Growing up on tales of King Arthur, magical stories remain fun, even in adult life. When one has heard tales of encounters with the wizard Merlin and has been told that Arthur and his knights would ride forth to protect us, if the need should ever arise, the magical slips easily into perceptions of the world. Perhaps the reading of the Easter story would come easier in a culture that did not specifically reject the possibility of the magical or the supernatural. Since the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment, there has been an assumption that the rational and the scientific views of the world are a complete expression of reality; that anything that cannot be explained in terms of the observable and the testable cannot be ‘true’. How differently does one read the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Márquez if one reads him from a starting point other than the rational view of the world? His magical realism becomes much more fun to read if the weight of centuries of European thought is set aside for a moment. Anything might happen, and often does:
Holding a child by each hand so as not to lose them in the tumult, bumping into acrobats with gold-capped teeth and jugglers with six arms, suffocated by the mingled breath of manure and sandals that the crowd exhaled, José Arcadio Buendía went about everywhere like a madman, looking for Melquíades . . . He asked several gypsies, who did not understand his language. Finally he reached the place where Melquíades used to set up his tent and he found a taciturn Armenian who in Spanish was hawking a syrup to make oneself invisible. He had drunk down a glass of the amber substance in one gulp as José Arcadio Buendia elbowed his way through the absorbed group that was witnessing the spectacle, and was able to ask his question. The gypsy wrapped him in the frightful climate of his look before he turned into a puddle of pestilential and smoking pitch over which the echo of his reply still floated: “Melquíades is dead.” Upset by the news, José Arcadio Buendía stood motionless, trying to rise above his affliction, until the group dispersed, called away by other artifices, and the puddle of the taciturn Armenian evaporated completely. . . The children had no interest in the news. They insisted that their father take them to see the overwhelming novelty of the sages of Memphis that was being advertised at the entrance of a tent that, according to what was said, had belonged to King Solomon. They insisted so much that José Arcadio Buendia paid the thirty reales and led them into the center of the tent, where there was a giant with a hairy torso and a shaved head, with a copper ring in his nose and a heavy iron chain on his ankle, watching over a pirate chest. When it was opened by the giant, the chest gave off a glacial exhalation. Inside there was only an enormous, transparent block with infinite internal needles in which the light of the sunset was broken up into colored stars. Disconcerted, knowing that the children were waiting for an immediate explanation, José Arcadio Buendía ventured a murmur: “It’s the largest diamond in the world.” “No,” the gypsy countered. “It’s ice.”
Garcia Márquez pokes fun at the practical, down to earth, sensible view of the world:
Ursula was barely over her forty days’ rest when the gypsies returned. They were the same acrobats and jugglers that had brought the ice. Unlike Melquíades’ tribe, they had shown very quickly that they were not heralds of progress but purveyors of amusement. Even when they brought the ice they did not advertise it for its usefulness in the life of man but as a simple circus curiosity. This time, along with many other artifices, they brought a flying carpet. But they did not offer it as a fundamental contribution to the development of transport, rather as an object of recreation. The people at once dug up their last gold pieces to take advantage of a quick flight over the houses of the village.
Disappearing Armenians and flying carpets are great fun, but not good theology. One does not live one’s life on the basis of magical realism; whereas large numbers of people do live their lives on the basis of a story of a man coming back from the dead. What difference is there in a story in a novel of an Armenian gypsy who disappears and the story from ancient manuscripts of a Galilean carpenter who reappears? Many people would believe that, in terms of rational truth, there was no difference; that both occurrences are no more than a matter of imagination. But even they would be forced to acknowledge that there is an extremely large perceptible difference in the impacts of the stories; the story of the carpenter being celebrated by hundreds of millions every spring.
What sets the Easter story apart from the magical realism of Garcia Márquez? The difference is the personal experience of those who hear and retell the story; an experience that is not amenable to scientific testing or to rational explanation, but is, nonetheless, real.
Perhaps the question, in its simplest terms, is whether we believe in the magical.