Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

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MAGICAL REALISM AT WORLD'S END by Michael Valdez Moses, continued

And surely those who wish to reform modernity as much as those who desire to manage it are likely to look to the past in order to imagine its future. Even the slaughter-benches and dust-bins of history may provide a revealing clue as to what awaits us at the visible limits of our global horizon. Even so, the notion that magical realism offers a radical challenge to or decisive break with global modernity is an illusion. In fact, whatever its charm and novelty, magical realism may be classed as only the most recent version of what Friedrich Schiller called "sentimental" poetry. It does not mark a return to a natural world, nor does it overcome the so-called alienation of modern life, but instead it responds to and depends upon the continued felt distance between the reader and the natural (or what I am calling the premodern) world. Enthusiasts of magical realist fiction, insofar as they participate in the imaginative world that such fiction evokes, are not naïve, but rather sentimental readers.

By characterizing the magical realist novel as "sentimental" in Schiller's technical sense, I do not mean to disparage the form. What I am aiming at is a better critical understanding of how and why magical realist fiction continues to appeal to readers. Above all, I hope to articulate how this literary form functions within the broader historical and cultural context of global modernity. In what follows, I shall argue that insofar as the magical realist novel offers the literary equivalent of a skillfully marketed tour of a dead or dying culture, it is in many respects strikingly similar to an earlier sentimental literary form, the historical romance, as developed by Walter Scott. The commercial appeal of the magical realist novel is thus no argument against it. Ever since the publication of Don Quixote, the novel has been bound up with the rise of modern commercial society and its centuries-long global diffusion. The novel's emergence has coincided with a general increase in mass literacy, the rise of the nation-state, the introduction of public education, the evolution of a modern international publishing industry, and the development of an increasingly integrated worldwide literary market. My objections are thus not to the commercial appeal of the magical realist novel, or to its role in the process of globalization, but rather to what I regard as a widespread critical misapprehension of this literary form. In short, I am not objecting to the magical realist novel, but to a certain increasingly influential way of interpreting it. What we need is a more critically astute explanation of how our leading literary magicians have captivated their audiences and a more penetrating analysis of the cultural logic that informs magical realist fiction. That analysis shows that the value of magical realist fiction lies not in its primitivism, as many of its promoters claim, but in its sophistication -- it is in effect a posthistorical, rather than a premodern form.


The usefulness of Schiller's notion of the "sentimental" points toward a genealogy of magical realism that is both older and more varied than is sometimes acknowledged. Magical realism might be considered as following from and deeply indebted to European romanticism. (22) The basic dialectical tension between "the real" and "the marvelous" is already to be found in a number of romantic works, such as those of Kleist or Hoffmann, (or still earlier in the Ossian poems of James MacPherson, if they can be regarded as protoromantic works). This tension remains integral to several postromantic literary movements -- German expressionism, French surrealism, Celtic revivalism -- that have been understood to anticipate Latin American magical realism. (23)

I wish to focus on one especially influential literary source from which the magical realist novel rather unexpectedly descends, the historical novel (or more properly, the historical romance) of Walter Scott, which emerged during the romantic period. This claim seems counterintuitive insofar as Scott's best known historical romances do not depend upon the supernatural or gothic conventions that characterize the work of his contemporaries such as James Hogg. (24) In Ivanhoe, for example, the knight, Brian Bois-Guilbert, dismisses the charges of sorcery and witchcraft brought against the Jewish heroine, Rebecca, by Lucas de Beaumanoir, Grand Master of the Knights Templars, as a contemptible instance of racial and religious prejudice: "Will future ages believe that such stupid bigotry ever existed!" (25) Scott fully endorses Bois-Guilbert's protomodern insight, insisting that the evidence used to convict Rebecca of witchcraft in "those ignorant and superstitious times" (late twelfth-century Anglo-Norman England) would be dismissed in "modern days" as either "immaterial" or as "actually and physically impossible." (26) In this respect, Scott's historical realism seems to be at odds with a contemporary magical realism that incorporates both the real and the magical. Nevertheless, the marvelous and exotic elements found in the works of Grass, Ben Jelloun, García Márquez, and Rushdie are present in some form in Scott's historical romances, though they typically appear in a sanitized and demystified state that comports with a modern secular perspective. In any case, my central argument rests on the more fundamental claim that the cultural, historical, and geopolitical logic of Scott's romances informs the contemporary magical realist novel.

