fantastic to impose itself on our reality but also, and mainly, become able to conceive it. How can we perceive and «materialize» (artistically), the wide and practically non-existent range of the Other? How can an author push his/her but also the public’s perception beyond its limits? Fantastic literature is not another form of fiction; it is fiction in its extreme form (cf. ibid).

Human ingenuity has indeed managed to overcome this problem in several ways. In Don Quijote – although the work does not belong to this genre – the author was able to balance between reality and imagination exactly by taking the latter literally: the central hero is a «madman» whose imagination invents persons and situations, who misinterprets reality or simply hallucinates. From the very first lines of the book, nobody contests the extravagant and false nature of the hidalgo’s adventures and accounts and for that we can read these descriptions without any further questions. Centuries later, James gives a work again based on the illusionary nature of the protagonist’s own experiences. In The Turn of the Screw a governess describes the events that occurred during her taking care of two children. Again, the woman seems to hallucinate, believing the children and the place to be haunted, only this time the writer – unlike Cervantes - gives his heroine the benefit of a doubt (and vice versa). This is enough to classify the work as a fantastic one. Ambiguity is considered to be the greatest quality of such novels: the uncertainty of the reader as to the real nature of the story derives from the refusal of the author to give a definite answer to the question posed by the text, although this may not necessarily apply to the hero him/herself: because, if for Todorov “[l]e fantastique, c’est l’hésitation éprouvée par un être qui ne connaît que les lois naturelles, face à un événement et apparence surnaturel” (Todorov, Tzvetan. Introduction à la Littérature Fantastique, Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1976, p. 29), for Irène Bessière “[l]e fantastique ne résulte pas de l’hésitation entre ces deux ordres, mais de leur contradiction et de leur récusation mutuelle et implicite” (Bessière, Irène. Le Récit Fantastique – La Poétique de l’Incertain, Paris, Larousse, 1974, p. 57). By entering the fantastic the text distances itself on the second degree from reality, the first movement being that of entering the world of fiction and the second one that of taking fiction to its limits – an absolutely non representational world -; this double movement though is not without return and it is exactly ambiguity that maintains the equilibrium between the «real», the «fictional» and «fantastic»: the uncertainty to decide opens for the reader the possibility of an exit to his/her own world – even through fiction. The main advantage of the ambiguous effect is that, although the narration is employed to describe the impossible, the unuttered (as Borges calls it), it still leaves the text open to the possibility of reality, meaning that this kind of narrative makes the text seemingly balance between reality and fantasy when practically, by introducing it even as a hint in its plot, it has already crossed the border towards the latter.

Time and Fantastic Literature

From this aspect, although verisimilitude may no longer be the case[2], the author still has to make his story function in ways that will enable the reader to perceive and «accept» it. Time and its use is one of the basic qualities of every literary work that contribute towards that effect. Up to the 19th century (for things later change), the fantastic, like other literary genres, has used time almost exclusively as a basic component of the background, the frame of the story: In Potocki’s Le Manuscrit Trouvé à Saragosse the action takes place in the past while the fantastic adventures of the hero seem to repeat constantly as the journal describes day after day his experiences in the desert that always start with him waking up in the morning and end with the night and his falling asleep. In Cazotte’s Le Diable Amoureux a young man makes a fatal mistake allowing the devil to take the form of a girl so madly in love with him that makes his life a living hell. The whole story is given to us as a memory, an account of a certain period in the hero’s lifetime. Finally in James’ The Turn of the Screw the narration too refers to past times but moreover it is gradually further transposed to the past through embedded narrative: the author recalls a memory of a gathering where a guest reads a, dead at that time, woman’s account of past events. The choice of the past as the time-frame for the events narrated is mostly used to affect the reader; through that temporal distance the story (which may be situated at the past but almost never precisely – most of the 18th century novels begin by setting a specific time frame for the story, either through the immediate introduction of a date or a well known historical event -) acquires the status of a rumor, a legend, something everyone has heard of but nobody knows for sure whether it happened or not[3]. One thing though is certain, that fantastic stories do not take place in contexts different than those of the people they are addressed to. Fairly recent past is a standard (not without exceptions though) of the fantastic narration. The fact remains that, in all of the above examples - rather typical of the genre cases -, time maintains its primacy by been an agent of both, abnormality and normality. It is through time that strangeness will be accentuated, through repetition or alienation from the present reality, but at the same time it has to be presented to function in ways the reader will be able to comprehend, thus attempting to restore – even partially – the story’s link to our conception of the world. In this case the main effect is produced by the abnormal use of normal concepts of time, by the elaboration of time in ways that are familiar but render the story strange.

