- Samuel Verdin
[The] Magical [in] Realism
Image by Josh Hild (IG: @joshhild)
It seems to me a foolish objective to attempt a definition of magical realism, either through those peoples and times that it is known to represent or by the broad variety of its applications which, as a reader, I have found to be innumerable. If I were to throw words at it, I would launch “technology” and hurl “tool.” Or perhaps it is more like a “stage,” upon which many of life’s extraordinary realities play out: déjà vu; hallucinations; spirituality; divine intervention; the uncanny. Like our daily realities, shapeless and abstract if one cares to question them. It will remain in my mind to have the qualities of all these things and more, and forever without definition, real and unreal... and so what? Why are you here, Reader, and why have I begun? I never said I wasn’t foolish. It is the relentless nature of curiosity and challenge that you and I both conceal that drives me in my attempt to define what I have set out as undefinable. So, where do we begin? Befittingly, with a magic trick:
“I’ve got your nose, Samuel!”
After my father removed his hand from my then four-year-old face, I saw that he did indeed have my nose trapped there between his fingers, painlessly severed from my head, and I flew into a rage. I was unable to understand why he would exhibit such betrayal, which caused him to break the illusion and reveal that it was only a thumb and my nose was still safely attached to my face. I did not know what was going on. He had tapped into the unknown and performed there an act of magic. For a moment, it was real.
Since then, I have removed many noses. I have seen the young, noseless faces of shocked belief and in them I find a response to magic, defenseless and utterly perplexed. I am pushed to question, where is the magic, really? Is it found in the way some construct the world around us and how ideologies and belief-systems are all-too-well a part of that construct, that reality? Do we not live in a world that is narrated by and to us—fiction nonetheless—and if so, does magic not justify some territory within that narration? And what are the dangers of putting something in a box, to listen to poetry and not the poet, who screams to us their thoughts in a particular meter, when all we do is tap? To enter these questions, I will call upon some words from several other—two of whom are dead; three are still very much alive.
Between 1901 and 1981 lived a man named Jacques Lacan. He had an idea, many in fact, one of which he called “The Real” (Johnston, 2018). In 1944, the year of Lacan’s 43rd birthday, another by the name of Abdón Ubidia was born who went on to have some ideas of his own, some of which were published in 1989. This collection of ideas is called El Cristal Con Que Se Mira. This same year saw Lois Parkinson Zamora publish Writing the Apocalypse (an unrelated text), six years before she co-edited Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community (extremely related!) with Wendy B. Faris. By the time this book was produced, Lacan had been dead for 14 years; Jorge Luis Borges, a writer who was in touch with, and lives on in that literary space between magic and reality, had been dead for 12 years; and my father and his thumbs were 35 years old, four years older than I am now at the point of writing this essay. Please note that it’s not my intention to ramble on about death, dates and thumbs—these are merely connective tissue. Let us start with Borges.
Borges attempted to capture the universe and all of its contents in short stories containing infinite passages and memories. His words remind me of the moment I first discovered Professor Seagull’s claim to An Oral History of our Time, a manuscript which was said to have included over 8,000,000 words. (Mitchell, Joe Gould's Secret, 1998). This compendium was built from conversations overhead by Joe Gould around New York, the premise of which hoards in me the same all-encompassing, ponderous checklist of the world’s contents that recurs in Borges work: "I saw the multitudes of America; I saw a silvery cobweb in the centre of a black pyramid; I saw a splintered labyrinth (it was London); I saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror; I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me; I saw in a backyard of Soler Street the same tiles that thirty years before I'd seen in the entrance of a house in Fray Bentos; I saw bunches of grapes, snow, tobacco, lodes of metal, steam; I saw convex equatorial deserts and each one of their grains of sand" (Borges, The Aleph and Other Stories, 1973).
Here, I see a writer trying to consume the world with their language. I imagine Borges’ blindness and how he may have navigated it – was it noisy? Did he recreate inside himself The Library of Babel?
I read Abdón Ubidia and his words say that magical realism, the mode afforded to most, if not all of Borges’ work, is, like all literary trends, "una estrategia para captar el mundo"—“a strategy to capture the world” (Ubidia, El Cristal Con Que Se Mira, 1989). He claims it to be a tool to define and again, I see Borges trying to mount some cognitive scaffolding.