Scott's historical romances, particularly Waverley and Old Mortality, chronicle the historical shift that takes place in Scotland from the premodern world of poetic and oral narrative traditions, tribal culture, religious enthusiasm, archaic chivalric practices, and political violence to the modern secular, literate, peaceful, and disenchanted world of Britain in the nineteenth century. Scott's fiction appealed to an audience that was not primarily Scottish, but rather English and even continental European, which regarded the most romantic and appealing features of the historical novel as belonging to an age already (if only recently) past, a world marvelous and attractive precisely insofar as it was irrecoverable. The subtitle of Scott's first historical romance, Waverley, draws the reader's attention to the archaic character of the fictional world represented: 'Tis Sixty Years Since. In his 1814 postscript to Waverley, Scott insists that the world of the Scottish Highland tribes and the Lowland nobility is a thing of the past:

There is no European nation which, within the course of half a century, or little more, has undergone so complete a change as this kingdom of Scotland. The effects of the insurrection of 1745, -- the destruction of the patriarchal power of the Highland chiefs, -- the abolition of the heritable jurisdictions of the Lowland nobility and barons, -- the total eradication of the Jacobite party, which, averse to intermingle with the English, or adopt their customs, long continued to pride themselves upon maintaining ancient Scottish manners and customs, commenced this innovation. The gradual influx of wealth, and extension of commerce, have since united to render the present people of Scotland a class of beings as different from their grandfathers, as the exiting English are from those of Queen Elizabeth's time. (27)

The chronotope of the Highland tribes is that of a lost world, one as remote, exotic, and irrecoverable for the modern (that is early nineteenth-century Scottish, English, continental European, or American) reader, as those of Macondo and Jahilia are for the readers of García Márquez and Rushdie. In a revealing passage in Waverley, Scott describes the shock of the Anglicized Scottish population of the Lowlands when the "wild" Highlanders descend upon them:

The grim, uncombed, and wild appearance of these men, most of whom gazed with all the admiration of ignorance upon the most ordinary productions of domestic art, created surprise in the Lowlands, but it also created terror. So little was the condition of the Highlands known at that late period, that the character and appearance of their population, while thus sallying forth as military adventurers, conveyed to the south country Lowlanders as much surprise as if an invasion of African Negroes, or Esquimaux Indians, had issued forth from the northern mountains of their own native country. (28)

Some years later, in the "Dedicatory Epistle" to Ivanhoe, Scott again compares the Highlanders to just the sort of marginalized premodern and exotic peoples who might hold center stage in a magical realist novel: "It was not above sixty or seventy years ... since the whole north of Scotland was under a state of government nearly as simple and as patriarchal as those of our good allies the Mohawks and the Iroquois."(29) The striking similarities of Scottish Highlander and African Negro or American Mohawk are more than coincidental -- they reveal that the fundamental cultural logic of both Scott's historical romance and the magical realist novel is that of modern nostalgia for "primitive" or historically anachronistic societies (and their attendant practices, beliefs, and institutions) that have been, or are in the final process of being eradicated by the ever-widening geopolitical reach of modernity.

Ian Duncan's description of the ideology of the romance revival undertaken by late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century antiquarians, and more particularly, his analysis of the cultural logic of Scott's historical romances may thus stand as an equally compelling description of the contemporary cultural project that marches under the banner of magical realism:

Antiquarian scholars and poets redefined romance as the scattered relics of an ancestral culture that was disintegrating under the pressures of modernization. Its strangeness -- its difference from modern experience -- was the effect of this loss: and thus the aura of its authenticity. Romance was the genius loci of the last age, to be preserved in the print-medium of the nation-state as its native essence .... The romance revival meant the recovery of an archaic native culture, popular as well as literary, felt to be vanishing into the past .... The spells and lays of the defunct old world are recovered by the sentimental journey for aesthetic and elegiac contemplation on one's private estate -- even when that estate is confined to the hire of a book and the leisure of a few hours in which to read it." (30)

