Journey to The Marvellous Real: Remembrance of Steps Lost in Time

Part 1:  Consideration of the Term lo real maravilloso (the marvellous* real) in Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps(*Throughout this article, for the sake of consistency, I will adopt the Canadian spelling “marvellous” rather than the modern English spelling “marvelous.”)  

“To transform the world we must begin with ourselves; and what is important in beginning with ourselves is the intention.” Jiddu Krishnamurti.

Oh, the marvellous real!  Where do we find it, what will it be like, and how do we know it is really marvellous?  Who doesn’t desire to have experience of something splendid, magnificent, marvelous and magical from time to time to make life vibrate with special meaning?  See something, hear something that stops you in your tracks?  Makes you go giddy in a near swoon?  It is possible anyone reading this would admit to having had remarkable experiences that have impressed the perceiver as “wow!” happenings imbued with special magical qualities.  Let’s just say, for example, to witness a baby’s birth and the wonderful movement and sounds of the new-born cared for tenderly by the mother is one happening that brightens up anyone’s life.   The birth of any animal might charm the feelings—pup, kitten, calf, mouse, or insects from the chrysalis.  Another example might be coming upon a cactus, magnificent in size or shape and in full bloom, after a dry trek in a desert landscape of little splendor.  Photographers are often on the lookout for stunning imagery and color that can be called extraordinarily, magically or fantastically real.  Though the term “magic realism” has been in common parlance for nearly a century, often applied to a style of literary fiction, thanks to Alejo Carpentier, it now has a special place, especially in the arts of Latin America.

The term the marvellous real, which is considered the same as the more commonly used magic realism, is the translation of the key phrase lo real maravilloso coined by Alejo Carpentier.  His mid-century 20th-century essay on this subject is what he is particularly known for.  Of course, he is also known for his novels (The Kingdom of This World, The Lost Steps, The Chase, etc.) and for his musical treatises, especially the importance of Cuban music in Latin America.  However, his 1949 essay, written originally as an introductory prologue to The Kingdom of This World, became the locus classicus for his explanation of the stylistic element called the marvellous real.  Carpentier’s insightful essay, a copy of which I handed out to Club Members on the January morning of our discussion of The Lost Steps, is his major text that stirred up much wonder and debate; the text, received as a manifesto of sorts by Latin American artists, has been a focus of aesthetic philosophy by the best critical minds for 64 years.  How do we know this? 

Proof of Its Importance

Believe me, many months ago when I contemplated my book selection of The Lost Steps, I had no idea that Alejo Carpentier would be showcased prominently in current times. My thought was to revive interest in a forgotten work of literature I had enjoyed immensely as a youth. Its dense style was one I recalled as truly exciting and at first I had no inkling of his avant-garde place in philosophical treatises about literature or any other art.  His musicological interests I was aware of and had remembered as one major stylistic feature in the nature of the protagonist, not to mention the profuse musical allusions and content throughout The Lost Steps.  Since those innocent days of my initial enchantment with Carpentier’s novel, I had no subsequent knowledge of the author and his work.  After many of our cultural expeditionary reads through Homer’s Odyssey, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, Lowry’s Under the Volcano, Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence, Mann’s Death in Venice, Soseki’s Kokoro, and so forth, –not to forget the non-fiction selection on the subject of civilization’s lost steps and waning senses of wonder in Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous— Carpentier’s novel about the conflict of culture and nature seemed another odyssey for our group to integrate into the themes of our rather intellectual library.

No small wonders these days:  expect the unexpected.  As Theodore Roethke says in his famous poem “The Waking”:  “And, lovely, learn by going where to go.” Like the protagonist in Lost Steps, all one has to do to find The Marvellous Real is to journey forth, to cross borders, to enter another country, and to keep the mind open and all senses acute. 

News at the Coffee Shop

How important coffee shops are these days!  They were important news centers in history before our time, and they still are today.  At Bluebeard’s coffee-house the week following our January discussion on The Lost Steps, I met Neil Bergeson before any other members arrived.  As usual the place was humming with sounds of the espresso machine, the jazz was a tad too loud, and most of the locals were bud-eared and tuned into their iPods, or texting away on iPhones, or booting up or tapping on their laptops.  After a hug in greeting, I got my coffee.  Then I asked Neil how he had enjoyed his weekend visit to Vancouver, Canada.  ForNeil and his wife, travelling north to Vancouver B.C. was intended as a post-holidays getaway weekend with some friends.  He said something happened.  I pricked up my ears. 

