Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community

Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community

by Lois Parkinson Zamora

View All Available Formats & Editions

Magical realism is often regarded as a regional trend, restricted to the Latin American writers who popularized it as a literary form. In this critical anthology, the first of its kind, editors Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris show magical realism to be an international movement with a wide-ranging history and a significant influence among the literatures of…  See more details below


Magical realism is often regarded as a regional trend, restricted to the Latin American writers who popularized it as a literary form. In this critical anthology, the first of its kind, editors Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris show magical realism to be an international movement with a wide-ranging history and a significant influence among the literatures of the world. In essays on texts by writers as diverse as Toni Morrison, Günter Grass, Salman Rushdie, Derek Walcott, Abe Kobo, Gabriel García Márquez, and many others, magical realism is examined as a worldwide phenomenon.
Presenting the first English translation of Franz Roh’s 1925 essay in which the term magical realism was coined, as well as Alejo Carpentier’s classic 1949 essay that introduced the concept of lo real maravilloso to the Americas, this anthology begins by tracing the foundations of magical realism from its origins in the art world to its current literary contexts. It offers a broad range of critical perspectives and theoretical approaches to this movement, as well as intensive analyses of various cultural traditions and individual texts from Eastern Europe, Asia, North America, Africa, the Caribbean, and Australia, in addition to those from Latin America. In situating magical realism within the expanse of literary and cultural history, this collection describes a mode of writing that has been a catalyst in the development of new regional literatures and a revitalizing force for more established narrative traditions—writing particularly alive in postcolonial contexts and a major component of postmodernist fiction.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This critical collection combines astute and graceful interpretations of well-known literary texts from the Americas while at the same time displaying a rich global understanding of the broad reach of magical realism. Fashioning subtle rethinkings of the magical realist movement, it will shape discussion of postmodern and postcolonial literary histories."—José David Saldívar, University of California, Berkeley

"Zamora and Faris persuasively support their claim that magical realism is not only—or even mainly—a Latin American phenomenon, as is usually thought, but a truly international development of the last half century or so and, a major, perhaps the major, component of postmodernist fiction."—Matei Calinescu, Indiana University

Product Details

Duke University Press
Publication date:
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

Magical Realism

Theory, History, Community

By Lois Parkinson Zamora, Wendy B. Paris

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9721-2



Magic Realism: Post-Expressionism

Editors' Note

Writing in German in 1925 to champion a new direction in painting, Franz Roh originates the term Magic Realism to characterize this new painting's return to Realism after Expressionism's more abstract style. With the term, Roh praises Post-Expressionism's realistic, figural representation, a critical move that contrasts with our contemporary use of the term to signal the contrary tendency, that is, a text's departure from realism rather than its reengagement of it. According to Roh, the "convulsive life" and "fiery exaltation" of Expressionism have yielded to the representation of vigorous life in a "civil, metallic, restrained" manner. He describes the ways in which the Post-Expressionist painting of the 1920s returns to a renewed delight in real objects even as it integrates the formal innovations and spiritual thrust of Expressionism, which had shown "an exaggerated preference for fantastic, extraterrestrial, remote objects." In his statement in the preface to his book, "with the word 'magic,' as opposed to 'mystic,' I wished to indicate that the mystery does not descend to the represented world, but rather hides and palpitates behind it," he anticipates the practice of contemporary magical realists.

Roh's 1925 essay was translated into Spanish and published by José Ortega y Gasset's influential Revista de Occidente in Madrid in 1927; it was also published in Spanish in expanded form as a book in the same year. We provide a translation of the widely circulated Revista de Occidente article here. The actual influence of Roh's art-historical argument on the literary practice of magical realism is taken up by Irene Guenther in the essay following Roh's.

I attribute no special value to the title "magical realism." Since the work had to have a name that meant something, and the word "Post-Expressionism" only indicates ancestry and chronological relationship, I added the first title quite a long time after having written this work. It seems to me, at least, more appropriate than "Ideal Realism" or "Verism," or "neoclassicism," which only designate an aspect of the movement. "superrealism" means, at this time, something else. 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 (as will become clear in what follows).—Frauenkirch, Davos, March 1925.

