Thursday, January 15, 2009


In the January1, 2009 issue of ‘The London Review of Books’, Bee Wilson reviews a new translation (by Geoffrey Brock) of “Pinocchio’.

Ho-hum, might be the first thought. And how do you translate a movie? And why translate a movie that Walt Disney pretty much nailed back in 1940?

Therein begins the tale. Disney took the idea from a book, a fairy tale, originally written by the Italian Carlo Collodi in the mid-1880s.

But the book was an Italian fairy tale. Or, more to the point, a peasant fairy tale. Pinocchio is a spoiled, self-centered brat, so thoroughly unpleasant and viscerally, unreflectively impetuous that he begins whining and complaining while he is still only a block of wood on kindly Gepetto’s workbench. Not that Gepetto is any saint: he wanted a puppet that he could take on the road and earn a few bucks, playing local fairs and carnivals.

There’s a talking cricket, a magical creature that has lived in Gepetto’s house for a century – that offers the ‘kid’ sage advice about never amounting to anything unless he finds a useful occupation. The kid squashes him – like a bug, if I may – straightaway with a wooden mallet from the workshop, leaving the moosh stuck to the wall.

The kid wasn’t really sure why he did it. He just did it. Afterwards, thinking about it is too painful twice over: hard to think about what he just did to the cricket, and hard to think at all, really. This is classic ‘human’, and a very, very serious argument in favor of getting down to the work of raising a kid from Day One, because the human self is itself a moosh of primal emotions, and you’re not going to be able to live with the little dickens if you haven’t gotten him or her sort of well-set on some sort of Trellis; the vigorous plant of human life will run wild like kudzu if it isn’t worked into a Trellis from the get-go.

Needless to say, family life isn’t going to work too well unless the early work is done with at least modest care and competence. The plant doesn’t ‘grow’ well on its own, contrary to the excited, groggy illuminations of the Flower Children.

You could make a good case that a society isn’t going to work too well either, unless that initial work is done.

You could go on to wonder how as advanced a civilization and culture as Our own somehow lost that bit of practical wisdom, and not only ignored it but actually deployed the full power of the cultural elites and the government itself to deconstruct ‘the family’. Politics, politics. And here We are.

Wilson goes on to observe that “peasant Tuscany in the 1880s is a much harsher world than Disney’s Mitteleuropean fantasy of 1940”. So true. A peasantry in a nation still trying to come to terms with the double tasks of achieving the end of royal rule and the establishment of some sort of democracy, while also maintaining its identity against the corrosive waves of mid-19th century industrial capitalism and the concomitant rise of urban culture – bourgeois and working-class. It was no place for ‘children’, and no youngster could remain one for very long.

Part of the ‘trellis’ was to move quickly into the grown-up world of responsibility for tasks that contributed directly to the well-being, indeed the very survival, of the family into which s/he had been born. Failure at which might indeed weaken the survival potential of the whole family.

It was a hell of a lot more crucial than Little League or Pop Warner (let alone text-messaging and programming an I-Pod), and few Scouts in Our culture could amass through merit-badges the amount of skill and personal self-control of which an eight-year-old peasant had already earned possession.

No wonder two thoroughly and properly modern authors such as Richard Wunderlich and Thomas Morrissey, in their 2002 study of American takes on the Pinocchio story (entitled “Pinocchio Goes Postmodern”) consider Collodi’s “version” ‘unsuitable for children’ because, among other things, poor Jiminy gets squashed – and by Pinocchio himself – before the plot even gets rolling. They report that interviewees consider the squashing of Jiminy as “repellent” and – marvelously – “adult”.

Of course, watching Our official national ‘adults’ invade Iraq and torture dubiously-dangerous ‘detainees’ might lead any sensible kid to think that acting ‘adult’ is a pretty bloody business. Some precocious tykes might even get to wondering whether ‘deconstructing’ one’s society and culture in the middle of a dangerous and demanding era really displays the higher elements of adulthood – no wonder there’s an obsessive urgency to get them into ‘school’ as quickly as possible, where they can be made to learn to stifle their thoughts in the interests of sensitivity and correctness, unless called upon to wave a flag or flash an elfin look in front of the appropriate camera.

You would think that you would want to get kids thinking about ‘adulthood’ as soon as possible: they will, after all, have to carry on as ‘adults’ themselves before too long, and their little minds are already vacuuming up all sorts of information that is going to require a lot of serious sifting, critical analysis, and outright deliberation. The current American response to that challenge appears to be: deprive them of the ‘information’. And it seems to be not simply an early-grades educational philosophy, but a political and media strategy as well – not even the ‘adults’ around the kids seem to get much information upon which to exercise such thoughtfulness and reflectivity.

You can see what sort of an unhappy feedback-loop is going to get started here: kids are barred from exposure to the type of dissonance and necessary responsive pondering that their elders are already losing their own ability to conduct. This does not bode well for any form of ‘democracy’ at all, which perhaps may be one reason why most of Our classical democratic institutions – elected officials, ‘the press’, and even elections themselves – are in worse shape than the actual concrete infrastructure of bridges and highways and dams and essential systems having to do with large underground pipes.