The question here though is this: how does literature interact with reality? Is the author obliged to use time in specific ways in order to achieve the desired effect or is he free to do so? In other words, is literature in a position to use and even distort concepts that exist in and derive from our everyday life and our way of perceiving reality in order to affect the reader or is reality so powerful that it defines and rules the way time will be presented in the texts? In both cases one thing should rather be obvious: literature cannot ignore or escape reality, which - in its turn - can be affected by the former. In order to make a story comprehensible a writer must use «normal» ways of creating a «new» universe. On the other hand there are theories that denote the influence of literature on our comprehension of reality itself[4]. The reciprocal character of the relation between literature and reality, apart from accentuating the importance of this relation in itself and the significance of both in forming and helping each other evolve, also points out the importance of understanding the roots and, most of all, the function of literary time. But with fantastic time things get even more complicated. The double nature and function of time in the fantastic (as a conveyor of normality and abnormality at the same time) evolved into a different kind of approach in the late 19th and 20th century. Namely, time took a central place in the plot. Although continuing to function as a background it also became the main issue of several works, being the only actual factor of strangeness in them. In Borges’ Il Milagro Secreto the main character, the night before his execution, prays to God to grant him just another year in order to finish a tragedy he has been writing. The next morning, when he takes his place before the firing squad, time freezes. It only continues to flow in his mind; he cannot move – the world around him doesn’t either – but he can think. In a year’s time and with his work completed in his head, time continues to flow from the point it had stopped a year before and the hero dies. Evidently, there has been a shift in the content of the genre. The fantastic has less to do with «monsters» or «ghosts» and more with our own world seen from a different perspective. Technology and the progress in human and medical studies became useful tools for the writers who wished to expand the field of the fantastic. Henry James and H. G. Wells used psychology and technology respectively for that purpose: The Turn of the Screw and Time Machine are two of the most prominent examples of the kind, with the latter being also an excellent example of how the current perception and concept of time can be disputed even through fiction. Contemplating on concepts – with that of time being one of the prevalent – has become a central theme in fantastic literature. Of course, this kind of contemplation isn’t, at least not apparently, about philosophical theories exposed throughout the text (although this too may sometimes happen) but about the thorough elaboration of facts and ideas taken from the real world and the progression in science and philosophy.

The Invention of Morel

In 1940 Adolfo Bioy-Casares publishes La Invención de Morel. The story is set on a deserted island that has been heard of having recently suffered an epidemic. A convict who has escaped from prison arrives there. On the island there are three constructions: the museum, a chapel and a swimming pool. Although the man initially thinks he is alone on the island people appear who seem to completely and, sometimes, deliberately ignore his presence. These «intruders» appear and disappear periodically until the man finds out that they are spectres of people who had once visited the island. Dr Morel, the owner of the place, had secretly filmed them with a machine he had invented and projected their images eternally on the spot. The man, being in love with one of the women projected, finally decides to rehearse and film himself along with the spectres so that he will later appear as one of the group and, what is more, as the beloved of the woman he desires. In the end, he too, as the people before him, dies; for the machine, which creates three-dimensional images that seem perfectly real, apparently also captures the soul of the prototypes.

