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Fairy Tales and Their Antagonism By Modernity

20th of May, 2024

Herman Hesse's oldest extant work, written at the age of ten, is a fairy tale called Two Brothers, which survives as part of the later piece Christmas with Two Children's Stories. The older brother is strong and handsome, the younger is sickly and crippled. The strong brother is cruel and casts away the weak. In the course of the story, their fortunes are reversed: the older brother, now crippled, is put in a position of subservience to the younger. After a gesture of inscrutable cruelty by the younger, the two reconcile and live happily ever after. As a mature writer, decades hence, Hesse reflects that the work was not borne of his own experience, but the result of the synthesis of his reading. That Hesse sees it as important to note that a story which includes mountains of diamonds and magical bearded dwarves was not inspired by his immediate experience, but of second hand experience in the form of textual recycling, tells us something about the way in which the old writer thought about the act of writing.

“Freedom, that fragile element of the human edifice, rests upon the imagination, both in the sense of illusion and in that of emancipation through the use of symbols. The Australanthropians' world was already an imaginary one to the extent that it was founded upon the first materialisation of what were in effect symbols taking the form of tools; so is the world of an average person of today all of whose knowledge is derived from books, newspapers, and television and who, using the same eyes and ears as our remote ancestor, receives the reflection of a world that has expanded to the proportions of the universe but has become a world of images, a world the individual is plunged into but cannot participate in except through the imagination.”
—André Leroi-Gourhan, Gesture and Speech

Hesse was born in 1877, and so came of age under the historical lintel of literary modernism. For him, a fairy tale is a history of the soul. It is a text that compounds a set of motifs—themselves perennial and universal—that “reaffirm the identical structure of the human soul in all peoples and all lands”. I can understand then the need he must have felt to work through the alienated content of his own work. He might have seen in that childish pastiche the image of a postmodern universe of texts that can never really see or speak about anything but other texts. Textual fragments from one of the old philosopher’s manuscripts, powerless and with no wills of their own; tentatively recombined elements in an ongoing experiment in aesthetics. Everything in him violently opposes such an unhappy cogito ergo sum.

Lucy Frost, writing about the film Memento, wrote that its writer and director Christopher Nolan “doesn’t care about anybody” and so approaches his characters and their situations “as a set of exercises in narrative logistics, interesting because of the challenges they impose upon a filmmaker and the strategic choices they engender.” This is perhaps the most extreme form of the problematised plotting that one finds in much of contemporary science fiction and fantasy writing. For Hesse, the ideal story is not composed of Newtonian objects that bounce around, behaving according to action and reaction, but of impressions.

We can make a comparison with animated films. Histories of animation credit the earliest Disney short films with inventing animations as corporeal objects: characters in particular did not feel like arrangements of colour and line but instead looked and felt as if they had weight; moved as if they were composed of matter; contorted and stretched not arbitrarily but according to a logic of elasticity and gravity. The characters were in dialogue with us because they communicated with the objects of our experience, they made sense to the brainstem which evolved first to track moving targets, before higher cognition cared about the symbolic administration of sociality or writing.

By 1940, Fantasia and Pinocchio represented a further innovation whereby these pseudo-corporeal figures were to be cast in scenes which extended the reality of the world beyond the rectangular frame of the screen. Filmmaking was described by Andrei Tarkovsky as “sculpting in time”, as the camera is turned on and off to capture parts of a continuum of reality, and an editor shaves away more and more time until what is left resembles some desirable image. Animation is the opposite: everything is built up from nothing by an animator, and so the only substance that exists in the world of the film is what is directly observed. Fantasia and especially Pinocchio begin to use the contents of the frame to imply a continuum beyond that frame—Roger Ebert describes the effect by pointing out that when Pinocchio and Gepetto are buffeted by the sneezes of the whale their raft is drawn back and pushed out again over and over while the whale driving this locomotion is off-screen, stage left.

The drawn universe, once seen in its total complete contrivance, is here replaced by the suggestion of a universe which is immeasurably greater than any single fragmented glimpse of it. The causal connection between the raft and the whale is implied by cutting between the two scenes—in its very cinematic feeling montage—but it is the motion of the waves themselves and the frantic activity of the figures which produces an ideal identity between them, and not the montage’s combinatory logic that takes the two otherwise inert identities and brings them to life via their dialectic. We are made to forget that the whale and the raft are folios of flat symbols that do not in fact share any objective causal link.

It is said sometimes that a world brimming with detail feels lived in. We can find some evidence of fictional people living their fictional lives somewhere within its confines beyond the scope of what is directly described, as one believes that when one sees video footage of a foreign country that, outside of what we see directly, there is a churning mechanism of culture and time and moving parts that supports what we can see. Pinocchio uses a montage technique: the camera cuts between an image of the whale sneezing and an image of figures struggling against the tempest that the sneezing has apparently caused. Literature uses exposition, as details that are given suggest that what might have been some sort of unaccountable motion on the part of the world is actually the result of that tangle of fictional lives in the process of their living.

“But it also seems to me that the wish fulfilment comes to pass in the realm of the imagery and the playful; at least for myself, I can say that at age ten I was neither a capitalist nor a jewel merchant, and never to my knowledge had I seen a diamond. On the other hand, at that age I was already acquainted with Grimm’s Fairy Tales and perhaps also with the tale of Alladdin’s Lamp, and for the child the conception of a mountain of jewels was less a notion of wealth than a dream of unspeakable beauty and magical power.”
—Herman Hesse, Christmas with Two Children’s Stories

The reason that people in stories take action cannot be that they are serving some narrative purpose that they were invented to serve. The wise master sacrifices his life in order to get the hero out of danger and change the trajectory of his narrative arc, but what matters is that there is death; where reason is concerned it is to produce an image of death: death for love, death for revenge, death for honour. Images are not instrumental to some prefabricated terminus, they are the point. Money is a non-thing, a thing that only stands in for other things. It is a bag of potatoes or a ticket to a gig or the sum that satisfies the landlord. Wealth is a social plurality of money: the landlord takes money from his tenants and so in aggregate possesses wealth. The mountain of gems is not wealth. It is a fantastical icon of unspeakable beauty and magical power.

The 20th century destroyed the fairy tale as a form. Northrop Frye identified fantasy as “the normal technique for fiction writers who do not believe in the permanence of the society they belong to.” During the course of the 20th century, every writer came to number among this set. To believe in the permanence of Margaret Thatcher and McDonalds is to cede the right to engage in the act of believing. Fantasy has to come to mean something else. Sometimes it means designating a formal distinction between books that have dragons in and books where people called Ryan eat things that have been heated up in a microwave, or get in and out of cars.

“Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. “If this goes on, this is what will happen.” A prediction is made. Methods and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of a purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation. Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive about where the Club of Rome arrives: somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life. Almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic.”
—Ursula K. Le Guin, introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness

Further Reading:

Oxymoron: A Philosophy of History in Avant-Garde Jazz
Three Trains of Thought From the Barbican, 7th of October
Hyperoptics: Lessons From Cinematic Vision