As Wilson acutely points out: “It isn’t just Jiminy who is splatted against the wall, but the whole Disney dream-world, and the encouraging delusion that good things come easily to those who wish hard enough”. Ach!

I got a really bad feeling back there when Reagan began ‘Morning in America’ by looking back to America’s yesterday instead of to the day(s) ahead. It was perhaps the first major indication that We were going into decline as a culture and as civilization: not looking to the future, not even looking to the past to fortify Ourselves for even greater exertions and achievements in the future, but rather just re-playing old memories and daydreams; and not because We continued to demonstrate Ourselves as vital and efficacious, but simply insisting that We ‘were’ (how true!) American and that by looking at all those old achievements then We should be automatically respected as the heirs and beneficiaries of those who had done the achieving.


And not just all those old ‘achievements’ such as manufacturing all sorts of stuff (even Stalin bought 75,000 Model-A’s back in the day!) and providing education and health-care for large swaths of Our citizenry. But also those amazing ‘achievements’ in fantasy – the cartoons and the movies. Disney and MGM! Now there, for the world to see, was the American genius.

The genius was to ‘see’ the world in a way that would make you feel pretty good about yourself. That was Disney and MGM (whose genius and competence I hereby gladly acknowledge). Walt put fantasy in the service of a kid-friendly world, and Louis B. Mayer wanted things big, beautiful, and upbeat – and in color. Although it was John Ford who put it most pithily: when you’ve got the history and the legend, print the legend. A bit of sage advice delivered to the character of a newspaperman in a movie; but taken as a business-plan more recently by actual newspapers, who more and more are unable to distinguish between reality and ‘legend’, or ‘vision’, or – what they hey? – fantasy. Facts, famously, don’t matter.

Collodi wasn’t writing news reports. His ‘facts’ were on a far deeper level, which is the way all good fantasy operates.

You can’t help wondering if the Revolutionaries of the Identities, impatient and radical proponents of this and that vast and sudden change in the later 1960s and 1970s, hadn’t watched a bit too much Disney in their childhood: if you just ‘wish’ for what you want, then it will ‘happen’, even when you’re determining societal and foreign policy on a national level. Why ask the Great Strategic Questions (What then? What if?) or lose precious time ‘thinking’? If you really ‘get it’, then ‘just do it’ … dammit, this is America, after all! (And I think there’s more Disney and Louis B. in that assertion than there is any serious adult deliberativeness).

Not that I blame Walt and Louis B. for everything. McKinley picked a war with Spain to get his hands on the Philippines, but he was acting out of a cocky yet adult ruthlessness, anchored in the sure and certain belief that God wanted America to succeed, and thus had approved – willy or nilly – America’s doing ‘whatever it takes’ to achieve that success. Wilson (the President) and his boyos pre-dated the great productions of Walt and Louis B., but they also imagined themselves as heirs to the promise that McKinley believed extended beyond the ‘limited’ vision of Washington and the Founders.

And McKinley himself, in his generation’s frazzled eagerness to do something as ‘great’ as the Civil-War, 19th century America’s ‘greatest generation’, conveniently dis-envisioned Lincoln’s soaring vision of that gravid Second Inaugural – ‘and to achieve a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations” – and took the more ‘realistic’ path of starting a necessary but easy imperial war. Woodrow’s contribution was to ‘do it for’ Democracy and World Peace rather than any vulgar thought of economic gain.

Wilson (the President), choosing the role of belligerent rather than that of honest broker in 1916, helped create the Second Great War, which Franklin Roosevelt realized had to be fought because of the virulence and ferocity of the forces that had been catalyzed by the First. And while one segment of those forces was indeed defeated in that Second war – the fascist-militarist element – yet the Communist-Leninist-Stalinist element remained now stronger than before, and the beat went on until the core Communist state was run out, at which point the now un-Trellised USA yielded to its own fantasies and visions, seeking to wrap the planet in its own God-spun, empowerment-wrapped web. Oy.

I wonder if there shouldn’t be more of a ‘peasant’ sense among Us? Those shrewd and earthy peasants to whom Collodi, in his way, gave ‘a voice’, were not out to console their kids; they were trying to prepare them for the stubbornly carnivore world that humans seemed ever to create, in small and in large. They placed no trust in princes, and not because they read the Bible. Government to them was simply a different form of racket, run by better-dressed mobsters with bigger bunches of goons to collect the taxes and keep trouble-makers quiet … by whatever means necessary. The Church – the only ‘preachers’ they knew – was yet another form of racket, although it dealt with – and claimed to influence – powers so fundamental to existence that nobody but a complete idiot would think to overtly diss it.

