Friday, October 07, 2005
Variations on a theme by Amardeep Singh
I have always liked Andersen's fairy tale of the Steadfast Tin Soldier. Fundamentally, it is the symbol of my life.- Thomas Mann to Agnes Meyer
At that moment one of the little boys picked up the soldier and tossed him right into the stove, giving no explanation at all. The troll in the box was most certainly to blame.
The tin soldier stood there, brightly lit, and felt a terrible heat, but whether it was from the actual fire or from love, he didn't know. The paint had worn right off him, but whether this happened on his journey or from sorrow, no one could say.
Every day you see his army march down the street,
In Singh's account, a feminist critic of Toy Story would be pleased that a girl owns toys. A less sanguinely imagined feminist would also note the toys' rigid gender segregation, with girls relegated to support and nagging while character development, plot points, and boffos go to the boys. Another viewer might be nettled by the contrast between a story which merged handmade family toys with imported plastics and a production which contributed to the replacement of hand-drawn original characters with celebrity-voiced 3-D models. Or by the movie's recycling in more concentrated form an earlier era's conformist fantasies, newly trademarking someone else's nostalgia to push "like momma used to buy" security. And leave us let aside those misguided children who for some reason lack access to such lovably life-fulfilling objects....
I believe these reactions to the Toy Story movies are possible since, alongside cheerier reactions, I felt them all myself. And, as with Amardeep's reactions, I think they all suggest stories about criticism. He's struck (or stuck) a rich vein here — as Hans Christian Andersen did when he first made the fairy tale a vehicle for meta-fiction.
* * *
"The Steadfast Tin Soldier" isn't an example of Andersen's meta-fictions. (I've made a long list of them and I just checked: "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" isn't on it.) But as the ur-text of Toy Story 1 and 2, it might have something to offer meta-criticism. Let's see!
This particular tin soldier — "the one who turned out to be remarkable" — is disabled — a birth defect left him only one leg — and immobile. While the other toys gain autonomy and "play" (that is, squabble, jostle, chafe, bully, whine, and put on airs), the tin soldier stays resolutely toylike, moved only by outside forces.
But his immobility has nothing to do with his disability; on the contrary, it's his claim to mastery: No matter what threatens him, no matter who attracts him, no matter how it might benefit him to bend or speak up, he remains "steadfast", silent, at attention — until the end, of course, when we find what stuff he's made of.
The troll-in-the-snuff-box curses the soldier for the fixity of his male gaze, its object a similarly immobile paper ballerina en pointe. Misled by his unvaried point of view, he believes her one-legged, and therefore a suitable match. He learns his mistake only a moment before one of the children decides to put away childish things with a vengeance.
* * *
I don't know how other folks take the "station" in "Playstation". I'm a Navy brat, so I assume it refers to a tour of duty — something you're assigned to live through, pleasant or not.
For me, not; maturing seemed a continuous trading up. (Until I got to backaches and ear hair, anyway.)
But then my version of maturity — like yours — is a bit peculiar.
* * *
Advertising supports and depends on reader identification. This story is your story; this story is brought to you by this product; this product produces your story.
Our story, ours right here, like everybody's story, is a story of salvation-through-consumption. No matter how we put it to ourselves, our status as consumers seems clear enough to publishers and copyright hoarders. What makes us niche consumers is our attachment to kid's stuff — stuff we refuse to throw away despite its blatant obsolescence.
For most non-academics, including a number of English majors I've met, all literature is children's literature. Prepubescents get Gulliver's Travels, adolescents get Moby Dick, and college freshmen might be served an indigestible bit of Henry James. Once normal people have a job, they never again bother with such things until they have children of their own. Even if they patiently crate, uncrate, and re-shelve their T. S. Eliot and Emily Dickinson volumes over the decades, they won't place Amazon orders for A Hundredth Sundrie Flowers or Best American Poetry 2004.
(Which is why "fair use" nowadays tends to get narrowly defined as educational use. No normal adult would want access to a 1930s novel or magazine or song or movie for its own sake.)
