Introduction to Magical Realism

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Magical realism, or magic realism, is an approach to literature that weaves fantasy and myth into everyday life. What’s real? What’s imaginary? In the world of magical realism, the ordinary becomes extraordinary and the magical becomes commonplace.

Also known as “marvelous realism,” or “fantastic realism,” magical realism is not a style or a genre so much as a way of questioning the nature of reality. In books, stories, poetry, plays, and film, factual narrative and far-flung fantasies combine to reveal insights about society and human nature. The term "magic realism" is also associated with realistic and figurative artworks—paintings, drawings, and sculpture—that suggest hidden meanings. Lifelike images, such as the Frida Kahlo portrait shown above, take on an air of mystery and enchantment.

Strangeness Infused Into Stories

There’s nothing new about infusing strangeness into stories about otherwise ordinary people. Scholars have identified elements of magical realism in Emily Brontë's passionate, haunted Heathcliff (" Wuthering Heights ") and Franz Kafka’s unfortunate Gregor, who turns into a giant insect (" The Metamorphosis "). However, the expression “magical realism” grew out of specific artistic and literary movements that emerged during the mid-20th century.

Art From a Variety of Traditions

In 1925, critic Franz Roh (1890–1965) coined the term Magischer Realismus (Magic Realism) to describe the work of German artists who depicted routine subjects with eerie detachment. By the 1940s and 1950s, critics and scholars were applying the label to art from a variety of traditions. The enormous floral paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986), the psychological self-portraits of Frida Kahlo (1907–1954), and the brooding urban scenes by Edward Hopper (1882–1967) all fall within the realm of magic realism.

A Separate Movement in Literature

In literature, magical realism evolved as a separate movement, apart from the quietly mysterious magic realism of visual artists. Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier (1904–1980) introduced the concept of “ lo real maravilloso " ("the marvelous real") when he published his 1949 essay “On the Marvelous Real in Spanish America.” Carpentier believed that Latin America, with its dramatic history and geography, took on an aura of the fantastic in the eyes of the world. In 1955, literary critic Angel Flores (1900–1992) adopted the term magical realism (as opposed to magic realism) to describe the writings of Latin American authors who transformed “the common and the every day into the awesome and the unreal." 

Latin American Magic Realism

According to Flores, magical realism began with a 1935 story by Argentine writer Jorge Luís Borges (1899–1986). Other critics have credited different writers for launching the movement. However, Borges certainly helped lay the groundwork for Latin American magical realism, which was seen as unique and distinct from the work of European writers like Kafka. Other Hispanic authors from this tradition include Isabel Allende, Miguel Ángel Asturias, Laura Esquivel, Elena Garro, Rómulo Gallegos, Gabriel García Márquez, and Juan Rulfo.

Extraordinary Circumstances Were Expected

"Surrealism runs through the streets," Gabriel García Márquez (1927–2014) said in an interview with "The Atlantic . " García Márquez shunned the term “magical realism” because he believed that extraordinary circumstances were an expected part of South American life in his native Columbia. To sample his magical-but-real writing, begin with “ A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings " and “ The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World .”

An International Trend

Today, magical realism is viewed as an international trend, finding expression in many countries and cultures. Book reviewers, booksellers, literary agents, publicists, and authors themselves have embraced the label as a way to describe works that infuse realistic scenes with fantasy and legend. Elements of magical realism can be found in writings by Kate Atkinson, Italo Calvino, Angela Carter, Neil Gaiman, Günter Grass, Mark Helprin, Alice Hoffman, Abe Kobo, Haruki Murakami, Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Derek Walcott, and countless other authors around the world.

6 Key Characteristics of Magical Realism

It’s easy to confuse magical realism with similar forms of imaginative writing. However, fairy tales are not magical realism. Neither are horror stories, ghost stories, science fiction, dystopian fiction, paranormal fiction, absurdist literature, and sword and sorcery fantasy. To fall within the tradition of magical realism, the writing must have most, if not all, of these six characteristics:

1. Situations and Events That Defy Logic: In Laura Esquivel’s lighthearted novel "Like Water for Chocolate," a woman forbidden to marry pours magic into food. In "Beloved," American author Toni Morrison spins a darker tale: An escaped enslaved woman moves into a house haunted by the ghost of an infant who died long ago. These stories are very different, yet both are set in a world where truly anything can happen.

2. Myths and Legends: Much of the strangeness in magic realism derives from folklore, religious parables, allegories, and superstitions. An abiku—a West African spirit child—narrates "The Famished Road" by Ben Okri. Often, legends from divergent places and times are juxtaposed to create startling anachronisms and dense, complex stories. In "A Man Was Going Down The Road," Georgian author Otar Chiladze merges an ancient Greek myth with the devastating events and tumultuous history of his Eurasian homeland near the Black Sea.

3. Historic Context and Societal Concerns: Real-world political events and social movements entwine with fantasy to explore issues such as racism , sexism, intolerance, and other human failings. "Midnight’s Children" by Salman Rushdie is the saga of a man born at the moment of India’s independence. Rushdie’s character is telepathically linked with a thousand magical children born at the same hour and his life mirrors key events of his country.

4. Distorted Time and Sequence: In magical realism, characters may move backward, leap forward, or zigzag between the past and the future. Notice how Gabriel García Márquez treats time in his 1967 novel, "Cien Años de Soledad" ("One Hundred Years of Solitude"). Sudden shifts in narrative and the omnipresence of ghosts and premonitions leave the reader with the sense that events cycle through an endless loop.

5. Real-World Settings: Magic realism is not about space explorers or wizards; "Star Wars" and " Harry Potter " are not examples of the approach. Writing for "The Telegraph," Salman Rushdie noted that “the magic in magic realism has deep roots in the real.” Despite the extraordinary events in their lives, the characters are ordinary people who live in recognizable places.

6. Matter-of-Fact Tone: The most characteristic feature of magical realism is the dispassionate narrative voice. Bizarre events are described in an offhand manner. Characters do not question the surreal situations they find themselves in. For example, in the short book "Our Lives Became Unmanageable," a narrator plays down the drama of her husband's vanishing: “…the Gifford who stood before me, palms outstretched, was no more than a ripple in the atmosphere, a mirage in a gray suit and striped silk tie, and when I reached again, the suit evaporated, leaving only the purple sheen of his lungs and the pink, pulsing thing I'd mistaken for a rose. It was, of course, only his heart.”

Don't Put It in a Box

Literature , like visual art, doesn’t always fit into a tidy box. When Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro published "The Buried Giant ," book reviewers scrambled to identify the genre. The story appears to be a fantasy because it unfolds in a world of dragons and ogres. However, the narration is dispassionate and the fairy tale elements are understated: “But such monsters were not cause for astonishment…there was so much else to worry about.”

Is "The Buried Giant" pure fantasy, or has Ishiguro entered the realm of magical realism? Perhaps books like this belong in genres all their own.

  • Arana, Marie. "Review: Kazuo Ishiguro's 'The Buried Giant' defies easy categorization." The Washington Post, February 24, 2015. 
  • Craven, Jackie. "Our Lives Became Unmanageable." The Omnidawn Fabulist Fiction Prize, Paperback, Omnidawn, October 4, 2016.
  • Fetters. Ashley. "The Origins of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Magic Realism." The Atlantic, April 17, 2014.
  • Flores, Angel. "Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction." Hispania, Vol. 38, No. 2, American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, JSTOR, May 1955.
  • Ishiguro, Kazuo. "The Buried Giant." Vintage International, Paperback, Reprint edition, Vintage, January 5, 2016.
  • Leal, Luis. "Magical Realism in Spanish American Literature." Lois Parkinson Zamora (Editor), Wendy B. Faris, Duke University Press, January 1995.
  • McKinlay, Amanda Ellen. "Block magic: categorization, creation, and influence of Francesca Lia Block’s Enchanted America." UBC Theses and Dissertations, The University of British Columbia, 2004.
  • Morrison, Rusty. "Paraspheres: Extending Beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction: Fabulist and New Wave Fabulist Stories." Paperback, Omnidawn Publishing, June 1, 1967.
  • Ríos, Alberto. "Magical Realism: Definitions." Arizona State University, May 23, 2002, Tempe, AZ.
  • Rushdie, Salman. "Salman Rushdie on Gabriel García Márquez: 'His world was mine.'" The Telegraph, April 25, 2014.
  • Wechsler, Jeffrey. "Magic Realism: Defining the Indefinite." Art Journal. Vol. 45, No. 4, The Visionary Impulse: An American Tendency, CAA, JSTOR, 1985.
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magic realism , chiefly Latin-American narrative strategy that is characterized by the matter-of-fact inclusion of fantastic or mythical elements into seemingly realistic fiction. Although this strategy is known in the literature of many cultures in many ages, the term magic realism is a relatively recent designation , first applied in the 1940s by Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier , who recognized this characteristic in much Latin-American literature. Some scholars have posited that magic realism is a natural outcome of postcolonial writing, which must make sense of at least two separate realities—the reality of the conquerors as well as that of the conquered. Prominent among the Latin-American magic realists are the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez , the Brazilian Jorge Amado , the Argentines Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar , and the Chilean Isabel Allende .

Magical Realism as a Literary Genre Essay

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What Is A Magical Realism?

Development of magical realism, authors who have used magical realism and their works, works cited.

Magical realism is a style of literature that was used in the 1920s to refer to the school of painters, which was an extraordinary thing that people in their day-to-day life experienced. It is a myth, fantasy, reality, and magic all combined. The term magical realism is often confused with expressionism and surrealism. Expressionism is an art’s style meant to show or reveal some human feelings, for example, expressing sadness, poverty, happiness, and depression (García 45).

In 1903, Picasso came up with the work, The Blind’s Man Meal, which showed the meaning of expressionism and magical realism. He expressed how poor the blind man is. Surrealism is an art and literature movement; contrary to the dream where one shows the at he or she thinks by presenting images. Magical realism, therefore, is expressionism where an individual expresses his or her feelings freely. In magical realism, for example, the feeling one expresses in dancing is happiness while in certain music the feeling expressed is sorrowfulness (Eugenia 16-20).

Several people who are authors in the world have created the term magical realism, which has received global acceptance. For many years, the term has been used in America, Africa, Australia, and Europe. The term was seen as regional literature limited to the Latin American writers but it has been widened to be seen as a worldwide phenomenon.

Also, it is the latest development of the latest centuries and is seen as a modern fiction internationally (Eugenia 16-20). The concept of loreal Maravillas was introduced in 1949 to the Americans where the foundations of magical realism were traced from the art world. In this essay, the concept was criticized analytically based on its theoretical movement, cultures and text citations from Latin America, Australia, Africa and Asia (Franz 2).

In this essay, the development of magical realism focuses on Latin America, which is traced back from the discovery of America. Most of the authors of this subject are Latin Americans. Tzvetan Todorov wrote about Columbus in 1492 arguing that America is a miraculous world with a lot of magic. The different narratives he had seen while traveling had influenced Columbus, and due to this, he had imaginary views of America. He said that he saw men and women with animal heads and were masculine respectively (Eugenia 22).

The German Franz Roh was the first man to use the term magical realism in an official way in 1925. He applied magical realism to the paintings he was studying. In addition, during the time, there arose many artists in Germany such as Otto Dix. Roh gave different criteria of the term magical realism and compared to the expressionism and the post-expressionism. In fact, the present-day definition of the term came from the categories that Roh gave (Eugenia 24).

Henri Rousseu in his paintings went deeper to explore magical realism. 1886-1910 was the period this French artist, explored the term. Other artists who explored this concept are Guenther from Austria in 1909, and Joan Miro in 1918, 1922s and 1930s in Paris whose paintings were criticized as naive (Eugenia 25).

Giorgio De Chirico from Italy was seen as the most important magical realists by Roh in his attempt to prove the real things to be unreal in 1888 to 1978. He pioneered the 20th-century movement of magical realism. Forty years from 1920, other artists in Italy came up with their paintings and other arts, which expressed magical reality (Eugenia 26).

The decades between 1910 and 1940, saw the French artists express magical realism in their paintings, for instance, Pierre Roy. However, the aspect of magical realism went down when surrealism came to the board and focused by most artists (Eugenia 27).

George Grosz is another painter who used magical realism to express day-to-day life. The subjects of his paintings were drawn from daily life. Through his works, he wanted to show people the miracles and magic in the real world. In the year 1930, so many Latin American had explored magic realism (Addison 31). The painter Amaral from Brazil in 1886 to 1973 produced the works, which showed the magic realism. His works had features such as enormous arms and the use of strong colors (Eugenia 29).

Lino Spilimbergo is another painter from Argentina who drew arts of the physical nature of Argentina from 1896 to 1964. He used the magical realism style in his works. His works were there to show life in a real situation (Eugenia 29). In addition to the artists by men, other artworks by women were done in the magical realism style.

In the 1940s, many women became painters because by then, they had learned to be professional in different fields of study and art was among them. Georgia O’ Keeffe is one of the women artists from America who painted flowers that portrayed the body of a woman. This happened in the last century where the bones of animals she painted in the 1920s in Mexico had both the elements of magic and reality (Eugenia 30).

Apart from women painters, another group is the exiled professional artists from Mexico who made paints reflecting bible stories, for example, Leonora Carrington in 1940. To date, many artists, writers, and painters explore their subjects of study by use of magical realism. It has been a style of literature to make the theme more understandable and interesting (Eugenia 16-20).

Most of the well-known authors who used the style of magical realism in their works come from Latin America. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of the many Latin American writers who used this style in his works. In his books, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Leaf Storm, In Evil Hour, and the pages of Macondo, Marquez used this style of literature extensively. Although he said that he was trying to avoid overuse arguing that it is too limiting, it was unavoidable because the works were fictions. Gabriel who is a journalist was born in Colombia and won the Nobel Prize in 1982 for Literature. He is a pioneer of the Latin America Boom.

Other well-known authors who used magical realism as a style of realism to express fiction in their books are Sarah Addison who wrote about an apple tree, which produces magical fruits. The book is entitled Garden Spells, Haruki Murakami’s book entitled Kafka on The Shore, which was about two teenage boys who went away from home and a Mexican Laura Esquivel’s book entitled Like Water for Chocolate. The book’s theme is romance (García 1).

Addison, Spells. The Garden Spells. Java: Bantam Publishers, 2007. Print.

Eugenia, Michell. Magical Realism and Latin America: A Masters Project. Maine: University of Maine, 2003. Print.

Franz, Roh. Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. Print.

García, Gabriel. Good Reads: The Popular Magic Realism Books. Bones: Good reads Inc, 2012. Print.

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IvyPanda. (2020, May 7). Magical Realism as a Literary Genre. https://ivypanda.com/essays/art-magical-realism/

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IvyPanda . 2020. "Magical Realism as a Literary Genre." May 7, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/art-magical-realism/.

1. IvyPanda . "Magical Realism as a Literary Genre." May 7, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/art-magical-realism/.

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Writers.com

What is magical realism? Imagine a woman discovers she can cry fabric (instead of water), so she starts a clothing business where she knots her tears into dresses.

This odd blending of the magical and the mundane constitutes the elements of magical realism, a wonderful genre for writers of all paths. Magical realism authors populate many of today’s fiction journals , and magical realism books have recently won Pulitzer, Nobel, and Booker Prizes.

Yet, because the genre is growing in popularity, many writers have a sense of what magical realism means but apply it incorrectly. (For example, the Harry Potter series would not be considered a set of magical realism books. I’ll explain why later!)

But if those books don’t count, then what is magical realism in literature? Let’s unpack this genre step-by-step, starting with the basic components of magical realism stories and ending with tips for writing the genre yourself.

What is Magical Realism in Literature?

In short, “magical realism” describes a work of fiction where fantasy slips into everyday life. However, the focus isn’t on the fantastical elements of the story, so much as on what those elements mean for the characters. Fantasy often acts as an extended metaphor , externalizing some sort of internal conflict or moral quandary in the protagonist’s life.

Magical realism definition: a genre in which fantasy slips into everyday life.

Some great magical realism examples show up in Carmen Maria Machados’ collection Her Body and Other Parties . Stories include: a detective connects a string of assaults in New York City to a wave of spiritual turbulence; two women have a baby without a father; and, a man wonders about the ribbon connecting his wife’s head to her body. In all of these examples, the plot starts with a dash of fantasy, but the story isn’t concerned with the logic of magic, just its aftermath.

Other magical realism authors include Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, and Aimee Bender. While their plots and writing styles differ, these pioneers of the genre included the following elements in their magical realism stories:

  • Brief exposition based on the occurrence of something magical or supernatural.
  • A focus on the real world implications of that brief magical phenomenon; in other words, a “literary fiction” style of writing, without any traditional plot structure.
  • The use of fantasy as an extended metaphor, often representing something internal to the protagonist.
What is magical realism? It’s literary fiction with just a dash of fantasy.

