Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4742
Magic realism is commonly associated with Latin American novelists such as Gabriel García Márquez, Alejo Carpentier, Isabel Allende and Miguel Angel Asturias. The term, however, originated in Europe in the 1920s when it was applied not to literature, but to painting. Since then, critics have made use of the term when dealing with various art forms including, more recently, cinema. The lack of an agreed definition and the proliferation of its use in various contexts have resulted in confusion. This, in turn, has led to the indiscrimi- nate use of the term to describe almost any work of literature or art that somehow departs from the established canons of realism.
Despite terminological and conceptual problems, which have persuaded a number of critics to abandon it, the term continues to have, in Fredric Jameson’s words, “a strange seductiveness.” Furthermore, it can be argued, as I do, that Magic Realism, properly defined, is a term that describes works of art and fiction sharing certain identifiable thematic, formal and structural characteristics, and that these characteristics justify it being considered an aesthetic and literary category in its own right, independent of others such as the Fantastic and Surrealism, with which it is often confused. This article attempts to put forward a framework that will incorporate the different manifestations of Magic Realism into one single model, and in this way, help to clarify the present confusion by distinguishing between different types of Magic Realism, while maintaining the links and points of contact between them.
The first to use the term was the German art critic, Franz Roh. He applied it to a group of painters living and working in Germany in the 1920s who, after the First World War, rejected what they saw as the intensity and emotionalism of Expressionism, the tendency that had dominated German art before the War. These artists, who included painters such as Carl Grossberg, Christian Schad, Alexander Kanoldt, Georg Schrimpf, Carlo Mense and Franz Radziwill, prescribed a return to the representation of reality, but under a new light. The world of objects was to be approached in a new way, as if the artist was discovering it for the first time. Magic Realism, as it was then understood, was not a mixture of reality and fantasy but a way to uncover the mystery hidden in ordinary objects and everyday reality.
In 1927 the Spanish writer and philosopher José Ortega y Gasset had Roh’s book translated and published in his influential journal Revista de Occidente. The term Magic Realism soon became widely used by Latin American critics in the context of literature. The Argentinian writer and critic Enrique Anderson Imbert, for example, writes that the term was used in the cultural circles of Buenos Aires in the 1930s to refer to European writers such as Kafka, Bontempelli, Cocteau and Chesterton. The first to apply the term to Latin American literature was the Venezuelan writer Arturo Uslar Pietri. At that time, the generally accepted meaning of Magic Realism was still based on Roh’s definition.
In 1949 Alejo Carpentier published his novel El reino de este mundo. In its prologue the Cuban novelist introduced his concept of “lo real maravilloso americano”, by which he referred not to the fantasies or inventions of a particular author, but to the number of real objects and events which make the American continent so different from Europe. In Carpentier’s view, America’s natural, cultural and historical prodigies are an inexhaustible source of real marvels: “¿qué es la historia de América toda sino una crónica de lo real maravilloso?” Furthermore, this marvellous reality was supposed to be qualitatively superior to “la agotante pretensión de suscitar lo maravilloso que caracterizó ciertas literaturas europeas de estos últimos treinta años.” In this way Carpentier manifested his disillusion with Surrealism, a movement he had joined while living in Paris.
Surrealism was, to a large extent, a reaction against the excessive emphasis on a rational outlook demanded by the Western traditions of empiricism and scientific positivism. It aimed at liberating the creative forces of the unconscious and the imagination, and was profoundly influenced by the work of Freud. It was the product of a highly developed industrial society where the ability to be amazed and enchanted by mystery had been lost. Carpentier’s “lo real maravilloso”, on the other hand, while taking the Surrealists’ fascination with “le merveilleux” as a departure point, presents two contrasting views of the world (one rational, modern and discursive; the other magical, traditional and intuitive) as if they were not contradictory. In Latin America, for example, the rational mentality that accompanies modernity often coexists with popular forms of religion largely based on the beliefs of ethno-cultural groups of non-Western origin such as the Native and Afro-Americans. Instead of searching for a “separate reality”, hidden just beneath the existing reality of everyday life, as the Surrealists intended, “lo real maravilloso” signals the representation of a reality modified and transformed by myth and legend. In this, it comes closer to the ideas of Jung, especially his concept of the “collective unconscious”, which relates to the fabrication of myth, than to Freudian psychoanalysis with its emphasis on the individual unconscious, neurosis and the erotic, which attracted the Surrealists.
