Tales of Wonder

OnceUponATimeI knew of fairy tales as a child, but I recall them mostly being mediated through the Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights, just before bath time.  I don’t recall experiencing them in written form, and although I may have experienced them as narrated versions from time to time, my memory is mostly of the animated variety.  I’ve been reading about fairy tales lately since folklore clearly relates to many sacred narratives.  My most recent book on the subject is Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time: A Short History of the Fairy Tale.  Like most of Warner’s books, this is a unique telling, one which takes into account modern and some post-modern concerns.  Addressing what fairy tales tell us about the supernatural, gender, psychology, and growing up, this is a little book with big thoughts.
 
Unlike the polished literature of the elites, fairy tales come from the folk, the common person.  In this sense they are often truer than the establishment version of things.  Life can be violent and magical, and nobody raises an eyebrow when something supernatural occurs.  These tales often contain uncomfortable truths.  Fairy tales may help children to cope with eventualities, but they also unsettle along the way.  Rare is the tale where someone doesn’t die before it’s all over.  Like many disenchanted adults who’ve discovered the promises society makes to be false and hollow, I find returning to fairy tales as an adult somewhat therapeutic.  Long ago in a land far away often sounds much better than here and now.  Nor is it pure escapism.
 
As Warner points out in the very final thoughts of the book, fairy tales have come to be treated as scriptures.  Like scriptures, they turn into myths.  Myths may be retold, deconstructed, reassembled, and applied to many situations to inform us of the human thing to do.  We sell ourselves short by not recognizing the other scriptures that wisdom has provided down the ages.  While most of the folk wisdom we have preserved in the canon of fairy tales don’t go back to the Bible, they do retread some of the same territory.  By calling some of it scripture and other secular, we might miss that very many of the truths are similar indeed.  The assumption that growing up means leaving truths of childhood behind may, on occasion, bear reexamination.  If we look closely at our fairy tales we may discover that we should keep them close at hand, no matter what our age.

Soulful Phantoms

PhantasmagoriaPhantasmagoria is a most appropriate title for the book by Marina Warner that bears that single-word name. The back cover bears none of those helpful tags that give the reader a handle by which to categorize the book. The subtitle helps somewhat: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-first Century. The book is about ensoulment. The popular rage among many academics is the exploration of embodiment—the times and trials and wisdom of having a physical body. (We all know it, but it is the scholar’s job to think about it.) Warner asks what soul stuff is and pursues this through many media: wax, air, clouds, light, shadow, mirror, ghost, ether, ectoplasm, and film. She’s not suggesting that souls are made of these things, but rather that people have used these media to explore what a soul might be. Apart from being a fine historical resource on these different avenues of exploration, individual chapters in the book focus on various artists, psychologists, parapsychologists, writers, and Scriptures. This makes for a fascinating, if challenging, exploration to undergo.

One of the topics that emerges in the discussion is how soul distinguishes itself from other unquantifiable aspects of being human: what is mind, for example. We can’t really define soul, but it is frequently differentiated from mind or personality, neither of which is particularly well understood. In an era when we’ve not so much ceased to ask these questions as sublimated them into various fictional realms, a book like Phantasmagoria is especially important. The reaction against materialistic reductionism is strong, if not empirically provable. We still flock to theaters to watch zombies on the screen, precisely because we too have become soulless. Romanticism had a place for Gothic sensibilities as well.

Along the way Warner makes a particularly apt observation that politics and entertainment have become difficult to distinguish. Thinking over the number of entertainers who’ve become policy makers, this is a particularly disturbing thought. We trust the media and it gives us entertainment. Most college professors make so little money as to be jokes when it comes to running a political campaign. Where your treasure is, as the saying goes. Media, in all the forms explored, has failed to capture the soul. The chapter on Revelation (the book) is truly spectacular, coming, as it does, in the section on film. It is the embracing of the chimera of the end of the world pieced together from various myths and nightmares that our political leaders find, in many cases, far too compelling. Someone like Warner might be a much better leader to trust, even if she is a scholar.