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Magical realism and its meanings: a not so necessary confusion

by G.S. Evans

I. The nature of the magic in magical realism

Running throughout the Fall 2002 issue of Janus Head: Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature, Continental Philosophy, Phenomenological Psychology--and indeed through the whole critical literature regarding "magical realism"--is a problematic use of the word "magic." As a result some very different types of literature and art (including irrealism) have been mistakenly grouped together under the heading of magical realism.

Broadly speaking, the origin of the problem is to be found in the fact that the word "magic" describes, on one hand, an occult force acting on objects (e.g., a "spell") and, on the other hand, a quality the object has without there actually being any such force present (e.g., "the right word gives us a sense of mystery and magic”). More specifically, however, the confusion has resulted from the fact that the term "magical realism" was coined in Germany during the 1920’s and then, some forty years later, was revived in a very different cultural and philosophical context in Latin America. At this time it was granted, according to Anne Hegerfeldt’s article, a "rather remarkable, if not actually miraculous, lease on life which, through the simplifying glass of retrospective vision, is frequently dated to the publication of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967." [62]

"The term 'magical realism,'" Lois Parkinson Zamora explains in her article, "was first uttered in a discussion of the visual arts. The German art critic Franz Roh, in his 1925 essay, described a group of painters whom we now categorize generally as Post-Expressionists, and he used the term Magischer Realismus to emphasize (and celebrate) their return to figural representation after a decade or more of abstract art." Roh, influenced by the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger that was prevalent in Weimar Germany, believed that "the autonomy of the objective world around us was once more to be enjoyed; the wonder of matter that could crystallize into objects was to be seen anew." Roh's "celebration of the mundane," Zamora writes, "implies a concomitant rejection of 'religious and transcendental themes'." [p.24] Roh himself reinforced this point later when, in his 1958 history of modern German art, he wrote that he had meant "magic of course not in the religious-psychological sense of ethnology." [Roh, his emphasis, 112]

And yet the "seminal" event of the current flourishing of the term "magical realism" was the publication of a work (One Hundred Years of Solitude) that very self-consciously uses magic in "the religious-psychological sense of ethnology" (albeit in an often modern and ironic form). How else to explain, for example, Remedios the Beauty rising up into the sky, except through what Wendy Faris calls the "additional resource of irreducible elements of magic," to the otherwise modernist and postmodernist aspects of that work? [111] (Footnote 1)

So if Roh's definition explicitly rules out magic in "the religious-psychological sense of ethnology," and yet the defining work of the current usage of the term readily incorporates this, it would seem that we have a contradiction. In and of itself, this contradiction shouldn't be an insurmountable problem, especially since, in his native Germany, Roh's term lost the battle over the designation of that particular form of post-expressionism to the term "new objectivism." Even Roh himself, in his 1958 book, more or less laid the term to rest by using new objectivism himself. Thus, it would seem, magical realism could reasonably be considered that which is commonly marked by the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Roh's magical realism could then be left in peace to be studied under separate cover. Instead, however, the writers in this issue of Janus Head (who are certainly a representative sampling of the major writers on the subject in contemporary academia) have striven to maintain a historical continuity between Roh's magical realism and the contemporary use of the term.

Anne Hegerfeldt, for example, in her "Contentious Contributions: Magic Realism goes British," states that: "Focusing on examples of magic realism from contemporary Britain, this essay proposes that magic realist fiction argues for a revaluation of alternative modes of thought not only from within a specifically postcolonial perspective, but already on a more general level. The mode can be seen to function almost as a fictional counterpart to anthropological or sociological studies: tracing the various strategies by which individuals and communities try--and have always tried--to make sense of the world, magic realist fiction shows how rationalism and science alone cannot adequately account for the human experience of the world. Unlike magic realist texts from postcolonial literatures, where the non-scientific perspective often coincides with a 'native' point of view, the texts from British fiction emphasize the extent to which alternative, frequently marginalized modes of thought are not restricted to (post)colonial cultures, but exist also in Western settings (even if they are rarely acknowledged)." This rather broad definition of magical realism could certainly be said to include the essentially phenomenological arguments of Franz Roh, which certainly run counter to the general belief that science can objectively measure and explain everything. And yet, in her interesting discussion of the various techniques magical realism uses to accomplish this, Hegerfeldt manages to show that what she is talking about is, in fact, the contemporary form of magical realism, and not Roh's. This is especially evident in her discussion of "literalization," where "magic realism further emphasizes the 'reality' of fictions through a set of techniques which are based on linguistic and conceptual violations, rather than transgressions of genre." "Literalization of metaphor" is the first of these, in which a metaphor's meaning is transformed into its literal equivalent. In Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh, for example, a woman's life in the fast lane causes her son to age at twice the normal speed. Closely related to this is a technique whereby abstract nouns can acquire a distinctly material presence; the example she cites occurs in One Hundred Years of Solitude, where memories must literally be looked for. The third type of literalization comes directly from the psychological, where "many of magic realism's numerous ghosts for example are quite transparently presented as materialized memories; not infrequently, they seem to be the all too real offspring of a guilty conscience."[p.70] The very essence of what she is describing here could also be described in terms of "the spirit being made manifest," and yet what is this besides "magic" in its most traditional (and alchemical) sense? In addition, the writers Hegerfelt discusses as exemplifying contemporary British magical realism, such as Salman Rushdie and Angela Carter, emphasize such traditional challenges to scientific objectivity. British writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro (in his more recent work) and Magnus Mills, who also challenge the scientific paradigm but without recourse to any traditional metaphysics, are not even mentioned.

