Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Pastoral 6: All Together Now: Nietzsche, Lorenz, Jakobson
Toward a Compositionist Aesthetics in which Nothing is Hidden, All is Revealed
In the past several decades the standard modes of literary and film criticism have sought to find hidden meanings. The work was thus conceived as a device to smuggling various meanings though lines of conscious defense. When the critic had found those hidden meanings, his or her work was done.
Under such a critical regime the psychological patterns I’ve found in earlier posts—sexual in the first and third, oral in the fourth—are such hidden meanings. In that regime everything else I’ve looked—the treatment of sound and color, ring form, cuteness—all that’s just deceptive camouflage. Now that the critic—that’s me, but you as well—has penetrated it, it can be discarded in favor of the REAL meaning, that ‘hidden’ sexual stuff.
The major problem with such readings is that they, in effect, discard the artistry, treating the text or film as an odd species of argument that makes its point almost completely by indirection. Well, if that’s what’s REALLY going on, then why not make the argument directly and dispense with all the artistic window dressing?
It’s not a very convincing style of criticism, though it’s been the norm for half a century. I was trained in such criticism, among other things, and have come to believe we need something more. Just what isn’t entirely clear. But what I’ve been doing with the Pastoral episode—indeed, with all of Fantasia—is to explore other ways of looking at, in this case, film. In this regime, the one I’m making up, that psychological material is still there, but I don’t regard it as particularly hidden nor do I think that pointing it out is the ultimate goal of criticism.
That psychological material is just stuff, raw material, out of which the artist, or artists in this case, construct a work of art. Those other things, color, sound, form, cuteness, they too are stuff. The purpose of this post is to begin thinking about how all this stuff works together to create a work of cinematic art. As for what that work means, I don’t know and I don’t care. Not here and now. What matters is how it works.
Cuteness and the Audience
Disney’s infamous cuteness is lavished on this episode. I’d like to suggest that Disney uses it for the same reason it has been adopted by the Japanese in manga and anime. Here’s what I said about it in a review of an exhibition at New York’s Japan Society a few years ago (Godzilla’s Children: Murakami Takes Manhattan, Mecademia 2, pp. 283-287):
This play on cuteness, in particular the emphasis on large heads with large eyes, evokes the stylistic feature that is most remarked by newcomers to otaku culture. Males as well as females, adults and young adults as well as infants and children, all are depicted with these kawaii overtones in a large range of manga and anime titles, many with large adult audiences. Is this an assertion of the infantile nature of the Japanese psyche?
I do not think so. This stylization reminds me of what ethologist Konrad Lorenz called the infant schema [which I’m taking from chapter 31 of Wolfgang Wickler’s The Sexual Code]. Lorenz observed that, in a wide variety of animal species (reptile, bird, mammal), infants have rounder faces than adults, with less prominent noses, relatively larger eyes, and rounder cheeks. This morphology has a signal function; it is meant to elicit certain kinds of behavior from conspecifics. There is, one infers, some circuit in the brain that is sensitive to this morphology and that biases behavior in emotionally positive ways.
Taking this at face value we can ask: why is much manga and anime designed to activate these particular circuits? Whatever the artists think they are doing, the effect is to license, to legitimize, non-standard behavior enacted by these characters. The infant schema evokes caregiving attitudes in the audience. In reality, infants are given license to do all sorts of things forbidden to older children, much less to adults. In manga and anime, teens and even adults are given such license; those high foreheads, diminished noses, and big eyes signal the readers and audience: “Cut me some slack, I’m experimenting, trying new things. Care for me. Care about me.” This is most obvious in the case of those magical girls who utter a magic phrase and, in a dazzle of pixie dust, don magical garb and wield superpowers.
I suggest that the same considerations apply to Disney, and that despite the fact that he hadn’t particularly identified children as his audience at this time.