What he told me next was a tale mirabile dictῡ—a wonder to tell.  For me a marvel to hear mirabile auditῡ.  Making a detour on their journey home, Neil and his company decided to visit the beautiful Museum of Anthropology (MOA) on the University of British Columbia campus (UBC), a museum known for its Native American Indian artifacts.  As luck had it, though with little time to browse, in the museum he had just happened upon a new exhibition of Mexican art.  He then informed me to my astonishment how he was struck by the exhibition’s title The Marvellous Real, as he, alone of his company, took a different turn and entered the foyer of the North Wing.  Did this phrase not ring a bell?  Surely, it did.  As one set of automatic sliding glass doors closed behind him, turning to another wall of doors, he passed through this barrier of great sliding doors—mysterious barricades?—and there, before his gaze, he read on introductory plaques of text and on textual images projected onto the flooring, some quotations from the essays and speeches of the very same Alejo Carpentier we had discussed just a few days before.  Wow! Was Neil stunned?  I was!

“So, what did you see, Neil? What else?”  Neil then quietly described how, in the room labelled “Mythologies,” he faced a monstrous, wall-size painting—six panels of thick matte black paint, with some gray and white striations, abstract dark images, and at first indistinct.  He stood searching this imposing dark canvas painting.  In rapt attention I listened as he narrated his discovery.  After considerable probing viewing, he deciphered shapes rather like footsteps, as though someone—the artist– had walked across the tarry canvases.  Then he caught sight of something, in a light space in the middle of the canvases, a graphic image of a miniature man pushing a cart, a vending barrow labelled “Hot Dogs.”  Damn!  It was called Sisifo—“Sisyphus.” Quite obviously another connection, for Sisyphus will resound in us readers from Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps, being one of the major mythological allusions he employs, besides those of Prometheus and Odysseus.  Yes, footsteps and a Sisyphean figure, right out of The Lost Steps, where, like the struggling street vendor pushing his cart uphill homeward, the protagonist broods about tedium of daily life, one day being no different from another: 

 “Ascending and descending the hill of days, with the same stone on my back, I kept going through a momentum acquired in jerks and spasms, but which sooner or later would end on a date that might be on the next year’s calendar.” (p. 9)*

Soon, the protagonist met the Curator, by chance, who forced a new project upon him: a paid trip to the South to journey into jungle reaches and search out and collect primitive musical instruments for the Museum of Organography:  “…which meant only shifting the load, for when I threw down the Sisyphean stone, my Doppelgänger climbed on my still-lacerated back, and I could not tell whether, at times, I did not prefer the weight of the granite to the weight of the judge.” (p. 33)*

 *Citations, above and elsewhere, apply to the text: The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier, translation by Harriet de Onís (Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, c2001)

Here in Neil’s January journey is the Janus experience, face back, face forward.  Mirabile visu!—a wonder to behold!  So it turned out for me to learn in this way, in such surprise, about new interest in Carpentier, a personage of 20th-century modernist Latin American literature, whose fame, for me, seemed sixty-four years since his composition of lo real maravilloso and thirty-four years since his death (1980), to have faded into the shadows.  Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, Carpentier arises like a phoenix, or better, as an eternal quetzal of the mythic Popul Vuh imagery he would have preferred.  Viva Alejo y lo real maravilloso!

Well, I tell you, this in itself was a wonder to me, a wonder of the type of amazing simultaneity—synchronicity—we have encountered quite often with unusual conjunctions of our literary selections and the coincidental publication of news about the authors or the specific subject matter of the literature. No small wonders.  Immediately I planned a trip north. A week later, after my wife and I visited the Museum of Anthropology to see this exhibition, The Marvellous Real: Art of Mexico, 1926-2011, I had many new thoughts to consider regarding the influence of Alejo Carpentier in the cultures of Latin America.  Although The Marvellous Real presents artwork from Mexico, Cuban-born Carpentier is the focal philosophical voice of the exhibition.   Simultaneous with my re-engagement with The Lost Steps, a museum curator in the greater Northwest of North America had taken an interest to resuscitate Carpentier’s idea of “marvellous reality” in a prominent way for arts in the 21st century.     

Tracing the Lost Steps

The journey I will take you on through Alejo Carpentier’s novel The Lost Steps will show an attitude towards life’s sensory phenomena that is not unlike that of Marcel Proust in his monumental work Remembrance of Times Past.  After our intense interest in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in Peter Farnum’s December selection for The Tacoma Retired Men’s Book Club, I feel confident to say Eliot had an important aesthetic effect on the European-educated Carpentier.  Who else could have given greater license for the inclusion of erudite literary allusions and musical references than Eliot?  How that poetic reading stirred the dried tubers of our imagination!  But I ask you: Was magic realism evident in The Waste Land?  What I have found lacking in nearly all commentaries on the magic realistic ingredient in literature, whether it is Latin American or European, is an ample portrayal of the magically real through examples in a writer’s composition.  In the following commentary, I hope to correct that lapse of illustrative examples and gives a clear definition of the term “magic realism.”

