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Sharoni, Josephine. Lacan and Fantasy Literature: Portents of Modernity in Late-Victorian and Edwardian Fiction.

Sharoni, Josephine. Lacan and Fantasy Literature: Portents of Modernity in Late-Victorian and Edwardian Fiction. Leiden, Netherlands. Brill, 2017. 235 pp. Paperback. ISBN 9789004336575. $80.00.

Early examples of science fiction from the Victorian and Edwardian eras are often studied in the context of the time and culture in which they were produced, and for good reason. The technological changes and advancements in scientific knowledge spurred writers' imaginations and encouraged them to reevaluate human nature. Social change and anxiety likewise provided early science fiction and fantasy writers with a wide array of subject matter as class upheavals, emergent feminism, colonialism, and the rise of multicultural societies challenged numerous well-established social norms. In her study, Lacan and Fantasy Literature: Portents of Modernity in Late-Victorian and Edwardian Fiction, Josephine Sharoni minimizes the more popular New Historicist view of the speculative fiction of this time and instead takes a structuralist approach based upon the theories of Jacques Lacan, particularly his interpretation of Freud's myth of the cannibal father. Sharoni looks at several texts from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and in each one she identifies a cannibal father, grotesque and threatening, who emerges from the past to threaten modern society. In each iteration of this archetypal myth, a group of heroes must band together to defeat this obscene menace from the past.

Sharoni's work begins with three chapters that explain her theoretical framework, including the emergence of modern Britain in the late nineteenth century and Lacan's interpretation of Freud's Totem and Taboo. Sharoni's work thoughtfully documents the ways in which the sf of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reflect the anxiety British society felt during a time of rapid change. As Sharoni observes,
   Britain switched from a largely agricultural, illiterate, rural
   society dominated by aristocratic landowners and the Anglican
   Church to an urbanized society living from industrial manufacturing
   and financial investments whose population was largely literate,
   less traditionally religious and whose politics was becoming more
   and more democratic. (10)

Sharoni sees the Oedipal myth as a valuable tool for interpreting the sf of this time, due to its concerns for the foundations of society. For Lacan, Sharoni explains, the Oedipal story suggests "an impossible time loop, in that there cannot be such a thing as a murder, an unlawful killing for which one might feel guilty, before human society, which in the myth is the outcome of that same murder" (36). Thus, in the context of the Victorian and Edwardian sf Sharoni examines, the killing of these monstrous, pre-industrial father figures is necessary in order for society to establish (or re-establish) itself and advance--a particular anxiety for an era of so much technological and social change. In each subsequent chapter, Sharoni applies this paradigm to The Lost World, She, "The Horror of the Heights," The Invisible Man, and Dracula, respectively.

In each of these narratives, the monstrous, primordial father somehow poses a threat to modernity. Consequently, this terrifying father archetype takes many different forms as the stories dictate. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's short story "The Horror of the Heights," for example, a courageous aviator attempting to break the altitude record discovers horrific purple monsters lurking in the "jungles" of the upper atmosphere. These monsters eventually kill the pilot and prevent his scientific achievement in what Sharoni describes as "the re-emergence of a primal father figure in a mysterious fantasy space" (136). Sharoni notes that sf characters must necessarily encounter these father figures in fantasy spaces outside of the modern world in order to defeat them (106). In Doyle's better-known novel The Lost World, this fantasy space is a mysterious South American plateau where dinosaurs still roam. Dwelling alongside these prehistoric beasts is a tribe of "ape-men" who are presumably the missing link of human evolution. Notably, the chief of the ape-men bears a striking resemblance to the scientist Professor Challenger, and Sharoni asserts that the two characters function as doubles. Later in the novel, the ape-men are defeated by the European explorers, and Challenger successfully transports a baby pterodactyl with them back to London, where its ugliness shocks an audience and causes a panic, suggesting the incompatibility of the ancient world existing alongside the modern. Perhaps the best of Sharoni's examples of the monstrous, primordial father is Dracula. This novel offers the best iteration of a band of brothers uniting together to overthrow a cannibalistic father who attempts to keep all of the women to himself. As Sharoni notes, Count Dracula, cloistered in his castle in the dark recesses of Eastern Europe, contrasts starkly to the modern, urbane Western Europeans and American who invade his fantasy space to destroy him.

In addition to Dracula's representation of the monstrous father, this novel also serves as a clear example of marriage as a symbol of triumph over the father. In The Lost World, however, this part of the Oedipal myth becomes confounded, as the hero does not attain his love, Gladys, as a reward for the successful completion of his quest. Sharoni observes that a courtly love motif runs throughout the narrative. However, Sharoni argues that this construction of love is no longer seen as "natural" but is rather contrived (69). Sharoni points out that while the courtly lover of the Middle Ages was a poet, the lover in this novel is a journalist. Thus, instead of creating new things, he is only concerned with producing copy, which, as Sharoni explains, "is a duplicate of something in front of his senses" (69). The modern scientific worldview offers artificiality and sterility. Tellingly, when Malone accomplishes his quest and goes to see his beloved, he finds her already married to an insipid, unheroic, solicitor's clerk. Sharoni notes the unhappiness of this ending by connecting it to Gladys's absent father, who earlier in the novel disappears from the plot and displays indifference at who his future son-in-law will be. Sharoni suggests that "without the Name-of-the-Father the sexual relationship does not happen--and the novel ends without marriage" (52). While most of the other narratives Sharoni comments on contain the familiar ending of a happy marriage, The Lost World bleakly offers the death of the old worldview coupled with the sterility of the new.

Sharoni's analysis of Rider Haggard's She is equally compelling in the variations it offers on the Oedipal myth. Like The Lost World, the novel begins with a father who quickly exits the narrative, this time due to death. Yet this father at least leaves his son a bequest--a mysterious box that will propel him to the fantasy land where he will confront the primal father figure. This time, however, that father figure is female. Sharoni explains this unusual alteration to the paradigm by explaining that She is an "asexual [figure] outside the cultural categories of man and woman" (110), and that "before the killing of the primal father mythically founds human culture and the law, human sexual difference does not exist" (107). Another twist to the Oedipal paradigm is that this novel ends without a sexual relationship, consequently leaving the narrative without resolution. Sharoni argues that this ending "is neither satisfying nor soothing, thus undermining critical readings of the novel as a male fantasy of the vanquishing of the New Woman. The novel should rather be seen as a failed Totem and Taboo" (102). Sharoni's structuralist approach here offers a much different view of She than what New Historicists have posited, and it underscores Sharoni's assertion that "perennial aspects of human culture nonetheless remain pertinent" (103) in literature.

The Lacanian lense through which Sharoni views this literature provides important insights largely absent from New Historicist critiques. While structuralist approaches are often criticized for being too abstract or impenetrable, Sharoni's interpretations are cogent and convincing. Though Sharoni does make Lacan's ideas approachable, undergraduates or those unfamiliar with Lacanian theory may be a bit lost at times with the terminology and concepts contained in this work. Graduate students and advanced scholars should have no problems however, as Sharoni's writing is free from the impenetrable, unnecessary jargon so often associated with Lacanian criticism. Indeed, her study is one not to be missed by scholars of either psychoanalytic theory or the sf of this era. Sharoni suggests that "these works can be linked together as unfolding common concerns in regard to the rapid modernization of a traditional agrarian society, which, proving anticipatory rather than nostalgic, are still relevant to us today" (2). Sharoni's work captures the uncertainty of a society in transition, distrustful of the past yet unsure of the future.
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Author:Hamby, James
Publication:Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
Date:Mar 22, 2019
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