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Franco Moretti, Modern Epic: The World System from Goethe to García Márquez, translated by Quentin Hoare. London: Verso, 1996. 256 pages.

Macondo as a m[ac]ondo [world], in short. The story of Buddenbrooks—in the context of the world-system. No wonder Europe went crazy over One Hundred Years of Solitude.

(238) 1

In the eyes of some, the novel is either dying, already dead, or, in either case, not worth much of an obituary. Although Franco Moretti would declare such views themselves dead on arrival, his book on continuity, discontinuity, and experimentation in Europe’s epic tradition, modern novel and long poem seems figuratively involved with death: with the evolutionary life of literary genres and their narrative devices in relation to closure, exhaustion, renewal, and obsolescence.

After reviewing Moretti’s history and geography of world texts, I will respond to his critique of the European or ‘Western’ view and reception of magical realism in the fiction of García Márquez and other Latin American writers by way of balancing his historical and theoretical insights with some regional perspectives of my own. In following such a partial approach, I will not be able to give the book’s entire curriculum all the attention it deserves. I say ‘curriculum’ because Moretti’s ‘essay’ or ‘saggio’ reads like an open workshop of indefinite interactive length on the modern historical evolution of prose, poetry, drama, and opera music in reference to fiction, ideology, power, open and closed intellectual spaces in public life, [End Page 944] modernity, archaism, and ambiguities in the way myth lends legitimacy to socially shared meanings.

Written in a spoken style marked by frequent asides and thought provoking ruminations, the sequence of nine chapters includes three each on Faust and Ulysses and one each on The Nibelung’s Ring and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Moretti combines a previously established indebtedness to Marx with a deeper though more hypothetical recourse to Darwin in search of a “materialist history of literary forms” (5). Taking as analytic target the “discrepancy between the totalizing will of the epic and the subdivided reality of the modern world” (5), he turns to Darwinism’s scientific interest in how imperfections in organic morphology among species may offer the best proof of a given evolutionary path. Going against current fashion and biology’s own compromised background in social ideology, Moretti starts from Darwin’s scrutiny of “random variations” and “natural selection” in the natural world and then suggests a literary analogy with, on the one hand, “rhetorical innovations, which are the result of chance,” and, on the other, “social selection, which by contrast is the daughter of necessity” (6). Literary history is thus fashioned with random creative loopholes somewhere in the fabric of the examined texts. Attention is paid to literary genre as “the true protagonist” of the history of literature, but mainly in terms of how a specific device, such as “polyphony, monologism, the commonplace, [or] allegory” (74), may transform the text into an object amenable to the study of morphological evolution in literary creation.

Instead of a sense of historical determinism and formal closure, what emerges from this kind of history is a sense of creative uncertainty, of (dis)closure punctuated by doubts and interrogations, concerning the emergence and evolution of textual devices and rhetorical experiments in the role of “‘unforeseen ideologies’” (55). Such is the case with Goethe’s stage-shattering mythologies (in Faust II), in which, through a device called “non-contemporaneity” (55), different and distant epochs “meet and mingle” in polyphonic chaos:

Instead of Bakhtin’s dialogic polyphony, critical and intelligent, just an incredible din. Voices that talk and talk without paying any attention to one another, as almost everywhere in Faust Part Two, or in the chapter ‘Midnight. Forecastle’ of Moby-Dick, or in the Basilica of Heresies in The Temptation of Saint Anthony.


Beginning with Faust, Moretti readjusts the concept of polyphony, taking it beyond Bakhtin, and shows how it progressively upstages [End Page 945] stream of consciousness narration in Ulysses. He redefines polyphonic textuality by removing heteroglossia and discursive pluralism from their Bakhtinian genre-specific sites in the novel and giving them a different role in the modern epic. Together with such modernist techniques as “collage,” “free verse,” “the emancipation of dissonance,” and “metonymic drift,” polyphony represents one of several “world effects” designed “to give the reader the impression of being truly in the presence of the world,” and making “the text look like the world—open, heterogeneous, incomplete” (59).