Carpentier’s sense of amazement at the “marvellous” reality of America, however, can be seen as a reflexion of the European myth of the “New World” as a place of wonders, based on a constant reference to European experience as a measure for comparison. This is clearly seen in the chronicles of discovery and conquest, from Columbus’ diary to Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s history of the conquest of Mexico, which according to Carpentier is “el único libro de caballería real y fidedigno que se haya escrito.”
Also in the 1940s, the Guatemalan writer Miguel Angel Asturias was moving away from Surrealism towards ideas and concerns similar to Carpentier’s. Asturias was interested in how the Maya of Guatemala conceive of a reality coloured by magical beliefs:
Las alucinaciones, las impresiones que el hombre obtiene de su medio tienden a transformarse en realidades, sobre todo allí donde existe una determinada base religiosa y de culto, como en el caso de los indios. No se trata de una realidad palpable, pero sí de una realidad que surge de una determinada imaginación mágica. Por ello, al expresarlo, lo llamo “realismo mágico”.
A few years after Carpentier’s formulation of “lo real maravilloso”, Angel Flores delivered a lecture on “Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction” to the 1954 Congress of the Modern Languages Association in New York. Published in a subsequent article, it contributed to popularise the term Magic Realism among critics to the extent that it came to overshadow “lo real maravilloso”. Flores departed from Roh’s original formulation as he considered Magic Realism an “amalgamation of realism and fantasy.” He included in this category all those narratives which achieved a “transformation of the common and everyday into the awesome and the unreal” and where “time exists in a kind of timeless fluidity and the unreal happens as part of reality.” These included, according to him, the works of Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, María Luisa Bombal, Juan José Arreola, and others. Based on Flores’ definition, Magic Realism began to be associated with a certain type of narrative which employs apparently reliable, realistic descriptions of impossible or fantastic events (the exact opposite, in fact, of what the original term signified). The terms Magic Realism and “realismo maravilloso” became more or less interchangeable and were applied to an increasing number of Latin American writers associated with the post-Second World War “New Novel”.
In 1967 the Mexican critic Luis Leal attempted to return to Roh’s original formula of making the ordinary seem supernatural. According to Leal, the writer of magic realist texts deals with objective reality and attempts to discover the mystery that exists in objects, in life and in human actions, without resorting to fantastic elements: “lo principal (en el realismo mágico) no es la creación de seres o mundos imaginados, sino el descubrimiento de la misteriosa relación que existe entre el hombre y su circunstancia.” Similarly, the Argentinian Enrique Anderson Imbert rejected the presence of the supernatural in Magic Realism. The latter, for Anderson Imbert, is preternatural rather than supernatural, in other words, it exceeds in some way what is normal, ordinary or explicable, without transcending the limits of the natural. Instead of creating a text where the principles of logic are rejected and the laws of nature reversed, magic realist narratives, in his view, give real events an illusion of unreality.
At this point it will have become apparent that the debate between critics has been provoked, to a large extent, by the existence of two different, and even apparently contradictory, understandings of the term: (i) the original one, which refers to a type of literary or artistic work which presents reality from an unusual perspective without transcending the limits of the natural, but which induces in the reader or viewer a sense of unreality; and (ii) the current usage, which describes texts where two contrasting views of the world (one “rational” and one “magical”) are presented as if they were not contradictory, by resorting to the myths and beliefs of ethno-cultural groups for whom this contradiction does not arise.
