Magic realism can be broadly defined as the description of a space (whether in literature, art, music or other media) in which most things are "real" (that is, normal, as we know them in our world) but other things are magical. Furthermore, their magic is commonplace; it augments human actions and can lead to fantastical occurrences but doesn't fundamentally alter the imaginary space's reality. Another way to say this is that magic is mechanical or technical or even scientific. That is, that magic is governed by a set of defined rules which make it intelligible, develop-able, observable and approachable. Actions have specific, causal consequences which they lead to, even if they are fantastical or impressive.
In addition, usually a practitioner of realist magic can come from any background; often times they practice some sort of "skillful trade" (like engineers or scholars or storytellers) which gave them access to magic but, more often than not, the practitioner of realist magic is accidental, at least to begin with. The stories of magical realism are filled with accidents, bumbling fools, well-meaning explorers, and unassuming objects which end up being more than meets the common eye. This is facilitated by the first rule of realist magic, that is is inherently downscaled, common place, and relatively contained.
It’s easier to hide in plain sight when your magic item simply makes you cleaner or more approachable, rather than spout wings or travel in time. In other cases, practitioners of magical realism can be intentful but they do not recognize that what they do is magic, like the village healer who has a set of herbs which just happen to be incredibly effective or the stall owner whose meteoric success is surely due to his charisma and not the brooch he is wearing.
All of this, magical realism in general and its systems, practitioners, and benefits, are in opposition or contrast to fantastical (or "high") magic. This type of magic is either governed by arcane sets of rules (and is thus often referred to as "the arcane arts" in literature) or by incredibly complex and intricate systems of knowledge. Both of these sets of rules are often unintelligible to all except for a select few (whether because they are secret or fundamentally unknowable or whether because they require years of expensive study), work in unpredictable ways and augment reality in dangerous and fundamentally "large" ways.
Sometimes, these rules and systems are unintelligible even to the practitioners of high magic themselves, turning the "arcane elite" into mere vessels or channels of power (for example, Robert Jordan’s “Aes Sedai”, who use only a fraction of the power given to them since their culture has fallen from its Golden Age). More than that, even when they can be understood, the rules which govern high magic don't necessarily conform to "common" sense. That is, effects do not have to follow causes, the relationship between referred and referent is not necessarily maintained, and even the most basic concepts like time and space may be ignored or broken altogether. To that extent is high magic unintelligible, and what sets it apart from magic realism. Even if you can grasp its machinations and wield it (by either being born wit the talent of doing so or by spending the money and time necessary to learn it), it remains separate to "real" world concerns and daily events.
This also leads to the trope of "useless" high magic, where magic is too powerful to efficiently or desirably affect "smaller" concerns (like in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea). Trying to do that anyway, for example using a wizard's high magic to create food (a "base" concern), usually leads to disaster. Thus, the people who usually wield this high magic tend to be an elite; high magic often requires years of practice. This practice often requires a large amount of money (a challenge explored well in Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicles and poorly explored in J.K Rowling's Harry Potter) or, even more exclusionary, some kind of innate ability with which you are either born or not.
By contrast, magic realism, by virtue of its more "limited" scope, understandable rules, and often accidental nature, usually tends to deal with more common and approachable ideas and problems, solved by more common types of people like workers, the elderly, the middle class, soldiers, or craftsmen. Even if the causes of realist magic might be hidden (why does this bottle chill all water place in it?), the rules are usually clear (you must only use this bottle during Spring). In literature, it usually involves thinking in interesting, diverse and often radical ways about more universally common and accessible ideas like tradition, politics, power, the role of poverty, wisdom, folk histories, knowledge, and science in our every day lives and ambitions.
This is not to say that magical realism cannot deal with "grand" events like the fall of regimes or life and death. But it is usually that those events transpire from the small, the every day, and the mundane, where that mundane is "fed" a small degree of magic. A good example is the excellent Kalpa Imperial by Angélica Gorodischer (translated by, who else, Ursula K. Le Guin). This book is a collection of short stories, all revolving around the futile pretense of power to know the world and act in rational ways. Kalpa, the eternal empire, falls again and again due to its ruler's hubris, a hubris grounded in the belief that they and their rule are eternal.
But these struggles, political and grand as they might be, are constantly cast through the smaller stories of more mundane objects. In high fantasy, the continual fall of an empire would involve magical swords which slay entire armies, dragons, or world-shattering spells. But in Kalpa Imperial, the stories are told through things like healing springs, a prince's curiosity, a storyteller's ability to weave words, or small settlements themselves and their history. Thus, Kalpa Imperial tells the story of power, progress, memory, and history not through an elite of power-wielding individuals but rather through the traditions, stories, and practices of the people of that empire. Emperors figure into it, of course, but they are more often than not simply figures swept up in the magical forces that pump through the every-day of the empires which they think they control rather than bold, charismatic, Nietzschean heroes which move history with their will (and their high magic, which is an extension of that will).