Zamora, too, gives rather contradictory signals in this regard in her "The Visualizing Capacity of Magical Realism: Objects and Expression in the Work of Jorge Luis Borges." On the one hand she gives an excellent discussion of Roh (and, indeed, of Borges), which I have already cited, and then gives a definition for magical realism that could incorporate both Roh's version and the contemporary one when she writes that magical realism, in general, is "characterized by its visualizing capacity, that is, by its capacity to create (magical) meaning by seeing ordinary things in extraordinary ways." [22] On the other hand, she also states on the same page that "just as Roh was performing the last rites [for the term "magic realism" in his 1958 book], literary critics were beginning to resuscitate the term for use in Latin America. And from the outset they reversed Roh's emphasis, focusing on the magic rather than the real..."[22]. This naturally raises the question as to whether it is possible to reverse Roh's emphasis and still be speaking of the same thing. More specifically, she later writes that "what is striking is Roh's emphasis on 'permanent objects' … on the materiality of the object, the very fact of which, according to Roh, allows us to look at the object [as Roh wrote] 'close up from the other side.'" She goes on to write: "But what 'other side?' This is a matter for speculation, of course, but it seems to be analogous to the 'magical' content of material objects in magical realist literature." [25] And yet the "magic" of magical realist literature utilizes, in however a metaphorical form, traditional magic of the type that Roh disclaimed. The very "autonomy" and "materiality" of Roh's objects, in other words, makes them incompatible with the magical content that Zamora is describing, a theme I will elaborate on at length in the second half of this essay.

Wendy B. Faris, in her essay "The Question of the Other: Cultural Critiques of Magical Realism," also fails to provide us with any clarification or discussion of this question. Though she says nothing of the history of the term, she gives a definition of magical realism that certainly conforms to Roh's when she writes that the "most essential among my criteria for inclusion in the mode of magical realism is the existence of an 'irreducible element' that is unexplainable according to the laws of the universe as they have been formulated by modern, post-enlightenment empiricism with its heavy reliance on sensory data, together with a preponderance of realistic event, character, and description that conform to the conventions of literary realism."[102] And yet there is no discussion of the possible phenomenological bases of Roh's argument, wherein the object is irreducible not because of mysterious or unfathomable forces at work in the universe, but simply because any subject's view of the object is necessarily limited, personal, and not fully reconcilable with any other subject’s view of the object. And where Roh might have argued that turning to any causal explanation of the object eliminates its inherent mystery, Faris is largely concerned with how "magical realism often gives voice in the thematic domain to indigenous or ancient myths, legends, and cultural practices,” the first two of which generally have a clear metaphysical causality. Her discussion is an interesting and important one, but only in the context of the contemporary meaning of magical realism: despite her initial definition of magical realism, the overwhelming sense of the word "magic" in her essay is in the "religious-psychological sense of ethnology." (2)