Or perhaps, this argument is particularly important because Disney was not making films expressly for children, not in 1941, when Fantasia premiered. He was certainly aware that children watched his cartoons—the only films he made until after WWII—and marketed franchised goods to them. But he was making films for the general film audience, adults and children alike. It’s in THAT context that we have to interpret all the cuteness.
My remarks about cuteness in manga and anime amount to saying that cuteness is a distancing device that allows greater acceptance of whatever the characters are doing. We treat their actions as play and we accept those because we’re unconsciously treating and indulging them as children. But that also distances us from their actions. We don’t have to imagine ourselves doing such things because, hey! we’re adults and they’re not. They’re some other kind of creature, not like us at all.
Follow the Cuteness
The first moving creatures we see are young unicorns romping across a field, and red, white, and blue unicorns at that:
Then the fauns and the flying horses, whith all the business about the young ones playing in the water. The adult horses are not cute, of course, they’re majestic.
In the second segment the cuteness is supplied by the cherubs, who are all flesh-colored, unlike the young unicorns or flying horses. The centaurs are not cute; the centaurettes are, but more in as adolescents than as children.
Cuteness becomes peculiar in the Bacchanal. The fauns are cute, and they disappear at the mid-point. The unicorn-donkey is certainly cute, but his tipsiness puts something of a damper on that, as we see in his cross-eyed close-up in the central shot.
And then there’s Bacchus. Just what is he? Is he really cute? Perhaps. He’s certainly round and when, after the vat burst, he splashes around in the spilt wine, actions we associate with infants and young children. Perhaps he was intended to be cute, but he doesn’t quite pull it off; his baldness is that of an old man, and old men can’t be cute. Once Zeus and Vulcan appear we see that he’s definitely not like them, but he’s not like the centaurs either, to the extent that one can compare them.
That bacchanal he presides over is dangerous. Given that Disney and his team had to make this story up, we can only assume they made it up to suit their purposes. They surely knew where such drunken revelry led, where it was intended to lead. And they can’t go there. Even if Disney had presented these actions as those of ordinary human adults, he’s at the end of the representational line. He simply can’t depict either an orgy or private sex off in the bushes or in private rooms somewhere in the Elysian Palace Love Hotel.
In any event, he doesn’t have to depict those actions. The adults in his audience who want to imagine sexual activity are free to do so; those who don’t, won’t even be tempted. As for the children, what they see is this funny old man playing around with this funny donkey with the unicorn horn.
Still, if he can’t represent sexual activity (remember the closed curtain at the end of the previous segment?), he’s still got to finish out his episode with more material. What to do?
What he does, as we’ve seen, is stage a storm, with Zeus and Vulcan in the middle of it. They’re not cute at all. But they’re not vicious. There’s something almost playful about their activities:
When he’s had his fun, Zeus gives a yawn and goes to sleep. The storm is over.
During the storm all the cuteness went into hiding, for example:
But when it’s over, all the cuteness comes out to play in the final segment. We now see Bacchus and his donkey-unicorn again being playful, but in a different mood, and we see the cherubs and the young horses fly and swim about.
In particular, we see that the young flying horse who took his first hesitant steps in the morning (say, twenty minutes ago in the film) is now confident in his abilities. While we could ask, “how’d he get that way?” that’s the wrong question, as I indicated in the post on oral imagery. Disney gives us no explanation at all.
All that matters is that WE see that mastery. Like everything else, including the cuteness, it is there for its effects on us. The Pastoral episode, like every episode in Fantasia, like all films, like all art, is created to have certain effects in the audience. Disney’s put us through an experience. What’s the arc of that experience?
Apollonian and Dionysian
Let’s go back to the middle segment, the Bacchanal, and to Bacchus. Bacchus is presented as both an old man and an infant—both of which are bald. He’s also presented as a lecherous man, going after all those centaurettes whom we’d just seen pair off with centaurs. Moreover, he’s sharing wine, not only with an animal, but an animal unlike any other in this world, a unicorn-donkey.