Kalpa Imperial then participates in the tradition (very much of Latin America, in which tradition and geography Gorodischer operates) of magical realism in enchanting the commonplace, injecting magic into the everyday, and empowering common people who are unique in ways which are available to all, in their intelligence, dedication, faith, compassion, or perseverance.
Outside of literature, the marriage of magic realism and genres like diesel or steampunk is fruitful for exploration of the oppressed classes, partly because those genres echo late 18th/19th century societies and their class structures. For example, in the Dishonored game franchise or the popular RPG setting Blades in the Dark, realist magic presents both a risk and an opportunity for the proletariat, the skilled middle class and the criminal underworld of the settings. Since the technologies of magical realism are within everyone's reach, and ancestry and money are irrelevant, they represent an opportunity to "level the playing field". More-so, roughly equated with the nascent coal and oil industries of the Victorian era, the production and actualization of the magical realist system rests on the labor, knowledge, and physical risk of those classes.
In Dishonored, for example, the powers that be attempt to control the proliferation of magic through the establishment of a Church, backed by an ideology which views magic as dangerous. This can be equated with the very real use of religion to control the working classes in the 19th century (and beyond), attempting to paint the manifold, emerging new technologies in the light of God's divine order. While the magic used in the Dishonored universe is indeed dangerous (since it involves entreating with ferocious, eldritch entities), the authorities' attempt to control it doesn't stem from actual concern for the safety of the people; when it's convenient, the rich and powerful use their status to circumvent the restrictions and access magic for themselves. Rather, power seeks to contain magic exactly because it is accessible to everyone in the Dishonored universe, making sure that only the powerful can use it even if magic itself makes no such distinctions. This is, once again, an echo of the control which the powerful sought to place on technology during its emergence in the dawn of "the modern age". Technology was both a wonder and a dangerous thing, to be placed in the virtuous and responsible hands of captains of industry and not in the hands of the masses who created those technologies.
Those who seek to access magic (and technology) regardless of restriction (like all of the characters which you play in the Dishonored games, motivated by justice, revenge, and/or a thirst for knowledge) become criminals in the eyes of the law, as they reach out for something which they can access and use but aren't allowed to because of the danger it holds for the ruling class. In the hunt for these criminals, authority obviously uses magic itself, as the ruling class always sanctions its own form of violence when it is convenient for it to do so. In the Dishonored series there are many examples of this but it is perhaps best exemplified by their use of Daud to hunt down the main character of the first game, an assassin and magic wielder, and their subsequent discarding of him when no longer useful. When power needs it, magic, even "limited", realist magic, is a powerful tool to be used as they see fit.
Therefore, the technologies of magic often wind up in the hands of the rich or require access granted by privilege and prestige, just like in high magic settings. Thus, because of the unique opportunities for supervision and control (like subtle forms of mind-control, remote observation, and even bodily control), magic realist powers can also represent a danger to the “common man”, as they enhance the exclusive powers of the ruling classes. The material itself, magic itself that is, is not inherently revolutionary or radical. It doesn't have to serve the people in their struggle against the ruling class. Unless it is used otherwise, magic, even realist magic, can be a reactionary force. Realist magic is a means of production; it is not inherently good or bad but rather, because it is accessible and controllable by anyone, potentially, can empower whoever controls it.
This duality of means, the power and danger inherent in production technologies as they switch control from oppressor to the oppressed, is a classic Hegelian/Marxist sort of pattern. These magical technologies are over and over again represented as potential means for the liberation of the workers in these works. The only thing that presents them from becoming those means of liberation is a will. If only who suffer under the yolk of the elites, would grasp magic and its production and wrench them from the ruling classes, they would be free (you have nothing to lose but your enchanted chains).
Just like controlling the means of production is a tool for the liberation of the working class in Marxist thought, and not an end in and of itself, so too is magic realism only one tool in the toolbox of liberation in these fantastical settings. And rightfully so; while realist magic often doesn't have the ability to fundamentally replace all the means of production in a society (since the creation of matter from nothing or the subtle manipulation of existing matter into complex forms is clearly a "high" sort of magic), even realist magic can still be a tool for the empowerment of the working class. It is accessible to everyone and it enhances the individual in a myriad of ways which can create solidarity and power in workers: like the telegraph, it can make communications easier. Like the train, it can make locales closer to each other and facilitate organization. Like the manufacturing line, it allows the work of many on a specific product, streamlining their control over the world. And beyond "just" physical technologies, magic realism also represents a belief system, an ideology to rally behind, a language to speak to each other that can be the workers' on, grounded in an understanding of the world which doesn't stem from the culture producing apparatus of the elite.
