The Fantastic

in Latin American



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Past Responses:

Bioy Casares, Adolfo. La Invención de Morel

In La invención de Morel, the projections that beguile the protagonist are completely independent of linear time, circling beside our narrator, but never interacting with him. These character loops result from a new technological device that strives to capture immortality.

The device is a motley contraption that records sensory perceptions and experience. Part film projector, camera, radio, receiver, and engine, Morel's immortality machine records impressions of human beings and inserts these representations into the real world. Far from mere holograms, however, these projections have weight, depth, height, and appear as real people, engaging all five senses. And this, Morel argues in a projected speech about his projected creations, is tantamount to immortality:

Congregados los sentidos, surge el alma…Madeleine estaba para la vista, Madeleine estaba para el oído, Madeleine estaba para el sabor, Madeleine estaba para el olfacto, Madeleine estaba para el tacto: ya estaba Madeleine. (60)

When all the senses are synchronized, the soul emerges…When Madeleine existed for the senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch, Madeleine herself was actually there. (63)

Yet Morel's projections belie his words. The characters generated by Morel's invention are hollow creations, lacking any sort of totality; and there is no proof to support Morel's claim that his machine will capture the soul, since his existing creations are only the sum of their sensorial parts. What the machine does offer, however, is a presentation of reality that is fixed and unchanging, not dependent upon the shifting viewpoint of the subjective self.

In La invención de Morel, two sorts of time progressions exist. The first is linear, encompassing the narrator's arrival on the island, his love for Faustine, his subsequent discovery of Morel's immortality machine, and his final insertion into Morel's projection of reality. The second is circular. It is a projection of reality through Morel's device, one that repeats a series of events in a looping fashion.

Once the narrator recognizes that Faustine exists only in circular time, not even tangentially intersecting with his own time, he faces a decision: Should he kill himself? Should he build a boat and return to society? Should he endure his life of isolation? Should he figure out the precise operations of Morel's invention in order to take advantage of its unique capabilities? In a sense, the choice is simple. If he returns home he faces life imprisonment in Venezuela. If he remains on the island he will be agonizingly lonely. Since his love for Faustine has not waned, he decides to everything within his power to approach her. Since she cannot extend beyond the loop of Morel's projection, the narrator must find another way to be with her.

Accordingly, the narrator stands before Morel's machine, discovers its operations, records his own image, and inserts his recorded self beside the beautiful Faustine, resolving his frustration with the projected world by joining it. At this moment, the narrator has come to terms with existence, willing to risk his own soul in order to achieve a nebulous and mechanical immortality.

Bioy-Casares, Adolfo. "The Russian Doll."

I have a Russian doll on my desk right now, and I enjoy thinking about the smaller, wooden selves she holds within her body. The same could be said about Bioy Casares' "Russian Doll," a story told within a story, which offers other kernels of story that come forth, only to be drawn apart so other kernels can emerge.

Borges, Jorge Luis. "The Aleph"

I have heard many people say that, considering today's technology, they wonder if Borges would have written this story. Why? The Aleph, which allows one to see the "inconceivable universe," does not, to my knowledge, have any contemporary rivals.

--"Emma Zunz"

I particularly enjoyed this short story. It's an inverse of <<La intrusa>>. In both stories one woman holds the key to a contention between two men. Yet whereas in <<La Intrusa>>, the woman is murdered, Emma Zunz becomes an effective and powerful agent who kills the man who ruined her father.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.

There are two great moments (at least) of the fantastic in this novella. The first is when the ship filled with dead people passes by Gordon Pymn and his companions. He is not certain whether or not they are alive or dead until he sees their decaying corpses. The moment of hesitation is sustained until this time. Secondly, the very end of the narrative leaves the account forever suspended between reality and conjecture regarding the supernatural.

--"The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar"

During the time between M. Valdemar's first fall into the trance of life suspension and his final expiration, the realm of the fantastic is maintained. Like Derrida's notion of the pharmakon, which is both remedy and poison and remains undecided between the two; and like Todorov's definition of the Fantastic, which endures only as long as the reader hesitates between reality and the supernatural, M. Valdemar exists in a liminal state, teetering between life and death.

