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Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Fairy Tales and Adolescence

Posted by Adam Roberts on 10/27/09 at 03:46 AM

I was teaching Dickens (Davd Copperfield, since you ask) to a seminar of unusually bright third-years yesterday—we were talking about Dickens’ fondness for fairy tale tropes and figures.  In part this involved us simply in identifying fairy tale tropes in the novel, which is fun, though rather limited: Copperfield is a regendered remix of Cindarella, for instance; like Little Red Riding Hood young David must pass through treachorous territory and overcome the vulpine Murdstone, who has dispatched his mother—or else, some in the seminar thought, must negotiate the trickier sexual wolfishness of Steerforth, dressed in friend’s clothing. (Plus, of course, David has a hood: ‘I was born with a caul, which was advertised for sale in the newspapers at the low price of fifteen guineas’, ch.1).  Several members of the group pulled out references to ogres and giants, to magical flutes, princesses and castles in the novel.  But we also agreed that simply identifyig fairy tales elements was a pretty one-dimensional response.  We wanted to go beyond just noticing that, in the words of Elaine Ostrey, ‘throughout his career, Dickens engaged in fairy tales on every level: he wrote them, defended them, alluded to them and used techniques from the genre in his essays and novels … Dickens defends the imagination and fairy tales in the same breath’ [Elaine Ostrey, Social Dreaming: Dickens and the Fairy Tale, (2002), 1].  So we talked a little about the critical context of this question: there have been various studies of Dickens and Fairy tales (Michael Kotzin’s Dickens and the Fairy Tale (1972) and Harry Stone’s Dickens and the Invisible World: Fairy Tales, Fantasy and Novel Making (1979) are two, for instance—Stone’s being probably the best, despite its limitations).  Stone’s argument, broadly, is that the fairy tale element in Dickens work balances the for-want-of-a-better-word ‘realist’ element; that in his early books he doesn’t get these two rather contrary impulses to line up in a wholly effective way, but with the Christmas Books, Dombey and especially in Copperfield and Great Expectations he squares the circle, and creates realistic fairy-tales, or fairy-told realisms, which in turn generate unique and penetrating new insights, affects, kinds of fiction.

We discussed Stone’s thesis a little.  Then we talked some more about the implied fluidity of gender identification these fairy-tale elements threw-up in our reading of Copperfield (little David who is both male, in love with Dora and Agnes, and, according to the forceful re-shaping of his aunt’s imagination, female: ‘Trotwood Copperfield’, in love with Steerforth).  But then things got more interesting still.  All these fairy-story transformations, doubles, magical signs and numbers; all these lost or orphaned or changeling children, these cruel parents or more usually step-parents—these beautiful princesses, this fascination with ogres, giants, cannibalism and murder.  Several people made the point that these have very much not gone away, as far as contemporary culture goes.  We might make the argument that Dickens’s innovation, the seamless melding of fairy tale and realism, has become a dominant mode of contemporary art.  Why?

We talked about the appeal of giants.  (Me, I love giants: my last but one and my next novel are both, basically, about giants).  Gulliver, or Alice’s shifts in scale from very small to very large—or King Kong, or Jurassic Park, or Transformers—all these texts (the group decided) re-enacted the perspective of the child, when adults lumber around us going about their inconceivable, or perhaps alarming, business; that time in life when we ourselves know intimately what it is to change size.  This in turn lead into a discussion as to the transition from childhood to adulthood, and more to the point to what has happened to that transition in recent times ... viz., it has swollen, stretched and grown longer.

This was by way of putting together a reading of Copperfield that sees it not just as a Bildungsroman, as many critics do, but as being more specifically about that awkward transition from childhood to adulthood.  Dickens’s fascination with inverting the conventional roles of adults and kids, characterising adults who are actually children (Mr Dick, or Skimpole), or else thrusting upon his childish characters (as with David in Murdstone and Grinby’s factory) adult life and responsibilities, is part of this.  But more to the point the novel dramatises precsely the awkwardess of the transition: its embarrassments and comedy as well as its active danger.  David married Dora and they try to comport themselves as grown-ups; but they are really only kids playing at being grown-ups.  It takes bereavement and loss to make David a man.