Again, an ambiguous effect is produced by the use of the first person narrative; the reader balances between accepting the reality of the story presented and considering the man’s account of it as a delirium of someone who is struck by some kind of disease. Bioy-Casares chooses to present the text through the form of a diary later found and edited. But again, not that much later… Although the absence of dates is striking – the constant reference to them would have been necessary as the whole text is supposed to be a journal – two dates are nevertheless mentioned that approximately situate the experience described in time: we learn that the buildings were constructed in 1924 and that the man found a 1937 edition of a certain treatise there. What is interesting here is that, since the novel was published in 1940, its fictional time is very close to the actual time of the readers – at least of the first ones - and a good reason is given for that: “sin embargo debo reconocer aue ahora es muy general admirarse con la magia del pasado inmediato” (Bioy-Casares, Adolfo. La Invención de Morel in La Invención de Morel – El Gran Serafín, ed. Trinidad Barrera, Madrid, Catedra, 2003, p. 95), says the hero, commenting on the slightly demoded clothes of the intruders but also partially explaining the choice of the specific time-frame of the story. So not only does the author abide by the «rules» – his story does unfold itself in the recent past – but he also seems to do this after careful contemplation and calculations; for in a draft, published in Sur (vol. 72) some time before the original publication of the book in 1940, the date on the treatise found on the island is different, that is 1739. The use of the new date (1937) plays a significant role by implying that the period of the recording and therefore the experiences projected but also the «facts» accounted in the diary took place in the period of 2 to 3 years that preceded the discovery and publication of the manuscript (had the date on the book remained 1739 its presence would rather be considered as insignificant as the period during which everything happened would only have been defined by the dates 1924 when the buildings were constructed and 1940 – the year of the diary’s publication, leaving, thus, a period of sixteen years, during which the events could have taken place on no matter what year exactly). Regardless though of how close in time the events have taken place they do unfold themselves in the past. Like the choice of the deserted island, past time is essential here too as to produce a certain feeling of alienation, another form of distance between the events described and the reader. In that case time and space coincide; the irrational is equally isolated in space and from present time, after all “[l]e passé la profondeur du temps” (A.F.E.A., 1973, 19; own translation). Nevertheless, the use of the journal does impose an interplay between past and present narrative: in the text most often past tenses are used to describe the events and present tenses to talk about feelings and impressions. But this all is not definite. Although we know that what we read belongs to the past, the present tense is employed: as if he were trying to transgress the boundaries of the temporal gap between its writing and lecture, the owner of the diary constantly appeals to his readers pretending that nothing of the sort happens. Experience and writing seem to coincide but is it possible to establish simultaneity between writing and reading? In that sense the reader may be imminently implicated but he is still kept in the dark - days and nights are mentioned without letting us know when exactly the whole thing took place. The only constant is the sea tides that give a rhythm to the narration and define the periodicity of the apparitions of the spectres. “En quince días hubo tres grandes inundaciones” (Bioy-Casares, 2003: 106): the use of tides and the man’s account of time is interesting. «Natural time» seems to have taken over the hero’s reality. Since calendar time is almost completely excluded from the text - being restricted to two dates and the use of words such as «today», «yesterday», «now» – natural phenomena are used as demarcations, as «landmarks» of time. It’s as if natural time takes over human determined, conventional time, only, although this natural form of time may seem more «solid» – in the sense that it apparently doesn’t need to be defined by humans in order to exist – it cannot really help the reader at all. Time is rather about perceiving changes in our lives and world and being able to process and define them through our conscience and language. Man needs time and that is why even if the story seems to evolve in a kind of a-chrony it can’t really escape time-defined reality; it’s an a-chrony within synchrony, a timeless world «integrated» (?) or rather forced to enter and function in our, defined by time, world. In that sense, «mythical time» (temps mythique) – the conventional definition of time through calendar – which is interpolated between the «experienced» and «cosmic» time (temps vécu and temps cosmique respectively) (cf. Ricœur, Paul. Temps et Récit 3 : Le Temps Raconté, Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1991, p. 190) is here abolished in favor of the two concepts it was invented to reconcile and express: this mythical time that could have helped the reader to better understand the situation is absent and everything is organized around the experience of the hero and the changes in nature. The fantastic exists in spite of time, as the lack of specific time references denotes, but by entering our reality – since it is addressed to us – it appears to unfold itself in our own world as in a synchrony, as in our real-time lecture. In Poe’s A Descent into the Maelström once the hero was sucked down into the whirlpool his watch broke down, the story though continues to unfold itself in time. Time is useless in the beyond but is it is essential if we are to approach it or if it is to approach us. The fantastic world is a timeless one but its presentation has to be based on time. Introducing some dates in order to make an effort towards verisimilitude, an effort to establish a relation with reality, is abolished by the outcome of the story itself. The man observes and reacts to beings that constantly repeat the same moves, the same «reality» – and they are bound to repeat it eternally. The weakness of the man faced with this eternal repetition, or as he calls it “[e]l atroz eterno retorno” (Bioy-Casares, 2003: 129) but also of the novel to acquire verisimilitude is pointed out by the hero’s decision to integrate himself with the new reality by becoming a spectre too – banning, in this «imaginary» way, in the eyes of the potential future visitors of the island the lapse of time between the people who were once there and himself - and in this sense he enters the a-chronic world of the specters in order to become synchronic to them, their contemporary. The future visitor may be deceived but efforts are made not to deceive the future reader; or is it not so? For one – and perhaps the only – «fact» that could help the imaginary/future reader to place the text in time is proven to be the product of an illusion:

