Self-deception in children's literature

I recently landed on this article by the Washington Post's art critic, Sebastian Smee, spewing invective over a particular artist being given a retrospective at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn museum. (Is Sebastian Smee not the perfect name for an art critic? Some people, from the moment they have been named, must be destined to fulfill certain destinies.) I haven't got a terribly strong opinion on the artist, Georg Baselitz, myself. I was (and am) not familiar with the artist, and at a first glance on Google Arts & Culture and Image Search I can't say that much connects with me. A terrible amount of upside-down folk. Okay.

The main thrust of the article is the accusation that the artist continues to have a reputation simply to save the reputation of those that actually bought into what he was selling. The art world is reaping the rewards of holding on to a sunk cost fallacy:


"Quite simply, too many people have paid too much for Baselitz’s blowzy work over too many years for his reputation to undergo the correction it warrants. Too many curators and collectors have placed their chips on the roulette wheel of his talent. None of them wishes to lose what loose change, intellectual or real, they have bothered to fork out."


Again, I don't have an interesting or worthwhile opinion on the artist, but I do appreciate the phenomenon Smee is discussing. It reminded me of another book I read just the other day, and that I mentioned here on the blog. I'm talking, of course, about Square, written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen.

Square is an anthropomorphized shape living in a land of other similar shapes. He has a cave filled with other (non-animated) squares that he pushes out onto a hill each day. "This is his work," we are told flatly. (Though I note that it's not called his job, but his work.) Then one day, we are introduced to Circle, who comes hovering by. She has been taken, for some time, by his sculptures. When he asks what she means, she talks about all the wonderful and perfect replica square sculptures he makes of himself, and how he is absolutely a genius.

This is all news to Square.

Furthermore, he is to make Circle a perfect sculpture of herself. How indeed can the genius refuse the request of a fan? He works and frets all night. He is a genius, so what what he makes must be perfect. She is, herself, perfect — a perfect circle. She doesn't even need legs! Square has two legs under his shaped body to carry himself. His trickster friend Triangle has two legs under his body to carry himself. Circle has none! She just floats here and there, presumably spewing random positivity to everyone she meets. So her sculpture must be perfect.

It goes about as well as one might expect. He chisels here, he chisels there, and eventually he's chiseled the whole damn block away. There's just a bit of rubble lying about in all directions and a puddle of water (is it sweat? tears? I'm not actually sure. It could be just plain water, I don't know enough about chiseling/sculpting to know how much water is used in the process). When she returns, she sees what he's left with and...it's perfect. She declares him once more a genius, and this time he believes it. The book ends with the closing reflection, "But was he really?"

Not to try to make too much of a kid's book, but it's a fun look at how we want other people to see us. Square deeply wants to be seen as a genius, even if he only just found out he was one. What happens when the book ends? Does he internalize it, making genuis sculptor a part of his identity? Will he ever have to confront a lack of talent or ability, or will he surround himself with "encouragers" that assure him he's a very special shape? One imagines a future hellscape dystopia wherein some other shape—an octagon perhaps—is writing screeds that the entire sculture community has been hoodwinked by Square, and that Circle and her fellow cohort are too invested in saving face to admit their emperor has no clothes.

I only hope that that shape has as good a name as Sebastian Smee.

Ecclesiastical Toddler

If you were wondering how our morning went.


The words of the Toddler, the daughter of Matthew, software engineer in Fairfax.

Vanity of vanities, says the Toddler,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with chocolate milk—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life.


The Forgetful Mist

I have started in on Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant. Set in a fantastic version of Britain around the early medieval ages, it follows an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, on their quest to go and visit their son. Something, aside from the ogres, is troubling those capable of noticing it — an uncanny predisposition to forgetfulness.

A village terrified for the fate of a girl gone missing with wolves about forgets itself and argues over reports of a wren-eagle by a pair of shepherds returning from the fields. When she returns to no particular fanfare (besides Axl and her mother, who gives her a light scolding), even the girl is not surprised — "I know they've not missed me. And I can her, I know that's not me they're shouting about."

Later, they rest in the village of a different tribe on their way to their son's village. Some members of the clan were beset by ogres earlier, and a raiding party was sent out, with guards on the village wall. At least, until they see the new folk. After being rescued by the village's elder statesman, he laments:


"If you strangers remember our troubles well enough, how is it these fools are forgetting them already? They were told in terms a child would understand to hold their positions on the fence at all costs, the safety of the whole community depending on it, to say nothing of the need to aid our heroes should they appear at the gates pursued by monsters. So what do they do? Two strangers go by, and remembering nothing of their orders or even the reasons for them, they set on you like crazed wolves. I'd be doubting my own senses if such strange forgetfulness didn't occur so often in this place."


The forgetfulness is a strange thing, and dangerous, too. It makes strangers wary of one another, and that is frightening enough, especially for the traveler. Axl has another, more terrifying thought — if a people cannot remember its shared past, how long can they continue to be a community? So long, even, can a family hold together? Axl and Beatrice do not actually know where their son's village is, or possibly what it is even called. Axl does not remember his son's features. He may not remember his wife's name. The latter hasn't been directly addressed, but so far he has unfailingly called her "princess." One wonders how the wedding ceremony must have gone. (It is used a handful of times by others in his presence, but the question still persists). I'm curious to find out, presuming they find the son, if he remembers them in return.