It’s all just a bit unseemly, not simply because of the implied sexuality, but simply because it makes nonsense of the social world. Bacchus and his steed violate the system of social categories on which that social world is based, the categories that dictate expected actions. And THAT, in effect, is why Zeus and Vulcan, both unambiguously male, take up arms against him, him and his wine. When the wine is destroyed and the revelry dispersed, order can return, order based on a clarification of categories.
That clarification happens during the storm. As the storm breaks the various creatures go into protective mode. A centaur protectively leads a centaurette to shelter—it’s the couple brought together by the cherubs—thus affirming a proper relationship between a man and a woman, unlike the improper relationships that Bacchus sought from those centaurettes young enough to be his daughter. A mother unicorn protects her children and a flying-mare rescues one of hers. Again, these are proper relationships between parents and children. At the same time they also properly reflect a social hierarchy, parents over children and, in the case of the centaur and centaurette, male over female, which is surely how Disney and his audience thought of it, if not how we think of these matters today. Does this logic imply that, when a centaurette rescues a young unicorn, that centaurs and hierarchically superior to unicorns in the social system of this world? I think it does.
By the same token, it’s hard to see that Bacchus makes any particular effort to protect his unicorn-donkey. They flee from Zeus’s thunderbolts together. At one point we see Bacchus pulling his companion; lightening strikes and their positions are reversed; and, after being blown about by the wind, they race to the vat together, but untethered.
Given their odd position in the hierarchy—Bacchus as god at the top, as infant near the bottom; donkey-unicorn as ambiguous—that makes sense. And, of course, the lightening is directed at them, though in the end it’s the wine that’s destroyed, not Bacchus. This is, after all, a comedy.
What of the cherubs? As we saw above, they hide. But they do that of their own accord. No one helps them to their hiding place.
And just what is THAT hiding place? It’s a temple, the one temple we’ve seen at various times in the episode. No creature is explicitly above them in the hierarchy, but, in the temple, they are effectively under the protection of the gods. When the storm’s over, we see them on the roof of that temple playing in a water puddle that reflects the rainbow:
The storm has prompted the creatures to affirm their proper places in society. That reverses the descent into drunken chaos threatened by the bacchanal. Not only does the sun come out but we see Apollo driving his chariot and waving to the Elysian creatures.
But it’s Diana and her deer who presides over the final moments of the episode:
At this point we should recall that the Greek correlate to Bacchus is Dionysius, and that Friedrich Nietzsche created a theory of art around and opposition between “the Apollonian art of sculpture, and the nonimagistic, Dionysian art of music,” asking us to “first conceive of them as the separate art worlds of dreams and intoxication” (The Birth of Tragedy). Disney has given us intoxication in the bacchanal and dream, well, the whole episode, the whole film, is a dream.
Now, by invoking Nietzsche I do not mean to imply that either Disney or anyone on his staff had read Nietzsche and deliberately brought him to the table for this episode. We don’t need to suppose any such thing. Nietzsche didn’t conjure his theory out of thin air. He conjured it out of his knowledge and experience of art. To the extent that art is as Nietzsche theorized, it’s not the least bit surprising that Disney and his team should produce their own mythological invocation of the Dionysian and the Apollonian. After all, they’re working in a medium that combines the Dionysian abandon of music with the differentiating clarity of vision.
Roman Jakobson and Structuralist Poetics
And that brings us to a last line of argument, one based on the classical structuralist thinking of the great Roman Jakobson. Jakobson was a linguist, one of the greatest of the previous century. In 1960 he attended a multidisciplinary conference on linguistic style at which he gave a closing address, Linguistics and Poetics, that has become one of the classic statements of structuralist thinking about language. In this address he outlined six functions of language: referential, phatic, conative, emotive, metalingual, and poetic. He pointed out that, while any given ‘chunk’ of language could involve several of the functions, one is likely to predominate. In the case of poetry the poetic function dominates.