Another way to put it: magical realism is literary fiction with just a dash of fantasy. This is why works of fiction like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, or Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus wouldn’t be considered magical realism: though these novels often occupy real world settings , their plots require fantastical creatures and places to keep the story going. This is also why Harry Potter doesn’t count: though the castles and Department of Magic are both vaguely “muggle-esque,” the books require too much world building for the series to be anything other than fantasy.

A Brief History of Magical Realism

Charting the history of any genre is tricky. While historians can track when a term was first used, deciding when a genre began is a wholly different matter. For example, some writers argue that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the first science fiction novel. If that were the case, then Voltaire’s Micromegas would just be a fever dream, not an advanced work about interplanetary travel.

Magical realism shares much the same conundrum. The genre certainly began in Latin America: much of the folklore and storytelling in South and Central America relies on the elements that today’s magical realism stories use.

Much of the folklore and storytelling in South and Central America relies on elements that today’s magical realism stories use.

It makes sense, then, for the genre’s pioneers to hail from Latin America, and many historians credit Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende for popularizing magical realism. Allende’s stories blend elements of Chilean folklore with modern twists, while Marquez’s stories dwell on utopia and the freedom of love. Importantly, many magical realism authors used the genre with subtle political intent, criticizing or subverting the political unrest that many South American nations endured in the 20th century.

Although magical realism is a distinctly Latin American invention, works of fiction that far predate the genre still uphold its basic requirements. For instance, many Greek and Roman myths could be considered magical realism examples. The story of Icarus uses magical wings as a metaphor for hubris—the same metaphor which later inspired Micromegas. Likewise, the tragedy of Medusa also relies on just a sprinkle of fantasy: once Athena turns Medusa into a snake-haired monster, there is no further need for magical intervention, we must merely observe Medusa’s estrangement from society and eventual slaughter at the hands of Perseus.

All of this to say: modern writers can find inspiration throughout history. The use of fantasy to tell stories is as old as storytelling itself—perhaps fantasy is even innate to the human experience.

How to Write Magical Realism

Where does one begin writing magical realism stories? First, you want to be sure that your story adheres to the elements of magical realism. Those three elements, as we’ve discussed, are 1) Magical exposition, 2) Storytelling through the conventions of literary fiction, and 3) The use of fantasy as an extended metaphor.

Let’s use a short story for comparison. Carmen Maria Machado’s “ Especially Heinous ” is a longer read, but I’ll summarize how the story works as magical realism without any spoilers, as I highly encourage you to read it if you’re interested in how to write magical realism.

“Especially Heinous” does the following:

  • Exposition: “Especially Heinous” pushes boundaries by having two fantasy plots interweave through the story. One element involves the dark drum of Manhattan’s spirits; the other involves unexplained doppelgangers whose job performance exceeds that of the protagonists.
  • Storytelling: Despite these impossible plot lines, the story largely explores how Stabler and Benson investigate their surreal experiences, with many “episodes” devoted entirely to a character’s internal life. Contemporary fiction often seeks to expand the boundaries of form, and this story’s narrative construction certainly expands those boundaries, using episode summaries in lieu of paragraphs.
  • Extended metaphor: In brief, the irate spirits of Manhattan’s voiceless women represent a kind of rejection of sexism and rape culture. Many of the girls with bells for eyes were underage victims of murder and male violence, and though the story was written before the #MeToo movement, it captures much of the western feminist zeitgeist. As for the doppelgangers, perhaps they represent an idealized version of the protagonists—versions of themselves without the weight of past trauma.

Take this reading like a writer approach yourself and try to map how the following stories adhere to these three qualities.

Magical Realism Examples

You might find inspiration for your own work in these magical realism examples, which all come from published works of literature. Pay attention to how magical elements are interwoven into everyday life, and how those elements act as metaphors or symbols .

  • “ The Autumn of the Patriarch ” by Gabriel García Márquez
  • “ Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey ” by Haruki Murakami
  • “ The Daughters of the Moon ” by Italo Calvino
  • “ The Library of Babel ” by Jorge Luis Borges
  • “ The Rememberer ” by Aimee Bender
  • “ The Faery Handbag ” by Kelly Link
  • “ St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves ” by Karen Russell
  • “ The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World ” by Gabriel García Márquez
  • “ The Paper Menagerie ” by Ken Liu
  • “ Headlights ” by Samanta Schweblin
  • “ If A Book Is Locked There’s Probably A Good Reason For That Don’t You Think ” by Helen Oyeyemi
  • “ The Journey of the Eyeball ” by Katherine Vaz

Finding Inspiration for Magical Realism Stories

Where can you turn to find inspiration for your next magical realism stories? Because this genre is both exciting and contemporary, the digital literary world has come to love it. For example, this magical realism bot on twitter posts the kind of zany, out-of-the-box plots that the genre is known for. Starting with the plots on this twitter account could jumpstart something new and magical in your own writing life.

Of course, the inspiration for a book can come from other novels, too. Any of the titles on this list of 100 magical realism books should satisfy your curiosity—while fueling the urge to write fiction.

However, the best stories are inspired by everyday life. Speaking on Especially Heinous , Carmen Maria Machado admits that the inspiration came from a days-long binge of Law & Order while suffering through a fever. If an author can find magic in NBC reruns, where else might there be magic?

Try combining two things: a facet of mundane life and a certain interest or hyperfixation.

Try it yourself. To start your next magical realism story, try combining two things: a facet of mundane life and a certain interest or hyperfixation. The two should meld together with ease, like how, in “ Samsa in Love ,” Haruki Murakami blends everyday romance with a keen fixation on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis .

Then, flesh out the idea by outlining the story’s exposition, storytelling , and extended metaphor. With any luck, this outlining will catapult you directly into the story’s first line.

Finally, as you write your story, you’ll encounter many opportunities to expand the meaning of your extended metaphor and push the limits of fantasy. Lean into these moments; allow your story its zaniness.

Write Dazzling Stories with Writers.com

When you need an extra set of eyes on your magical realism books and stories, you’ll find expert readership in writers.com . Join our Facebook group for prompts and community feedback, and take a look at our upcoming fiction courses , with instructors who have excelled in the genre and are ready to help you, too.

What will your next magical realism stories be about? Whether an American woman starts sweating Euros or a stockbroker embodies the concept of zero, take the plunge on your writing—we look forward to reading it!

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Sean Glatch

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Thank you for the article on magic realism. Something I’ve been working on and short stories and novels and a novella. But it’s good to have an expository piece on it.

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this gives me a perspective i’ve never seen before, in-depth and really getting to it in a way i never even realized i’ve always been looking for. as a person trying to write this exact sort of thing, this is priceless. thank you.

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this gives me a perspective i’ve never seen before, in-depth and really getting to it in a way i never even realized i’ve always been looking for. as a person trying to write this exact sort of thing, this is priceless. thank you.

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Magical Realism 101: Definition and 15 Essential Classics

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Magical realism 101: definition and 15 essential classics.

Magical Realism 101: Definition and 15 Essential Classics

Magical realism is a literary style that weaves threads of fantasy into a depiction of everyday life. Its heroes aren’t fairies or sorcerers , they’re ordinary people — whose lives happen to butt up against the extraordinary.

It sounds simple enough: you take the mundane and make it just a little bit magical. It’s an enchanting formula first popularized by Latinx authors in the 20th century, and has since spread all over, from England to Japan. But despite magical realism’s reach, the term is surprisingly hard to nail down. You’ll hear scholars claim it’s not a genre but a sensibility , a way of looking at reality.

Confused? Don’t worry. This post will help you understand exactly what is magical realism — and introduce you to 15 of its most spellbinding reads.

3 essential elements of magical realism

Real-world setting.

First, let’s put the “real” in magical realism. Unlike fantasy, books written in this vein always take place in our world. You won’t find an alternate reality where schools for wizards are accessible by secret trains, and you can’t start out in the real world only to be whisked away to a land of enchantment. If it’s set in the past — not uncommon — you won’t encounter anything like a cabal of vampires pulling the strings behind the curtain of history.

This style has something in common with urban fantasy, which also tends to infuse familiar settings with a bit of strangeness . But there are two key differences. First, the cast: urban fantasy authors love their magical creatures, populating their cities with vampires, werewolves, and faeries . But magical realism is more likely to star run-of-the-mill students, mailmen, and secretaries.

Second, urban fantasy tends to systematically lay out how the magic works — letting you peek under the hood of, say, human-elf relations or the mechanics of spell-casting. But with magical realism, everything out of the ordinary just is .

In sum, authors working in this mode painstakingly draw up settings rich in the textures of ordinary life. Read one of their books, and you’ll find a mirror held up to the world you know — the workaday realm of butter knives and ticket stubs. This commitment to the real world makes magical realism a powerful tool for sociopolitical critique. Indeed, many of its most renowned works grapple with serious social ills, from colonialism to fascism to slavery. 

Supernatural happenings — left unexplained

Magical realists set their work in a world that’s recognizably ours, but there’s always something uncanny afoot. Maybe you’ll meet a telepath, or see something inexplicable happen — a baby born with feathered wings, an egg hatching a ruby, or rain falling in a star-shaped pattern on the ground. Time, in particular, tends to be fluid and nonlinear: the narration skips ahead, premonitions abound, and the dead have a tendency to stick around. 

The key thing is, this magic is never explained. The characters seem to take it for granted: they react to it emotionally instead of questioning how it works. And although it’s never subjected to the cold light of logic, it makes a kind of dream-like, internal sense. 

In the end, magical realists are awake to the strangeness of so-called “ordinary life.” It draws up a subjective picture of reality, and while its supernatural flourishes don’t match up with how the world looks, they capture how it can feel .

Literary tone (and literary prestige)

Magical realism makes heavy use of details to ground readers in its slightly off-kilter settings. The prose tends to be finely wrought and lyrical, carrying the flavor of poetry. With this highbrow style, it reads like the lovechild of fantasy and lit fic. But supernatural elements notwithstanding, it is — in movie terms — not genre but prestige: more Oscar-bait arthouse flick than fantasy blockbuster shimmering with SFX. 

Have you ever heard of the “sci-fi ghetto”? This tongue-in-cheek term refers to the dismissal of science fiction as something pulpy and unworthy of serious attention — not art , but a guilty pleasure. Fair or not, this reputation applies to fantasy novels as well. 

Unlike fantasy, magical realism gets to mingle with lit fic. It shares shelf space with highbrow books, the kind debated in grad school seminars, and it’s featured in its share of scholarship too. Because of this reputation for artistic seriousness, authors writing magical realism have no problem netting nominations for major literary honors, from the Man Booker to the Nobel.

15 spellbinding magical realism books

With authors scattered all over the globe, magical realism is one of literature’s most diverse styles — and it’s been going strong since the mid-20th century. Maybe you’re a longtime fan looking to expand beyond the classics, or maybe you’re totally new to its charms. Either way, our list will help you find a positively enchanting read.

If you're on the fence as to which amazing fantasy book to pick up next, you can also step into our 30-second quiz below to get a personalized fantasy book recommendation  😉

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1. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967)

Considered a great writer’s greatest work, One Hundred Years of Solitude traces the fortune of the Buendía clan — the founding family of a fictional town in Márquez’s native Colombia — over, well, a hundred years. Hungry for adventure and attended by ghosts, the Buendías find themselves pulled along in the slipstream of Colombian history. As they contend with violence, political upheaval, and technological change, the family’s shifting fortunes mirror the country’s. Rich in characters and glittering with symbolism, this sprawling family drama has been hailed as the most influential Latin American novel of all time.

2. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981)

magical realism definition essay

3. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (1982)

First started as a letter to her dying grandfather, The House of the Spirits catapulted Chilean writer Isabel Allende into the literary stratosphere. She weaves a spellbinding tapestry in which three generations of the Trueba family come alive. Despite the clairvoyant powers of its matriarch, Clara, the family can’t escape the tragedy that seems to be its fate: not the great pains of revolution and dictatorial repression, nor the intimate sorrows of jealousy and hatred. In this novel, the Trueba women take center stage. Different as they are, they’re linked by their names — which, like Clara, all carry the meaning of “white” in a family tradition. 

4. Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter (1984)

magical realism definition essay

5. Red Sorghum by Mo Yan (1986)

An East Asian take on a Latin American tradition, Red Sorghum offers magical realism with Chinese characteristics. Another myth-infused, politically charged, multigenerational tale, it cemented Mo Yan’s stellar reputation and essentially won him his Nobel Prize in Literature — making him the first mainland Chinese author to snag one. The novel follows a farming family in Shandong as they grow their home province’s staple crop — the titular red sorghum — and distill it into potent wine. But history comes to interrupt the harvest, forcing them to contend with the horrors of foreign aggression, factional infighting, and, finally, the Cultural Revolution. 

6. Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)

magical realism definition essay

7. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel (1989)

The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, right? In this book , the old adage proves true for 15-year-old Tita de la Garza, a dab hand in the kitchen. Her neighbor Pedro, whom she’s loved from the time they met, falls for her sumptuous cooking. But the two teens can never be together — as the youngest of three sisters, Tita’s bound by family tradition to stay unmarried and care for her mother in her old age. Desperate to stay close to her, Pedro agrees to wed one of her sisters instead. In the resultant atmosphere of anguish and longing, Tita’s emotions seem to magically flavor her cooking, affecting the family members who swallow her love and bitterness along with every bite of her food. In keeping with this delicious motif , each chapter opens with a Mexican recipe.

8. Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001)

magical realism definition essay

9. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (2002)

The king of Japanese magical realism takes on the Oedipus legend in Kafka on the Shore — approaching it with his typical blend of pop culture, dream-like happenstance, and fine-grained detail. The novel follows two characters whose fates seem mysteriously linked. Teenage runaway Kafka has absconded from home to escape an Oedipal curse. Aging Nakata, meanwhile, supports himself in his twilight years as a superpowered tracker of lost cats. Drawn together by seemingly random circumstances — including a shadowy murder — the two men explore a world peopled by librarians, talking felines, and seemingly immortal soldiers. 

10. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender (2010)

magical realism definition essay

11. The Daughter of the Doctor and the Saint by Edward Swift (2011)

When 82-year-old Josefina Epheron invites the president over for lunch, she’s cashing in on her decades’ worth of wealth and influence. But her ideal role isn’t socialite — it’s avenger. After decades of plotting, she’s finally enacting her plan for revenge against the family that destroyed her own and dragged her country into chaos. The daughter of immigrants to Latin America, Josefina is a living union of logic and faith — her father a scientist who comes to the jungle chasing medical breakthroughs, her mother a beloved aspiring saint. But the Epherons’ pocket of paradise is destroyed by the ruthless Serranos, whose meteoric political rise brings about their downfall. A gorgeous tribute to the great Latin American magical realists, Edward Swift's novel wears its influences on its sleeve.

12. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (2013)

magical realism definition essay

13. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (2013)

Neil Gaiman has written everything from gritty, urban epics to wickedly funny takes on the apocalypse. With The Ocean at the End of the Lane , he dips into magical realism. The result reads like an elevated fairy tale , at once modern and timeless. The book follows a nameless narrator who returns, in middle age, to his childhood hometown for a funeral. The trip brings to mind his youthful friendship with his old neighbor, Lettie Hempstock, a strange girl who insisted that the little pond by her house was an ocean. Lettie’s since moved to Australia — or so our hero thinks. As he lingers around his childhood haunts, he comes to remember more and more about his past. It turns out that the idyllic veneer of his childhood hides secret both monstrous and magical.

14. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton (2014)

magical realism definition essay

15. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin (2018)

Four ordinary siblings find their lives changed forever when they encounter a strange woman possessed of even stranger powers. But this isn’t The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe — it’s The Immortalists . Published in just 2018, this novel proves that magical realism is still going strong. Instead of World War II-era England, Chloe Benjamin transports readers to the New York City of the 1960s, where a psychic sets up shop offering to foretell the day of her clients’ deaths. The adolescent Golds — two brothers and two sisters — sneak out one day to see her. The morbid fortunes she lays out before them end up coloring their futures, making the Golds hypersensitive about every decision — and the passage of time. Is it prophecy, or the power of suggestion?

Want a little more magic in your life? Check out our list of the 100 best fantasy series !

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What Is Magical Realism in Literature?

Magical Realism is a literary style within modern fiction – though the term is not exactly uncontroversial.

what is magical realism literature

In art and literature, magical realism is a term used to describe works that incorporate elements of the magical, mythical, and strange into otherwise seemingly realist compositions. But what are its origins? And is the term a particularly useful one? Here, we will take a closer look at the history of the term’s use and application to literary works, its particularly close affiliation with the so-called Latin American Boom, and the reasons why the term has proved somewhat contentious over the years.

What Is Magical Realism?

jorge luis borges

The term magic realism was first coined in 1925 by Franz Roh, a German art critic, to designate an artistic style that merged realism with elements of the fantastical, mythological, and dream-like . Through his theorizing, Roh sought to name the defamiliarizing experience whereby even the most mundane objects can appear strange and magical if you look long enough at them. The term only gave name to a movement in the 1940s in response to work produced in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In 1955, Angel Flores first used the term magical realism, drawing on Roh’s earlier and similar term in asserting that magical realism was an amalgamation of magic realism and marvelous realism. According to Flores, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges was the movement’s originator. The newly coined term magical realism was soon used to name a trend that emerged within German fiction in the 1950s, which included such works as Günter Grass’ 1959 novel Die Blechtrommel ( The Tin Drum ).