Bioy-Casares, Adolfo. Dormir al sol

Examples of what Freud calls the "double" are abundant in Bioy Casares' Dormir al sol. Although there are comparisons to be made between Lucio and Aldini, most of the doubles (triples? quadruples?) are doubles of Lucio's wife Diana. The first is her sister, Adriana, whose name contains Diana's name within it, and who looks strikingly like to her sister. The second is Aldini's wife Elvira, who also suffers from an illness and who, like Diana, is put into the sanitarium by her husband. A third double is the "new" Diana who returns to Lucio after treatment. Although she has the actual body of Diana, she bears the transplanted soul of another woman. The fourth is Lucio's German shepherd, also named Diana, who shares with her human counterpart a pair of soulful eyes. Besides providing interesting and entertaining manifestations of the Diana character (whose name also holds a reference to the goddess Diana, who, like Bioy Casares' Diana, is childless), these "echoes" of Diana function in the manner Freud describes the functioning double in his essay, "The Uncanny."

Freud writes, citing Otto Rank, that the "invention of doubling as a preservation against extinction has its counterpart in the language of dreams…" (356) The many doubles of Diana seem to offer to Lucio a "preservation against [the] extinction" of Diana. It is not until Diana leaves him that we meet the dog, find out about Elvira, and get to know the flirtatious Adriana more intimately. Her doubles, then, remind Lucio of her presence/existence, even though she is absent from him.

Freud, Sigmund. "The Uncanny."

In this essay, Freud examines and defines the "unheimlich," a German word which is used to mean both "homey" and "familiar" and, contrarily, "un-homely" and "unfamiliar." Freud puts the various and opposing uses of "unheimlich" beside each other in order to address the following:

What interests us most in this long extract is to find that among its different shades of meaning the word 'heimlich' exhibits one which is identical with its opposite, 'unheimlich.' (345)

He questions how and why a word could at the same time signify two opposing meanings. (It is a fascinating question, and one that reminds me of other words that achieve the same function--words such as "cool," when it is used to describe something one is passionate about or in favor of; "bad," when it is used to mean "good" or "accomplished"; and the New England favorite "wicked," when it is used to as a substitute for "very," as in, "Colby just completed a wicked icy run at Killington; or "That shirt is wicked cool. Where did you buy it?" which in slang designate the opposite of what the signify in formal, codified speech.)

One suggestion he offers to reconcile these opposing meanings comes from Schelling, and says "According to him, everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light." At first Freud focuses on the ambivalence of the word, yet ultimately, he modifies this definition to say that the uncanny signifies a desire to repeat an earlier and repressed traumatic incident:

A compulsion powerful enough to overrule the pleasure principle, lending to certain aspects of the mind their daemonic character…All these considerations prepare us for the discovery that whatever reminds us of this inner 'compulsion to repeat' is perceived as uncanny. (361)

Freud then uses Hoffman's tale, "The Sand-man" to demonstrate the uncanny principle. In his analysis of Nathaniel's obsession with the Olimpia, Freud writes:

This automatic doll can be nothing else than a materialization of Nathaniel's feminine attitude toward his father in his infancy. (354)

While this is a fascinating analysis, it does not address another characteristic of the uncanny that Freud himself introduces later in his treatment--that of the double. To be sure, by talking about Spalanzani and Coppola as "reincarnations of Nathaniel's pair of fathers," the double is evoked. However, the feminine double that Olimpia represents, i.e., Clara's double is not touched.


Hoffman, E.T.A., "The Sand-Man."

Hoffman's "unheimlich" story is an excellent example of the sustained hesitation found in a fantastic work. The crux of the hesitation is contained within the character of the "Sand-Man," a supernatural character who steals the eyes of children by throwing sand in their eyes. The protagonist, Nathaniel, believes that as a child he has witnessed the Sand-Man at work in his father's room:

I fancied that there were men's faces visible round about, but without eyes, having ghastly deep black holes where the eyes should have been.

