The Third Brother Grim
As a co-founder of a for-profit, I understand the longitudinal convenience of brand loyalty. For an entrepreneur, this is the truer stuff of legend; can something created for one demographic and in one time period, be sold to another, however distant? Changing tastes, also heavily influenced by market and shill, but also perhaps more authentically, changing distastes, most often combine to dislodge once highly successful franchises or products. To overcome this, certain ideals might themselves have to be elbowed aside. In the case of Roald Dahl, the ideal of original, creative work, untouched by the vicissitudes of times contrived and contradictory.
Now I don’t write children’s books. And even the games our software company has released or designed are not specifically for the youngest consumers. And I know I would react with a grave sense of offense if anyone cast censorious opprobrium upon any of my solo or joint works. Indeed, I have already done so, in the thus far only moment wherein an official person has come into direct contact with my YA novels. A public librarian refused to stock any of them citing their ‘challenging themes’ for youth. Yes, this is why I wrote them in fact. This minor tempest could have been a publicity moment for our brand and our company, perhaps, and may still be, but in business timing is everything. Even so, the real reason behind censorship of all kinds is not so much that people’s moral scruples might be slighted, but rather that the organization in question, both public or private, fears loss of franchise. For the for-profit, this might end in foreclosure, and for the public sector, proverbial heads might roll.
And speaking of rolling heads, torture devices, Dickensian terribles and Lewis Carroll look-alikes, Dahl represents both the epitome and compendium of all of the nasty-minded fairy tales with which adults have cautioned their children. Anthropologists have long recognized that the social function of the children’s story is social control. This is why, as a critical philosopher who heeds our guild’s apical ancestor’s ethic of ‘corrupting youth’ – the very charge leveled against Socrates by the Athenian state and for which he was executed by same – my books for young people exhort them to overturn, indeed, vanquish the norms which bind them, including the hollow idols of the sacred. But such tales for today’s world contradict, in a most calculated manner, the general function of youthful literature. When I read the tepid books on the banned lists in American school districts, I have to confess to a smirk; they ain’t seen nothing yet!
But as a reactionary, Roald Dahl exudes the wider English Vice. He was an anti-Semite, an absurdist, a blender and bleeder of Dada and Da-da, and a narrator who took precious and precocious pleasure in subjecting children to abusive scenarios. His books, replete as they are with a leering lasciviousness that makes Norman Rockwell’s Mayberry attempts at child pornography quite gentle by comparison, are hardly to be affected by some revisions, ‘minor and cosmetic’, as their publisher has recently announced. But this is not the main point. Dahl, and almost every other author of the children’s genre, seeks to blunt the wonder and wit the child brings to the adult world, just as most YA fiction seeks to refocus ‘in a positive manner’ the critique which the adolescent brings to it. The child is told, ‘the world is absurd, arbitrary, and thus have a care’. And the youth is told ‘just wait long enough and you will be in control; you’re in training for such as we speak’. Far from being concerned about calling someone ‘fat’ or ‘crazy’, a truly astute readership of today will rather note that the essence of how we socialize our children is through violence, mostly symbolic in cultured spaces, still mostly physical in those barbaric. It is the very passing off of barbarism as if it were culture that is the real scandal of authors like Dahl.
The use of violence to raise young people is in turn the root cause of why our shared adult world remains itself so violent. And of late it seems to be getting worse. Wealth disparities, warfare, crippling expenses for arms, the tools of violence, and governments washing their perennially stained palms of social justice and responsibility alike, regress all of us into an unwanted second childhood. Or perhaps we have never quite left it. For who speaks when books like Dahl’s are revised? Do we hear the voices of those to whom they are targeted? And would we listen if we perchance ever did? No, it is editors, famous authors, even prime ministers who speak yay or nay. On the one side, those who seek to maintain the genres ‘original’ time-tested edge; on the other, those who desire this edge to adapt to their own changing sensibilities of what will work; that is, what will maintain their petty and altogether unworthy family fiefdoms. This alone should tell us that the true fans of children’s literature are the adults who wield it as the weapon it was ever crafted to be.
All those who celebrate Dahl and like children’s literature are, in essence, voyeuristic sadists and pseudo-pedophiles. Revise away, then! Keep the phantasmagorical piety of filial love plunged eye-deep in the colorful spectacle of a violent theatre of the absurd. Keep telling our human future that the adult world is no place for wonder and trust, compassion and care. And to all those who pine for the days when adults could beat their children with a rod, take heart; simply use a book instead.
G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty-five books in ethics, education, health, aesthetics, and social theory, and more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.