Todorov on the Fantastic

by Florence Sunnen

“While there is as yet no comprehensive theory of the ghost story, Tzvetan Todorov has given us a theory of “the fantastic” […] Hesitation is the prime characteristic of the genre: if the supernatural is shown to be not just apparent but actual, the fantastic modulates into the marvelous; if the apparently supernatural act is explained by the laws of nature, then the fantastic becomes what Todorov for some reason calls “the uncanny.” The fantastic hovers between, hesitating. This hesitation can be seen as connected to the disturbing epistemological questions raised by the status of mental visions. For as Todorov goes on to articulate in his analysis of the fantastic he is also articulating many of the same problems raised by visionary images: Do they exist in the mind or outside us? In what sense, if any, are they “real”? How do we distinguish between the creations of delusion or madness, and those of normal perception? […] For Todorov, “The fantastic is a kind of narrow but privileged terrain, starting from which we may draw certain hypotheses concerning literature in general. This,” he adds, “remains to be verified, of course.” Nevertheless, it is almost axiomatic for Todorov that “what the fantastic speaks of is not qualitatively different from what literature in general speaks of, but that in doing so it proceeds at a different intensity.” Of what then does literature speak? Not only of its ostensible themes, but always already of its own self. […] If all literature partakes in the fantastic, as Todorov suggests, it becomes not a well-wrought urn but a floating fantom, unsettling in the extreme.”


Peter Schwenger – Fantasm and Fiction. On Textual Envisioning.