Exploring Modern Magical Realism

P O I N T   ~   C O U N T E R P O I N T
Adrianne Harun and Gina Ochsner on
"Consensual Reality"

Editor's Note: At the 2005 Associated Writing Programs conference held in Vancouver, BC last March, authors Adrianne Harun and Gina Ochsner took part in a debate about the merits of magical realism as a form of literary "consensual reality." The panel, which also included commentary from Ann Pancake and Geronimo Tagatac, was one of the most intense and enlightening discussions on magical realism ever to be addressed at AWP. Margin is proud to reprint Harun's and Ochsner's thought-provoking discourse here for our readers, with hopes of further clarifying the complicated subject of literary magical realism.

The True World:
When Consensual Reality
Is Not Enough

"My desire for this discussion arose out of… a continual disgruntlement at having my work referred to as magical realism when it seemed to me to mirror what I know and sense of reality…"—Adrianne Harun

…AND THE flip side of that frustration: a dismay at the resolutely literal student work I’ve encountered. Surely, I thought, some greater perception has gone awry here. When I work with students, I can paraphrase that old sawbone from E.M. Forster: To say the King died, then the Queen died, is to relay mere story, a sequence of events. But to say the King died, then the Queen died of a broken heart is to offer a plot, one with both narrative and causality. If I’m lucky, my students begin to understand that story has as much to do with the unseen as it does with the seen. That—to quote Forster once again: “We believe that happiness and misery exist in the secret life, which each of us leads privately and to which (in his characters) the novelist has access. And by the secret life we mean the life for which there is no external evidence.”

My students, tethered to their literal strings of events, frown and argue, but they usually get it.

Still, in terms of my own work and my own perception of the world, I don’t know quite how to adjust to the misperception that I’m writing fantasy. I’m always taken off guard when I hear arguments for fiction that precisely mimics real life or what I’ve heard called “consensual reality”—a term that never fails to give me pause, as if reality, like scheduled sex, requires a set of rules that works at cross-purposes against experience. I can’t help thinking of consensual reality as the missionary position of fiction writing—familiar, comfortable, but not a whole lot of fun and rarely true to the nature of the experience.

This is an old argument, I know. Henry James demanded the illusion of reality. Virginia Woolf lamented the limits of such a demand. Joyce stood it on its head. An old argument, twisted and replayed continually in much greater depth that we can offer today.

For some readers and writers (including my beginning fiction students), fiction needs to follow a Cartesian model—a striving toward objective, mimetic narrative. Putting aside for a moment the important and contentious question of who gets to define what’s real and normal, I have to say that I think this is an odd place to sit within the arts. As if demanding that all painters be realists. Yet in the world of North American literary fiction, a prevailing assumption contends that reality—some generally agreed upon reality—cannot contain/or be represented by certain uncommon, unusual, or unlikely elements and still be real—that is, valuable and true.

In itself, this seems a ridiculous assumption. We’re talking about an artificial construct after all. That a narrative is always only a representation of what could be belies any pretension of absolute reality. What is left in…what is left out… how scenes and objects and characters are juxtaposed…all these decisions serve not just to create an illusion of reality, but to reveal something important beyond the façade of reality, something unstated, perhaps invisible, but inescapably, undeniably true.

A boy with a rock is never just a boy with a rock.

A conversation about a paycheck is never just a conversation about a paycheck.

A drive in the country….well, you get the idea.

Several default positions exist for fiction that does not precisely and continually mimic reality. (And here’s where my frustration comes in.) Such work may be slotted into genres like science fiction or fantasy; pushed into the often lucrative literary ghetto of regional fiction—or the much less lucrative literary ghetto of gender-specific fiction; it may be labeled as fabulist or, worse, postmodern. My personal bugaboo, Magical realism, is a popular designation for any fiction that contains elements of the seemingly fantastic within an otherwise realistic narrative frame.

