Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Alice in Wonderland, Fairy Stories, and the Creepiness of Childhood

A conversation has just re-awoken in me my interest in fairy stories and somewhat creepy children's literature like some of Roald Dahl's children's writing (in my opinion, he's much better when he writes for adults!) and Lewis Carroll's classic "Alice in Wonderland". This book in particular follows the classic pattern of fairytales the world around: person is in :normal" reality, something they don't control happens to catapult them into an abnormal, uncontrollable reality, they struggle with their powerlessness in the situation, a helper (either magical or commonplace) comes along to aid them, then they are restored to normalcy or even rewarded and promoted.

 Bruno Bettelheim in his book "The Uses of Enchantment" which is by no means the only book on this theme that I have come across but definitely one of the more masterly ones, postulates that these books, with their simple dichotomies between "good" and "evil" and always identifying the protagonist with good, give the developing child's mind standards and boundaries. Situations where angelically good mothers die and widowed fathers marry evil stepmothers such as you find in Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, Cinderella and many such stories, give children a way of dealing with their own mothers when they turn, under the pressure of exhaustion or even the child's own behaviour, from a nurturing mothe to a punishing mother: the child can identify the changed nature of their own mother with the "evil stepmother", leaving their basic relationship with the good side of their mother's personality untarnished, so that when things get to normal, the "evil stepmother" is simply gone and the child can enjoy the relationship again without fear.

I think it goes even deeper than that. The the essence of stories like that is that the reader/viewer gets a sense of their own anxieties mirrored back to them, probably amplified - then some kind of resolution presented, even if it is a supposedly negative resolution (like the death of the little match girl, and the story stresses what a relief her death was). It gives people the sense that hope exists, that nothing bad lasts forever without changing, that life will move on and the situation they are in will end, no matter how bad it is.

With "Alice in Wonderland" in particular and its sequel, you see a child running along in normal reality, teleported into abnormal reality by the catalyst of the fall through the rabbit-hole. From that point on, events and characters around her behave in utterly crazy ways, analogous to the quick, unconsidered decision-making or parents and teachers that might change a child's life forever, and over which the child has no control. The craziness of such decision-making is mirrored in the craziness of the characters that Alice gets to meet in Wonderland, some of whom are comforting and some of whom are terrifying, but all of whom are completely incomprehensible to her.

This a fair analogue of the adults generally in a standard child's life after the Industrial Revolution: the younger you are, the more arbitrary and peculiar a parent or teacher's choices and decisions might seem. Industrialisation has given up huge benefits, and so did the growth and development of larger societal structures centuries before that, and I for one would be greatly grieved if I had to return to an earlier lifestyle based on a small village unit where everyone knew everyone else, and everyone worked equally to ensure the survival of the whole, and gathered together at night to hear the old tales around a fire, and to sing and to dance.

Nonetheless, some remnant societies still maintain community structures like this, notably in the Pacific Islands, New Guinea, and actually on every continent except Europe (as far as I am aware - I could be wrong about that). Such places often have a very rough justice - but in a subsistence culture, it doesn't take too many people refusing to work with the overall community to jeopardise the livelihoods of everyone. When antropological studies are done, little if any evidence of depression exists in such communities as long as the environment that supports them has not been badly damaged, and conflict is managed internally with great efficiency in most cases.

Children grow up, nourished by the stories as well as by kinship, to see that there is good and bad, fear and pain - but there is always some way to manage it, even if that is only to wait it out. In the west, we are rarely so lucky these days: the wolf doesn't want to eat the piglets but just play chasings, and the story immediately is not gripping to the child any more. Once they've heard it two or three times it bores them. The nanny-goat and the seven kids don't get eaten by the wolf any more, they marely hide behind a tree, and the woodcutter doesn't cut them out of the wolf's tummy and put a big, salty stone in instead. And worst of all, neither of those wolves come to a nasty end! The child cannot crow in triumph over the defeat of the obviously evil enemy.

We need to be able to believe that one day our enemies will be defeated. If we cannot believe that, and have it modelled to us in our childhood stories, what hope will there ever be for us? Who are we to sanitise stories that used to raise generations upon generations of psychologically healthy people? In fact, its since we've been sanitising them over the last three generations that mental illness in general and depression in particular has taken such a hold on our communities, probably in part because people are no longer programmed so see that bad things do happen, and do get resolved one way or another, by the stories they hear around the hearth. Not that industrialisation, good for the economy, wasn't terrible for the population's mental and physical health.

If you look at tribal cultures still living pretty much their tribal lifestyles today in different parts of the world, those of them that live in traditional housing and eat traditional foods and keep traditional cultural practices as opposed to eating maccas and watching TV tend to have a near-zero mental health rate. There've been all sorts of documentaries on it, sociological and medial, in the last couple of years, done by scientists from all over. It's not my thoughts - it's theirs. I am merely a cypher.

A contact of mine is currently living with his woman in her highland New Guinea tribal village, and while he finds the local tribal "justice" a bit rough and rugged, he is happier and healthier than he's ever been in sixty years of life, and doesn't plan on ever leaving. And up until he moved there and adopted her traditional lifestyle, he had a lifetime history of depression.

He thinks, with some justification, that an urban lifestyle caused his chronic depression: I'm sure if you went searching for him and found him, then suggested that he no longer feels depressed because there isn't a white doctor to diagnose depression within hundreds of kilometres, he's laugh in your face, and suggest that you might feel a bit better after weeding the food-gardens for an hour or two.

 Yes, fairytales are bloodthirsty and violent. And yes, Alice in Wonderland is quite creepy. But perhaps it is human nature that we need that in our stories as we develop our minds and our places in society, so that when bad things do happen in the real world, we don't fall apart from utter shock and disbelief, but have some internal resources, some way of coping without going into psychosis or depression, even if it's just the trust that things will not stay the same forever, so waiting it out is a valid strategy.And especially as a child where you make few if any of the major decisions determining your quality of life: a parent may choose a lover or a house or a school or a town and never realise how that choice might impact a child. 

I'd rather have some hope than none at all.

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