Magic realism: the modern Romantic revolt?

Anyone who’s read One Hundred Years of Solitude knows how beautiful magic realism can be. The movement is widely recognised to have been started by the aforementioned novel, as well as other Latin American writers alongside Márquez – such as Jorge Luis Borges. Loosely speaking, magic realism is outlined by critic Matthew Strecher ‘a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe’. I would like to add to Strecher’s definition by adding that, although it is too strange for us to believe, it is not impossible for us to relate to it. Magic realism usually plays on psychological truths and archetypes that allow us to be drawn into the world that has been created for us. For example, we can see the trope of alpha-male masculinity reflected in the giant frame and huge manhood of Úrsula’s son, even if we can’t actually believe he could lift and toss a counter that twelve men could not even budge. The themes of magic realism have been used to great effect not only in literature, but also in film, with Amélie and Midnight in Paris good examples. In short, magic realism allows you to dream in a world that is otherwise governed by rational reality, and this gave me a thought.

Many of you will be familiar with Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s concept of the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, the idea that we are happy to abandon our critical faculties and take a work as it is if it’s sufficiently well-crafted. Needless to say, he was talking about Romanticism, and not magic realism, but I believe there is a key link between the two movements.

Romanticism was a reaction to the Enlightenment (why can’t we have such beautiful terms for modern schools?) The Romantic poets, writers and artists saw the latter as being too focused on science and reason and reducing away our ability to dream under a stifling mantra of rationality. Even as a paid-up, card-carrying atheist, sceptic and ‘Enlightenment fundamentalist’, I can see there is truth in this. Granted, Richard Dawkins and Brian Cox would point to the beauty of nebulae and the intricate and infinitely complex nature of evolutionary processes, and I too would concur that these are more awe-inspiring than any creation myth. However, I can’t pretend that sometimes it is nice to dream in a world that is all too confusing and complex, and this is what the Romantics were trying to achieve, hence why it remains my favourite movement in poetry and art. Just take the below painting of Cotopaxi by Frederic Church. It bears the classic Romantic hallmarks of the awe-inspiring perspective, the saturation of colour and grand scale. No one has ever seen this view, and no one ever could see it, but it speaks to the sense we feel when we see the landscape rather than the literal reality of it.

In many ways, Romanticism was an attempt to marry the secular and the divine. Religion in Western Europe had just suffered the biggest attacks on its very foundations by the Age of Reason, and the revolutions inspired by it were eroding its power further. After the Enlightenment and its emphasis on scientific enquiry, no one can seriously defend biblically literalistic accounts of creation and divine intervention. Many of the Romantics were indeed atheists or agnostics but were revolting against the utilitarian and reductionist world that Enlightenment thought could lead to. For example, Shelley was thrown out of Cambridge for writing his essay The Necessity of Atheism, yet he maintained a sense of the transcendental in Ozymandias. Christopher Hitchens was a keen advocate of atheism incorporating elements of the numinous, noting how devotional music and poetry were some of the most beautiful things he’d read – listen to the Miserere Mei if you don’t believe him.

Fast-forward 200 years or so to the publishing of One Hundred Years of Solitude. We’ve just suffered two World Wars, science has led to the creating of the most terrible weapon humanity has yet seen, medicine is uncovering the causes of illnesses that have long plagued us and the spirit of inquiry has led to scientific analyses of the human mind, society, economics etc. ‘God is dead’ and there is a lost generation of souls disillusioned with their countries, their place in the universe and society as it stands. Literature responds with modernism, the absurd and existentialism. The former advocates the stripped-back, dispassionate writing we see in Hemingway’s novels while the latter two focus on the futility of human life, either mocking it or despairing about it.

Is it any surprise that out of this milieu Magic Realism emerged? In an odd way, although it was a response to its logical progression, post-war modernism was a continuation of the Enlightenment. It placed the same focus on the individual and liberty as well as rationalism and the decline of religion. Its main contrast was that, while the Enlightenment thinkers lauded all of this as heralding an exciting and free future for humanity, the modernists saw this as an empty, atomised void that was as inevitable as it was meaningless (‘We are condemned to be free’ – Sartre.) I think it is more than fair to say that Magic Realism was a response to this hollowness. It is a movement that encourages us to dream and blur the line between reality and fantasy, as well as giving us a world that is not so deathly serious and rational. While it may never have the same impact as Romanticism, I believe we should consider it as its cousin stemming from the same circumstances.

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The Condition of the Left in England

'A grotesque mixture of Enlightenment Liberalism, One-Nation Conservatism and Socialism.' Skeptic and linguaphile.

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