Still turning this over.
A Thought about a previously unmentioned element of Magical Realism (maybe) |
This occurred to me a few days ago. I was pondering the kinds of of stories that I think of as Magical Realism, and I noticed something I think is worth bringing up. I’m not sure it’s a hard-and-fast rule, but then again the whole MR sub-genre is more than a bit hazy.
20 Replies to “Still turning this over”
When chatting with friends about this sub-genre of Fiction, the easiest way for me to explain it to them is to compare these stories to cultural superstitions or wives tales.
Failing that, I then delve into making comparisons to unexplained phenomenon like Ghosts or Spontaneous Combustion. Many people have experienced them, but there is no true scientific explanation for them; more importantly, their actual occurrences are practically the stuff of urban legend.
There may be "Independent Documentaries" in terms of "Official documentation", but no one, except the "True Believers" take them seriously (or at least no one else is admitting they do).
I guess this is my long way of saying, I agree with you, though quite likely for different reasons. ;-)
When was the last time you spoke with someone who was really and truly superstitious and willing to tell you a story that supported their beliefs?
So here's how I come at this thing.
When it comes to stories with Fantastic/Magical elements, things break down into:
Myth: Stories of gods, who are intrinsically fantastic and magical
Legends: Stories of heroes, who stand on both sides of the mythic and mortal divide – they are people, but greater than people, and comfortable with magic. Beowulf. Hercules. Monkey. Et cetera.
Fairy tales/Fables: Stories of normal people exposed to the magical and fantastic, with which they are familiar but over which they have little to no influence. Hansel and Gretel. The Juniper Tree. Deerskin.
In modern literature, I think all three of these have direct parallels.
Myth: Superhero stories. Here are today's complex pantheons of infinitely powerful yet fundamentally flawed beings.
Fairy Tales/Fables: Magical realism.
It's worth noting (as I've said to several folks already) that all three of these fantastic genres saw a fundamental change from their old forms into their new forms somewhere between world war 1 and world war 2. That's the first Superman comic. That's when Tolkien basically redefined the cultural template for 'epic fantasy'. And that's the decade where the first stories currently identified as Magical Realism started to show up.
We realized, in those wars, that we actually possessed the power, as a species, to destroy our own world, irrevocably, and I think that changes the complexion of the stories of the magical and fantastic that we've been telling each other since we could talk.
Short version of the above: Magical Realism is just what we're calling Modern Fairy Tales.
Fairy tales don't seem subtle enough though.
They weren't. That's why we changed them in the 30s :)
Dig up a copy of the titular short story from At the Mouth of the River of Bees – a definitive example of magical realism. I think it illustrates what I'm talking about pretty well.
I'll find a copy. Thanks!
One thing I've always thought about the nature or purview of magic/the fantastic in magical realism is that the magic makes manifest in the world of the story an emotional/psychological reality of the characters. The subjective experience of the character becomes the objective reality of the story through the magical/fantastic elements. That is why it's both magical (subjective world) and realism (objective world); it merges the two.
Another way to say it might be that in fantasy fiction, the magic is part of the reality of the world in which the characters live, whereas in magical realism, the magic comes from the "dream reality" of the characters' minds into the external mundanely-real world.
That could be your new point 4 if you think it holds, which I do from my limited reading of Central/South American and Indian sources.
+Andru Matthews I really like that. I think it holds up remarkably well, and (best of all) extends to the examples that have grown up in other areas of the world than the Central/South America of its origin.
One other point that I think shows up fairly often, possibly all the time, is the circular sort of journey that the main character undergoes, from the normal to the magical and back to the normal world again, but I need to unpack that more before I talk about it.
Not that I'm an expert, but I'm not sure I agree with you guys on +Andru Matthews statement regarding the 'magic' in Magical Realism being a 'dream reality' of the characters mind. Isn't the point of the Magic Realism sub genre that the paranormal elements are not just a psychological construct of the characters psyche, but in fact, something that science cannot (currently) explain?
"The magical elements in the story tend to reflect (make manifest in the world of the story) the emotional/psychological state of the character."
Or just substitute "condition" for "dream reality" — not that the magic isn't really happening, but that it mirrors an inner 'thing' into the outer world.
Sometimes it's subtle. Sometimes it isn't, but thinking about it, it's pretty darn consistent.
Hmmm….I'm going to have to noodle on that for a while before I comment. ;-)
I like to use Hansel and Gretel as an example, because unlike something like River of Bees, most everyone's familiar with it.
Hansel and Gretel are starving, their family so poor their parents put their own children out into the forest to die.
What do they find in the forest?
Shelter, made of food.
… owned by a witch who wants to use them for her own ends.
In short, all their issues (hunger, exposure, and more existentially betrayal) are manifested by the magical element(s) of the story introduced into the otherwise entirely mundane world, and those elements represent nothing but those issues
Not to spoil the story, but in River of Bees, the main character has a personal emotional problem, and everything 'weird' in the story is, at a meta level, there as a representation of her problem and her options for resolving it.
It's also just a cool story. It's not like everyone's sitting there saying "Oh, this is obviously happening because your dog is dying."
