Thursday, September 28, 2017


Now that I have a weak grasp of “colonial” and “post-colonial” terms as they apply to thought and visual art, I’ll venture a little further.  I’m relying on the Wikipedia entry for magic realism.  Comprehensive as it seems to be, I wish I knew who composed it — it may have been several people, but at least one of them is probably South American, judging from the examples.

Briefly, I’ll say that writing in the category of magical realism often has fantastical elements in a real world setting with enough detail to be convincing, and that the author may be mysterious as to his or her motives, which is what makes the category relevant to both political persuasion and the accusation of hoaxing.

Several forces are clearly confusing the issue.  I compose this oxymoron (a self-contradictory phrase) deliberately because Magic Realism is an oxymoron.  The category mixes what is normal -- assumed to be real, provable, concrete -- with the unaccountable, mysterious, hard to believe.  This is what the people of the United States are currently experiencing in most extraordinarian South American terms!  Is there anything that could be more surreal than officials of North Vietnam contacting the Repubs back-channel to ask them to explain Trump?  Yes!  A hoaxer calling Jared Kushner's lawyer with bogus info about wicked emails and being taken seriously -- evidently because such emails do exist!  And then there is Kushner registering to vote as a female without anyone noticing.

Our overwhelming “natural” events of earthquake, wildfire and hurricane — traumatic as they are in the ghastly moment — are mentally and emotionally dislocating, begging for explanation in the aftermath.  Even in more comfortable circumstances many people by now have tried drugs that mess with minds -- even more than alcohol or hardship (cold, dehydration, starvation, sleeplessness, illness).  North American kinds of magical realism (misery lit, dystopias, sci-fi, revolution, time travel) rise up to meet these situations.  We love our “Game of Thrones” and “Outlander” shows as "safe" unreality.  But we have a tendency to mistake “House of Cards” for reality in spite of the way it is stylized.  We think that's really the way White House people are.

Magical realism is said to embrace myths and legends ascribed to “primitive” cultures encountering “modern”, “scientific” cultures.  The Blackfeet have stories to account for fossils and geographical anomalies.  One example is the little form made by the hollow in a primal sea creature called a baculite.  The form looks a bit like a buffalo, and so it is pulled into a story about the need for buffalo, a buffalo-calling stone: iniskim.  Personification of inanimate objects is a natural human response.  We bark our shins on a chair and curse the chair for hurting us.

I used the idea of a boulder erratic in one of my “12 Blackfeet Stories”.  Blackfeet imagine that these boulders can travel for their own reasons.  (Actually, they were carried across the prairie by the major glaciations.)  They imagine that the huge stones chase Napi — who wouldn’t?  But in my story, I was thinking of an actual boulder on the way out to Heart Butte that has become a point of veneration, collecting little tobacco bundles and feathers with ribbons as tokens of prayer and hope.

In my story the boulder became a door — this is almost Christian if you think of the tomb of Jesus — and it opened into the great underground space where the buffalo went, which is a suggestion made by the recent Blackfeet.  I used it because the series of stories follow a downward trajectory to the true but unbearable Starvation Winter, which I mixed with wolfing via poison.  The boulder tale is where the sequence turns around to go upward.  It’s a "Jesus" story, so I included White Buffalo Woman, an equivalent personification.

Current scientific knowledge is so fabulous that some people classify it as “religious,” their category for things that have to be taken on faith because they are unbelievable.  Photos of the vast cosmos or the minute traces of atoms are hard to believe, let alone closeups of skin mites.  Thus people feel justified in considering global warming to be just another Noah’s ark story and therefore consider escaping to another planet to be more realistic than adjusting our daily lives to eliminate greenhouse gases.

One point of labeling something as unreal, superstitious, mere magic, and so on, is that it eliminates the need for action.  But another contravening aspect is that we are curious, we want to know what’s behind the trick, behind the curtain.  Who is tricking us?  What are their motives?  Who is to blame?  Where is the line between reality and fiction?

Another Blackfeet story, this one I meant to be a radio play while I was teaching.  The reality was that Galen Upham stole one of the open red Glacier Park tour buses and drove it up the very high pass called “Going-to-the-Sun”, which was named to suggest that such a thing was possible.  At the pass the bus wrecks and Galen is pinned in the wreckage.  A horse approaches, ridden by a young man very much like Galen except that this is time travel so he’s from the past.  The play is their conversation, as the sun comes up.  Not "Outlander" but "Skylander."

At the time, the kids wrote all sorts of wild stuff, mostly from movies, and would end abruptly with the phrase, “And then I woke up.”  I didn’t think they should do that.  I wanted them to stay in the fantasy and come to some kind of new concept, but none of us really knew how to do that.  Looking at the theories of Magic Realism, it’s obvious now that these stories can be about reconciling the old world of the indigenous people with the new world of economic tourism, being owned by some corporation back East that imposed rules for their own reasons.  To remain "marketable" the modern people must imitate their ancestors.

A whole genre of fiction about Native Americans depends on “medicine men” and witchy old women as plot devices.  Another closely related genre is that of beloved Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges, which can engage people in big arguments about their power and reality.  At least they introduce some powerful ideas.

I would suggest that there is another "magic reality" bifurcated genre that believes in sex/love as salvation, magically lifting one into a safe and blissful life.  Pink religion.  Romance.  Lately a more “metallic” or silicon version has been the robot who provides everything.  Even sex/love.

Every human being is a walking hoax, the reality of the body’s survival managed by the shifting dashboard that is a brain, in hopes of figuring out the sensory information with organizing categories and theories that will provide success.  The task of the humanities is to supply alternative interpretations that can code a world full of craziness and complexification.  

White supremacists claim that African Americans are tainted or insufficient, and then they get their genome chart done and must realize that they have African American ancestors themselves.  And then the hardcore scientists will say that DNA studies are never conclusive, only suggestive, but then they also say that the color of skin is so minor a molecular variation that it means nothing.  Salvation is a matter of behavior.

Thus we go on in our pursuit of truth in spite of constantly being diverted by dreams and wishes.  Write down your stories.

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