The Third Brother Grim

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.

The Pros and Cons of Parricide

“Now there are times when a whole generation is caught [ ] between two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standards, no security, no simple acquiescence.”                                         – Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf.

We cannot let 2018 pass on without noting that it was the fiftieth anniversary of the now obscure social movement known as ‘The Weathermen’, an offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). While SDS itself was a large movement dedicated to structural change – and incidentally, the name of an Iranian metal band before all such music was banned in that country – the Weathermen were small, more radical, and advocated violence. In their manifesto, the striking statement occurs: ‘kill your parents; that’s where it starts’.

What starts? Well, on the one hand, the revolution begins at home, certainly. But as well, all that denies change also begins there. Heeding one’s parents makes the new into the old, the younger generation into the one that is past rather than directing it to its own future, and condemns us to reproduction rather than creativity. Metaphorically it is well known that each of us must kill one’s parents, from Freud’s imaginary ‘primal horde’ to Greek tragedy and all the rest of it. We desire to be our own persons, and no one over forty can be said to be truly mature if they have not substantially let go of their parent’s ways and means, waylays and meanings.

But the literature of everyday life was not what the Weathermen intended by their pronouncement and accompanying truncated protests. No, they exhorted their generation to literally kill its parents. What can be made of such a statement today, fifty years on? It does seem plausible to suggest that the generation which gave birth to the baby boomers had lost a significant amount of its humanity during the Depression and World War 2. The twin shocks, from which we are still trying to recover, of both Nuremberg and Hiroshima resounded like a thunderbolt of darkness in the sunrise of victory. One could be forgiven for thinking, perhaps, that if the adult who had witnessed these world-defying events as well as having endured their wider pedigree thought lightly of the concerns of his or her children and responded to them with patent violence of which the baby boom was all too familiar. The Weathermen were hardly alone in their criticisms, and in the succeeding years many other groups kindred to them would arise in diverse nations, most infamously, the ‘Red Army Faction’ or RAF, sometimes known as Baader-Meinhof, in West Germany. But it takes more than domestic tyranny to suggest a revolution that must needs nonetheless begin at home.

Social control as we know it today is not itself out of control, though there have been disturbing trends over the previous twenty years that this sensibility is again on the rise. The migration to private schools is one symptom, as is the virtual paranoia surrounding digital media and young persons’ use thereof. Now that my generation is well into their own child-raising years, I am all the more disconcerted by such trends. I recall Gen-X being an anti-institutional and anti-authoritarian bunch. But I have to accept that it is my demographic peers who have become not so much sheep, but sheepdogs, ever on the alert to strays and overtly concerned with marking and maintaining boundaries. Surely the Ohio father who made his ten year old daughter, Kirsten Cox, trudge eight kilometers to school in near freezing weather represents a new low to this regard. Apart from being poor parenting, one wonders at the motive, though now we know where the youngster learned to bully others. (Just as one is taken aback by the whims of punitive adults who imagine their own bullying to be scrupulous, I was also unmanned by the petty detail that because ‘Kirsten’ happens to be my favorite name for a girl I felt that I myself was more concerned than if she had happened to have been named ‘Lucille’ or ‘Sophronia’, for instance).

We are fortunate, on the one hand, to have difficulty imagining what life for a young person was like in 1968, though many of these people are of course still with us. Their tales of heroism are a poignant and sometimes still pregnant mix of nostalgia and righteousness. Certainly as this demographic remains a huge and wealthy market, entertainment fictions that are dedicated to them seem to increase yearly. All of this wealth and power held by the once revolutionary generation that in one short year went from the summer of love to the summer of hate does suggest that more time in front of the television is the safest bet. But this would be to annul both the gift and the task with which the 1960s presents the present day. Fifty years on, there was no summer of anything much in 2018. People now take to the streets regarding fuel prices, sports team defeats or victories, trade agreements and the like. None of this is particularly inspiring. In a world concerned with boundaries and their maintenance, from the petty territories of family to international borders alike, perhaps even the power of the metaphor is lost to us.

So if the Weathermen, or any other kindred movement were extant today, what might they say to us, and indeed, how would they say it? I imagine that they would be more or less speechless, fatalistic, resigned, aghast. More or less, in other words, what the once revolutionary baby boomers actually are. Having long since been parents themselves, one wonders how a good proportion of them, reactionary neo-conservatives by the 1980s, avoided the fate their radical peers once suggested.

However that may be, does the exhortation, the call to arms, have any merit for the youth of today? Metaphorically, always. Literally? What one can say to this more palpable reveille is this: we need to be very cautious, consistently critical, and readily reflective regarding anything that tastes of the misuse of authority, the desire for the control of others for its own sake, and also the sexual undertones of familial dynamics, including the rule of metaphoric thumb, the assertion of dominance and the occluded thrill of coitus cloaked in actio distans. The more taboo a topic is, the more serious is it a threat to human freedom. Speaking of television, as the irascible and critical Inspector Morse once said, ‘As soon as a person says that they do not wish to talk about something, I do.’

To publicly shame our children because of this or that passing infraction is to seek the sanction of the mass. Driven in part by a rancid resentment – newly ripened youth are placed on our cultural pedestal so that we can then throw the over-ripe fruit of embittered half-dreams and lurid fantasies at them – this very mass sounds off in a frenzied expression of child-hating heat. This is also symptomatic of our digital days when at the same time we feel the imminence of some kind of ending. Kipling’s poem ‘The Fabulists’ says it well:

“Even in that certain hour before the fall,

Unless men please they are not heard at all.”

Yet we also know that most of us go utterly unnoticed, so there is also a sense that within this loathing, stigmatizing, and vindictive moralizing, there must also be present a desire simply to be recognized as a human being amongst others; in short, a desire for the freedom that only the call of conscience can provide.

G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty books in ethics, education, religion, social psychology, aesthetics and social theory.