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Writing/Reading Magic Realism and the Uncanny
By Alan Bilton
Magic Realism, the Fantastic, the Marvellous, the Uncanny: while literary critics adore squabbling over taxonomies and definitions, creative writers tend to prefer more lyrical language. John Banville talks of the “invasion of the dreamlike”, André Breton of a “convulsive shudder”, “a crack” opening up within “the carapace of normality” (Brandon 1999: 218), Salman Rushdie of “the commingling of the improbable and the mundane” (Warnes 2009: 32), Umberto Eco of a “universe of hallucination” (Brandon 1999: 218). What links all of these ideas is the notion of two contradictory and mutually exclusive worlds – the ordinary and the impossible – somehow crossing a philosophical border to exist in the same fictional space.
In some models, these two states of being, one subject to scientific rules, the other in some sense supernatural, remain like oil and water, refusing to mix, but instead existing in opposition: this is the modus operandi of Surrealism, where the eruption of the irrational is registered as a kind of jolt or shock, a disorientation of the mind. Other commentators speak (perhaps less attractively) of a seepage of the magical or miraculous, a kind of contamination or infiltration, whereby the so-called real world becomes progressively more extraordinary or ridiculous or bizarre. And still others, following the Latin American model of Magic Realism, explore a mode of writing where the real and the fantastic are so intermingled that it is impossible to tell where the frontier might lie, or whether ancient folk lore or modern science is the most incredible.
Whether one sees the Fantastic as a genre, an aesthetic, or a philosophical statement of intent, the purpose of this essay is not to argue over definitions or manifestoes, but rather to suggest ways in which Creative Writing teachers might encourage their students to explore the narrative possibilities of the marvellous, that shot-gun wedding between the mundane and the hallucinatory whose very illegality (or hybridity) is ultimately its greatest strength. To this end, this essay will sketch out a kind of continuum or bridge between realism and fantasy, inviting students and authors to situate themselves somewhere along the span. A warning, though: this horizontal model is also prone to sudden shifts and disruptions, a dizzying and delirious verticality, and the traffic between the plausible and the dreamlike is strictly two-way.
The Two Banks of the River.
Although we’re chiefly interested in the construction spanning the two sides, it’s also important to take a moment to size up the two opposite ends of the channel. On one shore lies realism. Here the irrational or outlandish can be explained by relatively straightforward narrative means: the narrator might be crazy or deranged, drunk or ill, high as a kite on drugs or simply dreaming. In all of these cases, the apparently magical or numinous is ultimately a mistake, a mis-reading. The impossible is subjective rather than objective, a sign that the narrator has it wrong: that isn’t really a ghost, but rather a curtain billowing in the wind, not an angel but a trick of the light. In short, the impossible (by definition) could not really have happened.
On the other bank lies the enchanted realm of fantasy, fable and fairy tale. In this world, magic is both real and an integral and accepted part of the genre. Wizards can cast spells, animals can talk, elves fix shoes, and none of this contradicts any of the laws of the land; in short, this is a magical realm – Middle Earth, Narnia, Oz – that the reader knows is profoundly separate from their own. Close to this lies The Boringly Literal Lands of Allegory: here, the meaning of any supernatural occurrences can be quickly grasped as a means of instruction, education or other didactic intent. Everything here has a clean meaning and purpose, generally with the purpose of enlightening impressionable young minds. There’s nothing wrong with either the rational solution or life in Toyland, of course: nevertheless these are the two shores that we’re intent on leaving. Or rather, it is the means of getting from one world to another, the scaffolding that will transport us from the known to the unknown, which we’re interested in. In my novel, The Known and Unknown Sea, the inhabitants of a small Welsh town receive mysterious tickets promising them free passage to the mysterious other-side of the Bay: when they arrive there they find themselves on a papier-mâché moon which resembles nothing so much as a child’s model or drawing of their world back home: wonky lines, badly drawn houses, the art-room smell of glue and paint. Likewise, in my first book, The Sleepwalkers’ Ball, a mundane Scottish town turns inexplicably silent, insubstantial and black and white. The ‘other’ thus turns out to be a crazy mirror version of the ordinary, or rather, the line between the two becomes increasingly erased.