The really interesting part of this was the mood of the seminar that this transition period, when an individual is no longer a child, but is not yet an adult, is getting longer and longer.  I’d be interested here in the opinions of people who know more about this: but I wonder if it isn’t the case not just that ‘adolescence’ in this sense is a 19th- and especially 20th-century invention (as Moretti argues) but that the scope of adolescence is widening increasingly.  In the 1950s the ‘teenager’ is culturally invented, with the sense that there’s a particular phase in life, roughly between 13 and 19, during which individuals are unmistakeably in transition.  But a tiny fraction of the population went to university in the 50s; today, in the UK, it’s getting on for 50%, and that university experience, aside from its pedagogic utility, is in large part a sort of extension of adolescence: individuals moving away from home without having to take full adult reponsibility for themselves.  The periphrasis for this, of course, is ‘living like a student’, which means, at root, not being properly adult quite yet.  The seminar bought this notion wholly, and were convinced that most people live this way all through their 20s.  So what’s behind this expansion of the transitional category of ‘adolescent’?  And does it explain the increasing purchase these sorts of fairy tale tropes have on culture?


Comments

Most significantly, adolescence marks the awakening of the unconscious mind. As children, we are attached to our parents worlds of feeling and thought and do not see ourselves reflectively - from the outside looking in. Self-reflection is the developmental emotional marker defining the start of adolescence. We become in essence two-minds (this takes some getting use to) which marks the start of individuation and the lifelong work of identity formation – work that never ends because we are always changing and evolving. 

There is growing discussion about whether adolescence is an “invented” phenomenon (The Case Against Adolescence by Robert Epstein), but to some degree, everything about us (human beings) is invented and reinvented as we attempt to label and understand and ultimately control the human experience.

But what we all know is that it’s complicated business leaving the security of childhood. There is a sudden onslaught of cognitive, emotional, physical change that creates an exciting but frightening time of disequilibrium. Yet, we have arrived at our richest most creative period of our lives with little knowledge of how to proceed.

But to answer your inquiry about why adolescence seems to drag on, I would suggest a few things. Who would want to rush headlong into an adulthood that clearly is weighted with unpleasant responsibility, order and lack of freedom and creativity?

But I think it has more to do with education. Our children do not grow up in school. Their social and emotional developmental needs are not met as education is solely focused on cognition and what is measurable. As a result, our children leave school “ready to party” because, I believe, there is a powerful developmental need to satisfy. They need to experience life in order to know themselves. They can’t do the work of identity formation in books, on graphs paper or by watching movies. They, we, need to enter the fray.

By Kimberly Hackett on 10/28/09 at 11:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The New York Times has a set of articles on “The 40-Something Dependent Child." Here’s a passage from one of them, “Adulthood Redefined,” by Kathleen Gerson:

In 21st century America, stable, well-paying jobs and self-supporting families have faded just as the gray flannel suit, unionized factory work, and the Cleaver household did in earlier eras.

In this context, children need more years to develop the emotional maturity, cognitive skills and social intelligence to navigate the challenges of uneasy transitions, fluid careers and changing families. Because they must postpone adult independence while developing these personal resources, their parents face tough new choices about how much and how long to support them.

By Bill Benzon on 10/29/09 at 02:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I wrote a review of “Strange and Norrell” in which I veered off into discussion of Dickens as Fairy Tale author. My example is “Two Cities”. France as Fairie. Escape from some Otherwhere.

“The wind is rushing after us, and the clouds are flying after us, and the moon is plunging after us, and the whole wild night is in pursuit of us; but, so far we are pursued by nothing else.”

