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.

POETRY: somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond by E.E. Cummings

Last night, in a drunken haze after a night out, I recalled the end of a poem which Freddy Lyon recites in BBC TV drama The Hour. I’d never seen the whole thing before, and it is a poem of strange beauty. The syntax and punctuation is odd, yet it still manages to be an intense love poem. So have a read of it, and after, why not listen to my own reading?

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me,i and
my life will shut very beautifully,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

REVIEW: ‘A Brief History of Neoliberalism’ by David Harvey

David Harvey is a leading geographer, sociologist and academic best known for his scathing criticism of capitalism and postmodernity. Having first come across his work in course reading, I was taken with his arguments in The Condition of Postmodernity and was subsequently recommended his work, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005). I was not disappointed.

The book is a true broadside against both the fundamental economic and moral arguments which underpin neoliberalism. With a mountain of references, Harvey meticulously takes apart the history of the doctrine, showing the devastation it wreaked on Latin America and south-east Asia, as well as, to a lesser extent, New York, Sweden and the UK. He pulls no punches in placing the blame as much with the IMF and US Treasury as world governments and financiers. In doing so, he also uncovers the sinister links between think tanks, central banks, governments, big capital and financial institutions. As such, this book makes for a genuinely harrowing read, as we learn quite how much liberties and democracy have been eroded in the name of liberty and democracy.

This is a broad book, covering a wide span of history and various themes. There is a whole chapter dedicated to the neoliberalization of China, which proves to be deeply interesting despite being the most data and jargon-heavy in the book. He touches on the idea of debt and capital flow as being a new form of colonialism/imperialism and even points out how universalism can sometimes be detrimental to poorer nations. Whilst I usually hold the ideal of universalism as sacred and am often sceptical of cries of imperialism, the examples Harvey uses as being demonstrative of this are practically irrefutable.

One of the main things that sets this book apart from others on the subject is that Harvey refuses to see neoliberalism as a ‘failed utopian project’, to quote Stiglitz, but instead the naked restoration, or creation, of class power. It is Harvey’s Marxist perspective which allows him to take to pieces the currents behind neo-classical economics and postmodernity and show them to be just this.

All in all, this is a wonderful book, and definitely worth a read. If I had to picky and make some critiques, I would say that Harvey is very keen to lay a broad swathe of social evils at the door of neoliberalism, but in reality it is difficult to show that these are a result of the ideology, loosely connected or, indeed, a driving force behind it. Also, by the time you finish the book you are burning with desire to act to change the world, but Harvey does not really offer concrete alternatives, instead opting to be modest, declaring he is only one academic and that it is time for a dialogue between the two great camps of the left to create an alternative vision of the world. Whilst this may be true, the left is often accused of being very able to criticise but not able to offer a valid replacement, and it would be nice to see something more assertive.

Nonetheless, this is a fantastic work which is very easy-to-read and well backed-up with data and sources. It is a comprehensive destruction of the idea that neoliberalism offers us the optimum of freedom and choice, and instead shows how it has left us impoverished, sometimes literally, and atomised from one another. In Harvey’s words, ‘There is a far more noble set of freedoms than those offered by neoliberalism’, and this book is a perfect starting point to begin their forging.

Literature: ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ Ernest Hemingway

(Spoilers)

‘Some of the younger men spoke of her as ‘el mar’, which is masculine, but the old man always thought of her as ‘la mar’, and as something that gave or withheld great favors’

In June 2012, I finished what was to be the last novel I read until two weeks ago. The novel in question was the fantastic A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, so it was only fitting that I broke this fiction drought with another work by the same author. I found myself captivated by Hemingway’s writing style in A Farewell to Arms. I loved the simplicity which somehow managed to convey so much. To me, the great strength of Hemingway is that, by not attempting to fill every page with metaphor, flourish and allusion, anything emotive or metaphorical stands out so much more.

The Old Man and the Sea is a short book, only roughly 130 pages in my A6 copy. This was something of a blessing as my main gripe with pre-1900 ‘classics’ is their propensity to say what could be said in 200 pages in 600, and not a word is wasted in this novel. It focuses, as the title would suggest, on an old fisherman ‘Santiago’ who has failed to catch a fish for 85 days. The book really only has three characters, one of which is (at first glance at least) minor and one is a fish, so, as you can imagine, Santiago and his character feature the most strongly.