The New Objects

The phases of all art can be distinguished quite simply by means of the particular objects that artists perceive, among all the objects in the world, thanks to an act of selection that is already an act of creation. One might attempt a history of art that would list the favorite themes of each era without omitting those whose absence would be equally meaningful. Of course, this would only give us the foundations for a system of characteristics; nevertheless, it would constitute the elementary, indeed the only fruitful, groundwork for wider research. There is, however, a second path open to research on objects. That other way, which transcends the thematic statistics I have just mentioned, would strive to determine, for example, whether an era notoriously fond of painting the heads of old people chose to paint old people as withered or lymphatic. None of this research concerns form. Only later begins the formal operation that reworks preceding layers. In the same way, in reverse fashion, particular objects can have an obscure and inexplicable influence over particular methods of painting. But that would catapult us into an unknown realm of historico-artistic research.

We will indicate here, in a cursory way, the point at which the new painting separates itself from Expressionism by means of its objects. Immediately we find that in its reaction to Impressionism, Expressionism shows an exaggerated preference for fantastic, extraterrestrial, remote objects. Naturally, it also resorts to the everyday and the commonplace for the purpose of distancing it, investing it with a shocking exoticism. Many religious themes suddenly appeared in our country, which had been so secular until then; the ultimate religious symbols (which the church rarely modifies) were employed with sudden daring. If a picture portrayed a city, for example, it resembled the destruction produced by volcanic lava and not just a play of forms or the booty of an agitated cubism. If the theme was erotic, it often degenerated into savage sensuality. If devilish men were depicted, they had the faces of cannibals. If animals appeared, they were horses of a heavenly blue or red cows that, even in their objective reality, had to carry us beyond what we could experience on earth. If a painter wanted to sing the exuberance of southern provinces in a landscape, he came up with the tropics of an extraterrestrial world where men of our race burned like piles of paper under dry flames of color. But above all (as in Chagall's work) animals walked in the sky; behind the transparent brain of the viewer, also present in the picture, appeared towns and villages; overly vehement and heated heads popped like corks from overflowing bottles; grandiose chromatic storms flared through all these beings; and the farthest reaches of the pictures appeared mysteriously close to the foregrounds.

The Expressionist serials and reviews were called The Last Judgment, Fire, Storm, Dawn. These titles are enough to reveal the world of objects favored at that time.

But let us glance at the pictures reproduced at the end of this book. It seems to us that this fantastic dreamscape has completely vanished and that our real world re-emerges before our eyes, bathed in the clarity of a new day. We recognize this world, although now—not only because we have emerged from a dream—we look on it with new eyes. The religious and transcendental themes have largely disappeared in recent painting. In contrast, we are offered a new style that is thoroughly of this world, that celebrates the mundane. Instead of the mother of God, the purity of a shepherdess in the fields (Schrimpf). Instead of the remote horrors of hell, the inextinguishable horrors of our own time (Grosz and Dix). It feels as if that roughshod and frenetic transcendentalism, that devilish detour, that flight from the world have died and now an insatiable love for terrestrial things and a delight in their fragmented and limited nature has reawakened. One could say that once again a profound calm and thoughtfulness prevails, a calm that is perhaps a prelude to a new flight, launched with a more mature knowledge and earthly substance. Humanity seems destined to oscillate forever between devotion to the world of dreams and adherence to the world of reality. And really, if this breathing rhythm of history were to cease, it might signal the death of the spirit.

Reactionaries believe unequivocally that with the new art such a moment has arrived. But 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 their smallest details!

All heads, hands, bodies, objects that express "convulsive life," "fiery exaltation"; in short, anything nervous has become suspect in this new art, for which nervousness represents wasted forces. Truly vigorous life is imagined to be civil, metallic, restrained. We don't need to describe in detail the kinds of men, women, children, animals, trees, and rocks that we produced in the past.

Finally, the new art does not belong to the series of initial artistic phases that includes Expressionism. It is a movement of decantation and clarification that was fortunate enough to find right at the start an almost exhausted artistic revolution that had begun to discover new avenues. In addition, these circumstances habitually express themselves in a more measured group of themes. Is this the way to reconcile art and the people (largely through the reestablishment of objectivity)? The future will tell. History, of course, always shows that the bottom layer of the population, which experiences the monotony of hard labor, is more easily touched by discrete and prudent works than by lofty and inspired ones. Biedermeier painting, whose serene grandeur, barely exhausted even now, was always threatened by vulgar bourgeoisification; it has forced us to see the danger that prudent art courts when it caters to contemporary taste.


