Magic realism

Here I want to record the following passage that concludes an essay discussing “magical realism” (I prefer magic realism–less clunky) as a narrative mode that, to varying degrees and with varying outcomes, (in simplistic terms) unites the real with the unreal. Magic realism normalizes or naturalizes supernatural, magical, surrealist, or fantastic narrative elements by contextualizing them with realism–that is, naturalistic, realistic detail and description, or normative terms.

First the passage.

Sweeping generalizations about magical realism are bound to fail; the term is best used not as a globalised postcolonial aesthetic category, but rather as a tool for understanding specific texts and contexts. Failing to recognize the differences between impulses behind magical realism has caused a great deal of confusion for literary criticism. Similarly, acknowledging such differences, but then falling back on the postmodern variety as a template against which other forms must be judged also leads to distorted interpretations. The way forward is to bear in mind that all criticism of any kind should always emerge out of a dialectic between the general and the specific. In this context that means above all resisting the urge to develop totalizing theories that cannot account for local difference, respecting the particular traditions and cultural currents that flow through magical realist texts, and ensuring, ultimately, that the text itself is allowed to enter into dialogue with the critical assumptions that seek to classify it. (12)

Warnes, Christopher. “Naturalizing the Supernatural: Faith, Irreverence and Magical Realism.” Literature Compass 2 (2005). 1-16.

Now a bit of rant-ridden rumination.

My paper on M. Wylie Blanchet’s The Curve of Time will examine how magic realism works to emphasise Blanchet’s encountering with place (pardon the potential pretentious ring there), and I am still working out how to authorize my discussion of this “mode” (I do like “mode”; that’s working for me). Certain literary and professorial types sometimes get a little blinky when I raise the issue, and honestly so do I, but the things that make me uncomfortable about it also make me want more.

Desolation Sound

(It’s related to the things that piss me off when people look at this regional space and call it paradise. Every time I hear someone do that, in that fucking voice, I think of the starving mangy cat on the road, untouchably affectionate and not yet dead, that must be cancelled–whether ignored, forgotten, or excused as “Mother Nature taking her course,” or otherwise obliterated from view–in order to maintain the roseappled vision of paradise, this healing place of abundant blessings to which we are CLEARLY entitled. Just cover the canker with a nice batik! wildcraft! motherfuck! blessed be!)

The interesting problem with magic realism is its sullying likeness to Orientalism, the colonialist attitude toward the other that leads keen Eurocentrics to embellish their curio cabinets with as many centaur women, enormous beetles, and forever formulas as possible. Stories of sasquatch, or of knowing things that haven’t happened yet, or of communicating with the dead, or dying and then living again, or scenes from the best shows watched altered late at night, become collections or guilty treats or silly stories allowed after the week, when all the real work is done. Don’t get me wrong–I am prone to involvement in all ways with this mode. THERE BE GIANT REVELATIONS WITHIN. The problem is the act of classification: certain things are real; other things are magic. The former governs, corrects, and houses the latter.

It is sincerely disappointing what a totalizing effect such problematics exact upon earnest and convoluted people like me. What. You don’t think I can come up with an excellent enough provisional definition that will grant the term’s passage into the pages of my Master’s Essay? To be fair, I am paraphrasing my interpretation of what the voices of those populating my paranoid fantasies say. But their faces uncannily resemble those of professors I know. They say, develop it; maybe they just mean, better you than me; I keep hearing, who do you think you are. It can be a little confusing at times.

Here is the painting by Harry Heine commissioned by Gray’s Publishing for the 1979 edition of The Curve of Time. I find it tremendously evocative of the drama and tone of the book.