If, by its very nature, magical realism is something of a contradiction in terms, that is because the two opposing terms resist one another, and so prevent either the purely magical or the purely realistic from gaining the upper hand. Magical realist works thus incorporate the magical within the mundane, such as in Gabriel García Márquez’s seminal magical realist novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) when Remedios the Beauty ascends to heaven while folding a sheet.

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The term is perhaps most closely associated with Latin American authors such as Borges, García Márquez, Isabel Allende, and Juan Rulfo. However, the term has also been applied to works by such English language writers as Neil Gaiman, Salman Rushdie , and Angela Carter; Japanese writers such as Haruki Murakami; and Polish writers like Olga Tokarczuk, to name a few.

What Is Hysterical Realism?

charles dickens author

Hysterical realism is a term coined by the literary critic James Wood in a review of Zadie Smith’s debut novel, White Teeth . Here, Wood was referring to a growing trend within the postmodern novel that followed in the wake of the heyday of the magical realist novel. For Wood, hysterical realism encompassed a “false zaniness” of style with characters who were more “vivacious caricatures” rather than realistic, rounded human beings, their credibility as characters sacrificed in pursuit of a sense of “vitality at all costs,” and multiple (sometimes tortuously) interlinking narratives.

Zadie Smith, however, was not the only proponent of this emerging writing style, and it should be noted that her subsequent novels have adopted a more sober tone. Among the other hysterical realist writers were the American novelists Thomas Pynchon and David Forster Wallace, as well as Salman Rushdie – suggesting something of a crossover between magical and hysterical realisms. Hysterical realism is also typified by evidence of extensive research and granular detail, though the same might also be said of Borges’ work, including “The Garden of Forking Paths.”

In Rushdie’s case, however, this is perhaps unsurprising, as Wood identifies Charles Dickens as the literary forebear of hysterical realism, with his preference for grotesque caricature over realistic characterization. Dickens is, moreover, a writer for whom Rushdie has repeatedly expressed his admiration. And yet, despite his cartoonishly overblown characters and the strange instance of one such character dying from spontaneous combustion in the 1852 novel Bleak House , Dickens is one of the writers most closely associated with the Victorian realist novel .

Is Magical Realism a Contentious Term?

isabel allende author

The oxymoronic term magical realism has not only proved puzzling to some people, but it has also been something of a bone of contention. Firstly, there is the issue of genre and the relative values assigned to different genres within the literary establishment. In drawing on elements of the fantastical, the distinction between commercial genre fiction (in this case, fantasy) and high literary fiction can be blurred in works described as magical realism. It is in being so described, however, that magical realist works assert their elevated literary value.

Magical realist works are thus conceived as experimental – and still fundamentally – literary works that test the boundaries of what literature can do, all while further distancing themselves from the supposedly “low” fantasy genre . Thus magical realist works are more likely to win prestigious literary prizes than commercial fantasy works, and it is of little surprise that magical realist novels are frequently awarded the Man Booker Prize for Fiction – which, in turn, serves to maintain the prestige surrounding magical realism as a literary style.

Moreover, Wendy B. Faris has raised the question as to whether magical realism is a fundamentally Latin American literary style that non-Latin American writers have appropriated. Today, the term is largely used to describe a tendency within modern and contemporary novels to incorporate elements of the magical, mythological, or folkloric within otherwise broadly realist novels. However, does the blame for this alleged cultural appropriation lie with non-Latin American writers or with critics who secondarily apply the term magical realism to the works written by these authors?

toni morrison beloved

Ben Okri’s The Famished Road , for example, builds on Yoruba mythology, Toni Morrison draws on the gothic and the supernatural to explore the psychological toll of slavery following abolition in Beloved , and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children incorporates myth and magic into a reimagining of Indian national history. Are these writers responding to their own cultures, and is the term magical realism being applied to their works so that they become more easily marketable within the publishing industry and decipherable to the literary establishment?

There is, moreover, the case to be made that writers were experimenting with the tension between realism and the fantastical long before the tradition of magical realism emerged in Latin America. In 1915 – ten years before Roh coined the term – Franz Kafka , for example, wrote Metamorphosis , a novel we might well now categorize as magical realist.

rousseau dream painting

The debate surrounding magical realism also forces us to question the nature of realism within art and literature. How can it be credible to say that a work of fiction represents reality when that reality has, by the very nature of fiction, been constructed? Is it possible to trap reality within a work of fiction – or, even more fundamentally, within language itself?

While many still question the use of the term magical realism, the style shows no signs of abating in popularity. Through it, writers of diverse cultural backgrounds have been able to express pressing contemporary political concerns, explore psychological trauma, and articulate the latent magic in even the most mundane fictional setups. Whether we persist in using the term magical realism or not, writers will certainly continue to play with the boundaries of realism within their work – just as they were doing long before the terms magic realism and magical realism were coined.

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What Is Magical Realism in Art?

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By Catherine Dent MA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English Literature Catherine holds a first-class BA from Durham University and an MA with distinction, also from Durham, where she specialized in the representation of glass objects in the work of Virginia Woolf. In her spare time, she enjoys writing fiction, reading, and spending time with her rescue dog, Finn.

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What is Magical Realism in Film and TV (Definition and Examples)

How is this genre used by writers and directors to tell fantastical stories.

What is Magical Realism in Film and TV (Definition and Examples)

Recently I watched Jonathan Glazer 's Birth , starring Nicole Kidman. It was an epic and beautiful movie that shook me to my core. And it was unlike many movies I usually watch. That's because this one lived in the genre of magical realism.

This fantastical narrative technique pulls different emotions and ideas out of us. And when it's done well, it can make the audience feel like anything can happen at any moment.

In this post, we delve into the essence of magical realism in film and TV, defining its characteristics and showcasing examples that highlight its unique ability to enchant, challenge, and reflect.

Let's get started.

Magical Realism Definition

Magical realism is a narrative technique that introduces magical elements into an otherwise realistic setting.

Unlike fantasy , where the existence of magic is often central to the plot and world-building, magical realism treats the extraordinary as part of everyday life, accepted without question by the characters.

This seamless integration of the magical with the real offers a way to explore complex themes—such as identity, colonialism, and the human condition—through a lens that can make them more accessible and emotionally resonant.

Magical Realism Tropes and Characteristics

Pans Labyrinth

It's hard to define this idea without seeing some of the more characteristics that make a film fall into this category.

Here are a few key features you can look for to define this genre:

  • Realistic Setting with Magical Elements: The narrative unfolds in a recognizable, often mundane setting, into which magical elements are introduced without fanfare or explanation.
  • Subtle Magic: The magical elements are typically understated, woven into the fabric of everyday life. They're not the main focus of the story but serve to deepen the narrative or develop characters.
  • Cultural Specificity: Many works of magical realism draw heavily on the culture, history, and mythology of a specific place, infusing the story with a sense of local identity and tradition.
  • Themes of Conflict: Magical realism often explores themes of conflict, such as the clash between tradition and modernity, the individual and society, or colonialism and cultural identity.
  • Emotional Truth: Despite the fantastical elements, stories told in this mode seek to convey deep emotional or philosophical truths, using magic as a metaphor or allegory.

Examples of Magical Realism in Film and TV

There are many great examples of magical realism in film and television. What makes it fun is that this genre-blending technique can cover multiple different storylines or be used to a different effect.

These works often use their magical components to explore complex themes, offering viewers a unique perspective on reality.

Here are notable examples that highlight the diversity and richness of magical realism in visual storytelling:

  • Set in post-Civil War Spain, this film tells the story of a young girl who escapes the harsh realities of her life through a fantastical labyrinth. The blend of historical context with mythical elements exemplifies magical realism's power to comment on the brutality of reality through the lens of fantasy.
  • In Cold War-era America, a mute cleaning lady forms a unique relationship with an amphibious creature held captive in a high-security government lab. This film uses its magical premise to explore themes of love, otherness, and the power of empathy.
  • This whimsical narrative follows Amélie, a young woman who decides to change the lives of those around her for the better while grappling with her own isolation. The film is infused with a sense of wonder and charm that is characteristic of magical realism, transforming everyday Paris into a world of delightful possibilities.
  • A son investigates the fantastical tales of his dying father's life, trying to separate fact from fiction. The film's narrative structure, blending tall tales with real-life events, showcases the magical realism trope of storytelling and the blurred lines between reality and fantasy.
  • This film features a washed-up actor, known for portraying an iconic superhero, as he struggles to mount a Broadway play. The use of continuous shots and the protagonist's surreal experiences, including moments where he seems to possess superpowers, illustrate the genre's exploration of identity, reality, and artistry.
  • This cult classic blends crime, mystery, and supernatural elements in a small town. Its narrative is rich with magical realism, particularly in its portrayal of the surreal, dreamlike experiences of its characters, which reveal deeper truths about the town and its inhabitants.
  • Following the sudden, unexplainable disappearance of 2% of the world's population, this series delves into themes of grief, faith, and the human need for understanding. The inexplicable event and its aftermath are treated with a realism that grounds the show's more fantastical elements.
  • This series centers on a pie-maker with the ability to bring dead things back to life with a touch—a magical ability that he uses to solve murders. The show combines whimsy, romance, and mystery, creating a brightly colored, fantastical world where death and life coexist.

The Impact of Magical Realism

The impact of magical realism on film and TV cannot be overstated. It offers filmmakers and storytellers a powerful tool to explore complex themes and emotions, allowing for a deeper engagement with the material.

By blending the real with the magical, these narratives can make the familiar seem strange and the extraordinary, accessible, inviting audiences to see the world through a new lens.

It's also a global phenomenon, with these stories popping up in cultures across the world, as far back as we have the written word.

Magical realism reminds us that reality is subjective and multifaceted, challenging our perceptions and inviting us to imagine beyond the boundaries of the conventional.

In a world that often feels all too real, the enchantment of magical realism provides a necessary escape, a space for reflection, and a means to confront the truths of our existence with wonder and awe.

Magical realism in film and TV serves as a bridge between the tangible and the fantastical, offering a unique narrative space where the extraordinary becomes part of the fabric of everyday life.

Through its subtle use of magic, it allows us to explore complex themes in a way that is both enchanting and profoundly human.

As more filmmakers and storytellers embrace this genre, we can look forward to a rich and varied tapestry of tales that challenge, delight, and inspire, reminding us of the magic that exists in the world around us.

Let me know what you think in the comments.

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Turn Your Trauma Into Horror With 'Dead Whisper'

Director conor saucy on shooting scenic cape cod and translating a dream into a cathartic feature..

Ever had a dream so scenic and filmic you just can't shake it? How about a coinciding, traumatic life event that needs to be further explored through artistic fiction? Sometimes you can't let the strike of inspiration shake, and thankfully Conor Saucy didn't with his latest feature, the eerily cathartic Dead Whisper.

Dead Whisper follows Elliot Campbell (Sam Dunning), a brooding lawyer with martial issues after the loss of their first-born daughter. If that wasn't hard enough to cope with, Elliot finds himself drawn to distant island off the coast of Cape Cod that spirals into a terrifying anachronism that feels inescapable. We've all been there.

Below, we had the pleasure of a formidable email interview with Saucy, where he digs deep on everything from shooting beautiful location shots on a tight schedule, to crafting intricately dense prop newspapers. Also featured: bad guy prosthetics! Please do enjoy this sea fare across a nightmarishly beautiful Cape Cod.

Editors note: the following interview is edited for length and clarity.

No Film School: Where did inspiration for Dead Whisper come from? Am I sensing Lovecraft?

Conor Saucy: It’s interesting that you mention Lovecraft; while we never intentionally channeled his style, there's definitely a similar vibe in Dead Whisper .

The film was primarily inspired by a nightmare I experienced. In the dream, I woke up on a completely empty ferry off the coast of Cape Cod, headed towards an island. I sensed that the ship had no captain. Once on the island, I found that all its inhabitants spoke only in whispers. This dream came at a time when I was grieving the loss of a family member, which profoundly shaped the film’s central theme regarding the isolation of grief.

NFS: What was it like shooting at Cape Cod and what was the process for getting all of those cool eerie ocean shots?

Conor Saucy: We filmed along the coast during the fall, winter, and summer. Although the scenery was majestic, the conditions could be brutal—rain, snow, hail, you name it. Race Point Beach, suggested by our cinematographer Ben Grant, became the perfect backdrop for the island dunes. It’s a bit comical how we transformed a location so familiar and beautiful into a haunting setting for the film.

NFS: Tell me about your process crafting a period piece.

Conor Saucy: We never specifically set a period for the film but embraced an aesthetic reminiscent of classic horror movies. The result is a film that's period-ambiguous with a distinct retro feel.

Naturally, this choice presented numerous challenges. For instance, the scenes involving the telephone booth on MacMillan Pier in Cape Cod required shutting down the entire pier. We transported the telephone booth across Massachusetts—a three-hour journey (the same telephone booth featured in Boston Strangler , fun fact). These extreme measures almost led us to compromise, but I’m glad we stood firm. The imagery we created is entirely unique to our film and would be difficult for others to replicate. That was precisely the goal for Ben Grant and me: to craft visuals that are uniquely tied to our story.

NFS: What was the process like making a prop newspaper?

Conor Saucy: West Coast Prop Master, Anthony DeFeo, crafted three prop newspapers for the film. My wife, Kennedy, a talented researcher and writer, penned detailed stories about the Reynolds case and a boating accident in Cape Cod. If you pause the film during that scene and read the newspaper, you'll find rich details including local accounts and perspectives from three different journalists.

While it’s unlikely that anyone will do this, I think such detail is crucial for enriching the story's world. Anthony did a fantastic job making the newspapers look authentic; he also supplied police reports and other miscellaneous items. I think Sam Dunning delivers a phenomenal performance in that scene, and I like to think that part of its impact comes from the authentic and immersive atmosphere created by the set and props.

NFS: What was your festival run like and how did you find and settle on distribution?

Conor Saucy: The distribution process was quite swift. I had been in contact with Vertical Entertainment about the Dead Whisper short film, which piqued their interest.

Once the feature was completed, they seemed like the natural choice for distribution. Our producing team had realistic expectations about the film’s journey through the festival circuit and into distribution. We had our premiere at Cinequest, which coincided with the debut of another Sam Dunning film, Tim Travers and the Time Traveler’s Paradox . It was a fantastic experience for our team, highlighting the importance of a theatrical run. The film feels grand in theaters, thanks to Nikhil Koparkar’s epic score and the impressive scale of imagery crafted by Ben Grant.

NFS: What was the prosthetics process like for Dead Whisper's otherworldly, multifaceted villain?

Conor Saucy: Special Effects Makeup was handled by Kelly Harris, and it was an intensive process, often requiring Rob Evan to spend up to six hours in the makeup chair. Time is crucial on set, so we were meticulous in our scheduling.

Sometimes prosthetics can fail, but Kelly consistently delivered exceptional results. Rob Evan, one of the most professional and experienced actors I've had the pleasure of working with, masterfully utilized subtle shifts in persona, stamina, and vocal control to portray aging, making the transitions appear flawless. Remarkably, he never complained about the extensive makeup process; instead, he embraced and enjoyed it. You could feel the excitement when he first appeared on set as the fully aged Demon—everyone was visibly thrilled.

NFS: Any particularly challenging aspects of production you weren’t anticipating?

Conor Saucy: This film truly spanned across Massachusetts, and the sheer volume of traveling and location changes was daunting. We anticipated these challenges, but they proved formidable still. Much of our exterior filming in Cape Cod was conducted with a skeleton crew to maintain agility. Sometimes, I'd catch Ben staring off at the clouds, calculating that we had a five-minute window to capture a shot with the best natural lighting. Traveling for hours and then hauling heavy equipment through the dunes was exhausting, but we persevered nonetheless.

NFS: And that Samuel Dunning—what a star.

Conor Saucy: Sam Dunning is one of the finest actors I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. He is also a brilliant writer, and we’re already collaborating on our next film, “Fear the Tall Branches,” set in Washington State. If he’s not already a movie star, he certainly will be soon.NFS: Any advice for aspiring filmmakers out there?

Conor Saucy: My advice for aspiring filmmakers is to listen carefully. Sometimes, the stories that need to be told aren't the loudest; they're the ones quietly whispering, waiting to be discovered.

Dead Whisper wasn't the film I initially envisioned making, especially since I never thought I'd venture into the horror genre. However, when I shared the concept with friends and family, their visceral reactions were unlike any I received for other projects I had spent years developing. Just a few months after those initial discussions, we were already in production. This experience taught me the power of resonant ideas and the importance of being open to unexpected creative paths.

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magical realism definition essay

What Is Magical Realism?