Alas, as in Marx's analysis of Europe, these workers are addled by those selfsame classes, denied access to the technologies which they themselves help make possible. This is achieved not just by preventing physical access to magic (by confiscating casting ingredients or artifacts for example) even though, as always, one of the ruling class's strongest weapons is physical violence and control. More than that, magic, by the very categorization of it as something "high", as something dangerous which shouldn't be accessed just by anyone, is made categorically unavailable to the working class. This is done both inside the various settings we described above (most markedly perhaps in The Wheel of Time, where the Aes Sedai attempt to strictly control “wild” casters of magic) and in our world, by the very same literature we are here describing. According to high fantasy authors, tarots are to be read by experts only. Conjuration requires years of study. Artifacts must be cataloged by an academy (just think of the multiple schools of magic which proliferate across fantasy and science-fiction) and not simply used. Magic needs to have a hierarchy, the words must be safe and controlled. These ideas are echoed by the organizations and characters inside the literature itself; every practitioner of magic in these high fantasy setting is more worried about their own power, and keeping that power intact through scarcity, than actually helping people with it (as immortalized by Terry Pratchett's Unseen University).
By using all of these tools, the ruling classes (again, both inside the settings and in our own world) seek to cordon off magic and make it controlled even before actual, material access has been denied to it. What the ruling classes seek to do is make magic unattainable in our thoughts, to control what Foucault called the “episteme”, the intellectual limits of a certain discourse, the boundaries on what is knowable, a knowledge which informs the ways in which further knowledge is created. When it is obvious that magic is unattainable by all, when even the thought of free magic, of realist, every day magic, seems absurd, then control can be more subtle, less blatantly exercised. You don't need jackbooted thugs to gather up and execute practitioners of magic if those practitioners never even pick up a wand because "wands are for wizards and wizards are made in the academy".
Thus, we are reminded of Gramsci's idea of a "cultural hegemony" where, via control of the way art and stories are produced in a society, the ruling class can control the range of possibilities that can even come into our minds as viable. When we try to think of what we might do, when most characters in the settings we are referring to try to think of what they might do, the full field of possibilities has already been pruned into those options acceptable and comfortable to those in power. To use Robert Jordan one last time, this can be seen in the absolute unbelief expressed by some of the characters in the book that they might be magic users; that’s something which happens to other people, special people, not common villagers like them. Practitioners of magic are not among us; they can't be you or me! They're off in fancy towers, occupying spaces which they either paid for or were destined for. Since you have no claim to either fate or vast wealth, magic is clearly of no relevance to you.
Therefore, accessing magical realism can be an act of defiance, whether in our world or another, whether in our realm or the realm of a story. When we claim that magic is accessible to all, when we conceptualize of its results not as world shattering (and thus far removed from the actual problems which concern "common" people) but as helpful, mundane, intimate, and personal we make magic something which the cultural hegemony has more trouble controlling. At Hogwarts, spells are categorized into neat groups which can be understood and made sense of; who the hell knows what a witch does in her back-garden or a warlock at home? An Aes Sedai lifts the veil between life and death for arcane purposes or delves the past for hidden knowledge; a wild magic user heals the sick, makes work easier, tends crops, and blesses the village. The wizard in his tower fights dragons but when was the last time you saw a dragon? Baba Yaga in her forest hut is way more useful because she can heal warts and my cousin has warts the size of pumpkins. Besides, the wizard is in his tower. We know where he is and if something goes awry, we can go and find him and make sure that it stops being awry. Who the hell knows where Baba Yaga is or, rather, will be when we try and find her?
Whether high magic is inaccessible and lofty because it is more arcane (and, therefore, only open to a select few) or more knowable (and, therefore, requires intense and meticulous study, available only to those with the means to conduct it), magic realism is more ready-to-hand, useful and, at the same time or perhaps because of it, more fragmentary, local, and varied. It's less easy to categorize and thus, to control. Magic realism can thus disrupt, confuse, challenge, and fight cultural hegemony and, through it, the arrangement of power itself, by presenting more modest, but more dispersed, egalitarian, and accessible, avenues to power.
In order to explore how magic realism can do this, I'd like to take a little detour through a more contemporary story and one which, on its surface, seems far from the fantastical settings and tales which I referenced above. This essay gets its subtitle from this story, a TV show titled On Becoming a God In Central Florida. Released in 2019 and starring Kirsten Dunst, the show chronicles the lives of low to middle class people who become entangled in a pyramid scheme called FAM. This scheme promises what these schemes usually promise, namely quick riches and freedom from "the grind" of every day life under capitalism. In fact, the acquisition of money and freedom are inherently the same for FAM: if you make money working a "J O B", as the members of the semi-cult articulate the word, you are a loser, a "stinker thinker", a limited person who can't see the future that America was built on or for. If you join FAM, not only will you make more money but you will also make it the right way, as a free-thinking, free-roaming entrepreneur, a worthier, cleaner, and more productive way to spend your time; a path to self-actualization, and not “just” a way to make money. Of course, this scheme is a lie and the only people who actually make money off of it are people like Obie Garbeau II (played by Ted Levine), the guru at the top of the part of the pyramid and one of the main characters around which the show revolves.
