Monday, February 6, 2012

Steyn, Chesterton and Monsters

Mark Steyn may be my favorite contemporary pundit, not least because I find him so "Chestertonian." Like Chesterton, he writes in an original, humorous style (not in the style of Chesterton, of course, because then he would not be original!) that clearly comes naturally to him. Also like Chesterton, he never makes a joke (or in Chesterton's case, proposes a paradox) merely for the sake of effect. And, most significantly, the lightness of his style conceals a depth of philosophical insight that is easily overlooked. Chesterton and Steyn both believe that it is culture that is most significant, and are penetrating in tracing economic or political problems back to their cultural roots. Get the culture right, and the politics and economics will take care of themselves; get the culture wrong, and the politics and economics will eventually degenerate whatever policy decisions are made. (Chesterton and Steyn are joined by JPII in this assessment)

I don't know if Steyn has ever read Chesterton; he's never referenced him to my knowledge and GKC does not appear on Steyn's list of influences. Yet occasionally Steyn seems more than merely Chestertonian; he makes a point that was earlier explicitly made by Chesterton. This happened at least once on the in-depth BookTV interview that was aired on CSPAN2 this past weekend. Steyn mentioned in passing Sesame Street and the "de-monsterization" of early childhood. Sesame Street is full of monsters but the monsters turn out to be funny and friendly or, at worst, grouchy. There are no monsters that give any hint of terror. But the world actually is replete with monsters, if by monsters we mean dangerous realities that we must respect and of which we should be "afraid, very afraid" in the old movie cliche. Presenting the appearance of danger, then undermining that appearance by revealing the monster to always be in the end harmless, is to teach a very unfortunate lesson. It is to teach that there are no genuine evils out there in the world, and that evil is always superficial.

GKC somewhere (I have not been able to dig up the quote) makes a similar point. There is no point to removing monsters from childhood stories, GKC says, because children are already aware of monsters - and that is a good thing. They are afraid of the undefined presence in the closet or under the bed before they have been told any stories. What the stories do is put a name and a shape to the menace, and show that even though the monster is genuinely evil, terrifying and apparently unstoppable, there are yet forces in the world that are good, strong, brave and dedicated to protecting the child. The stories only achieve their cathartic effect if they answer to the genuine terror the child feels; the terror in the story must be as real as the terror the child feels when he is alone in the dark, for only then can he say, yes that is the monster I dread. The child wants to see that terror faced; and a good story will leave him with both the healthy fear of the monstrous and the hope that comes from knowing that there are forces of good just as powerful, and that are on his side.

I'm not sure GKC ever anticipated the modern trend of not merely avoiding the monstrous, but of positively undermining the symbolic meaning of the monstrous. The modern idea is not to educate the young child to face the reality of the dangerous and evil, but to numb his sensibility to it by consistently undermining its symbolic manifestations. I hope GKC would be as appalled as I am by things like the Shrek series of films, which takes the ogre, a traditional symbol of dumb, brute evil, and turns him into a misunderstood outcast suffering from low self-esteem. My unrequited hope watching that film was that some real ogres from the traditional tales would show up and kick Shrek's ass on general principles.

Our natural reaction to the monstrous is to be repelled by it; as much as contemporary sensibilities don't like this, it is a healthy reaction. The monstrous is, in the strict sense, that which exists in defiance of the natural order; Frankenstein's monster is a monster because he was generated in an artificial rather than natural means, by cobbling together pieces of bodies followed by reanimation through electric shock. Now the contemporary view is correct in the sense that not everything that appears monstrous is in fact a monster (that is, evil and dangerous).  Some things that appear monstrous (e.g. the Elephant Man) are actually things that are good and deserve our kindness and compassion. And it is also true that some monsters do not appear monstrous at all, as in the apparently normal family man who is actually a serial killer (e.g. the Green River Killer). But these points may be called "advanced lessons" that can be learned only once the basic reality of the monstrous is learned; and by learned I mean conditioned into one's being so that it becomes a natural reaction. The fundamental lesson of the monster is that there are realities that are evil and dangerous and about which one must be constantly on guard; the great mistake with respect to a monster is not recognizing him before it is too late. This truth is told in devastating manner in the original Boris Karloff Frankenstein film, when a little girl befriends the monster and picks flowers with him; she meets her end in a manner not shown on camera and all the more horrifying for that.

Steyn, like Chesterton, prefers the old, robust traditional tales to modern fluff. Steyn, in fact, mentioned on BookTV that he is planning to publish an anthology of his favorite traditional tales. I look forward to it, and I hope GKC sleeps a little easier knowing someone is carrying the torch.


William Peaden said...

I thought this was a really interesting post. Just a couple of reflections (not really corrections).

Chesterton made those points when talking of fairy stories something he did very often. (He was famous for declaring his belief in Santa Claus).

From memory, I think you can find it in "Ethics of Elfland" in Orthodoxy and in the first chapter of his autobiography where he talks of the lessons of the nursery. He also connected it with George MacDonald's tales (there are a number of essays about GM by GKC) which deals with the same idea. The Princess and the Goblin is an example of evil (which incidentally is the evil within) being faced and stood up to, as far as Chesterton is concerned. (C. S. Lewis was a big fan of MacDonald as well)

This is a similar point that Tolkien makes when he defines what a fairy-story is. Tolkien even thinks some of the tales of Grimm and the Andrew Lang stories were not authentic fairy stories. Tolkien explores this in "On Fairy-stories".

Tolkien says, "Faerie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold...The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while hi is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost."

Both Chesterton and Tolkien were also of the opinion that fairy-stories were not merely children's stories. In fact, Tolkien reviles the fairy-story that is trying to be a child's story. Faerie is for him and Chesterton a real adventure into the truth of things, it is really a myth (that is a shard of light glimmering down from God, or a pool of reflected glory)

Frankenstein's monster is an interesting one as it is the monster who sees the error of his ways (even though he despairs), it is really Frankenstein himself who by his monstrous pride fashions the creature and in his pride renounces it. As he suffers for this but it never occurs to him (except in vague glimmers) that he is to blame. It is really Victor who is the monster and the creature is merely the embodiment of Victor's pride. It is a genuine mythos that is present in the Frankenstein tale. Victor creates in his own image and likeness and it is hideous. A reminder to us that we are not the creators of our being but the created. If we delve into ourselves with no reference to God, we only find a stinking mess.

David T. said...

I thought as well that I had read it in Ethics of Elfland, but I couldn't find it in there. Well, the fact that you remember it as well is a good clue that I didn't just imagine it!

Anonymous said...

Steyn actually has cited Chesterton on two or three occasions. I agree that Steyn is a very Chestertonian writer.