It is in the final essay I am considering here, James D. Hardy, Jr. and Leonard Stanton's "Magical Realism in the Tales of Nikolai Gogol," that the two different magical realisms are most clearly and eloquently differentiated but also forcibly conjoined. In discussing the difference between a story such as "The Fair at Sorochintsy," and "The Nose," Hardy and Stanton state that there are "two varieties of magical realism employed in the tales of Nikolai Gogol. The first involves the direct and physical intervention of the divine or the demonic in an otherwise unexceptional flow of events … [while the second] implies the unexpected violation of the laws of nature without a divine or demonic explanation."[127] The first therefore "followed distinct patterns based on the location of the tale. Those set in the vast Russian countryside treated the Devil as a menacing though still ordinary part of life, but in that rural setting the Devil still had a playful as well as horrific quality … [while] in St. Petersburg, the Devil was an invisible and brooding presence who aimed to seduce souls to evil and often succeeded." [127] In "The Nose," however, "magical realism takes the form of an abrupt abrogation of natural law, for no discernable reason and to no clear purpose. The disruption of the natural order happens, and then the natural order is restored as if nothing had happened. There is no explanation for all of this, of course, and there could be no explanation, but at the same time no one could doubt the veracity of the reportage."[128] It would seem clear, then, that Hardy and Stanton also conflate Roh's definition of magical realism (which “The Nose” might well fit under) with the more metaphysical and contemporary one.

It is clear from the various comments that the authors of these articles make that they are aware of some contradictions and confusion that result from this. Indeed, the title of guest editor's Bainard Cowan's introduction is "A Necessary Confusion: Magical Realism," and yet it would seem that at least some of this confusion can be avoided by better differentiating Roh's definition from the existing definition of magical realism that has evolved since the 1960s. Further, I would argue, this is a necessary exercise as this conflation of definitions turns magical realism into a needlessly generic term that only breeds further confusion; more to the point, it also groups together very different types of fiction and art that manifest very different goals on the part of the artist, and have very different effects on the reader or viewer of art.

II. The magic of being and the magic of causality: Roh reconsidered

It isn't difficult to trace the entomology of this change as the term made its way from 1920s Germany to Latin America in the 1960s. After Roh coined the term, it slowly took on a life of its own. Translated into Spanish by the phenomenologist José Ortega y Gasset in the 1920s, Roh's essay and the philosophy behind it were quickly forgotten. But the term continued to pop up here and there in various Spanish-language journals over the ensuing decades, until it was finally applied to One Hundred Years of Solitude by critics looking for a term to describe a new literary movement in the immediate aftermath of that seminal work.(3) It is especially easy to understand the confusion when we consider that both Roh and the writers describing contemporary magic realism use "magic" entirely correctly. If we take a look at a dictionary we learn that "magic" is defined as:

" 1 a the supposed art of influencing the course of events by the occult control of nature or of the spirits. b witchcraft. 2 conjuring tricks or sleight of hand. 3 an inexplicable or remarkable influence producing surprising results. 4 an enchanting quality or phenomenon." [Oxford American Dictionary and Language Guide, New York, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999.]

It would seem apparent that contemporary magical realism tends to follow the definition of “1 a,” or “3,” while Roh had more in mind definition “4 ”. To state this difference of meaning in terms most appropriate to Roh himself, we have to consider how contemporary magical realism, as opposed to Roh, considers and treats the object.

Contemporary magical realism actually has little interest in the object; it is interested instead in the forces that are acting on the object, or "influencing the course of events." As Borges put it, "magic is the crown or nightmare of the law of cause and effect, not its contradiction. Miracles are no less strange in this universe than in that of astronomers. It is ruled by all of the laws of nature as well as those of imagination. To the superstitious, there is a necessary link not only between a gunshot and a corpse but between a corpse and a tortured wax image or the prophetic smashing of a mirror or spilled salt or thirteen ominous people around a table." [Borges, 80]

Thus, if the object has any importance in contemporary magical realism, it is as a measure of whatever supernatural forces are controlling and changing it. When, in The Satanic Verses, the movie star Gibreel Farishta gets caught up in a scandal and "his portraits on the covers of magazines acquired the pallor of death," and then "simply faded off the printed page," the reader does not concern him or herself with how this could actually have happened to the printed paper of all those magazine covers; that it could happen is simply a given. What is important is what transformed it; what was, so to speak, the spirit that was manifesting itself on the object in such a way.

Roh's magic realism, however, emphasized the object, and he was critical of any style that deflected attention away from it. While tracing the history of modern art, he stated that, for both impressionism and expressionism, the fact that the world "consisted of objects was an 'obvious' fact not worth much attention," thus allowing impressionism to focus on the object's "chromatic texture," and expressionism to consider objects to be mere vessels "into which man's spirit could pour everything." "Before," he concludes, "people were not at all devoted to the object: they took the exterior world which art molds and shapes for granted. In making what was formerly accepted as obvious into a 'problem' for the first time, we enter a much deeper realm, even though some of the results may seem inadequate to us. This calm admiration of the magic of being, of the discovery that things already have their own faces, means that the ground in which the most diverse ideas in the world can take root have been reconquered--albeit in new ways."[Zamora and Faris, 20]

That contemporary magical realism uses the metaphysics of magic (though few, if any, magical realist authors believe in such magic) to project cultural and political concerns onto the matter described in the text would clearly be, for Roh, an example of art taking the exterior world for granted. Ironically, from Roh's point of view, there is little difference between contemporary magical realism and the scientific objectivism that it is viscerally rebelling against: in both cases the object itself is not only of little or no interest, but is entirely passive, whether it is inert matter or the human subject (subject to various supernatural forces beyond its control in the one, and various physical and deterministic forces in the other). For both, the object is merely the effect of the cause, and the real interest is in the cause.