Such technical literary devices usually readapt older ones and find new functions for them. They are the driving element behind Moretti’s conception of world texts, works that operate in transformative kinship with a classical epic tradition that seemed all but exhausted in being rendered obsolete by the novel. But in Moretti’s historic geography, the novel “invents a new language,” while the epic “produces a new interpretation of the old language” (88). As already evident in Goethe’s revisions of Faust, the modern epic moves beyond “the compactness of a world in which everybody speaks the same language, and lives in the same period,” and replaces this homogeneous world with “a huge symbolic stratification” and “the specific historicity of a universe in which fossils from distant epochs coexist with creatures from worlds to come,” and where “there is no trace of that great novelistic invention which is the present” (88). But why assume such alienating burdens in the first place? Why should there be world texts in the first place?

In search of an answer, Moretti turns to Hans Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age and the concept of “inherited form,” according to which the historical past is never entirely superceded. Modernity, in confronting past traditions, is taken away from an autonomously chosen spiritual physiognomy of its own. The modern epic inherits the function through which

classical antiquity, Christianity and the feudal world had represented the basis of civilizations, their overall meaning, their destiny.


While in theory modern European literature could have shunned such a legacy altogether, in doing so it would have demonstrated “its own inferiority with respect to the greatness of the past,” limiting itself to the “far narrower space-time of the novel” (36). Inherited forms such as the epic are subject to a double bind: they are unshakable armatures of self-legitimation and high seriousness, but are rather hard to believe. The scholastic and encyclopedic impulses [End Page 946] inherent in modern epic universalism are deflected and exploited by means of irony and farce. A form of cynical masochism seems to attend the reading of a world text; the encyclopedic environment that surrounds it becomes pregnant with irony and ridicule as it keeps expanding; but the “irony that renders its meaning unstable compels us for that very reason to take it terribly seriously” (38). Modern epic encyclopedism has yielded literary works of flawed grandeur and strained sublimity.

Alongside Faust, The Nibelung’s Ring, Ulysses, and One Hundred Years of Solitude, Moretti’s main canon of flawed masterpieces of the modern epic includes Moby-Dick, The Cantos, The Waste Land, The Man Without Qualities, and Midnight’s Children. How many more world texts could be identified in the past or present—and where in the world they might be found in the future remains an open question. In their defining features, world works (‘Opere Mondo’) address allegorically a large measure of the world’s symbolic fabric; they engage by way of polyphony and orchestral irony many of the institutional commonplaces operative at various levels and stages of capitalist development in the modern global system, their worldliness being inherently linked to social and economic conditions and structures of development, colonial exploitation, subordination, and economic dependence. In other words, their definition seems heavily determined by the history and economic aftermath of European world expansion. Rather than emerging in the “highly homogeneous national cultures of France and England” (50, n31), world epic texts emerged in areas of “combined development,” as in

the still divided Germany of Goethe (and of the early Wagner); in Melville’s America (the Pequod: bloodthirsty hunting, and industrial production); in Joyce’s Ireland (a colony, which nevertheless speaks the same language as the occupier); in certain zones of Latin America.


As I will explain later on with reference to “certain zones of Latin America,” Moretti’s geographical specifications are as suggestive as they are questionable. 2

Although intricately self-involved and in some cases partly unreadable, world texts manage to contribute to the encyclopedic preservation of myths in the invention of contemporary world culture. They are residually ‘sacred’—at least by analogy with older religious scriptures, cosmogonies, and wisdom texts such as Empedocles’ writings—their “ideal reader” being “no longer the individual, but an entire society” (22). World texts such as Goethe’s Faust have appeared [End Page 947] before civilized eyes in Europe and elsewhere as “great allegories” with their own secular kind of sacred aura and meanings secured by exegetical tradition; but they have also opened themselves up to “limitless polysemy” and “innumerable future interpretations” as the “first open works of the modern West” (88). As literature became “redundant” for “the purpose of social cohesion” (92), such plurality of signification served to distinguish world texts from religious scriptures; modern literary authority was turned inside out and its share of wisdom and transcendent enchantment was preserved even in parody of traditional learning and belief:

The sacred text declined: the book that had to keep society united, and that therefore demanded an univocal interpretation. The world text was born: which had no ‘political’ responsibilities, and which therefore allowed multiple readings.


