Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"Four ultimate types"

Through all my own dreams, especially waking dreams, there run and caper and collide only four characters, who seem to sum up the four ultimate types of our existence. These four figures are: St. George and the Dragon, and the Princess offered to the Dragon, and the Princess’s father, who was (if I remember right) the King of Egypt. You have everything in those figures: active virtue destroying evil; passive virtue enduring evil; ignorance or convention permitting evil; and Evil. In these four figures also can be found the real and sane limits of toleration. I admire St. George for being sincere in his wish to save the Princess’s life, because it is an entirely good and healthy wish. I am ready to admire the Princess’s wish to be eaten by the Dragon as part of her religious duties; for the Princess is generous, if a little perverse. I am even ready to admire the sincerity of the silly old potentate of Egypt who gave up his daughter to a dragon because it had always been done in his set. But there is a limit, the ultimate limit of the universe, and I refuse to admire the dragon because he regarded the Princess with a sincere enthusiasm, and honestly believed that she would do him good.

– The Illustrated London News, 29 October 1910.

The latest offering from The Hebdomadal Chesterton, to which you should all be subscribed.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child: Chapter Five

(Follow the discussion of Anthony Esolen's book at Cindy’s blog.)

Method 4: Replace the Fairy Tale with Political Clichés and Fads or, Vote Early and Often

I must admit that while I appreciated the the comparisons of various stories Esolen made in this chapter, I don’t think he made his case at all. Like several other bloggers have mentioned, I was convinced before I began the chapter, so I’m going to write about why I’m convinced for the sake of those who may not believe that fairy tales are good for anything, or who may believe that Christians ought to avoid fairy tales and fantasy of any sort.

Before I do that though, I want to say that while I believe that parents ought to teach their children to be kind, patient, courageous, and so forth, I’m not making that case right now. Also, I do not think that virtue is the same thing as saving faith in Christ, and again, I’m not talking about the necessity for our children to have faith in Christ.

The importance of the imagination in the life of virtue

In his essay, “Men Without Chests,” C.S. Lewis says that

no justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism…. The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal. (The Abolition of Man, pp. 24-25)

When a child reads a story he cares what happens to the characters. He’s frustrated with Lootie for not believing Irene’s story about her grandmother. He laughs when Curdie makes up silly rhymes to keep the cobs away, rejoices in his bravery, and worries (but not too much) when he is caught and imprisoned by them. He hates the goblins’ plans for Irene and rightly hopes they will be defeated and is glad when they finally are.

His interest in the characters engages his emotions, and that’s a big reason why it’s so important for parents to be careful what books their children read, and what movies they watch, during the formative years. The child’s taste in literature is being formed and this taste is a large part of the health of his soul, just as his taste in food is a large part of the health of his body.

St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. (p. 16)

When a child has been brought up on a diet of stories that encourage him to love what ought to be loved, to hate what ought to be hated, and everything in between, he is being trained in virtue. So, the best way to show our children what virtue looks like and how it behaves, and to encourage them to be virtuous themselves, is through the imagination, by means of stories.

Fairy tales as a means of instilling virtue

In Tending the Heart of Virtue, Vigen Guroian says:

The great fairy tales and fantasy stories capture the meaning of morality through vivid depictions of the struggle between good and evil, where characters must make difficult choices between right and wrong or heroes and villains contest the very fate of imaginary worlds. The great stories avoid didacticism and supply the imagination with important symbolic information about the shape of our world and appropriate responses to its inhabitants. (pp. 17-18)

Building on Lewis, Guroian says that

[m]ere instruction in morality is not sufficient to nurture the virtues. It might even backfire, especially when the presentation is heavily exhortative and the pupil’s will is coerced. Instead, a compelling vision of the goodness of goodness itself needs to be presented in a way that is attractive and stirs the imagination. A good moral education addresses both the congnitive and affective dimensions of human nature. Stories are an irreplaceable medium for this kind of moral education—that is, the education of character. (p. 20)

Here’s is G.K. Chesterton’s take on the matter:
Now, the little histories that we learnt as children were partly meant simply as inspiring stories. They largely consisted of tales like Alfred and the cakes or Eleanor and the poisoned wound. They ought to have consisted entirely of them. Little children ought to learn nothing but legends; they are the beginnings of all sound morals and manners. I would not be severe on the point: I would not exclude a story solely because it was true. But the essential on which I should insist would be, not that the tale must be true, but that the tale must be fine. (The Illustrated London News, 8 October 1910, found at The Hebdomadal Chesterton)

If we grant that the imagination must be engaged in order to teach virtue, it still doesn’t follow that fairy tale or fantasy must be used, does it? Why not any of the many wonderful realistic stories, like biographies of great men, or stories of fictional characters who are worthy of emulation?

Douglas Jones supplies the best answer I’ve read. “Fantasy,” Jones says, and by extension I’m including fairy tales,

offers a much more accurate picture of the oddness of Christian reality, a reality packed with weird invisibles and interlacing graces and dark evil. These are a large part of the world around us, but they are precluded from “realistic” stories; they can’t be measured. (“Most Real Fantasy,” Credenda/Agenda, Volume 14, Number 2)

As an example of that reality, Jones offers the story of Elisha’s servant who was so worried about all the enemy soldiers he saw surrounding their city. “Doom was sure. The facts were all in. They were grossly outnumbered. The reality was visible.” But Elisha knew that what they saw was not the full extent of what was real, and he prayed that the Lord would open the eyes of the servant, and when the Lord did so, the servant saw that “[t]he world was crammed with beings—flaming chariots—that a surface scan couldn’t begin to see. The servant’s scientific vision was utterly unrealistic and narrow. The reality was far more fantastic.”