All of this has me thinking about an article by L.M. Sacasas I had read over the weekend about how the popular conception of Fahrenheit 451 is all wrong. I haven't read it (I've since added a digital hold on it at the library, and if the wait time estimate is anywhere near accurate, I may be able to get to it by November) and I will confess my sense was that the books were being burned as part of an Orwellian governmental censorship. The truth is that they were being burned because they were superfluous, simply no one was reading anymore to need to save them.

I suppose I'll find out come November if he's right, but in the world of Fahrenheit 451, virtually anything that makes demands on a person, to think or act soberly, to reflect and remember, these things are jettisoned by a society that does not want to be bothered with them. They are crowded out by the demands of immediacy, constant interaction and bombardment and entertainment. To pull a quote from one of the characters,


“If you’re not driving a hundred miles an hour, at a clip where you can’t think of anything else but the danger, then you’re playing some game or sitting in some room where you can’t argue with the fourwall televisor. Why? The televisor is ‘real.’ It is immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be, right. It seems so right. It rushes you on so quickly to its own conclusions your mind hasn’t time to protest, ‘What nonsense!'”


This world is starting to sound familiar. Typing out some thoughts on forgetfulness, I've chuckled to myself at the irony of how many things I've had trouble remembering when trying to write this out. I could not remember what it was that distracted the searchers from the missing girl. I had a devil of a time finding the Sacasas article because I couldn't remember who wrote it or where I had read it. I knew I had seen it from someone I followed on Twitter, but not who it came by. I have a guess now, but I'm not terribly sure of that. And of course, in the process of writing this I have been flipping back between fifteen tabs on my browser that may as well be in a new configuration each time I look up to go to one or the other.

This is precisely why I hoped to start writing about what I've read in the first place, that I might better remember it. I'd finished the first Harry Potter book in four sittings, finishing it yesterday afternoon. Last night, I plowed straight ahead into The Buried Giant. The progress ticker says I'm 20% of the way through, which suggests I'll be through with it later this week. It's certainly exciting to watch the progress tick upwards (or utterly terrifying as when I started in on David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, with its estimated read time of 31 hours and change and I frantically tapped the pages wondering how many it takes to tick the progress up just one per cent), but there are oh-so-many ways to drive a hundred miles and hour at a clip where I can't think of anything else but the excitement.

Maybe I need a book club.

Harry — yer a wizard.

So I've just started to pick up and read the Harry Potter books. It's about time I found out what all the fuss was about. Couldn't help but chuckle at this line, in the first chapter:


"— there will be books written about Harry Potter — every child in our world will know his name!"


Prescient.

I left off last night just after Hagrid informed Harry (spoiler alert) that he's a wizard. When I woke up this morning, my thoughts turned to another young lad who was stunned to find out about his destiny: Young Timothy, wielder of Berwhale, the Avenger.

If only the Dursleys had been so clever.

One in 10,000

Coming back to In the Garden of Beasts, the ambassador's mission, as given to him from Roosevelt, was to be "an American liberal in Germany as a standing example." The natural incompatibility between American liberalism and Nazism would be a difficult gap to bridge. Dodd's detractors at the embassy and in Washington believed he was fundamentally unsuited to the job because of his disdain for the Nazis.

Most of this disapproval was signaled obliquely. He did not, for instance, attend the yearly Nazi rallies in Nuremberg as a sign of America's disapproval of Nazi policies; and on a few occasions would give speeches to groups within the country that veiled the American disapproval by historical analogue, reminding the listeners of the collapse of historical despotic regimes. These were received well by those who could not speak out and despised by the regime.


Bret Baier: You call people sometimes "killers." He is, you know, he is a killer. He's clearly executing people...

President Trump: Well, he's a tough guy. Hey, when you take over a country — tough country, tough people — and you take it over from your father, I don't care who you are, what you are, how much of an advantage you have, if you can do that at twenty-seven years old — I mean that's one in 10,000 that could do that. So he's a very smart guy; he's a great negotiator; but I think we understand each other.

Bret Baier: But he's still done some really bad things.

President Trump (smirking): Yeah, but so have a lot of other people done some really bad things. I mean I could go through a lot of nations where really bad things were done.


In the Garden of Beasts

One wonders how different the course of the twentieth century would have been had the warnings about the Nazi government been received and acted upon in time. In the Garden of Beasts is, in part, the story of one such Cassandra — William Dodd, American Ambassador to Germany during the first few years of FDR's tenure, and of Hitler's rise to power.

He was disliked by the State Department because he disdained the good-old-boys club that ran it and their excesses. Their main concern was that he keep the Germans from defaulting on their debt to American creditors; his was doing what he could to moderate the German government and to encourage the liberal elements of German society that remained.

It's a sobering reflection on what results if we are willing to gloss over the warning signs of fascism, because we are either uninterested in its targets (the entire State Department, the ambassador and his family included, harbored some level of anti-Semitism) or because we are hopeful, assuring ourselves that the evil and corruption cannot sustain itself and will eventually collapse.