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Emma Allmann

In addition to learning how to write creatively at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Emma Allmann spends her time lugging books along with her on outdoor adventures. She uses hiking, running, cross-country skiing, and climbing as time to discover new and interesting things to write about. She has had a play produced at the Marcia Légère Student Play Festival and writes about the books she reads on her blog, I'm Right Here Because I'm Not All There . When she's not reading, writing, or adventuring she can be found making a list of good names for ice-cream. Twitter: @Emryal

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Magical realism can feel more nebulous than your average genre. The very name sounds pretty darn contradictory. If there’s magic involved isn’t it fantasy? How can it be realism if there are magical elements? What is magical realism? The definition has come to encompass a few different functions of fantastic elements in stories that are unwilling to confirm or deny for the reader that these elements exist in its world. It can sometimes feel unsettling or give the story a dream like quality.

What is magical realism?

Magical realism can be found in most art forms throughout the world, however the literary movement of magical realism was spearheaded by Latin American authors. Particularly from these Latin American authors it is often read as a genre of political subversion. Just as the fantastic and magical elements are presented as normal, the standard structure of reality is put into question. Essentially, magical realism is a chance for authors to show an alternative to an accepted reality, which can be an incredibly powerful tool against political regimes.

As more and more authors around the world took their cue from the authors of Latin America, the genre has become blended and conflated with other genres. Surrealism, which is more concerned with upending the accepted realities of the mind and inner self, and fabulism, which is known for putting fables and myths into a contemporary setting, are two of the more easily recognized genres that have become part and parcel of the magical realism mode.

Ultimately magical realism uses magical elements to make a point about reality. This is as opposed to stories that are solidly in the fantasy or sci-fi genres which are often separate from our own reality. There is a distortion effect in the very fiber of the prose that forces the reader to question what is real and often opens up avenues of reality we may not have thought possible before reading the story. The realities being questioned can be societal, familial, mental, and emotional, just to name a few.

To get a taste for the options available, below are a sampling of some of the variety of books that have been labeled as magical realism. If you are completely unfamiliar with magical realism there are some additional excellent books that will introduce you to the genre and many books that push the boundaries of the genre .

Classic Magical Realism Books

One hundred years of solitude by gabriel garcía márquez.

This book will be on every list about magical realism that is ever written. Not only is it a beautiful piece of literature but it has influenced many authors, particularly in the realm of magical realism. It’s an multigenerational epic that tells the story of the rise and fall, life and death, riches and poverty, triumph and tragedy of the town of Macondo through the history of the Buendía family.

Love in the time of cholera by Gabriel García márquez

Yes, Gabriel García Márquez is influential and excellent enough that he deserves to be on the list twice. Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza fell in love when they were young but Fermina married someone else and Florentino focused on business and 622 affairs. After 50 years, 9 months, and 4 days, Florentino attends Fermina’s husband’s funeral with the intention of winning her back.

Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Like Water For Chocolate is a great example of magical realism being used to manifest inner, normally repressed emotions in physical world. It acts as a coup against the social expectations placed upon the characters. Tita, the youngest daughter of the La Garza family, has been forbidden to marry. She is condemned by a Mexican tradition to look after her mother until she dies. When Tita fall in love with Pedro and he is seduced by her magical food, Pedro marries her sister in a desperate attempt to stay close to Tita.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

When dealing with trauma in storytelling, authors often turn to magical realism, and nobody does it better than Toni Morrison in Beloved . Sethe was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. Her new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.

Heavy on Real, Easy on the Magic

The brief and wondrous life of oscar wao by junot díaz.

This story is a classic example of a narrator not willing to tell the reader what is fact and what is fable. Oscar is a lovesick Dominican nerd who is the latest in his family to be cursed in all love related matters by Fukœ. The curse has followed his family for generations, leading to the most disastrous consequences, and yet throughout generations of heartbreak and loss there always remains hope.

life of pi by yann martel

Like of Pi is a fantastic magical realism starter book because one of its main points is that it doesn’t matter what is “real;” it matters more, sometimes, what is “true.” 16-year-old Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel, his family, and their zoo animals are emigrating from India to North America when their ship sinks. He is left on a lifeboat with a bengal tiger who he’s named Richard Parker. Life of Pi  is a tale about truth, hope, and what it takes to survive.

Let’s Get Phantasmagorical with our Magical Realism

Still life with tornado by a.s. king.

A.S. King is known for utilizing magical realism to depict teenage emotions and confusion. What better genre to use for the age when everybody is asking, “Is this real, even?” 16-year-old Sarah is surrounded by 10-year-old Sarah, 23-year-old Sarah, and 40-year-old Sarah, and they’re all worried about her future. But the present is where she might be having an existential crisis. Or maybe all those other Sarahs are trying to wake her up before she’s lost forever in the tornado of violence and denial that is her parents’ marriage.

Kafka by the Shore by haruki murakami

In this wonderfully weird book, Haruki Murakami enfolds readers in a world where cats talk, fish fall from the sky, and spirits slip out of their bodies to make love or commit murder. The story follows teenage runaway Kafka Tamura and aging simpleton Nakata. In terms of magical realism, this book goes full tilt and keeps you constantly wondering what in the story is your solid ground.

Contentious Magical Realism

Their eyes were watching god by zora neal hurston.

The magical realism in this book can also be seen as fabulism as Zora Neal Hurston flexes her exemplary skills as a folklorist. When Janie, at sixteen, is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before meeting the man of her dreams, who offers her a packet of flowering seeds.

Never Let Me go by Kazuo Ishigur

This is a book that has caused some discussion about genre. Many people believe it should be firmly in the fantasy or science fiction genre. I would argue that those elements are simply the backdrop to the discussion about what it means to be alive and human, and in that there is a preconceived reality that is upended by fantastic elements. Regardless, it’s an excellent story. Kathy looks back at her years at Hailsham, a private school in the English countryside where she and her friends were taught that they were isolated because they were so special. As she digs into a seemingly idyllic past, dark cords begin to emerge, and Kathy has to confront the secrets that have always hung just behind the curtains.

Have you read a Magical Realism book and not realized it? Found an exciting new book in the genre? Let us know!

Like learning about genres? Have you heard of Hard Science Fiction or New Weird ?

magical realism definition essay

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In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Magical Realism

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Magical Realism by David William Foster , Rosita Scerbo LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2019 LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0212

“Magical realism” (or “magic realism”) has given extensive service to the attempt to provide an overarching characterization of Latin American writing, or to identify a mode of Latin American writing that draws a line between what is touted as paradigmatically Latin American and poor imitations of privileged models. This implies how Latin American writing might influence international writing in ways previously thought to be impossible for a literary tradition considered unquestionably and even irremediably secondary. The result has been, perhaps, the sometimes contradictory application of the term and its alacritous utilization to justify lionizing certain Latin American authors (Jorge Luis Borges or Gabriel García Márquez) and to provide a note of exoticization to First World writing. As a qualifier, “magical realism” has been used to explain any plot configuration of human behavior that seems an exception or contradiction or refutation of West European bourgeois rationalism as the dominant mode for explaining how the world and social relations function. The specific use of the word magical implies that such ruptures in the codes of the supposed usual represent a powerful access to phenomena that have hitherto either been ignored or repressed because they do not fit within prevailing explanatory models of the universe. Key here is Borges’s repeated aggressive assertion that metaphysics is a branch of fantastic literature, thereby relativizing its scientific rigor and liberating vast realms of counterproposals. Central to the debate over magical realism (called other things by other writers, such as Alejo Carpentier’s “marvelous real”) is the extent to which it is one vehicle for representing the conflicted relationship between Latin America and hegemonic Western values (e.g., only through acts of real and symbolic violence is Latin America seen as sociohistorically Western). Or, alternatively, magical realism is seen as a way of inflecting the material and imaginary ways in which Latin America—and, individually, the various Latin American republics— makes a sociohistoric difference. This sort of position is often seen as “exoticising” Latin America for international consumption. Concomitantly, magical realism may be the basis for a particular poetic use of the Spanish language for demonstrating with vivid complexity how Spanish in the Americas cannot be controlled by the paradigms of the Spanish Royal Academy that reduce it to merely questions of dialect variation. The substratum of indigenous languages vies with the superstratum of immigrant languages to provide unique linguistic configurations consonant with unique sociohistoric ones. Finally, the use of “magical realism” to describe a certain manner of non–Latin American writing raises the question of whether such matters are transferable between cultures on deep structural levels, or whether they constitute questionable expropriations. Yet there is no question that the term has been routinely incorporated into Anglo-American literary studies, as witnessed by Maggie Ann Bowles’s Magic Realism (Routledge, 2004) or by the entry on the subject in the Chris Baldick’s Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (4th ed., Oxford University Press, 2015).

The concept of magical realism enters the parlance of Hispanic literary criticism with a 1955 essay by Ángel Flores (incorporated in Flores 1985 ). Probably one of the most cited critical essays in Hispanic scholarship, “Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction” constituted a veritable paradigm shift. The term was subsequently picked up and expanded by major Latin American critics of the day, as in Anderson Imbert 1976 and Menton 1983 , both extremely influential in midcentury studies on Latin American narrative. The term has been widely used subsequently, and numerous scholars have sought to synthesize its meanings and influence, with one extremely useful work being Aldama 2013 . Planells 1988 investigates the origins of various critical uses of the term, while Ubidia 1997 attempts to systematize the boundaries of the established uses of the term.

Aldama, Frederick Luis. “Magical Realism.” In The Routledge Companion to Latino/a Literature . Edited by Suzanne Bost and Frances R. Aparicio, 334–341. London and New York: Routledge, 2013.

Aldama provides the transcultural genealogy of the critical concept and aesthetic form of magical realism. He explains when this literary movement came of age, and reviews the way in which several Latin American writers reformulated the concept to propose it as an aesthetic form derived directly and organically from the hybrid nature of Latin American culture and society.

Anderson Imbert, Enrique. El realismo mágico y otros ensayos . Caracas, Venezuela: Monte Avila Editores, 1976.

The author identifies Latin American literature in the second quarter of the 20th century as the forerunner of magical realism. He emphasizes the importance of the antirealist schemes produced by the authors of the 1930s–1960s and the importance of Jorge Luis Borges, who transformed Buenos Aires’s experiences into improbable fictions. The author compares the writing of Borges with that of García Márquez, who places his improbable fictions in Macondo, the heart of America.

Flores, Angel. El realismo mágico en el cuento hispanoamericano . Tlahuapan, Mexico: Premià, 1985.

This historical work offers an overview of the main concepts articulated around the term “magical realism.” The author dialogues with the concept proposed by Flores based on the notions theorized by Kafka and Borges, and the one offered by Alejo Carpentier in El reino de este mundo .

Menton, Seymour. Magic Realism Rediscovered, 1918–1981 . Philadelphia: Art Alliance Press, 1983.

Menton outlines how magical realism is a valid and generally applicable notion in both literature and art. The author provides a specific definition of this Latin American literary genre, explaining that this international phenomenon was a clear reaction to the general political and cultural chaos of its time. He focuses his attention on different countries and points out the most noticeable features of magical realism in artistic expressions.

Planells, Antonio. “El realismo mágico ante la crítica.” Chasqui: Revista de literatura latinoamericana 17.1 (1988): 9–23.

DOI: 10.2307/29740037

This study examines the first definitions from Europe and Latin America, discussing the perspectives developed by the major exponents of this literary genre, as well as the different dates associated with the beginning of this movement. At the same time, Planells attempts to focus on the elements and similarities that are shared by all the writers and artists belonging to this genre of narrative fiction.

Ubidia, Abdón. “Cinco tesis acerca del realismo mágico.” Hispamérica 26.78 (1997): 101–107.

Ubidia points out that Latin American oral traditions and beliefs are the raw material of this literary genre. Magical realism is born where social realism ends and denies the symbolic order of Latin American creolism (i.e., of European roots). The author claims that this cultural and literary movement is not a fantastic literature and is part of a set of related trends with which it maintains differences of perspective.

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Home / Book Writing / How to Write Magical Realism: Definition, Examples, and Instructions

How to Write Magical Realism: Definition, Examples, and Instructions

Recently, I've been getting into magical realism, and in this article, I’ll share what I've learned about how to write it, for those who are curious. 

We’ll delve into the history of the style, what constitutes it, developing interesting characters and settings, and how to go about layering magical elements onto a realistic story. 

By the end, you should have everything you need to create your own epic (or, I guess, not so epic) tale within the genre. 

  • What magical realism is, and isn’t
  • The history and evolution of the style
  • How to write magical realism

Table of contents

  • What is Magical Realism?
  • The History of Magical Realism
  • Is Magical Realism the Same as Fantasy?
  • Realistic Setting
  • Mythological/Folklore Influence
  • Subtle Magic
  • Societal Critique
  • Focus on the Ordinary
  • Imagery and Symbolism
  • Open-ended Ending
  • Understand the Genre
  • Draw Inspiration From the Illogical
  • Use Quirky News Items
  • Craft Complex Characters
  • Blend Genres
  • Craft Your Prose
  • Limit Explanation
  • Use Symbolism
  • Examples of Magical Realism Books
  • Examples of Magical Realism in Film

Magical realism is a genre that incorporates fantastical or mythical elements into an otherwise realistic setting. The magical elements are treated as though they are perfectly normal by both the narrator and the characters. 

Everything in the world seems to be perfectly ordinary, but with magical undercurrent to it. The key difference is that this magic is not explained, and it is subtle. It is simply a part of the world that the narrator and characters are dealing with.

Some key characteristics of magical realism include:

  • Realistic setting grounded in the real world
  • Matter-of-fact inclusion of magical or impossible elements
  • Magic is accepted as normal by characters
  • Blending of different genres like fantasy, folklore, and mythology
  • Focus on ordinary characters and everyday life
  • Symbolism and imagery convey a sense of magic
  • Understated and subtle approach to magic
  • Often explores political or social issues

Magic is just a part of everyday life within a magical realist story. The magic flows from the source, not as something strange, much less dangerous. And that is one of the primary purposes of magical realism, to merge the magical with the realistic in a way that makes readers sit back and go, “I hadn’t thought of it like that before.”

The term “magical realism” was first used in 1925 by German art critic Franz Roh to describe a style of painting that depicted the magical within the ordinary. Writers in Latin America expanded on this idea in the 1940s and 50s to describe a type of fiction that incorporated mythical elements into realistic narratives.

Magical realism has its roots in Latin American literature, where key authors pioneered the style starting in the mid-20th century. Some forerunners who helped develop the genre include:

  • Alejo Carpentier (Cuba): Coined the term “lo real maravilloso” (the marvelous real) to describe the uniqueness of Latin American culture and used magical elements to explore subjects like slavery and political repression.
  • Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina): Blended fantasy, dreams, and philosophy in short stories like “The Aleph” and examined themes of time, labyrinths, and imagination.
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia): His novel One Hundred Years of Solitude brought magical realism widespread acclaim. Marquez used magical elements to portray the paradoxes of Latin American history and life.
  • Isabel Allende (Chile): Novels like The House of the Spirits incorporated historical events with magical elements and explored themes of feminism.

The early Latin American authors influenced later authors of all types across the world. Although the genre bloomed in Latin America, it quickly spread worldwide in the latter half of the 20th century and continues to develop today.

Magical realism is often confused with fantasy fiction, but they are distinct genres. 

In fantasy stories, magic is something extraordinary. It operates outside the bounds of normal physics, and the characters are amazed when they encounter it. 

In magical realism, magic is normal. Characters simply accept it as a part of reality.

Some other key differences between the genres include:

  • Usually set in an entirely fictional world
  • Magic is the norm and central to the story
  • Magic has obvious effects on characters/world
  • Characters are often archetypes like heroes, wizards, elves
  • Plot driven by conflict between good vs evil

Magical Realism

  • Set in the real, contemporary world
  • Magic is subtle and downplayed
  • Focus is on ordinary people and everyday life
  • Characters are complex and realistic
  • Explores social issues and human experiences

While both incorporate magic, fantasy creates an alternate world detached from reality. Magical realism weaves magic into the fabric of reality through a poetic, metaphorical lens. It gently asks the reader to open their minds to the extraordinary possibilities hidden within ordinary life.

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What Makes a Good Magical Realism Story

Magical realism looks effortless, but crafting a seamless interweaving of realism and fantasy requires thoughtful attention and skill. I've identified several elements that make for compelling magical realist fiction:

The setting needs to feel like the real world, whether it's a specific time and place like Latin America in the 1960s or a more vague modern city. Rich sensory details are important to ground the story in reality. The setting should reflect cultural influences and real social conditions.

Myths, legends, and folklore specific to the setting's culture add an authentic magical touch, like Mexican folk healing rituals in a story set in Mexico. This gives the magic layers of symbolic meaning.

The magic needs to be downplayed so it blends seamlessly into the realism. Don't try to explain it or have characters react with shock. Understatement makes it more believable.

Magical realism often uses the subtle magic as a metaphor to criticize social conditions. The magic highlights injustice or provides hope.

The story revolves around realistic characters living everyday lives. The emphasis should be on their relationships and inner growth, with magic an atmospheric background.