Usage (i) comprises the definitions proposed by Roh, Leal, Anderson Imbert, and the United States critic Seymour Menton. As a style, it presents the natural and the ordinary as supernatural, while structurally excluding the supernatural as a valid interpretation. Usage (ii), which is the one most commonly employed by critics of Latin American fiction and has now largely replaced the previous one, is based, to a considerable extent, on “lo real maravilloso”. In fact, in the Latin American context, Magic Realism and “lo real maravilloso” have now become synonymous and have been mentioned not only in connection with Carpentier’s and Asturias’ novels but also with the work of writers such as Gabriel García Márquez, Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, Rosario Castellanos, Juan José Arreola, Manuel Scorza, Isabel Allende and José Maria Arguedas. Usage (ii) refers, stylistically, to texts where the supernatural is presented as normal and ordinary, in a matter-of-fact way. Structurally, it considers the presence of the supernatural in the text as essential for the existence of Magic Realism. A. B. Chanady, for example, proposes three criteria to determine whether a text belongs to Magic Realism or not: firstly, the presence in the text of two conflicting views of reality, representing the natural and the supernatural, the rational and the irrational, or the “enlightened” and the “primitive”. Secondly, the resolution of this antinomy through the narrator accepting both views as equally valid. Thirdly, authorial reticence in the absence of obvious judgements on the veracity or authenticity of supernatural events.
Neither usage (i) nor usage (ii) on its own is sufficient to account for all the different examples of magic realist works. Usage (i), for example, leaves out key novels such as Cien años de soledad (1967) by Gabriel García Márquez and Hombres de maiz (1949) by Miguel Angel Asturias, because of their descriptions of impossible or fantastic events; while usage (ii) excludes equally important novels such as Crónica de una muerte anunciada (1981), also by García Márquez, and Los pasos perdidos (1953) by Alejo Carpentier, for they do not include supernatural or fantastic occurrences. Given the existence of these two different interpretations of Magic Realism corresponding to two different traditions, one pictorial and mainly European, the other literary and mainly Latin American, I propose the following typology which will unify the definitions put forward by critics in both continents. Instead of two completely different conceptions of Magic Realism, the two understandings should be seen as two sides of the same coin. There is, indeed, the possibility of a third type of Magic Realism, which I will discuss below. It has to be stressed that there are many points of overlap between the three types proposed, and that they are by no means mutually exclusive. Works by the same author, furthermore, might well fall into different categories. These categories correspond, moreover, to three different meanings of the word “magic”.
Metaphysical Magic Realism
This form of Magic Realism corresponds to Roh’s ideas and the original definition of the term. Examples of this type of Magic Realism, consequently, are common in painting, where unsettling perspectives, unusual angles, or naive “toy-like” depictions of real objects produce a “magical” effect. “Magic” here is taken in the sense of conjuring, producing surprising effects by the arrangement of natural objects by means of tricks, devices or optical illusion. This approach can be observed in some of the works of Giorgio de Chirico, a painter who had the most important, direct and acknowledged influence on the German painters studied by Roh.
Together with Carlo Carrà, who would later found in Italy a movement called Realismo Magico, De Chirico established a style known as Pittura Metafisica, which was characterised by its sharp lines and contours, and by the airless and static quality and eerie atmosphere of the scenes portrayed. De Chirico explained the use of the term “metaphysical” for his work:
it is the tranquil, flawless beauty of matter that seems metaphysical to me, and things appear metaphysical to me when through their clarity of color, the precision of their dimensions, they form contrasts with each “shadow”.
In literature, Metaphysical Magic Realism is found in texts that induce a sense of unreality in the reader by the technique of Verfremdung, by which a familiar scene is described as if it were something new and unknown, but without dealing explicitly with the supernatural, as for example, in Franz Kafka’s Der Prozeß (1925) and Das Schloß (1926); Dino Buzzati’s Il deserto dei Tartari (1940) and Jorge Luis Borges’ stories “Tema del traidor y del héroe”, “La secta del Fénix” and “El Sur”. The result is often an uncanny atmosphere and the creation within the text of a disturbing impersonal presence, which remains implicit, very much as in Albert Camus’ La Peste (1947), Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) or Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898). Also belonging to this type of Magic Realism are those works that present phenomena of the preternatural kind, in Anderson Imbert’s characterisation. Examples of this are Borges’ “Funes el memorioso”, about a man who could remember literally everything; and Patrick Süskind’s Das Parfum (1985), where the protagonist is endowed with a monstrously developed sense of smell.
