Oscillating Towards the Sublime

Fantastic folklore and Patrick Ness’s novel The Crane Wife

CRANE_WIFE

Postmodernism is dead, but its successor has not yet been crowned. Attributes of that successor have, however, begun to be elucidated. Among them is the idea that, after the scepticism of postmodernism, interest is re-emerging in the inexplicable, the unspeakable, in the things that cannot be encompassed rationally. Florian Niedlich calls this development a ‘religious turn’; Wolfgang Funk calls it ‘the return of the supernatural’.[1] While there are clear differences between these two approaches, I believe they stem from the same source: the questioning of the Enlightenment idea that it is possible to have “confidence in the absolute and indisputable command of enlightened human understanding to analyse and account for each and every phenomenon it encounters.”[2]

Instead of deciding between a religious or supernatural turn, for now I will simply examine how three supposedly irrational elements of contemporary fiction interrelate. The first two have been seen before: the mode of the fantastic, and an attempt to access the sublime. The third, however, is something new, something which belongs to the 21st century, which many people are calling metamodernism. I will show how these three aspects work together and mutually affirm one another, and how their combined effect is one which can best be described as the creation of a space for the sacred in secular literary culture.

Fantastic folklore in the novel

Retelling folk and fairy tales is not a new phenomenon in literature. The 1980s in particular saw a flourishing of postmodern re-tellings of fairy tales. Stephen Benson called this era the ‘fairy tale generation’, where authors such as Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Robert Coover, A. S. Byatt, and Salman Rushdie began to gain recognition.[3] These writers took folk and fairy tales[4] and used them to, in Carter’s famous phrase, ‘demythologise’ the ideologies they had come to represent, especially regarding traditional norms and roles associated with gender and sexuality.[5] These novels and stories, including Carter’s own ‘The Bloody Chamber’ (1979) as well as Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), were postmodern, often metafictional, giving voice to the marginalised and turning traditional tales on their conventional heads. In addition, they were almost exclusively magical realist. According to Chanady’s definition, a magical realist text is one in which ‘the supernatural is not presented as problematic.’[6] Events occur which are impossible under the auspices of rationalist thought, and neither the characters nor the narrator remark on their impossibility.[7] This type of writing did not disappear with the 1980s; it is alive and well today in work by that same ‘fairy-tale generation’ as well as younger writers like Helen Oyeyemi.

At the same time, other strategies for retelling folk tales are appearing. In novels as disparate as The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (2012) and Orkney by Amy Sackville (2013), folklore is used to a completely different effect. These novels problematise the supernatural elements of the folklore they engage with to the extent that the characters and often the reader are unsure whether the magic described in the novel is real, or if it is all in the mind of the first-person narrator or focalising character. This is the mode of the fantastic, where the supernatural is troubling and problematic. Tzvetan Todorov described the effect as “the hesitation felt by somebody who only knows the laws of nature, faced with an apparently supernatural event.”[8] A fantastic text exists on the boundary between what Todorov called the ‘uncanny’, where the laws of physics apply and the apparently supernatural event is caused by hallucinations, dreams, or trickery, and the ‘marvellous’, in which magic exists in an unproblematic way akin to magical realism.[9] In contrast with postmodern texts and their ‘demythologising’ project, the hesitation felt by the reader of (and some characters within) a contemporary fantastic text creates a feeling of the sublime, in order – as I will show later – to introduce an element of the sacred.

Sublimity and metamodernism: two oscillations

The sublime was defined by Kant in the 18th century as a short-lived feeling of terror and delight, of pleasurable pain. A sublime feeling is provoked by something vast or infinite, like the sight of a mountain or the view of a distant thunderstorm. He described it as a “momentary checking of the vital powers”, a temporary pause which gives way to a revelation of the power of reason. Neil Hertz later emphasises the stoppage inherent in Kant’s ‘checking’ and describes it as a ‘blockage’, which is again followed by a turning back into the self.[10] For both, this movement is an oscillation from the self to something greater and back to a renewed understanding of self. It moves in a similar manner to the metamodern pendulum described by Vermeulen and Akker: “a pendulum swinging between 2, 3, 5, 10, innumerable poles” – moving forward.[11] As well as this forward motion, the pendulum also has two distinct sides to its swing: “each time the metamodern enthusiasm swings toward fanaticism, gravity pulls it back toward irony; the moment its irony sways toward apathy, gravity pulls it back toward enthusiasm.”[12] This metamodern movement between two mutually exclusive ideas works in much the same way as Todorov’s fantastic, where the same movement is enacted between different opposing concepts, the uncanny and the marvellous.