In such a world, disputes between proponents of "realistic" and "experimental" fiction seem as absurd as a Federation-outfitted Trekkie snubbing a Dark Shadows fan for his fangs. Grown-ups know the real battles are between the Red Sox and the Yankees or the Christians and Satan, and know the only stories worth reading are True-Life Adventures of themselves. To the vast majority of Americans, all of us here are only marginally distinguishable from the arrested development cases depicted by Chris Ware or Barry Malzberg.
I carry some of their skepticism. It was bred into me, like my bad teeth and whiskey craving. I wince at a poem demanding that this war be stopped right now!, or at a blurb like "You can't spell 'Marxist' without Matrix", or at the ALSC Forum's complaint that community college composition classes stint the Homeric epic, and it's the same wince I made at Ware's "Keeping Occupied" column:
A lonely youth in eastern Nebraska came up with the idea of drawing circuit chips and machine parts on squares of paper and affixing them to his skin with celluloid tape. Hidden beneath his socks and shirt sleeves, these surprising superhuman additions would be just the things he needed to gain respect and awe while changing clothes amongst his peers before gym class.- Acme Novelty Library. Winter, 1994-1995. Number Four, Volume Three.
The Playstation is meant to be the mirror image of the workstation, isn’t it: the kind of toy that teaches you about what work is and about what is frivolous, and that even these opposite ways of using up your life are each inevitably composed of fifty uniform parts per hundred of stationary foursquare immobility.
This post is very grim. I don’t know what to say that wouldn’t sound stupidly Pollyanna-ish. Except, thanks for the snuff-box links. I had a pair of those moments where you realise that some inference you’ve unthinkingly traded upon for your whole reading life is actually wildly off-beam - but still not as wild as the unsuspected truth.
Ray: “Our story, ours right here, like everybody’s story, is a story of salvation-through-consumption. No matter how we put it to ourselves, our status as consumers seems clear enough to publishers and copyright hoarders. What makes us niche consumers is our attachment to kid’s stuff — stuff we refuse to throw away despite its blatant obsolescence.”
I’m confused by your conjunction of this and the bits about poetry. Isn’t the current story about poetry one of rampant, individual *over*production? Poetry-artisans insisting on grinding away in their home workshops, a glut on the market, poetry everywhere you look?
I mean, your wince at war poetry does not appear to be the same sort of wince as would occur with at a plastic toy or a Playstation. The anti-war poet, by stereotype, pours their leaden thoughts into toy soldier molds, insisting on releasing the product despite the fact that it has only one leg, standing there steadfast but ridiculous. What could be more grown-up than that kind of futility and inaestheticism? That it doesn’t pay?
As Bruce Sterling wrote, futility is freedom. I write poetry on occasion, and if it happens to be anti-war poetry, it is no less or more ephemeral than the rest. No one is going to be copyright-hoarding certain productions of at least local importance.
And having written, it occurs to me that it would be unfair to not let others toss my lead soldiers as I have theirs. This one’s for you, Adam:
The Salvador Option
It is the highest
It is the highest form of religion
the blank slate, the stainless plastic
for one’s own dirty scrawl
of deeds, thoughts, original sin
all one need say is “I believe”
As the rifles are handed out
and the black masks, the knives
("I believe! I believe!")
the dog-eared manuals
retranslated from Spanish
the new yellow ribbon magnets
that read “Support Our Death Squads”
it is necessary, we say,
it must happen
We must try again and again
They must know fear
Nail up examples until we succeed
Until we get it right
we have washed our hands
we are clean
we have substituted
the blank slate
we are blameless
Thanks, Laura, for the Playstation explanation.
Yeah, this essay was pretty grim compared to Amardeep’s. Andersen’s story was pretty grim compared to Pixar’s, and, sicko that I am, I tend to feel closer to Andersen. Anyway, I’m sure I’ll snuggle back into my Federation PJs soon!
Rich, I’m afraid I muddled an essay about literary criticism and scholarship by bringing in that phrase about poetry production at the end. The wince is still an expression of embarrassed recognition, but maybe even more grim, since a poet’s role-playing can take over their whole self-definition. The poetry world provides a place for 24-hour-a-day 7-day-a-week life-size Mary Sue stories. But with those stories we’d start to get away from meta-crticism and into meta-fiction.