The classical concept of epic action was one of the elements reshaped and reinvented in the long gestation of Faust II—the breakthrough world text—beyond the formal limits of Faust I as tragedy. Whereas, as Moretti reminds us, in the Iliad, “even the hero’s inactivity—Achilles in his tent—produces practical consequences of great importance,” in Faust’s “gigantic spectacle” epic drama’s “transformative action” is relocated “in imagination, in dream, in magic” (16). Modern epic action begins by taking shape through the hero’s implied accommodation to his “passivity,” as Faust “wills not to will: to share the destiny of his species, rather than intervene in it” (17). But with Mephistopheles—at the point where areas of meaning multiply and epic action is radically altered—a character is reborn as poor in ethical fiber as he is rich in entrepreneurial and colonizing energy; reborn because Mephisto remains virtually unemployed in the tragic realm of Faust I, but comes alive in Part Two in support of Goethe’s bricolage construction: he “invents paper money, sets the Empire on fire, brings the legends of antiquity back to life, fights a civil war, constructs Holland” (18). With the second Mephisto, Goethe may have tinkered his way into a new character function he could not have anticipated at the start. Mephisto’s elastic assumption of multiple roles dovetails with Faust’s own passive stance and allows the latter to remain “extraneous to action” and to guilt. He shields his master from all violence, and thanks to him

a strategy is born that will be fundamental to the modern epos, indeed to the whole of Western culture: a strategy of denial and disavowal—a [End Page 948] projection of violence outside oneself. Goethe’s brilliant discovery: the rhetoric of innocence.


In counterpoint to Faust, Mephisto opens the way for Europe’s celebration of its world dominance without reference to the “violence sustaining it” (26).

As I see it, Mephisto’s handyman adaptability to situation rather than character and to camouflaged politics instead of ethical exposure involves him in ‘mimicry’ and other uncanny strategies through which colonial hegemony may find itself contested by its (ex-)subjects as if from within its own psychic and cultural boundaries. In this regard, it is worth combining Moretti’s view of Mephisto with Peter Sloterdijk’s portrait of the aboriginal modern cynic or ‘kynick.’ 3 As defined by Sloterdijk, cynicism “is enlightened false consciousness—unhappy consciousness in modernized form”; it

articulates an uneasiness that sees the modern world steeped in cultural insanities, false hopes and their disappointment, in the progress of madness and the suspension of reason, in the deep schism that runs through modern consciousness and that seems to separate the rational and the real.


In cynicism’s second version—the one most relevant here—“kynicism” appears as an ancient critique of civilization, urging “individuals to maintain themselves as fully rational living beings” against the unreason and crooked “semirationalities” of their societies and in pursuit of “existence in resistance, in laughter, in refusal, in the appeal to the whole of nature and a full life” (218). Kynicism “begins as plebeian “individualism, pantomimic, wily, and quick-witted” (218). Its colonial parallels in ancient and modern societies are numerous and include such masquerade pundits and metaphysicians of internal colonization as Melville’s confidence man.

In Sloterdijk’s view, Goethe’s devil appears “in the stormy years of secularization that begin to liquidate the thousand-year-old inheritance of Christianity” (175). This seems relevant to the harshest post-colonial polemics. After all, The Satanic Verses looks and certainly reads like Mephisto’s latest world text. In Faust, the devil’s incarnation of human evil embraces both progress and a regressively fiendish understanding of dark origins—his closest and more recent ancestor in Goethe’s plot being a dog. As Sloterdijk puts it, Mephisto

is the first post-Christian realist; his freedom to speak must still seem infernal to older contemporaries. When the Devil opens his mouth to say [End Page 949] how it really is in the world, the old Christian metaphysics, theology, and feudal morality are swept away. If his horns and claws are also taken away, there remains of Mephistopheles nothing more than a bourgeois philosopher: realist, antimetaphysicist, empiricist, positivist.


Here we have quite a ‘hybrid’ product: Mephisto as the first and definitive modern Caliban magical realist, capable of improving the colonizer’s professions and disciplines at the cutting edge while playing dark enchantments upon them.