The revolutionaries are like child-snatching fairies, malignantly obedient to their own inscrutable imperatives as they wreck human lives:

`See you,’ said madame, `I care nothing for this Doctor, I. He may wear his head or lose it, for any interest I have in him; it is all one to me. But, the Evrémonde people are to be exterminated, and the wife and child must follow the husband and father.’

`She has a fine head for it,’ croaked Jacques Three. `I have seen blue eyes and golden hair there, and they looked charming when Samson held them up.’ Ogre that he was, he spoke like an epicure.

“Madame Defarge cast down her eyes, and reflected a little. `The child also,’ observed Jacques Three, with a meditative enjoyment of his words, `has golden hair and blue eyes. And we seldom have a child there. It is a pretty sight!’”

Of course, Defarge has her reasons. But, having concocted them, Dickens goes out of his way to dismiss them as non-explanatory. DeFarge is just alien to all human feeling and motive, which is always the element that makes good fairy tales creepy: “they were her natural enemies and her prey, and as such had no right to live. To appeal to her, was made hopeless by her having no sense of pity, even for herself. If she had been laid low in the streets, in any of the many encounters in which she had been engaged, she would not have pitied herself.”

http://crookedtimber.org/2005/11/29/two-thoughts-about-magic-christians-and-two-cities/

By John Holbo on 10/29/09 at 08:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Great thought! I found Adolescence, among other things, initiates the final phase of brain development. In it, the frontal lobes undergo a time of very rapid neuron growth. This is an important part of the brain because it’s the part that creates UNDERSTANDING of the world around you...conceptual learning, association, analysis, evaluation, troubleshooting, problem solving, decision making, planning and organization. If this sounds important, it is..

By log home designs on 10/30/09 at 01:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Very interesting & thought-provoking.

Kimberley H. I take the force of what you say.  But ... “who would want to rush headlong into an adulthood that clearly is weighted with unpleasant responsibility, order and lack of freedom and creativity?” Why should adulthood be this way?  When I was a kid I remember feeling, intensely, the chafeing sense of restriction of being a child.  Adulthood, for all its grey patches and monotony, is a walk in the park compared to that.

Bill: the NYT piece you quote is interesting.  But I can’t read “children need more years to develop the emotional maturity, cognitive skills and social intelligence etc” without wanting to yelp at the use of ‘need’, there.  Well and to-be-sure, if that isn’t the very essence of bourgeois life, characterising a state of affairs entirely determined by self-indulgence and affluence in terms of ‘need’.  Or to put it another way: when the Third World factory kid, the 12-year-old soldier or the South American street child says to us ‘no, but I need more years to develop the emotional maturity, cognitive skills and social intelligence to navigate the challenges of the uneasy transitions through which I am living’, doesn’t the World tend to reply: ‘tough shit for you, kid: you’ve got work to do.’ I wonder, in other words, at the purchase a word like ‘need’ has in this context.

Interesting stuff, John.  I wonder if I tend to see ‘Fairytale’ in terms of differentiated and to some extent isolated individual tropes and references, and you in terms of a unified field of ‘fairy-ness’ like fairyland.

Log-home designs: that’s one of the most thoughtful and pertinent things ever to be posted to this blog from a spam url.

By Adam Roberts on 11/02/09 at 06:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Here’s an article that seems relevant here: Moe: Exploring Virtual Potential in Post-Millennial Japan, by Patrick W. Galbraith:

Abstract: This paper focuses on moe, a word used to describe a euphoric response to fantasy characters or representations of them. I combine theoretical perspectives from Japan and abroad with participant observation conducted in Tokyo from 2004 to 2009 among male and female fans of anime, manga and videogames. Considering the discourse on moe and its pragmatic uses, I argue fantasy characters offer virtual possibilities and affect that exist separately and in tandem with ‘reality.’ This allows for expanded expressive potential.

By Bill Benzon on 11/04/09 at 02:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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