In a way, then, Roh was describing an art that entirely does away with "cause"--and therefore "effect"--so that we can focus on the object as it is, by itself, in the moment. "The static, anti-dynamic pictorial form," he wrote later about his magic realism, "was considered a coordinate of the 'rigid fourth dimension' with which modern physics can reduce everything dynamic to states of being." [Roh, 113] For only when we eliminate all the various forces with which we tend to explain away the object can we instead focus on it as an "enchanting quality or phenomenon," on its "magic of being." Only then "the autonomy of the objective world around us [is] once more to be enjoyed."

The painter that perhaps best typified Roh's focus on the object was Otto Dix. With artists such as Dix, we learn, "it feels as if that roughshod and frenetic transcendentalism, that devilish detour, that flight from the world [typical of expressionism] have died and now an insatiable love for terrestrial things and a delight in their fragmented and limited nature has reawakened."[Zamora and Faris, 17] Though "reactionaries" welcomed this return to the world of reality, "considered carefully, this new world of objects is still alien to the current idea of Realism. How it stupefies the rearguard and seems to them almost as inappropriate as Expressionism itself! How it employs various techniques inherited from the previous period, techniques that endow all things with a deeper meaning and reveal mysteries that always threaten the secure tranquility of simple and ingenuous things: excessively large bodies, lying with the weight of blocks on a skimpy lawn; objects that don't imitate the least movement but that end surprisingly real, strange mysterious designs that are nevertheless visible down to the smallest details!"[Zamora and Faris, 17-18] For an artist such as Dix, "To depict realistically is not to portray or copy but rather to build rigorously, to construct objects that exist in the world in their particular primordial shape." [Zamora and Faris, 24] Not only has the object been stripped of the stylistic effects typical of impressionism and expressionism, it has also been left in a kind of isolation; there is no attempt by the artist to integrate the object into some seamless whole that would be indicative of the artist's greater vision of the world. As Roh writes about Dix, he tried "to present the horrible side of the world in the crudest manner and in all its minute detail, but still without any political overtones." [Zamora and Faris, 29]

In contemporary American literature, the style that perhaps best exemplifies this aspect of Roh's description would be the hyperrealism typified by the short stories of Raymond Carver. In hyperrealism all the "objects", whether they be the characters, settings, or events, are so stripped of the metaphor and structure of standard realist fiction that we are forced to confront the objects for ourselves, without the kind of authorial guidance that typifies realism, leaving the object as something of a (non-spiritual) mystery in the reader's mind.

The objects in a painting by Dix or in a story by Carver, however, no matter how stripped down and laid bare they might be, still exist within a relatively normal framework or context. They are, that is to say, where we would expect them to be. It is when these objects are cut adrift from any such context that Roh's approach, I would argue, reaches its radical conclusion, one that bears a great similarity to what we have been describing in these pages as irrealism.

Roh considered Giorgio de Chirico and the Italian arte metafisica movement as one of forerunners of his magic realism. Indeed, one could readily imagine that he would have been impressed by the manner in which de Chirico emphasized the object by pulling it, however subtly, out of its expected context. When one first looks at a de Chirico painting, such as Conquest of the Philosopher, one thinks it could very well be a real, albeit somewhat unusual, scene being depicted. When we look more carefully, however, we are struck by the oddity of the objects, such as the two, large sculpted artichokes lying in front of a cannon. We are forced by the painting to contemplate the reason that they are there at all and why they are lying about in this particular way; because no answer is readily apparent we are forced to focus on the object itself, on its materiality. In addition, the fact that we rarely see an actual human being in any of his paintings not only leaves the objects alone and in their own world, but also denies us the opportunity to focus on an agent, somebody whose presence might explain what we are seeing.

