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“Carbonized reality” and "hallucinating vegetables"

Anne Dalke's picture
This weekend, Jeff and I took a jaunt to Atitlan, and had our breath taken away by “the most beautiful lake in the world.” We also had our brains twisted around by the realization that
  • the archeologists who have excavated pottery from the lake bottom have turned up a series of the most surreal, laugh-out-loud items (see right and below...)
  • this tremendous lake was formed by a huge volcanic eruption 85,000 years ago, one that sent ash as far away as Florida; and
  • geologists only figured this out in 1980 (why does this please me so? –-as evidence of the ever-evolving nature of knowledge and story-telling; the guy whose theory was overturned said that he was glad there were young whippersnappers to prove him wrong!)
And what do I make of these juxtapositions? Not only that that ancient Mayans had a sense of humor, but that their world, like our own, is a place of cataclysm and chance.And that the absurd connections that humor makes may well be an index to the deeply quirky, idiosyncratic, and unpredictable nature of the real.

So—turns out I wasn’t taking the decided turn in my reading I expected, this weekend, when I went from the graphic political work of Rigoberta Minchú to the magical realism of Guatemala’s Nobel laureate, Miguel Angel Asturias. Asturias’ work mixes socialist realism and magical realism, the mythically universal and the particularly Guatemaletecan. It’s been described as a sort of “science fiction in reverse.” The collection I started with, The Mirror of Lida Sal: Tales Based on Mayan Myths & Guatemalan Legends, opens with a particularly evocative “Portico,” that draws the reader into the stories as into a Mayan ruin buried deep in the jungle: “Between the kernel of corn and the sovereign sun seethes the carbonized reality of the dream.”

As Asturias describes it, the nature of this “carbonized reality” is that of a communal dream, and the waking lives of individuals are merely stolen representations of what lies beyond:

“To create is to steal….All works of art are foreign and belong to those who borrow them from the interior of themselves; not how much we say that they are ours, they belong to the secret echoes, even though…we may let them shine as our own….” In the college seminar I’ve been co-teaching @ Bryn Mawr for the past five years, we use a NYTimes Magazine article by Lisa Belkin called ”The Odds of That,” which argues that—as pattern-making creatures, who now (thanks to the Internet) have an enormous wealth of information easily available—we humans need to beware our tendency to see patterns where there are none. On quite the other hand, Asturias suggests that such patterns are real: people sum up the most disparate events which are related to one another…by who knows what fatality….In nature, things happen. A lie buried in one place will pop up someplace else. It was all like a bad dream. Asturio even makes the evolution of life-forms on earth into a dream-like narrative. This is a very different (and intoxicating?!) way of describing tthe story of evolution that biologists have traced, as more complicated forms of life evolve from the mixing of simpler ones: Fermented rain. Drunkenness of the earth. The inebriated rivers zigzag. The trees are staggering drunk. The intoxication of the mineral is the vegetable. Minerals are drunk on vegetables. The drunkenness of the vegetable is the animal. The animals are hallucinating, delirious vegetables…

Put that in your pipe and smoke it: we are both “carbonized reality” and “hallucinating vegetables…”