One author’s works keep coming to our minds in the last few weeks: Gabriel García Márquez. Thoughts of Love in the Time of Cholera have led to Chronicle of a Death Foretold to 100 Years of Solitude. Marquez published these books in reverse order, with solitude coming before the threat of cholera, counter to what we experience now.
Márquez's contribution to global literature was immense, his words inspiring the generations of writers, photographers, and artists that followed. He is also known as an originator of the literary genre called 'magical realism'. This is a genre that seems fitting for these discomfiting times, although again, we’re experiencing it in reverse.
First realism, then magic
The initial, abstract news stories about a viral outbreak in a distant province in China were followed fast by the bleak acknowledgement that the threat to human lives right here in South Africa could be immense. Reality has in short order become both unbelievable and unreal, a world order collapsing before our very eyes. Peoples separated, economies suspended -- perhaps ruined -- and ways of life upended indefinitely.
The mere gesture of reaching out and touching the hand of your friend, your comrade, your colleague is now a threat to both self and other. The surfaces of our daily lives are potentially contaminated, from countertop to the handle of a shopping cart. All of us, irrelevant of class or ethnicity, are now untouchables.
This is the reality we now inhabit.
And then magic.
The notions of self-isolation and social distancing seem to be from future dystopias, dictats issued by the totalitarians of Orwell's imagination. We know what they mean: isolate from others, keep a safe distance, but these notions contain an internal tension.
“Self-isolation,” “self-quarantine” imply a single self. But we have many selves: the public self we show the world, the private self reserved for our families and partners, and then the self only we know, the one held tightly, our truest possession. If Ubuntu teaches us that I am because we are, then who am I, if a pandemic pulls me away from the we?
What does it mean to quarantine myself from the selves that operate in the world -- the people I am with my loved ones, with my colleagues, with the strangers I meet on the street? In distancing ourselves from these selves, what might we find in between?
This, to our minds, is the sphere of magic.
Magic can trick us, distract us as we look one way while the watch is slipped from our wrist, the coin placed behind our ears. Or it can point to a world mischievous, that misbehaves and refuses to obey the laws of physics and legislatures. This too seems to be the world we now inhabit, one that refuses to obey rules.
And so from this magical unreality, perhaps new forms can emerge, a new imagination. New economies, new societies, new moralities, new art.
Or not. Maybe we want things to be put back where they were.
Andreas Vlachakis, Director, Lightfarm