From the mysterious opening at the back of a wardrobe, to the train waiting at platform nine and three quarters, many of the most popular fictions are based around a portal or passageway between the ordinary and the extraordinary, this world and the other side. The Surrealists too were fascinated with the idea of trap doors, secret passages, mysterious pathways hidden among the familiar. Think about a geographic space that you know very well – this might be your home, workplace, college or school – and describe something there that might serve as an opening to another realm. How does it work? Who finds it? What lies on the other side?
Uncanny Valleys, Mysterious Shapes
The term’ Magic Realism’ was first used by German Art Historian Franz Roh in an article on Central European Art in 1925. Roh was interested in paintings by artists as diverse as Otto Dix, Georg Schrimpf, Christian Schad, and Alexander Kanoldt, which he saw as breaking with the central tenets of Expressionism. Unlike Expressionism – where vivid colours, savage, irregular brush strokes and deliberately crude compositions seek to capture extreme states of mind in pictorial form – the so-called Magic Realists, at least on first glance, seemed to be much more conventionally realistic or mimetic, aiming for the flat objectivity of photography. However, on closer inspection, Roh argued that something much stranger and more mysterious was going on, am indefinable otherness haunting these apparently straight forward landscapes, still lives or studio portraits, “a mystery that does not descend to the represented world, but rather hides and palpitates behind it” (Bowers 2004: 3). For Roh, beneath the surface of these apparently commonplace paintings lurked something strange, bewildering and disturbing, as if the curtain of reality had been pulled back just a quarter of an inch. Viewers felt as if there was something wrong with this picture, an eeriness or alien quality glimpsed from the corner of one’s eye. Either the angles did not quite match, or the light sources were wrong, or the scale and perspective were subtly out; in each case, the ordinary seemed estranged from itself, defamiliarized, in that ugly but highly charged phrase, othered. Unlike the exaggerated and heightened ‘savagery’ of Expressionism, Magic Realist paintings, Roh argued, were painted in a deliberately flat and sober manner: the strangeness lay in which something estranged could be glimpsed within the very fabric and texture of the humdrum everyday.
Italian critic Massimo Bontempelli subsequently applied this idea to literature, exploring the idea that miracles might appear in the midst of the banal or boring (indeed, both writers can be linked back to a long tradition of Romantic Idealism: the existence of spiritual elements discernable beneath the thick crust of matter (Warnes 2009: 20)). Both Roh and Bontempelli were interested in works of art or literature that seem inexplicably transparent, allowing another, magical world to peek-through. The silent partner in all of this thinking is, of course, Sigmund Freud, whose 1919 essay ‘The Uncanny’ argues that that which is most truly ‘other’ or aberrant is to be found in the home rather than in some exotic, or far flung location (Freud 2003: 123). Thus while the Gothic sought out sites of otherness in ruined castles, haunted moors or sublime mountain peaks, Freud argues that the truly strange hides among the familiar, when an everyday thing is suddenly seen in a new light. For Freud – and Surrealist artists such as Max Ernst which followed him- the face glimpsed among the wallpaper, the bulge in the curtain, or the shadowy shape hiding under the bed are ultimately far weirder (in the true sense of the word) and terrifying than any vampire’s tomb: the horror of the everyday turned radically, ontologically, unknown (Freud 2003: 130).
For Freud, this bewildering phenomenon could be explained by the functioning of the unconscious mind. In psychoanalytic theory, the pleasure principle (as opposed to the reality principle) fails to differentiate between what is really happening, what might happen, and what one fears or wishes at any given moment (young children are particularly bad at discriminating here). Thus in the unconscious mind, the real and the imagined or fantasised are placed on the same plane of reality: the logical part of brain is switched off, allowing the inexplicable free rein (Gay 1989: 80). Of course the scientist Freud sees this as a misapprehension, whereas both Roh and Bontempelli discern hidden yet real spiritual forces: nevertheless all of this school of thought grows out of a Germanic tradition rooted in a denial of Kant’s separation of existence into the phenomenal (physical things, matter) and the numinous (the realm of the divine, the spirit, the Ideal) (Warnes 2009: 23). Suddenly the distinction between subject/object, spirit/matter and reality/vision all seem to collapse: but what should be our response?
