Anti-Tales Revisited


Lance, Robert Powell, 2008

by Catriona McAra

Anti-Tales: The Uses of Disenchantment is a collection of essays and artwork which grew out of conversations with my co-editor David Calvin at the Fairy Tale After Angela Carter conference organised by Stephen Benson at the University of East Anglia in April 2009. It was here that Calvin presented a fascinating paper on Jane Campion’s film The Piano (1993) as a rewriting of the ‘Bluebeard’ anti-fairy tale, which has recently been published in Anna Kérchy’s volume Postmodern Reinterpretations of Fairy Tales: How Applying New Methods Generates New Meanings. Calvin’s application of the term ‘anti-fairy tale’ struck a pertinent chord, especially in terms of my own research interests in anti-art and Surrealism.

Weeks after the conference, I corresponded further with Calvin about his thought-provoking revival of this term, and we decided it was necessary to test its potential for scholarship and creative practice by calling for papers. Our hope was to inspire others in order to create an interdisciplinary and international network around this rediscovered notion. The call was answered by an unprecedented number of proposals, indicating a great deal of current interest in this area. Coming from an art history background, my involvement in the project insisted upon an accompanying visual content. The project’s stated creative dimension thus enabled us to extend our invitation to many writers and artists, including the emerging Scottish artist Robert Powell who was commissioned to produce a front cover for the publication of proceedings and little anti-vignettes to appear as thematic headings for the different sections. The final image Powell conjured is called On Reflections (2010-11), which, along with some beautiful graphics by illustrator Genevieve Ryan, makes the collection at first appear to be a very sweet book of fairy tales or nursery rhymes. On closer inspection, darker motifs quickly emerge and the surface sweetness is shattered.

From the cover of Anti-Tales, illustration by Robert Powell and Genevieve Ryan

As Calvin’s doctoral research (2011) makes clear, the anti-tale has an extant historiography. It is a concept which was, according to Wolfgang Mieder in Donald Haase’s Encyclopaedia of Folk and Fairy Tales (2008, 50), first conceptualised as the Antimärchen by André Jolles in Einfache Formen (1930). Study of Jolles’ work has tended to be avoided in light of his later affiliation with the Third Reich but a reappraisal of his earlier writings should now be possible. The anti-tale also captures the attitude of many of Franz Kafka and Robert Walser’s short stories, and its appearance as a scholarly tool was roughly contemporaneous with Dadaistic anti-art practice of such conceptual artists as Marcel Duchamp. The extensive literature on Dada is testament to the fact that one cannot dismiss anti-art trends as mere negation. We hypothesised that the study of the anti-tale would similarly demand this level of detail and nuance. In the second half of the twentieth century, the term appears to resonate with the anti-Bettelheimian, ‘demythologising business’ of the fairy tale rewriter Angela Carter. Indeed our title deliberately subverts the post-Freudian Bruno Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment (1976). Rather than a negation, anti-tale and disenchantment are deployed as the evil twins or mirror opposites of the fairy tale and enchantment. When thinking about Dada as anti-art, I had always been instructed that a useful metaphor was the flip-side of the coin, both art and anti-art existing simultaneously like good and evil in the fairy tale (Richter, 1997, 59). A shadow is another helpful metaphor for the anti-tale. The anti-tale thus has a dual function – it is both an intertextual theory and a method for analysing the seedy underside, often referred to but rarely defined.

The editorial introduction to Anti-Tales provides a brief survey of anti-ness and critical disenchantment in recent scholarship, and in a small sample of contemporary art, including work by craftsperson Su Blackwell  and photographer Dina Goldstein. Calvin and I did not want to be too prescriptive, rather suggestive and fostering of this emergent field. We were keen to build a picture of the anti-tale by drawing on the diverse essays of our twenty contributors. Far from being only a symptom of modernist transgression and postmodern rewriting strategies, articles such as Laura Martin’s on the German Romantic Kunstmärchen, Stijn Praet’s on the anti-tales of the ancient writer Apuleius, and Isabelle van den Broeke’s on the eighteenth century prints of Goya and Blake, demonstrate that the anti-tale is a transhistorical concept. There are many anti-tale ‘tellers’ covered in this collection including: Roald Dahl, Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Jan Švankmajer, Francisco Goya, Tomoko Konoike, Tanith Lee, Margaret Atwood, A. S. Byatt, Rikki Ducornet, Bruno Schulz, James Thurber, and Unica Zürn, but there is more work to be done on the writings of Kafka and Walser, and more recent writers such as Alasdair Gray, Philip Pullman, and Kate Bernheimer.

The present collection includes such disciplines as art history, English literature, and geography but it would also be interesting to see how the anti-tale might be applied in the realms of steampunk and musicology, for example. The anti-tale has become of central importance to my own doctoral thesis on the intersection between Surrealism and the fairy tale, and I am about to commence my next book on the use of the anti-tale in contemporary art based on my current work with the London-based taxidermy artist and enchanted entomologist Tessa Farmer. It seems fitting to conclude, for the moment, by echoing Bernheimer  in her kind endorsement for Anti-Tales: “The fairy tale is real; long live the anti-fairy-tale.”

Read an excerpt from Anti-Tales here

About the Author:

Catriona McAra is a doctoral candidate at the University of Glasgow, and freelance writer/curator based in Edinburgh. She has published articles on the work of Joseph Cornell (2009), Dorothea Tanning (2011), and has an essay on Lewis Carroll and Surrealism forthcoming in Papers of Surrealism (2011). She is co-editor of Anti-Tales.