A properly demonic and spectral colonial quality in Faust’s servant and devil mate makes him/her antithetical to the protagonist of Europe’s novel of character growth and moral sensibility. 4 In his previous The Way of the World (1987), Moretti argued that the “classical” Bildungsroman “seeks to show” how “non-bourgeois organic principles embody a social cohesion unknown to the culture of critical individual autonomy,” as a way of ultimately allowing the imperatives of social integration to become “interiorized” and experienced by the novel’s protagonists as their own desire; not as sheer necessity or accommodation, but as a “value choice” all of their own:

in the classical Bildungsroman the renunciation of freedom has its recompense in the ‘immanence of meaning’. Ultimate symbolic gratification: the world speaks our language. 5

In facilitating a psychic and symbolic interiorization of social constraints, the ‘novel of formation’ institutes at the level of individual experience ethereal changes in how political circumstances are felt and interpreted.

Rather than looking to the future, “the valorization of the existing order by the classical Bildungsroman prompts hero and reader to look back, towards the past” (WW 68). By lending retrospective ethical coherence to the individual’s life journey, the Bildungsroman fulfills “the dream of every ideology: the ethical establishment of socialization—the legitimation of the social order in its fullest sense” (WW 72). Just as world texts typically engulf and surpass personal agency by reaching obliterating levels of reference beyond individual action, during its relatively brief life the Bildungsroman was able to satisfy an earlier aristocratic and bourgeois need to cultivate a sense of personal historical experience which “continued to make absolute cohesion and totalizing harmony not only a desirable ideal, but a conceivable one too” (WW 72). A sense of total aims and reflective means is thus reached inwardly and temporally, rather than by outward, widening, [End Page 950] and synchronic expansion through world spaces, as happens in many world texts.

The “principal narrative choices” in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (i.e. the protagonist’s “social and intellectual physiognomy;” the “temporary and inadequate centrality of his point of view;” the “totalizing features of the ending;” the “predominance of necessity over possibilities”; and the “‘symbolic’ structure”) are evidence in Moretti’s view of “the single desire” that the “French Revolution may be ‘disavowed’—or, more realistically, that the irreversibility of its effects may be denied” (WW 72–73). In the same epoch in which Hegel’s Aesthetics achieved a “merciless historicization of epic poetry” (12), while declaring it impossible, and just as Goethe was writing a drama of epic proportions, Bildungsroman cosmology was built on a core imaginary informed by revolution and counterrevolution, whose narrative and thematic cohesion fell apart when

a world which had opened itself to a ceaseless clash of values and an erratic development with no end in sight could no longer recognize its own features in the bright normality of Wilhelm Meister, nor believe in such a total and easily available happiness.

(WW 73)

To a certain extent, the pivotal role played by the French Revolution in Moretti’s critical history of the Bildungsroman is assumed in Modern Epic by the geographies and geopolitics traced by colonial legacies within and beyond Europe and the culture of modernism. One moves from the realm of individual souls in the European novel of ethical learning and sentimental disenchantment to the magic and charismatic perils of social solidarity and the threatened disintegration of internal and external boundaries among groups within and across national borders, mostly in a world elsewhere, beyond Europe, even if located within its peripherally shifting boundaries.

It seems useful then to situate an imaginary cartography beside Moretti’s current world system mapping in which the culture and literature of European modernism would appear side-by-side the culture of recent world epic works marked by the experimentation of that former era, an era historically vanished but unfinished, at least when it comes to understanding literature’s current transnational climate. But it would be a cartography of experimental devices and their ideological implications, rather than a map of publishing policies or book sales of “serious” literature in markets around the world. For, unless I misunderstand Moretti’s arguments, the concept [End Page 951] of world epic becomes meaningless if not examined with reference to the social alienation of individual experience and the rather dismal fate of the modern spirit in Europe, a crisis of which there is critical evidence as early as the Enlightenment: for instance, in the “dream of totality” in which a character like Diderot’s Rameau is seen—in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind—pursuing a “great venture of ‘self-estrangement’, nourishing his own individuality upon the countless forms of modern culture” (193). The “mimicry of objective culture” on Rameau’s part comes in answer to the Enlightenment’s “‘project of Modernity’” (in Habermas’s thesis), which pursued the enrichment of everyday life by developing the sciences, morality, law, and the arts in terms of their own “‘inner logic’” (193) beyond the grasp of esoteric traditions.