Tengo un dato, que puede servir a los lectores de este informe para conocer la fecha de la segunda aparición de los intrusos: las dos lunas y los dos soles se vieron al día siguiente. Podría tratarse de una aparición local; sin emargo me parece más probable que sea un fenómeno de espejismo, hecho con luna o sol, mar y aire, visible, seguramente, desde Rabaul y desde toda la zona [...] han de haber [las dos lunas y los dos soles] llegado a todas partes, o por el cielo o en informaciones más doctas completas […] los registro […] para que mis lectores, que reciben diarios y tienen cumpleaños, daten estas páginas. (ibid, 139).

The constant anguish of the man to establish a firm relation to reality is obvious but to do this he knows he needs to establish a relation with the exterior world, with what lies outside the book, the everyday reality, the «conventionally» structured or defined time and, ultimately, the reader. Like in all cases of literary fiction, the man’s adventures can only be externally validated by the receiver, the reader. Shortly before the end of the book, the man makes one last effort to meet what lies outside, us: he offers, in retrospect, his explanation of the main features that marked his experience; the tides, the appearances and disappearances, the two suns and moons, the bizarre «behavior» of the plants, the apparitions themselves… These clarifications, completely integrated with the reality the man perceives, cannot escape from the field of the fantastic. Explaining here equals to further confusing. Any such attempt simply enhances the feeling of strangeness, increasing the distance between the story and reality. But this climax of alienation is the mirror of another one, the increase of the distance between the book, its new world, and the public. Being able to comprehend and interpret a new reality – for every act of reading is an interpretation - means being able to break the resistance of a text whose primary aim is to be strange to us. If such a task is impossible then one should or could simply accept that the fantastic is not there for us to interpret but for us to be enchanted by. Reality can only be used to promote that effect: “on cherchera dans les structures du réel ce qui peut répondre aux exigences de la logique affective” (Vax, Louis. La Séduction de l’Etrange, Paris, Quadrige / PUF, 1987, p. 201). The aim of fantastic literature is primarily to affect us. We may be invited to reflect upon the texts but first we have to be affected, seduced by them. And, although this is perhaps the objective of almost all literary genres, in the fantastic this function acquires a prominent status: renouncing to being simply a “mental exercise” - as James had called his Turn of the Screw - the fantastic sets off to seduce us, to play or mess with our mind in order to enchant it; Maurice Blanchot points out when writing on James’ novel that:

Sans doute, l’étrange n’est-il évoqué qu’indirectement, et ce qu’il y a d’effrayant dans l’histoire, le frisson de malaise qu’elle suscite, vient moins de la présence des spectres que du secret désordre qui en résulte, mais c’est là une règle dont James a lui-móme donné la formule dans la préface de ses récits fantastiques, lorsqu’il souligne «l’importance de présenter le merveilleux et l’étrange en se bornant presque exclusivement à montrer leur répercussion sur une sensibilité et en reconnaissant que leur principal élément d’intérêt consiste dans quelque forte impression qu’ils produisent et qui est perçue avec intensité»
Blanchot, Maurice. Le Livre à Venir (1959), Paris, Gallimard, 1999, pp. 177f.

