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What is Magic Realism?

December 5th, 2005

What is magic realism?

I guess It would have made more sense to open the series with this question, make sure we were all on the same page before I started to tear them out and paste them together haphazard-like. Matter of fact, I meant to ask myself this question months ago, well before Odyssey, when it was still my sworn, deluded intention to write nothing but magic realist fiction while I was there. As it turns out, it’s lucky I didn’t. My definition has been drastically altered since then. Indeed, it may yet continue to change even as I’m sitting here trying to pin it, like the poorly-embalmed undead butterfly, to the page. Among many, many other things, Odyssey taught me wariness of terms. Does it show?

Still, I’m certainly never going to figure out how to write it unless I can ramble on about what it means long enough to work certain things out. I want a definition I can work from, which means a definition that allows me to write what I love. Beware. Here there be self-indulgence.

As I believe I’ve now made abundantly clear, what immediately gripped me upon first picking up Borges (upon first encountering a magic realist author termed as such), was the incredible gripping depth of his ideas, the complexity of his metaphors, the profound level on which his fictions engage the human condition. Yes, the preceding all sounds very pompous, and maybe makes me sound cleverer than I am. I believe what it all boils down to is the emotion they produced, which is awe.

Had I ever experienced that feeling before? Of course I had–it’s very much the same emotion that drew me to genre fiction in the first place. To Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Lloyd Alexander and Susan Cooper, when I was still just a kid. Before I’d become all jaded, before I’d grown accustomed to their tricks, to the standards they had set, I loved that awe so much that when I’d exhausted the good stuff I moved on to the Forgotten Realms and wondered why it all left such a foul taste in my mouth.

College caused me to break with that tradition (or rather, perhaps, intellectual aspirations originated by Michael Milan in my junior year high school english class, but only brought to fruition in the free, individualist environment of university-style education). As I couldn’t get the original pleasure out of the genre anyhow (or so I thought) I figured I must move on to the literary, refine my tastes, and attempt to get some similar pleasure out of the the inspiring quality of the writing itself as opposed to that of its content.

I loved Borges, and went on to hunt down everything else I could get my hands on that some unknown critic somewhere had convienently lumped together for me under the confusing heading ‘magic realism’, because it gave me a way back to the original raw emotional affinity I felt for fantasy without having to sacrifice the rarer pleasures of intellectual aspiration.

Magic realism, then, is for me rather like the cocaine to fantasy’s weed and literature’s alcohol.

Which is NOT my working definition.

Hell, I might just as easily say “magic realism” is merely “literary fantasy”. I have no desire to go into my immense dislike for THAT self-contradictory term and the writings which wedge themselves beneath its leaky umbrella. Suffice it to say that “literary” is a term reasonably applied by critics, not writers, a term, in other words, entirely subject to opinion. I’d much rather refrain from insulting the writing of any still-living author by referring to it as “literature”, and reserve that term for the works of the dead. Even the term “fantasy” carries problematic weight when applied to a contemporary work. For me, it connotes a great deal of derivation from fantasy of generations past. And frankly, how many gryphons/dragons/wizards/airships/magic swords does one find in Borges, Garcia Marquez, Bioy Casares, Calvino (just sticking to my canonical magic realists so as not to rock the boat)? None I have encountered. Now, there are a lot of writers I’d like to shift into the magic realist category who do in fact derive from other speculative fictions–Castaneda is my prime example–but they derive from what I’d call primary fictions. Myth. Tradition. Belief.

So, I’d say magic realism requires a more direct, distinct, and independent form of derivation from fictions that precede it than do either fantasy or literature. Indeed, it’s just possible that’s all it requires. Let’s look at something really borderline, then, shall we? To see if fits this theory. Consider Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel, or indeed any of his several other works that deal in transmigration of the soul, along the lines of Frankenstein. Are these not science fantasy? Is Frankenstein then a magic realist work? No. No, I do believe there is a distinction to be drawn, and here we come close to the definition Jeanne used for “magical realism” (my emphasis, as that “-al” will become important as we move on). Dr. Frankenstein treats his work as scientific. Shelley herself treats it as such. And while passion may overwhelm science as the driving force by the story’s end, science never ceases to be a subject of the conflict–science as exclusive province of man, indeed as one of his defining attributes, the way divine creation is attributed to God. The same could be said of Dr. Moreau. For Dr. Morel, on the other hand, fictitious science is merely the means which allows for the plausibility of a unique sequence of situations meant to illustrate the combined nature of love, memory and apprehension. Science is neither a theme nor a concern in the narrative. Passion is. Emotion is.