Slow Awakening

It has come slowly to me, and obviously to some other critics (see below), what is meant by the experience of and representation of lo real maravilloso.  Of course, I live in North America, my psyche distressed by the difficult gray days of our impoverished society struggling to stay economically above the water level, perturbed by the crises of our nation, its culture and the all-encompassing atmospheric planetary disruption; living on the San Andreas fault, my senses, more or less as Eliot defined them, are drowned by life in the “unreal city.”  As for reality—and certainly for representations of it–what is real for me, may not fit into your concept of reality.  What I call magical and marvellous in my experience, even if I had talent to describe it, may leave you cold and disenchanted.

A critic’s footnote: In explication of “magic realism” regarding Carpentier’s work, George McMurray notes the term had been “bandied about” for decades but had yet to be defined precisely and universally.  He goes on with the following general explication:

“Basically, magical realism attempts to penetrate objective reality and to reveal the mysterious and poetic qualities underlying the daily lives of a community or people.  … [I]t is found primarily in countries with large Indian and black populations, that is, wherever European civilization is only a veneer superimposed on hidden layers of primitive cultures.” (George R. McMurray, Spanish American Writing Since 1941: A Critical Survey (New York: Ungar Publishing, 1987) p.27, n.1)

Fortunately, the MOA exhibition companion manual, The Marvellous Real, presents a wonderful amplification of the philosophical idea, complete with pictorial representations of works in the exhibition and expository essays by Nicola Levell and Anthony Allen Shelton, the MOA director. (Vancouver, B.C.: Figure I, c2013)  In addition, there is the speech that Carpentier delivered in 1975 in Caracas, Venezuela. (The Marvellous Real, p.17-31)  Twenty-five years since he coined the term, he tried again, by re-elaboration, to define his vision of the marvellous real.  Nevertheless, denotatively, by verbal exposition alone, it is quite difficult to get the point across, but the MOA exhibition book, in images and text, goes a long way to clarify the ways of perceiving and representing the marvelous reality. 

In the essay Carpentier wrote as the prologue to his 1949 novel The Kingdom of This World (hereafter Kingdom), he attempts to explain the term his way.  Contrary to what many say about Carpentier’s coining magic realism, Magischer Realismus was coined as early as 1925 by critic and photographer Franz Roh (1890-1965)  to describe paintings with imagery outside of ordinary life (e.g. paintings of Henri Rousseau, Marc Chagall).  Also, with the exploitation of the word “marvellous,” Carpentier is not totally original in his philosophical intent, for he follows the European Surrealists, who sought the merveilleux as a key aesthetic quality in their art.  However, Carpentier detests the surrealists’ mean contrivances deriding their art merveilleux as deliberate and artificial concoctions, odd things juxtaposed, not as works emerging out of existing or lived reality. Nevertheless, Carpentier’s 1949 insightful essay stirred up aesthetic inquiry; it has been a focus of aesthetic philosophy for 64 years, as the MOA exhibition attests. 

Here is how Carpentier introduced his Kingdom novel, set in late 18th – to early 19th –century Haiti, depicting the revolutionary overthrow by the natives and mulattoes of the French colonials and Haitian tyrant Henri Christophe:

“Toward the end of 1943, I had the good fortune to be able to visit the kingdom of Henri Christophe—the poetic ruins of Sans-Souci….  After feeling the in no way false enchantment of this Haitian earth, after discovering magic presences on the red roads of the central Plateau, after hearing the drums of Petro and Rada, I was moved to compare this marvelous reality I’d just been living with the exhausting vain attempts to rouse the marvelous that characterize certain European literatures of these last thirty years.  The marvelous, sought for by means of the old clichés of the Forest of Brocelianda, the Knights of the Round Table, Merlin the Magician, and the Arthurian cycle.” (In Cubanismo!: The Vintage Book of Contemporary Cuban Literature, ed. With an introduction by Cristina García (New York: Vintage, 2002) p. 75) 

Note:  he talks of “poetic ruins,” “in no way false enchantments,” and discovering “magic presences”—buildings, landscapes, people, sounds.  In Haiti he found stirring images, sights and sounds that had a living integrity or authenticity. 