Objects, dreams, colors, and sensory details take on symbolic meaning and create a sense of wonder in the ordinary.

Endings should maintain the blend of realism and magic, leaving some mystery about the role of the magical elements. Tie up personal plots but leave a touch of possibility.

With the right balance of magic and realism, your story can take readers into a world that feels comfortably familiar yet tantalizingly enchanted. The magic should enhance, not overwhelm, the gritty reality of your setting.

How to Write Magical Realism

The magical realism writers I most admire have distinctive voices while retaining the core spirit of the genre. Here are some techniques I would use if writing my own magical realism:

Read widely within magical realism to immerse yourself in the style. Note how authors incorporate subtle magic into realistic settings. Observe how they use magic as social commentary and symbolic imagery.

Reflect on strange coincidences, unpredictable events, and imaginative dreams in your own life. Everyday mysteries can spark ideas for subtle magical touches.

Bizarre stories from the news often read like magical realism. Adapt real unexplained happenings into events in your fictional world.

Well-developed characters with rich inner lives anchor the magic in reality. Focus on characterization and emotional arcs.

Mix in elements from mythology, folklore, fairy tales or other genres to add deeper meaning to your magical details.

Write with lush, descriptive language to add atmospheric depth. Use figurative language and sensory detail to convey magical moods.

Leave the magical events unexplained and have characters accept them as normal. Maintain mystery and possibility.

Infuse objects, dreams, colors, weather, animals, etc. with symbolic significance to create magical undertones.

Remember, the point of all this is not to force your magic on the reader, but to present it in such a way that they are filled with wonder and discovery.

Here are some quintessential magical realist works I find myself returning to again and again for inspiration in my own writing:

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez – This epic depicts seven generations of the Buendía family and the fictional town Macondo with hallucinatory events like a plague of insomnia, ghost sightings, and a woman ascending to heaven. Márquez's prose feels both fantastical yet real.
  • Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel – A young woman expresses her emotions through magical food she cooks, leading to supernatural effects on those who eat it. The mystical cooking allegorically explores women's repression.
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison – This haunting novel tackles trauma through a mother visited by the ghost of her young daughter she murdered to save her from slavery. The spectral haunting feels viscerally real.
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami – Surreal dream sequences, psychic projections, and talking cats appear matter-of-factly as a man searches Tokyo for his missing wife. The magical elements access a deeper reality.
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman – A middle-aged man revisits his childhood memories of befriending a girl named Lettie who promises to protect him from supernatural menaces. The fantastical childhood perspectives feel believably childlike.

The easiest way to understand how magic realism works and what I’m talking about is to read. Just like learning any form of writing, you get a feel for it by seeing excellent authors do it well.

Magical realist cinema also provides valuable lessons on integrating magical elements into familiar real-world settings and stories:

  • Pan's Labyrinth (2006) – A young girl escapes into a dark fairy tale world paralleling her harsh reality living under fascist rule in 1944 Spain. The historical context gives the fantasy deeper meaning.
  • Like Water for Chocolate (1992) – Based on the Esquivel novel, this film brings the magical realism vividly to life with the protagonist's emotions materializing through magical food she cooks.
  • The Green Mile (1999) – A condemned prisoner possesses miraculous magical healing powers that affect everyone around him at a 1930s Louisiana prison. The supernatural gift contrasts with the brutal reality.

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Now that you know the basic goals behind magic and reality, we’ll look at your next steps to creating a magical realism book. Here are some pointers:

  • Immerse yourself in examples from masters of the genre to internalize the style. Make a list of your favorite magical realism novels and stories and re-read them with a critical eye.
  • Observe the world around you closely to find moments of underlying magic in everyday life. Keep a journal recording coincidences, dreams, curiosities and unexplained happenings that spark ideas.
  • Outline some initial story ideas with magical realist potential and experiment writing a few short scenes. Get feedback from other magical realism fans on whether your magic blends well with the realism.
  • Pick one idea that resonates and start developing the full story. Flesh out convincing characters and settings, keeping the magic subtle. Hone your descriptive prose to create a vivid mood.
  • Join a writers group or online community focused on magical realism. Share excerpts and get feedback on maintaining the delicate balance of your story.

But, like anything artistic, it will take practice. That said, let the story grow on its own until it becomes something you can be proud of.

Jason Hamilton

When I’m not sipping tea with princesses or lightsaber dueling with little Jedi, I’m a book marketing nut. Having consulted multiple publishing companies and NYT best-selling authors, I created Kindlepreneur to help authors sell more books. I’ve even been called “The Kindlepreneur” by Amazon publicly, and I’m here to help you with your author journey.

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Theories of Magical Realism

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Nabila Naimi

magical realism definition essay

FACTA UNIVERSITATIS Series: Visual Arts and Music Vol. 4, No 2

Danijela Kostadinovic

The term magical realism was coined by the German art historian Franz Roh in his essay: After expressionism: Magical Realism: Problems of the newest European painting (1925), and it initially referred to a new view of the real-world painting in Germany in the 1920s. It originated as a response to Impressionism, Expressionism, and Surrealism. Magical realism painters realistically depicted objects and beings in detail, while magic and mystery were highlighted by creating illusions and through a change in perspective. Venezuelan writer Arturo Uslar-Pietri used the term magical realism to describe a specific type of short story in which the view of man as a mystery surrounded by realistic data dominates. Soon enough, this term started to be used to describe Latin American literature in general primarily thanks to an article written by Angelo Flores: Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction. The so-called Latin American Boom started in the 1960s when the elements of the magical realism narrative could also be found in the prose of writers coming from countries outside the South American continent. Therefore, the goal of this paper is to examine the magical realism phenomenon and its main characteristics with regard to painting in the first half of the 20th century, as well as to Latin American literature since the mid-20th century, and to show that art movements can be transferred from one art to another, that they can transform and change their basic concept. Key words: Franz Roh, Expressionism, Post-expressionism, pittura metafisica, Surrealism, Magical Realism

Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities: Painting, Poetry, Music, ed. Cornelia Homburg (Yale University Press/The Phillips Collection)

Catherine Timotei

Gerhard Richter, Ed. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, October Files 8, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Johannes Meinhardt

marwan al-allan

Proceedings of The Aristotelian Society

weiming lin

Art History

jennifer mundy

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  • L'Esprit Créateur

Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community (review)

  • Steven M. Bell
  • Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Volume 37, Number 3, Fall 1997
  • pp. 101-102
  • 10.1353/esp.0.0148
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Book Reviews Lois Parkinson Zamora & Wendy B. Faris, eds. Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Durham & London: Duke UP, 1995. Pp. ix + 581. Since it first appeared in Germany in 1925, the term "magical realism" has had a rich history encompassing some rather dramatic changes of fortune and venue. Though among the Latin American authors and Latin Americanist scholars who once brought it to special prominence in the 1960s the term has long since lost much of its luster, this has done little— as the volume at hand readily attests—to diminish magical realism's broad and enduring appeal, or to stem its continued propagation in other parts of the post-colonial world, as well as in the so-called metropolitan centers. This impressive and imposing volume does a marvelous job of reviewing and reflecting upon the shifting currents that have constituted magical realism's history. But, above all, the volume seeks itself to embody these more recent trends and, in their witty and eloquent Introduction, the editors openly promote the conversion of magical realism into an "international commodity" as a cause to be championed. Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community has been carefully conceived and, for the most part, exquisitely executed by two well-known comparatist scholars with strong Latin Americanist credentials. The editors' decision thoroughly to revisit the history of the term, and not just to add new fuel to the magical realist fires, was key, and lends even more authority to their effort. (I must, however, note with surprise two significant errors of Latin American literary fact I have encountered: El reino de este mundo is Carpentier's second, not first novel [75]; and the author of El mundo es ancho y ajeno is not AgustÃ-n Yáñez but Ciro AlegrÃ-a [116].) Ten of the volume's 23 essays offer essentially new and unpublished material. But the other thirteen are pieces gathered here for reprinting, either in revised or unrevised form, from a variety of disperse and sometimes recondite sources. Presented mostly in the volume's opening section, the reprintings include Franz Roh's original 1925 essay (here followed by a long historical explication by Irene Guenther); Cuban Alejo Carpentier's manifesto for "the marvelous real," dating from the 1940s; two early and mostly forgotten essays by Latin Americans Angel Flores and Luis Leal; and a few contemporary essays in criticism favored by the editors. As was the editors' intention, the essays range widely, both in their approach to the problem of magical realism and especially in the array of primary texts selected for detailed treatment, which cut a wide swath across contemporary Europe, America, Africa and Asia. John Erickson's essay on French-African novels by Khatibi and ben Jelloun, and Susan Napier's discussion of modern Japanese fiction, perhaps best reflect the volume's concerted effort to expand magical realism's scope and reach. As if to bring a certain closure to one chapter in magical realism's history, overall, attention to the key texts of the Latin American boom has been subtly but significantly reduced, and in effect been strategically overtaken by reference to the so-called "post-colonial" literatures, primarily fiction from the former British colonies in India, Canada, Australia and the Caribbean. The volume groups the essays under four general headings: Foundations, Theory, History, Community. This organization highlights the volume's commitment to explore its subject thoroughly and comprehensively, though the categories' presence also demonstrates , as the editors are well aware, how impracticable any neat compartmentalization proves to be. If the opening, "Foundations" section easily qualifies as the most functional and objective heading, the concluding, "Community" section, conversely, most obviously embodies the editors' strategic interests and ideals. But even the more straightforward headings of "Theory" and "History" will admit qualification and amendment. Indeed, paradoxically, it is the "Theory" section that most consistently addresses questions of VOL. XXXVII, No. 3 101 Book Reviews magical realism's literary history, while the essays in the "History" section bring a strong dose of theory to bear on the inscriptions of the historical it addresses. Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community does not pretend to provide any final or "magical" solutions to the thorny issues of (theoretical) definition and...

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What is AI?

Everyone thinks they know but no one can agree. And that’s a problem.

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faceoff between a colorful army of the proponents of different philosophies

Internet nastiness, name-calling, and other not-so-petty, world-altering disagreements

AI is sexy, AI is cool. AI is entrenching inequality, upending the job market, and wrecking education. AI is a theme-park ride, AI is a magic trick. AI is our final invention, AI is a moral obligation. AI is the buzzword of the decade, AI is marketing jargon from 1955. AI is humanlike, AI is alien. AI is super-smart and as dumb as dirt. The AI boom will boost the economy, the AI bubble is about to burst. AI will increase abundance and empower humanity to maximally flourish in the universe. AI will kill us all.

What the hell is everybody talking about?

Artificial intelligence is the hottest technology of our time. But what is it? It sounds like a stupid question, but it’s one that’s never been more urgent. Here’s the short answer: AI is a catchall term for a set of technologies that make computers do things that are thought to require intelligence when done by people. Think of recognizing faces, understanding speech, driving cars, writing sentences, answering questions, creating pictures. But even that definition contains multitudes.

And that right there is the problem. What does it mean for machines to understand speech or write a sentence? What kinds of tasks could we ask such machines to do? And how much should we trust the machines to do them?

As this technology moves from prototype to product faster and faster, these have become questions for all of us. But (spoilers!) I don’t have the answers. I can’t even tell you what AI is. The people making it don’t know what AI is either. Not really. “These are the kinds of questions that are important enough that everyone feels like they can have an opinion,” says Chris Olah, chief scientist at the San Francisco–based AI lab Anthropic. “I also think you can argue about this as much as you want and there’s no evidence that’s going to contradict you right now.”

But if you’re willing to buckle up and come for a ride, I can tell you why nobody really knows, why everybody seems to disagree, and why you’re right to care about it.

Let’s start with an offhand joke.

Back in 2022, partway through the first episode of Mystery AI Hype Theater 3000 , a party-pooping podcast in which the irascible cohosts Alex Hanna and Emily Bender have a lot of fun sticking “the sharpest needles’’ into some of Silicon Valley’s most inflated sacred cows, they make a ridiculous suggestion. They’re hate-reading aloud from a 12,500-word Medium post by a Google VP of engineering, Blaise Agüera y Arcas, titled “ Can machines learn how to behave? ” Agüera y Arcas makes a case that AI can understand concepts in a way that’s somehow analogous to the way humans understand concepts—concepts such as moral values. In short, perhaps machines can be taught to behave. 

Cover for the podcast, Mystery AI Hype Theater 3000

Hanna and Bender are having none of it. They decide to replace the term “AI’’ with “mathy math”—you know, just lots and lots of math.

The irreverent phrase is meant to collapse what they see as bombast and anthropomorphism in the sentences being quoted. Pretty soon Hanna, a sociologist and director of research at the Distributed AI Research Institute, and Bender, a computational linguist at the University of Washington (and internet-famous critic of tech industry hype), open a gulf between what Agüera y Arcas wants to say and how they choose to hear it.

“How should AIs, their creators, and their users be held morally accountable?” asks Agüera y Arcas.

How should mathy math be held morally accountable? asks Bender.

“There’s a category error here,” she says. Hanna and Bender don’t just reject what Agüera y Arcas says; they claim it makes no sense. “Can we please stop it with the ‘an AI’ or ‘the AIs’ as if they are, like, individuals in the world?” Bender says.

Alex Hanna

It might sound as if they’re talking about different things, but they’re not. Both sides are talking about large language models, the technology behind the current AI boom. It’s just that the way we talk about AI is more polarized than ever. In May, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman teased the latest update to GPT-4 , his company’s flagship model, by tweeting , “Feels like magic to me.”

There’s a lot of road between math and magic.

Emily Bender

AI has acolytes, with a faith-like belief in the technology’s current power and inevitable future improvement. Artificial general intelligence is in sight, they say; superintelligence is coming behind it. And it has heretics, who pooh-pooh such claims as mystical mumbo-jumbo.

The buzzy popular narrative is shaped by a pantheon of big-name players, from Big Tech marketers in chief like Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella to edgelords of industry like Elon Musk and Altman to celebrity computer scientists like Geoffrey Hinton . Sometimes these boosters and doomers are one and the same, telling us that the technology is so good it’s bad .

As AI hype has ballooned, a vocal anti-hype lobby has risen in opposition, ready to smack down its ambitious, often wild claims. Pulling in this direction are a raft of researchers, including Hanna and Bender, and also outspoken industry critics like influential computer scientist and former Googler Timnit Gebru and NYU cognitive scientist Gary Marcus. All have a chorus of followers bickering in their replies.

In short, AI has come to mean all things to all people, splitting the field into fandoms. It can feel as if different camps are talking past one another, not always in good faith.

Maybe you find all this silly or tiresome. But given the power and complexity of these technologies—which are already used to determine how much we pay for insurance, how we look up information, how we do our jobs, etc. etc. etc.—it’s about time we at least agreed on what it is we’re even talking about.

Yet in all the conversations I’ve had with people at the cutting edge of this technology, no one has given a straight answer about exactly what it is they’re building. (A quick side note: This piece focuses on the AI debate in the US and Europe, largely because many of the best-funded, most cutting-edge AI labs are there. But of course there’s important research happening elsewhere, too, in countries with their own varying perspectives on AI, particularly China.) Partly, it’s the pace of development. But the science is also wide open. Today’s large language models can do amazing things . The field just can’t find common ground on what’s really going on under the hood .

These models are trained to complete sentences. They appear to be able to do a lot more—from solving high school math problems to writing computer code to passing law exams to composing poems. When a person does these things, we take it as a sign of intelligence. What about when a computer does it? Is the appearance of intelligence enough?

These questions go to the heart of what we mean by “artificial intelligence,” a term people have actually been arguing about for decades. But the discourse around AI has become more acrimonious with the rise of large language models that can mimic the way we talk and write with thrilling/chilling (delete as applicable) realism.

We have built machines with humanlike behavior but haven’t shrugged off the habit of imagining a humanlike mind behind them. This leads to over-egged evaluations of what AI can do; it hardens gut reactions into dogmatic positions, and it plays into the wider culture wars between techno-optimists and techno-skeptics.

Add to this stew of uncertainty a truckload of cultural baggage, from the science fiction that I’d bet many in the industry were raised on, to far more malign ideologies that influence the way we think about the future. Given this heady mix, arguments about AI are no longer simply academic (and perhaps never were). AI inflames people’s passions and makes grownups call each other names.

magical realism definition essay

“It’s not in an intellectually healthy place right now,” Marcus says of the debate. For years Marcus has pointed out the flaws and limitations of deep learning, the tech that launched AI into the mainstream, powering everything from LLMs to image recognition to self-driving cars. His 2001 book The Algebraic Mind argued that neural networks, the foundation on which deep learning is built, are incapable of reasoning by themselves. (We’ll skip over it for now, but I’ll come back to it later and we’ll see just how much a word like “reasoning” matters in a sentence like this.)

Marcus says that he has tried to engage Hinton—who last year went public with existential fears about the technology he helped invent—in a proper debate about how good large language models really are. “He just won’t do it,” says Marcus. “He calls me a twit.” (Having talked to Hinton about Marcus in the past, I can confirm that. “ChatGPT clearly understands neural networks better than he does,” Hinton told me last year.) Marcus also drew ire when he wrote an essay titled “Deep learning is hitting a wall.” Altman responded to it with a tweet : “Give me the confidence of a mediocre deep learning skeptic.”