For Duncan, "all romance is sentimental, purposeful, allegorical, local in the sense that it speaks to and from particular positions," whereas "naïve romance is a trope of sentimental romance, its own, constitutive fiction of origins." (31) The sentimental romance, in which the reader feels a nostalgic longing for a lost world, is, in fact, the only kind of romance that can be written in the modern world, though invariably this literary form typically depends upon the trope that a return to a premodern age is still possible, that the lost world is not truly and finally lost. The magical realist novel is just such a sentimental romance which, in order to achieve its desired effect upon the reader, masquerades as a naïve romance. The literary representation of an authentic, fully animated, historically vital, seductive, and dangerous world that lies outside the dread shadow of modernity is merely a rhetorical trope, though to be sure, a central, even integral one, contained within and by the sentimental form. The apparently subversive nonWestern and anti- or premodern content of magical realist fiction is arguably even less potent a source of political upheaval than was the fossilized Jacobitism portrayed in Waverley when it first appeared in 1814. As Duncan puts it, "the restoration of the elder [Stuart] dynasty flourishes in the forms of, precisely, 'romance revival': the nostalgic apprehension of vanishing ways of life, the glamorous relics of a fierce barbarism, in short all the stuff of Highland minstrelsy, cherished in a civilized ear." (32) The would-be engaged reader or critic of magical realist fiction is the contemporary counterpart of the would-be Scottish Jacobite of 1814, a reader who indulges in the guilty pleasures of antimodern and antiWestern resentment, aesthetic pleasures all the more piquant for their virtual status. To take up the terms that Duncan employs, the subversive charge of magical realism is merely one of the thrills that comes as part of the packaged tour of the lost world. Duncan argues that "tourism means visiting a scene, moving across it, above all being in it without belonging to it. A historical relationship to a place is replaced with an aesthetic and commodified one." (33) The locales and peoples at which the contemporary magical mystery tour stops for the day may be more exotic and varied for the fan of magical realism than they were for the reader of Scott's romances (though exoticism is a notoriously relative phenomenon), but all are aboard the same old cruise liner, reregistered under the flag of a recently independent Third World nation, with upgraded and refurbished state rooms repainted in brighter colors, and offering (in the words of Gibreel Farishta, the hero of Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, who tropicalizes the English weather) "higher quality popular music," "spicier food," and "foetid nights" for "the making of slow and odorous love." (34)

Fredric Jameson and Franco Moretti are on target when they argue that magical realism depends upon what the former calls "sedimentation" and the latter "noncontemporaneity." (35) The magical realist novel depends crucially upon the literary representation of overlapping and incompatible historical epochs or chronotopes. Following Jameson's lead, Duncan suggests that "sedimentation" is also an integral feature of Scott's historical romances. Witness, for example, the archetypal scene from Waverley in which Scott superimposes the antagonistic worlds of the anachronistic and soon-to-be extinguished Highland clans and the modern and increasingly Anglicized Scottish middle-class Lowlanders of 1745. The contrast between the primitive Gaelic world of the Highlands and the modern commercial world of Britain is drawn even more sharply for the reader, when, after the catastrophic end of the Jacobite cause at Culloden, the action briefly shifts to "contemporary" London, where Edward Waverley flees to seek assistance from his English friend, Captain Talbot. Characteristically, Scott achieves the historical sedimentation of his romances by virtue of an antiquarian recuperation of archaic literary or oral narrative forms. (36) It is no accident that Scott popularizes the device of the interpolated oral storyteller through whom the old world of romance is conveyed to his modern readership. In Old Mortality, Peter Pattieson (narrator of all the romances in Scott's Tales of My Landlord series) narrates a story based on various accounts of the Covenanters, which are, in turn, told to him by Robert Paterson, better known as "Old Mortality," the last defender and representative of the seventeenth-century religious extremists. An antiquarian, Peter Pattieson claims to have made every effort to authenticate and augment Old Mortality's oral tale by checking it against historical facts and available written records. Openly acknowledging his literary debt to MacPherson's Ossian poems, Scott is, if not the first, at least the most influential writer to mine folkloric and indigenous oral traditions, legends, and myths for their sentimental appeal. (37) Unlike Goethe, Jefferson, and Napoleon, Scott was not taken in by MacPherson's spurious claim to have translated Fingal and Temora from ancient manuscripts composed by the third-century Gaelic bard, Ossian. Scott's self-conscious and critical antiquarianism is thus an important wellspring for what was later to issue forth as magical realism.