The Crane Wife

Before I unpack the implications of these structural similarities further, it would be useful to look at an example. Patrick Ness’s novel The Crane Wife (2013) contains two stories. The empirical, mimetic plot of this novel follows a middle-aged man, George, who rescues a crane in his back garden, then falls in love with a beautiful but mysterious woman called Kumiko. Set in contrast to this is a supernatural story taken from folklore (a mixture of Japanese folk tale and legend), which follows a tempestuous relationship between a crane and a volcano. The book tells this tale in numbered paragraphs, displays it in a different font from the rest of the novel, and tells of it in the present tense; these paragraphs alternate – vacillate – with the main plot. The two stories seem to overlap: Kumiko is described as being both a mimetic, character – real within the story world – and the supernatural crane wife of the title.

One of the best examples of the oscillation in Kumiko’s reality occurs near the end of the book. George enters Kumiko’s flat, a hitherto forbidden space. Once George is inside, both font and tense change to that of the folk tale. When George sees Kumiko, “she is not Kumiko at all, she is a great white bird, pulling out a feather” from her chest.[13] This scene is at a higher rhetorical level than the surrounding passage, and its emotions are pitched higher, at the level of the sublime: George feels “a sorrow so deep and ancient that it nearly rocks him off his feet.”[14] The way George encounters beauty is similar to what Raoul Eshelman describes as ‘Kant with a club’, or persuasion through aesthetics: if something is beautiful enough the recipient will be drawn to it in defiance of its impossibility.[15] Despite this, several empiricist explanations are given for what George saw: he “feel[s] a crippling headrush” as he enters the room, and immediately after the scene he wakes up, as if what he has seen were just a dream. Kumiko herself gives no credence to the supernatural possibility. Her body is “[s]mooth, of course. And featherless.” She tells him he has a fever, and: ‘She looked confused. “I don’t know what you saw.”’[16] The character’s scepticism actually bolsters the sense of the sublime.

Farah Mendelsohn describes how: “[a character’s] scepticism provides an outlet for ours; it siphons it off, and leaves behind belief.”[17] The reader already wants the supernatural explanation to be true; now they are, as it were, ‘allowed’ to believe in it. This use of the supernatural against a backdrop of mimesis and scepticism aligns perfectly with Roger Caillois’s description of the fantastic: “in the fantastic, the solidity of the real world is assumed so that it can be all the more effectively destroyed.”[18] Both the ‘reality’ and the supernatural versions of the story assume and require the other, while being incompatible with its core assumptions.

The movement of the pendulum does not just encompass the uncanny and the marvellous, however; it also moves towards the sublime. In the following passage from the beginning of the novel, George encounters the crane:

The two of them could have been standing in a dream – though the cold that shifted through his shoes and bit at his fingers suggested otherwise, and the quotidian leaking of a stray drop, despite his best efforts, onto the crotch of his underwear-less trousers told him definitively this was real life, with all its disappointments.

But if it wasn’t a dream, it was one of those special corners of what’s real, one of those moments, only a handful of which he could recall throughout his lifetime, where the world dwindled down to almost no one, where it seemed to pause just for him, so he could, for a moment, be seized into life.[19]

This passage contains the supernatural possibility of a real crane on the grass, as well as an alternative rationalist explanation, but it is the movement of the passage between these two possibilities which is of particular interest. The passage starts with Todorov’s uncanny – perhaps this isn’t real, and George is simply dreaming. Then, the mimetic description moves the story into the realm of the marvellous: the supernatural event is really happening. The next move is another swing of the pendulum, but not simply back towards consensus reality.[20] Rather, following the forward motion described by Vermeulen and Akker, the second paragraph encompasses both previous possibilities in what can clearly be seen as sublimity. The world “seemed to pause just for him” – that is Hertz’s blockage, Kant’s “checking of the vital powers” – “so he could, for a moment, be seized into life”. The fantastic nature of the passage, and the metamodern structure of the way the supernatural and rationalist possibilities relate to each other moves the text towards the sublime.