This was a particular sort of war poetry I was referring to—the bullfrogs who puff themselves into a blatantly (to me) ridiculous assertion of power. Not all war poetry does that.
Of course, I agree with Sterling and you about the importance of inutility and the ephemeral. I stake my life on it. I just feel a little sick when I find myself overstating the case.
As regards ephemerality and copyright—the horror of copyright extension is that active hoarding isn’t needed. All that has to happen to ensure the disappearance of your (or anyone else’s) work after their death is not being able to find and get explicit permission from the next seventy years’ worth of “owners”.
But here, of course, speaks the mad collector. Why would any normal American want to read seventy year old poetry anyway? Certainly, Sonny Bono wouldn’t have and Dianne Feinstein doesn’t.
Rich, Please, inform me of the infinite qualititative difference between the moral value of Zizek’s references to secret police and the Brecht poem and your constant invocation of the same (and now moving on to “death squads,” which were—if I recall correctly—a right-wing innovation meant to stave off the danger of communism) to score meaningless rhetorical points against me—such that the former prompts your indignation and the latter is a completely acceptable approach to argumentation.
Also, please inform me of the difference between my apparent tendency to derail comment threads and your obviously irrelevant post here, which seems to serve no purpose other than to antagonize me.
Ray, I enjoyed your post, and I don’t have anything to add.
Thank you, Adam—I was particularly hoping you’d like it—but for whatever an author’s opinion is worth, I thought Rich’s comment was just fine as a response to my piece. I’m sure we’ve both read more irrelevant comments. (In fact, I’ll be pleasantly surprised if I don’t very soon encounter and delete one in this very thread.)
Adam, you must mean my second post, which mentions your name. You want a description of the authorial intention of my poem? Well, OK. “The Salvador Option” was the name for the proposal, floated less than a year ago in the media, to use U.S.-sponsored death squads as instruments of policy in Iraq in order to punish and terrify the Shiites into compliance. It was quickly forgotten by the media, although probably not in terms of the actual existence of such death squads. It was called the Salvador Option as a reference to El Salvador. The poem condemns the idea of using such death squads through the use of a specifically Protestant Christian religious narrative, the same narrative favored by the subgroups within America that primarily support the Iraq war, by playing off the meaning of Salvador and referring back to various aspects of history. As such, it is an example of the amateur anti-war poetry discussed by Ray and myself.
I thought it was fairly clear that I when I wrote that I should give others a chance to toss my lead soldiers as I did theirs, I was referring to the story of the Steadfast Tin Soldier that Ray used in his post. It is the *troll* who encourages the soldier to be thrown into the fire, after all, and I had been attacking your opinions, which I had characterized as rather one-legged, rather vociferously. So, especially since I had already compared anti-war poems to ridiculous tin soldiers standing on one leg, I thought it was only fair to give you one of mine to demolish in turn. I thought that you’d probably have some specially cutting things to say about the religious imagery (if not the general competence and aesthetic value), since you are after all somewhat in that line. That’s pretty much all.
Ah, then I misunderstood. I have been somewhat on edge lately while walking down the sidewalks of the Valve’s comment neighborhood.
I could probably object to your poem’s combination of military and religious imagery. I would prefer to think that “belief” and military “obedience” are not present in the same subject at the same time, but in a charitable (from my point of view) reading, your poem wouldn’t require that the fundamentalist rednecks actually join the death squads—and certainly an appeal to blind religious belief has enabled military dictators.
(I view the Latin American death squads as one of the most horrifying things in history.)
Oops. Please substitute “Sunnis” for “Shiites” in my comment above.
Yes, the actual proposal would not have had Americans of any type joining the death squads—instead, Iraqis (Kurds and Shiites) would be trained to do so. Thus the reference to the manuals retranslated from Spanish, as a reference to the actual U.S. manuals supposedly used to train various Central American irregular anti-Communist forces. The belief referred to is the belief in the war of the citizens of the U.S. who are empowering the whole sequence of events, which is itself being implicitly (and perhaps sacreligiously) compared with the Passion, thus introducing an element of accusation of hypocrisy.