After he cries out in horror at these sightless faces, Nathaniel describes how his father's companion Coppelius, whom Nathaniel identifies as the Sand-man, attempts to take out Nathaniel's own eyes. Nathaniel's father begs for the Sand-man to spare his son's eyes, however, and the Sand-man, after twisting the boy around, finally relents.

Since Nathaniel confesses that directly afterwards he blacks out and wakes up in bed, the episode takes on the doubtable quality of a dream, and the reader is left to wonder whether the incident occurred at all.

Later, when Nathaniel is away at college, a man named Giuseppi Coppola attempts to sell Nathaniel "eyes," which are actually spectacles he keeps in a sack. Nathaniel is traumatized again by an encounter with someone so similar in name and manner to the Sand-man of his childhood that it takes him some time to calm his nerves. He purchases a pocket perspective from the man, however, and uses it to spy upon Olimpia, the beautiful "daughter" of Professor Spalanzani.

Throughout all of this, both the "real" and illusory aspects of the Sand-man are kept in play; and Nathaniel's attempt to master his own violent emotions towards the eyeglass seller helps sustain a sense of hesitation in the part of the reader. Until the very end of the story, the Sand-man can either be A) a psychotic delusion of Nathaniel's, or B) a bona fide supernatural agent. (Although Freud suggests that the tale offers closure at the end, I am not so certain. Hoffman does such an excellent job of balancing the probability of both the supernatural and the delusional that I still feel a certain amount of hesitation regarding the Sand-man's true nature, even after having read the story in its entirety).

In addition to the hesitation the reader experiences regarding the demonic Sand-man, the introduction of another ambiguous character, Olimpia, probes further into Nathaniel's questionable sanity. When Olimpia, the lovely daughter of Professor Spalanzani, becomes the object of Nathaniel's passion, the reader is given many clues that suggest that Olimpia is not, in fact, human at all, but a lifeless automaton with the functioning of clockwork. Nathaniel, however, does not catch on until the very end, when the "Sand-man" literally tears Olimpia apart, revealing her inorganic innards and sightless eyes. In this instance, the hesitation regarding Olimpia comes to an end. She has been, as Derrida might put it, "decided." Yet the hesitation the reader experiences regarding Nathaniel's sanity is sustained, since he was not the only one taken in by Olimpia's artificial beauty:

…the opinion was pretty generally expressed that it was an imposture altogether unpardonable to have smuggled a wooden puppet instead of a living person into intelligent tea-circles.

Levine, Suzanne Jill. "Introducción: Adolfo Bioy Casares y la literatura fantastica"

It was really useful for me to look at the influences upon the Fantastic. I had never thought of Pastorals, for example, in light of the Fantastic. I also thought the comment regarding Todorov's conditions/restrictions was helpful, i.e., that critics focus on the opposition between doubt and resolution, although in some cases such opposition is not crucial:

el énfasis en la oposición entre la duda y su resolución, aun en casos en que no tiene importancia tal oposición. (14)

This made me think of stories like Quiroga's <<La gallina degollada>>, in which the hesitation between the supernatural and the real is not, at least for me, what makes it fantastic. What makes it fantastic, for me, is that the uncanny is occurring--it is not opposed to the real, but embedded within it.

Levine, Suzanne Jill. "Borges and Emir: The Writer and His Reader."


Derrida, Jacques. "Plato's Pharmacy" from Dissemination.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: a Structuralist Approach to a Literary Genre:

1. Todorov defines the fantastic as a type of narrative in which a supernatural event takes place that leaves the reader and narrator with two options: either the event is illusion or the event has occurred and "reality is controlled by unknown means."

The fantastic, he writes, "occupies the duration of this uncertainty. Once we choose one answer over another, we leave the fantastic for the uncanny or the marvelous…The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by someone who only knows the laws of nature, who confronts an apparently supernatural event."

2. The marvelous, on the other hand, has "no reference to reality." It is a type of narrative that ends "with an acceptance of the supernatural." The fairy tale is one example of the marvelous, which includes the hyperbolic marvelous (the big fish story, e.g.), the exotic marvelous, the instrumental marvelous (including stories that involve flying carpets, etc.), and the scientific marvelous (in which "the supernatural is explained in a rational manner").