Repetition and Eternity: Attempted Transgressions…

Nevertheless, the use of time in Bioy-Casares’ novel does not end with its use as a background. Time is one of the basic concepts and elements of every text as it is important to our experience and perception of the world. Eternity achieved through recording, projection and repetition is the basic function and aim of the machine in the title[5]. The “invention of Morel” is the struggle of a man to preserve his image but also his love to eternity (the scientist seems to be in love with the same woman as the man) even at the cost of his and others’ lives. But if a man takes the risk to sacrifice lives in order to achieve eternity, then eternity reveals itself as the ultimate goal. It is through it that Morel intended to transgress reality - the everyday - as to approach the divine, in that case eternal love. Eternity is a characteristic of God, the creator. Eternity is what Morel, the inventor, tries to achieve. If originally only God constituted the absolute form, that is the circle or the sphere, the infinity and eternity, through the ages “[c]’est l’homme qui, à égal de Dieu, se découvre centre et sphère infinie” (Poulet, Georges. Les Métamorphoses du Cercle Paris, Plon, 1961, p. xxiv). Crossing the border of the beyond is the passport to a higher, or perhaps the highest form one can achieve. Morel is not the only one to want to preserve his image; the narrator too wants to maintain and demonstrate his love, even if the romance projected will be the product of a trick. He too is prepared to sacrifice his life for that purpose. Actual life seems, in that sense, to be unimportant faced with eternity. But the only means to achieve it seems to be repetition; is it really possible for a man to acquire an eternal status otherwise? If God is eternal in his very essence, man can only repeat himself in order to eternally «exist». For although man too seems to finally be able to achieve eternity, it is not a flawless one: God’s existence is eternal for there is no beginning and no end to it; man can only achieve it by aiming at his endlessness. That is partially why by entering the ?ternal, one has to abolish his worldly existence, the present; one desperately tries to erase the traces of his beginning to be as such. What is primarily sacrificed when entering the world of eternity is the moment this is done, the very moment of the transcendence. When the constant return is perfected, mortals will have entered the space of immortality. This is perhaps why, for the characters of Bioy-Casares’ novel, the mechanical repetition of (once) actual movements still appears to be preferable to life itself. Perfect repetition is demanded here and, for Kierkegaard[6] too, repetition is perfect only in eternity. By transgressing the boundaries between the earthly and the beyond, one enters a new a-chronic world, whether that is one of death or dream. No matter how one sees it, eternity begins where time ceases. If our world is a world defined by time – it is thus finite – the beyond is timeless and for that infinite, eternal and, perhaps, not soulless: “Cuando complete el invento se me ocurrió, primero como un simple tema para la imaginación, después como un incredible proyecto, dar perpetua realidad a mi fantasia sentimental…” (Bioy-Casares, 2003: 153). What though is obvious here is the conviction that eternity will still be real; that, even after death, life will go on repeating itself and that emotions and romance will still exist practically outside time (but is it possible that eternity will be real only to the eyes of its viewers? For if the spectres are not conscious of the new reality then the whole venture, the sacrifice of the present, runs the risk of being performed only for the sake and pleasure of the potential viewers of its result). A timeless life seems to be the ultimate form of life, equally real with normal, everyday life and yet ideal as it embodies and eternally repeats not just movements and forms but also emotions and perhaps a certain kind of intellect, that is essences. Eternal repetition, the quintessence of repetition itself, as the key concept, is thus accentuated at all levels: two songs are constantly heard every time till dawn, plus a micrography of «what happens» is presented under the form of a labyrinth that echoes - the infinite repetition of space and the eternal (in ideal conditions) repetition of sound -. Like the tangible real-like spectres, nature too is re-created and eternally projected by the machine. All the components of the real world - space, time, but also sound - participate in creating a new one. Only the eternally repeated world, the new reality, is «stronger» than the original one: “He notado que este segundo sol – quizá imagen de otro – es mucho más violento” (ibid, 139). The same reason why this apparently happens, once and for all introduces the book to the fantastic: “L’Invention de Morel est une œuvre exactement fantastique dans la mesure où elle prête une densité à l’illusion, où elle fait de l’image, dans son insuffisanse même, un lieu plénier: celui de l’âme” (Bessière, 1974: 243). The images projected may carry within themselves a piece of the soul of the prototypes. And that is perhaps why all those that had been recorded no longer live. In that perspective the eternal repetition acquires a new status. It is not about soulless spectres but about real-like reproductions that bear a certain kind of soul, the aura of the persons they used to be at the time of their recording. But is that possible? “Noch bei der höchstvollendeten Reproduktion fällt eines aus: das Hier und Jetzt des Kunstwerks – sein einmaliges Dasein an dem Orte, an dem es sich befindet” [Even the absolutely perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in [sic] one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence in the place where it happens to be] (Benjamin, Walter. Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, Frankfurt a.M., Suhrkamp Studienbibliothek, 2007, p. 12 / Benjamin, Walter., The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, The Art History Archive, The Lilith Gallery of Toronto,, ch. II), even the absolutely perfect copy misses one thing: the here and now, but, since eternity can only be achieved through copies what is lost in the process is the present. “Tout revient, signifiant : “tout reviendra, tout déjà et jamais revenu, à condition que cela ne soit, n’a jamais été présent” […] Qu’est-ce qui reviendra ? Tout, sauf le présent, la possibilité d’une présence.” (Blanchot, Maurice. Le Pas Au-Delà, Paris, Gallimard, 1973, p. 27). For Blanchot, the eternal return of the «I» refers to and is possible only in a world where time is divided exclusively between the past and the future. Morel, the scientist, understands that better than any other: “La influencia del porvenir sobre el passado – dijo Morel, con entusiasmo” (Bioy-Casares, 2003: 128); the present doesn’t matter because for him, the creator of eternity it must not exist. Eternity has no room for the actuality, for synchrony. Everything happened in the past and will eternally be reproduced in the future. Taking this into account, in the novel the museum «stands for» the memory, as it contains the machines the have captured past reality, the eternal projection for the future and the man and his adventure on the island for the present. Is it by chance that he finally decides to indulge in eternity sacrificing his living experience, that is the present?