At the same time, banging his drum has made Marcus a one-man brand and earned him an invitation to sit next to Altman and give testimony last year before the US Senate’s AI oversight committee.

And that’s why all these fights matter more than your average internet nastiness. Sure, there are big egos and vast sums of money at stake. But more than that, these disputes matter when industry leaders and opinionated scientists are summoned by heads of state and lawmakers to explain what this technology is and what it can do (and how scared we should be). They matter when this technology is being built into software we use every day, from search engines to word-processing apps to assistants on your phone. AI is not going away. But if we don’t know what we’re being sold, who’s the dupe?

“It is hard to think of another technology in history about which such a debate could be had—a debate about whether it is everywhere, or nowhere at all,” Stephen Cave and Kanta Dihal write in Imagining AI , a 2023 collection of essays about how different cultural beliefs shape people’s views of artificial intelligence. “That it can be held about AI is a testament to its mythic quality.”

Above all else, AI is an idea—an ideal—shaped by worldviews and sci-fi tropes as much as by math and computer science. Figuring out what we are talking about when we talk about AI will clarify many things. We won’t agree on them, but common ground on what AI is would be a great place to start talking about what AI should be .

magical realism definition essay

What is everyone really fighting about, anyway?

In late 2022, soon after OpenAI released ChatGPT , a new meme started circulating online that captured the weirdness of this technology better than anything else. In most versions , a Lovecraftian monster called the Shoggoth, all tentacles and eyeballs, holds up a bland smiley-face emoji as if to disguise its true nature. ChatGPT presents as humanlike and accessible in its conversational wordplay, but behind that façade lie unfathomable complexities—and horrors. (“It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train—a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles,” H.P. Lovecraft wrote of the Shoggoth in his 1936 novella At the Mountains of Madness .)  

tentacled shoggoth monster holding a pink head whose tongue is holding a smiley face head. The monster is labeled "Unsupervised Learning," the head is labelled "Supervised Fine-tuning," and the smiley is labelled "RLHF (cherry on top)"

For years one of the best-known touchstones for AI in pop culture was The Terminator , says Dihal. But by putting ChatGPT online for free, OpenAI gave millions of people firsthand experience of something different. “AI has always been a sort of really vague concept that can expand endlessly to encompass all kinds of ideas,” she says. But ChatGPT made those ideas tangible: “Suddenly, everybody has a concrete thing to refer to.” What is AI? For millions of people the answer was now: ChatGPT.

The AI industry is selling that smiley face hard. Consider how The Daily Show recently skewered the hype, as expressed by industry leaders. Silicon Valley’s VC in chief, Marc Andreessen: “This has the potential to make life much better … I think it’s honestly a layup.” Altman: “I hate to sound like a utopic tech bro here, but the increase in quality of life that AI can deliver is extraordinary.” Pichai: “AI is the most profound technology that humanity is working on. More profound than fire.”

Jon Stewart: “Yeah, suck a dick, fire!”

But as the meme points out, ChatGPT is a friendly mask. Behind it is a monster called GPT-4, a large language model built from a vast neural network that has ingested more words than most of us could read in a thousand lifetimes. During training, which can last months and cost tens of millions of dollars, such models are given the task of filling in blanks in sentences taken from millions of books and a significant fraction of the internet. They do this task over and over again. In a sense, they are trained to be supercharged autocomplete machines. The result is a model that has turned much of the world’s written information into a statistical representation of which words are most likely to follow other words, captured across billions and billions of numerical values.

It’s math—a hell of a lot of math. Nobody disputes that. But is it just that, or does this complex math encode algorithms capable of something akin to human reasoning or the formation of concepts?

Many of the people who answer yes to that question believe we’re close to unlocking something called artificial general intelligence , or AGI, a hypothetical future technology that can do a wide range of tasks as well as humans can. A few of them have even set their sights on what they call superintelligence , sci-fi technology that can do things far better than humans. This cohort believes AGI will drastically change the world—but to what end? That’s yet another point of tension. It could fix all the world’s problems—or bring about its doom. 

kinda mad how the so called godfathers of AI managed to convince seemingly smart people within AI field & many regulators to buy into the absurd idea that a sophisticated curve fitting (to a dataset) machine can have the urge to exterminate humans — Abeba Birhane (@Abebab) June 30, 2024

Today AGI appears in the mission statements of the world’s top AI labs. But the term was invented in 2007 as a niche attempt to inject some pizzazz into a field that was then best known for applications that read handwriting on bank deposit slips or recommended your next book to buy. The idea was to reclaim the original vision of an artificial intelligence that could do humanlike things (more on that soon).

It was really an aspiration more than anything else, Google DeepMind cofounder Shane Legg, who coined the term, told me last year: “I didn’t have an especially clear definition.”

AGI became the most controversial idea in AI . Some talked it up as the next big thing: AGI was AI but, you know, much better . Others claimed the term was so vague that it was meaningless.

“AGI used to be a dirty word,” Ilya Sutskever told me, before he resigned as chief scientist at OpenAI.

But large language models, and ChatGPT in particular, changed everything. AGI went from dirty word to marketing dream.

Which brings us to what I think is one of the most illustrative disputes of the moment—one that sets up the sides of the argument and the stakes in play. 

Seeing magic in the machine

A few months before the public launch of OpenAI’s large language model GPT-4 in March 2023, the company shared a prerelease version with Microsoft, which wanted to use the new model to revamp its search engine Bing.

At the time, Sebastian Bubeck was studying the limitations of LLMs and was somewhat skeptical of their abilities. In particular, Bubeck—the vice president of generative AI research at Microsoft Research in Redmond, Washington—had been trying and failing to get the technology to solve middle school math problems. Things like: x – y = 0; what are x and y ? “My belief was that reasoning was a bottleneck, an obstacle,” he says. “I thought that you would have to do something really fundamentally different to get over that obstacle.”

magical realism definition essay

Then he got his hands on GPT-4. The first thing he did was try those math problems. “The model nailed it,” he says. “Sitting here in 2024, of course GPT-4 can solve linear equations. But back then, this was crazy. GPT-3 cannot do that.”

But Bubeck’s real road-to-Damascus moment came when he pushed it to do something new.

The thing about middle school math problems is that they are all over the internet, and GPT-4 may simply have memorized them. “How do you study a model that may have seen everything that human beings have written?” asks Bubeck. His answer was to test GPT-4 on a range of problems that he and his colleagues believed to be novel.

Playing around with Ronen Eldan, a mathematician at Microsoft Research, Bubeck asked GPT-4 to give, in verse, a mathematical proof that there are an infinite number of primes.

Here’s a snippet of GPT-4’s response: “If we take the smallest number in S that is not in P / And call it p, we can add it to our set, don’t you see? / But this process can be repeated indefinitely. / Thus, our set P must also be infinite, you’ll agree.”

Cute, right? But Bubeck and Eldan thought it was much more than that. “We were in this office,” says Bubeck, waving at the room behind him via Zoom. “Both of us fell from our chairs. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. It was just so creative and so, like, you know, different.” 

The Microsoft team also got GPT-4 to generate the code to add a horn to a cartoon picture of a unicorn drawn in Latex, a word processing program. Bubeck thinks this shows that the model could read the existing Latex code, understand what it depicted, and identify where the horn should go.

“There are many examples, but a few of them are smoking guns of reasoning,” he says—reasoning being a crucial building block of human intelligence.

three sets of shapes vaguely in the form of unicorns made by GPT-4

Bubeck, Eldan, and a team of other Microsoft researchers described their findings in a paper that they called “ Spark s of artificial general intelligence ”: “We believe that GPT-4’s intelligence signals a true paradigm shift in the field of computer science and beyond.” When Bubeck shared the paper online, he tweeted : “time to face it, the sparks of #AGI have been ignited.”

The Sparks paper quickly became infamous—and a touchstone for AI boosters. Agüera y Arcas and Peter Norvig, a former director of research at Google and coauthor of Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach , perhaps the most popular AI textbook in the world, cowrote an article called “ Artificial General Intelligence Is Already Here .” Published in Noema , a magazine backed by an LA think tank called the Berggruen Institute, their argument uses the Sparks paper as a jumping-off point: “Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) means many different things to different people, but the most important parts of it have already been achieved by the current generation of advanced AI large language models,” they wrote. “Decades from now, they will be recognized as the first true examples of AGI.”

Since then, the hype has continued to balloon. Leopold Aschenbrenner, who at the time was a researcher at OpenAI focusing on superintelligence, told me last year: “AI progress in the last few years has been just extraordinarily rapid. We’ve been crushing all the benchmarks, and that progress is continuing unabated. But it won’t stop there. We’re going to have superhuman models, models that are much smarter than us.” (He was fired from OpenAI in April because, he claims, he raised security concerns about the tech he was building and “ ruffled some feathers .” He has since set up a Silicon Valley investment fund.)

In June, Aschenbrenner put out a 165-page manifesto arguing that AI will outpace college graduates by “2025/2026” and that “we will have superintelligence, in the true sense of the word” by the end of the decade. But others in the industry scoff at such claims. When Aschenbrenner tweeted a chart to show how fast he thought AI would continue to improve given how fast it had improved in last few years, the tech investor Christian Keil replied that by the same logic, his baby son, who had doubled in size since he was born, would weigh 7.5 trillion tons by the time he was 10.

It’s no surprise that “sparks of AGI” has also become a byword for over-the-top buzz. “I think they got carried away,” says Marcus, speaking about the Microsoft team. “They got excited, like ‘Hey, we found something! This is amazing!’ They didn’t vet it with the scientific community.” Bender refers to the Sparks paper as a “fan fiction novella.”

Not only was it provocative to claim that GPT-4’s behavior showed signs of AGI, but Microsoft, which uses GPT-4 in its own products, has a clear interest in promoting the capabilities of the technology. “This document is marketing fluff masquerading as research,” one tech COO posted on LinkedIn.

Some also felt the paper’s methodology was flawed. Its evidence is hard to verify because it comes from interactions with a version of GPT-4 that was not made available outside OpenAI and Microsoft. The public version has guardrails that restrict the model’s capabilities, admits Bubeck. This made it impossible for other researchers to re-create his experiments.

One group tried to re-create the unicorn example with a coding language called Processing, which GPT-4 can also use to generate images . They found that the public version of GPT-4 could produce a passable unicorn but not flip or rotate that image by 90 degrees. It may seem like a small difference, but such things really matter when you’re claiming that the ability to draw a unicorn is a sign of AGI.

The key thing about the examples in the Sparks paper, including the unicorn, is that Bubeck and his colleagues believe they are genuine examples of creative reasoning. This means the team had to be certain that examples of these tasks, or ones very like them, were not included anywhere in the vast data sets that OpenAI amassed to train its model. Otherwise, the results could be interpreted instead as instances where GPT-4 reproduced patterns it had already seen.

octopus wearing a smiley face mask

Bubeck insists that they set the model only tasks that would not be found on the internet. Drawing a cartoon unicorn in Latex was surely one such task. But the internet is a big place. Other researchers soon pointed out that there are indeed online forums dedicated to drawing animals in Latex . “Just fyi we knew about this,” Bubeck replied on X. “Every single query of the Sparks paper was thoroughly looked for on the internet.”

(This didn’t stop the name-calling: “I’m asking you to stop being a charlatan,” Ben Recht, a computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, tweeted back before accusing Bubeck of “being caught flat-out lying.”)

Bubeck insists the work was done in good faith, but he and his coauthors admit in the paper itself that their approach was not rigorous—notebook observations rather than foolproof experiments. 

Still, he has no regrets: “The paper has been out for more than a year and I have yet to see anyone give me a convincing argument that the unicorn, for example, is not a real example of reasoning.”

That’s not to say he can give me a straight answer to the big question—though his response reveals what kind of answer he’d like to give. “What is AI?” Bubeck repeats back to me. “I want to be clear with you. The question can be simple, but the answer can be complex.”

“There are many simple questions out there to which we still don’t know the answer. And some of those simple questions are the most profound ones,” he says. “I’m putting this on the same footing as, you know, What is the origin of life? What is the origin of the universe? Where did we come from? Big, big questions like this.”

Seeing only math in the machine

Before Bender became one of the chief antagonists of AI’s boosters, she made her mark on the AI world as a coauthor on two influential papers. (Both peer-reviewed, she likes to point out—unlike the Sparks paper and many of the others that get much of the attention.) The first, written with Alexander Koller, a fellow computational linguist at Saarland University in Germany, and published in 2020, was called “ Climbing towards NLU ” (NLU is natural-language understanding).

“The start of all this for me was arguing with other people in computational linguistics whether or not language models understand anything,” she says. (Understanding, like reasoning, is typically taken to be a basic ingredient of human intelligence.)

Bender and Koller argue that a model trained exclusively on text will only ever learn the form of a language, not its meaning. Meaning, they argue, consists of two parts: the words (which could be marks or sounds) plus the reason those words were uttered. People use language for many reasons, such as sharing information, telling jokes, flirting, warning somebody to back off, and so on. Stripped of that context, the text used to train LLMs like GPT-4 lets them mimic the patterns of language well enough for many sentences generated by the LLM to look exactly like sentences written by a human. But there’s no meaning behind them, no spark . It’s a remarkable statistical trick, but completely mindless.

They illustrate their point with a thought experiment. Imagine two English-speaking people stranded on neighboring deserted islands. There is an underwater cable that lets them send text messages to each other. Now imagine that an octopus, which knows nothing about English but is a whiz at statistical pattern matching, wraps its suckers around the cable and starts listening in to the messages. The octopus gets really good at guessing what words follow other words. So good that when it breaks the cable and starts replying to messages from one of the islanders, she believes that she is still chatting with her neighbor. (In case you missed it, the octopus in this story is a chatbot.)

The person talking to the octopus would stay fooled for a reasonable amount of time, but could that last? Does the octopus understand what comes down the wire? 

two characters holding landline phone receivers inset at the top left and right of a tropical scene in ascii code. An octopus inset at the bottom between them is tangled in their cable. The top left character continues speaking into the receiver while the top left character looks confused.

Imagine that the islander now says she has built a coconut catapult and asks the octopus to build one too and tell her what it thinks. The octopus cannot do this. Without knowing what the words in the messages refer to in the world, it cannot follow the islander’s instructions. Perhaps it guesses a reply: “Okay, cool idea!” The islander will probably take this to mean that the person she is speaking to understands her message. But if so, she is seeing meaning where there is none. Finally, imagine that the islander gets attacked by a bear and sends calls for help down the line. What is the octopus to do with these words?

Bender and Koller believe that this is how large language models learn and why they are limited. “The thought experiment shows why this path is not going to lead us to a machine that understands anything,” says Bender. “The deal with the octopus is that we have given it its training data, the conversations between those two people, and that’s it. But then here’s something that comes out of the blue and it won’t be able to deal with it because it hasn’t understood.”

The other paper Bender is known for, “ On the Dangers of Stochastic Parrots ,” highlights a series of harms that she and her coauthors believe the companies making large language models are ignoring. These include the huge computational costs of making the models and their environmental impact; the racist, sexist, and other abusive language the models entrench; and the dangers of building a system that could fool people by “haphazardly stitching together sequences of linguistic forms … according to probabilistic information about how they combine, but without any reference to meaning: a stochastic parrot.”

Google senior management wasn’t happy with the paper, and the resulting conflict led two of Bender’s coauthors, Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell, to be forced out of the company, where they had led the AI Ethics team. It also made “stochastic parrot” a popular put-down for large language models—and landed Bender right in the middle of the name-calling merry-go-round.

The bottom line for Bender and for many like-minded researchers is that the field has been taken in by smoke and mirrors: “I think that they are led to imagine autonomous thinking entities that can make decisions for themselves and ultimately be the kind of thing that could actually be accountable for those decisions.”

Always the linguist, Bender is now at the point where she won’t even use the term AI “without scare quotes,” she tells me. Ultimately, for her, it’s a Big Tech buzzword that distracts from the many associated harms. “I’ve got skin in the game now,” she says. “I care about these issues, and the hype is getting in the way.”

Extraordinary evidence?

Agüera y Arcas calls people like Bender “AI denialists”—the implication being that they won’t ever accept what he takes for granted. Bender’s position is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, which we do not have.

But there are people looking for it, and until they find something clear-cut—sparks or stochastic parrots or something in between—they’d prefer to sit out the fight. Call this the wait-and-see camp.

As Ellie Pavlick, who studies neural networks at Brown University, tells me: “It’s offensive to some people to suggest that human intelligence could be re-created through these kinds of mechanisms.”

She adds, “People have strong-held beliefs about this issue—it almost feels religious. On the other hand, there’s people who have a little bit of a God complex. So it’s also offensive to them to suggest that they just can’t do it.”

