Aaron J. French’s LETTERS FROM THE EDGE: ‘Fantastic Realism in Literature’
“…the marvelous and the actual have contracted an astonishing alliance in the modern mind.”
— The Morning of the Magicians
With reference to visual art, “fantastic realism” has a separate though connected relationship to literature via a movement of artists in Vienna in 1946, known collectively as the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism. Artists of the Viennese school include(d) Prof. Ernst Fuchs, Arik Brauer, Rudolf Hausner, Wolfgang Hutter, Anton Lehmden, and Fritz Janschka, while non-Austrian artists include forebears such as Hieronymus Bosch and Matthias Grünewald. Latter-day adherents (influenced by the Vienna School) encompass H. R. Giger, Robert Venosa, Roger Dean, Robert Williams, and Joe Coleman. Fantastic realism in visual art is the subject of a new documentary entitled Image, Reflection, Shadow: Artists of the Fantastic written and directed by Jason V Brock, Editor-in-Chief of Nameless digest, and slated for a late 2014 release.
In the literary sense, the term “fantastic realism” originally appeared in the book The Morning of the Magicians by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, published in 1960 in French under the name Le Matin des Magiciens, then translated into English in 1963. The concept, proposed by the two authors as a new idea paradigm, suggests that actual reality is far more fantastic than what we limit it to under conventional scientific, philosophical, historical, and cultural models. The book deals largely with nonfiction topics, such as secret societies, alchemy, conspiracies, Nazi occultism, vanished civilizations, and so on, serving as an inspiration for such influential writers as Robert Anton Wilson, Graham Hancock, Erich von Däniken, and Colin Wilson. It also functioned as a sort of “thought template” and intellectual forerunner to the New Age movement.
Many of the notions propounded in The Morning of the Magicians are unsupportable, and so the text has become a bit of a forgotten cult classic. Thanks to the Internet, the world is seeing a revival of some of the ideas first presented in this book. What started out as pseudoscientific theorizing has, after the turbulence of the 1960s, begun to re-enter popular culture in the 2000s, with even the more esoteric aspects finding acceptance among modern readers.
The relevance of borrowing the term “fantastic realism” from The Morning of the Magicians, which is steeped in such material, becomes apparent upon examination of the increasing popularity of the book’s ideas and themes. In the modern era, the door appears to be opening to a new vision of the nature of reality, one that is increasingly less rigid and definable. It is a view of the universe where certain phenomena remain, in spite of technological progress and research, unknown and mysterious, such as particle behavior at the sub-atomic level, what constitutes dark matter, cloning bioethics/DNA, simulated life, and artificial intelligence (AI) consciousness studies — these preoccupations are all evidence that our view of reality is expanding, and this expansion can be nurtured to include art and literature.
Pauwels and Bergier elucidate what they mean by “fantastic realism,” and how they developed it, in the following passage from The Morning of the Magicians:
“…unlike [the surrealists] we were exploring not the regions of sleep and the subconscious but their very opposites: the regions of ultra-consciousness and the ‘awakened state’. We call our point of view fantastic realism. It has nothing to do with the bizarre, the exotic, the merely picturesque. There was no attempt on our part to escape the times in which we live. We were not interested in the ‘outer suburbs’ of reality: on the contrary we have tried to take up a position at its very hub. There alone, we believe, is the fantastic to be discovered — and not a fantastic leading to escapism but rather to a deeper participation in life…”
— Pauwels and Bergier, p. xxvii
Thus, applied to literature, fantastic realism differs from magical realism in that elements of the fantastic, when sought after and properly understood, are indeed real, however contrary to conventional modes of belief — whereas magical realism, defined by author and critic Professor Matthew Strecher, may be described as “… what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.” Therefore, by this metric, an element of fantastic realism, once it has run its course, will always resonate as true.