I would question Borges, if he were still alive, in the salon-bar he described: "ruthlessly modern [and] only barely less ugly than [he] had expected" (Borges, The Aleph and Other Stories, 1973). I would challenge his suggestion that the aleph is extraordinary, asking if it’s really more so than the birth of a child, when a world is again pulled into a singular focus, like his mother’s was on the day of his own birth. I would ask him what he thought of Lacan’s concept of “The Real” and if he agreed that we are ultimately severed from the true, objective nature of the living Earth by our entry into language—I would ask if he considers our realities a fiction because of it and if so, in that space between spaces, what fantasy exists that differs from our own existence. I would ask if he believes in magic and if he said yes, I would point him in the direction of my father—“there’s your man!”—who I imagine would have cultivated a small audience with his antics. It’s a shame I can’t ask him those questions—I was born six years after his death, still in that all-natural state as Lacan may have it—the same year that Abdón Ubidia released some of his ideas in El Cristal Con Que Se Mira, which seems now an appropriate point of entry.
El Cristal Con Que Se Mira (“The Crystal with Which You Look”) contains some of Abdón Ubidia’s thoughts on magical realism, most notably the idea that magical realism is unarguably and forever tied to realizing the oral traditions of Latin America: "Magical realism is a vernacular creature. His homeland is Latin America. And it's not about making civic or ideological statements, it's about defining" (Ubidia, El Cristal Con Que Se Mira, 1989). It admits Latin American folklore as honest gospel and acts as an extreme advancement from social realism. The realist, the writer, is with the common people and "nothing that belongs to the people they photograph must be alien to them" (Ubid.).
It is here, I imagine, that the occupants of Zunino and Zungri’s salon-bar would offer him their “saludos” or perhaps a creolistic chant. My father’s thumbs, too, would be in attendance. I would be trying to attract your attention, beckoning you over to the corner to tell that you that, whilst I respect his superior knowledge in the field of magical realism, I am not of the same persuasion. And you would be linked at the arm by Steve.
In his introduction to Information Design, Emergent Culture and Experimental Form in the Novel, Steve Tomasula, writes that "like vases in archeological digs, forms come out of times and places that cause them to be one way and not another" (Tomasula, Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature, 2014). “Agreed,” I would say to him, as he, too, begins to check his nose is still attached. Paleontologists could attribute several dates to my father’s thumbs, I’m sure. What was an extremely long evolutionary process preceding those thumbs was, in comparison, an extremely short process of political scandal, racial tension and experiences of war around the middle of the 20th century that saw what many would agree to be the birth of contemporary metafiction. This was not the first time we saw fiction realizing itself in such a way—that has been happening throughout the last seven or eight centuries. They were reactions to the environmental pressure(s) of then. How does it exist now?
Metafiction and magical realism can capture and represent a certain reality, however, to then hold the form down to a geographical point in the world… I feel this would only act to limit such forms and their possible uses. At this point, unannounced until now, Maggie Ann Bowers (still very much alive) would enter and sit with us, explaining how she would actually place the first instance of magical realism stemming from a critic in Germany named Franz Roh (Bowers, Magic(al) Realism, 2007). She would say that although certain geographical associations have been cemented with the form, "it is after all a narrative mode, or a way of thinking in its most expansive form, and those concepts cannot be “kept” in a geographic location" (Ubid.). “You’re right!” I would respond, brave and loud under the cold stare of Ubidia. Exited by this turn of opinion, I would ask you: “How do you relate to magical realism?” This question, surely, is a more effective method of defining.
How do I relate to it? I understand magical realism through use. I am not trying to capture a specific world for that, I hope, will be achieved regardless. With it, I am trying to capture the “morld,” when the w of the “world” flipped itself over to use those newly grounding legs to escape the sentence, or when the world is traded, like other dimensions of itself, in a handful of marbles. I am chasing after it. Falling into it. I see magical realism as a sandpit of play. It is an injection of extra into the ordinary. It is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s "trickle of blood [that] came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs" (Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1978). It is the tip of my father’s thumb connecting with my four-year-old nose and finding there a connection so strong that, after parting, its life seemed senseless and without purpose. I think Borges knew this—Cortazar, Ubidia and Lacan, too—I think the term “magical realism” is not an oxymoron, it may perhaps just be missing “[the] magical [in] realism.”