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  • Rationalism Called into Question in the Latin American Narrative:From Jorge Luis Borges to Jorge Amado
  • Eduardo F. Coutinho (bio)
    Translated by Dawn Taylor (bio)

Among the many elements markedly present within Latin American twentieth-century literature, one that stands out as a characteristic feature is the criticism of a rationalist logic. This criticism is expressed in distinct ways, extending from simple critique to the employment of the mimetic realism that dominates this type of cultural production to the exploration of two categories of the real. In itself, the introduction of these categories of real within a narrative threatens any attempt at representation based exclusively on the reproduction of an empirically provable reality. These categories, which have been designated the "strange," the "uncommon," the "fantastic," or the "marvelous," or even the "strangely fantastic" the "purely marvelous," or "marvelous realism," have been the object of study of a number of literary critics and theorists. The intention here, however, is neither to direct the reader's attention to these concepts nor to attempt to classify literary works based on them. Instead, it is simply to examine how works such as those by Jorge Luis Borges and Jorge Amado have many elements in common even though there are remarkable differences between them, elements that derive from the use of the fantastic as a form of protest against rationalist logic and as the only way to understand the real in literature.

In an already classic book on the subject, Introduction à la littérature fantastique (1970), translated by Richard Howard as The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1973), Tzvetan Todorov affirms that the fantastic [End Page 372] can be defined as the "hesitation" experienced by a person cognizant of natural laws when faced with a supernatural occurrence. For Todorov, the fantastic is a literary genre and not only a category or element within narrative genres. The basis of Todorov's theory is the notion of an "ephemeral" genre: the pure fantastic comes into being when there is an oscillation between the marvelous, as found in fairy tales, for example, and the strange, and it is characterized precisely by hesitation, doubt, and uncertainty. This hesitation has to come from the reader as well as from the character, and it presupposes the integration of both. Additionally, three conditions are essential for this hesitation to occur. The first refers to the writing and concerns the reader. It is what causes the reader to feel reluctance toward the explanations the event elicits in the narrative. The second concerns the character—it is what causes the hesitation. The third concerns the reader again but is connected to the possibilities of reading, to the reader's need to take a stand, refusing allegorical or poetic interpretations. The fantastic contains an element of subversion because it allows for themes to be approached that are prohibited by institutionalized censorship or self-censorship. On one level, the pragmatic, the fantastic stirs emotions, frightens, and creates suspense, producing an effect on the reader. On another, a semantic level, it creates a universe that cannot exist outside of language. On yet another, a syntactic level, it organizes the narrative in its own manner, making it compatible with what is enunciated, the strange fabulation that drives it.

Irène Bessière's Le récit fantastique: La poétique de l'incertain (1974) (The Fantastic Narrative: The Poetics of the Uncertain) supports and slightly advances Todorov's theory. In addition to engaging with traditional narratives concerned with supernatural terror, as does Todorov, Bessière also describes more contemporary perspectives on reality. Unlike Todorov, however, Bessière does not concern herself with literary categorizations or genre. For her, the fantastic is an aesthetic formulation of intellectual discussions that occurred during a particular moment in history and is related to a subject's connection with the suprasensitive, reflecting a cultural metamorphoses. What characterizes the fantastic is not only the presence of the improbable but above all, the juxtaposition of and contradiction between several probabilities, and this is what gives the fantastic its paradoxical nature. In the fantastic narrative, the impossibility of a solution results in, in Bessière's words, the presentation of all possible solutions...


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