Baroquismo, or Latin American Baroqueness

In mid-life, 39-year old Alejo Carpentier discovered evocations of the marvellous real in his worldly travels after his years of living in Europe.  He theorized about the implications of lo real maravilloso, as he termed it, an aesthetic awareness that Latin American writers and artists would cultivate again and again (from the 1960s on) in their creations inspired by life and nature in their developing otherworldly New World.  Separate from European culture, eschewing the tendency to imitate traditional patterns derived from Old World classicism, Latin American artists had advantages for forging exceptional styles and forms.  This designation of a vantage point for Latin Americans comes across as somewhat nationalistic, for it would be possible for North Americans to say also they have New World mythologies with an admixture of many alternative cultural forms from vast numbers of immigrants who have entered America and Canada from all over the world.  The newness of his idea may derive from awareness of the still unknown aboriginal peoples and undiscovered regions of Latin America, along with the rise in interest of Mayan, Inca and Aztec archaeologies and mythologies. 

In his 1975 Caracas lecture, “the marvellous real” is termed a baroque, or baroquist, aesthetic, commonly found in Latin American arts as an unusual mixture (mestiza) of the original Native Indian aesthetics with those introduced through African influences and then combined with newer imposed colonialist patterns of culture.  In new forms layered with meanings, the Latin American baroquist style represents much more than the elaborate curvilinear ornamentation that one finds in the 16th – to 19th – century European styles described under the traditional rubric “baroque.” As in the disturbing piece Sisifo, by artist Boris Viskin, it is not merely imagery of beauty that attracts one to perceive the marvellous: “Ugliness, deformity, all that is terrible can also be marvellous.  All that is strange is marvellous.” (Carpentier, “The Baroque and the Marvellous Real.” Lecture delivered in May 22, 1975, in the Caracas Athenaeum).  Whatever is unusual, strange, beyond the norm, outside of things taken for granted, this can strike one as a marvel.  Because he was himself an artist in music and in word, it seems obvious he struggled to represent such wondrous epiphanic moments in his works.  Through the style, language, and imagery of The Lost Steps I would like to dig a little deeper to consider certain representations of the real marvelous and to explain how I have interpreted that concept.

Foreshadowing: A Marvellous Reverie

In The Lost Steps, the effete protagonist does have brief fiery reminiscences of good days when his mind was alive to flashes of the once marvellous.  As he waits for the Curator in a university museum, he has a sudden flashback to a livelier time:

“Suddenly, the universality of certain images—an impressionistic nymph, the mysterious regard of Mme Rivière, a family by Manet—carried me back to the far-off days when I had endeavored to assuage the sufferings of a disillusioned traveler, of a pilgrim frustrated by the profanity of the Holy Places, in the almost windowless world of museums. 

Those had been the months when I visited the shops of craftsmen, the opera, the gardens and cemeteries that evoked romantic vignettes, before I accompanied Goya in the clashes of the Second of May, or followed with the Burial of the Sardine, whose disturbing masks suggested drunken penitents, devils in a morality play, rather than the garb of merriment.  After an interlude among Le Nain’s peasants, I had plunged full into the Renaissance in the portrait of some condottiere, one of those mounted on horses that seem of marble than flesh, against columns hung with banners.  There were times when I liked to sojourn among medieval burghers, drinking deeply of their mulled wine, who had themselves painted with the Virgin whom they were honoring—to keep the gift on record—carving suckling pigs, setting their Flemish cocks fighting, and slipping their hands into the bosoms of waxy-skinned wenches who, rather than lewd doxies, seemed lasses making merry of a Sunday afternoon, free to sin again after absolution by their confessors.” (p.35)

After sweeping through sets of vibrant ecphrastic description of various paintings and artifacts in the museum, the weary protagonist wonders:

“Viewing these familiar images, I asked myself whether, in bygone days, men had longed for bygone days as I, this summer morning, longed for certain ways of life that man had lost forever.” (p.36)

Longing for ways lost forever.  Longing for a life to be marveled at.  Little does he know at this point what is in store for him as he journeys out in search of native Indian musical instruments from an imagined archaic era.   But here in these vivid descriptive passages of representations we have a taste, a foreshadowing, of the marvellous real in nature that the protagonist will encounter on his pilgrimage back in time into primeval landscapes among people of Edenic simplicity.

Proustian Baroquism

Further explication comes from a reference to the writing of Marcel Proust. In his Caracas lecture, Carpentier alludes to Proust’s description of a street scene upon awakening:

“I believe there is no page more beautiful in all of Proust’s gigantic novel than in the episode in The Captive [in Remembrance of Things Past] where the protagonist, the narrator, who is Proust himself, is lying in Albertine’s bed in the morning and listening to the cries of the vendors passing in the street below, and with that marvelous power of intertwining thoughts and concepts by means of his prodigious knowledge.  Proust writes that these cries can be related by their melodious inflections and the ways they modulate their voices to medieval liturgical chants.” (“The Baroque and the Marvellous Real” in MOA The Marvellous Real: p. 23.)   

