Cindy at Ordo Amoris is hosting a book club for Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child by Anthony Esolen, Ph.D.
According to Esolen, a killer of imagination is the replacement of fairy tales with political clichés and fads. So now, the book of fairy tales that I once hid away because I was foolishly offended by the violence it contained, will stay out of sight because of the ridiculous annotations. Why, oh why, must we use a Freudian hermeneutic on fairy tales? That’s a fad, right? And a political cliché too probably. Psychobabble is a word made for notes like these.
About the violence I have had a change of heart; I no longer believe that every violent story is necessarily unsuitable for children, though some are. I believe it largely depends on the child and his family and his history and, as Brandy has said about safety measures generally, it’s about context. In our family it is not the violence which qualifies or disqualifies a piece of literature, but whether or not the story is interesting and whether or not it presents a truth and a… a… a nobility.
Esolen says that fairy- and folk tales employ the use of “types” or even “archetypes” which are pure distillations of characters and which are immediately recognizable to most people because they are true to life. How odd that a fantastic, made up story can be more real and “relatable” than a “realistic” story! Even (or especially?) in stories in which the characters are seriously flawed, we recognize them and recognize their frailties for what they are.
Many of the modern stories fed to children these days are ground down so they all look and feel about the same. And the responses they elicit are mere Pavlovian spittle. The cues tell us what to feel. (Laugh tracks anyone? When was the last time you heard “filmed in front of a live studio audience”?) Moreover, the stories and responses they produce are part of the program to create a compliant adult functionary who does not feel real feelings or respond to the complexity of nuanced reality with any thought, but who has only knee-jerk reactions and swallows the propaganda whole. People who read folk tales are familiar with the truths they communicate and have tools to use in evaluating the world. They are not easily fooled by propaganda and blanket political statements – and they recognize a fairy godmother when they see one.
This all makes sense to me, but I get confused when it comes time to divide the good from the bad. I mean, one man’s type might very well be another man’s cliché, no? Esolen writes, “Everyone knows that men are beasts and that religious people are bigots.” So these are clichés, right? But are they replacing TYPES or are they replacing older clichés in which men are always chivalrous and religious people are always kind? My thinking on this point is very muddled. I think I usually recognize bad literature when I see it, but I don’t always know why it hits me funny.
I also think that, just as we can read fairy tales through a psychoanalysts glasses and have them transformed into something silly and awful, reading with open eyes can change writing that has a political agenda, at least if it is fairly well done, into a tool for understanding. I know I have a habit of layering my own feelings onto what an author has written and sometimes I even come away with something different from what the author intended. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel the same about the book The Awakening by Kate Chopin that Esolen does. I really liked the book, understood the heroine and felt sorry for her. My feeling for the main character was not because she was trapped in her life, which is perhaps what the author meant for me to see and believe, but because she thought she was. She didn’t know that very few women feel “naturally” maternal. She didn’t know that love is a choice. She thought that having an inattentive husband was the worst thing that could happen to her. She didn’t know that idleness is not leisure. Her wealth and position gave her great gifts, especially of time, and she squandered them. No wonder she felt unfulfilled! She chose to walk into the sea. How dramatic! Like dying from eating an unwashed grape. No one told her that intimacy in marriage takes time and it ebbs and flows; a feeling of “ours” and “us” requires patience and commitment. She quit, gave up, before she could find out for herself. She left her children to know that their mother would rather be dead than to get to know them as people. Tragic. Really, the book is just one big pity party and a bit self-indulgent, but so what? I read it the same way I read Nabokov’s Lolita. I didn’t think that Humbert Humbert was right and I didn’t think the character in Chopin’s book was right either, but I understood them. The difference here is probably that Nabokov meant his book to be read that way and Chopin did not. Then again, I am an adult and maybe I’m able to read it that way because I’ve already had a good diet of folk tales. Perhaps these are exercises for minds more practiced in discernment and not for children whose tastes are still being cultivated.