“There is also a third kind of madness, which is possession by the Muses” – Plato, Phaedo
I think I’ve detected my Muse. Or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. Most certainly, I’ve discovered what (s)he is trying to do.
This all started when one of my friends, who was also a reader of this blog, shared honestly with me that she had stopped reading it (the blog) as “it’s too negative, and in my line of work (organizational coaching), I must remain positive all the time or I can’t be effective.”
This I pondered (amongst other reactions) and, being a critical realist, composed what I thought was a valid response (read: rational justification) and posted it here.
But it did still bug me. Just a little. I wasn’t sure the response I had posted was adequately sufficient.
Then this week I came across an article with a very appealing lead-in graphic drawing and a very catchy lead-in:
Roald Dahl was an unpleasant man who wrote macabre books – and yet children around the world adore them.
I didn’t recognize the name, but I took the bait and I clicked on “The Dark Side of Roald Dahl.”
The opening paragraph read:
“Once upon a time a small orphan was packed off to live with his aunts. They were a sadistic pair, these sisters, and rather than console and nurture they abused and enslaved him, bullying, beating and half-starving him. But he got his revenge, literally crushing them as he finally escaped, bound for adventure and a better life. It doesn’t sound much like the set-up of a bestselling children’s book, but what if I told you that the boy’s getaway vehicle was a gargantuan fuzzy-skinned fruit?”
I immediately had three reactions:
- First, I realized that this must be James and the Giant Peach.
- Then I realized that I thought this was one of my middle son’s favorite books when he was growing up, and I hadn’t ever read it!
- And finally I thought: My God, what did I do to my son!?
Predicated on my long standing belief that if one screws up in private you can sincerely apologize in private, but if you screw up in public you should apologize to the same people in public, I sat down in a 35-year delayed fit of panic and emailed him:
So, I’m thinking, we should have been a bit more diligent in screening some of those children’s books you were so fond of …
Another of my apparent failings. While you don’t seem to have suffered as far as we can see, I trust you’re in a constant forgiving mood…
Yours in belated love,
He graciously and immediately emailed me back (after reading the article):
I don’t think these were failings – I do like the tidbit mentioned in the article – the books do show darkness and the macabre, but in a way that shows they are surmountable and how to get past them. Good tools for children.
But, I’m glad you never introduced me to the author – he sounds like quite the bad influence. 😉
Whew! Off the hook! Parentally speaking, that is.
On the other hand, exactly what was the appeal of Dahl’s books to children?
Two comments in the article (including the tidbit mentioned by my son) helped provide an answer.
“Children love disgusting stories”, Nikolajeva says. The revolting serves “an important cognitive-affective function: we know it’s disgusting, and the knowledge makes us superior. It’s healthy. But it must be disgusting in combination with humour.”
“As child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim explained in his seminal study, The Uses of Enchantment, the macabre in children’s literature serves an important cathartic function. ‘Without such fantasies, the child fails to get to know his monster better, nor is he given suggestions as to how he may gain mastery over it. As a result, the child remains helpless with his worst anxieties – much more so than if he had been told fairy tales which give these anxieties form and body and also show ways to overcome these monsters.’ ”
Looking back, The Three Little Pigs, Hansel and Gretel, Jack and the Beanstalk, The Wizard of Oz, and Maurice Sendak, all of these eventually disposed of the villain in a “politically incorrect” way.
And the light bulb went on.
I’m not telling fairy tales. I think they are more critical perspectives on life’s realities (i.e., adult tales). Face it, There Be Monsters Out There! Occasionally. Why shouldn’t there be the not-so-macabre, not-so-disgusting but transparent description of some of the obstacles, potholes, and a**holes one meets along the way. With a bit of humor, of course (see above – humor helps us remember better). All with a purpose of accepting that they’re there, recognizing them earlier, recognizing they’re not as huge as anticipated, and seeing they can be overcome. We do need road signs once in a while and to be aware of our blind spots, right?
So, I concluded that while I am not an unpleasant man and adults around the world don’t adore my musings, and since I too am James (really!), this blog must be my Giant Peach. Welcome aboard.