Elaborating, Carpentier cites from Proust’s passage the sounds of the dog groomer, the birdseed seller, the scissor sharpener, the fruit seller, among others.  In The Lost Steps, by his own admiration of the baroque prose of Proust, it would seem he had imitated that very passage in the awakening of his own protagonist, still a prisoner of habits, on the first morning after his arrival in the “new city” in South America:

“My startled hand fumbled on the marble-topped night-table for the alarm clock that perhaps was ringing back up on the map, thousands of miles away.  And it took a few seconds, as I stared out at the square through the Venetian blinds, to realize that my habit—my morning routine, back there—had been mocked by the triangle of a street vendor.  Then came the piping of a scissors-grinder, strangely mixed with the melismatic call of a gigantic Negro carrying a basket of squids on his head.  The trees rocked by the morning breeze, showered white fuzz over the statue of one of the fathers of the country whose carelessly tied bronze neckcloth gave him a certain resemblance to Lord Byron while his manner of presenting a flag to invisible revolutionists recalled Lamartine.  In the distance the bells of a church were ringing out one of those parochial rhythms produced by swinging from the bellropes, the electric carillons of the fake Gothic towers of my country being a thing unknown here.” (p. 42-43)

Here too are the sounds and sights of street vendors, the connecting intertwining thoughts—a civic statue resembling the Romantic poet Byron, in gesture recalling Lamartine, an august 18th -century figure of French poetic literature and revolutionary politics–and even the connection with music of church bells; these are signs of senses being newly ignited.  Later in the evening the protagonist visits the opera house and, instead of cynical impressions of fakery in the theatre, as had soured his mood when he encountered a symphonic performance weeks before in the “unreal city,” thoughts now flood his mind to make him feel the magic of the old in the living moment:

“I felt myself yielding to an indefinable charm, a fabric of vague, remote memories and partly remembered longings.  This great velvet rotunda, the generous décolletages, the lace handkerchief warmed in the bosom, the thick hair, the sometimes overpowering perfume; this stage where the singers, against a prodigious vegetation of hanging backdrops, profiled their arias with their hands clasped to their hearts;  this complex of traditions, manners, attitudes, which could no longer be revived in a great modern city, was the magic world of the theater as my pale, ardent great-grandmother might have known it, she of the sensual yet veiled eyes, gowned in white satin in the portrait by Madrazo which filled my childhood dreams before my father fell on hard times and had to sell it.(p. 44)

The language, the descriptions, the long train of the composition present an example of the stream of consciousness, imagery of a mind enchanted, a word or a thought leading from one memory into deeper channels, remembering imagery of his “ardent great-grandmother.”  Those “sensual, yet veiled eyes” are a foreshadowing of mysterious barricades through which protagonist must pass into places of strange enchantment.

Thus, accepting Carpentier’s fuller description and his suggested example in Proust, the pattern of representing lo real maravilloso in The Lost Steps goes as follows: a) something of sound, sight, odor, etc. alerts the senses, takes hold of the mind, stopping ordinary, frivolous perception, providing a moment of enchantment; b) thoughts are stirred connecting the outer perception with ideational imagery or action; c) memory of a significant, uncommon life event comes into full bloom. 

Wonders in Art

The illustrations above are merely a beginning of a clear delineation of how magic realism and the marvelous real are represented in prose.  In words alone the representation is dependent on the receptiveness by and responsiveness of the reader and the working of the imagination and senses.  Composition in words alone to move the reader in this way may take on rather obvious poetic flavor.  The terms charm and enchantment borrow from Latin carmen and cantare the idea of “poem.”  Poetic attempts to express the mystical or ineffable can perhaps come close to affecting the reader’s or listener’s senses with twinges of the wondrous or miraculous in life.  Consider Gerard Manley Hopkins’ description in “The Windhover” of iridescent, fresh-cut turf (“sillion”) and falling embers coming startlingly ablaze with fire (“blue-bleak embers” to “gash gold-vermillion”) in a hearth-grate:

No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion 
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear, 
      Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion

Architecture, even in ruins, can evoke a sense of wonder.  How many of the Wonders of the World were holy temples, mausoleums, palaces and monstrous sculptures?  Pictorial art, abstract or realistic, as described above in the museum paintings, can astound the viewer with color and form