The long and varied course of Scott's literary career foreshadows the literary critical problems and the generic evolution of magical realism more than a century and a half later. Having begun as an antiquarian and folklorist steeped in regional Scottish history and culture, Scott made his fortune first as a poet, and then, from 1814 onwards, as the anonymous author of a series of "Waverley novels," which depended for their initial appeal on their "exotic" Scottish subject matter. Scott thus anticipated a number of the first-generation Latin American magical realists, such as Alejo Carpentier, Miguel Angel Asturias, and Mario de Andrade, whose early years were marked by strong interests in anthropology, ethnology, ethnomusicology, mythology, and folklore. Scott was not a Highlander by birth or upbringing. Having grown up in and around Edinburgh, he acquired his knowledge of Highland culture chiefly through reading and what we might call amateur ethnographic fieldwork. In much the same way, Asturias would first encounter the great body of myths, legends, and religious texts of the preColumbian civilizations of Guatemala not in his own country, but as an anthropology student in Paris. (38) By 1819, Scott had written nine historical romances, all of which took Scotland for their setting. The great challenge Scott faced as he sat down in 1819 to compose Ivanhoe was how to apply the fictional formula of his Scottish romances to the new and apparently unpromising subject matter of England. Scott confronted the difficulty of finding within England the sort of exotic and archaic subject matter that had been the mainstay of his Scottish romances. In his "Dedicatory Epistle" to Ivanhoe, Scott poses the problem for his reader in the guise of correspondence between two fictional characters, Laurence Templeton and the Rev. Dr. Dryasdust:

To match an English and a Scottish author in the rival task of embodying and reviving the traditions of their respective countries, would be, you alleged, in the highest degree unequal and unjust. The Scottish magician, you said, was, like Lucan's witch, at liberty to walk over the recent field of battle, and to select for the subject of resuscitation by his sorceries, a body whose limbs had recently quivered with existence, and whose throat had but just uttered the last note of agony. (39)

The Scottish historical romancer had the advantage of representing "incidents which had actually taken place in his country at no distant period," (40) a claim that was to be echoed by Carpentier, García Márquez, and other Latin American magical realists, who argue that their magic (or "sorceries" to use Scott's quaint phrase) consists merely in representing a peculiar Latin American reality that is essentially distinct from that of their First World counterparts.

Scott's early Scottish romances depend crucially on the fact that the space separating the modern reader from the premodern subject matter is experienced as a vast temporal or historical chasm that makes credible the most marvelous and incredible episodes. The challenge for Scott, as for those second-generation magical realists from First World societies who have attempted to adapt the new Latin American literary form to their own cultures, was that a modern English audience that had come to accept and even expect the "improbabilities" and "wild manners" of his exotic Scottish romances would find incredible the same sort of narrative extravagances when they were transplanted to English soil:

This, you said, was not entirely owing to the more general prejudice in favor of that which is foreign, but that it rested partly upon improbabilities, arising out of the circumstances in which the English reader is placed. If you describe to him a set of wild manners, and a state of primitive society existing in the Highlands of Scotland, he is much disposed to acquiesce in the truth of what is asserted. And reason good. If he be of the ordinary class of readers, he has either never seen those remote districts at all, or he has wandered through those desolate regions in the course of a summer tour ... fully prepared to believe the strangest things that could be told him of a people, wild and extravagant enough to be attached to scenery so extraordinary. But the same worthy person, when placed in his own snug parlor, and surrounded by all the comforts of an Englishman's fireside, is not half so much disposed to believe that his own ancestors led a very different life from himself. (41)

When Scott mounted a defense of his literary method, and in particular, when he rather uncharacteristically employed supernatural or gothic elements that were at variance with his "normal" realistic method, as in his use of the supernatural figure of the White Lady of Avenel in The Monastery, he justified himself by recourse to an argument subsequently offered, with but slight modifications, by magical realists such as Carpentier and García Márquez: such things are real enough for those who believe in them in a time and place different from that which the reader inhabits. (42)

