18 October 2009

Fate Smiles.

All these gorgeous things happened to me in the space of about a week.

Munchies was my favorite Chinesey restaurant, and it was gone, but now it's back (incarnated as Cooking Taste Right) and their tapioca drinks are as good as ever. And the Taiwanese lady who runs the place remembered me from before.

We were walking down the street and a middle aged couple said to us, Did you see the space shuttle??? So we looked where her finger was pointing in the night sky and the moving dot of light we saw was definitely, unquestionably, the space shuttle.

A Hot Pocket was just hanging, like a very loose tooth, from its perch in the vending machine. As I was contemplating whether or not to start pounding on the glass, my wondering eyes beheld it, of its own accord, fall right down to the bottom. So I bought a dreamsicle and ate them both.

At the Festival Latinoamericano downtown, I stopped at one of the booths set up for a dentist's office (maybe a Spanish-speaking dentist? I don't know why they were there) and tried to toss the ball into one of the holes on the wooden cutout of a mouth. I got it in the hole marked "toothpaste." And they gave me some free Crest Pro-Health Night Mint toothpaste. I didn't even know Night Mint was a thing. But I like it.

Juan Martin del Potro won the US Open. He is from Argentina.

Killer week.
But this week was probably even better.

02 October 2009

Grendel's Mother and Garcia Marquez:

Magic Realism in Medieval England

It is a widely-held belief that magic realism began when the writers of the Latin American Boom started weaving in supernatural occurrences among the stark details of mundane settings. Although its precise characteristics are often negotiable, one broadly accepted definition of magic realism is "what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something 'too strange to believe'." (1) As more of it has been produced over the last half-century, scholars have started identifying unifying threads within the body of writings that people call magic realism. The Emory Center for Postcolonial Studies identifies the following four common characteristics of Magic Realism.
    -Hybridity: it involves “issues of borders, mixing, and change.”
    -Irony Regarding Author’s Perspective: “the writer must have ironic distance from the magical world view for the realism not to be compromised.”
    -Authorial Reticence: “a lack of clear opinions about the accuracy of events and the credibility of the world views expressed by the characters in the text.”
    -The Supernatural and the Natural: “the supernatural is integrated within the norms of perception of the narrator and characters in the fictional world.”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Miguel Angel Asturias, and Salman Rushdie are all well known practitioners of magic realism. But none of them was the first to write it. In fact, England was a hotbed of magic realism over a thousand years ago.

Beowulf, one of the best examples we have of medieval English fiction, was composed somewhere between 700 and 1000, a time during which invasions and migrations were constantly altering the demographic and political landscape of England. The epic combines quotidian and mythical elements in a way that bears the undeniable imprint of magic realism. It matter-of-factly includes trolls, elves, living dead, giants (ll. 111-114), dragons, and the Grendel among the villains against which its human protagonists fight. And while those protagonists may be human they exhibit moments of superhuman strength: "It was the space of a day/ before [Beowulf] could reach the bottom [of the ocean]," (ll. 1495-6) and "It was not granted to him/ that iron-edged weapons might ever/ help him in battle; his hand was too strong,/ he who, I am told, overtaxed every blade/ with his mighty blows (ll. 2682-6).” And what about that editorial “I am told”? In the absence of any statements by the author—or even any idea of who the author is—this may be as close as we can get to an “irony regarding the author’s perspective.” One of the most recognizable features of Anglo-Saxon literature is Wyrd, the supernatural force that governs mortal happenings and is almost personified: “Wyrd often spares/ an undoomed man, when his courage endures!" (ll. 572-3)” The very ambiguity about how animate wyrd is adds to its mystery and hence to its magic. But perhaps the story’s most magic realist element is Grendel’s mother (ll. 1258-9). Through her, the narrative recognizes that not even foul monsters exist independently of anything else—they too have someone who brought them up, who cares for them, who mourns them. We’re forced to recognize familiar elements even in the horrifying Grendel.

But there are other details that separate Beowulf from fairytale. The Broadview Anthology’s introduction states that the story is set in a historically accurate Scandinavian geography, and that “a number of the poem's characters . . . are mentioned in other sources as if they were figures of history rather than fable.” Moreover, the poem’s themes are far from purely fantastical. Broadview goes on to state that Beowulf is an “intensely political poem,” and that
    Kingdoms and successions, alliances and truces, loyalties and the tragically transient stability of heroic society are the poem's somber subtext, a theme traced less in the clashes of the battlefield than in the patterns of marriage and kin, in stories remembered and retold, in allusion and digression and pointed foreshadowing.