The questioning of the eternal repetition is a central theme in fantastic literature in general. But in the 20th century time has been further analysed having to do – among others - with the idea of compressing it in order to let it ceaselessly expand. In a century where momentary time is a dominant, not theory but rather, experience (cf. Poulet, Georges. Etudes sur le Temps Humain 3: Le Point de Départ, Paris, Pocket, 2006, pp. 7-23), moment and duration are two ideas that confront each other in a constant struggle for domination. If a human being perceives his/her life through the form of independent moments, ways have to be found in order to produce some kind of coherent whole, whether that is one’s lifetime or eternity. Transgressing the momentary may not necessarily be the goal for everyone but artistic creation can, in some cases, be the solution. As Georges Poulet has shown, Gide, Valéry, Claudel may in their works have «built» universes that are constituted by moments but have finally traced their way towards duration exactly through these very works. And if aestheticism or organization are for the first two the way out of the momentary, Claudel escapes it through a transcendence of a theological nature that more closely resembles the fantastic; for it is the beyond that defines the earthly; for it is link of the everyday to the metaphysical that, not only signifies but also, unites everything, integrating every single moment in the «celestial plan» (cf. ibid, pp. 31-35): “L’éternité est un Nunc Stans, un moment éternel” (Poulet, 1961: v). In the fantastic this moment (!) of integration seems to be the absolute turning point. In Bioy-Casares’s novel the two worlds exist separately until the moment one is, definitely, integrated into the other: the fragmented life of the man and the eternal «life» of the spectres coexist – despite his desperate attempts to communicate with the apparitions. Once the man renounces his momentary life he enters the world of eternity, which is nothing more than the repetition of the same moments he wishes, for that purpose exactly, to leave behind. Like the machines in Morel’s island compress and eternally re-project reality – thus time too -, Borges’ Aleph is a spot through which one can see the whole world simultaneously. In that case, it is perhaps not by accident that the island of Morel, as seen, is compared to a labyrinth: a close space that infinitely reproduces itself without practically changing dimensions. A labyrinth may constantly occupy the same place in space but the experience of anyone who enters it refutes this reality as the same space can be infinitely multiplied on the spot. If a point can became infinite so can a moment. Bioy-Casares’ island is, in that sense, the analogue of Borges’ Aleph; after all, eternity is not defined just by infinity but also by simultaneity (cf. ibid) and if time is distorted then space should too as they form a unity of which – perhaps – none of the two can escape. Like the man on the island looking at the miniature labyrinth from above, the hero of the Aleph sees every part of the world at same moment. The simultaneity of the Aleph also marks the whole of present time, been compressed and yet fully expanded through the form of autonomous moments (as Borges perceives it) not in the same sense as that of eternity but as that of complete and perfect synchrony. Synchrony, though, is a concept that Borges does not accept: “Niego, en un número elevado de casos, lo socesivo; niego, en un número elevado de casos, lo contemporáneo tambien” (Borges, Jorge-Luis. Nueva Refutación del Tiempo in Otras Inquisiciones: 1937 – 1952, Madrid, Alianza Editorial, 2000, p. 267). The phrase “in quite many cases” though seems to work, for the Argentinean author, as a kind of safety valve, for although he desperately tries – mainly through the understanding of his living experience – to negate time, to establish an idea of completely autonomous momentary experiences, at the end he has to admit his failure to do so (cf. ibid 286). Eternity is a dream, the ideal and for Bioy-Casares and Borges time can become compact and infinite at the same time in more than one ways. This can be seen in relation to Auerbach’s theory of time in judeo-christian literature: while in classical antiquity a story is given as a present, “independent” and “exclusive”, biblical narration, which rather seeks to overcome our reality, is there to present a “universal history” and, in that sense, everything and every single moment of the Jewish history must fit in (the narration) as part of the “divine plan” (cf. Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis – Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask, Princeton, NJ, Princeton U.P., 2003, pp. 7, 16, cf. also p. 194). This perception of history, where time is an omnipresence of all times that have preceded and follow, is only one of the theories that influenced the reflections on fictive time in the 20th century. As time consideration has always been a central question in human thought one may see fantastic literature as an opportunity for creation based on theory – let’s not forget that Borges himself has written many theoretical essays. Today’s relative nature of time gives thus the opportunity to create the Strange within the field of reality; and as time and reality become more complicated so does their presentation.

