On the Carnivalesque in Magic Realism


As I was teaching 100 Years of Solitude Tuesday, I applied my theory that fantasy is always oppositional. As I see it, fantasy invariably opposes some reality that the author finds unsatisfactory.  If you examine a fantasy work closely, you will find the forces that the author is resisting.

For example, Edgar Allan Poe exposes the limitations of Enlightenment Reason in his gothic horror—his mad killers are extremely logical—and J.R.R. Tolkien battles technology and modernity in Lord of the Rings.

So what realism, I asked my students, does Garcia Marquez’s magic push against? One target appears to be Spanish colonialists imposing their order upon the Colombian people.

Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of carnival helps us understand the author’s project. As the Russian theorist saw it, carnival time disrupts the normal order of things, allowing new creative energies to emerge. Many of the greatest magical realist novels feature carnivals, whether it is the gypsies in 100 Years, the clown-like narrator of Midnight’s Children, or the mad drumming of Gunter Grass’s protagonist. There’s even a carnival scene in Beloved—the picnic—although unfortunately it precipitates the book’s tragedy.

Bakhtin, who spent many years in Stalin’s gulag, found something democratic in medieval street carnivals. (He also celebrated laughter and the body.) In his book on Rabelais, he differentiates between official pageants, which were intended to bolster the existing order, and people’s pageants, which undermined it:

Carnival festivities and the comic spectacles and ritual connected with them had an important place in the life of medieval man. Besides carnivals proper, with their long and complex pageants and processions, there was the ‘feast of fools’ (festa stultorum) and the ‘feast of the ass’; there was a special free ‘Easter laughter’ (risus paschalis), consecrated by tradition. Moreover, nearly every Church feast had its comic folk aspect, which was also traditionally recognized. Such, for instance, were the parish feasts, usually marked by fairs and varied open-air amusements, with the participation of giants, dwarfs, monsters, and trained animals. A carnival atmosphere reigned on days when mysteries and soties [satirical and topical comedies] were produced. This atmosphere also pervaded such agricultural feasts as the harvesting of grapes (vendange) which was celebrated also in the city. Civil and social ceremonies and rituals took on a comic aspect as clowns and fools, constant participants in these festivals, mimicked serious rituals such as the tribute rendered to the victors at tournaments, the transfer of feudal rights, or the initiation of a knight. Minor occasions were also marked by comic protocol, as for instance the election of a king and queen to preside at a banquet ‘for laughter’s sake’ (roi pour rire).”

 [These occasions] built a second world and a second life outside officialdom, a world in which all medieval people participated more or less, in which they lived during a given time of the year.

Scholar Brenda Cooper, perhaps drawing on Bakhtin, argues that magical realism is inherently democratic. That’s because it

opposes fundamentalism and purity; it is at odds with racism, ethnicity and the quest for taproots, origins and homogeneity; it is fiercely secular and revels in the body, the joker, laughter, 

100 Years opens with Colonel Aureliano recalling a gypsy carnival as he faces a firing squad. His encounter with ice when he is a child is the marvelous intruding into the mundane. These same gypsies periodically disrupt life in Macondo, introducing new wonders such as magnets, magnifying glasses, flying carpets, and the like. These inspire town patriarch Jose Arcadio Buendia to embark upon manic projects.

The novel itself has the feel of an over-the-top carnival, with its extravagant mingling of magic and everyday life. For a tiny sampling, here’s a description of the parties thrown by Buendia’s great grandson, Aureliano Segundo, when he walks out on his tradition-obsessed wife and moves in with his mistress:

He never looked better, nor had he been loved more, nor had the breeding of his animals been wilder. There was a slaughtering of so many cows, pigs, and chickens for the endless parties that the ground in the courtyard turned black and muddy with so much blood. It was an eternal execution ground of bones and innards, a mud pit of leftovers, and they had to keep exploding dynamite bombs all the time so that the buzzards would not pluck out the guests’ eyes. Aureliano Segundo grew fat, purple-colored, turtle-shaped, because of an appetite comparable only to that of Jose Arcadio [his grandfather] when he came back from traveling around the world. The prestige of his outlandish voracity, of his immense capacity as a spendthrift, of his unprecedented hospitality went beyond the borders of the swamp and attracted the best-qualified gluttons from all along the coast. Fabulous eaters arrived from everywhere to take part in the irrational tourneys of capacity and resistance that were organized in the house of Petra Cotes [his mistress]. Aureliano Segundo was the unconquered eater until the luckless Saturday when Camila Sagastume appeared, a totemic female known all through the land by the good name of “The Elephant.” The duel lasted until dawn on Tuesday.

As my class discussed the novel, we wondered whether it represented the rise and fall of the colonial classes in Colombia, with the incestuous Buendia family finally collapsing in on itself. Perhaps the forces of nature that bury the final survivor represent the proletarian revolution that the Castro-supporting Garcia Marquez longs for. The red ants devouring the house sound communistic.

While magical realism might have a democratic strain, however, we must keep in mind that populism isn’t always positive. Americans at the moment are living through a carnivalesque moment that is undermining traditional institutions. Suddenly, however, it is liberals like me defending traditional institutions while rightwing figures like Steve Bannon fantasize about bringing everything tumbling down. It has never been more important to me that school children every day pledge allegiance to the United States of America (with emphasis on “one nation” and “liberty and justice for all”).

Could it be that, after eight sober years of “no drama Obama,” Americans want pageantry? After all, enough voters opted for a carnival barker instead of an unexciting woman who would have, in boring fashion, attended to hurricane victims, conducted careful diplomacy, and seen to the normal functioning of government. Who wants a model family like Barack, Michelle, Malia and Sasha when we can have a leader who lies incessantly, hurls abuse left and right, grabs women by their unmentionables, and pays hush money to a woman named Stormy Daniels? Donald Trump sounds like any number of characters in Garcia Marquez’s novel.

Norms and standards that have been in place since the founding of the republic are shifting under our feet. The lines between reality and fantasy have become porous. Carnival may be setting loose new energies, but not all of them are positive.

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