Most literary writers know by now that the term, magical realism, originated with the art critic Franz Roh, who used it to describe a school of painting called “The New Objectivity,” “in which the real world re-emerges before our eyes bathed in the clarity of a new day.” And almost everyone is aware that the term was subsequently applied to the work of certain South American writers—chief among them Gabriel García Márquez—and to the explosion of surrealist fiction in South America called El Boom. The term also has been used to describe fine and true writing from across nearly every continent, including work from writers like Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Ben Okri, Angela Carter, Isak Dinesen, Salman Rushdie, and Haruki Murkami. On the global literary stage, so-called magical realism is seen as an honored way to represent the true unseen world—and often the unspeakable political realities—of certain cultures. Defamiliarization at its best.

The value of defamiliarization aside, within the context of serious fiction written by a North American, the label of magical realism can be and often is offered with a faint pejorative stink. In North American literary parlance, magical realism is frequently a dismissive label, one that implies the writer is disconnected from Our Reality, and worse, perhaps relying on a shoddy bag of writerly tricks, designed to distract the reader from the writer’s fundamental lack of skill, her failure to build a realistic narrative. More discouragingly, magical realism is also sometimes used indiscriminately to describe fictional worlds that simply do not resonate with the real life experience of a reviewer, an editor, or even a particular group of readers.

Clearly there’s a divide here, one that needs to be bridged.

The pre-Sophist Eleatics, and later Plato and a million theologians, puzzled over a similar divide. For them, the reality we know through our limited senses is nothing more than an illusion—one we have to crack open to get to the true world. In this sense, all of us are the quintessential outsiders. All of us play the role of “the caverned man” and all of us know it. We know secrets exist. We search for connection and illumination, even if in just the meanings of our nighttime dreams. We acknowledge the mysteries of birth and death and love and hate. And…most of us stop right there, because to go further would be to tip right off consensual reality and become a crank, a New Age fool, or in the case of a fiction writer—a magical realist.

And yet….and yet…

I have a friend, a commercial fisherman from Alaska, who once came across a school of mermaids. He insisted they weren’t sea lions or dolphins or noisy, intrepid sea birds. His marriage was breaking up the summer he saw the mermaids and seeing them somehow gave him heart. They broke his despair.

A cousin of my husband’s, a social worker who’s lived for many years in the Arctic, believes that ice can talk. Or more accurately, that it can sing. On the night his mother died, far away in Saskatchewan, he was called out on an emergency. Returning home, he heard (no, not his mother’s voice, but) a growing resonance that he said sounded exactly like the ringing of bells, summoning a congregation with a favorite hymn he hadn’t heard for years.

As a writer, tell me, what am I to make of this?

And how can I—who even as I say this am watching the country where I live transform itself into something unrecognizable (unreal)—dispute the true nature of either experience? Of course, I can’t. Because both instances make sense of—to use Forster’s term again—“that secret life.”

In Marilynne Robinson’s now classic novel, Housekeeping, her character Ruth tries to make sense of a small but equally transfixing conundrum. In literature left behind by the missionary aunt she’s never met, she reads that her aunt has gone off to become “a fisher of men.”

Even now I always imagine her leaning from the low side of some small boat, dropping her net through the spumy billows of the upper air. Her net would sweep the turning world unremarked as a wind in the grass, and when she began to pull it in, perhaps in a pell-mell ascension of formal gentlemen and thin pigs and old women and odd socks that would astonish this lower world, she would gather the net, so easily until the very burden itself lay all in a heap just under the surface. One last pull of measureless power and ease would spill her catch into the boat, gasping and amazed, gleaming rainbows in the rarer light.

This is a compelling, magical image of which Ruth then makes sense:

It was perhaps only from watching gulls fly like sparks up the face of clouds that dragged rain the length of the lake that I imagined such an enterprise might succeed. Or it was from watching gnats sail out of the grass, or from watching some discarded leaf gleaming at the top of the wind. Ascension seemed …a natural law. If one added to it a law of completion—that everything must finally be made comprehensible—then some general rescue …would be inevitable. For why do our thoughts turn to some gesture of a hand, the fall of a sleeve, some corner of a room on a particular anonymous afternoon, even when we are asleep, and even when we are so old that our thoughts have abandoned other business? What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally.

I think the character of Ruth is on to something here. Here is where the story exists, in that crux between the seen and the unseen, in the “knitting up” of those two worlds. Without the true world, the experience would be flat, unconnected, and only superficially comprehensible.