In that sense the concept of transcendence or transgression changes too. We do not any longer have to approach a different world but simply change or distort our own. There is no need now to enter the beyond – like the hero, in the 1895 Lilith, who passes through a mirror into a magical world –; the beyond is here and the means for this transgression can now be technological, if necessary at all. It can be created of the common: in Kafka’s 1912 Die Verwandlung [The Metamorphosis] (although there is a big dispute as to whether it does as a work belong or not to the fantastic), Gregor wakes up transformed into a bug, following what his family adapt their lives to it. The Strange is still present, only this time not by any kind of intrusion but rather by the distortion of the everyday.

The bizarre nature of fantastic literature carries the reader along. The gap between fictional and real time, the rupture or conflict between the imaginary and everyday reality (cf. Todorov, 1976: 173-174 and Bessière I., 1974: 54-59) make a Gregor Samsa out of all of us, waking up in our own but now distorted reality the moment we open the book: “le fantastique se nourrit de la rupture entre la coulée de l’imaginaire et l’appel de l’extériorité et […] il entreprend de l’effacer” (Bessière I., 1976: 250) but the improbable nature of such works seems to sabotage their efforts from their very first lines. Since the main objective is to carry the reader away the importance of the work is transposed to him/her. Time and space no longer count if the final receiver is not able to trace a certain emotional quality in the work that conveys a feeling of strangeness (cf. Vax, 1987: 200).

The modern fantastic tried to overcome this problem by «using» and «manipulating» the real (as far as the content and the narrative are concerned) more than any other era in an attempt to undo or bridge the rupture between the familiar and the strange. And yet, as long as this genre will have to introduce the abnormality into the norm, the rupture will still be there. Literature in general and especially the fantastic will always resemble the present, the void that lies between past and future in Blanchot’s «eternal return», for the fantastic texts are perhaps the only ones that are constructed on the foundations of “l’affirmation du vide” (Bessière I., 1974: 35). Every story is conceived in the past and will eternally repeat itself through the future lectures just like in La Invención de Morel but what will once and for all be sacrificed is the present, the act of writing it. Writing is the void, what will never be repeated, what will be lost, once completed. These ruptures significantly mark a genre that constantly poses problems to every attempt we make to approach it. The gap between the real and the imaginary, the author’s fantasy - his work - and the reader can explain why this type of narration resists the most to any kind of interpretation, the ultimate link of fiction to reality. And that could be why perhaps the a-chrony of the fantastic will never become fully synchronic to us through the act of reading. The absence of denotation, the complete lack of any tangible external reference actually show that the distance in space and time is not just a trick: the fantastic is a new reality that lies beyond our world, that is grounded on nothing and can be approached or constructed only through language and imagination - as in a dream or exactly like it -.