Now I REALLY need to read it! ;)
Interesting. So after the war, when man realized the power to destroy the world, the gods were out of a job and 'super heroes' (men with too much power) took their place.
It also sounds like mystical realism begs for some old fashioned Jungian dream analysis. If this is the case then maybe your earlier sense of a 'story being told to the reader' is true in that the author/character is directly projecting their psychology upon the world to create the magic in the story. This magic, therefore, can only be understood through the framework of that character.
In fantasy you would say: This magic is true, we live in it.
In Mystical/Realism : this magic is true for me, let me tell you why.
Horror fantasy seems like the clearest example of this, deeply psychological (when done right) and the story/magic ends when the protagonist does. So many deeply disturbed astronauts and hotel caretakers…
Very close, except this:
"In Magical Realism: this is magic is true for US, and we never explain why, because why would you explain something so normal and unremarkable?"
The magical/fantastic elements in those stories are almost always accepted and (this is very very important) considered normal by those to whom it… "belongs", I suppose. It's a tribal/village/community thing.
And I don't mean "normal" in the way that someone in the DC universe gets used to Superman flying – Superman flying will always be special, different, even if it's commonly seen. I mean normal as in: "the fact that a cloud of butterflies constantly surrounds the youngest child in our town, emitting music, even while they're sleeping, is no more remarkable than the fact that we buy more american cars than foreign cars."
Madmen don't know they are mad. And a 'village' in literature is just a character with multiple personalities.
You can't self-analyze. And if the village doesn't notice the strangeness of the butterflies then this artifact, from the readers point of view, must be an outsiders observation or the intentional ( however subtle) inference from the narrative, by the author to the reader.
*I'm telling you of a place so infused with wholesomeness that magic went unnoticed or a child so magical they beguiled everyone…."
The butterflies and the village are both magical manifestations and the village's oblivion may be the more important one. Are the butterflies significant in and of themselves or is the wholesome magical acceptance displayed by the community/village of this sign of specialness the point of the butterflies and therefor itself the mysticism of the story?
In Mystical Realism the 'normal' world falls into two categories: those who are oblivious through ignorance and those who are oblivious though purpose. Either way they are part of the magic. The frame for the painting. But ultimately someone must be observing the mysticism, and thinking, ' this is not normal' or you have crossed over to full fantasy.
If my theory is correct (*shrug) it is the observer of the magic who is projecting, this is either the reader/author or a personified character. The butterflies/ignoring the butterflies are the gingerbread house and the reader/observer is/are the lost children whose psychological metaphors are on display. This no doubt why so many of these stories occur, to a greater or lessor degree, in isolation from society.
That's maybe why it feels like a 'story told' because, at the least, we are telling it to ourselves. i.e.. this story will fit into your reality, if only just. An illusion as opposed to a delusion. The mysticism can be as small as fairies in the garden or as big as a global domination of society by lizard people (now there is a metaphor for psychopaths). The observer projects and interacts with their projected metaphor.
BTW, this is the most intellectual discussion I have been apart of in many months, thank you, everyone. I apologize for the slash marks and parentheses, they are in my case the mark of the inarticulate, but also a sign that we are stretching our language to clothe our ideas.
Now I need to go back and read the butterflies story to see if +Andru Matthews observation holds true, where the fantastic in the story is a projection of some issue the characters' have.
An observation I will make that supports what +Papa Geade has said; In works of Modern Fantasy (or even Magic Realism) that I have read in which the Paranormal or even Supernatural worlds brush with the more mundane reality we typically experience, characters that occupy the role of "outsider" are made keenly aware that this other "world" co-exists along side the more normal one they're accustomed to.
With that said: How can a character accept the fact that his other side of their world has been there all along without their knowledge and not alter their paradigm of reality to then include this other aspect of existence? Answer: They can't if they want to remain sane.
So is the acceptance of Magic in Magic Realism a psychological defense mechanism of the characters experiencing the "strangeness" of the story?
Bringing my buddy +Renley Renfield in on this. He's very interested in the subject as well.
I would like to bring up a question to this conversation in terms of the story being told and defining it as some type of literary label:
The more people describe the stories they qualify as Magic Reality the more I see an tendency towards a type of story. One where the magic is not the focus of the story.
Magic reality seems best described in stories like Steven King's short – The Green Mile. Where, yes, magic did occur, and yes, it was not explained in its function or provenance. But it was not really important either. It was a vehicle to tell a story of redemption and forgiveness or whatever the store may be. This also falls in line with the concept of fairy tales and hero tales – they are often allegories for morals or lessons or politics and so on.
Where as in other books such as Jim Butchers 'Dresden Files' – the magic that is used is the focus of the plot and story. The story is less about a shared experience or the author trying to convey a meaning that might be universal or emotional. That kind of story can be defined as Fantasy Reality, because the whole makeup of the story is about the use of magic; magic is the plot.
Again, this comes simply from the examples of stories people seem to use when referring to magical reality. They talk of situations that interact with magic, but which the magic could be switched out entirely for science fiction, religion/belief, superstition, etc etc. It's about a (for example) coming of age story, and magic just so happens to be a part of the vehicle that illustrates that story. But in reality, the magic is not required nor is it required to be magic specifically.
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