I think it’s actually pretty good as far as amateur poetry goes.
I’m not very good at assessing poetry, actually, because once you get too far from classical forms, I’m not sure what makes poetry poetry other than relatively short lines and occasional incomplete sentences.
(It’s a weakness of my aesthetic perception—I’ve never gotten past T. S. Eliot in poetry.)
Anne posted a couple of days ago about the depressing fact that Virginia Woolf’s books are still in copyright in the USA, benefiting nobody but the publisher (& there is only one publisher, it appears.) Mad, mad, mad.
I reread “The Dauntless Tin Soldier” last night (in MR James’s translation) - you’re very right to connect it with Gulliver’s Travels and Moby-Dick.
Ray, a very nice post. Thank you for doing your part to clear the somewhat sour air generating by my anti-Theory stylings of late. (That something rather dark counts as a bright spot is probably a sign that I should brighten my own spots a bit.)
I’ll add one reaction to your set of likely ones. Reading the latest PMLA I browsed the symposium on disability. I didn’t read it carefully so I couldn’t say whether it was interesting as a whole, but I read Berube’s contribution (because I know him, and there was stuff about comics in it.) He makes the simple observation that disabled characters are almost always symbolic of something besides disabled people. The case of the tin soldier fits that. Andersen isn’t interested in what it’s like to have one leg. Having one leg is, rather, an objective correlative (or pick your term) for having an idee fixe (or however you wish to cash out the soldier’s existential condition). As you say “his immobility has nothing to do with his disability”. Anyway, I thought that was sort of an interesting observation on Berube’s part. It does seem to be generally true. Disability is a deep symbolic well to draw from. Disfigurement, madness, blindness, the list stretches down through whole wards and hospitals full of characters. But interest in what it is like to be disabled is not so deep. You might say it’s the obverse of a case where, say, women are all madonnas or whores. There you have only two settings, which is rather a constraining corset for the fairer sex to be obliged to wear. But it really is WOMEN that these two settings are purportedly about. With disability, you have - by contrast - a vast array of possibilities, mostly negative but to a considerable degree positive; but it really isn’t about disability. No one thinks or feels that every disabled person is (or should be expected to be) a Lear, or Ahab, or tin soldier, etc. (I don’t have the Berube handy so I may be modifying his point.)
As to affixing circuit chips with tape, it worked for my sister-in-law. Furthermore, she has all these boyfriends - or at some point she did - and mom-in-law got to saying, when one of them called: “It’s seven of nine on the phone.” Not that she’s always wearing the costume or anything.
Thanks for following up on my toy theme, even if you grim-ify as you go. You are of course quite right about the commodity/product placement problem, as well as the hero-man gender problem.
I would have responded earlier, but I’ve been trapped in Madison, Wisconsin at an academic conference. (I find it very difficult to think of blogging while wearing a suit.)
Now I want to do a post on Rumpelstiltskin, naming, and texting. It might end up being a little deconstructive, but then, it’s hard to believe in Rumpelstiltskin any other way.
Thanks, John and Amardeep. I figured you probably wouldn’t take offense!
Andersen’s biographer has no qualms about stating that the single-leg stands for frustrated homoeroticism. Me, I think that’s stretching the evidence—the essential aspect is his sense of pride in being flawed.
Your sister-in-law is one attractive Borg. I guess that’s how they recruit, though, right?
James Harkin mixes business & pleasure, and sundry posts here, in his concluding paragraph:
Zizek’s jokes are very funny, but it is about time that I let him go. He is leaving the next day, after all, and needs to go to Tottenham Court Road to search out some PlayStation games for his son. His son’s current favourite, he tells me, is one where the player assumes the role of taxi driver and is rewarded for ferrying passengers neatly to their various destinations. But instead of following the rules, Zizek’s son delights in flooring just about everything in sight: cars, traffic lights, even passing pedestrians. Though I am too polite to say so, it strikes me that the boy Zizek might well have a future in the family business.
... and Elvis Costello debuts Hans Christian Andersen biopera ...
I think it’s actually pretty good as far as amateur poetry goes.