Dino Buzzati’s novel Il deserto dei Tartari has often been compared to Kafka’s Das Schloß. It is the story of Giovanni Drogo, a young lieutenant who is commissioned to Fort Bastiani, a fortress that guards the Northern Frontier against a mythical enemy which has not been heard of for centuries. Buzzati describes the monastic regime of the fort where soldiers and officers remain in strict readiness for battle, constantly waiting for the invisible enemy that would justify their and the Fort’s existence. Like Kafka, Buzzati presents a world recognisable as within the boundaries of the real. Despite its superficial similarities with the world of the reader, however, the latter cannot help finding it alien and disconcerting. The time and the geography of the events are uncertain. A serene and melancholy atmosphere similar to that of De Chirico’s paintings contributes to produce an effect of mystery which is achieved without resorting to the irruption of the supernatural in the narrative. Buzzati’s novel, like Kafka’s, opens in the reader’s mind the suspicion of being confronted with an allegory or a metaphor of something which remains almost within grasp and yet, unknown.
Anthropological Magical Realism
In this type of Magic Realism the narrator usually has “two voices”. Sometimes he/she depicts events from a rational point of view (the “realist” component) and sometimes from that of a believer in magic (the “magical” element). This antinomy is resolved by the author adopting or referring to the myths and cultural background (the “collective unconscious”) of a social or ethnic group: the Maya of Guatemala, in the case of Asturias; the Black Haitian population, in Carpentier; and small rural communities in Mexico and Colombia, in Rulfo and García Márquez. The word “magic” in this case is taken in the anthropological sense of a process used to influence the course of events by bringing into operation secret or occult controlling principles of Nature. This is the most current and specific definition of Magic Realism and it is strongly associated with Latin American fiction. European critics such as Jean Weisgerber reserve the term “realismo maravilloso” exclusively for the Latin American variety, in order to distinguish it from European Magic Realism, which generally approximates to the metaphysical type. Although this type of Magic Realism is, in my view, synonymous with “lo real maravilloso”, Anthropological Magic Realism is a more exact and useful term, as it places it within a larger category (Magic Realism) of which it is a part, as well as not confining it to Latin America, as “lo real maravilloso (americano)” does.
In Latin American literature, Anthropological Magic Realism forms part of a more general trend reflecting a thematic and formal preoccupation with the strange, the uncanny and the grotesque, and with violence, deformity and exaggeration. This tendency, apparent in writers as diverse as Andrade, Arreola, Asturias, Borges, Cabrera Infante, Carpentier, Cortázar, Fuentes, García Márquez, Lezama Lima, Marechal, Onetti, Puig, Roa Bastos, Rulfo, Sábato and Vargas Llosa, has been named neobarroquismo by some critics to emphasise its roots in the Latin American tradition of Baroque art and literature. Similar concerns, however, were to be found in the “modernista” movement and especially in the short stories of the Uruguayan Horacio Quiroga (1878–1937). “Modernismo” has had a profound impact on writers such as Borges, Paz, Cortázar and Lezama Lima. Latin American Magic Realism draws on these two literary traditions, but also on that represented by other writers such as William Faulkner and Jorge Amado who, in their writings, show the contrast between the claustrophobic and stagnant atmosphere of provincial or rural communities and the vivid imagination of those who live in them. In both Faulkner and Amado, the lives of the characters are subtly but constantly overshadowed by the slave-holding past of their societies (the Southern United States and North-Eastern Brazil, respectively). In the culture of the descendants of the slaves and other groups that live in contact with them, there are echoes of magical beliefs, half-forgotten but still powerful enough to influence attitudes and behaviour.
Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo (1955) and Gabriel García Márquez’s La mala hora (1962) also depict the asphyxiating atmosphere of provincial life. In this, however, they depart from previous Latin American realist novels such as Rómulo Gallegos’ Doña Bárbara (1929), Jorge Icaza’s Huasipungo (1934) and Graciliano Ramos’ Vidas se–cas (1938). An important difference is the existence of a “magical consciousness” in the characters, which is regarded by the author as equal or superior to Western rationalism. This feature links Anthropological Magic Realism to popular culture.
The survival in popular culture of a magical and mythical Weltanschauung, which coexists with the rational mentality generated by modernity, is not an exclusively Spanish-American phenomenon. It can be found also in areas of the Caribbean, Asia and Africa where writers such as Wilson Harris (Guyana), Simone Schwarz-Bart (Guadeloupe) and Jacques Stephen Alexis (Haiti) in the Caribbean, the Indian-born Salman Rushdie, and Amos Tutuola and Olympe Bhêly-Quénum in Africa, have resorted to Magic Realism when dealing, in English or French, with similar concerns to those of Spanish American writers.
La littérature la plus contemporaine des Antilles et de l’Amérique Latine parvient, semble-t-il, à se fixer à la fois dans un contexte national et dans un contexte universel, en faisant appel à des archétypes hérités de la culture traditionnelle, mais aussi en découvrant d’autres au coeur de la réalité moderne.
In fact, the strength of Magic Realism in the “periphery” (Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean) and its comparative weakness in the “core” (Western Europe, the USA), could be explained by the fact that collective myths acquire greater importance in the creation of new national identities, as well as by the more obvious fact that pre-industrial beliefs still play an important part in the socio-political and cultural lives of developing countries. Magic Realism gives popular culture and magical beliefs the same degree of importance as Western science and rationality. In doing this, it furthers the claims of those groups which hold these beliefs to equality with the modernising elites which govern them.
Ontological Magic Realism
Unlike anthropological Magic Realism, ontological Magic Realism resolves antinomy without recourse to any particular cultural perspective. In this “individual” form of Magic Realism the supernatural is presented in a matter-of-fact way as if it did not contradict reason, and no explanations are offered for the unreal events in the text. There is no reference to the mythical imagination of preindustrial communities. Instead, the total freedom and creative possibilities of writing are exercised by the author, who is not worried about convincing the reader. The word “magic” here refers to inexplicable, prodigious or fantastic occurrences which contradict the laws of the natural world, and have no convincing explanation.
The narrator in Ontological Magic Realism is not puzzled, disturbed or sceptical of the supernatural, as in Fantastic Literature; he or she describes it as if it was a normal part of ordinary everyday life. Formally, the factual style employed in Ontological Magic Realism, where impossible situations are described in a very realistic way, represents the exact opposite of the technique of Verfremdung used in Metaphysical Magic Realism.
Examples of the ontological type are Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (1916), Carpentier’s “Viaje a la semilla”, and some of Julio Cortázar’s stories such as “Axolotl” and “Carta a una señorita en París”. This type of text can be interpreted sometimes at the psychological level, and the events described seen as the product of the mind of a “disturbed” individual, as in Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman”. They should be regarded as magic realist, however, for these “subjective” views are endorsed by the “objective” impersonal narrator, by other characters or by the realistic description of events that take place in a normal and plausible framework. Instead of having only a subjective reality, therefore, the unreal has an objective, ontological presence in the text.