Conclusions: enchantment versus the sacred

What I am suggesting here is a structural similarity which explains the co-presence, in a variety of recent novels, of three historically disparate concepts. The sublime has a history stretching from antiquity to the present; metamodernism was first described in 2010. The fantastic in literature is usually dated from the 18th century, and remains alive and well in the 21st. However in The Crane Wife all three concepts are combined. The movement of the fantastic, between the real world of the text and a folkloric supernatural, functions in the same way as the metamodern movement between irony and enthusiasm. This metamodern balancing act allows for the creation of a sublime which is kept in check by the constant motion between its two extremes, unbelievably Romantic and utterly empty.

Beyond this structural similarity is a conceptual one. The fantastic carves out a space for the supernatural in an otherwise mimetic text; metamodernism allows for a naive sincerity against a backdrop of irony-infused postmodernism; and the sublime exists as a momentary irruption of awe and wonder in an otherwise unremarkable setting. All of these contain the idea of specialness, of setting aside. There are many contemporary cultural theorists and critics who would call this ‘enchantment’, or ‘re-enchantment’. Joshua Landy, Michael Saler, and Jane Bennett, to name just three, have written about this turn in contemporary life and art, and Richard Jenkins has defined it at follows: “Enchantment conjures up, and is rooted in, understandings and experiences of the world in which there is more to life than the material, the visible, or the explainable.”[21] While close to the impression created by the fantastic, and certainly akin to the sublime, this positive description fails to encompass the uncertainty of the fantastic and the constant in-betweenness of metamodernism.

A closer look at the meaning of the term shows further inadequacies. The OED defines ‘enchantment’ both as the use of magic or sorcery and as the ‘(delusive) appearance of beauty’.[22] This element of delusion, of falsity, make the term inadequate. Instead, The Crane Wife and other folklore-inflected novels are creating a serious space for the sublime, through the fantastic. It is this which makes ‘sacralising’ a more apt term. I do not mean to associate it in any way with organised religion – while that is the word’s main use, there are alternative definitions. The OED defines something sacred as: “dedicated, set apart, exclusively appropriated to some person or some special purpose,” and “regarded with or entitled to respect or reverence similar to that which attaches to holy things.”[23] This understanding of the term ‘sacred’ has a much stronger resonance with The Crane Wife than the term ‘enchantment.’ Its author, Patrick Ness, described and constructed a “special corner of what’s real,” a sacred moment set apart from, but anchored in, the ordinary world.

These ideas are evident in contemporary criticism, even those that deal with enchantment: Landy and Saler claim in The Re-Enchantment of the World that “there must be a way of carving out, within the fully profane world, a set of spaces which somehow possess the allure of the sacred.”[24] These spaces are literary. The contemporary fiction which creates them is built on folkloric narratives and furnished in the fantastic mode. The effect of inhabiting them is a sense of sublimity.

 

 


[1] Niedlich, Florian, ‘Finding the Right Kind of Attention: Dystopia and Transcendence in John Burnside’s Glister’ and Wolfgang Funk, ‘Ghosts of Postmodernity: Spectral Epistemology and Haunting in Hilary Mantel’s Fludd and Beyond Black’, both in Siân Adiseshiah and Rupert Hildyard, eds., Twenty-First Century Fiction: What Happens Now (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

[2] Funk, in Adiseshiah and Hildyard, eds., p. 149.

[3] Benson, Stephen, ‘Fiction and the Contemporaneity of the Fairy Tale’ in Benson, ed., Contemporary Fiction and the Fairy Tale (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2008) p. 2.

[4] I will follow the general but accurate definition of folklore given by Jan Harold Brunvand: ‘the whole traditional complex of thought, content, and process which ultimately can never be fixed or recorded in its entirety.’ Quoted in Harris, Jason Marc, Folklore and the Fantastic in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2008) p. vii.

[5] See Carter, Angela, ‘Notes from the Front Line‘, in Shaking a Leg: Journalism and Writings ed. by Jenny Uglow (London: Chatto and Windus, 1997), p. 38.

[6] Chanady, Amaryll, Magial Realism and the Fantastic (London: Garland Publishing, 1985) p. 23.

