Friday, December 27, 2013

Hidden Mickeyisms 9: MetaMickeyism and Mr. Banks

One of the quickest ways to increase one’s scholarly vocabulary is to learn to add the prefix “meta-“ to various words. (Using these “meta-“ formulations makes you sound so intelligent and erudite!) My 1966 edition of Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (given to me at High School graduation, to enable me to tackle college-level writing) was incomplete! It was missing such an important meta- word as metacommunication (a term made famous by Gregory Bateson in 1951 in Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry. Bateson was suggesting that when we communicate information concerning how our other messages should be interpreted, we are using “metacommunication.” My dictionary also failed to alert me to the term “metarhetoric,” a term that was apparently disliked by Henry W. Johnstone, according to an article in the 1978 Rhetoric Society Quarterly. To oversimplify the issue, we could say that metarhetoric is any discussion of how rhetoric operates, and metacommunication is any discussion of how communication works.
This brings me to the new word I now wish to coin: “MetaMickeyism.” In an earlier post I hinted at a definition of the root term I coined--“Mickeyisms”: “Through its films, Disney provides powerful entelechies to children and their parents. These films are cow paths that implicitly offer self-persuasive rhetoric to children. Just as cows mindlessly follow paths that have been established by the cows that preceded them from pasture to pasture, so children (and adults) mindlessly follow the psychological and interpretive paths established for them.” These self-persuasive cow paths would, in my view, be “Mickeyisms.” So, MetaMickeyism, in a fashion similar to metarhetoric and metacommunication, would be any discussion of how Mickeyisms work. And, what better source of MetaMickeyism could there be than Walt Disney himself along with his corporation!
MetaMickeyism is indeed the point of Disney’s film, Saving Mr. Banks. The Walt Disney Corporation offers us a glimpse into the meaning and interpretation of Disney’s extremely successful film Mary Poppins. We watch Tom Hanks in character as Walt Disney encountering the cantankerous author of the book Mary Poppins, P. L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson). As the final credits roll, we even get the opportunity to listen in to actual taped conversations between Ms. Travers and Disney artists. Thompson-as-Travers interjects early-on in the film, in astonishment: “You think Mary Poppins came to save the children?” As the film’s title indicates, it was Mr. Banks, not his children, who was to be saved by Mary Poppins. Succumbing to the twin vices of smoking and drinking, Mr. Banks (the author’s father, in real life) was in the process of killing himself, destroying his health. These vices (smoking and drinking) do not appear as the vices of Mr. Banks in the film Mary Poppins. Rather, in the movie, Mr. Banks’s vice is that he is a workaholic (although, in a sense, that addiction can metaphorically stand for the other two addictions). Ms. Travers is presented as having written the autobiographically-based book as a cathartic exercise to somehow cure her own frustration, as a small child, at not being able to save her father. Kenneth Burke, in Counter-Statement discusses literature as “art for the artist’s sake.”
In my book Implicit Rhetoric, I comment: “When I characterize Burke's concept of "Art for Art's Sake" as Art for the Artist's Sake, I suggest that Burke implicitly locates the telos of Poetic art within the artist, not the art product” (p. 87). Burke is interested in what the artist is doing for himself or herself. Saving Mr. Banks provides a glimpse into what the book was doing for Ms. Travers. Discovering the background of the real Ms. Travers’s father may have even done something for Walt Disney himself as he learned the true story. This would constitute another example of art for the artist’s sake. Perhaps, in a sense, the story could even have been named Saving Mr. Disney. Walt was himself a smoker and a drinker, even though while he was alive, his theme parks prohibited alcoholic beverages and his movie Pinocchio clearly included smoking and drinking among the vices to be avoided. Walt once remarked, "I know drinking and smoking are sins because you aren't taking care of the body God gave you.” We bump into the implication that these two vices of Walt’s were sensitive areas in two scenes of the movie Saving Mr. Banks. In one scene, Ms. Travers bursts into Walt’s office and finds him smoking. Walt embarrassingly comments that he does not like people to see him smoking, because it sets a bad example. In another scene, Walt pursues Ms. Travers back to England after she bolts from the movie. At her home, Ms. Travers offers Walt some tea—laced with alcohol. After a nervous laugh, Walt accepts the drink with the comment, “When in Rome . . . .” Nevertheless, Walt Disney, in the motion picture Mary Poppins, is intent on shifting the emphasis from Art for the Artist’s Sake to what Burke calls Art for the Auditor’s Sake. Disney’s interest is in what the film will do for its audience. Therefore, Disney wants to “cure” Mr. Banks of his addiction, for the sake of his audience. In Disney’s version, the vice (represented by the song “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank,” about “tuppence wisely invested in the bank”) struggles with the benevolent philosophy of the song “Feed the Birds” at the cost of “tuppence a bag” and, after considerable stress, Mr. Banks converts from his old addiction to workaholism and its greedy, capitalist values to new, curative humanitarian values and instead invests his “tuppence” in “paper and string” in the song “Let’s Go Fly a Kite!”
Walt Disney desires this happy, curative ending rather than one in which Mary Poppins simply abruptly “pops” out (the hidden meaning in the name Poppins?). This is due, I believe, to his emphasis upon Art for the Auditor’s Sake. Just as Burke equates this Art for the Auditor’s Sake to a psychological-rather-than-Poetics perspective, Burke calls this psychological perspective the “psychology of form.” Then, Burke defines “form” as the “arousing and fulfilling of expectation.” For Burke, a piece of literature in which there is no clear, satisfying “ending” or “telos” cannot fulfill expectations. The expectation of Disney literature is that there will be an end to the stress. In the case of Mary Poppins the movie, the stress of Mr. Banks destroying his life via his addiction to work must be removed. The kite song fulfills the expectation. Mr. Banks is cured. Children now have a new cow path to follow—one that is free of addiction.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Merry Xmas, Dear Atheists!