The most prominent themes in the book are themes integral to any Hemingway work, these being masculinity, the relationship between man, death and nature and personal struggle – if you really try, you can connect all three of these. Santiago is old and unlucky, and has become a subject of mockery in the town and an object of pity by the older fishermen. When he sets out on the 85th day he not only sets off to catch the biggest fish anyone has yet seen, but to prove his own masculinity and personal worth.

Hemingway believed that death and destruction are certainties in this world, and the only way for a man to conquer them is through pride and endurance. This is arguably the driving message of The Old Man and the Sea. Quite aside from the epic struggle of Santiago to capture the fish and bring it to shore, the book is filled with references to this. Midway through the book, Santiago recalls having an arm-wrestle with ‘a great negro in Casablanca’ which lasted one day and one night with the local fishermen coming in and placing bets. They wrestled till blood came out from under their nails and didn’t sleep until Santiago emerged the victor, even though at times his contestant nearly beat him.

Obviously, this is ridiculous. It’s classic Hemingway in its hyperbole and hyper-masculinity, but the theme of pride and determination is there. Likewise it is in how Santiago forces himself to eat the raw tuna even though he despises it and it makes him nauseous; ‘you must eat the tuna to make you strong, old man’ he often repeats to himself. Most obviously, however, it is most evident in one of my favourite quotes from the book, when Santiago says to himself ‘But man was not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but never defeated.’ Quite literally, as it is stated again and again, the old man is locked in his struggle with his fish and will either catch it or die doing so.

What must not be overlooked, however, is that the marlin is also locked into this struggle in exactly the same way as Santiago, and his determination reflects this. Indeed, the old man realises this is the case, stating we have to ‘live on the sea and kill our true brothers.’ Throughout the book, man is compared as being equal to, or sometimes inferior, to nature, and the old man’s knowledge of and respect for nature is deeply moving. He can tell where he is by the stars and how the wind blows, he knows exactly what species of fish he will find by the type of water he is in and what signs show fish are near. Halfway through the book, he tells an incredibly sad story about the time he and the boy caught a female marlin who panicked and thrashed around, losing all her energy, and how her male partner followed her all the way to the surface and then dived out the water to ‘take one last look at his female’ when she is hauled onto the boat before plunging down to the depths. In the old man’s words ‘That was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen them do. It made the boy sad as well.’ This is not a man who treats animals with contempt, and has built up a deep respect for them over the years.

Which brings me on to my favourite use of imagery in the book. Throughout the novel, the old man dreams of Africa and, in particular, the ‘lions on the beach’. He even states that it’s got to the point where he doesn’t dream of his old wife anymore, or the native boats coming in on the surf, but dreams of the lions playing on the beach. Frequently he wonders ‘why does he always dream about the lions?’ The answer to this is twofold. Firstly, it reminds him of his youthful time in Africa when he had his strength, and shows the circular nature of life. But, more importantly, it builds in to his character and the major theme of respect for nature in the novel. Lions are by any account magnificent, strong beasts that a single man could not take on, yet here they are showing their gentle and playful side. Likewise, early in the novel Santiago recalls seeing some porpoises playing and says ‘they are like us, they love, they play. They are our brothers.’ Hemingway is showing that while an ideal man must have pride and strength, he must also be caring, sensitive and have the capacity to love and to play. The image of the lions returns throughout the novel right to its final words ‘The boy found the old man asleep. He was dreaming of the lions.’ It is beautiful imagery made all the stronger by the novel’s blunt style.

Finally, the significance of the boy should not be underestimated despite his minor role. The boy loves the old man, who has taught him everything he knows about fishing. He cares for him despite the disapproval of his father, who banned him from going fishing with the old man due to his bad luck. However, at the end of the book the boy disobeys his father and says he will go fishing with the old man again, so impressed is he by his dedication and struggle. Here then, we see that the boy will continue everything about fishing from the old man until Santiago’s death, and in this way Santiago’s methods of fishing and respect for the world will be passed on after his death. Therefore, in a way, through his pride and determination in the face of death, he has conquered it, and proved the maxim ‘a man can be destroyed but never defeated’.