[7] While some later commentators such as Wendy B. Faris include elements of the fantastic in their definition of magical realism, for simplicity’s sake I will retain Chanady’s distinction.

[8] Todorov, Tzvetan, Introduction à la littérature fantastique (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1970) p. 29. All translations are my own.

[9] While there has been a great deal of intense and nuanced critical debate in the decades following publication of Todorov’s theory, for the purposes of this essay I will confine myself to the approximation described above, with the important caveat that, along with Rosemary Jackson and many others, I see the fantastic as a mode, not a genre.

[10] Hertz, Neil, ‘The Notion of Blockage in the Literature of the Sublime’ in The End of the Line : Essays on Psychoanalysis and the Sublime (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).

[11] Vermeulen, Timotheus, and Robin van den Akker, ‘Notes on Metamodernism’, Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, 2 (2010) p. 6.

[12] Vermeulen and Akker, p.6.

[13] Ness, p. 234.

[14] Ness, p. 234.

[15] See Eshelman, Raoul, Performatism, Or, the End of Postmodernism (Aurora, CO: Davies Group, 2009).

[16] Ness, pp. 233–5.

[17] Mendelsohn, Farah, Rhetorics of Fantasy. (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2013) p.220.

[18] ‘Le fantastique suppose la solidité du monde réel, mais pour mieux la ravager.’ Caillois, Roger, ‘De la féeie à la science-fiction,’ in Caillois, ed., Anthologie du fantastique (Paris : Gallimard, 1966) p.10.

[19] Ness, p. 11.

[20] The phrase ‘consensus reality’ comes from Hume, Kathryn, Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature (London: Methuen, 1984).

[21] Jenkins, Richard, ‘Disenchantment, enchantment and re-enchantment: Max Weber at the millennium.’ Max Weber Studies 1.1 (2000): 11-32, p.29.

[22] “Enchantment, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. Accessed 3 November 2014.

[23] “Sacred, adj. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. 3 November 2014.

[24] Landy, Joshua, and Michael Saler, eds., The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009) p. 2.

Works Cited

Adiseshiah, Siân, and Rupert Hildyard, eds., Twenty-First Century Fiction: What Happens Now (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

Benson, Stephen, ‘Fiction and the Contemporaneity of the Fairy Tale’ in Benson, ed., Contemporary Fiction and the Fairy Tale (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2008)

Caillois, Roger, ‘De la féeie à la science-fiction,’ in Caillois, ed., Anthologie du fantastique (Paris : Gallimard, 1966)

Carter, Angela, ‘Notes from the Front Line‘, in Shaking a Leg: Journalism and Writings ed. by Jenny Uglow (London: Chatto and Windus, 1997)

Chanady, Amaryll, Magical Realism and the Fantastic (London: Garland Publishing, 1985)

Eshelman, Raoul, Performatism, Or, the End of Postmodernism (Aurora, CO: Davies Group, 2009)

Harris, Jason Marc, Folklore and the Fantastic in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2008)

Hertz, Neil, ‘The Notion of Blockage in the Literature of the Sublime’ in The End of the Line: Essays on Psychoanalysis and the Sublime (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985)

Hume, Kathryn, Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature (London: Methuen, 1984)

Ivey, Eowyn, The Snow Child (London: Headline Review, 2012)

Jenkins, Richard, ‘Disenchantment, enchantment and re-enchantment: Max Weber at the millennium.’ Max Weber Studies 1.1 (2000): 11-32

Kant Immanuel, ‘Critique of Aesthetic Judgement’, 2004, <http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kant/immanuel/k16j/> [accessed 7 November 2014].

Landy, Joshua, and Michael Saler, eds., The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009)

Mendelsohn, Farah, Rhetorics of Fantasy (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2013)

Ness, Patrick, The Crane Wife (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2013)

OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2014. Web. Accessed 3 November 2014.

Todorov, Tzvetan, Introduction à la littérature fantastique (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1970)

Vermeulen, Timotheus, and Robin van den Akker, ‘Notes on Metamodernism’, Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, 2 (2010)

Image: poster for The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

There is one comment

  1. John Dykstra

    Great article. Do you have an examples of metamodern fine art that revolves around the “questioning of the Enlightenment idea that it is possible to have ‘confidence in the absolute and indisputable command of enlightened human understanding to analyse and account for each and every phenomenon it encounters.'”

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