This semi-mythical figure and, frankly, somewhat unhinged character is the opening for much of the magic realism in On Becoming a God in Central Florida. Garbeau is like a character from a Coen Brothers movie, especially O Brother Where Art Thou? (a magic realist tale in and of itself, by the by) in the sense that he mixes American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny with the mythological and grandiose antics of a prophet. He acts erratically, as mystics and prophets always do, moving through the world like an agent of chaos; wherever he goes, lives are upturned, structures collapse, and the faithful experience epiphanies, supposedly in the name of revealing the true and holy nature of American society (namely, capitalism). Naturally, all of these effects end up serving him in the construction of his business empire, an empire which goes far beyond "just" making copious amounts of money and into the establishment of a different societal order, one which is more similar to a court of knights, even an Arthurian one (more on this below). As such, Garbeau (and his wife) keep a coterie of attendants about them, all of them serving their purpose in their household. They are also zealously, lethally loyal to the both of them, to the extent that their own families and well-being are often sacrificed on the altar of the Garbeaus and their continued ascendancy. One of the main characters in the show, Cody Bonar (played by Theodore Pellerin), becomes a sort of squire to Garbeau, a mix between a body-guard and a disciple, there to protect the master's body but also bask in his supposed wisdom on how to, well, become a God in Central Florida. This mostly involves making a boatload of money while swindling everyone around you into believing you are, like Garbeau himself, a prophet.
For Bonar, admittance into this inner circle is not only a high point in his life but a first step on the path towards “making it”. By taking in Garbeau’s “wisdom”, Bonar clearly expects, as is always the promise of pyramid schemes, to one day ascend to the level of the guru and, perhaps, even take his place (which is why Garbeau is naturally suspicious of Bonar’s zeal). But how does Bonar ascend from the bumbling fool he starts off as (where even his middling success in FAM is funded by his trust fund money, someone to be shooed away from Garbeau’s presence) to a trusted member of the inner guard, allowed, interestingly, to bear arms in the presence of the master (another echo of the medieval / feudal privilege of knights)? While exploring all of the instances of magic realism in the show would be a great undertaking, looking at Bonar’s ascendancy to Garbeau’s trusted, previously one-man cadre of “Life Guard”, can give us useful insight into the way magic realism is used in the show and its intricate relationship with capitalism and the “order of things”. This relationship is taciturn, as magic sometimes undermines the ways thing should work and sometimes augments them. This duality offers a potent path for alternate, weird, and “acidic” behavior, which allows agents to step outside the bounds of the prevalent cultural hegemony in Garbeau’s organization and the setting of the show. In that sense, the show, and specifically Bonar’s ascendancy within it, echo the duality of magic that we pointed in the previous segment of this essay: magic, whether realist or not, is not inherently radical but rather depends on the agent using it and how they use it.
So, returning to Bonar’s meteoric (almost instantaneous) rise to power, we must now look at what I’ll choose to call here “The Pelican Effect”. At a certain point in the story, Garbeau launches into one of his pompous (and pompously empty) speeches about the strength of the entrepreneur, his innovative spirit, his perseverance, and so on. To nail his message home, Garbeau chooses the pelican as his metaphor, exclaiming that “The pelican is an animal both wily and fierce”. He is, of course, not wrong; the pelican can be quite vicious. However, at the same time, Garbeau’s speech about the pelican is vapid and empty, like all of his speeches and treacles of wisdom. It is a mere gesture towards meaning that is designed to make him seem august, mysterious, and possessed of hidden knowledge; the crowd is left to doubt their own intelligence for not fully understanding the pelican metaphor, a metaphor that is inherently empty of true insight. In that regard, the pelican speech is just another solidification of Garbeau as the ultimate fraudster, a Matchstick Man so wily (like the pelican!) that he is able to seem wise while swindling you.
But, of course, for Bonar, this is far from what transpires. For Bonar, this speech is indeed like any other of Garbeau’s speech but not in the sense that we understand it; for him, it is yet another message from on high, the words of the prophet, a hidden insight into how the world works and, more importantly, how capitalist, profit-driven success may be achieved in the face of all odds. In that sense, Garbeau is the one who broaches the idea of magic to Bonar and the rest of the characters on the show. He does so mostly through the at-this-point deceased Travis Stubbs, the original dedicated knight of the show who gives his life on the quest for success (while driving, by the way, making him the classic Knight Errant). Garbeau does this by offering Travis, and the rest of the characters, the original Holy Grail of the show, The Garbeau System (perhaps it is not a coincidence that “magic system“ is how magic is usually referred to in fantastical settings), a method of quasi-magical techniques, mindsets, and habits that promise to conjure success out of thin air (alongside selling FAM products, of course, the ever-present magical ingredients of Garbeau’s casting).