Objectivity is not equally important in all the arts. Music does not reproduce objects; it creates out of nothing, given the fact that its phenomena do not really attempt to refer to nature. Architecture does not attempt that reference either. But during the development of Expressionism, painting, which has somehow almost always held on to nature, went as far as it could toward rejecting its representative, imitative meaning; specific objectivity was suspected of lacking spirituality; in Futurism, the objective world appeared in an abrupt and dislocated form. On the other hand, Post-Expressionism sought to reintegrate reality into the heart of visibility. The elemental happiness of seeing again, of recognizing things, reenters. Painting becomes once again the mirror of palpable exteriority. That is the reason to speak of a New Realism without in any way alluding to the instinctive attitude that characterized previous Realisms in European art. The viewers who continue to prefer that attitude do not feel satisfied with this new "frigid, unanimated" Realism.

An example will explain what we mean by objectivity. When I see several apples on a table, I receive an extremely complex sensation (even without leaving the plane of aesthetic intuition). I am attracted not just by the breath of exquisite colors with which Impressionism entertained itself; not just by the varied designs of spherical, colored, and deformed shapes that captivated Expressionism. I am overcome by a much wider amalgam of colors, spatial forms, tactile representations, memories of smells and tastes; in short, a truly unending complex that we understand by the name of thing. Compared with Post-Expressionism's integrative attitude, Impressionism and Expressionism seem outmoded simplifications, limiting themselves now to fulgurations of chromatic surface, now to abstractions of stereometry and color; they steal the seductive integrity of objective phenomena from the viewer. But when painting returns to a full objectivity, all those relations and feelings that we do not find in pure harmonies of color and form reappear. It is clear that only after art had become abstract could feeling for the object, which had been dragged all over like a vague, vacuous and unsubstantial rag, flower again. Only then could the object again constitute a fundamental emotion and require a corresponding representation. After art has been spiritualized, objectivity once again becomes the most intense pleasure of painting.

We must admit that the world created like this in its most tangible reality offers us the fundamental artistic feeling of existence for the first time. But let us not forget (as we often have recently) that we can only become aware of the objective world if to these tactile impressions we add impressions of color and form, ordered according to a principle that is also valid for living. Of course the new art does not restore objectivity by using all sensory potential in the same way: what it principally evokes is a most prolific and detailed tactile feeling.

We may use the most varied circumstances to illustrate this idea. For Impressionism, that the world consisted of objects was an "obvious" fact not worth much attention; for the Impressionists, then, painting delighted in giving maximal value and meaning to chromatic texture, which floated in the air. Expressionism also considered the existence of objects to be patently "obvious" and looked for meaning in powerful and violent formal rhythms; vessels into which man's spirit (that of either an artist or a man of action) could pour everything. But the most recent painting attempts to discover a more general and deeper basis, without which the two previous enthusiasms could not have succeeded. Before, 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 has been reconquered — albeit in new ways.

The new art has been maligned for its rough drawing and "penetrating" execution. This criticism does not take account of the possibility of feeling existence, of making it stand out from the void; that a solidly modeled figure crystalizes itself, as if by a miracle, emerging from the most obscure source. Here, perhaps, the background is the last frontier, absolute nothingness, absolute death, from which something emerges and vibrates with energetic intensity.

This seems to be a more important viewpoint than the "objectivity" everyone keeps evoking. The latter doesn't acknowledge that radiation of magic, that spirituality, that lugubrious quality throbbing in the best works of the new mode, along with their coldness and apparent sobriety.

The great abstract system of Expressionism had tended more or less toward mural painting, in which a free rhythm filled broad surfaces that would affect the spectator from afar. But with Post-Expressionism, easel painting, pictures with frames, easily transportable works that delighted many tastes besides those of postmedieval Europe are enjoying a renaissance. Now, when a piece of imitated "reality" hangs on the wall it only makes sense if it starts from and then (consciously or unconsciously) transcends the representation of a window, that is, if it constitutes a magical gaze opening onto a piece of mildly transfigured "reality" (produced artificially).

This idea of a picture on a wall is prospering and increasing in popularity again. The clash of true reality and apparent reality (of the actual room with the visionary realm of the painting) has always had an elemental attraction. This enchantment is enjoyed now in a new way. Such a juxtaposition of reality and appearance was not possible until the recuperation of the objective world, which was largely lacking in Expressionism. Expressionism appeared to have already rejected the image of real nature in favor of an exclusively spiritual world.


Excerpted from Magical Realism by Lois Parkinson Zamora, Wendy B. Paris. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More

Meet the Author

Lois Parkinson Zamora is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Houston.

Wendy B. Faris is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Texas, Arlington.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >