A perspective on magic realism
Dragon smoke, Aunt Maude called it, the haze that hung like a curtain across the prairie landscape. Dragon smoke, something that does and does not exist. Thus, Aunt Maude spun blowing chaff and summer field fires into myth and magic.
For Robert Kroetsch and Gabriel Marquez, two major propon-ents of magic realism in our time, magic resided in the landscape of their regions. I can’t find the quote at the moment, but somewhere Marquez has said that in Colombia magic lurks behind every tree. Kroetsch once told me in conversation that prairie landscape was his muse.
Like a floater on our vision, magic is barely glimpsed. Now you see it, now you don’t. To the side of our vision, at the edge of our mind, it is something not quite grasped. We can’t see the magic in a magic trick. We can only experience it.
Some people feel uncomfortable with this experience. They need to make sense of things. We are educated to think rationally. We strive to do so. Magic messes with the brain as it tries to accommodate the two opposing systems of realism and fantasy. For some people it’s a losing battle. As Stephen Slemon points out in “Magic Realism as Post-Colonial Discourse”, since the ground rules of these two worlds are incompatible, neither one can come fully into being and each remains suspended. This creates a disconnection in the brain, leaving gaps, absences and silences.
Other brains feel a surge of amazement and delight at being stimulated to experience life in a different way. Children are incredibly open to stories, omens, portents, to superstition and the supernatural, i.e., magic. My mother used to say, a ring around the moon means a change of weather, which may be based on empirical evidence, but how about… if you dream about the dead, you’ll hear from the living, another one of her dictums. I still think dreams are portents of something, although now I’m less sure of what.
Dragon smoke and magic realism both have problematic forms. What the heck are we seeing? It’s like having an unreliable narrator. What or who, in fact, can we believe? In the prairie landscape sky and earth, earth and sky, often merge as one. You can’t tell one from the other. The entire landscape is thrown into question. All we can be sure of is the eternal movement of dust particles creating an emptiness the human mind cannot tolerate. Magic fills the gap. We create magic because we need it.
Recalling the nesting ground, recalling the stories rising out of it, the most fantastical events could take place. Animals could talk, horses could fly, people could die and come back to life, dwarfs could spin straw into gold. As could Aunt Maude. She was a religious woman who would have been shocked to be told that she was into the heathen practice of magic. And that’s the gospel truth my dears, she would end the story, stand briskly and tuck in the sheets, firmly, so the goblins could not enter.
“Tell us another, tell us another,” we would whine and wheedle. But she wouldn’t.
“Where’s the dragon,” someone would pipe up. It might have been Ellie, the precocious one.
“Where’s the dragon, where’s the dragon? I want to see the dragon,” we would take up the chorus in our child-thin voices.
“Sure, you don’t want to see the dragon,” Aunt Maude would say. “It’s far better to see the place where he’s been. Then you can imagine him any way you want.”