Julio Cortázar’s short stories often deal with strange, unexpected or unexplained occurrences. Antinomy, in most of them, is left unresolved in order to produce a disturbing effect on the reader, as in “La noche boca arriba”, “El ídolo de las Cícladas”, “Continuidad de los parques” and “La isla a mediodía”. These stories belong not to Magic Realism but to the related mode of Fantastic Literature. In some of Cortázar’s stories, however, antinomy is underplayed by presenting a supernatural event as if it did not contradict reason. In “Axolotl”, for example, the narrator explains at the beginning of the story that he is an axolotl, an amphibious creature from Mexico, and then proceeds to recount how he became one. He used to be a man who became obsessed with the axolotls when he visited the aquarium. After studying them intensely for many days, he actually became transformed into an axolotl. No surprise is expressed by the narrator in the face of such an unusual occurrence:
[. . .]no hubo nada de extraño en lo que ocurrió. Mi cara estaba pegada al vidri del acuario, mis ojos trataban una vez más de penetrar el misterio de esos ojos de oro sin iris y sin pupila. Veía de muy cerca la cara de un axolotl inmóvil junto al vidrio. Sin transición, sin sorpresa, vi mi cara contra el vidrio, en vez del axolotl vi mi cara contra el vidrio, la vi fuera del acuario, la vi del otro lado del vidrio. Entonces mi cara se apartó y yo comprendí.
As in Kafka’s Die Verwandlung, where in the first paragraph the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant insect, the horrific transformation is described almost incidentally. There is no apparent antinomy between the natural and the supernatural. The statement that the narrator is an axolotl (“Ahora soy un axolotl”) is made in the same tone used to describe an ordinary action (“Dejé mi bicicleta contra las rejas y fui a ver los tulipanes”). The ordinary and the extraordinary are portrayed on exactly the same level of reality. Cortázar does not want to titillate his reader with mystery or suspense. No explanation is called for, or put forward, for the incredible occurrence. The reader is simply invited to accept the ontological reality of the event.
Magic Realism is a label that has been applied to a number of works of art and literature at different points in time. At first, it appears that those who have used the term, or continue to use it, have in mind widely different concepts. On closer inspection, however, it is possible to detect similarities and links between the different usages. This makes it necessary, for the sake of clarity, to differentiate between the various types of work being categorised as magic realist. The fact that there is a degree of overlap between the three types of Magic Realism suggested here, and the fact that works by the same author can belong to different types, demonstrate that they are all related in different ways.
The magic realist novels belonging to Italo Calvino’s trilogy I nostri antenati, for example, are difficult to categorise. Two of them, Il visconte dimezzato (1951), where a man is bisected by a cannonball and continues to live in two separate halves, and Il cavaliere inesistente (1959), about an empty suit of armour which moves as a result of its own will power, are close to the ontological variety because they depart from an initial absurd situation and then proceed methodically to explore the practical problems caused by it, moving towards a logical outcome (as in Kafka’s Die Verwandlung). They, however, borrow elements from popular sources such as fairy tales, the Sicilian puppet theatre and the medieval romances of chivalry and, in that way, approximate also to the anthropological type. The other novel, Il barone rampante (1957), tells a strange but not utterly impossible story, that of a boy who climbs up the trees and refuses to come down for the rest of his life. Despite its unusual departing point, the novel does not narrate any supernatural events. For this reason alone, it should be included in the metaphysical type, in spite of the fact that its tone evokes the playful and cheerful mood of adventure stories (Stevenson is frequently alluded to), instead of the eerie and melancholy atmosphere of most metaphysical magic realist novels and paintings.
García Márquez’s Crónica de una muerte anunciada, again, is characterised by the absence of the supernatural. The inevitability of its plot has some of the qualities of classical Greek tragedy. Although this points to the metaphysical, it also fits well with the anthropological, for it takes the view that reality is a collective construction. Some critics have drawn attention to the structural similarity between Magic Realism and the detective story, and although they typically have in mind Argentinian writers like Borges, Bioy Casares and Anderson Imbert, Crónica’s concise, perfect, wellknit plot provides a good example of this relationship, being in fact a detective story, albeit in reverse. Finally, the fact that anthropological magic realist novels such as Cien años de soledad and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) also make use of the stylistic device of Verfremdung, characteristic of Metaphysical Magic Realism, points to a formal relationship between the two types. The most memorable example is the scene in Cien años de soledad, where Aureliano is taken by his father to see the ice for the first time. Some- thing very ordinary is presented as if it were a real prodigy by describing it through the eyes of a character for whom this is the case.
Source: William Spindler, “Magic Realism: A Typology,” in Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, January 1993, pp. 75–85.
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