Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, chapter 5, method 4

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.

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13 thoughts on “Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, chapter 5, method 4

  1. Kelly says:

    Your last sentence is a perfect summary, and it applies to all aspects of raising children, from books to food to clothes to cleanliness to religious sensibilities…

    I’ve never read The Awakening but I have read her short story “The Storm” which seems to be a variation on a theme. Woman finds herself in a boring marriage then one afternoon while her husband is away, an old lover shows up. They finally give in to their passion and as she watches him ride away the world is made clean and fresh by the just-past thunderstorm, and presumably by her moral storm, too. You get the idea that she thinks she can live the rest of her life in contentment supported by this one memory. I never feel sympathetic for characters like that.

    I remember reading a novelization of the David and Bathsheba incident that made Uriah out to be a boor who never loved his wife. Naturally Bathsheba was sensitive and insightful and she did what she could as a faithful subject to comfort the king when he sent for her.

  2. Dana says:

    Ditto, Kelly ~
    Plus, remember that Esolen is an English professor, who are categorically famous for over-analyzing. That’s what kept me from majoring in English!
    And here’s a little Spurgeon quote that I like to remember~

    Discernment is not
    knowing the difference between right and wrong.
    It is knowing the difference between
    right and almost right.

  3. Cindy says:

    Dana,
    I love your summary. I think you hit the most important things to think about. I wondered about Kate Chopin’s book so I am glad you gave some insight. You did bring your own worldview to the book and understanding of right and wrong but what about someone who is unable to do that? Also though I wonder if we don’t change just a tiny bit when we read stories like that or maybe they take us to the brink of something and allow us to run back to the safety of truth with a more firm step. Not sure. I have read more modern fiction in the last couple of years.

    Emily accused Benjamin of over- generalizing last night. She likes things to be exact but I defended Benjamin by telling her that without generalization we couldn’t communicate and his point was valid.

    Types should be recognizable but I wonder what will happen when they are not. The recent flap over Huckleberry Finn comes to mind. A whole group of people totally missed the point. SAD.

  4. Cindy says:

    This whole time I thought this was Dana’s post until I clicked on hers. So silly of me. Very well- written, Sara. I am thoroughly enjoying your contributions. You are the surprise horse out of the gate.

    • sara says:

      Oh, you meant me! *blush*

      I had to read the chapter and write the post over several times before I knew what I was trying to say, but I think I’m getting plenty of practice in seeing the theme of a book/chapter, which has been a weakness of mine.

  5. Debra says:

    Sara, I’ve been thinking about the type vs. cliche question and your comment above brought me a flash of insight (I think, anyway) – the types are models to aim for, the cliches are overdrawn condemnations of the worst failures. The religious bigot exists, but he is not the religious ideal; the chivalrous gentleman may not exist, but some incarnation of him is a worthy ideal.

      • Kelly says:

        My 21yod and I have been talking about this and she says there are two things that distinguish a cliche from a type: 1) the character is completely flat — it is the cliche and only the cliche, no combination of good and bad characteristics like you see in real life, and 2)the cliche is faddish whereas the type is timeless.

        Esolen is saying that the type is simplified, and in fairy tales you have plenty of flat, two-dimensional characters, but the examples he’s using are all from adult literature, not fairy/folk tale. Those primary colors are fine for the folk tale, I guess, but I don’t think they are for a novel.

        In a novel when you have a certain “type” it’s because he belongs to a certain category of character, cuckolded husband, say, but he’s more than just the definition of his type. Like the husband Esolen describes, he could be nice looking and faithful and compassionate, but with a violent streak. A modern stereotype would be the cliche of the boorish husband, who is nothing but a boor — he’s stupid and mean and ugly and doesn’t even love his wife — IOW he has no redeeming characteristics, no characteristics that fall outside the definition of his stereotype.

        So I’m not quite sure if I’m understanding the distinction he’s making. There’s still something about a flat, two-dimensional Wicked Stepmother in a fairy tale that keeps her from being a stereotype, a cliche.

  6. sara says:

    Kelly,
    With true fairy tales, the characters really are so simplified that it can be argued that they are stereotypes, though I don’t believe they are. Either the rule about what makes a type is universal or it’s not really a good rule and we’re in danger of just endorsing what we personally find palatable. You’re right: I think Esolen makes one statement but tries to back it up with literature that doesn’t really support his premise. He seems to speak in emotional circles. The case YOU made in support of fairy tales is much more convincing. For future readers, that’s here. http://badgermum.blogspot.com/2011/02/ten-ways-to-destroy-imagination-of-your_10.html

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