A closing anecdote:

Not long ago, my husband and I were out at La Push, a Quileute reservation on the west end of the Olympic Peninsula. Bordered by an ancient rainforest, the West End is a physically and psychically overwhelming landscape that does not brook plans. Still, at some point on this trip, my husband and I pulled ourselves away from the beach to call home. We stopped at the new store on the reservation because even if you have a cell phone, you can’t use it in La Push, a community too small or too isolated or too poor to interest the wizards of cell phone reception. That was okay with us. We’re old and simple enough to still feel silly carrying telephones in our pockets. (What’s next? we’ve quipped. “Pocket toasters? Personal doorbells?”) We were happy to be directed to the back of the parking lot just as the late afternoon mist turned back into rain. There, in a battered phone booth, we made our call, passing the phone back and forth in the tight space the way we did when we were kids. A few moments only, but by the time we hung up, the already dismal afternoon light had shaded into dusk, rain was falling steadily, and the front parking lot was limed with the dark silhouettes of cars. As our eyes scanned the parking lot, we were startled to notice a stranger sitting in the driver’s seat of our car. Used to our small town, we hardly ever lock the car, so there was no mystery as to how he got in. Why he was there was the question.

Without thinking, I flung open the passenger door. The stranger, a middle-aged Quileute man with a broad, likeable face, was suitably startled. He held a heavy ring of keys in his hands. Obviously he’d been hunting through them, searching for the one that might fit.

“Oh,” he said, as we looked at him,“oh, I thought… hmm…This…hmm…” he concluded, giggling, “is not my car.”

He said the last words as if they were a real name: Not-My-Car. His exit was slow. As he gathered a paper grocery sack, a bag of potato chips fell out, then a loose bottle. By the time he was up and out, we were hurrying to get out of the rain into our reclaimed car, which now bore the faint scent of onion dip. As we backed out of the store parking lot, another car was also exiting. In the light from our headlights, we recognized each other. The stranger, grinning as if we were old friends, waved to us. We waved back. All of us were laughing now as if we’d shared a good joke.

His real car, we noted, looked nothing like ours.

The day had been full of secondhand adventure: Earlier, we watched the Coast Guard ships practicing rescues in the roiling post-storm surf, and we spent hours mesmerized by roaring waves battering seastacks. We’d hiked to Second Beach to see a rumored white whale (who turned out to be not just beached but divided messily into two pieces, his head a good fifty yards away from his poor deflated body). And yet throughout the night in our rented cabin, I kept thinking of those few moments in the parking lot and the stranger in our car, how when we waved and drove away we felt not invaded, but weirdly honored, as if we’d been given a gift. And like any other compulsive writer, I began shifting the experience into fiction, puzzling out the story that might explain the feeling. Before long, the shape of a story arrived, but—surprise!—it had little in common with the facts of our afternoon.

In the world where I live, I find it difficult to extricate the real from the imagined, the past from the present and possible future. [As Gina said when I first mentioned this topic to her—“there’s not a crowbar big enough.”] I continue to subscribe to a theory of multiple realities as put forth by the title character in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story, “Gimpel the Fool.” Gimpel is a gullible Job, abused by an unfaithful wife and his fellow villagers. When, finally, he acknowledges that he’s been duped, he tries to revenge himself, but his faith in his more innocent world is too strong. What Gimpel comes to understand is that he has been fooled only in one limited reality. In another reality, the one previously visible to him, he had fulfilled his obligations as a righteous man, a good and loving husband:

“I understood that there were really no lies. Whatever doesn’t really happen is dreamed at night. It happens to one if it doesn’t happen to another, tomorrow if not today, a century hence if not a year.” He goes on to say, “No doubt the world is an entirely imaginary world, but it is only once removed from the true world.”

So, in the imaginary real world, a man, possibly drunk, mistakes a strange couple’s car for his own. He’s surprised by their arrival and amused by his own mistake.

In the imaginary real world, a couple finds a stranger in their unlocked car and wonders if they’ve been totally out of step with present day realities—cellphones, car alarms—if they need to get with the times and be even more insular and self-protective.