Moretti sees the slow onset of a culture of modernity in Europe being influenced by the novel’s way of “moderating” (195) the effects of a rift between the anthropocentric illusion of a world made answerable to individual human needs and the disorienting plurality of disciplines which deny objectivity to such an illusion. Although at first it nurtures subjectively centered illusions with its peculiar wealth of “anthropocentric devices,” the novel “ends up yielding to that growing rift,” and:

At the start of the twentieth century, as though obeying some secret signal, Conrad and Mann, Musil and Rilke, Kafka and Joyce, all set about writing stories of ‘formation’ [Bildung] in which the Bildung does not occur: in which objective culture, congealed in conventions and institutions, no longer helps to construct individual subjects, but wounds and disintegrates them.


The continuing relevance of modernism for world epic texts lies in how its various experiments in the arts gave formal expression and even heightened and exploited Europe’s crisis of alienated subjectivity and social anomie, but also in how what was in essence a crisis involving totality was not answered or resisted by means of a totalitarian aesthetic ideology.

As a case in point, Moretti proves unequivocal though ironic in his admiration for Joyce’s way of recasting the literary device of polyphony as if languages and places in the modern metropolis spoke of their own accord and resulted in “unstoppable productivity” (206). Ulysses gives us a “polycentric urban universe” (198) and a “world full of culture,” yet “totally devoid of wisdom” (211). In choosing culture over wisdom, Ulysses remains at a greater distance than The Waste Land [End Page 952] from the tricky ironies lurking in the use of myth. In being more “monologic” and synthesizing than Joyce in his handling of myth, Eliot may have reached “a compromise formation” (228) whereby the surface effects and “polyphonic complexity” of modernism—its fragmentation and collage techniques—are balanced and controlled by “colossal commonplaces” (228) drawn from ancient and modern myths. At the apex of modernist experimentation in literature, The Waste Land embodies

the allegory of a heterogeneous but forcibly unified reality. The most abstract form of ‘totality’ imaginable in the capitalist world-system. And, perhaps, the most truthful.


This is how Eliot’s poem would resist totalitarian temptations and fascist solutions, and how it may have bequeathed to world texts in the wake of modernism a complex absorption in cultural impurity, indulgence toward consumption, and a fondness for “eccentricities and experiments” (228). In the aftermath of such direct or indirect influences, the modern epic tradition would have persisted—and may eventually perish—haunted by its own shadow and chased to its formal edges by notions of totality which originated and developed in Europe’s philosophical tradition. Tied to the empirical fetish of their global commodity status, world texts would rehearse their claim to symbolic worldliness encumbered by their own formal and ideological investment in a contemporary global culture marked by crises which render the attainment of such worldliness itself suspect.

Moretti’s interpretation of One Hundred Years of Solitude and magical realism brings him back to Faust and the allied concepts of ‘non-contemporaneity’ and the ‘rhetoric of innocence.’ By moving back and forth in time, the travels of Faust and Mephistopheles resemble “geographical expeditions” in which “arrival in far-off epochs recounts (and masks) landing on distant shores” (53). The depths of the past and its mythologies are bound to Faust’s ability to put them to work in the present; different historical scenes become a “gigantic metaphor for geography” (52), but also “metaphors of innocence” which “present the power of the West as something fundamentally innocuous,” for in doing violence to ancient fables, one “cannot harm a phantasm” (53). Now, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the narrated present, by being “pursued by the future, which drives it towards the past,” turns into “a ‘strange’ present: unstable, overdetermined” (242). Magical realism lends “tremendous novelty” to non-contemporaneity by making “the heterogeneity of historical time” a source of [End Page 953] narrative interest, not just as “the sign of a complex, stratified history, “ but as “the symptom of a history in progress” (243). The town of Macondo witnesses a “story of incorporation” (244) in three stages of progressive malaise. First, a “moment of combined development” or “white magic” when the new and the old clash to no one’s harm, and in which “the key word of modernism—possibility—pervades every page of the story” (244). Then, a second stage, when the wars fought and lost by Aureliano Buendía plunge a little village in the forest into a vicious cycle of violence monopolized by a largely corrupt nation state. Finally, with the arrival of the banana plantation, Macondo experiences “enslavement to monoculture” (244) and its own “hour of black magic,” when earlier promises and possibilities crumble under “a more complete—and hence more rigid—integration” (245) into the world economic system. Macondo’s world instills in the reader a “nostalgia for disorder” (241), a “hybrid, ill-defined epoch” (239) of generations—Moretti counts five—that can become tightly knit in fifty words of flowing syntax and unravelled in three large narrative steps towards monoculture.