But if a storyteller wants to include that “larger reality” in his work, doing so can create problems.

The problem is that we can’t just start putting dialogue in the mouths of angels and demons at whim. Their reality and psychology is beyond us; it would be backhandedly blasphemous to write a tale that dictated where these great beings went and said, what God did next, and how the Holy Spirit answered a particular prayer. In short, we can’t write about real reality without degrading it. (ibid.)

I think it’s convincing―your mileage may vary.

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I also have some thoughts on types and clichés, and on the flattening into political cliché I’ve seen in recent movies made from beloved books, but I think I’ll save that for a later post, if it seems like there’s a need for it.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child: Chapter Four

(Follow the discussion of Anthony Esolen's book at Cindy’s blog.)

I’m going to start this off with another story, but before I do I just want to say that all these stories with so little talk about the book itself is because lately I find it so much easier to tell a story that gets my points across than to write an exposition, so there really is a method, as they say, to my madness, so to speak.

Method 3: Keep Children Away from Machines and Machinists, or All Unauthorized Personnel Prohibited

By the time she was nine years old, my mom’s two older brothers had grown up and left home, so when her daddy needed help rounding up the cows, he taught her how to drive his pickup truck. It was a standard with the gear-shift on the steering column, just like an automatic. I’ve only seen that kind of truck once it my life and it is really confusing -- you’re dealing with the clutch, which I do know how to do, but the gear stick doesn’t move in an orderly fashion from left to right the way an automatic does, nor does it move in a geometrically rational fashion the way a “four on the floor” does. You do this back and forth thing that’s just mind-bogglin. And Mom learned to drive that when she was nine!

I wonder how much of that experience and others like it are what made her into the self-confident person she is today. When I was a child my definition of being a grown up was being competent in every situation that life threw at you, always knowing what to do or to say in any given situation, just like my mom. Well, I’m plenty old enough to be considered a grown-up but I’ve never felt that way and at this late date I don’t expect to. I think that personality has a lot to do with it, basic wiring.

But still, I’m sure that the experiences my parents gave me made me more confident than I would have been otherwise. Daddy taught me to handle guns and shoot from a fairly early age, and started real driving lessons when I was twelve. I’ve tried to do the same for my children but our society has made it nearly impossible for a suburban family (as we were until five years ago, and still are in many respects, including this one) to learn to drive at a suitably impressionable age.

Well, I’m no example when it comes to driving lessons, but I think I have something to offer when it comes to guns, so I’ll talk about that a little. Our policy from the beginning was not to buy our children toy weapons. We intended to teach them to use real guns when the time came, but prior to that their weapons were the sticks and other things they used of their own accord in their play. We never restricted that kind of play except in two important ways: they must always treat the imaginary weapon as if it were real, and loaded, and they must submit to the rules of just warfare -- no unjust wars; no undeclared wars; no endangering women, children, and non-combatants, and so forth. This worked well when it just my own children playing, but when the neighborhood kids wanted to play I quite often had to forbid shooting games because the other kids were not gentlemen. They shot anything that moved including sisters who weren’t playing. They shot people in the back. It was horrible.

My own children knew better than to pull this kind of garbage. I still remember once when my son’s enemy was standing near his mother and me as were talking, and my son drove by on his bicycle and shot at him with his Star Wars blaster (a gift from a well-meaning friend that we, not unnaturally, let him keep). The Powers that Be descended upon him with great wrath and he was sent to the Place of Judgement where he was tried for war crimes, convicted, and summarily executed. He remembers that incident to this very day.

Our policy, as I said, was not to buy our children toy weapons, but I accidentally bought one once. It was when we were living in Hampton, Virginia, and while my mom and sister were visiting we decided to go down to Fort Monroe and look around. Fort Monroe was one of the few forts in a Confederate state that remained in Union hands during the war, and President Davis was imprisoned there after he was captured. My mother’s great-grandfather had also been imprisoned there, so you see, it was a very emotional experience and that’s why I lost my head when, visiting the gift shop before leaving, my son asked if he could buy a toy Confederate rifle and I agreed. It was only after we got home that I remembered our policy, but we let him keep the gun after all and I’m glad to report that, what with that and the Star Wars blaster and various and sundry other inconsistencies, he’s grown up to be a good boy in spite of us.

Okay, one more story. When my daddy was in high school he and a cousin built a telescope and took this picture of the moon:


With how sad steps, O Moon, thou climb’st the skies !
How silently, and with how wan a face !

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Okay, I lied -- one more story. I had a friend once who was descended of the earliest New England settlers and I loved listening to her family stories. When she was fifteen her father bought a VW Beetle, brought it into the garage and took it all to pieces. Then he told her that it was hers, after she put it back together. It took a long time and just a little help from one of her older brothers -- he never actually did any of the work, but he'd help her think through whatever trouble she ran into so she could solve it herself -- but she did it, and always remembered how wonderful that feeling of accomplishment was. She never had car trouble after that that baffled her, and if she had to take it to a mechanic for the actual work, they couldn't deceive her about her car's troubles. Love it.