Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society Organization Logo Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society


Are Impossible Fictions Possible?


Event Summary

The answer to the question of this talk’s title depends on one’s conception of possibility. Something can be regarded as impossible if it cannot occur in the actual world. According to this conception, there are many examples of impossible fictions: the fantastic, science fiction, the unnatural. But according to Possible Worlds Theory, things could be different from what they are in an infinite number of ways, and this raises the question of what it takes for a world to be impossible. A conceivable answer is that an impossible world is one that contains logical contradictions, but if one assumes that a world is built from a coherent set of propositions, there is no such thing as an impossible world. Should one then assume that an impossible fiction is a worldless text? Or are there texts that maintain a world despite contradictions? In this presentation Marie-Laure Ryan discussed texts that transgress our intuitive conceptions of time, space, and ontological boundaries, and ask whether these transgressions are a matter of imaginative impossibility or a matter of worlds that are different but still conceivable, like the worlds of fantasy. Ryan asked how the imagination deals with genuine contradictions. But even if a fiction offers so much contradiction that it defies the imagination, it remains possible as a text of fiction, since it exists in the actual world. In conclusion, Ryan discussed texts that are impossible not because of what they say but because they could never be written—neither in this world nor in any other one. The imagination of Jorge Luis Borges has produced several examples of such texts.

This talk was presented as part of the Impossible Fictions conference at the Neubauer Collegium, March 2–5, 2022.


Marie-Laure Ryan


Mari-Laure Ryan is an independent scholar and author and editor of many books on narrative theory. Learn more about her work here.