If monoculture is a one-way ticket into the world system, bananas and cocaine, monetary policies and Nobel prizes for hitherto unknown writers, how is one to understand Moretti’s further assessment of “monologism” in One Hundred Years of Solitude, its “writing without polyphony, and without irony . . . as transparent as a fine summer morning” (246)? Just imagine: monologism without irony, after European literature had long ago “discovered the omnipresence of ideologies, hence the impossibility of an ‘objective’ viewpoint” (246). Yet, a similar discovery had been made in Latin America—in modern fiction as early as the novels of Machado de Assis.

There is a widespread tendency to perceive the Latin American novel as a sort of magical realist theme park, and to exaggerate the candor—as if unmediated by irony—of the manner in which magic (or lo mágico) is represented in One Hundred Years of Solitude—where even incest is ironic. One wonders in what way the impoverishment brought to Macondo by semi-peripheral world monoculture might be related to the way in which magical realist narrative enchantment might be felt in Berlin, Rome, or Bogotá. For, just as one might mistake the Latin American novel as a whole for magical realism, one might also underrate the degree to which “magical realism” itself could imply that having a thriving monoculture has become—everywhere—the defining and qualifying feature of being at the heart of a polycentered world system. What I find worrisome is not only that [End Page 954] a single global culture should continue to erode regional idioms and intellectual accents in Europe and Latin America, but also that the complex and conflicted status of Latin America and the Caribbean within Western cultural traditions might be further denigrated. As guiltless as Moretti is of any such misrepresentation, he seems all too ready to accept as accurate summary judgements on the character of Latin Americans which he might not so readily accept in reference to Europeans, as when Mario Vargas Llosa, the region’s greatest living novelist next to García Márquez, declares:

In Latin America . . . we still have great difficulty in differentiating between fiction and reality. We are traditionally accustomed to mix them in such a way that this is, probably, one of the reasons why we are so impractical and inept in political matters for instance. But some good also came from this novelization of our whole life. Books like One Hundred Years of Solitude, Cortázar’s short stories and Roa Bastos’s novels wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

(248) 6

As he moves on to reconsider “the role of magical realism in the West” (249), Moretti avoids or ignores the chance to ponder in which sense Vargas Llosa might be speaking from the West, to the West, and by the West. I am far from being among those who would fault the Peruvian writer for his cultural and political affiliation with the West. Instead, I find fault in the way in which he exaggerates the splendid and problematic European achievement of a differentiated and autonomous sphere for literary fictions, placed beside but beyond political and religious dogmas:

literature constitutes a radical negation of the world that inspires it: a beautiful lie . . . literature expresses a kind of truth that is neither historical nor sociological or ethnological, and that is not determined by its likeness to a preexisting model. It is a hard-to-catch truth made up of lies . . . . A discrete hecatomb, a daring smuggling . . . . A seditious reconstruction of life. 7

I also fault Vargas Llosa for exaggerating to the point of absurdity the degree to which Latin Americans engage in a sort of ready-made magical realism by mixing and holding in confusion their everyday fictions and realities, their politics and myths. I fault him for implying that the radical autonomy from social reality that he believes exists in his own fiction and that of Flaubert, Joyce, Borges, Kafka, may be motivated or justified by a distinctive Latin American reification: (a)voiding the difference between reality and fiction. Although on the surface political ineptitude combined with spontaneous novelistic [End Page 955] gifts may seem randomly quixotic and fancy-free, the underlying consequences of quixotism, as Cervantes himself demonstrated, are a closed mind. Vargas Llosa’s allegiance to Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies should help him understand that, beyond their ineptitude, political fiction makers—less gifted and aristocratic than Plato—may often do far more than bungle their politics; they may cravenly choose tyranny over democracy. But, is this not precisely what one learns reading Vargas Llosa’s novels and those by Roa Bastos and other non-magical realists?

