Sunday, January 28, 2007
Disney before Dawkins
There’s a history to popular science writing, though I don’t know it. Though there are many current practitioners of the craft, Richard Dawkins is perhaps the best-known among them. Before him there was Stephen J. Gould, and before both of them, Carl Sagan, who initially rose to fame through television. And before any of these, there was Walt Disney, not so much the man himself as the corporation that bears his name.
His prime-time TV show that started in the fifties had programs of four kinds, corresponding to the four segments of the Disneyland theme park: Fantasyland, Adventureland, Frontierland, and Tomorrowland. The Tomorrowland segment was devoted to science - science fact, he called it, not science fiction - and technology. According to an interview given by Ray Bradbury - available in Tomorrowland: Disney in Space and Beyond in the Walt Disney Treasures DVD reissue series - Disney, more than anyone else, is responsible for convincing the American public that it was feasible to venture into space. And then we have all those nature documentaries; however anthropomorphic they were, they brought images of the natural world into people’s homes in a way that hadn’t been done before - if only because it hadn’t been possible without television and film.
Before even that work, however, we have Fantasia.
I have already argued that Fantasia is an encyclopedic work, putting the whole world before its audience in the small compass of two hours. The world, of course, included science. Disney didn’t present science as a discipline, of course. Rather, in the Rite of Spring segment Disney presented a highly distilled version of what science had to say about the world. The segment opened with a galaxy-scale view of the cosmos and zoomed in on a young earth, before life had emerged. Then he took us under the ocean and showed us single-celled organisms, which multiplied, became many-celled, and then some of them morphed and walked on land as amphibians. And then the rise and demise of the dinosaurs. The audience saw 100s of millions of years compressed into half an hour and the very large and very small made visible to the unaided eye. It was and remains an astonishing conception.
One aspect of that astonishment is that the Stravinsky was only one segment of the eight in the movie. Another segment, The Nutcracker Suite, can be seen as the imaginative precursor to the nature documentaries. The other segments of the film evoke other modes and objects of interest. For example, there’s one about magic (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), one about art (a ballet parody set to Dance of the Hours), and one that set out to provoke religious awe, the concluding Ave Maria. So far as I can tell, the film does not privilege any of these mini-worlds over the others. They are all of a piece.
The particular bush I am thus beating around is that of a common view of the world that is adequate for citizens of a modern democracy. Where does such a world view come from? Contemporary science is at issue because, starting in the 19th century, scientific investigation accelerated into the invisible - invisible either because it is very very small, very very large, or otherwise evades the senses. How then is such work made palpable to the lay person, to the citizen? That is a job that Disney not so much undertook as he situated it in Fantasia, gave it a place in the film, in the imagination. But he also situated the sacred in that same film, with the Ave Maria sequence.
What framework did Disney employ, perhaps blunder into, that allowed him to find places for both science and the sacred? Does this intersect with Amardeep’s inquiry into literary secularism? Is the conflict over teaching biology in the schools one of truth vs. myth, or does it reflect a deeper failure of imagination on both sides?
I don’t think it’s fruitful to consider Fantasia alongside popular science writing. That’s been with us since before the movies, and was as lively in the era of Mickey as in that of Wells or Gould.
One famous attempt at a synthesis of science and religion was Teilhard de Chardin’s. (See Peter Medawar’s review for an amusing smackdown.) Pretty hopeless, I think.
Ah, but Fantasia isn’t attempting a synthesis of science and religion, not at all. It’s just a framework in which science and religion, among other things, can take a place.
I don’t think the creators of Fantasia were trying to evoke as strong a scientific standpoint as you give them credit for. From the flashy animations to the theatrical music compositions, the whole film is designed to spark a child’s imagination. I cannot recall a single scene from the film that depicted a real world scenario that anyone could relate to. When I was younger watching Fantasia the scene illustrating evolution sent my mind whirling just as much as the one with thousands of dancing brooms. What the movie did so wonderfully was take a specific element of science and add the necessary drama to it that could rouse someone’s thoughts and keep him entertained.