Preface: What Is Magic Journalism?
by Chuck Rosenthal
from West of Eden: A Life in 21st Century Los Angeles
What Books Press, February 2012
A Magic Journalist understands that the narrative essay becomes a living metaphor of an inexpressible Universal Truth.
When I was living in the Himalayas I wrote almost everyday and some of this writing became the seeds of my first book of Magic Journalism, Are We Not There Yet? Travels in Nepal, North India, and Bhutan. In India the Hindus and the Buddhists, too, believe in the concept of maya, that is, that the world is illusory, and I began to write about that and about how that concept permeated Indian life. I wanted to write about how the concept of maya unconsciously operated in America and came to the discovery that there were many illusions Americans believed, from life-time warranties to police protection to believing that the thing you bought and paid for will be delivered to your house, or believing you lived in a functioning home or cosmos.
Yet it wasn’t so much watching and thinking and reporting that led me to the fundamental difference between American and Indian maya, but the act of writing about it. Reading what I wrote made me realize that in India reality is illusion and in America illusion is reality. When a traditional journalist writes about something, she starts out and ends with the thing she’s writing about. The Magic Journalist doesn’t know what he’s writing about until after he’s written it. In fact, I barely knew what this essay was about until I’d re-read it fifty times and re-written it ten more. What does it mean? Would you believe me if I said I didn’t know?
Magic Journalism doesn’t happen in front of you, it happens behind you. It’s informed by ideas that are impossible to believe and overdetermined by the conviction that those are the best kind. It’s not about mystery or recording mystery. In fact, I’m fed up with mystery, however fond I am of enigma, which unlike mystery can be unraveled into beauty and, as Emily Dickinson suggests, placed next to truth in a grave. No, Emily Dickinson was not a Magic Journalist.
Magic Journalism comprehends the tenuous relationship between events and the act of writing about them, and the even more tenuous event of reading it. In a Magic Journalist essay reality creeps up on you until it tips over into the magical, the absurd, the lyrical, the really real. It’s not about a given event, but an essential event, no matter how many actual events are involved. If a journalist investigates the facts, the New Journalist the issues, the Gonzo journalist the self, the creative non-fiction writer the personal experience, the Magic Journalist investigates the metaphor of living.
Because of their dependence on reporting, the previous incarnations of journalism have been adamantly naïve in regard to the relationship of language to the world. There’s a world out there and there are true things in it. These things are facts. They are events that happened. The traditional journalist, using words, tries to find these facts and report them. Though we can find root and reason to take us all the way back to Xenophon and Herodotus, and in the States, at least Thoreau, the New Journalism, which arose in the Sixties (Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, John McPhee, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag), was the first journalism, as such, to self consciously employ fiction techniques: narration, scene setting, scene and dialogue, to tell the story of an investigation, though the aim was still that of Ernest Hemingway’s non-fiction, you had to make choices about what you were going to depict in order to get to the true story. But the New Journalist is still after the facts; the thrust is still objective.
Closely on its heels came the Gonzo Journalism of Hunter S. Thompson (should I add Kathy Acker?) where the only attainable truths are seen through a subjective, if not radically distorted, lens. When Gonzo Journalism reaches hyperbole it comes closest to Magic Journalism, but it still engenders a naïve commitment to recording facts, no matter how subjective, and often implies that subjective experience is a means for getting at the truth. The progenitors of Gonzo Journalism were Beats, Jack Kerouac in Satori in Paris in particular, eliding into William Burroughs’ Junky, with tentacles reaching into autobiographical narrative, particularly the “naked” writing of the Seventies like Kate Millet’s Flying and Rita Mae Brown’s Ruby Fruit Jungle. American journalism, like its literature, has its Romantic (subjective truth) and Realist (objective truth) wings.
Magic Journalism is the first self-consciously post-modern journalism. I mean that it’s the first journalism that realizes that facts, either objective or subjective, do not lie behind words. In fact, that double entendre (to lie) is kind of what it’s all about. The Magic Journalist realizes that as soon as she writes about something it becomes very different than what might have happened.
How did a sculpture garden made up of used furniture and broken machines get in my front yard? It grew out of the things that never got into my house. Things I ordered by catalogue or telephone or the internet and never really arrived, or arrived in pieces that no one, no person or robot or computer or machine had ever bothered to put together. They’re just like the things inside my house that appear to have been put together, but really have just fallen into entity status by chance. Nothing in our lives really works. Nothing connects from one moment to the next but our belief that things are working. There is no difference between the life inside my home and the sculpture garden on my lawn, or the broken bus down the road that those meth addicts are living in. My friend Stephanie isn’t homeless, she’s living in a one room camper with one extension cord and no running water. There are homeless folks living under my sculpture garden right now! Call CNN! Wait till I tell the LA Times!
But a regular journalist, be he print or broadcasting, or blogging on the internet, likely wouldn’t touch this. Because it’s so true it’s happening everywhere, on the Pacific Palisades and Venice Beach, in Hollywood, Oakwood, South LA, Compton, Chatsworth, New York City, Philadelphia, everywhere. Where do you live?