Real Magic (HUM415/ HUM303/ HUM455)


We already know that realism is a genre of narrative fiction, an aesthetic ideology linked to Aristotle’s notion of mimesis in which art functions as a mirror to nature. Eagleton taught us that the rise of realism– and with it the novel– parallels the ascent of the bourgeoisie. The reality that they created– capitalist modernity– values the verifiable; it seeks, above all, results. For such a worldview– originating in the Renaissance and flowering in the Age of Enlightenment– empirical evidence trumps metaphysical belief. And simultaneously it blueprints a model of itself, a cosmological imaginary. By the 18th century various thinkers conceived of the universe as a celestial clock: rational and precise. Symmetrical. Perfect. According to such an ideology “Progress with a capital P” was inevitable. As humankind gained in knowledge– improving existing technologies and increasingly dominating Nature– it climbed the civilizational ladder.

Such accomplishments ultimately led to a series of social and technical processes we can identify as the “-izations”: modernization, rationalization, routinization, mechanization, etc. Production became more efficient. The time-clock disciplined workers and reconfigured their experience of daily life. Human activities failing to produce profits lost significance or became ruling class trinkets. The market– though crisis-prone and often inscrutable– gathered more human endeavors under its capacious roof. Works of art became cultural capital or were collected as investments.

It went without saying for the confident capitalist that these advances possessed a moral component. The highly advanced nations of Europe (and its settler-colonial offshoots) were bound to spread their wisdom and expertise whether invited to do so or not.In those places where locals resisted instruction the tools of conquest would reluctantly be picked up. Galleano references the whip and the bible* as the primary means of taming America in the first era of colonization. Centuries later, in Africa, during the great Scramble, poets (ironically) extolled the civilizing potency of the Maxim gun. Edward Ross, reflecting on white supremacy in relation to the Near East, observed that “the Arab spreads the religion of Mahomet with the Koran in one hand and the sword in the other. The white man of to-day [ca. 1900] spreads his economic gospel, one hand on a Gatling, the other on a locomotive.” Significantly, the difference between the evangelist and the imperialist lay in the substance of their faith– religious piety versus the free market– and their relative level of technological development.

The fruits of “fixed capital”– steel, steam power, electricity, telegraphy– and the “liquid capital” of sophisticated financial instruments were secured by high explosives, professional armies, and a burgeoning colonial-administrative apparatus. Imperialism would reterritorialize the globe, just as the bourgeoisie, according to Marx, “create[d] a world after its own image.” Crucially, this process would not lift everyone to the level of Europe (which was, in any case, riddled with pockets of desperate poverty) but instead serve to underdevelop the colonial periphery in order to extract wealth with greater dexterity. China and India, for example, were both effectively de-industrialized by the British Empire (though notably Japan escaped this fate via the reforms of the Meji Restoration) which sought firm control of its balance of trade.

*“Europe needed gold and silver. The money in circulation kept multiplying and it was necessary to stimulate the movement of capitalism in the hour of birth: the bourgeoisie took control of the cities and founded banks, produced and exchanged merchandise, conquered new markets. Gold, silver, sugar: the colonial economy, supplying rather than consuming, was built in terms of — and at the service of — the European market. During long periods of the sixteenth century the value of Latin American precious metal exports was four times greater than the value of the slaves, salt, and luxury goods it imported. The resources flowed out so that emergent European nations across the ocean could accumulate them. This was the basic mission of the pioneers, although they applied the Bible almost as often as the whip to the dying Indians.”


Yet realism isn’t some uncomplicated record– the verbal equivalent of a camera. Its power and pleasures depend on the reader identifying with the fictive world the writer creates. In this regard realism concerns illusions as much as it does realities. Magical Realism, as a form of narrative fiction, thus seems to simultaneously contradict and affirm realism’s core conceit. Even so, for postcolonial writers– subjects formed by the historical forces of Empire’s rationalizing techniques– MR offers a means of subverting a discourse of reason identified with modernity and its geopolitical setting, “the West.” To an extent, Carpentier’s lo real maravilloso follows this critical track. But recall the key distinction between these two genres of fiction: magical realism combines the “improbable and the mundane” (Rushdie), treating magical events as matters of fact, while LRM posits Latin America as a space which, by its nature, already contains “marvellous” aspects. Climatic and geographical variation, and cultural and racial hybridity (mestizaje) fuse to produce a reality that exceeds a denatured Europe purged of its authenticity, even its “wild” zones. This view of Europe as exhausted, artificial, and enslaved to the rhythms of mass society seems particularly incisive in the wake of World War Two, when– the supposed exemplar of civilization– it lay in ruins in the aftermath of an explosion of mechanized barbarism.

In The Lost Steps, Carpentier advances a criticism of the modern city as a space where people have been deprived of their natural ecstasy, prisoners to a social regime that alienates them from meaning itself. In The House of the Spirits— as we’ll see– Allende uses the methods of MR to suggest utopian possibilities which are presented in direct contradiction to the brutal imposition of Pinochet’s capitalist dictatorship.