Projected in such a manner, these objects force us to confront the fact that they have an existence of their own. And if objects have their own existence--even if it is just an inertial one--it only stands to reason that they will resist our efforts to utilize them for our own ends. This is the "solidity" of objects that Roh wrote about when he wrote that in magic realism we see "juxtaposed in harsh tension and contrast the forms of the spirit and the very solidity of objects, which the will must come up against if it wishes to make them enter its system of coordinates." [Zamora and Faris, 23]

Others emphasized this "harsh tension" even more than de Chirico, whose objects tended to be passive (and, therefore, on the melancholy side). In the paintings of René Magritte and the writings of Franz Kafka, for example, the object becomes more active. Indeed, this is made clear in Sartre's description of the (Kafka-inspired) topsy-turvy cafe that inspired the name of this publication. Here the efforts of the will to make the objects of the cafe (the utensils, tables, napkins, etc.) enter its system of coordinates is met by a genuine rebellion of the objects--what Sartre calls the means (material matter) rebelling against the ends (our attempts to humanly order the material world).

Such a scenario is a direct challenge to our tendency to see matter as something neutral, something that we simply mould and make into what we like, thereby allowing it to enter comfortably into our system of coordinates. When matter refuses to be a part of this system, or actually rebels against it, we tend to want to find some other reason for this, a more human one. We want, in other words, to resolve the harsh tension and contrast between will and matter that Roh was describing. Magritte complained in this regard that people were always trying to explain away his paintings by saying, for example, that they were symbolic. Sartre wrote, in regard to Kafkaesque literature, that if the reader interprets the events as "a practical joke played on the protagonist, or that the protagonist is suffering from some form of psychosis, then we have lost the game." By this he meant that the reader’s attention has shifted from the object itself to some causal factor acting on the object or our perception of the object. (4)

Thus, if we include a story such as “The Nose” under the rubric of contemporary definition of magical realism, we lose sight of the fact that what happens to collegiate assessor Kovalev cannot be explained by a causal force--that, for example, no spell or curse (even of the most contemporary, rarified and literary sort) has been placed upon Kovalev. By grouping stories such as “The Nose” (or Kafka’s work) together with a work such as One Hundred Years of Solitude, we assume without further reflection that there is such a causal force present somewhere, just as there is in Marquez's work. As a result we don't look at the object in and of itself, and therefore miss out on the specific implications of this type of fiction.


(1) In fact, the use of the "agency" of such magical elements is prevalent enough in contemporary magical realism that it has led to a charge from some writers that it is inextricably "tied to a nostalgic primitivism." [113] Back to the text

(2) Though later in her essay she makes the point that some magical realist works are "not inextricably tied to a nostalgic primitivism," which are "specifically inspired by modernity and its inventions," her examples are still firmly in the camp of traditional magic: e.g., when she writes that "the image used to describe the main magical element in The Moor's Last Sigh, his twice normal growth rate, is from video technology: 'somebody somewhere has been holding down the button marked 'FF'.'" The image may be modern, without any of the nostalgic primitivism she earlier criticized, but it is still magic in the sense of the spirit making things manifest -- some creature, some spirit, somewhere, is pressing that metaphorical button and turning it into reality. Back to the text

(3) An argument might be made, at least based on what has been translated into English so far, that Luis Leal, in his 1967 essay “Magical Realism in Spanish American Literature,” was the first to formally--and therefore mistakenly--combine the two. Leal twice cites Roh's statement that, “with the word ‘magic’ as opposed to ‘mystic, I wish to indicate that the mystery does not descend to the represented world but rather hides and palpitates behind it," [Zamora and Faris, 120 and 123] but does not further explore Roh's argument. Armed only with this rather general statement, he then proceeds to link Alejo Carpentier's concept of "the marvelous real" - which is really much closer to contemporary magical realism -- onto Roh's term. Back to the text

(4) The fact that, in the "real" world, all objects are subject to causality means that the art Roh is describing is inherently non-realistic, even when it looks to be real. In a word, the artistic devices used are intended to emphasize the materiality of the objects. When the objects are then taken out of their expected context and placed in an impossible one, we are stripped of both our notions of causality and the possible order of things and yet, at the same time, are asked by the artist to accept this situation as real. If viewers of such art, or readers of such fiction, accept this conceit, they will additionally find themselves suspended between the real and the unreal. Back to the text

Primary works cited

Zamora, Lois Parkinson, and Faris, Wendy B., eds. Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1995.

Roh, Franz. German Art in the 20th Century . Greenwich, Connecticut: New York Graphic Society, Ltd., 1968.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Borges, a Reader: A selection from the Writings of Jorge Luis Borges . Ed. Emir Rodriguez Monegal and Alastair Reid. New York: Dutton, 1981.

Janus Head: Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature, Continental Philosophy, Phenomenological Psychology. Volume 5, Number 2 (Fall 2002).

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