Section 4

Sarah Piper: The Tale of the Three Apples (2004)

Lecture 4:
Magic Realism (i)

The Politics of Representation

  • "The Story of the Three Apples" (1990): from The Arabian Nights. Norton Critical Edition (2010): 148-202.
  • Andras Hamori, "A Comic Romance from The Thousand and One Nights: The Tale of Two Viziers" (1983): from The Arabian Nights. Norton Critical Edition (2010): 453-70.

Plot Summary:
A man kills his wife wrongfully, then cuts her into pieces and throws her into the river Tigris. He did so because a slave tricked the man in believing she was his mistress. The slave had a rare apple which the man had brought to his wife and the slave uses this as proof. The Wazir (Ja’afar) finds out it was one of his own slaves but asks the Caliph to pardon him if he can prove that the event, though marvelous, is not as wondrous as a certain tale he will proceed to tell.
– Adapted from The Arabian Nights (2013-15)

Pablo Picasso: The Old Guitarist (1903)

The Man with the Blue Guitar

Realism always sounds like the most simple and straightforward of literary objectives. What can possibly be wrong with trying to paint things as they are? Having as your objective a strict fidelity to facts? Well, nothing, really – on the surface at least.

But it’s worth remembering those famous lines from Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Man with the Blue Guitar”:
They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
“Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar.” Realism is all very well and good, but whose realism? I was watching a television programme lately where one of the characters was trying to come up with a universal language of symbols to prevent misunderstandings among people and nations. A box with a triangle on top, he said, meant “home” to everyone. A picture of a heart meant love.

But not to someone who lives in a lean-to (or an inner-city apartment) – and not to someone who connects the emotion of love with the liver (like the Ancient Hebrews). Realism is always culturally contingent: and it has a strong tendency to reflect the reality of the Overlords rather than those whom they have conquered. Your choice of what “reality” to depict depends on your place in the world: whether you were born in to the society of the oppressor or the oppressed.

We’ve seen that in the literature of the Fantastic there must always be some tension between different possible definitions of the Real and the Unreal – both in the protagonist and the reader of the story. Whether or not one adopts a supernatural explanation for the strange and uncanny events which appear to be occurring, clearly they must be susceptible to some sort of resolution.

Realism, too, must be realistic: in other words, it must accord with some shared concensus on what the world is like. But it also has to be selective. Any attempt to describe all the things that are “real” at any particular place and time is doomed to failure. Even if one could find an exact way of describing everything (and it has been tried), no-one could stand reading the endelss catalogue of details.

So realism is what seems to be real, not what is real. What is real is beyond us, both in the profusion of its detail, and the attempt to understand its workings. What we are left with, then, are certain “realistic” details giving us the impression of realism. Working out how to achieve this sense of verisimilitude (as it is called), is the art of literary realism.

Accurate depiction of character, an interest in psychological details, could be said to be a feature of “realistic” fiction – but surely the hobbits in the Lord of the Rings are as complex and divided in their loyalties and desires as most of the characters in Nineteenth-century realist fiction? Dickens, Zola: these writers, too, deploy their characters to make larger points about the nature of society. Their realism is, in effect, skin-deep.

Jose Donoso: Personal History of the Boom (1972)

Andras Hamori: On the Art of Medieval Arabic Literature (1974)

Exercise 3 – Psychology

"Alas, it is too late !"
- Edgar Allan Poe, "The Imp of the Perverse" (1845)

Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Imp of the Perverse" asserts that there is an innate self-destructiveness in human beings (or at any rate the protagonist of the story) which forces us to do the things we think of doing, no matter how much they runs counter to our own interests. Sigmund Freud, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), calls this the death-instinct, characterised by acts of repetition-compulsion and deliberate self-sabotage.

  • Try to think of the thing you could do which runs most against your best interests (squander your hard-earned money by gambling; alienate the person you care for most).
  • Imagine the extent of the temptation necessary to make you yield to such an impulse.
  • Now imagine you did it, with no such excuses, and have been found out by accident.
  • What can you say in your own defence?
  • Try to write a speech or a letter designed to persuade at least one of the injured parties to forgive you.

Length: no less than a page, no more than 500 words.

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