The mass of allusions to musical compositions invoked within the mind by Carpentier’s protagonist in The Lost Steps are indicative of ways one compensates for the lack of marvellous real sounds in nature.  Musical compositions performed by various groups or combos, or by large symphonic orchestras, with expressions of song and choral amplification, can impress an audience and move them emotionally by sublime melodies or profound virtuosity.  One can talk about music, praising, for example, Bach or Beethoven’s music. Jim Robbins and I talked of movie music such as in Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre, Wrath of God, and in Ennio Morricone’s music for The Mission.  One can talk of Morricone’s beautiful compositions, but nothing works as well to impress a person than listening attentively to a particular work.   Consider the experience we had at the close of our discussion of The Lost Steps that January morning when Ron Powers asked us to take time listen to a piece of music.  How fine it was to hear the two and a half minutes’ beauty of “Gabriel’s Oboe” from Morricone’s score of the film The Mission.  No words would suffice to explain the sublime melody we heard.   

Artistic representations, though limited, do what they can to amaze the viewer.  What Carpentier meant by lo real maravilloso is best expressed by emphasizing that it is a phenomenon that is of the living state of reality, lo real or la realidad, and not a semblance or pretense, a simulacrum, of something real.  Furthermore the perceived reality is most astounding or amazing because it strikes aesthetically and deeply into the mind, heart, and soul of the one who experiences the phenomenon.   The sensory experience continues and extends within the memory and imagination of the perceiver.  However one looks at it, the artistic representation is second hand, an attempt to create the best verisimilitude.

The Sleeper Awakens

Turning now to the story of The Lost Steps, let me offer an important illustration of dawning awareness of lo real maravilloso in the jaded mind of the protagonist.  The protagonist-narrator has left behind his time-clock regulated life in the “unreal city, “the city within a city” that had become invisible to him, had numbed his senses, where he had lost himself, found himself bereft of soul and meaning:  “Between the ‘I’ that I was and the ‘I’ that I might have been the dark abyss of the lost years gaped.” (p. 22) He declared himself empty, a hollow man, without spiritual and mental bearings.  When we first meet him by the stage of Ruth’s play, he narrates:  “Now, as on the first night [of Ruth’s performance four years ago], I walked under the portico, listening to my steps’ hollow ring.” (p. 3, my italics) The journey, his odyssey, forced upon him by the Curator, a Hermes figure, is where he can begin to recover his lost steps. 

When Carpentier’s protagonist first arrives in the unnamed South American city.  On a stroll with his mistress Mouche, his senses brighten in the quality of the silence of the streets at night.  “… Its silence, the solemnity of its star-studded presence.  Any transient noise shattered it.” (p. 45) For the first time in ages, he is stunned, his ears open to sounds. 

“A sound rooted us where we stood, amazed, and we had to walk forward and stop several times to make sure of the wonder: the echo of our footsteps could be heard from the opposite sidewalk. In a square before a nondescript church, all shadows and stucco, there was a fountain of Tritons where a woolly dog stood on its hind legs drinking with a delightful lapping sound.  The pointed hands of the clock were in no hurry, and they marked time with a measure of their own in old belfries and municipal façades.  Downhill in the direction of the sea, the hubbub of the modern quarter of the city could be sensed; but for all the flashing of neon signs, the insignia of night haunts, it was clear that the real city, its soul and body, revealed itself in the habits and stones of this section.” (p. 45-46) 

Rooted, amazed, in wonder, he hears his own footsteps as they echo from the walls of the other side of a street.  Tip-tap, tip-tap, tip-tap.  The sound of his own present-time foot-steps, instant rhythmic echoing of his movement.  Here in magical sounds of the moment is an initial, subtle return of his “lost steps.”  Up to the time of his arrival in the Latin American city, everything he narrated to us was in a remembered past tense.  From this sensory quickening, the narrative continues in present time, the now.  Daily and monthly dates mark the chapters as though a journal were being recorded.  Intimations of the marvellous real are emerging.

Universal Image of Wonder

Another example, this time a broader universal expression of a common reality that is imbued with the magical and marvellous, comes as the protagonist investigates the streets of the city.  He glimpses the singing bakers, “white from their hair to their sabots,” i.e. their peasant shoes:

“Suddenly the breath of bread just out of the oven poured through the gratings of a basement in whose half-light men, white from their hair to their sabots, were singing.  I stooped in delighted surprise.  I had long forgotten this morning presence of flour back there where bread, kneaded God only knows how and where, brought in by night in closed trucks as though it were some shameful thing, had ceased to be the bread one breaks with one’s hands, the bread the father hands around after he has blessed it, the bread that should be received with a gesture of gratitude before breaking its crust into the broad bowl of leek soup or sprinkling it with oil and salt to recover a taste which, more than the taste of bread with oil and salt, is the old Mediterranean taste already on the tongue of Ulysses’ comrades.” (p. 47-48) 

Ah, to get back to the senses of old, with gesture of gratitude, with taste of more than the tongue senses, with a breaking of something made whole, that solemnizes the breaking of something together with family and friends, to make and take it whole within, together communally.  Symbolic resonance abounds through the deep senses.  The magic of Carpentier’s language, lo real maravilloso, is discovered in the arousal of the protagonist’s mythic awareness through sense perception that carries meanings from distant past times in the present moment of experience.