In other words, the presence of the supernatural in Beowulf is not gratuitous, nor is it the primary focus of the author. The poem incorporates these devices in its examination of matters of daily concern to the people it portrays. “Beowulf is neither myth nor folktale,” asserts Broadview. It can only be magic realism.

But the supernatural in the middle ages was not confined to fiction. Bede is considered the father of English History. His most well-known work, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, is shot through with magic realist traits. Bede lived in Northumbria, a land bordering the territories of the wild, primal, and mystical Picts (now Scotland). It seems he considered the Picts and the other Celtic tribes of the British Isles a natural source of mystery. He mentions that "it is said that the Pictish race [is] from Scythia”, which the footnote clarifies could mean Thrace or the "farthest northern regions of the world, Ultima Thule.” His description of Ireland is paradisiacal:
    No reptiles are found there, and no snake can live there; for, though snakes are often carried thither out of Britain, as soon as the ship comes near the shore, and the scent of the air reaches them, they die. On the contrary, almost all things in the island are efficacious against poison . . . the island abounds in milk and honey.

Bede balances mysticism and historicism by emphasizing the supernatural in the geographic realms just beyond the familiar and the known.

The most overtly magical moments in Bede’s history are the visions. While they are to be expected in hagiographies like the Abbess of Whitby’s story, Bede also includes visionary elements in his secular history. The account of Edwin’s ascent to power revolves around his conversion, brought about by the occasion when “suddenly in the dead of night he saw a man approach him whose face and dress were equally strange” who told him, “I know who you are, and why you grieve, and the evils which you fear will fall upon you." Bede writes, “it is said that he immediately disappeared, so that the king might realize that it was not a man but a spirit that had appeared to him." By making this detail so central in this otherwise earthbound account of political and military machinations, Bede shows that the supernatural inhabited not just the lives of the saints but the lives of the secular. Also, his practice of prefacing supernatural occurrences with “it is said” may be his way of maintaining authorial reticence, a coy acknowledgment of the potential unbelievability of that doesn’t commit itself to strict approval or denial. According to him, the first commanders of the Angles “are said to have been” descended from Woden.

Caedmon’s story provides particularly realistic detail. Before he was visited in his sleep and commanded to “sing about the beginning of created things,” he was just a regular bloke with no particular musical talent. Bede makes a point of clarifying that “sometimes at feasts, when it was agreed for the sake of entertainment that all present should take a turn singing, when he saw the harp coming towards him, he would rise up from the table in the middle of the feast, go out and return home.” Describing Cademon this way makes his character delightfully believable, and thereby places his supernatural experience squarely within the context of the ordinary.

According to the Broadview Anthology, "our study of the past says as much about us as it does about the past we try to study (p. 2)”, and a magic realist reading of our culture’s old writing sheds more light on our literary present than we might expect. Medieval English literature clearly meets the qualifications for magic realism. But contemporary literary criticism insists that magic realism is something that comes from the third world in the twentieth century. Indeed, if we consider Bede to have written magic realism, he is probably the only Anglo-Saxon male ever to do so. Today magic realism is written in Latin America, in the Middle East, on the Indian subcontinent. It is written in the developed world by women and minorities. In other words, “magic realism” has come to mean “not Anglo realism,” with the distance between consisting of geography, race, or time. By applying the label “magical” to those elements of other cultures which used to be present in our own, we are imposing an implicit sequential hierarchy—realism dominates mysticism, the rational supplants the irrational. This belies an enormous cultural hubris. The main difference between magic realism and realism is that the latter comes from a modern Anglo-Saxon culture that has rejected the influence of the supernatural and the mystical. However, as other traditions have found their literary voice (and as we’ve examined older Anglo-Saxon culture), it’s become clear that rejection of the unobservable is the anomaly, not the other way around. Luis Leal said, "Without thinking of the concept of magical realism, each writer gives expression to a reality he observes in the people.” The term “magic realism” implies that magic is not included in what’s real. But in the culture of medieval England as well as in many cultures today, the opposite is true: no depiction of life is complete without acknowledging the unexplainable. The contemporary American poet Rita Dove put it this way: “To me, just looking at anything closely is pretty magical. I've had people point out passages they think of as having elements of magical realism, and all I can think is: isn't reality magic?” (2) Bede thought so.

    (1) Matthew C. Strecher, “Magical Realism and the Search for Identity in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki,” Journal of Japanese Studies, Volume 25, Number 2 (Summer 1999), pp. 263-298, at 267.
    (2) William Walsh and Rita Dove, “Isn’t Reality Magic? And interview with Rita Dove,” The Kenyon Review, New Series, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Summer 1994), pp. 142-154