“Replace the Fairy Tale with Political Cliches and Fads”
In this chapter our devilish guide begins to take his task of destroying imagination deeper, now into the realm of the moral imagination, the most important imaginative realm. If we can keep the moral imagination suppressed, he argues, our children will be ripe for political sloganeering, cliché thinking, and pop emotion which are perfect fodder for the madman political demagogue to feed on.
Italo Calvino's “Marcovaldo” is our author's launching place for this chapter:
Calvino's writing. . . always partakes of the folk tale, with characters immediately recognizable for their types. Marcovaldo is the poor soul, the born loser . . . His daughter Isolina, literally “the poor lonely girl,” is the fair maiden of passionate heart, who yearns for a youth to love her. The elder brother Fiordigili is the sighing poet, ineffectual, who sees beauty where no one else can. That these are types makes the story at once not only comprehensible but resonant. We come upon the members of the family and we say, “I have seen that person before.” Had we met them a hundred years ago we should have said much the same thing.
It has been a great victory for the crushers of imagination to label such figures as “stereotypes,” and add a sneer to it, as if people who used them in their stories were not very imaginative – or, sometimes as if they were downright narrow minded and wicked. The youth, the lonely maiden, the ineffective father, the doting mother, these are all types, because they are true to life; it is how they came to be types in the first place. Such characters are like a child's palette of colors: bold blue, and green, and yellow, and red, and white. Of course they simplify: as the towering marble pillars of the Parthenon simplify, or as the tonic chord in a Bach chorale resolves all the preceding complexity into the perfectly expected and harmonious simplicity of the right ending.
Fairy tales and folk tales are for children and childlike people, not because they are little and inconsequential, but because they are as enormous as life itself. The original story of Ashenputtel (English “Cinderella”) features a stepmother and two horrible stepsisters who reduce the girl to a mere slave. Her mother, from her grave in the garden nearby, appears to her to help her, giving her the dress and the glass slippers and the coach that will take her to the ball, to dance with the prince. He falls in love with her, as he must – for in fairy tales, someone has to see beneath the surface of things, and glimpse the beauty that everyone else overlooks. When the prince and Cinderella finally marry, the envious sisters, marching down the aisles as bridesmaids, have their eyes pecked out by some very helpful little birds. It is altogether the right ending. Right, that is, if you want to stir the imagination of your children. No such thing will ever have happened in the history of the human race, if by “happen” you mean that such events would occur as they are told, helpful birds and all. But such things do happen, all the time. We have met the characters in Cinderella, too.
And those characters dwell in a moral world, who's laws are as clear as the law of gravity. That too is a great advantage of the folk tale. It is not a failure of imagination to see the sky as blue. It is a failure rather to be weary of its being blue – and not to notice how blue it is. An appreciation for the subtler colors of the sky will come later. In the folk tale, good is good and evil is evil, and the former will triumph and the latter will fail. This is not the result of the imaginative quest. It is rather its principle and foundation. It is what will enable the child later on to understand Macbeth or Don Quixote, or David Copperfield.
Why is it so important to keep our children's moral imagination stunted? It is because people with a strongly formed moral imagination “. . . are hard to fool . . .
They are also hard to enlist in pursuit of the trivial and ephemeral. It is as if we had given them a powerful telescope atop a high mountain, and shown them how to use it, and directed to their attention to the Orion nebula, and once they had learned to do so and to love the beauty they found there, expected them to look at light bulbs on a marquee. Or, if not a telescope, a magical device for seeing deep into the human heart; and then expected them to watch American Idol, or to be impressed by the maunderings of the latest political hack.
No we must “ . . . reject everything that is archetypal and real, and replace it with one of the four or five stock one-dimensional figures or flat motifs from mass entertainment"