[1] Although the fantastic is a literary genre that may be divided into many sub-genres such as the «merveilleux» [marvelous] (which for some theorists is opposed to the concept of the fantastic) and the «étrange» [strange] (cf. Dictionnaire des Termes Littéraires, eds. Hendrik van Gorp et al. Paris, Honoré Champion Editeur, 2001) and as to avoid any misunderstandings, the term that will be used throughout the text will be fantastic, although one could recognize in the analysis and examples to follow what is also called «l’étrange».

[2] Although it is true that the recent past as the time-frame of the fantastic tales is employed exactly because the aim of such works is to turn upside down the reality of the contemporary reader (by contemporary meaning of the author) it is also true that by referring to the past or present the author allows the same reader to have an overview of the period described, thus being able to know that the basic elements of the plot do not or have not existed [“une donée fantastique, du seul fait qu’elle se realise, cesse d’être fantastique” (Vax, 1987: 110)]. Back in 1973, Gérard Cordesse attempted to set the basis of the distinction between the fantastic and science-fiction exactly on the claim to verisimilitude by pointing out that, contrary to the fantastic, the principle characteristic of the latter is to create a world that could be possible and, therefore, real-like; in science-fiction “la rupture se fait le plus souvent au moyen du saut dans le futur qui est la clé du possible” (A.F.E.A., 1973: 52). This is also only one of the reasons why the classification of The Invention of Morel as a science-fiction novel should be regarded as false: although the book implicates technology it still takes place in the recent past – a typical characteristic of the fantastic.

[3] It would be interesting here to remark that comparing the fantastic to popular culture Max Lüthi and Louis Vax find that it bares analogies with «Volkssagen» [legends] rather than with «Volksmärchen» [fairy tales] (cf. Vax, 1987: 200f).

[4] In his dissertation on the roots of nationalism, Benedict Anderson makes an interesting point explaining how the use of time in the depiction of reality in novels has affected the public’s perception of synchrony in such a way as to contribute to the rise of the concept of national identity. Of course what matters here is not nationalism but the demonstration of how literature can affect reality. What Anderson claims is that through the novel the public started being conscious of parallel individual lives, meaning e.g. that in the course of time four individuals can act and live without necessarily each and all of them being conscious of the existence of the rest; they may be related to each other but they are not necessarily aware of this relation. This promotes the idea of a social network that exists and evolves based on the calendar that eventually and logically leads to the idea of nation itself (cf. Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities – Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London, Verso, 1991, pp. 22-32).

[5] One should perhaps take into account here Kierkegaard’s quote: “Erindringen er den ethniske Livsbetragtning, Gjentagelsen den moderne” [Recollection is the ethnical [ethniske] view of life, repetition the modern] (Kierkegaard, Søren. Gjentagelsen in Søren Kierkegaards Skrifteri, eds. Henrik Blicher, Johnny Kondrup and Kim Ravn, Søren Kierkegaard Forskningscenteret,, p. 3 / Kierkegaard, Søren. Repetition, a Venture in Experimenting Psychology (October 16, 1843) by Constantin Constantius, in The Essential Kierkegaard, eds. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton, NJ, Princeton UP, 2000, p. 103; emphasis added).

[6] cf. “Her er kun Aandens Gjentagelse mulig, om den end i Timeligheden aldrig bliver saa fuldkommen som i Evigheden, der er den sande Gjentagelse” [Here only repetition of the spirit is possible, even though it is never so perfect in time as is in eternity, which is the true repetition] (Kierkegaard, 1843: 13 / Kierkegaard, 2000: 114).


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