They kicked a lot of tire and a lot of ass, those peasants; they had internal ‘whiskers’ that twitched at the merest tingle of ‘vision’ and ‘perfection’, nor did they take easily to ‘new’ and ‘improved’ anything. And they were always ready to reach for a pitchfork when ‘reform’ raised its head: they were clever enough to figure that whoever wanted to reform ‘something’ today would want to reform ‘somebody’ tomorrow or next week at the latest. As Mussolini was to discover – not at all to his surprise – ‘government reform’ required a substantial military escort … and the escort’s troops had better not be relatives of the paesani against whom they were being sent.

It is a fantasy that affords no little consolation in Our modern American reality, in Our present situation.

But you can’t very well expect a peasantry to perform the task of The People. A peasant’s very strength is in his or her stubborn mistrust of anything unfamiliar or ‘new’ or anything larger than the village around them. There is for all practical purposes a nihilism to being a peasant: things are what they are, are never going to get better, so stick to protecting your patch and getting on with life here and now. And with a little luck you can – as the Russian peasants used to put it – ‘die one’s own death’, without the interference of doctors or, more ominously, the state itself, in the person of its bureaucrats or its police agents.

So the peasant approach to things cannot ‘platform’ the role that The People are expected to play in a vigorous yet bumptious democracy.

But at the same time, it was clear even in the days of Madison and Jefferson, that those who would exercise the role of The People needed to be well-informed and well-educated enough to process the information that they were given. They needed this information to select candidates whom they would elect to represent them, and to judge the competence of the representation that the electees went on to provide. They needed – as hard as it was – to try to keep a larger picture, of the entire common-weal, even as they kept a close eye on their own needs and affairs. They needed a confidence that things could change, could be helped to change, for the better – if enough attention was paid to matching resources and requirements, and a sober and steady appraisal was made of possible consequences, intended or otherwise.

To the extent that a citizenry lost these competencies, then democracy would become impossible, a ‘suicide pact’ even. An ‘immature’ citizenry – through age or, even more crucially, through such characterological incompetence – would be unable to Ground the Branches, and the whole experiment would go the way of Rome, and sooner rather than later.

The ‘magic’ of Disney and MGM, profoundly uplifting in its way, is still a ‘magic’ – and it has had the unintended consequence of spilling over from being ‘entertainment’ to becoming an unacknowledged, pre-conscious assumption as to how the world actually works. ‘Good intentions’ and ‘enough’ resources will somehow ‘solve’ any problem, no matter how wide or deep or great; and it will effect such a solution without any nasty side-effects or unforeseen or unintended consequences, and quite possibly without incurring any consequences that any reasonable observer might worry would happen.

With such ‘magical’ presuppositions, far far too many adventures-in-change have been undertaken, domestically as well as in foreign policy. Now We are finding Ourselves in a world where there is far less magic and far more consequence. A world with far too few cuddly, dream-serving ‘unicorns’ and waayyy too many actual horses, many of which We have irritated into a state of biting, kicking, and bucking.

When Ben Cartwright returns, He’s gonna find His ranch all gone to hell, and what shall We say then? Standing there, hat in hand, trying to deliver a credible ‘story’ while dodging the bites, the kicks, and the hooves?

It is a bloody world; and We’ve recently done Our bit to make it even more so, and a lot of children in a lot of places in the world aren’t going to have to go through the pain of growing up at all now. If We meant well, alas – that’s not going to ‘cut it’. Nor is any particular modern vision of an MGM ‘uplifting’ symbolism going to suffice as a replacement for an even modestly decent future, let alone heal the maimed or – oy – resurrect the dead. Symbolism – especially when it is exaggerated to the point of fantasy – is as massively destructive as any bomb or vial of toxic goo.

And will the current crop of American ‘children’ be any better prepared to deal with their future? Or the world’s?

The famous ‘slackers’ of the 1990s, memorialized in the many films and still au courant, were, I see now, not simply products of an indulgent and permissive society. They were canaries in the economic cage: why ‘grow up’ when there are no ‘grown up’ jobs anymore? You don’t need to ‘grow up’ if all you can look forward to is the type of job that ‘teens’ got for pocket-money back in the day. You can say that kids should ‘grow up’ simply as a matter of good form and in order to fulfill their human potential, but that’s kinda thin gruel for most folks; a good job, reliable and with a decent wage, is a huge boost in that regard.

But the nation’s job-base, the core of its economic well-being, has somehow ‘gone away’, and no amount of symbolism or symbolic ‘victories’ of any kind can replace that.

And if the only reason that kids can be given for ‘growing up’ is to agitate for more entitlements from the Great Teat in Washington, then that’s doubly horrendous: the ‘moral hazard’ to the character and capability of a human being is grave, and a citizenry that has come to rely on its government as its sole source of income is for all practical purposes en-serfed. You can’t People a Republic with serfs.

No wonder We are seeing the de facto return of aristocratic families or groups, generation after generation of which – competent or not – succeed to governmental authority and power through elections that are increasingly becoming of dubious validity or through ‘appointment’. This will not end well.

Let Disney and Louis B.’s MGM remain as the excellent diversions and entertainments that they are.

But come Monday morning, reach for Collodi. And give him deep thought.

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