Describe either a character gazing out of their upstairs window (they might be at home, at work, or in some other intimately familiar place) or idly watching TV, when they suddenly catch sight of something impossible, something that does not fit with this everyday world. Describe this impossibility in as realistic yet unemotional a manner as possible. Flatten your prose so that the alien feels as if it is made of the same material as everything else in your world. Your character does not register any surprise and seems unperturbed by what they see: nevertheless, what do they do?
Seasick on the sea of dreams
Bontempelli’s essay proved extremely influential, blending with a parallel interest in psychoanalysis and surrealism, and reaching an audience as far a field as Alejo Carpentier in Cuba and Miguel Ángel Asturias in Guatemala. And yet at this point we reach a parting of the ways, along with the suggestion that there may be more than one way to reach the other shore.
For Andre Breton’s Surrealists – following from Freud – the penetration of the impossible within the real is felt as “convulsive”, “the marvellous” as “the eruption of contradiction within the real” (Breton 2011: 453). Central to this idea is an assumption that we are naturally conservative, conformist creatures, ruled by habit, repetition and convention. We do the same things, talk to the same people, and go to the same places, without ever so much as looking up from the ground. For Breton, this is the tyranny of the habitual: the inability to escape one’s mundane groove. However, the Surrealists believed that if we stepped off the well-worn path, turned left instead of right, caught the train before ours, or followed a stranger down the street, then we might find ourselves somewhere very different, turning the corner into a very different realm.
Moreover, Surrealism preached that there were signs and maps indicating this other world – X marks the spot. Incongruous street signs, objects in store windows, shadows on the wall, stains on the floor: all these were omens, symbols, either arrows pointing the way, or tools to dig ourselves out of our bourgeois hole. The key to Surrealist art is that you don’t make it, but find it: hence the search for magical objects in junkshops, weird fetish objects in flea markets, secret doors in funfairs or at the back of the circus. This magical exit door was to be found in precisely those places where the mechanised rule of law and order were at their weakest: cinemas, toyshops, junk yards, seedy run-down arcades. Here, amongst the erotic postcards and broken toys, one might find a picture of some imaginary city, a peculiarly suggestive item of clothing, a torn book in a foreign language. For Breton, the ‘marvellous’ is always to be found among that which society discards, the trash and the litter, rummaging in the debris of the worthless. The ‘marvellous’ must be sought out therefore, as our rational, positivist society had consigned it to the rubbish pail: it was always hidden, camouflaged, disguised, just like the spiritual energies Roh detected in Magic Realist Art.
Not that the marvellous is always positive or sacred in Breton’s eyes: on the contrary, its presence is always upsetting, confusing and inescapably alarming. It might be likened to wandering away from the beaten path into an endless, awful labyrinth, or digging up a doll or statue whose shape or visage both fascinates and appals. The marvellous intrudes on our world – it does not belong here. Its pimple-like eruption manifests itself as a threat to the established order, to reason or logic or morality. It cannot be assimilated into our everyday lives: it is scandalously, shockingly, irredeemably other. In the title story of my 2016 collection, ‘Anywhere Out of the World’, the postman Urbino searches for a Parisian address which does not, cannot exist: when he eventually finds the way in (via a strangely three dimensional painting), there is no way back.
Think of the places you have been to where you have felt the farthest from home, either in a positive or negative sense. It may be an exotic escape from the everyday or an environment where you felt you really did not belong. It may be the language or the customs that seemed so bewildering, or a sense of being lost, alienated, or unable to make sense of the sights, activities or people around you. Try to list the key elements that accounted for this profound sense of otherness, what Kafka called “sea-sickness on dry land”. Now try to apply this sense of estrangement to a place you know very well – your workplace, old school, local pub. Write a short piece of prose win which the commonplace or domestic takes on something of the texture and nature of the utterly strange.
