Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Value of the Magical

Our breakfast discussion this morning was about the movie "Stardust" starring Claire Danes. It's a well done fantasy/fairytale. Richard asked me if there is an English myth about a wall separating the worlds, and I said that I wasn't aware of one but that perhaps it was a cinematic accomodation of the idea of a transition between this world and the fairy world. I'm not sure that the gateway to the realm of the fairies has a physical representation in popular myths; usually one falls asleep, or wanders into some unknown part of the woods and finds oneself in the Other realm. Perhaps a "fairy circle" shows where the worlds came together at some previous point in time. Richard wondered why I called it the fairy realm, because Stormhold, the world beyond the wall in "Stardust", wasn't a very nice place, and I pointed out that myths often show the fairy realm as dark and populated by beings who are in conflict with each other, as they are in the land of Stormhold.

Richard said that the Stardust writers avoided the pitfall of trying to make the story logical, and this made me think about how important it is to respect the quality of "the magical realm" when writing fantasy. He compared the Stormhold/fairy realm to the philosophical concept of the noumenal reality that is not available through sense perception. For Kant the noumenal is uncovered through reason, but there is another meaning for the term "noumenal," which is the Jungian "Nous," a reference to the gnostic word for Mind, which has a profound meaning for Jung, more akin to soul than to intellect. The Jungian noumenal realm is the source of myth-creation, which is what creates the real. It is the core of the creative impulse.

So often writers misunderstand the significance of fantasy, and misguidedly try to make it accessible by explaining it within common psychological concepts and popular social-emotional culture. This is the horror of Disney-fied children's entertainment, which is indoctrination into reducing the realm of the fairies (the Jungian noumenal) to a psychologized statement about pedestrian desires. Our inner landscapes of aspiration are something apart, and they don't surrender their secrets to simplistic forms of explanation.

This thought about the significance of fantasy made me reflect on the magic of language in our lives, particularly our early lives as children, when the power of language to create the world is self-evident.

 --aside: I'm reading St. Aubyn's "Mother's Milk" and in that book he writes beautifully, creatively, and perceptively about Patrick's young children as they acquire language and knowledge of the world. --

Just as writers are misguided about reductive approaches to our deepest aspirations, curriculum writers are misguided when they rigorously apply phonetic language acquisition concepts to children's literature. I used to work for a non-profit education company that prided itself on its comprehensive "content-rich" curriculum, but they missed the boat about inspiring children to read by ruling out introducing unusual evocative words out of order in the schema. I think they would say something like "That would be difficult and confusing for the child, and inconsistent with the goal of achieving steady reading mastery." But education is also about contacting that part of ourselves that is never satisfied but always hungry for the realm of the noumenal -- the realm that speaks to our deepest aspirations. I remember a special friend of mine, a very literate and creative young woman, who talked about the power of words in the books she read as a child. Many children's authors do get this, and they deliberately introduce a select few long or unusual words into their books, and children feel a thrill in being exposed to such potent language, as it opens gateways that beckon to what lies beyond.