Stanisław Lem's critique of Todorov's 'The Fantastic'

“Let us now take a look at Todorov’s axis. It is of logical ancestry. The structuralist is indebted to the linguists, and they in turn adopted this simplest structure of exlcusion from set theory, in that here the principle of the excluded middle holds: an element either belongs to a set or it does not, and fourty-five percent membership in a set is impossible. Todorov ascribes this to axis a fundamental, because definitional, significance on the highest level of abstraction. However, the essential thing is not the axis but the reader’s act of decision. Reading a literary work indeed calls for decisions–in fact, not just one, but an ordered set of them, which results in the genre classifiction of the text. The reader’s decisions do not oscilate in only one dimension.” p.174

“If there existed an experimental science of literature concerned with studying reader’s reactions to deliberately prepared texts, it would prove in short order that a text wholly severed from the world with regard to its meanings can be of no interest to anyone. References of expressions to extralinguistic states of affairs form a continuous spectrum, ranging from ostensive denotation to an aura of allusions hard to define, just as recall of things seen to our visual memory ranges from sharp perception in broad daylight to the vaguenes of a nocturnal phantom in the dark. Consequently a boundary between ‘undiguised reference’ and ‘hermetic autonomy’ of a text can be drawn only arbitrarily, because the distinction is extremely fuzzy.” p.177

“A representative of impressionistic criticism might say that Kafka’s writing “shimmers with mirages of infinite meanings,” but an advocate of scientific criticism must uncover the tactics that bring this state of things about, not hand the texts a charter certifying their independence of the visible world. We have sketched above a way of effecting the transition from texts that are decisionally unimodal, simple ones, such as the detective story, to those that are n-modal. A work that embodies the relational paradigmatics of the “compass card” thereby sets up an undecidability about its own meaning in that it persistently defies that “instrument of semantic diagnosis” which every human head contains. There then takes place the stabilization of a shaky equilibrium at the crossroads formed by the text itself, since we cannot even say whether it is definitely in earnest or definitely ironic, whether it belongs to the one world or to the other, whether it elevates our vale of tears to the level of transcendence (as some critics said about Kafka’s The Castle) or whether, on the contrary, it degrades the beyond to the temporal plane (as others said about The Castle), whether it is a parable with a moral expressed by symbols from the unconscious (this is the thesis of psychoanalytic criticism), or whether it constitutes “the fantastic without limits”—-which last is the dodge our structuralist uses.” p.177

“It is strange that no one is willing to admit the fact of the matter: that the work brings into head-on collision a swarm of conflicting interpretations, each of which can be defended on its own grounds. If what we had before us were a logical calculus, the sum of these conflicting judgments would clearly be zero, since contradictory propositions cancel one another out. But the work is just not a logical treatise, and therefore it becomes for us, in its semantic undecidability, a fascinating riddle. “Singleaxis” structuralism fails utterly for it, but the mechanism of undamped oscillation of the reader’s surmises can be formalized by a topology of multiple decision-making, which in the limit turns the compass card into a surface representing continuous aberrations of the receiver. However, the structuralist model even as we have thus amended it is not fully adequate to a work such as Kafka’s. It falls short because its axiomatic assumption of disjointedness of opposed categories (allegory : poetry, irony : earnestness, natural : supernatural) is altogether false. The crux lies in the fact that the work can be placed on the natural and the supernatural level at the same time, that it can be at once earnest and ironic, and fantastic, poetic, and allegorical as well. The “at the same time” predicated here implies contradictions—but what can you do, if such a text is founded just on contradictions? This is made plain by the throng of equally justified but antagonistic interpretations that battle vainly for supremacy, i.e., for uniqueness. It is only mathematics and logic and—-following their example—-mathematical linguistics that fear contradictions as the Devil fears holy water. Only these can do nothing constructive with contradictions, which put an end to all rational cognition. What is involved is a trap disastrous for epistemology, in that it is an expression that contradicts itself (much like the classic paradox of the Liar). Yet literature manages to thrive on paradoxes, if only on ones strategically placed—precisely these constitute its perfidious advantage! Not, to be sure, from its own resources. It has not invented such horrendous powers for itself.” p.178

“Todorov bars saying anything at all about an author’s intentions—to mention these amounts to covering oneself with the disgrace of “fallacia intentionalis.” Structuralism is supposed to investigate texts only in their immanence. But if one is free to recognize, as Todorov does, that a text implies a reader (not as a concrete person but as a standard of reception), then in accord with a rule of symmetry one should recognize that it also implies an author. Both of these concepts are indissolubly connected with the category of messages, since a message, in information theory, must have a sender and a receiver.” p.180

~ Stanisław Lem, Microworlds