The Garbeau System, a hodgepodge of maxims, truisms, and tautologies, is the not entirely rational but still believably realist secret by which Garbeau explains his success, a way of life that, as he claims, confers on the practitioner riches out of thin air. In that sense, the Garbeau System is an example of how magic, even realist magic, serves the master. By relying on it as an explanatory mechanic for his success, Garbeau can cloud and obfuscate the very real and mundane explanation on which his success relies, clothing it in the quasi-magical air of a magical realist school of mundane magic, something to be cherished, taught, and studied rather than a brutal and destructive way of life. But much like in Hegel’s famous depiction of the master / slave relationship, by doing so Garbeau opens up the possibility of his own demise, his own undermining. He does so by making the same magical path open to others to exploit. If bravery is needed for success, as Garbeau says, others can be brave. If ferocity, others can be fierce. If your method promises instant success, an instant successor will one day surely rise against you. Once you write down the spell, others can cast it as well and cast it against you.
Which brings us back to the pelican. As Bonar roams about the Camelot-esque Paradise Cay mansion which serves as the Garbeaus’ home (and the site of their court, such as it is) he comes across the fabled beast itself, the pelican! From whence does it come? On one hand, it’s not that rare to come across a pelican in the swampy climes of Central Florida. But on the other, the bird appears to Bonar just as he has stormed off after an argument with Krystal, the show’s protagonist and his by-now love interest / collaborator. At that very moment, he is no doubt contemplating how best to get out of the mess he finds himself in, namely his failure to convince Garbeau that he is worthy of mentorship, worthy of access to Garbeau’s court and, by proxy, to his magical aura of success. He sees the pelican and knows what he must do. Like Sir Percival or King Pellinore, the pelican is Bonar’s Questing Beast and his path to ascendancy lies in slaying it.
Driving home the "extra realist" nature of the pelican's appearance, both inside the show’s narrative and outside of it, in broader culture, the pelican has several metaphorical attributes. For one, it is a metaphor for Christ and his sacrifice, as the bird is (in)famous for giving itself up to its young to eat when they have no food, drinking of its blood to survive. This metaphor was also explicitly used by Shakespeare in King Lear, as the titular character calls his daughters “pelican daughters”, lamenting their desire to feed upon his flesh as he misses the fact that he is the villain in his own story. The mother bird, in this case, is Garbeau and Bonar the chick, feeding off of the power of the parent via the Garbeau System and bringing about, however unwittingly (and, at this stage, Bonar still worships Garbeau and wishes him no ill) its end. And, indeed, Garbeau himself undergoes a hallucination following a heart attack (one of the show’s best scenes, by the by), a magical realist affair if there ever was one (as fruit spills from his body, colors meld in the night, he hears his own prophetic voice talking to him and more), inside which he sees a pelican being pecked apart by its young.
So, the pelican revealing itself to Bonar is no mundane coincidence; it is the kind of “charged reality” which is the hallmark of magic realism, an event that is not so fantastical in and of itself (happening upon a pelican in Central Florida) but, when taken together with the story, its metaphors, and its laws, it suddenly becomes faintly “fated”, “bewitched”, pregnant with meaning (this pelican is no mere bird but something far greater). Bonar almost has no choice of what to do next, as the story unfolds with him in its center, as he is swept along with the current of its metaphors and meanings. He kills the bird and makes an offering of it to Garbeau just as Garbeau is recovering from his episode and is in the process of lamenting the conservatism and lack of faith exhibited by Roger Penland, his until-now solitary bodyguard. Like the above mentioned knights, the slaying of Bonar’s Questing Beast proves his righteousness and dedication to the cause, granting him instant elevation from the ranks of FAM salespeople and into the upper echelon of the Garbeau system. He is given a (golden) gun and entrusted with both his master’s life and wisdom, as he is now set to suckle from the source of magic itself, a made man, guaranteed success now that he stands in the aura of Garbeau’s magic.
It’s this instantaneous elevation that is the “acidic” quality of magic realism that I would like to draw your attention to. FAM is supposed to have a rigid structure of advancement. After all, it’s a pyramid scheme and what defines this kind of scheme, indeed the only reason they work, is that you must sell to advance up the ranks of the hierarchy. There is supposed to be only one holy action in a pyramid scheme: selling. In that regard, a pyramid scheme is a distillation of the promise of capitalism’s “meritocracy”: sell more, produce more, and you will be promoted to higher and more rarefied ranks of the organization whereupon you can sell even more and produce even more. Alternate paths of climbing this ladder can work together with capitalism (for example, nepotism allows a CEO of a company to keep a stranglehold on the organization and extract more money from it) but usually pose a challenge to its stated goals (if not its actual goals) as they undermine efficiency and productivity in a working class which an suddenly see the lie of the system in these alternate actions instant nature.