The problem Scott faced in adapting his Scottish romances to the unpromising environment of an English setting is strikingly similar to that confronted by First World magical realists such as William Kennedy, Morrison, and Anaya in the United States, Richler, Kroetsch, and Hodgins in Canada, Graham Swift in England, and Carey in Australia. Isabel Allende, the privileged daughter of an upper bourgeois family long-settled in the modern and cosmopolitan city of Santiago, confronted this difficulty even within the allegedly marvelous confines of Latin America itself. One could say the same of a number of other prominent Latin American authors -- Borges, Ariel Dorfman, José Donoso -- hailing from the urban centers of the most modern and Europeanized countries of the region, Chile and Argentina. Scott, of course, pursued unswervingly (and perhaps all too exhaustively) the logic of his narrative formula. The alien, the exotic, the foreign, the romantic, the incredible, the marvelous -- all were to be found in the archaic and the ancestral. Simply go back far enough in time and the First World comes to look like the Third World. The logic of romance, as reflected in both Scott's historical romances and in magical realist fictions, is twofold: by traveling to exotic foreign lands one moves backward in time; by going backward in time one travels to exotic foreign lands. Indeed, in Ivanhoe, Scott shows that if one journeys to a sufficiently remote historical epoch, England ceases to be English. It becomes a foreign country, ruled by French-speaking Normans and inhabited by Jews, Africans, and primitive Anglo-Saxons. Long before Rushdie in The Satanic Verses represented postcolonial Britain as a land of immigrants, exiles, and illegal aliens, Scott had portrayed "merry old England" as the home of a hybridized people and English culture as a polyglot melding of various foreign and domestic traditions. (43) The narrative solutions that First World magical realists such as Morrison, Anaya, and Allende hit upon vary from author to author, but all depend upon recuperating an archaic set of customs, beliefs, and traditions, that, though accepted as native to the region's inhabitants, often prove to be of foreign extraction. Thus Morrison's African American characters in The Song of Solomon recapitulate the narrative and folk traditions of West Africa; Anaya's Mexican Americans draw upon the tales of the Spanish conquistadores and rancheros who settled the llano of New Mexico, as well as upon the mystical knowledge of Amerindian peoples who once populated the region; Allende, straining to ground her version of upper middle-class magical realism, resorts to an allegedly ancient (and oriental? European? North American?) theosophical system of belief to lend The House of the Spirits a patina of the marvelous. To be sure, not all of these adaptations of magical realism are equally successful. But what is striking, nonetheless, is that the literary formula that Scott popularized, if not invented, continues to prove useful to authors in attracting a mass international audience.

By 1827, thirteen years after the initial publication of Waverley, Scott's first historical romance had been translated into French, German, Italian, Hungarian, Swedish, Danish, and Russian. (44) The international popularity of Scott's historical romances led to a proliferation of imitators in many other parts of the world. The pattern and pace of the spread of the historical romance foreshadows that of the magical realist novel a century and a half later. The basic form of the historical romance -- its realistic framework and its thematic concern with a vanished culture or one threatened with historical obsolescence -- was quickly adapted to local conditions that were outwardly distinct from those of Scotland. In place of Scott's Highlanders, James Fenimore Cooper substitutes the native tribes of North America, Leo Tolstoy the Cossacks of the Ukraine and the Caucuses, Victor Hugo the aristocrats and peasants of the Vendée. The international adaptability of the magical realist novel thus depends upon the same cultural logic that is already at work in the historical romance: political regimes, local or regional customs, religious beliefs, and folkloric traditions are the variable terms, while the invariable elements are the modern social structure and its attendant literary mode of representation: realism.

As noted, Scott's historical romances differ from magical realist novels insofar as they eschew supernatural events and often foreground the modern worldview that enframes the historically obsolescent culture they portray. But this should not be taken as an integral effect of Scott's conservatism (he was an avid Tory), any more than the embrace of the marvelous by the practitioners of magical realism should be understood as following necessarily from a more radical political sensibility (a number of the most prominent magical realists, including Carpentier, Asturias, García Márquez, Donoso, Grass, and Rushdie are, or have been, far to the left of Scott).

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