Pavlick is ultimately agnostic. She’s a scientist, she insists, and will follow wherever the science leads. She rolls her eyes at the wilder claims, but she believes there’s something exciting going on. “That’s where I would disagree with Bender and Koller,” she tells me. “I think there’s actually some sparks—maybe not of AGI, but like, there’s some things in there that we didn’t expect to find.”

Ellie Pavlick

The problem is finding agreement on what those exciting things are and why they’re exciting. With so much hype, it’s easy to be cynical.

Researchers like Bubeck seem a lot more cool-headed when you hear them out. He thinks the infighting misses the nuance in his work. “I don’t see any problem in holding simultaneous views,” he says. “There is stochastic parroting; there is reasoning—it’s a spectrum. It’s very complex. We don’t have all the answers.”

“We need a completely new vocabulary to describe what’s going on,” he says. “One reason why people push back when I talk about reasoning in large language models is because it’s not the same reasoning as in human beings. But I think there is no way we can not call it reasoning. It is reasoning.”

Anthropic’s Olah plays it safe when pushed on what we’re seeing in LLMs, though his company, one of the hottest AI labs in the world right now, built Claude 3, an LLM that has received just as much hyperbolic praise as GPT-4 (if not more) since its release earlier this year.

“I feel like a lot of these conversations about the capabilities of these models are very tribal,” he says. “People have preexisting opinions, and it’s not very informed by evidence on any side. Then it just becomes kind of vibes-based, and I think vibes-based arguments on the internet tend to go in a bad direction.”

Olah tells me he has hunches of his own. “My subjective impression is that these things are tracking pretty sophisticated ideas,” he says. “We don’t have a comprehensive story of how very large models work, but I think it’s hard to reconcile what we’re seeing with the extreme ‘stochastic parrots’ picture.”

That’s as far as he’ll go: “I don’t want to go too much beyond what can be really strongly inferred from the evidence that we have.”

Last month, Anthropic released results from a study in which researchers gave Claude 3 the neural network equivalent of an MRI. By monitoring which bits of the model turned on and off as they ran it, they identified specific patterns of neurons that activated when the model was shown specific inputs.

Anthropic also reported patterns that it says correlate with inputs that attempt to describe or show abstract concepts. “We see features related to deception and honesty, to sycophancy, to security vulnerabilities, to bias,” says Olah. “We find features related to power seeking and manipulation and betrayal.”

ASK IT FOR A RECIPE pic.twitter.com/0ZM3uGRJi9 — heron @ SF (@iamaheron_) May 23, 2024

These results give one of the clearest looks yet at what’s inside a large language model. It’s a tantalizing glimpse at what look like elusive humanlike traits. But what does it really tell us? As Olah admits, they do not know what the model does with these patterns. “It’s a relatively limited picture, and the analysis is pretty hard,” he says.

Even if Olah won’t spell out exactly what he thinks goes on inside a large language model like Claude 3, it’s clear why the question matters to him. Anthropic is known for its work on AI safety—making sure that powerful future models will behave in ways we want them to and not in ways we don’t (known as “alignment” in industry jargon). Figuring out how today’s models work is not only a necessary first step if you want to control future ones; it also tells you how much you need to worry about doomer scenarios in the first place. “If you don’t think that models are going to be very capable,” says Olah, “then they’re probably not going to be very dangerous.”

Chapter 3

Why we all can’t get along

In a 2014 interview with the BBC that looked back on her career, the influential cognitive scientist Margaret Boden, now 87, was asked if she thought there were any limits that would prevent computers (or “tin cans,” as she called them) from doing what humans can do.

“I certainly don’t think there’s anything in principle,” she said. “Because to deny that is to say that [human thinking] happens by magic, and I don’t believe that it happens by magic.”

Margaret Boden

But, she cautioned, powerful computers won’t be enough to get us there: the AI field will also need “powerful ideas”—new theories of how thinking happens, new algorithms that might reproduce it. “But these things are very, very difficult and I see no reason to assume that we will one of these days be able to answer all of those questions. Maybe we will; maybe we won’t.” 

Boden was reflecting on the early days of the current boom, but this will-we-or-won’t-we teetering speaks to decades in which she and her peers grappled with the same hard questions that researchers struggle with today. AI began as an ambitious aspiration 70-odd years ago and we are still disagreeing about what is and isn’t achievable, and how we’ll even know if we have achieved it. Most—if not all—of these disputes come down to this: We don’t have a good grasp on what intelligence is or how to recognize it. The field is full of hunches, but no one can say for sure.

We’ve been stuck on this point ever since people started taking the idea of AI seriously. Or even before that, when the stories we consumed started planting the idea of humanlike machines deep in our collective imagination. The long history of these disputes means that today’s fights often reinforce rifts that have been around since the beginning, making it even more difficult for people to find common ground.

To understand how we got here, we need to understand where we’ve been. So let’s dive into AI’s origin story—one that also played up the hype in a bid for cash.

A brief history of AI spin

The computer scientist John McCarthy is credited with coming up with the term “artificial intelligence” in 1955 when writing a funding application for a summer research program at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

The plan was for McCarthy and a small group of fellow researchers, a who’s-who of postwar US mathematicians and computer scientists—or “John McCarthy and the boys,” as Harry Law, a researcher who studies the history of AI at the University of Cambridge and ethics and policy at Google DeepMind, puts it—to get together for two months (not a typo) and make some serious headway on this new research challenge they’d set themselves.

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“The study is to proceed on the basis of the conjecture that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it,” McCarthy and his coauthors wrote. “An attempt will be made to find how to make machines use language, form abstractions and concepts, solve kinds of problems now reserved for humans, and improve themselves.”

That list of things they wanted to make machines do—what Bender calls “the starry-eyed dream”—hasn’t changed much. Using language, forming concepts, and solving problems are defining goals for AI today. The hubris hasn’t changed much either: “We think that a significant advance can be made in one or more of these problems if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer,” they wrote. That summer, of course, has stretched to seven decades. And the extent to which these problems are in fact now solved is something that people still shout about on the internet. 

But what’s often left out of this canonical history is that artificial intelligence almost wasn’t called “artificial intelligence” at all.

John McCarthy

More than one of McCarthy’s colleagues hated the term he had come up with. “The word ‘artificial’ makes you think there’s something kind of phony about this,” Arthur Samuel, a Dartmouth participant and creator of the first checkers-playing computer, is quoted as saying in historian Pamela McCorduck’s 2004 book Machines Who Think . The mathematician Claude Shannon, a coauthor of the Dartmouth proposal who is sometimes billed as “the father of the information age,” preferred the term “automata studies.” Herbert Simon and Allen Newell, two other AI pioneers, continued to call their own work “complex information processing” for years afterwards.

In fact, “artificial intelligence” was just one of several labels that might have captured the hodgepodge of ideas that the Dartmouth group was drawing on. The historian Jonnie Penn has identified possible alternatives that were in play at the time, including “engineering psychology,” “applied epistemology,” “neural cybernetics,” “non-numerical computing,” “neuraldynamics,” “advanced automatic programming,” and “hypothetical automata.” This list of names reveals how diverse the inspiration for their new field was, pulling from biology, neuroscience, statistics, and more. Marvin Minsky, another Dartmouth participant, has described AI as a “suitcase word” because it can hold so many divergent interpretations.

But McCarthy wanted a name that captured the ambitious scope of his vision. Calling this new field “artificial intelligence” grabbed people’s attention—and money. Don’t forget: AI is sexy, AI is cool.

In addition to terminology, the Dartmouth proposal codified a split between rival approaches to artificial intelligence that has divided the field ever since—a divide Law calls the “core tension in AI.”

neural net diagram

McCarthy and his colleagues wanted to describe in computer code “every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence” so that machines could mimic them. In other words, if they could just figure out how thinking worked—the rules of reasoning—and write down the recipe, they could program computers to follow it. This laid the foundation of what came to be known as rule-based or symbolic AI (sometimes referred to now as GOFAI, “good old-fashioned AI”). But coming up with hard-coded rules that captured the processes of problem-solving for actual, nontrivial problems proved too hard.

The other path favored neural networks, computer programs that would try to learn those rules by themselves in the form of statistical patterns. The Dartmouth proposal mentions it almost as an aside (referring variously to “neuron nets” and “nerve nets”). Though the idea seemed less promising at first, some researchers nevertheless continued to work on versions of neural networks alongside symbolic AI. But it would take decades—plus vast amounts of computing power and much of the data on the internet—before they really took off. Fast-forward to today and this approach underpins the entire AI boom.

The big takeaway here is that, just like today’s researchers, AI’s innovators fought about foundational concepts and got caught up in their own promotional spin. Even team GOFAI was plagued by squabbles. Aaron Sloman, a philosopher and fellow AI pioneer now in his late 80s, recalls how “old friends” Minsky and McCarthy “disagreed strongly” when he got to know them in the ’70s: “Minsky thought McCarthy’s claims about logic could not work, and McCarthy thought Minsky’s mechanisms could not do what could be done using logic. I got on well with both of them, but I was saying, ‘Neither of you have got it right.’” (Sloman still thinks no one can account for the way human reasoning uses intuition as much as logic, but that’s yet another tangent!)

Marvin Minsky

As the fortunes of the technology waxed and waned, the term “AI” went in and out of fashion. In the early ’70s, both research tracks were effectively put on ice after the UK government published a report arguing that the AI dream had gone nowhere and wasn’t worth funding. All that hype, effectively, had led to nothing. Research projects were shuttered, and computer scientists scrubbed the words “artificial intelligence” from their grant proposals.

When I was finishing a computer science PhD in 2008, only one person in the department was working on neural networks. Bender has a similar recollection: “When I was in college, a running joke was that AI is anything that we haven’t figured out how to do with computers yet. Like, as soon as you figure out how to do it, it wasn’t magic anymore, so it wasn’t AI.”

But that magic—the grand vision laid out in the Dartmouth proposal—remained alive and, as we can now see, laid the foundations for the AGI dream.

Good and bad behavior

In 1950, five years before McCarthy started talking about artificial intelligence, Alan Turing had published a paper that asked: Can machines think? To address that question, the famous mathematician proposed a hypothetical test, which he called the imitation game. The setup imagines a human and a computer behind a screen and a second human who types questions to each. If the questioner cannot tell which answers come from the human and which come from the computer, Turing claimed, the computer may as well be said to think.

What Turing saw—unlike McCarthy’s crew—was that thinking is a really difficult thing to describe. The Turing test was a way to sidestep that problem. “He basically said: Instead of focusing on the nature of intelligence itself, I’m going to look for its manifestation in the world. I’m going to look for its shadow ,” says Law.

In 1952, BBC Radio convened a panel to explore Turing’s ideas further. Turing was joined in the studio by two of his Manchester University colleagues—professor of mathematics Maxwell Newman and professor of neurosurgery Geoffrey Jefferson—and Richard Braithwaite, a philosopher of science, ethics, and religion at the University of Cambridge.

Braithwaite kicked things off: “Thinking is ordinarily regarded as so much the specialty of man, and perhaps of other higher animals, the question may seem too absurd to be discussed. But of course, it all depends on what is to be included in ‘thinking.’”

The panelists circled Turing’s question but never quite pinned it down.

When they tried to define what thinking involved, what its mechanisms were, the goalposts moved. “As soon as one can see the cause and effect working themselves out in the brain, one regards it as not being thinking but a sort of unimaginative donkey work,” said Turing.

Here was the problem: When one panelist proposed some behavior that might be taken as evidence of thought—reacting to a new idea with outrage, say—another would point out that a computer could be made to do it.

magical realism definition essay

As Newman said, it would be easy enough to program a computer to print “I don’t like this new program.” But he admitted that this would be a trick.

Exactly, Jefferson said: He wanted a computer that would print “I don’t like this new program” because it didn’t like the new program. In other words, for Jefferson, behavior was not enough. It was the process leading to the behavior that mattered.

But Turing disagreed. As he had noted, uncovering a specific process—the donkey work, to use his phrase—did not pinpoint what thinking was either. So what was left?

“From this point of view, one might be tempted to define thinking as consisting of those mental processes that we don’t understand,” said Turing. “If this is right, then to make a thinking machine is to make one which does interesting things without our really understanding quite how it is done.”

It is strange to hear people grapple with these ideas for the first time. “The debate is prescient,” says Tomer Ullman, a cognitive scientist at Harvard University. “Some of the points are still alive—perhaps even more so. What they seem to be going round and round on is that the Turing test is first and foremost a behaviorist test.”

For Turing, intelligence was hard to define but easy to recognize. He proposed that the appearance of intelligence was enough—and said nothing about how that behavior should come about.

character with a toaster for a head

And yet most people, when pushed, will have a gut instinct about what is and isn’t intelligent. There are dumb ways and clever ways to come across as intelligent. In 1981, Ned Block, a philosopher at New York University, showed that Turing’s proposal fell short of those gut instincts. Because it said nothing of what caused the behavior, the Turing test can be beaten through trickery (as Newman had noted in the BBC broadcast).

“Could the issue of whether a machine in fact thinks or is intelligent depend on how gullible human interrogators tend to be?” asked Block. (Or as computer scientist Mark Reidl has remarked : “The Turing test is not for AI to pass but for humans to fail.”)

Imagine, Block said, a vast look-up table in which human programmers had entered all possible answers to all possible questions. Type a question into this machine, and it would look up a matching answer in its database and send it back. Block argued that anyone using this machine would judge its behavior to be intelligent: “But actually, the machine has the intelligence of a toaster,” he wrote. “All the intelligence it exhibits is that of its programmers.”

Block concluded that whether behavior is intelligent behavior is a matter of how it is produced, not how it appears. Block’s toasters, which became known as Blockheads, are one of the strongest counterexamples to the assumptions behind Turing’s proposal.

Looking under the hood

The Turing test is not meant to be a practical metric, but its implications are deeply ingrained in the way we think about artificial intelligence today. This has become particularly relevant as LLMs have exploded in the past several years. These models get ranked by their outward behaviors, specifically how well they do on a range of tests. When OpenAI announced GPT-4, it published an impressive-looking scorecard that detailed the model’s performance on multiple high school and professional exams. Almost nobody talks about how these models get those results.

That’s because we don’t know. Today’s large language models are too complex for anybody to say exactly how their behavior is produced. Researchers outside the small handful of companies making those models don’t know what’s in their training data; none of the model makers have shared details. That makes it hard to say what is and isn’t a kind of memorization—a stochastic parroting. But even researchers on the inside, like Olah, don’t know what’s really going on when faced with a bridge-obsessed bot.

This leaves the question wide open: Yes, large language models are built on math—but are they doing something intelligent with it?

And the arguments begin again.

“Most people are trying to armchair through it,” says Brown University’s Pavlick, meaning that they are arguing about theories without looking at what’s really happening. “Some people are like, ‘I think it’s this way,’ and some people are like, ‘Well, I don’t.’ We’re kind of stuck and everyone’s unsatisfied.”

Bender thinks that this sense of mystery plays into the mythmaking. (“Magicians do not explain their tricks,” she says.) Without a proper appreciation of where the LLM’s words come from, we fall back on familiar assumptions about humans, since that is our only real point of reference. When we talk to another person, we try to make sense of what that person is trying to tell us. “That process necessarily entails imagining a life behind the words,” says Bender. That’s how language works.

magic hat wearing a mask and holding a magic wand with tentacles emerging from the top

“The parlor trick of ChatGPT is so impressive that when we see these words coming out of it, we do the same thing instinctively,” she says. “It’s very good at mimicking the form of language. The problem is that we are not at all good at encountering the form of language and not imagining the rest of it.”

For some researchers, it doesn’t really matter if we can’t understand the how . Bubeck used to study large language models to try to figure out how they worked, but GPT-4 changed the way he thought about them. “It seems like these questions are not so relevant anymore,” he says. “The model is so big, so complex, that we can’t hope to open it up and understand what’s really happening.”

But Pavlick, like Olah, is trying to do just that. Her team has found that models seem to encode abstract relationships between objects, such as that between a country and its capital. Studying one large language model, Pavlick and her colleagues found that it used the same encoding to map France to Paris and Poland to Warsaw. That almost sounds smart, I tell her. “No, it’s literally a lookup table,” she says.

But what struck Pavlick was that, unlike a Blockhead, the model had learned this lookup table on its own. In other words, the LLM figured out itself that Paris is to France as Warsaw is to Poland. But what does this show? Is encoding its own lookup table instead of using a hard-coded one a sign of intelligence? Where do you draw the line?

“Basically, the problem is that behavior is the only thing we know how to measure reliably,” says Pavlick. “Anything else requires a theoretical commitment, and people don’t like having to make a theoretical commitment because it’s so loaded.”

Geoffrey Hinton

Not all people. A lot of influential scientists are just fine with theoretical commitment. Hinton, for example, insists that neural networks are all you need to re-create humanlike intelligence. “Deep learning is going to be able to do everything,” he told MIT Technology Review in 2020 . 