Bonar’s service as Garbeau’s made-man is a perfect example. Put bluntly, Bonar is an idiot and, even worse, a vindictive one. His coddled childhood has led to the complete atrophy of his impulse control, leaving him to run wild on tangents, satisfying his need to conquer above all and to satisfy his every whim (like having sex with Krystal, outdoing his counterpart in a rival organization or upstaging his mother). Placed in an immense position of power, not because of his skill (which he lacks) but because “the story fit”, Bonar ends up, first unwillingly and then willingly, harming Garbeau and his organization with his antics. For example, he manages to lose his gun in an “operation” against Garbeau’s opponents where he serves as a distraction while Penland, a consummate and collected professional, does the real work. His blunders cost Garbeau and his organization, significantly weakening their position against the opposition. Bonar is incompetent; he was not promoted because of his skill or ability. He was promoted because of the power of the magic realist story, because he slew the pelican, because Garbeau, as a vessel of the magic realist narrative himself, could not deny the meaning and the power of that slaying.
But even worse than “just” the damage Bonar does himself, directly, he is also poison to the rest of Garbeau’s capitalist organization. Founded around the idea that Garbeau is a genius, a skilled and shrewd salesperson who understands the world, Garbeau’s organization cannot withstand Bonar’s sudden heroism and elevation. Penland, convinced that Garbeau has been bewitched by the story of the pelican (as, indeed, he has been), decides to break rank and switch his fealty to Krystal, who he now sees as the cool, collected, rational, and ruthless capitalist actor that Garbeau used to be. By elevating Bonar, Garbeau has proven to the pragmatic Penland, up until then faithful to a point, that he is beyond redemption. Once the peon learns of the king's madness, he is no longer inclined to rush to his death in that king's name. Penland's defection puts him in even more direct conflict with Bonar, as the latter rushes to protect Krystal from Garbeau’s hitman, not knowing (not even able to imagine) that Penland brook rank, that he was now on “their” side. Bonar ends up killing Penland but, naturally, he does it in error: he drops the gun he is holding even as Krystal tries to explain to him that Penland is now a friendly face.
Penland dies poorly, a lame and accidental death for a solider type character who wished to expire on the battlefield, killed in error by an incompetent who was promoted against his wishes and, indeed, against his entire way of life and outlook on the world. In addition to the demise of Penaldn, Bonar’s presence also goads Garbeau’s fantasy and his slip into the magic realist, alternate world of his delusion, as his new trusted knight creates a sort of feedback loop with him. Because Bonar believes everything Garbeau says, and because Garbeau believes Bonar to be some sort of emissary from the a universal soul (“you still think that the soul is inside the body, don’t ya? Well, you’ve got it exactly backwards. It’s the body that’s inside one big soul” he says, right before Bonar appears with the vanquished bird), they reinforce each other. Indeed, whenever Garbeau appears to head back to the path of the rational (like in the scene quoted above, where Penland urges him to go see a doctor for his ailing heart), Bonar appears as if by magic and convinces him that rationality has little to do with things. Why should he, the great Garbeau, be concerned for his heart when here comes the knight with the slain pelican? Why should he be worried for his organization when he has such bright plans for dominance, plans which Bonar worships and executes without (seeming) question? Surely all that is needed is for Garbeau to stay the course, to trust in the magic, and all shall be well. Of course, this is nonsense. Garbeau's organization is buckling under its leader's penchant for irrational action. The glue that held things together was that Garbeau knew that his system was nothing but a farce; he was running a scam. But once he starts to believe in that scam, goaded by Bonar's own belief in it, a belief which has garnered him instant success, he starts to become a victim of his own machinations. Like the poor people at the bottom of the pyramid, Garbeau enters a feedback loop: the more he invests in his system, in his belief that the world around him must obey the story, the more he loses. The more he loses, the more he is tempted to better his lot by investing in the system. And so the engine spins, running on the oil that is Bonar's adoration of Garbeau and, indeed, the system itself.