In the true world, the world that fiction is duty bound to witness, only these “facts” will endure: a familiar seat warmed by a stranger, a ring of jumbled keys, and two placid spectators jolted into the action of their lives.

"These accounts of the strange, the wondrous, the magical are so seamlessly woven into the narrative, so completely organic, that they are not held apart as pieces of oddity, but rather as evidence of a parallel, invisible world that intersects ours, though we aren’t always aware of it."Gina Ochsner

I'M IN AWE of the creative power behind the spoken word. With a few words, let there be, the universe was created. Light separated from darkness and with another word this world was sent spinning widdershins to give us night and day. With a few more words the trees were taught to weep from their bark and swift to swallow, winter tick toward spring. And who knows how many more words it took to tell the camelia to bleed first and the chrysanthemum last or what dreams the fish maintained silently in their deep, but the creation account was just one of many I grew up with and learned to love because what I learned was that there’s power in word. And I didn’t have to flip very far through the Old Testament to find more evidence of this.

There’s Ezekiel standing on a high lip of a cliff and gazing on a valley filled with dry bones. Can these bones live? God asks the prophet and he answers—the right answer: “if You say so.” And God does—he commands those bones to reattach one to the other, tendon, sinew and muscle to bone, then the skin and last, he breathes life into their lungs. Word brings life and the Ezekiel account dovetails this idea echoed in the apostle John’s opening: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God.” There’s power in word, and the creative act of storytelling holds potency and the possibility of healing, renewal, of instruction, of entertainment.

As a girl I grew up hearing of these stories—the accounts of the Old Testament patriarchs and their illustrious lives, the miracles and many evidences of an unseen and sometimes seen God who could take any form he wanted whenever he wanted because he could. A burning bush. A pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. When Moses met God on top of the mountain, for forty days he talked to God, face to face, as a man speaks to a friend. Afterward when he came back down from the mountain the Israelites begged him to hide his face behind a veil because the residual radiance was still so bright that to look on Moses’ face was to go blind. There were stories of a flat substance, white like cracked coriander, that fell like rain from sky. What is it? The people cried even as they picked it up and ate. The Hebrew word for what is it? is manna, a word that stuck.

Of all these stories of the strange and miraculous, one my favorites is that of the recalcitrant prophet Baalam whose special gift was that he could curse and he could bless. If he blessed you, fabulous. And if you cursed you—watch out. He’s sitting on his donkey, about to go curse somebody God told him not to curse. God sends an angel to block the donkey’s path and the donkey, possessing a better vision than Balaam, refuses to move. Balaam beats the animal. Three times this happens: Balaam tries to get the donkey to move, it won’t on account of that angel, and Balaam beats it. Finally, the animal’s tongue is loosed and the donkey turns to Balaam: “Why are you beating me? Can’t you see that angel blocking our path?”

I love this story because it’s a little sad and a little funny and true to type: some people won’t hear or see a thing unless some physical natural law is broken.

These accounts of the strange, the wondrous, the magical are so seamlessly woven into the narrative, so completely organic, that they are not held apart as pieces of oddity, but rather as evidence of a parallel, invisible world that intersects ours, though we aren’t always aware of it.

This is the original body of story, imagination, and tradition that informed the kinds of stories I tend to read and to write. Because this body of belief so thoroughly suffuses who I am and how I see things, I think it's safe to say that belief for me is the engine that makes perception operate. But belief doesn’t forgive the obligation to penetrate concrete reality—in fact, belief obligates the writers more so, laying at the writer’s doorstep the challenge to illuminate this world even more clearly. It’s a suggestion Flannery O’Connor makes in her book, Mystery and Manners. She explains that when a child sits down to draw a picture and creates a stick-figure family, it is not with the intention to distort, but to make literal. Unlike that child, when an artist working in magical realism sits down to create, it is with the eye and intention to distort. Not because she or he wants to obscure truth or reality, but rather, by exaggerating the distortions, she or he can point to the truth more obviously. In this way, magic realism is an attempt at truth through a distorted lens. To my way of thinking, the distortion, as O’Connor calls it, is less of a clouding or warping effect, but rather one of amplification, or magnification.