I use the term “magic realism” as opposed to “magical realism” at least partly because it is the term to which I was introduced. It is also, as I understand it, the older term. It originated in the 1920’s, intended, somewhat arbitrarily, to describe a style not of writing but painting, a style not entirely divested from post-expressionism and surrealism. But it was Miguel Angel Asturias, a Guatemalan writer if possible even less readable than Borges, who first chose the term to describe his own work, and it’s his example I choose to follow. “Magical realism” has always struck me as a critical rather than a writerly term, and I suspect its adoption by the modern English-speaking critical community may have been the result of a mistranslation. Mistranslation though it may be, however, it does serve a practical purpose in conveying one aspect of the meaning of the term. What sort of realism can justifiably be referred to as “magical”? The sort, I should say, that strikes the same chords as magic in a reader’s emotion–the sort that invokes awe. A magical realism, in other words, need not involve magic at all as the supernatural force we know from fantasy, so long as its realism evokes the same emotions. Thus can something like The General in His Labyrinth, by Garcia Marquez, a completely realistic, if fictional, memoir, still be accommodated by my definition.

Asturias, however, certainly did not choose the term for his own writing because of this literal interpretation of its mistranslation. Rather, he chose it because his writing does indeed involve magic of the traditional, supernatural sort–only not safely removed to some well-distant fairytale, but here in the real world. Asturias’ Men of Maize postulates, albeit with certain subtle reservations pertaining to fiction and belief, that Mayan mythology is true, that the Popol Vuh is real–or at least it was. Here then is the last, the broadest, and likely most the controversial facet of my definition of magic realism–the facet which allows me to include, not only Castaneda, beloved fraud in half-truth’s clothing, but the Bible, the Quran, the Torah, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Book of the Dead, the Bhagavad Gita, the Popol Vuh, etc, etc, on down through every divinely-inspired text of human belief ever produced. So long as you’re willing to admit they’re all fiction.

The second half of Jeanne’s official Odyssey definition of “magical realism” is that it must take a matter-of-fact approach to the fantastic, taking it for granted, so to speak, that magic is real and nothing to make a fuss about. A good example is the five-year rainstorm in One Hundred Years of Solitude about which nobody seems to bat an eye, so preoccupied are they with their wars and tragedies and suchlike. I’ve already established that the inverse of this rule also applies–that an everyday event treated as magical can have the same profound impact on the reader. But don’t the Popol Vuh, and indeed every other form of cultural mythology, fit Jeanne’s criterion? From our enlightened, English-speaking Western perspective, sure. They are fictions which, because they were once believed true, treat their fantastical content as real.

There are certainly others aside from myself who consider Carlos Castaneda among magic realists. There are others who consider him a writer of nonfiction, who would scoff, or even take offense, were I to suggest otherwise. But isn’t that true of any religion? My opinion in the matter originates with what Michael said when he lent me his copy of The Art of Dreaming. I paraphrase: “He claims it’s true, but there are complications. It’s best if you read this as fiction.” There is in Castaneda, however fraudulent, however tongue-in-cheek, an assertion of realness. And so long as I take Michael’s advice, and, for the purposes of pleasure, choose not to take Castaneda at his word, I am able to include him among magic realists.

