Magic and Realism

At the last Stonecoast residency, I gave a seminar called Magical Realism: Theory and Practice. At the next residency, I’ll be leading a workshop on writing magical realism, or the intersection between magic and realism where we usually place that literary mode. It occurred to me, looking at the stories I’ve published so far in my writing career, that all the stories I write are at that intersection. I’ve never written anything in a wholly magical world, even though I like reading secondary world fantasies — at least, if they’re set in Narnia, or Middle Earth, or Earthsea. But all of those secondary worlds, while complete in themselves as imaginative constructs, also function as metaphors for our world — they are created by extraordinary writers, and I think those sorts of writers can’t help speaking metaphorically. Narnia, Middle Earth, and Earthsea tend to point back to us, make us think about our own issues and problems.

My stories tend to happen in or be related to our world: they inhabit an interstitial space. Why?

Here’s what I said in my seminar. I started by talking about different literary modes. First, realism. Realism has been with us since at least the time of the Romans. You can see the shift from idealization to realism by walking from the Ancient Greeks room in the museum to the Ancient Romans room — there you think, wow, the Romans weren’t anywhere near as good-looking as the Greeks! But of course it’s not that: the mode of representation had changed. The Romans are showing us what people actually looked like, pock-marks and all.

Realistic representation has been important every since, although in different ways at different times. It was particularly important during the eighteenth century, when artists assumed that the representation of reality, even if an idealized or allegorized version, was the primary aim of art. It is the default mode of the modern novel. Here is the image I used as an example of realism, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa:

Mona Lisa by Leondaro Da Vinci

Here is a real woman, depicted much as she would be in real life: not exactly of course, but Leonardo was aiming, among other things, for faithful representation. I told my students to think of realism and fantasy as on a continuum: fantasy at one end, realism on the other. We never really get to either end. Complete fantasy would be a dream, incomprehensible; complete realism would no longer be literature at all. Literature takes place somewhere along that spectrum: The Lord of the Rings somewhere on the fantastical side, Middlemarch somewhere on the realistic side of it. Here is the image I used to exemplify fantasy, The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli:

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

Here we see the birth of the goddess, and no one is batting an eyelid. No one is saying, Wait, are there actually goddesses in our world? Of course in Botticelli’s world there weren’t. While Botticelli probably had a model, the woman he painted is not realistic: she is a fantastical representation of the goddess of love. The realest thing about her might be . . . her toes? Fantasy is our oldest literary mode: long before we were writing novels, we were telling myths, legends, fairy tales, and fables. It predates the seemingly clear separation of fantasy and reality on which our modern understanding of the world is founded. The rise of realism as the dominant mode accompanied the rise of the real itself as a separate category from the fantastical, imaginary, and false.

So here we are with our continuum:

Fantasy _________________________ Realism

Along that continuum are ranged all the literary works we know. Both modes, fantasy and realism, are necessary to literature: if a work is entirely realistic, it’s no longer literature: it’s reportage. It lacks the element of imagination, of the imaginative selection and ordering that turns history into story. All literary works include fantasy and realism, in unique mixtures.

And then I started talking about the middle space, somewhere between Lord of the Rings and Middlemarch. Here is the image I used to exemplify surrealism, The Great War by René Magritte:

The Great War by Rene Magritte

Notice that I chose images of women as examples. I did so for two reasons: first, because women are one of the great and recurring themes in Western art history, and second, because I wanted to compare images on the same theme. Here we have an image that is realistic: the dress and handbag are contemporary, and we can imagine a real woman wearing them. But her face is hidden by violets, which is obviously not realistic . . . it’s fantastical, both beautiful and unsettling. Surrealism happens somewhere around the center of the continuum, where fantasy and realism meet. It turns inward, to the psychological — to the extent that this painting has meaning, it’s meant to be understood by the unconscious. In the early twentieth century, surrealism was an attempt to unseat reigning Realism from her throne. Its manifesto was that realism has limits, that it allows us to see only the surface of things, and there is so much more under the surface.

And then I started talking about magical realism. Here is the image I used, Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird:

Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird by Frida Kahlo

Magical Realism, in the mid-twentieth century, also challenged the dominant literary mode, but this time in a way that was more historically grounded: in an awareness of colonialism and the ways in which realistic representation left out alternative modes of perception as well as storytelling. Magical realism said, wait, you’re telling a story one way, but there are others, and we’re going to try them. It also said, the way you are perceiving the world may not be the correct one. It was a more political challenge, and I believe a stronger one.

Why do I write it? When I look at the Mona Lisa, I find it comforting. When I look at The Birth of Venus, I feel the same . . . a sense of stability and comfort. Although they fall on opposite sides of the spectrum, in both of them we know where we are. Either goddesses exist and rise out of the ocean, or they don’t. But in the Magritte, and even more powerfully for me in the Kahlo, we aren’t quite sure. Do goddesses exist? They could . . . What are the fundamental rules of our world? We don’t know. That is the liminal space, the interstitial, slipstream, magical realist. It is a space of uncertainty, and for me that is a space of becoming. It’s generative.

Anyway, I have lived in that space all my life — by personal history (losing my country at a young age) and probably by temperament. I believe in a real reality, underneath our perception of it. If I fall out of a window, I will end up in the hospital. Under current gravitational conditions, I can’t fly. But I also believe that what I perceive of the world is only a very small part of it, that real reality is so much greater than I think or can understand. It’s a stance of humility toward the world, and of skepticism toward our construction of it. I feel more comfortable in uncertainty than certainty . . .

And that is why I write what could be called magical realism, or slipstream, or interstitial fiction. The important thing, I suppose, is how it informs my work and its philosophical underpinnings. Last residency, I ended my presentation with a quotation from Frida Kahlo: “I never paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality.” Yeah, what she said.

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4 Responses to Magic and Realism

  1. Phyllis Holliday says:

    From time to time I enter contests. Win some, always to my surprise. This time it is a short story book long contest and it is a good idea to gather stories, published and not, and figure out how to do it. There is an old vaudeville saying, “Never have a banjo player be followed by another banjo player,” so that is kind of useful. I imagine it could be serpentine, which makes this particular blog very helpful.

    I do range from total fantasy to magic realism, and/or extravagant almost realism. It’s like making a crazy quilt and really quite fun. So thanks for this. I’m guessing I have a 3rd% chance of winning but it is going to be good to have this for the odd other chances out there.

  2. AV says:

    Thank you so much for this entry! I hope when you lead the writing workshop about writing Magical Realism during the next residency, you will continue this discussion in your blog. I’d love to hear more. 🙂

  3. Ula says:

    This is probably the best explanation of magical realism I’ve read. Thank you for this wonderful post.

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