In the end I wish that, besides explaining how European readers found in One Hundred Years of Solitude a terrific analgesic to soothe a century’s worth of colonial anxieties and guilt, Moretti had held a bit longer and deeper in the convex mirror of his critical knowledge that other West lying to the south of the American West. If, as he claims, Europe received “absolution” from the “victim” itself in magical realism’s rediscovery of the “rhetoric of innocence,” I think this is quite alien to what realismo mágico meant to Latin Americans during its brief heyday from Macondo to Isabel Allende’s sentimental clone, La casa de los espíritus (1982). Before ‘going global’ and becoming a patterned publishing phenomenon, it is doubtful realismo mágico meant “a complicity between magic and empire” (249), or “resistance to the ‘disenchantment’ of modernization” (248), or that “the forced modernization of One Hundred Years of Solitude [was] a story of extraordinary delight,” so much so that “Anybody would have liked to live in Macondo” (250).

Well, no, not really. No sense of delight or success came from the story of Macondo; it came from being able to tell a story of recurrent wretchedness by means of a place like Macondo. The ‘success-story’ pattern entered magical realism with a feminist accent and with the pride of place, social origins and good breeding that comes from living in a ‘House of Spirits,’ or owning a ‘House on the Lagoon,’ or from ‘Dreaming in Cuban,’ dreaming so well in fact that goats are sacrificed in your honor—as well as in Elegguá’s, the orisha of the roads, and Fidel Castro’s favorite warrior god. To become ‘modern’ meant professional achievement, mostly as a ‘symbolic analyst’—to borrow Robert Reich’s term—capable of writing and reinventing her own life and keeping it in touch with human and sacred ancestors, white, indian, or black, but always attached to the domestic sublime. Claimed by narratives of female empowerment, realismo mágico found a new dwelling for Latin American and Latino mestizaje or ‘hybridness’ as the sign and crucible of social progress and multicultural civility. [End Page 956]

The questions of “symbolic resistance to Western penetration” and how “mythical thought is reinvigorated by forced modernization” (248–49) are brought into sharp focus by Moretti in reference to Asturias’ Men of Maize, perhaps the most important “prototype of magical realism” (249). However, reading lesser known but equally significant novels on the same theme—such as José María Arguedas’ El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (1971) and Manuel Zapata Olivella’s Changó, el gran putas (1983)—leaves the impression that what Moretti calls the “hesitation over the historical meaning of myth” (249) should be best considered outside the magical realist canon. It seems to me that these novels were written in a different mode and originated in ethno-cultural and aesthetic contexts not only different from but, as in the two just mentioned, quite resistant to realismo mágico.

Moretti’s world-system scheme should help rather than hinder the task of regrounding certain novels or ‘world texts’ from Latin America in the environment of their genesis and earliest reception, which is what he does with Faust and Ulysses. As for having liked to live in Macondo, at least in Colombia and Cuba, it is better to own a boutique by that name (as the wife of Macondo’s inventor does at the Cohiba Hotel in Havana) or, at least, to claim a grand old uncle named ‘Fausto’ who might have lived there.

Eduardo González
The Johns Hopkins University


1. First published as Opere Mondo: saggio sulla forma epica dal Faust a Cent’anni di solitudine (Turin: Giulio Einaudi editore spa, 1994).

2. See also Franco Moretti, “Modern European Literature: a Geographical Sketch,” New Left Review 207 (1994).

3. “Mephistopheles, or: The Spirit that Always Denies and the Will to Knowledge,” Critique of Cynical Reason, trans. Michael Eldred (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 174–82. For a definition and discussion of cynical types see “The Cardinal Cynicisms,” 217–300.

4. On Mephisto’s sexual dualism, see Mircea Eliade, “Méphistophélès et l’androgyne; ou le mystère de la totalité,” Méphistophélès et l’androgyne (Paris: Gallimard, 1962), 111–81.

5. The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture (London: Verso, 1987), 65, 67 and 71; hereafter abbreviated as WW.

6. Quoted from John King, ed., Modern Latin American Fiction (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 5.

7. Mario Vargas Llosa, La utopía arcaica: José María Arguedas y las ficciones del indigenismo (Mexico: Tierra Firme, 1996), 84–84 (my translation).

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