A particular complaint leveled against the use of the term “magical realism” by Western critical circles is that it’s merely a postcolonial means of marginalizing colonial fiction, depriving it of the respect it deserves from the literary mainstream. I haven’t bothered to address this, because I couldn’t care less about the literary mainstream, whereas I hold the utmost respect for a great deal of what hovers on its fringe. But it’s this particular and peculiar distaste of mine for the cultural mainstream which gives me such perverse pleasure in including this last cagetory of magic realist works–those that people still do believe in. If that which brings me utmost pleasure in reading either fantasy or magic realism is awe, what then can be more awe-inspiring then the possibility, however far-fetched, however seemingly absurd, that the magic of which a ‘fiction’ speaks could indeed be real?

At last I reach a point of relative confidence. So. What constitutes a magic realist fiction?

1. Independence from the line of descent of mainstream fantastic fiction, either via the use of primary fantastic fictions such as myth, folklore and belief, or through individual creative thought.
2. The capacity to foster intense emotional responses in the reader, which I’ll call awe, through an uncanny, near-magical depth of understanding of the human condition demonstrated by monumental metaphor, or through the ability to reverse the roles of the fantastic and mundane, to create the possibility, however slight and by whatever means, that the fantastic is real, and the real fantastical.

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  • MJP says:

    Then I believe the answer to your question “Can an author aspire to honest magic realism without immersing himself in the context of fiction-as-fact, literary and existential slight of hand?” is ‘Yes’.

    And there are these options that I can divine:

    You can stick to revealing magic in the mundane.

    You can hunt down some stuff that is real magic.

    You can make your writing itself an act o magic.

    Let me know to what extent each of those requires explaining.

  • mjd says:

    I agree with all three of your offered options, but I fear I disagree wth your response to my question. The capacity for magic realist fiction necessitates the lie, no matter which of these three approaches you take.

    I have another absurdly long entry in the works which elaborates on this matter in the course of addressing the nature of awe.

  • MJP says:

    Can you name a text which accomplishes what you are after without the lie?

    And is the distinction between a shallow lie, which remains a lie, and a profound lie, which self-fulfillingly makes itself true, useful at all in this context?

  • MJP says:

    If you mean that fiction necessitates the lie, well, that’s true by definition.

    But how does seeking real magic necessitate the lie? It doesn’t.
    What that shows is your prejudice against the possibility that there may actually be magic at work in the world. Very unscientific, unless that is the hypothesis you are going to set about disproving.

    Is there magic realist non-fiction? But you’ve decided ahead of time that there isn’t, and that’s what created your quandary. No?

  • mjd says:

    Heh. Yeah, I thought that’s where that last comment was leading. You’ll notice I have happily placed Castaneda, a self-professed writer of non-fiction, in the magic realist category, along with the Bible and a bunch of other written works of professed fact. What I am obliquely asserting by doing so is indeed that the only real magic in the world is that which occurs when fiction is transformed, through belief, into fact.

    Now, I am by no means belittling belief, or magic, by making this assertion. Remember our extended debates on the subject of NLP in college? My repeated attempts to underline for you the paradoxical, self-undercutting nature of the attempt to modify one’s mind by means of one’s mind? I gave that angle up long ago. I acknowledge the power of belief. As a matter of fact, I’d say the cute little behavior-modification tricks of NLP are a perfect example of what I mean by existential sleight-of-hand.

    Say I wake up in a terrible mood one morning and want out. I picture myself as I look in the mirror. Grumpy and pissed off. Then I picture myself grumpy and pissed off in a Pikachu suit, radiating bright pink neon as I skip through a field of opium poppies. Well, damn! How long can I stay in a bad mood with that in my head?

    What I’ve done, basically, is play a trick on myself. I palmed the grumpy guy and drew your attention to the giant bunny rabbit just long enough for you to forget to watch what I was doing with my other hand.


    That said, I’m not sure what you’re referring to as my ‘quandary’. When I go looking for magic, real or otherwise, I do so for the purposes of entertainment, inspiration. I don’t particularly care whether I believe it to be real or fiction, because all I have to do is move it to the place I’ve sectioned off in my head where those distinctions don’t matter.

    I really do have a big long article in the works on the subject of belief. It’s just been delayed a bit while I look for a copy of one of the works I’m using as an example: Miguel Angel Asturias’ _Men of Maize_, if you happen to stumble into any used bookstores in the near future.

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