It is to Jakobson’s poetic function that I want to turn. To be sure, we’re not dealing with poetry, we’re dealing with film. But Jakobson stated his functions is such abstract terms that we can apply them to other media.
Jakobson’s first characterization of the poetic function goes like this: “The set (Einstellung) toward the MESSAGE as such, focus on the message for its own sake, is the POETIC function of language. . . . This function, by promoting the palpability of signs, deepens the fundamental dichotomy of signs and objects.” [Thomas Sebeok, ed. Style in Language, 1960, p. 356.] “The set toward the MESSAGE,” we’ve already looked at that in the post, Color and Sound. The very fact that the palette is so bright and saturated, and the colors so often atypical, draws our attention to the color itself, not to mention the Art Deco styling that draws our attention to forms. Color is further emphasized by the prominence of the rainbow in the last segment. Similarly, the moments where an onscreen character, a faun or a centaur, plays an instrument that picks up a musical line in the soundtrack, those moments call our attention to the music itself.
When, in the bacchanal, a faun blows grape juice through his pipes, the music-making is linked to the oral imagery:
And when, at the end, Bacchus drinks rainbow-tinted water from the cup that had formerly held wine, the visual element is now linked to oral imagery:
Thus, by implication, the sight and sound are now linked within the episode itself and not simply in physical composition of film.
A bit later in his essay Jakobson offers another formulation of the poetic principle where he talks of selection and combination in linguistic process (p. 358):
If “child” is the topic of the message, the speaker selects one among the extant, more or less similar, nouns like child, kid, youngster, tot, all of them equivalent in a certain respect, and then, to comment on this topic, he may select one of the semantically cognate verbs—sleeps, dozes, nods, naps. Both chosen words combine in the speech chain. The selection is produced on the base of equivalence, similarity and dissimilarity, synonymity and antonymity, while the combination, the build up of the sequence, is based on contiguity. The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection to the axis of combination. Equivalence is promoted to the constitutive device of the sequence.
We’ve seen this at work too, most critically in the Bacchanal where the unicorn-donkey is substituted for a centaurette in Bacchus’s succession of dance partners. The unicorn-donkey and the centaurette are equated to one another because they play the same combinatorial role in an activity, the dance (and subsequent kiss).
And this is how music, grape juice, wine, and rainbow have been equated in those two shots we just examined. Music and grape juice are equated in the first shot—both come out of the pipes—and wine and the rainbow are equated in the second shot—Bacchus drinks both from the same cup.
A Final Word
For all that happens in this episode, it doesn’t really tell a story. It doesn’t have a plot. It is a collection of vignettes illustrating activities from everyday life. The drama lies not in the fortunes of this or that character, but the order itself, and the threat to that order posed by drunken revelry.
And yet, at the very end, when Disney has Bacchus drink the rainbow water, he associates the film’s artistry, his own artistry, with that revelry. There is, of course, nothing more conventional than the association of artists with drunken revelry and such. That’s been a common place at least since the Romantic cult of artistic genius. Such associations would have been particularly problematic for Disney as he was anxious to present his work as more wholesome than the usual Hollywood fare, a point Nicholas Sammond makes in Babes in Tomorrowland.
I thus can’t but help seeing an echo of his 1934 “The Grasshopper and the Ants.” As you know the grasshopper spends his summer singing and having fun while the ants industriously pile up food. When the winter comes along the ants have plenty of food but the grasshopper has none, and the ants allow him to starve.
Disney is nothing if not in favor or industry and hard work. That’s certainly what he did and it’s what his audience valued. But Disney worked hard at producing entertainment, grasshopper stuff. And so, in his retelling of Aesop’s fable, the ant agree to take the grasshopper in and feed him, on one condition: that he make music for them. His treatment of Bacchus, and his unicorn-donkey, seems to be a more elaborate version of the same compromise.