It’s a commitment that Hinton seems to have held onto from the start. Sloman, who recalls the two of them arguing when Hinton was a graduate student in his lab, remembers being unable to persuade him that neural networks cannot learn certain crucial abstract concepts that humans and some other animals seem to have an intuitive grasp of, such as whether something is impossible. We can just see when something’s ruled out, Sloman says. “Despite Hinton’s outstanding intelligence, he never seemed to understand that point. I don’t know why, but there are large numbers of researchers in neural networks who share that failing.”

And then there’s Marcus, whose view of neural networks is the exact opposite of Hinton’s. His case draws on what he says scientists have discovered about brains.

Brains, Marcus points out, are not blank slates that learn fully from scratch—they come ready-made with innate structures and processes that guide learning. It’s how babies can learn things that the best neural networks still can’t, he argues.

Gary Marcus

“Neural network people have this hammer, and now everything is a nail,” says Marcus. “They want to do all of it with learning, which many cognitive scientists would find unrealistic and silly. You’re not going to learn everything from scratch.”

Not that Marcus—a cognitive scientist—is any less sure of himself. “If one really looked at who’s predicted the current situation well, I think I would have to be at the top of anybody’s list,” he tells me from the back of an Uber on his way to catch a flight to a speaking gig in Europe. “I know that doesn’t sound very modest, but I do have this perspective that turns out to be very important if what you’re trying to study is artificial intelligence.”

Given his well-publicized attacks on the field, it might surprise you that Marcus still believes AGI is on the horizon. It’s just that he thinks today’s fixation on neural networks is a mistake. “We probably need a breakthrough or two or four,” he says. “You and I might not live that long, I’m sorry to say. But I think it’ll happen this century. Maybe we’ve got a shot at it.”

The power of a technicolor dream

Over Dor Skuler’s shoulder on the Zoom call from his home in Ramat Gan, Israel, a little lamp-like robot is winking on and off while we talk about it. “You can see ElliQ behind me here,” he says. Skuler’s company, Intuition Robotics, develops these devices for older people, and the design—part Amazon Alexa, part R2-D2—must make it very clear that ElliQ is a computer. If any of his customers show signs of being confused about that, Intuition Robotics takes the device back, says Skuler.

ElliQ has no face, no humanlike shape at all. Ask it about sports, and it will crack a joke about having no hand-eye coordination because it has no hands and no eyes. “For the life of me, I don’t understand why the industry is trying to fulfill the Turing test,” Skuler says. “Why is it in the best interest of humanity for us to develop technology whose goal is to dupe us?”

Instead, Skuler’s firm is betting that people can form relationships with machines that present as machines. “Just like we have the ability to build a real relationship with a dog,” he says. “Dogs provide a lot of joy for people. They provide companionship. People love their dog—but they never confuse it to be a human.”

the ElliQ robot station. The screen is displaying a quote by Vincent Van Gogh

ElliQ’s users, many in their 80s and 90s, refer to the robot as an entity or a presence—sometimes a roommate. “They’re able to create a space for this in-between relationship, something between a device or a computer and something that’s alive,” says Skuler.

But no matter how hard ElliQ’s designers try to control the way people view the device, they are competing with decades of pop culture that have shaped our expectations. Why are we so fixated on AI that’s humanlike? “Because it’s hard for us to imagine something else,” says Skuler (who indeed refers to ElliQ as “she” throughout our conversation). “And because so many people in the tech industry are fans of science fiction. They try to make their dream come true.”

How many developers grew up today thinking that building a smart machine was seriously the coolest thing—if not the most important thing—that they could possibly do?

It was not long ago that OpenAI launched its new voice-controlled version of ChatGPT with a voice that sounded like Scarlett Johansson, after which many people—including Altman—flagged the connection to Spike Jonze’s 2013 movie Her .

Science fiction co-invents what AI is understood to be. As Cave and Dihal write in Imagining AI : “AI was a cultural phenomenon long before it was a technological one.”

Stories and myths about remaking humans as machines have been around for centuries. People have been dreaming of artificial humans for probably as long as they have dreamed of flight, says Dihal. She notes that Daedalus, the figure in Greek mythology famous for building a pair of wings for himself and his son, Icarus, also built what was effectively a giant bronze robot called Talos that threw rocks at passing pirates.

The word robot comes from robota , a term for “forced labor” coined by the Czech playwright Karel Čapek in his 1920 play Rossum’s Universal Robots . The “laws of robotics” outlined in Isaac Asimov’s science fiction, forbidding machines from harming humans, are inverted by movies like The Terminator , which is an iconic reference point for popular fears about real-world technology. The 2014 film Ex Machina is a dramatic riff on the Turing test. Last year’s blockbuster The Creator imagines a future world in which AI has been outlawed because it set off a nuclear bomb, an event that some doomers consider at least an outside possibility.

Cave and Dihal relate how another movie, 2014’s Transcendence , in which an AI expert played by Johnny Depp gets his mind uploaded to a computer, served a narrative pushed by ur-doomers Stephen Hawking, fellow physicist Max Tegmark, and AI researcher Stuart Russell. In an article published in the Huffington Post on the movie’s opening weekend, the trio wrote: “As the Hollywood blockbuster Transcendence debuts this weekend with … clashing visions for the future of humanity, it’s tempting to dismiss the notion of highly intelligent machines as mere science fiction. But this would be a mistake, and potentially our worst mistake ever.”

magical realism definition essay

Right around the same time, Tegmark founded the Future of Life Institute, with a remit to study and promote AI safety. Depp’s costar in the movie, Morgan Freeman, was on the institute’s board, and Elon Musk, who had a cameo in the film, donated $10 million in its first year. For Cave and Dihal, Transcendence is a perfect example of the multiple entanglements between popular culture, academic research, industrial production, and “the billionaire-funded fight to shape the future.”

On the London leg of his world tour last year, Altman was asked what he’d meant when he tweeted : “AI is the tech the world has always wanted.” Standing at the back of the room that day, behind an audience of hundreds, I listened to him offer his own kind of origin story: “I was, like, a very nervous kid. I read a lot of sci-fi. I spent a lot of Friday nights home, playing on the computer. But I was always really interested in AI and I thought it’d be very cool.” He went to college, got rich, and watched as neural networks became better and better. “This can be tremendously good but also could be really bad. What are we going to do about that?” he recalled thinking in 2015. “I ended up starting OpenAI.”

magical realism definition essay

Why you should care that a bunch of nerds are fighting about AI

Okay, you get it: No one can agree on what AI is. But what everyone does seem to agree on is that the current debate around AI has moved far beyond the academic and the scientific. There are political and moral components in play—which doesn’t help with everyone thinking everyone else is wrong.

Untangling this is hard. It can be difficult to see what’s going on when some of those moral views take in the entire future of humanity and anchor them in a technology that nobody can quite define.

But we can't just throw our hands up and walk away. Because no matter what this technology is, it’s coming, and unless you live under a rock, you’ll use it in one form or another. And the form that technology takes—and the problems it both solves and creates—will be shaped by the thinking and the motivations of people like the ones you just read about. In particular, by the people with the most power, the most cash, and the biggest megaphones.

Which leads me to the TESCREALists. Wait, come back! I realize it’s unfair to introduce yet another new concept so late in the game. But to understand how the people in power may mold the technologies they build, and how they explain them to the world’s regulators and lawmakers, you need to really understand their mindset.

Timnit Gebru

Gebru, who founded the Distributed AI Research Institute after leaving Google, and Émile Torres, a philosopher and historian at Case Western Reserve University, have traced the influence of several techno-utopian belief systems on Silicon Valley. The pair argue that to understand what’s going on with AI right now—both why companies such as Google DeepMind and OpenAI are in a race to build AGI and why doomers like Tegmark and Hinton warn of a coming catastrophe—the field must be seen through the lens of what Torres has dubbed the TESCREAL framework .

The clunky acronym (pronounced tes-cree-all ) replaces an even clunkier list of labels: transhumanism , extropianism , singularitarianism , cosmism , rationalism , effective altruism , and longtermism . A lot has been written (and will be written) about each of these worldviews, so I’ll spare you here. (There are rabbit holes within rabbit holes for anyone wanting to dive deeper. Pick your forum and pack your spelunking gear.)

Emile Torres

This constellation of overlapping ideologies is attractive to a certain kind of galaxy-brain mindset common in the Western tech world. Some anticipate human immortality; others predict humanity’s colonization of the stars. The common tenet is that an all-powerful technology—AGI or superintelligence, choose your team—is not only within reach but inevitable. You can see this in the do-or-die attitude that’s ubiquitous inside cutting-edge labs like OpenAI: If we don’t make AGI, someone else will.

What’s more, TESCREALists believe that AGI could not only fix the world’s problems but level up humanity. “The development and proliferation of AI—far from a risk that we should fear—is a moral obligation that we have to ourselves, to our children and to our future,” Andreessen wrote in a much-dissected manifesto last year. I have been told many times over that AGI is the way to make the world a better place—by Demis Hassabis , CEO and cofounder of Google DeepMind; by Mustafa Suleyman , CEO of the newly minted Microsoft AI and another cofounder of DeepMind; by Sutskever , Altman , and more.

But as Andreessen noted, it’s a yin-yang mindset. The flip side of techno-utopia is techno-hell. If you believe that you are building a technology so powerful that it will solve all the world’s problems, you probably also believe there’s a non-zero chance it will all go very wrong. When asked at the World Government Summit in February what keeps him up at night, Altman replied: “It’s all the sci-fi stuff.”

It’s a tension that Hinton has been talking up for the last year. It’s what companies like Anthropic claim to address. It’s what Sutskever is focusing on in his new lab , and what he wanted a special in-house team at OpenAI to focus on last year before disagreements over the way the company balanced risk and reward led most members of that team to leave.

Sure, doomerism is part of the spin. (“Claiming that you have created something that is super-intelligent is good for sales figures,” says Dihal. “It’s like, ‘Please, someone stop me from being so good and so powerful.’”) But boom or doom, exactly what (and whose) problems are these guys supposedly solving? Are we really expected to trust what they build and what they tell our leaders?

Gebru and Torres (and others) are adamant: No, we should not. They are highly critical of these ideologies and how they may influence the development of future technology, especially AI. Fundamentally, they link several of these worldviews—with their common focus on “improving” humanity—to the racist eugenics movements of the 20th century.

One danger, they argue, is that a shift of resources toward the kind of technological innovations that these ideologies demand, from building AGI to extending life spans to colonizing other planets, will ultimately benefit people who are Western and white at the cost of billions of people who aren’t. If your sight is set on fantastical futures, it’s easy to overlook the present-day costs of innovation, such as labor exploitation, the entrenchment of racist and sexist bias, and environmental damage.  

“Are we trying to build a tool that’s useful to us in some way?” asks Bender, reflecting on the casualties of this race to AGI. If so, who’s it for, how do we test it, how well does it work? “But if what we’re building it for is just so that we can say that we’ve done it, that’s not a goal that I can get behind. That’s not a goal that’s worth billions of dollars.”

Bender says that seeing the connections between the TESCREAL ideologies is what made her realize there was something more to these debates. “Tangling with those people was—” she stops. “Okay, there’s more here than just academic ideas. There’s a moral code tied up in it as well.”

Of course, laid out like this without nuance, it doesn’t sound as if we—as a society, as individuals—are getting the best deal. It also all sounds rather silly. When Gebru described parts of the TESCREAL bundle in a talk last year, her audience laughed. It’s also true that few people would identify themselves as card-carrying students of these schools of thought, at least in their extremes.

But if we don’t understand how those building this tech approach it, how can we decide what deals we want to make? What apps we decide to use, what chatbots we want to give personal information to, what data centers we support in our neighborhoods, what politicians we want to vote for?

It used to be like this: There was a problem in the world, and we built something to fix it. Here, everything is backward: The goal seems to be to build a machine that can do everything, and to skip the slow, hard work that goes into figuring out what the problem is before building the solution.

And as Gebru said in that same talk, “A machine that solves all problems: if that’s not magic, what is it?”

Semantics, semantics … semantics?

When asked outright what AI is, a lot of people dodge the question. Not Suleyman. In April, the CEO of Microsoft AI stood on the TED stage and told the audience what he’d told his six-year-old nephew in response to that question. The best answer he could give, Suleyman explained, was that AI was “a new kind of digital species”—a technology so universal, so powerful, that calling it a tool no longer captured what it could do for us.

“On our current trajectory, we are heading toward the emergence of something we are all struggling to describe, and yet we cannot control what we don’t understand,” he said. “And so the metaphors, the mental models, the names—these all matter if we are to get the most out of AI whilst limiting its potential downsides.”

magical realism definition essay

Language matters! I hope that’s clear from the twists and turns and tantrums we’ve been through to get to this point. But I also hope you’re asking: Whose language? And whose downsides? Suleyman is an industry leader at a technology giant that stands to make billions from its AI products. Describing the technology behind those products as a new kind of species conjures something wholly unprecedented, something with agency and capabilities that we have never seen before. That makes my spidey sense tingle. You?

I can’t tell you if there’s magic here (ironically or not). And I can’t tell you how math can realize what Bubeck and many others see in this technology (no one can yet). You’ll have to make up your own mind. But I can pull back the curtain on my own point of view.

Writing about GPT-3 back in 2020, I said that the greatest trick AI ever pulled was convincing the world it exists. I still think that: We are hardwired to see intelligence in things that behave in certain ways, whether it’s there or not. In the last few years, the tech industry has found reasons of its own to convince us that AI exists, too. This makes me skeptical of many of the claims made for this technology.

With large language models—via their smiley-face masks—we are confronted by something we’ve never had to think about before. “It’s taking this hypothetical thing and making it really concrete,” says Pavlick. “I’ve never had to think about whether a piece of language required intelligence to generate because I’ve just never dealt with language that didn’t.”

AI is many things. But I don’t think it’s humanlike. I don’t think it’s the solution to all (or even most) of our problems. It isn’t ChatGPT or Gemini or Copilot. It isn’t neural networks. It’s an idea, a vision, a kind of wish fulfillment. And ideas get shaped by other ideas, by morals, by quasi-religious convictions, by worldviews, by politics, and by gut instinct. “Artificial intelligence” is a helpful shorthand to describe a raft of different technologies. But AI is not one thing; it never has been, no matter how often the branding gets seared into the outside of the box. 

“The truth is these words”—intelligence, reasoning, understanding, and more—“were defined before there was a need to be really precise about it,” says Pavlick. “I don’t really like when the question becomes ‘Does the model understand—yes or no?’ because, well, I don’t know. Words get redefined and concepts evolve all the time.”

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  1. What Is Magical Realism? Definition and Examples of Magical Realism in

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    Magic realism, magical realism or marvelous realism is a style or genre of fiction and art that presents a realistic view of the world while incorporating magical elements, often blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. [1] Magical realism is the most commonly used of the three terms and refers to literature in particular.

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    Magical realism is a genre can be found in most art forms, but the literary movement in particular was spearheaded by Latin American authors and is often read as a genre of political subversion. Also known as "marvelous realism," magical realism paints a realistic view of the modern world while adding magical elements.

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    In short, "magical realism" describes a work of fiction where fantasy slips into everyday life. However, the focus isn't on the fantastical elements of the story, so much as on what those elements mean for the characters. Fantasy often acts as an extended metaphor, externalizing some sort of internal conflict or moral quandary in the ...

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    Magical Realism 101: Definition and 15 Essential Classics Magical realism is a literary style that weaves threads of fantasy into a depiction of everyday life. Its heroes aren't fairies or sorcerers, they're ordinary people — whose lives happen to butt up against the extraordinary.

  10. Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community on JSTOR

    Writing in German in 1925 to champion a new direction in painting, Franz Roh originates the term Magic Realism to characterize this new painting's return to Realism after Expressionism's more abstract style. With the term, Roh praises Post-Expressionism's realistic, figural representation, a critical move that contrasts with our ...

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    Magical Realism Definition Magical realism is a narrative technique that introduces magical elements into an otherwise realistic setting. Unlike fantasy, where the existence of magic is often central to the plot and world-building, magical realism treats the extraordinary as part of everyday life, accepted without question by the characters.

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    Essentially, magical realism is a chance for authors to show an alternative to an accepted reality, which can be an incredibly powerful tool against political regimes. As more and more authors around the world took their cue from the authors of Latin America, the genre has become blended and conflated with other genres.

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    Introduction. "Magical realism" (or "magic realism") has given extensive service to the attempt to provide an overarching characterization of Latin American writing, or to identify a mode of Latin American writing that draws a line between what is touted as paradigmatically Latin American and poor imitations of privileged models.

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  19. The Origin and Development of Magical Realism

    The Origin and Development of Magical Realism. The emergence of the term Magical Realism, that is inaccurately associated with Latin American literature, sometimes naively with Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, has its roots prior to its appearance in the American Continent. Bowers (2004) divides the chronological ...

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    The term magical realism was coined by the German art historian Franz Roh in his essay: After expressionism: Magical Realism: Problems of the newest European painting (1925), and it initially referred to a new view of the real-world painting in Germany in the 1920s. It originated as a response to Impressionism, Expressionism, and Surrealism. Magical realism painters realistically depicted ...

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