Bonar, the result of Garbeau’s obsession with magic realism and the power of narrative, is corrosive, not just to FAM or Garbeau’s ambition but to the man himself, to his body and mind. Because he rose to prominence via an alternate route, in this case the magic realist one, his very presence is antithetical to the capitalist professional (Penland), the capitalist himself (Garbeau) , and to their ability to make the sort of rational, profit-driven decisions that capitalism requires from them. And here lies the crux of the argument: the alternate path which magic realism provides is not “just” a matter of expedience, wealth, or rank, a means by which to subtly defeat the world and its requirements and enrich oneself. It is an entirely different set of assumptions and conclusions about reality, a whole different set of considerations. Instead of rationality, causality, skill, or ambition leading the way to success, magic realism, as exemplified in On Becoming a God in Central Florida, offers an alternate perception of the world where the power of narrative (killing the pelican at just the right time), the power of belief (believing that the pelican symbolizes Garbeau), and the power of fate (promoting Bonar because there’s no real choice in the face of magic) rule the day. Thus, magic realism challenges capitalism, as it offers Bonar (and Garbeau) different justifications for actions that would seem bizarre under a rationalist/capitalist mindset but which make perfect (albeit twisted) sense under magic realism. Under magic realism it is not the quick, the proud, or the rich which flourish; their success, like Garbeau's, is a mere veneer, at best a prop for the moral tale at end. Instead, the down-trodden, the attentive, the attuned to the story, are those who stand to benefit from quirky, twisting spells and odd, unpredictable powers. "For the meek shall inherit the earth" indeed and they shall do so with magic.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Mary Oliver, Wild Geese
Magic realism can offer us the same ascension that it did Bonar. Admittedly, very few of us (I hope) are in the position to slay a mythical beast in order to leap-frog the ladder of an organization (nor should we slay it if we could; I much prefer the version of the story where the beast lives). But at its foundations, this story presents us, like Garbeau presents Bonar, a different way to look at things, a different way to observe and react to the world; indeed, it can give us back the world. Magic realism can help us re-enchant the world around us by helping see the magical in the mundane. Because it is not “high”, because it can be in objects, people or events which are present in our day to day, who’s to say that it isn’t? Or rather, why not think of it as already there? Why not imagine that it is? Imagining high magic is, of course, also a possibility (and quite a fun one at that, as any D&D player will tell you). But high magic inherently happens “over there”, to a different version of ourselves, either transported to a world where such magic is possible or transformed into someone who innately wields that sort of magic.
But realist magic happens right here or, at least, it has the potential to happen right here. Going back to Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial, we can see that, among its many lessons, is that the people who move empires are people like you and me. Those who wield the faint potentialities of magic realism, who can take advantage of its alternate paths, aren’t special or rare or non-existent: they are people you know, they are part of stories you know, they are part of the same stories which you yourself inhabit. Obviously I’m not saying that you should read magic realism as if it exists; I wouldn’t advocate that you take yourself to a semi-abandoned market, there to buy an ancient locket that might or might not bestow a charm upon you (although that sounds like a great Friday afternoon). What I am advocating for, however, is that you try to see the world as a place where magic, accessible, divergent, and diverse magic, might as well be possible, a world that, therefore, becomes a place laden with more meaning, more beauty, a place a bit less cold, a place that deserves our respect and our attention.
Let’s try and provide an example here. Opening my window, I see a street. On that street are cars, buildings, lawns, trees, people. Most of these things are functional: cars are used to get to and from places, places where you can produce or consume or where you can rest so you can prepare to produce and consume once more. The streets serve the cars, in our car-centric societies. Lawns and trees and the such are simple, pruned, curated, controlled. They are there because we like looking at them, their own existence is rarely recognized; every month, someone comes along and shears them to more pleasing shapes, pleasing in the human sense and aesthetic. And, finally, people; while it’s hard for me to understand them as functions, having been raised in a liberal society where the rule of Kant’s categorical imperative is more powerful than people are aware of or willing to admit, I am used to thinking of people as entities unto themselves. But, in practice, what sort of role do they really play in my life? The people I see through the window are just like the trees of the lawn, features of the landscape. Those I encounter more deeply, like co-workers or friends, have a bit more character to them but I still understand them mostly in the terms which relate to myself. Only those who I love dearly, best friends, family, a spouse, become somewhat fuller entities to me.
This is not an original idea nor is it necessarily a criticism; Martin Buber for example, in his marvelous I and Thou, explains it in terms which echo a certain amount of magical realism. In his philosophy, there are three ways to relate to everything around us. First, as an “it”, a dead object, a thing to be manipulated. This is the realm of the capitalist, the realm I provided above: things are understood in relation to the value which they hold for the capitalist, the ways they can be exploited for profit, whether by becoming ingredients in a manufacturing recipe for a valuable product (the trees and the paper they make) or ingredients in a desirable life which the capitalist wants to live (friends who are only friends because they are beautiful).