So what does the reader of this type of fiction encounter when looking through such a lens? We see the subject matter, which very often is of ordinary humble stuff: human beings, who possessing all manner of flaws and faults seem to readily lend themselves to distortion. And we see these people whose human nature, responses, reaction and psychology are tested by the presence and interaction of the divine, the supernatural, the ghostly, the invisible.

So the critic might say: this distortion, alongside the overlay of the invisible world—doesn’t that make these stories “incredible,” as in completely lacking in credibility? “Untrue?” It’s an important question readers and writers of this form wrestle with—particularly if you take into consideration how often distortion in character is compounded by odd turns of the story events or a sudden dogleg in plot. But when I think of that question, I return to something else Flannery O’Connor had to say: if a story is art, that is, if it has something valuable within itself, it is a self-contained statement of truth, for truth is always at the core.

A perfect example of story-as-art/story-as-truth is Gabriel García Márquez’s “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings,” a story set in the real world inhabited by real people living by the sea. A real and very dense rain is falling. Crabs crawling up from the sea toward the village are dying and the stench is so bad, that Pelayo, whose child has taken ill, determines his child’s sickness to be on account of the crabs. All this we, the readers, take at face value. While walking through his courtyard, Pelayo happens to notice what looks to be a very old man mired down in the mud. It appears the old man is struggling under the impossible weight of enormous wings.

We take this as “real.” An old man with ungainly wings WOULD fall, especially in bad weather. That he could be an angel of the Lord on an important mission is a secondary concern the story addresses only after the human reaction to his presence has been firmly established. Into the chicken coop the old man with wings is put, where the other birds gaze upon him with bewilderment.

Here, the unbelievable happens in a believable world where the subject matters are humble creatures. We are forced to observe them and ask why they behave the way they do. For people, no matter how odd, are real: they are balding, given to gossip and pettiness. They are funny, they throw cabbage out the back door to encourage sheep to have twins. They swallow fish bones on principle.

In a story I wrote called “The Dog-saint,” we see a good Jewish boy living in the South who, while shoveling up dead animals along a rural road, discovers by accident that when he touches dead dogs—not cats or wild pigs or anything else—that those dogs come back to life and go bounding off through the canes. This is literal. The details of setting—the details of day, of the heat turning the ashpalt to gum, the buzz and whine of gnats are literal and we are asked to take Helmann and the strange powers of his hands as real. But then mystery leaks out—for in this kind of a world, it must. And something happens, an internal combustion takes place and people begin responding to the strangeness and oddity of these events. In Helmann’s case, his neighbors crowd his porch and yard with all their pets in various stages of decline or decay.

Likewise, in “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings,” the people respond to the presence of the bird-like man in the way ordinary people would: they send for a priest, they send for a doctor. And when, after all their human striving to make sense out of the presence of the birdlike man fails (and they are no closer to determining if in fact he’s an angel, or merely a drunken Norwegian sailor plagued with anatomical abnormalities), the townspeople go back to ignoring the creature, no wiser for all their efforts. Eventually stiff new feathers grow back on the man’s wings and—to Pelayo’s wife’s great relief—after a few ungainly attempts, he flaps his ponderous wings and flies away, back to heaven, we suppose, where he belongs. In Pelayo’s wife, Elisenda, we run flush up to a true image of ourselves: people who, most likely, would be glad to get rid of an agent of the Divine so as to get back to business as usual. We discover that the story was never about the angel, but about Pelayo and Elisenda and the quirky, curious, easily bored, but ultimately believable townspeople.

This is what makes stories of this sort essentially true. It is in strange or extreme situations such as those that our essential human nature can be revealed. This kind of a fiction is an exploration of the human heart (individual or otherwise) by unconventional means. Sometimes a story requires a flock of birds to fall from the sky onto a priest’s head. Nothing else would get his attention. Nothing better can reveal the Divine brushing against the Natural. O’Connor would probably suggest that the characters (and we) are too hard-headed to receive understanding any other way.