On Farther Shores
As much as Latin American writers such as Carpentier were drawn toward the possibilities of Surrealism, ultimately Breton’s ideas seemed at once too abstract, too limited, too (paradoxically) middle class (Schroeder 2004: 6). The surrealists needed to have the leisure and means for their games of metaphysical hide and seek, searching for that four-leaved clover among the boulevards and cafes of Paris. Moreover, the assumption that the rational and mechanical was the norm from which the marvellous was implicitly an escape simply didn’t square with the Latin American experience. Rather than something to be sniffed out by sophisticated European noses, for Carpentier, lo real maravilloso was a constituent part of the Post-Colonial experience, as real – and as local – as the climate or the soil (Schroeder 2004: 6).
Indeed, for Carpentier, Magic Realism is best understood as a uniquely Latin American phenomenon, the product of “a juxtaposition of circumstances unimaginable in other places on the planet” (Schroeder 2004: 3). The fiction most closely associated with the Magic Realist ‘boom’, all draw upon the region’s rich and heterogeneous culture: indigenous Mayan or Aztec culture, Afro-Caribbean folk magic, Catholicism and the European Baroque. This ethnic mixture of indigenous people, slaves and settlers, inter-mingles Shamanism, voodoo, and Catholic superstition to create a mythic folk culture defined by a belief in the permeability of the barrier between this world and the next, a world where an acknowledgement of the existence of angels, ghosts and evil spirits appears as part of the very nature of the real. Here the magical is less an intruder, than a tax-paying citizen: indeed, in the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, it is the scientific and the modern which is seen as the ‘other’ and whose presence is most keenly felt as a disturbance in the fabric of life. Thus rather than an antagonistic element (as we have seen with the Surrealists), in the South American tradition, magic is normalised and integrated, the supernatural recorded in deliberately flat, non-judgemental prose. Carpentier believed that the Surrealists “turned their back on reality”, looking for some kind of escape tunnel from an over bureaucratic and mechanised world (Schroeder, 2004: 6). By way of contrast, the Latin American writers embrace reality, the reality that, in Garcia-Marquez’s words, “is also the myths of the common people … their beliefs, their legends; these are their everyday lives and they affect their triumphs and failings” (Schroeder 2004: 6). Surrealism is the avant-garde cocking a snoot at the everyday; Magic Realism is folk art, the art of the people, not hidden in the dusty corner of a library, but right here, directly to hand.
Think about what vestiges of folk culture or magical thinking still exist in our world today. This can range from urban legends – of ghosts, serial killers, haunted buildings – to ancient folklore, or different forms of non-scientific belief. Where do we find these patterns of other, non-empirical ways of looking at the world? We might think of the Internet and conspiracy theories or playground tales or religious belief or astrology columns or New age mysticism or the kind of superstitious thinking we’re all prone to: the belief that stepping on a crack or saying a forbidden name three times will have mysterious consequences. Write a first person piece of work from the perspective of a character for whom these beliefs are an integral part of daily life. How do they reconcile the mythic and the mundane? How does this alter how they see, and how you write about, the world?
Dreams for sale
While all of this may sound attractive and convincing, it also sets up a whole series of literary problems. One is the question of how portable a Magic Realist aesthetic might be. If the form is rooted in a specific and highly complex culture, then can the recipe be duplicated elsewhere, except in a bland, or watered down form? Moreover, this model also sets up a number of quandaries concerning the implied reader. A visitor from outside this culture will interpret the various fantastical events – the levitations, ghosts, visions and so on – as literally impossible (which is to say, outside of the realm of scientific possibility) and therefore read the book as an example of the exotically primitive, a colourful fairy tale of poor folk from a country far, far away. Although the prose might work hard to normalize the impossible, the reader will continue to register key events as outside of realism, even if they have tangible effects in the text (or in other words, they actually happen). Hence Jean Franco’s dismissal of the term Magic Realism as no more than a “brand name for exoticism”, an out-sourcing of poor-people’s fantasy (Warnes 2009:1). The brand’s patronising view of the poor and marginalised as irrational children thus continues the colonial project under another name: gap year literature for the globalized literati.