The second relation, however, is the relation of a “you”, a “thou”. A “thou” can be anything at all, it doesn’t have to be a person, although seeing people as a “thou” is the second highest form of relations in Buber’s philosophy. It is second only to the infinite Thou: god. You see something as a “thou”, as a subject with their own desires, trajectories, meanings, and relationships, when the borders through which you delimit something get blurry. A tree is no longer “just” a tree, it is also the myriad interactions it has with its environments, the stories they tell to each other, the co-dependencies between the tree and mushrooms, other trees, the air, people, and animals. It is the totality of a tree, a totality who's borders, by its very nature as a totality, start to fade. Seeing something as “thou” then is difficult; it’s not just difficult because it’s complicated and requires a certain mindset but also because it’s so beautiful and all encompassing that it physically hurts.
Have you ever looked at an animal and thought to yourself: “this is a living being, different than me, with its own agenda and way to see the world”? Have you ever looked at a person and wondered at the life they live, the voice behind their eyes, the concerns and joys they might have, and felt an entire world stretching behind them? Have you ever then realized that such a world stretches behind all people? These understandings create a kind of amplified version of Kant’s imperative to see people as an end on to themselves and not just a means. It’s even more powerful because it explores what an “end” means, the complicated ramifications of a world populated by intricate, agency filled subjects. In essence, Buber’s view of the world injects it with meaning, with a sensation of the story that each part of that world comes to embody and the ways in which all those stories, inherently unknowable in full, meld into a world that is ready-at-hand at all times but far away, obscured, beyond reason, and yet, suddenly, without warning, unbearably and achingly close.
In essence, this view re-enchants the world. A person walking down the street is no longer “just” a person walking down the street: they become an intricate entity, charged with power and verve. A tree is no longer a tree but a whole ecosystem in which countless other lives, stretching back hundreds of years sometimes, also live their own life. Your lawn is not just a lawn: it is a fairy tale land of everyday heroism, even if that heroism is performed by ants. But it is a fairy tale that is still right here, right in front of you, not far away in some other, magical place. You don’t need to study ancient tomes for the right ingredient to open a portal to that place. The portal is always-already inside of you, just waiting for the right mindset, the right perspective, to open up and reveal this otherplace, that is still your place, to you. In short, this world, the world of the “Thou”, the world of subjects, of ends, is a magical realist world.
Finally, remember that, to the capitalist, this world is anathema. Capitalism, and the societies which we have created around it, revolve around worlds of objects, of means. People, trees, lawns, cars, dogs, mountains are merely resources to be exploited, things to be experienced for their aesthetic value or canvases upon which we draw portraits of our own conquest of them. We triumph as we mold them into the form of our victory; the very fact that we can mold them proves that they are objects, that we can and should manipulate them. To that perspective, the magical realist world is acid, poison, rot. It offers an alternative way to look at the world, a way which protects every part of it as magical. A tree is not magical because suddenly it talks; it is magical because the angle of its shadow shelters a pair of young lovers from the sun. A street is not magical because on the other side of it lies an academy of wizards; it is magical because kids have played on it for a decade and because the sleep of countless people, everyday people, has basked it in dreams. You are not magical because you learned magic or because you were born with an innate ability that no one else has. You are magical because your eyes can recast the world in brilliant colors, because your brain can tell itself stories about the world it sees, because it can pretend that everything is touched with magic and, upon pretending, fills the world with magic.
This is the lesson which works like Dishonored or On Becoming a God in Central Florida or Dispatches From Elsewhere can teach us. They teach us that the path and presence of magic can offer us an alternative to the way in which the capitalist, the powerful, the ruling, sees the world. A way in which to re-imagine the present, to escape the way things are by not escaping them, by sticking around and reworking them. In Dispatches From Elsewhere, Jason Segel's brave exploration of his own journey to come to terms with himself, these ideas are mentioned explicitly. Magic realism is a way to see the world as connected and, more than that, to see yourself as meaningful to that connection. Magic is not a thing which happens to you in Dispatches From Elsewhere; it happens with you. Magic lies in the power of people to collaborate, to explore each other and themselves, to feel connected to their friends and to forgive themselves. Together, they can see what has always-already been there: a magical world. When you see the world as that, as already magical, you can cut through any challenge posed by worldly institutions, constructs, or challenges because they don't expect you. They don't expect the alternate path, reactions and choices which, to them, seem irrational and unpredictable. But this is not just chaos; you have a plan. It is simply your plan and it doesn't follow the rules which the crude, dead world they see around them plays by.
This is the lesson which magical realism can teach us: the world is already magical. You just have to look at it the right way. And when you do look at it in that way, the powers that be can be resisted. An alternative to their obvious truth, that the world is dead and there for our taking, that other people are dead and there for our exploitation, that we are dead and all we have to figure out is how to maximize our talent and our profit. High fantasy also formulates an alternative to this world. It says “sssshhh, come away. Come away to another place where things are not so cruel, where magic still exists and you can wield it”. High magic whispers to us the promise of a different world, a world where, by virtue of birth or of acquisition, we are special. But magical realism’s alternative says “you are already special. The world is already special. All you have to do is see it”.Back to Essays