Like Carpentier’s “hero” in exile (really an “anti-hero”), the world famous poet Pablo Neruda recorded his experience in encountering the power of the marvellous. His Nobel speech details wonderful and strange accounts of discovering the magic in reality.  On his flight from soon-to-be Pinochet’s Chile, an exilic escape across the Andes to find a free place for his art and politics, Neruda came upon ideas of universal symbolic importance regarding the role of the poet, the “maker”: 

“I have often said the best poet is the man who delivers our daily bread: the local baker, who does not think he is a god.  He fulfils his majestic yet humble task of kneading, placing in the oven, browning, and delivering our daily bread, with a true sense of community.”  (From Pablo Neruda’s Nobel Speech, December 13, 1971.)   

The wonder of it.  Bread.  The emblem of community, of integrity.  From my childhood in England, I have honored the maker of bread, mostly my mother, a life-long baker, at 89 still making it the old-fashioned way.  In Idaho, in our country house, we make bread, my wife being the honored experienced baker.  I love to help make bread, then sampling a loaf as if it were the most sacred object when straight from the oven, having watched the process during the hours of mixing, kneading, and letting the mass rise—wherever it can rise: on the fireplace hearth, in a warm spot out of the sun, on the warm stovetop, in a still place away from drafts.  Nothing like fresh-baked bread.  From its transformation as soft-mixed ingredients into the crusty loaf.  A miracle.  Now commonly in America, although peasant-style breads—so-called artisan loaves– are available in supermarkets—and I might add, the more crusted and peasant-like the more expensive the price–I still desire the making of bread, the ritual of remembering all time, the memory of family, community, the focus of nature, alma mater.   It is one step of the journey I wish never to lose.

The Importance of the Vernacular

On his arrival, the protagonist seems only vaguely aware that his adventure outward to South America is simultaneously an inward journey recalling the sources of lost times.  His is an odyssey towards a forgotten Ithaka.  Hearing the language of his infancy is part of the quickening of consciousness.

“Now a strange voluptuousness was lulling my scruples.  And a force was now invading me through my ears, my pores:  the language.  Here once more was the language I had talked in my infancy; the language in which I had learned to read and sol-fa; the language that had grown rusty with disuse, thrown aside like a useless instrument in a country where it was of no value to me.” (p. 40-41)

At the customs office, disoriented by the altitude and time change, he suffers a mild syncope, having a moment of coming to, in time slowed down: 

“Dizzy with the change in atmospheric pressure, waiting for officers who seemed in no hurry to examine the contents of our luggage, I was thinking that I was not yet used to finding myself as far from my familiar haunts.” (p. 40)

Aware that he stood in a transitional limbo, estranged from the past, this might be an open moment for a subtle epiphany:

“… [A]t the same time there was something like a recovered light, the smell of hot esparto grass, of sea water that the sky seems to permeate to the depths of its green, and the breeze that carries the stench of rotted crustacean from some coastal shoal.” (p.40)  

These are the sights and scents of nature. What better way to come alive than through an arousal of the senses that had been dormant in the “unreal city”?  The arousal by bread, language, herbs, sea-smells.

(To be continue in Part 2:  Eros and the Marvellous Real,  I will further illustrate Carpentier’s concept of the marvellous real by tracing the reintegration of the protagonist’s being through experience of authentic sensuality and his deepening awareness of nature’s wondrous power.)

Addendum:  Sisifo by Boris Viskin, dated 1994

Visualize a huge set of six dark panels, three above, three below, placed side by side to form a unified rectangle, 347 cm. high by 540 cm. in length (11.4 ft. by 17.7 ft.).  An impressive wall of canvas, just in its size.  Then imagine on the upper dark panels no clear representational form, except scratches in a tarry matte-black paint.  The bottom set shows some shaded striations which begin to evince paramecium shapes in an emerging white background areas on the bottom left and right canvases.  The bottom middle panel shows more white background than any other on its sides.  The black paramecia, on closer inspection, are footprints, as though a living person, perhaps the artist, had stepped in basin of black paint or tar and walked diagonally across the canvases.  The footprints go upward on the lower left panel, and downward on the lower right.   