On one level, that’s because it is true — but this is where things become complex, and where a person of an incorrigibly skeptical and empirical character will forever be at odds with fantastic realism. Starting from a position that a) the universe and all its workings are entirely known, and b) that all explanations are materialistic (perceptible-matter based) — will bar any individual from attaining a proper understanding of this idea. Certain aspects of reality are indeed (and remain) mysterious and these aspects are withheld from closed-minded thinking; but there are individuals in the world who are, and always have been, privy to these secret inner workings: Not only mystics and occult organizers, but scientists as well. In fact, many modern-day electronics engineers and nuclear physicists could be included in this latter group, as the average person has, for example, no knowledge of how their cell phone or iPad works, how their microwave oven operates, or how plasma display televisions transmit near lifelike images. (Which lends further credence to the observation first made by author Arthur C. Clarke [Rendezvous with Rama] that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”) And yet, there are members of society who have deep knowledge of these mechanics and are helping to evolve them further. So while the concept of fantastic realism and the ideas in The Morning of the Magicians might appear, at a glance, as fringe scholarship and pseudoscience, one must remember that Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein may have been similarly categorized (as “magicians”) in their time.
Pauwels and Bergier extend their term “fantastic realism” to encompass all aspects of science, psychology, biology, and the humanities, but in focusing it solely on fiction and literature, they extol Arthur Machen as one of its key exemplifiers — more so than H. P. Lovecraft, though Lovecraft’s stories arguably touch upon aspects of fantastic realism. Not only did Machen experience the visionary in life via his spiritual development within the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, but he consciously tried to transmit what he learned (by practicing theurgy) in his writings. Machen felt he had gotten at the heart of reality, to the “fantasticness” at its core, and attempted to guide readers along a similar path.
The best example of this is his story The Bowmen — published in the London newspaper The Evening News in September, 1914 at the start of World War I — which recounts the ghosts of archers from the battle of Agincourt, led by Saint George, coming to the aid of British troops. After the story was published, scores of soldiers wrote the newspaper saying they had seen with their own eyes the angels on the Mons front, led by Saint George in shining armor, and mingling among their ranks. A number of these letters were subsequently published. The whole of England was roused, and Machen was thought to be somehow connected with the deeper secrets of reality, though he publically denied the claim. Right up to his death, the episode remained one of the decisive moments in Machen’s career — to say nothing of his other works, which convey similar insights into the supernatural embedded in phenomenological reality.
Other authors named by Pauwels and Bergier to have written in the vein of fantastic realism include Balzac, Hugo, and Flammarion. To these one could add Charles Williams (20 September 1886 — 15 May 1945), a British poet, novelist, theologian, literary critic, and member of the writing group The Inklings, which included C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Williams’s novels such as Many Dimensions, Shadows of Ecstasy, Descent Into Hell, and All Hallows’ Eve work on a level similar to Machen, in that they illuminate intrinsic supernatural qualities of reality; qualities that seem fantastical to the uninitiated. In addition, one could include the contemporary author Thomas Ligotti, whose writings, though decidedly non-spiritual, penetrate into reality in the deepest manner possible, and, in the process, expose its potential supernatural qualities.
The idea paradigm of fantastic realism, as categorized by Pauwels and Bergier in The Morning of the Magicians, has been, at this point, percolating in underground counter-cultural streams, waiting for a time to flood the banks of popular philosophy; now, once again owing to the advent of the Internet, that time appears to have arrived. No longer does mere fantasy, an empty diversion through unbelievable frontiers, serve to satiate the populace of readers, who, with time, find themselves hungering for these deeper truths about existence that only fantastic realism can satisfy. Pulling away from life and nature leads not to the supernatural element of the cosmos necessarily, but rather focusing further in seems to reveal that the heart of all life and matter is — indeed must be — supernatural. To that end, humanity can be led down a strange and unrecognizable road, by way of art, science, and literature, until at last each one finds, for themselves, the truth.
Truly, as Pauwels and Bergier point out: “The paths of fantastic realism… do not resemble the ordinary paths of knowledge.”
–Aaron J. French
 Matthew C. Strecher, Magical Realism and the Search for Identity in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki, Journal of Japanese Studies, Volume 25, Number 2 (Summer 1999), pp. 263-298, at 267.