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Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Stuff of Dreams and Nightmares

I was shuffling through books the other day, trying to find something I can't remember now, when I came across my old childhood fairytale book, The Golden Book of Fairy Tales. I opened it and the pages took me away. It wasn't the stories but the pictures, for my childhood was dreamily suspended in the imagination of artist Adrienne Ségur. There is more magic in one of her illustrations than in all of Grimm.
"The Tinderbox"
"Kip, the Enchanted Cat"

It's difficult to share one image without trying to share them all. Notice how still, how private, each of these images is. The heroines are beautiful, but unemotional. What better way for a child to superimpose her own dreams and emotions onto them?

"Vasilisa the Beautiful" with Baba Yaga
Even Baba Yaga, that most horrific and mysterious of fairyland's inhabitants, seems unconcerned as Vasilisa whispers to her doll in a garden surrounded by a fence of skulls. (Note: This illustration comes not from the Golden Book edition, but a lesser known French collection, Contes des Pays de Neige (Tales from the Land of Snow).)

It is only now that I noticed how passive, even resigned, these girls seem, despite the most compelling of circumstances: riding through the night on the back of a hound, nesting among wise winged creatures, accepting the enormous embrace of a magical cat. They seem as immune to their surroundings as dolls.

I know now that Ségur's depiction is appropriate. The tale of Vasilisa and many other fairy tales encompasses the feminine fate: the three inescapable stages--maiden, mother and crone-- through which each woman must pass. The flesh and blood creature is translated into the archetypal plaything of time. The heroine can't step off this path any more than the King can escape having three sons or three daughters, the youngest of whom is the apple of his eye.

There's no dearth of maidens in fairy tales, always in starring roles even if, like Snow White, they convey the appearance of death (or at least sleep) at the most important events of their lives. Mothers are likewise essential to the tales. That's where princesses come from. But when the story takes place, they are almost always absent: they have either died or morphed into the role if evil step-mother. In Vasilisa's story, her dead mother advises her through the voice of a doll which leads her safely to the prince and marriage.

And then what? Motherhood and death? Is that all there is to the maiden's journey? It seems to be so. Even Joseph Campbell identified the heroine's journey as one of biological imperative in the service of nature.

Old Mag in "Green Snake"
But what about crones? Baba Yaga rules them all, flying through the air in a mortar, using the pestle as a rudder. Deep in the woods, in a hut supported by dancing chicken legs, she awaits the unwary traveler and the quest that burdens them. She holds her secrets close for every question she answers ages her another year. I know just how she feels.

Except for witches and fairies disguised as crones, there are a few old wise women and they don't seem to have been mothers. Is this what becomes of wicked step-sisters who miss out on the prince and marriage? Does the knowledge gained in the quiet of a spinster's life bring this transformation into the hideous yet powerful?

No wonder all the maidens in Ségur's images seem so ambivalent. They know their own stories. They best they can hope for is death or, if unmarried, a warm corner for cackling.
These are powerful stories, these tales of girls who achieve their quest through marriage and death.

I am well on my childless way to cronedom without regret. If I have only one bit of cronish wisdom to share with girls it's this: Be careful of fairy tales. Don't read them. Just look at the pictures. They'll tell you all you need to know.


Sunday, June 10, 2012

I Got the Foghorn Leghorn Blues

 "The blues isn't about feeling better. It's about making other people feel worse..."
   -- Bleeding Gums Murphy to Lisa in The Simpsons

Have you been reading Salon? Huffington Post? Watching the news on MSNBC? If you have, you know the Democrats have got the blues, and they've got them bad. The Democrats are good at having the blues. It keeps them from having to do anything substantive, but provides great talking points and finger pointing opportunities.

There are rules for having the blues and I highly suggest you read them here. The Democrat Blues differ somewhat, however:
  • You cannot have the blues on the back porch or "down by the river". You must have the blues in public, preferably in front of a camera.
  • Even if you shot a man in Memphis, it wasn't your fault -- but you can tell everyone which obstructionist Republican tripped you on the way to a meet & greet and made you fall on the gun he was carrying and it discharged, killing the man in Memphis (who, by the way didn't have health insurance).
  • Your blues tragedy cannot be brought about by hubris. Rather, you were done wrong by a low-lyin' Don't Tread on Me snake who had promised you his/her vote, but instead voted the other way after some soul searchin'.
  • Et cetera...
Politically, the blues are the irrefutable domain of the Democrats. But if the Dems have the blues, what's left for the Republicans? Well, there's no need to worry. They got something even better. Republicans got outrage. Luckily for them, outrage has no rules and the Republicans, those champions of deregulation, like this a lot. They can, will, and have been outraged over everything. They don't much like Bleeding Gums Murphy, for obvious reasons. Instead they've modeled themselves after the irascible Foghorn Leghorn.

There are no accidents in the universe, so it is not in the least surprising that Foghorn Leghorn was brought to us by Looney Tunes in the1950s. Foghorns don't need to make sense -- they just have to be loud. They can rev up indignation over anything: replacing crèche scenes with "holiday trees," Super Bowl ads, and video games that reward sustainable community choices.

They rant against and blame the current administration for our economic woes, blithely forgetting their role in its inception. In the name of protecting life, they can vilify a woman who defends access to health services and at the same time support the death penalty. They can spout a simplification of any complex problem into an endless loop of self-serving sound-bytes that appeal to the ignorant masses who are products of a school system they continue to cripple. Blather, wince, repeat. It really doesn't matter which side offends us the most or more slyly undercuts our liberties and livelihoods: there's not much to choose between them.

But where do we fit in? Don't fret. We also play a role in this cartoon show: the dependably trusting Yakky Doodle who doesn't realize his own peril until he's roasting in the Fibber Fox's oven, and finally quacks: "I think you're the FOX!"

In the series, Yakky was always rescued by his friend Chopper the Bulldog. But this is where my metaphor breaks down, as metaphors always do. However much politics in America may resemble the funnies, it's very real. And all of us are sitting in a pot waiting to be stewed again.