MLN 121.3 (2006) 787-790
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With the rise of the fantastic tale—as Dorothea E. von Mücke delineates in this lucid and carefully argued study—the eighteenth century cult of friendship gives way to the seductiveness of the occult in the nineteenth century. This shift from a culture of intimacy, proximity, and openness to one in which the obscure and opaque fuels desire is not merely a question of literary and cultural history, but also entails a fundamental redefinition of the subject itself. The fantastic tale, writes Mücke, arises "at the moment in the cultural history of communication when a relationship of similarity and perfect openness and frankness is no longer considered the unquestioned basis of a friendship or love relationship, but when the other's opacity and potentially dark secrets become attractive, seductive, and fascinating" (16). The tears of empathy and understanding that once defined the subject yield to an aesthetics of shock and disorientation that both seduces and constitutes modern subjectivity. This new understanding of the self, in which the unknown and perhaps unknowable lies at the basis of the subject and its desires, is, however, only half the story: after the dissolution of sensibility come the still on-going negotiations between the discourses of perversion and normality that begin with the fantastic tale. Therefore, a major focus of this comprehensive and illuminating book is "how the literature of the fantastic played a crucial role in negotiating conflicting models of subjectivity within the context of nineteenth-century notions of the normal and the pathological" (13). The task that Mücke sets for herself in The Seduction of the Occult and the Rise of the Fantastic Tale is, then, rather demanding: to trace both the dissolution of the culture of sensibility and the emergent confrontation between the attraction of the perverse and the attempt to keep it contained via the discourse of normality. Mücke, however, succeeds admirably in this task. In a comparative study that spans the period from 1772 to 1847 and carefully examines the German (Tieck, Hoffmann, Arnim), French (Cazotte, Gautier, Mérimée), and American (Poe) traditions, Mücke makes a convincing case not only for close reading, but also for the importance of literature and literary studies as a crucial site in which aesthetics, culture, philosophy, and psychoanalysis come together in a most fruitful way.
The Seduction of the Occult and the Rise of the Fantastic Tale consists of five [End Page 787] chapters thematically organized around the questions of reading, the aesthetics of shock, the power of the artist, artificial paradise, and the marvels of history. A central theoretical premise of Mücke's study is delineated in the introduction and first chapter: the emergence of the fantastic tale announces a decisive transformation of the text-reader relation. The desired effect of the fantastic is neither the identificatory empathy of Storm and Stress or Empfindsamkeit nor the cool, formal distance of Classicism, but shock. This "aesthetics of intensity" (13) begins with Tieck's revisiting of the marvelous [das Wunderbare] in his 1793 essay on Shakespeare. In Mücke's exegesis of this text, Tieck strives to "reconstitute and relativize the commonly accepted markers of the real" (6). Unlike Gottsched's poetics of the early eighteenth century, the referent and measuring rod for Tieck's literary marvelous is no longer the external world, "but the human psyche observing its own workings as it constructs a reality" (6). In Tieck's mixture of the marvelous and psychological realism, the goal of the fantastic is "to suspend the reader's 'normal' sense of reality," while simultaneously instigating a "violent shock to the reader's sense of certainty" (58).
In this crisis of reality-negotiation, uncertainty over the ontological status of events poses less a cognitive problem than "an occasion of shock, pleasure, or excitement, an intensification of sensuality" (245). The inability of the character or narrator—and...