The Margins and the Centre
In all of this, we should remember that Carpentier and Marquez were self-consciously setting out to differentiate their work from the dominant European model (associated with colonialism) and to define a movement that both legitimizes and lionises the Latin American experience. Central to both writers’ thinking is the assumption that Magic Realism blooms on the margins of the known world, on the periphery, or the border. Hence, Marquez’s seminal One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) is set in the fictional town of Macondo on the isolated Caribbean coast of Columbia, far from a European centre, Europeans seen as the foci of power, authority and meaning, those who determine what is and is not real. The idea that ‘realism’ is the norm is itself ideologically loaded, of course, assuming that there is some kind of consensus as to what reality is. The greater the distance from the centre, the more reality becomes subject to local pressure: hence as a genre or movement, Magic Realism always exists far from the centres of administrative control, on the edge of (so-called) civilization.
As a model, at first sight this doesn’t seem to fit in with European examples very well at all. After all, the Surrealists were chiefly busy in Paris – the epicentre of modernity – while the most famous European practitioner of the weird, Franz Kafka, worked as an insurance agent in a major city at the geographic heart of the continent. If one digs a little deeper, however, then similar patterns emerge. As a German-speaking Jew, Kafka felt himself as estranged from the newly formed Czechoslovakia as from the Austro-Hungarian empire, while the repetitive and somnambulant nature of his work allowed time and space for his imagination to ferment. Likewise, and as we have already seen, the Surrealists were drawn to precisely those things that the modern managerial, pragmatic, ends-orientated sensibility most disdains: the broken, the useless and the discarded. In this sense, a feeling of occupying the margins can be experienced almost anywhere: again, we might think that while the Gothic privileges lost or wild places, the Uncanny exists within the local.
This marginal status, however, gives room to escape the constrictions and commandments in force elsewhere, and thereby to question exactly what constitutes reality anyway. As Maggie Ann Bowers argues, Magic Realism is a disruptive form, blurring the distinctions between fantasy and reality, indeed questioning the very distinction in the first place, “a description of life’s many dimensions, seen and unseen, visible and invisible, rational and mysterious” (Bowers 2004: 82). For the critic Christopher Warnes, Magic Realism either expands existing categories of the real (the path of faith: we believe in the unseen) or ruptures them altogether (the path of irreverence: all systems of order are prone to collapse (Warnes 2009: 48). Whichever model an individual author is drawn to, it is a narrow, functional, capitalist notion of meaning being linked to purpose which is being challenged here: the margins writing back.
Think of a successful, accomplished, well-connected character, who is very much at home in the contemporary world. Then think of a scenario in which they are displaced into a place or situation far removed from this. This ‘fish out of water’ scenario is much beloved staple of Hollywood script-writers, but think about its deeper implications; what beliefs, assumptions or expectations will this jump in time or space serve to challenge? What happens when we find ourselves in a place where very different rules or ways of seeing the world apply?
The Real, the Fantastic, and the Cordon Sanitaire
While in literary theory the wall between fantasy and reality might seem very well policed, ‘twas not ever so. Indeed, if one goes back in literary history far enough, the idea of an antinomy between the realistic and the spiritual appears virtually incomprehensible, the chivalrous knight existing in the same world as ogres and dragons because the categories of the real and the fantastic simply did not exist (Warnes 2009: 32). For Fredric Jameson, the ‘disenchantment of the world’ is linked to the creation and growth of capitalism, a mercantile, secular world in which the real is defined by use or productivity – the very world the surrealists sought to flee (Warnes 2009: 34). This is the world of middle management: quantifiable, empirical, and rationalised for maximum efficiency. Any tradition which can’t be fed into this commercial algorithm, from myth to idle daydreams, is re-classified as worthless or unreal, the whole tradition of ‘romance’ becoming hopelessly archaic. The work that captures this moment best is, of course, Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1615); our befuddled hero might think that he’s jousting with giants, but, like Sancho Panzo, we know that he’s really just tilting at windmills. Thus does Romance disappear from the world; with the invention of modern spectacles we now all see the world for what it truly is.
