- The Seduction of the Occult and the Rise of the Fantastic Tale
Dorothea E. von Mücke's The Seduction of the Occult and the Rise of the Fantastic Tale is an important and innovative study that makes ambitious claims for the fantastic tale. Reading romantic era tales by Cazotte, Tieck, [End Page 113] Armin, and Hoffmann and then later stories by Poe, Gautier, and Mérimée, Mücke argues that the "aesthetic and poetic program" of the fantastic tale has a dual importance. In one major strand of her argument, she asserts that the fantastic tale contributes to the cultural history of reading by establishing a new relationship between the text and the reader's subjectivity, one of "shock and excitement, or as the occasion of a flight or escape into fantasy" (2). The fantastic tale registers the shift away from Enlightenment models of transparent language and communication to romantic models that stress the opacity of language and the often disastrous effects of open communication with another. But Mücke extends her argument beyond the fantastic tale's generic or literary innovation to claim for it a significant contribution to the history of sexuality. Its use of shock or escape into fantasy in the face of a supernatural event of desire or dread means that the fantastic tale constructs sexuality as "the individual's ultimate secret . . . that needed to be confessed, analyzed, and treated" (2-3). In keeping with this construction, Mücke argues, the fantastic tale contributed to the conceptual histories of perversion and human sexuality in ways that challenged contemporaneous psychological thinking and anticipated modern psychoanalysis.
Mücke begins by reading two early fantastic tales, Cazotte's "The Devil in Love" and Hoffmann's "The Elementary Spirit." Lacan's reference to "The Devil in Love" in his essay "The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectics of Desire" serves as the springboard for Lacanian readings of both stories. In these readings, Mücke successfully focuses on the phrase "Che vuoi?" [What do you want?] from Cazotte's story to argue that the fantastic tale creates a subject position for the reader that is, like that of the protagonist and/or narrator, "subjected to an alienated desire" (29). Further, Mücke reads Cazotte's tale as typical of the philosophical opposition between the ancien régime and the Enlightenment and Hoffmann's as protoromantic and within the context of the Napoleonic Wars. In her reading of Hoffmann's tale, Mücke brings together the strands of her overall thesis: the interdependence of the history of sexuality (specifically, as expressed in the idea of bachelorhood here), the particularities of a cultural/historical moment, the power of the fantastic tale to shape the subjectivity of the reader, particularly vis-à-vis the erotic.
In chapter 2, Mücke pursues the strand of her argument pertaining to perversion by reading Tieck's "Blond Eckbert" and "Love Charm," which, she argues, depict human sexuality and desire as free from self-interest and "natural" (reproductive) imperatives. She places the stories within the context of early-nineteenth-century pedagogy and philosophical anthropology (especially Kant), both of which placed new emphasis upon the liberating but potentially dangerous power of the imagination. At the same time, Mücke is interested in how breakdowns in communication, especially confessions gone awry, reflect a romantic rather than Enlightenment philosophy of language. But, she suggests, Tieck's tales do not merely [End Page 114] reflect this intellectual-historical context. Rather, the fantastic tale offers something new: sexuality as a "force that resists conscious and rational intervention" and that might lead to a "bizarre act of violence and destruction" contrary to "the instinct of self-preservation" (98). Mücke concludes the chapter with Poe's story "The Imp of the Perverse," which, like Tieck's "Blond Eckbert," depicts the perverse impulse to confess a crime. What Poe's midcentury story makes clear is the extent to which the fantastic tale has sought to "decouple" the...