In these stories, the extraordinary occurs in the context of the ordinary, pitched against the ordinary backdrop of ordinary human lives and human psychology and what we see as the supernatural overlapping, sometimes colliding with the Natural. The supernatural here is a fact, but it displaces nothing Natural. Helmann carries all the same doubts and disbelief and fears that any one of us would if we were to suddenly discover we had the power of life in our hands. Gabriel García Márquez's angel is subject to the same laws that govern the rest of us. Except for flight, and an angelic language no one can understand, he is not endowed with any special powers. In fact, he is ridiculed, prodded, probed, pedagogued—burdened and vexed beyond all earthly limits.

As strange as these story landscapes are, they are consistently strange and anchored to physical props and behaviors, human psychology and emotional logic that we can identify. Anything can happen, and does. The question here is not why these bizarre things happen, but what will happen next?

The point here is that in the strange and twisted realm of magical realism, the plot events, the background setting, the props all may be quite odd, even absurd, but people’s reactions to very basic problems (an unwanted visitor, unexpected and inexplicable life where previously there was none) are always and must be utterly human, and in this way, completely credible. It is, in fact, a reasonable use of the unreasonable. Even better, in my opinion, these kinds of stories are like arrows that outstrip the strength of the bow. Whereas a story told tight to only what can be proven as real must confine itself to just that—realism only—with one foot in the real and the other in the magic, magical realist stories extend the borders of both. As a writer, I find this liberating, as if the tools in my toolbox have suddenly multiplied exponentially.

Granted, this type of a story exacts or requires some work from the reader, who is asked to make a conscious effort, a willed and willing effort to suspend disbelief, to allow for the possibility that there are things that exist though we cannot see them. They can be tangibly felt and are even sometimes palpably made manifest so that we can interact with them. I’m not suggesting a leap for wholesale absurdity that has no real purpose. But if it’s true, as Donald Barthelme suggests in his story, “At the End of the Mechanical Age,” that doubt preconfigures faith, then perhaps it's true that disbelief is the necessary shadow of belief. The reader brings to bear his or her disbelief and the writer must build out of natural and healthy doubt to establish belief. It’s a necessary negotiation that ultimately leads to balance within the story (between the characters who accept without question and the doubting Thomases) and without (between author and reader) so that the piece represents a balanced work of human imagination, logic and vision (faith). In order to create that belief out of disbelief, the writer has to use the physical props and natural laws of the world (no matter how strange that world is) in a consistent and credible manner. When the writer doesn’t do this, internal logic fails. Ultimately, the story fails, too.

That’s the particular challenge for the writer of these kinds of work: consistency and credibility that is earned through the credible actions of the characters. Also, the more apparent the supernatural, the more real the natural world must be drawn and presented, for, as O’Connor suggests, “if the readers don’t accept the natural world, they’ll certainly not accept anything else.” Magical realism's like a spotlight which is so bright that every edge of the thing perceived is made visible, but there’s no attempt to illuminate what falls outside the scope of that spotlight. Seen in this way, the truth is not so much a distortion as an exaggeration, a heightened sustained gaze. Magical realism stories carry truth about them in the sense that they illustrate (mimic) the inherently mysterious nature of this world: it is shakable, malleable, unknowable. What we think of it, what we wish to make of it, slips through our grasp—shifts the instant we think we understand one tiny little thing. These stories are “true” in the sense that there are physical laws, spiritual laws, rhythms and patterns in nature that we can try to define, but we will never fully understand except to note with a wince how they weigh on us, mark us, intrude upon our imagination. They are inscrutible and we can’t control it—we weren’t meant to, as these stories seem to suggest.

The reason why I will keep reading and writing these stories is that they delight the senses. They stretch the perceptions. They make us laugh. They are ridiculous. They are honest. They ask us to see the world differently, as richer, fuller, malevolent, malignant, beautiful, wondrous. They touch a subconscious yearning for the absurd told truthfully, the grotesque with meaning and meaningful consequences. They surprise us with our ability to be astonished. And a good story, regardless the genre stamped on its spine, does all these things.

This is why there will always be a place for magical realism, for the nonconsensual reality, for, as O’Connor maintains, we are haunted people who need these ghosts. We are badly in need of altered vision, and a good magical realist story allows us to see through and beyond our myopia, the limits of ordinary vision. Give me the supernatural, the strange, the magical. I believe in that far more than anything these near-sighted eyes will ever see or my foolish heart will ever understand.



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