A Necessary Dose of Magic in Our Lives?

I am rereading 100 Years of Solitude by the phenomenal Gabriel García Márquez, and what strikes me from a craft point of view is the delicious “intrusions,” for lack of a better word, of an element of fantasy or magic. Dubbed “magical realism” by the literary establishment decades ago, Marquez’s style (along with that of other well-known Latin American writers) seems like realistic prose at first, but then there are superhuman or unnatural elements introduced. I don’t need to elaborate here, for readers are certainly familiar with García Márquez’s works (Love in the Time of Cholera is another marvelous novel.) But this has led me to think about literature and art that takes us out of the ordinary realm–something that feels necessary when so much modern fiction is based in reality and personal experience. Have we lost our ability to think, to imagine, to go beyond the ordinary?

Outside of genre fiction and fantasy fiction, which are indeed thriving, we do have some noteworthy authors who do not write strictly realistic fiction: Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood immediately come to mind. I feel we need to encourage writers to do more of this, to create worlds, go beyond the pedagogical cliché of “write what you know.” Perhaps that tenant has done more disservice to fiction writing, and would be best rephrased as, “write what you understand.” There is a significant difference: knowing implies a familiarity with a situation, a body of knowledge, a certain mastery of the topic. Understand implies an innate knowing, what one grasps, and one may have acquired that knowledge in different ways or simply through intuition.

In music, think about the phenomena of glam rock as well as 80s new wave bands, who were the former’s successors. In both genres, there is an exaggeration of appearance, of form, of fashion. Though he was later the Thin White Duke, David Bowie’s 1970s Ziggy Stardust was a unique creation, an alien alter ego who was not clad in Doc Martens and jeans. Even Led Zeppelin, who were certainly much more real and not glam rockers, brought an element of the mystical and poetic to their performance–after all, they sang about Viking raids as though they were a common occurrence. We see this continue today, with artists like Janelle Monáe or Lady Gaga (whom I feel is derivative and unoriginal and does best when interpreting others’ works, such as in her excellent performance in “A Star Is Born.”) A lot of ambient music and electronica has an ethereal or unearthly quality to it. Some of it is easier and more enjoyable to listen to than others. We cannot conclude without mentioning Icelandic visionary Björk, who is a mistress of reinvention and truly beyond the ordinary. Each incarnation she becomes is more revolutionary than the last, and we never know what will come next. Her music is almost impossible to categorize, and that is wonderful.

Painter Salvador Dali challenged us with his revolutionary surreal artwork. Why should there be an eyeball in a random place? Who cares; it is what it is, perhaps what our subconscious understands. Francis Bacon’s grotesqueries are certainly unique and far from ordinary: distorted faces and gaping mouths. David Hockney might be painting ordinary scenes of men and swimming pools or fields with flowers, but his use of color takes us out of reality into a vivid, multi-hued world. In the world of fashion, we have the bizarre brilliance of the late Alexander McQueen, who clothes were really more like costumes rather than typical runway or off the rack wear. Issey Miyake also creates works of art with fabric that just happen to be things one can wear on one’s body.

To be able to imagine and create in fantastical ways brings us back in touch with a part of ourselves that we had so strongly in childhood. Why be prosaic all the time, realistic, ordinary? These artists and more have challenged us to see and feel in a different way and have all created an aesthetic of their own. The best artists always do this, and that’s why we love them so dearly.

Why We Love British Style

There is an incredibly large fan base of all things English and British here in the US; in fact, the British film industry is very aware of the American market when making and distributing films, knowing that they can recoup their expenses if the film does well here. Americans swoon over the Royals, British period pieces, accents, history, literature, architecture, etc. But why? Why, other than our shared heritage, do we have such a fancy for the UK?

-There is an element of reserve and restraint. So much in America is about spill-your-guts, Kardashian-style self-promotion, that we actually appreciate a sense of mystery. Not revealing everything, be it skin or our private lives, has an appeal. This is something that is part of the culture across all ethnic groups: compare a British Indian to an Indian-American, and you will notice a difference.

-Elegance and grace. Perhaps this is due to the UK having an active monarchy and a noble class, but this one is probably one of the most appealing aspects of British culture. This cannot help but filter down into daily life. Maintaining a sense of decorum, a proper afternoon tea on delicate china, stationers that have been around for centuries, an Anglican chorus–all of these elements make for a sense of things being out of the ordinary.

-The clothing. There is a long-running tradition of well-tailored garments, bespoke items, haberdashers, floral prints, beautiful yet sturdy woolens knit up north that are more about true style rather than trendiness. Cuts are clean, but fabrics are attractive and appealing. Tacky is not a word that one would generally apply to stylish British clothes, be it from the supermarket, Marks and Sparks, the High Street, or Stella McCartney. There is a long history of textiles (sadly, sometimes the result of colonial exploitation in India and elsewhere), and it may be safe to say that clothes are built from the fabric up, rather than just from a design and fabric chosen to suit it. We love historical dramas because we love to admire the lavish costumes and clothes: the sumptuous velvets, rustling silks, ruffled necks.

-A sense of whimsy and eccentricity. American culture is obsessed with looking perfect and fitting a particular image; Italian fashion must always be ultra-feminine and one must “fare la bella figura.” But the British have a sense of humor about things. You might choose a funny fascinator wear to a wedding, favor quirky shoes or Doc Martens, or have worn asymmetrical haircuts in the 80s. you might opt for a brightly-colored palette à la Zandra Rhodes or Ms. Pink and Mr. Black. Though his designs and not necessarily have been called elegant and beautiful all the time, the late Alexander McQueen’s work was truly unique and theatrical. They can be best dubbed as works of art rather than clothing, and his genius was uniquely British. Eccentricity is also something that cuts across all ethnicities and classes in the UK, which is a multicultural society.

-The architecture. Palladian windows, pillars, green lawns, and even modern wonders that you can see in the form of museums, university buildings, dwellings, and more. There are still so many historic buildings dating even from medieval times, but if modern architecture’s your thing, there is no shortage of that–have a look at the Tate Modern, which is built in a former power station, very industrial chic. But it is not so often that we find a 20th/21st century British building that is completely cold and devoid of feeling the way we do elsewhere in northern Europe. There is always a sense of emotion in British style, though not over-the-top.

-There is an embracing of the feminine element. It is not inconceivable for a man to wear understated florals, discreet prints, a pale pink shirt, etc. Think of the Scottish kilt–the original skirt for men! Not everything in the UK has to be straight lines or rational angles. There is still a contingent of pagans and women who embrace flowing hair, hippie style, flowing gowns. And let us not forget the numerous immigrants from all over the world, who bring their own fabrics and styles with them, be it robes and turbans from all over the African continent or Indian saris.

Naturally, this is only an observation of one angle of British culture. There are plenty of drunken, grubby men and women spilling from pubs, scantily clad girls who go off for hen parties (bachelorette parties in American English) in Spain, and people who are as apathetic to aesthetics as they are here in the US. But there is still something enduring and appealing about the artistic and stylistic output of the United Kingdom that we don’t quite find here in the United States.