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The Fiddler, by Marc Chagall, 1913 (Photo credit:  Wikipaintings)
Marc Chagall  (6 July 1887 – 28 March 1985) 

Cupid and Psyche  as Magical Realism

Mythology and Magical Realism

According to Professor Matthew Strecher’s magic realism is “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.”[1] Magical Realism is a main characteristic of Latin-American literature, but it has gained adherent elsewhere and it is not new. It present readers with a juxtaposition of what is usually considered the “real,” the “unreal,” and the “surreal.” An angel just may enter a room and play a role in a fictitious text. (See Magic Magic Realism, Wikipedia,)

The author of Wikipedia’s entry on magic realism states that “[t]his critical perspective towards magical realism as a conflict between reality and abnormality stems from the Western reader’s dissociation with mythology, a root of magical realism more easily understood by non-Western cultures.” (See Magic realism, Wikipedia)

Marc Chagall

In the visual arts, Marc Chagall (6 July 1887 – 28 March 1985) presents us with better examples of what could be called “magical realism,” whatever “school” his paintings are attached to. In the so-called “real” world, people seldom float in mid-air. But the world is not always real and the human imagination pushes its limits. We know that angels do not exist, but we nevertheless make room for them. In fact, we swear on the Bible, in which, ironically, angels dwell.

Apuleius’ Golden Ass

Apuleius‘ (c. 125 – c. 180 CE) Golden Ass is a novel, the first novel we have inherited in its entirety from Greco-Roman antiquity. First entitled Metamorphoses, the novel was renamed by Augustine of Hippo (St. Augustine). It is rather lewd, but The Tale of Cupid and Psyche isn’t, and mere mortals mix with immortal gods. This may confirm that magical realism has replaced mythology, but it may not.

It consists of a frame story and inner stories called “digressions.” One of these digressions, the third, The Tale of Cupid and Psyche, belongs to mythology and is a distant forerunner of magical realism in that its dramatis personæ  includes mortals and immortals who mingle informally. Venus, the immortal Roman goddess of love, whose Greek counterpart is Aphrodite, is featured next to Psyche’s father and seems a mere mortal.

Paris through the Window, by Marc Chagall, 1913 (Photo credit: Wikipaintings)
The Birthday, by Marc Chagall, 1915 (Photo credit: Wikipaintings)

The Tale of Cupid and Psyche

In The Golden Ass, Lucius is transformed into a donkey, which normally is not  possible. Metamorphoses belong to a realm most would look upon as “unreal.” It is fantasy. Yet Ovid‘s (20 March 43 BCE – 17/18 CE), Metamorphoses is one of Western culture’s most influential books. Human beings do not float in mid-air, with the exception of astronauts, nor can they fly, but the human imagination can imagine another reality and that reality possesses a form of “truth.”

It remains, however, that Apuleius’ mythological third digression, The Tale of Cupid and Psyche, is pure fiction. Psyches lives in a world where gods and mere mortals mingle, which is not possible outside fiction. Consequently, The Tale of Cupid and Psyche seems an instance of magical realism avant la lettre, i.e. before the term was coined.

For instance, early in the narrative, Psyches’ father, who would like his unfortunate daughter to find a suitable husband, went to Milet, an ancient Greek city, now found in Turkey, and called Miletus, “to receive the Oracle of Apollo, where he made his prayers and offered sacrifice, and desired a husband for his daughter whose elder daughters are married to kings.” Although Apollo is a Greek god, he replies in Latin and says:

Let Psyches corps be clad in mourning weed
And set on rock of yonder hill aloft:
Her husband is no wight of humane seed,
But Serpent dire and fierce as might be thought.
Who flies with wings above in starry skies,
And doth subdue each thing with firie flight.
The gods themselves, and powers that seem so wise,
With mighty Jove [Jupiter] be subject to his might,
The rivers blacke, and deadly flouds of paine
And darkness eke, as thrall to him remaine.
(Apuleius, The Golden Asse, Book 4, Chapter 22
Translated by William Adlington
The Gutenberg Project [EBook #1666]

Having heard the Oracle, Psyches’ father does take her up a hill and sets her “on rock of yonder hill aloft” where she is left “weeping and trembling,” but is “blowne by the gentle aire and of shrilling Zephyrus, and carried from the hill with a meek winde, which retained her garments up, and by little and little bought her downe into a deepe valley, where she was laid in a bed of most sweet and fragrant flowers.” 

Instead of taking her where “she may fall in love with the most miserablest [that word should be reinvented] creature living,” as Venus has asked Cupid, Venus’ son, makes himself invisible and has the wind “Zephyrus” transport her to a “bed of most sweet and fragrant flowers.” Here again, we have an example of magical realism, even if Psyches is “clad in mourning weed,” which suggests that she has died. However, her sisters, mortals, visit her.  

The “fairy tale” begins and, after the compulsory tasks—three in most fairy tales—have been performed, Psyches is transformed into a goddess, which may be her rightful self. In the “real” world, she is the victim of envy. In fact, Venus herself, a goddess who mingles with mortals, which is magical realism, is so envious of her that she wants her destroyed. However, In fact, Venus herself, a goddess who mingles with mortals, which is magical realism, is so envious of her that she wants her destroyed. However, as the most beautiful woman in the world, Psyches is an oddity, so her becoming a goddess seems appropriate.

The Golden Legend

We may have forgotten the names of the god and goddesses of mythology. However, the human imagination is such that if mythology did not exist humans would probably invent a replacement, such as magical realism. The bestseller of the Middle Ages was not the Bible, but Jacobus de Voragine’s fanciful Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea), an embellished hagiography or telling of the lives of saints, in general, and martyrs (martyrologies), in particular. 


Sources and Resources


The Promenade, by Marc Chagall, 1918  (Photo credit: Wikipaintings

[1] Matthew C. Strecher, “Magical Realism and the Search for Identity in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki,” Journal of Japanese Studies, Volume 25, Number 2 (Summer 1999), pp. 263-298, at 267.

W. A. Mozart (27 January 1756 – 5 December 1791)
Piano Concerto 23 (Adagio)
the-blue-house-1917The Blue House, by Marc Chagall
(Please click on the image to enlarge it.)
© Micheline Walker
6 August 2013