In bare bones summary, The Curve of Time is a collection of writings narrating Blanchet’s stories of exploring the west coast of British Columbia, through the Inside Passage, into Jervis Inlet, Desolation Sound, Knight Inlet, and through the Broughton Archipelago as far north as Cape Caution. The stories account for perhaps somewhat more than ten summers spent on a 25-foot motor boat with a very small cabin that, from the end of April until early September, housed Blanchet–known as Capi–, her five children, the family dog, and everything they needed to spend four months at a time cruising the lacy and remote coastline during the 30s and 40s. Much of the content details their visits to First Nations’ villages and grave sites, though any contact with members of these communities is glaringly omitted. The collection of stories subverts chronology and even the sense of time passing; in part through her imagining of the area as timeless (anachronistic space), the stories account for Capi’s deeply felt connection to the region–the place–as she explores, to the extent that, I argue, she naturalizes herself to the environment and indigenizes herself to the area, producing what amounts to be, in the final analysis, a land claim.

I am discussing the ways Blanchet uses what I take to be magic realism in order to communicate this deep sense of phenomenological encounters with the place. That she is indeed not indigenous, and is instead a white woman with a privileged background and first-class education, weighs heavily on her claim to this region, given its actual indigenous culture. She perceives the area as a kind of utopia and her children, being raised up for a good part of each year in its waterways, as paradisal little brown children mucking about in the tides, knowing what they are doing because that is what she has raised them up to do. (And that is as close as I can bear to come to what she actually calls them.) And why shouldn’t she? Her agility with the boat and the kids, and her constant awareness that is generous, untiring, and ferociously calm notwithstanding the inevitable bears, cougars, engine failures, weather, hauntings, visions, and all the rest earn her this place, don’t they. Even with the boatload of copper bracelets collected from the shores under broken cedar burial boxes?

I don’t have to be clear. Not here, not just yet. This is a collecting place.

I had meant to just jot the passage down for safekeeping. But things never quite go that way.

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7 Responses to Magic realism

  1. jasminembla says:

    Is “Capi” supposed to be short for “Captain”? (Not for “capybara,” probably.)

    I love your thoughts and research on this magic/real phenomenology. Time is of the essence. Or is that–essence is made of time? Not that I’ve read the book, yet, but it seems to me that Capi’s narrative is a conceptual tesseraction–time ingests space to ingest time: But in what specific ways?

    IH makes a neat point in his dissertation about Mandeville’s Travels, a work that is, as you probably know, a medieval account of travel from western Europe to Jerusalem and beyond into the weird habitats of monopods and of paradise. IH suggests that the supposedly naive combination of factual geography and fictional or speculative geography is due to–is a function of–the text operating as a palimpsest of medieval genres. He also suggests that it is the “itinerary” narrative (first I went here and then I went there and saw this and after that I found out about that over there) that unites the disparate ontologies of these genres into one text, revealing or governing one kind of point of view or belief. And as Latour has suggested, it is belief that makes worlds. But, I guess, the problems of representation and violence come with the confusion that arises between such beliefs and writerly and readerly expectations. (Or the expectations of cats versus boomers.)

    Whether the itinerary of Mandeville functions to conjoin genres or whether the genres serve to construct the itinerary I don’t know. However, it seems to me that the action of this medieval “itinerary” is accomplished through a similar kind of tesseracting to Capi’s. Perhaps, as you say, it doesn’t so much matter what’s fact and what’s fiction as what the point of view is–i.e., how is the Pacific northwest indexed through Capi’s itinerary? What are the signs that point to her identity/belief/world? They could be just about anything, not just genre markers but also representations of real, material encounters with the land, as well as construals of native culture as history–which is why your work is so cool! Boats, copper bracelets, dead cats, trapped orca, the curve of the shell, the oceanic mirror, Davy Jones’s locker, cedar trees that grow into bones, the before-life and the after-life.

    Is Capi’s very captain-y memoir an itinerary indexing the world in relation to herself, herself to the world, or some hybrid? Is the text a hybrid made from lack or from love?

  2. owl says:

    Holy, holy, holy. Argh argh argh. Y u make me work so haaarrrrd? U not love me anymoar?