In the middle of the canvases, as if illuminated under a street lamp, in the whitest space of canvas, a tiny graphic image, almost imperceptible in the abstract scheme of things, can be made out:  a dark human image pushing against a street-vendor’s cart, labelled “Hot Dogs.”  Huge dark footprints surround the image, and two or three seem to have walked over the image; others stand as menacing animal or monster shapes, obstacles on the road ahead, impossible to go around.  Such is the murky hell surrounding the diminutive laborer’s image straining against his cart by which he makes a meagre livelihood.  There is a faint, gaunt image of a cottage nearby, but it does not appear to be Sisyphus’s home.   Standing before this hugeness, I thought of a vast, dark landscape, stretching into black-hole universal reaches.  No hope seemed possible for the hot-dog vendor to make headway in this bleak world.  Nothing beautiful here, only struggle and darkness, and plodding footprints.  This painting appears in the room labelled “Mythologies” in The Marvellous Real exhibition in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  


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2 Responses to Journey to The Marvellous Real: Remembrance of Steps Lost in Time

  1. Ron Boothe says:

    Reading THE LOST STEPS and studying some of the supplemental materials you provided for our group as we prepared for the official discussion of the book has greatly increased my knowledge of what the general term “Magic Realism” means. Reading your essay, THE MARVELLOUS REAL, has further expanded and nuanced my understanding of this concept.

    One distinction I did not previously make, but now understand (at least somewhat) is between MAGIC REALISM and SURREALISM. In surrealism, the “magic” is something added to some aspect of the natural world by the artist; a way of creating art that embellishes the natural world to make it appear magical. In magic realism, the artist tries to achieve a way of perceiving that allows the “magic” that is already present in the natural world to be appreciated.

    I go back and forth in my own mind about whether MAGIC REALISM is a valid way of thinking about, or trying to experience, the world we live in. My many years working and thinking as a scientist has made me deeply suspicious of most “magical explanations” of natural phenomenon. As science has progressed over the past several centuries, “magical explanations” for how the natural world operates have been steadily replaced by “scientific explanations”. There is a part of me that thinks this is a good thing, and that all “magical explanations” will eventually be relegated (rightfully so) to the category of “ignorant superstitions”. Trying to hold on to “magical” ways of thinking might be analogous to John Henry trying use his hammer to fend off the impending steam engine.

    However, there is another part of me that occasionally observes and experiences events happening around me that I can only describe as “awesome” or “wondrous”, or perhaps examples of THE MARVELLOUS REAL.

    My approach is usually to try to not get too hung up about reconciling these (perhaps) contradictory ways of interpreting my experiences. I try to follow the advice of my mother who instructed me as a child to try to do as Mary, the mother of Jesus, was reported to have done. She simply “kept all these things [that she had seen], and pondered them in her heart.”

    • gil4or says:

      I’m grateful for your comments, Ron. You definitely have grasped the idea of magical reality that must emerge out of living experience. For the scientist there is so much that smacks of the magical reality in the discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle or the recent validation of gravity-waves, which is hypothesized as almost a fantastic entity within the thinker and then almost miraculously is found “out there.” As Abrams book on the Spell of the Sensuous pointed out, we don’t live any longer in expectation of the magical with the sensorium switched on because our intellectualizing or interiorizing puts a stop to the stream of “feelings.”
      Likewise in The Lost Steps, Carpentier takes pains to show how his protagonist, an intellectual egoist, has lost his sense of wonder striving for income, working against deadlines, driven by the time-clock. The climax is profound in that the intellectual drives for a cultural “high,” as he works intently on his mental design of the “Threnody” in the jungle, put his awareness of the magic or marvelous living moment into the background. He has begun to take his woman Rosario for granted. Technological needs prevail. Technology of the airplane lifts him away from the animistic life with Rosario. And as Abrams notes, once the divide has been established and the interior egoistic takes hold, then the senses grow dull and there is no return to living in the present. Of course, once in a while the senses do fire on in a moment’s relaxation; a crack in the armor opens and the marvelous is glimpsed, but not much more than the flash of lightning that makes one gasp and ask,”Wow! Did you see that? Or was that just me?”
      Might as well go with Mother Mary. It won’t matter how much time you want to spend rationalizing or analyzing the what and the how, it’s gone, it happened, no need to fuss. I remember how people tried to describe their hallucinations from the endoptic madness of LSD or psilocybin induced seizures. From my own experience, the best I could do was grasp a bit of the visual rapture that I transferred to psychedelic paintings, with bright fluorescent paints,, fuchsias and greenish-purplish colors that one friend told me he had remembered when he was deliriously sick with fever dreams. Representations cannot recreate the rapture, the time out of ordinary mind. They are pale imitations.

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