In his famous essay on the book though, Carpentier stresses that he, for one, is on the Don’s side: he has faith that the giants are real, arguing that the purpose of literature is to challenge this very hierarchy of what is real and what is not (he also adds that Cervantes isn’t so sure either). In his fiction, Carpentier uses the romanticized accounts of the first European explorers – the idea of Latin America as an exotic, enchanted land – as a weapon against European rationality and empiricism, reclaiming these tropes to attack the notion that only the productive is true, his critique of realism simultaneously a rebuttal of colonial authority (Warnes 2009: 37).
Attractive as this idea might be, we might also at this point take issue with Jameson’s assertion that we live in a disenchanted, profane world. Rather than manufacturing a ruthlessly mechanistic and stable world, capitalism is awash with enchanted objects (just think of the role of advertising in consumer culture), mythical creatures (or celebrities, as we call them), mysterious cults (via the internet) and pre-fabricated fantasies of escapism. Indeed the ways in which the formal provocations of surrealism have been co-opted by Hollywood and Fifth Avenue suggest that late capitalism actively encourages the deconstruction of any distinction between who we really are and our fantasies of who we might be. The invention of CGI, virtual reality and our almost constant immersion in technology and social media all suggest that unreality is now our natural environment – or rather that our definitions of reality are as old fashioned as The Matrix (1999).
In this online environment, our bridge between reality and the fantastical threatens to collapse, the two banks becoming hopelessly confused. Magical thinking – and the saddling of political unicorns – now seems commonplace in our post-Truth world, Umberto Eco’s characterisation of the Middle Ages as a “universe of hallucination” eerily similar to our hyper-real, simulacra-infested world. As such, Magic Realism, which explores the multi-dimensional nature of the real without flattening or diluting it, may well be seen as the form best placed to explore this. After all, its creation of a third space between reason and the irrational, the material and immaterial, the known and the unknown now feels like our home – and as such the natural habitat of the uncanny.
But perhaps I exaggerate – and certainly, we’re not there yet, whatever some Postmodernists might tell you. Rather, I agree with Wendy Faris that the aura of the miraculous never fades away entirely, even in the most culturally rooted of Latin American texts (Faris 2004: 8). Disruption and instability follow the uncanny wherever it goes, whether in terms of our bridge across the waters, or our very understanding of the two countries involved. Indeed, as I argued at the start, this may well be its greatest strength. Encouraging students to write in a Magic Realist mode also encourages them to rethink categories of realism, fantasy, the imagined and the everyday, to find their arching bridge transformed into a perilous tight rope, or a narrow line of prose. As the tour guide in my novel, The Sleepwalkers’ Ball says, “hold on tight, ladies and gentlemen, hold on tight…”
How might the fantastical or uncanny be manifested in our technology-obsessed, online, computer-generated world? Write a piece in which the inexplicable or supernatural exists not in a dusty mansion or haunted castle, but in the devices and systems all around us – the ghost in the machine.
Bilton, A (2009) The Sleepwalkers’ Ball, Aberystwyth: Alcemi.
————- (2014) The Known and Unknown Sea, Manchester: Cillian.
————- (2016) Anywhere Out of the World, Manchester: Cillian.
Bowers, M.A (2004) Magic(al) Realism, Oxford: Routledge.
Brandon, R (1999) Surreal Lives, London: Macmillan.
Breton, A (2011), What is Surrealism?, New York: Path-Finder.
Faris, W.B (2004) Ordinary Enchantments: Magic Realism and the Remystification of Narrative, Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.
Freud, S (2003) The Uncanny, London: Penguin.
Gay P (1989), Freud, New York: W.W. Norton.
Schroeder, S (2004) Rediscovering Magical Realism in the Americas, Westport: Praeger.
Warnes, C (2009) Magical Realism and the Postcolonial Novel, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Zamora, L.P, and Faris, W (1995), Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, Durham: Duke University Press.