    Kidding, kidding. I’m going to need to meditate on this, but for starters, here goes:

    It sounds like IH’s dissertation might be required reading for me; Mandeville’s Travels is already in my utopian must-reads. I am floundering in that space-ingesting-time space in which the prime directive is READ MORE; it is hard to stop the reading. I am currently engaging the idea of perceived spirituality in the landscape of the Cascadia region, and looking for ways to talk about magic realism without it referring to a sub-genre of fiction. My gut tells me it’s about the perception that is born from the desire to see what is seen. But is there reciprocity between the landscape figuring itself as paradise–healing green space, promised land–and the desire to see it thus? Did the forest really sing? Does agency exist therein acting on others’ eyes–yours and mine–or on our dreams, or minds, or skins, or memories? Does it reach out to close the gap halfway between it and me? This lovely romance comes precariously close to new-ageisms that rouse deep suspicions in me due to the tones of voice so frequently accompanying them, and too often leading to ugly entitlement claims about paradise.

    Capi would likely have been exposed to medieval literature during her excellent studies, so this palimpsest notion really applies to my project, I think. Your raising of the palimpsest and the itinerary gestures at what is bothering me about the importance of the genre: The Curve of Time exceeds certain expectations of travel writing–if the expectations are that it that describe an itinerary (including records of what wonders were sighted along the way). But then, extremely few travel narratives are just lists–they are always interpretations and impressions that count on certain things emphasized and other things omitted. (In other words, the palimpsest is a rather Derridean pre-after-thought that goes, what you fill in or re/write here manifests an unattainable original that has always already been no longer here, yet must continuously be responded to with your imperfect efforts. Ugh.) Genre becomes a crucial issue because it classifies, and meanwhile the writing itself desperately seeks escape. The question for me has to do with the ways Blanchet’s writing seeks escape from reportage of local colour (what wonders! look at this spear!) to narratives that account less for adventures and more for ventures at understanding–her explorations explore her as much as she does them. Is that some of what you mean?

    Yes, Capi would be short for Captain. (Would she even have known about capybaras? No cute overload in her time . . . and she’d be more of a serious overload type anyway.)

    And btw, “tesseracting”? One of the many reasons why I love you. And yes, A Wrinkle in Time is ALSO on my reading list.

    More coffee, anyone?

  3. jasminembla says:

    Such a delicious reply! I’ll email you the diss. Xoxo

  4. michael says:

    I don’t entirely understand/agree with the classification myself (or even the labels of fiction/non-fiction making works ‘true’ or ‘untrue’. I mean aren’t all stories somewhere between? Someone’s possibility, another’s implausibility? Perhaps it’s simpler to say they’re neither. They’re interpretation.

    I think place is inherently the same. Whether in story or in view. To borrow a cliche, one’s trash is one other’s treasure. I don’t think any place is any different. I’ll use the example of a utopian city (although forgive me if I use the word utopia wrongly here.) A place where everyone lives at every moment happy is a utopia for some/one, but I think a place without suffering would be terrible. Unbearable to the point of meaninglessness. (I can’t help but believe I would rather be in Hell if Heaven existed, just to feel less alone in my own consumption and creation of misery.)

    I guess I can’t help but come back to interpretation. I feel the same way in your problems with the act of classification, in this time and space. But I certainly see the merit and meaningfulness of Blanchet’s work (although I haven’t read it.) She sees the world in her way, and I’m glad for it. I can’t help it just as much as you can’t help it just as much as she can’t help it. Let me ask you: do you see space as passing? As time as passing? Every moment and self of your life? Are you afraid as much of your death as your unlife? I wonder if we would have the same answers.

    I guess I’m just a bit sleep-deprived from a week of midterms and a heaping serving of assignments and things from my professors, so please know I don’t mean to seem cranky. Call me crap, but I think criticism is a great thing (I certainly enjoy yours), but I certainly enjoy her perspective and find value in it (as well as your reaction.) I mean, without someone to argue with, some suffering to suffer through and suffering people to suffer with (and yes I mean to make you suffer by repeating the word suffer many times!), who would we be? How would we feel? Would work have meaning if someone wasn’t there to say it didn’t/doesn’t/wouldn’t?)

    I wish you well, and some suffering too. (Please be glad, I try only to say that to the ones I care about.)

  5. Pingback: Old School Style Magical Realism and Quantum Mechanics « the story behind the faces

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