3. Todorov excludes poetry from the fantastic:

"Today it is generally agreed that poetic images are not descriptive, that they are to be read quite literally, on the level of the verbal chain they constitute, not even on that of their reference. The poetic image is a combination of words, not of things, and it is pointless, even harmful, to translate this combination into sensory terms." (60) The fantastic, he argues, can only be expressed in fiction.

I'm not sure I agree that "poetic images are not descriptive" or meant to be read literally. Where does this leave poetry such as Rosetti's "Goblin Market," Keat's "La Belle Dame sans Merci," or Tennyson's "Lady of Shalott"? Each of these poems contains some sort of brush with the supernatural and, therefore, some sort of hesitation between the uncanny and the marvelous. What excludes them from being fantastic?

4. Todorov asks what a work's fantastic elements contribute to it. His answer is three-fold: First, it produces an effect on the reader (fear, horror, curiosity) which other literary genres do not. Second, it "serves narration, maintains suspense, and permits a dense organization of the plot." Thirdly, and most interesting, I think, it "has, at first glance, a tautological function; it allows the description of a fantastic universe, one that has no reality outside language; the description and what is described are not of a different nature." I imagine he means by this that supernatural elements, since they are found in the real world, exist only in the text. There is, in a sense, no simulation--because supernatural events lack any real world referents.

5. Todorov states that "one of the primary concerns of the concept of structure is to transcend the old dichotomy of form and content, in order to view the work as a totality and a dynamic unity."

6. There are different modes of hesitation, which involve pleasure, amazement, and a "screen, which never reveals meaning." (103)

7. In the fantastic, we are several persons mentally and we become so physically. (116)

8. We have erasure of the limit between subject and object. 116.

9. There is no frontier between object and observer. Todorov quotes Gautier: "By a strange miracle, after a few moments' contemplation, I dissolved into the object I gazed at, and I myself became that object." This seems like an excellent description of Cortázar's "Axolotl."

10. The blurred (or non-existent) boundary between subject and object mirrors Piaget's model of child development. "Early in mental development there exists no precise differentiation between the self and external world." (118)

11. The physical world and the spiritual world interpenetrate

12. Time is suspended, as in Kafka's "In the Cathedral."

13. There is a fragility of the limit between matter and mind.

14 It is, in particular, eyeglasses and mirrors, which are symbols of distorted vision, that "permit penetration into the marvelous universe." This seems particularly insightful. It reminds me of an H.G. Wells story, "The Crystal Egg" and the scene in The Vicar of Wakefield in which poor young Moses is bamboozled by a vendor of green spectacles at the county fair.

15. The fantastic expresses the "limits of desire." 138

16. The Other: The fantastic expresses the relation of man with his desires and thereby with the unconscious. 139

17. The fantastic allows for co-presence in the sense that the image of a devil, for example, does not signify sex, but that the two are associated.

18. Todorov ends with a summary:

The fantastic is based essentially on a hesitation of the reader--a reader who identifies with the chief character--as t the nature of an uncanny event. This hesitation may be resolved so that the event is acknowledged as reality, or so that the event is identified as the fruit of imagination or the result of an illusion; in other works, we may decide that the event is or is not. Furthermore, the fantastic requires a certain type of reading--otherwise, we risk finding ourselves in either allegory or poetry. Finally, we have reviewed whether properties of the fantastic work…

19. He claims that the Fantastic no longer exists, and that works such as Kafka's "Metamorphosis" represent a New Fantastic, a genre that allows for adaptation to the supernatural event, rather than a hesitation regarding its reality.


1. In the sense that both Todorov's and Derrida's arguments hinge upon indeterminacy, it seems appropriate to look at "Plato's Pharmacy" in terms of the fantastic. Just as the fantastic is defined by the hesitation between confirmed meaning, Derrida points out the undecided nature of the word "pharmakon" in Plato's "Phaedrus."

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