Merry Xmas is the explicit seasonal wish of a group calling itself “American Atheists.” Posting an ad at Times Square with the message “Who needs Christ during Christmas,” the electronic billboard message proceeds to X out the word “Christ” and encourages readers to “celebrate the true meaning of Xmas.” Fair enough! Merry Xmas, dear atheists! Apparently, you do not realize that the X in Xmas is not the English letter X. Rather, it is--as any self-respecting fraternity brother or sorority sister knows--the Greek letter X (pronounced: Chi). The letter X (Chi) is the first letter of the Greek word CHRISTOS, which is transliterated: Christ. Xmas, therefore, is but an abbreviation for CHRISTMAS. The billboard asks the rhetorical question, “Who needs Christ during Christmas?” A rhetorical question is one that requires no answer because the answer is so obvious. Apparently, however, the American Atheists do not trust readers enough to figure out the “correct” answer on their own, so the billboard supplies the answer: “nobody.” What seems like a more obvious answer, however, is that ATHEISTS need “Christ” during Christmas—just as they need “God” (Greek: THEOS) in order to be true A-THEOS-ISTS (atheists). Kenneth Burke calls it “the paradox of substance.” The paradox is that in order to be a true protagonist, you NEED to have an antagonist.
In order to be truly “Eve,” she needed a “Serpent” to tempt her. In order to be a true “Florida State Seminole,” one needs a “Florida Gator” to oppose (just as a “Purdue Boilermaker” needs an “Indiana Hoosier,” an “Ohio State Buckeye” needs a “Michigan Wolverine,” the “New York Yankees” need the “Boston Red Sox,” and for the longest time, “the United States of America” needed “the Soviet Union”). The nature of Drama is such that we must always look for the “what is vs. what” factor in all dramas. Snow White needs a Wicked Queen. Cinderella needs a Wicked Stepmother. Hansel and Gretel need the witch. All of Disney’s heroes need Disney’s villains to make the stories go.
What would an atheist be without a THEOS? Without a real opponent, an atheist would be just an “A.” So the true question is WHY do atheists choose God and Christ as their opponents? Kenneth Burke speculates in Attitudes Toward History (p. 52-53): “Atheism (and, in keeping, a categorical denial of immortality) is a statement of faith that necessarily cannot be substantiated by a ‘weighing of all the evidence.’ When you find a man who is exceptionally eager to deny the possibility of immortality (as though he ‘could not rest’ without a constant ‘secular prayer’ to the effect that death is absolute) you may legitimately grow quizzical of his intensity. Why such zest? Might it not come from a fear of punishment after death? For it is obvious that, if the possibility were either death or heaven, there would be no incentive for a man to become engrossed in the denial of immortality. He would let the matter slide, content to await his sojourn in paradise when it came, and to go about his business in the interim. If, on the other hand, the possibility of immortality contained for him the likelihood of his taking up permanent residence in hell, he would have ‘good emotional reasons’ for wanting to ‘pray’ immortality out of existence. Hence, when we see a man who goes out of his way to amass evidence that ‘proves’ mortality, we should take his engrossment as a somewhat unwieldy and roundabout way of cancelling guiltiness. The man . . . who says ‘absolutely not’ is driven by .. . the fear of immortality (which could only derive from a latent fear of hell that stimulated him thus indirectly to ‘legislate’ the possibility out of existence).”
Burke’s speculation seems to find some corroboration in a recent social scientific study conducted in Finland. The article, published in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion (February 19, 2013), asked subjects to dare God to perform terrible acts (such as “I dare God to paralyze ______”) against themselves, their parents, friends, and children. The majority of subjects were self-described atheists. When asked to read aloud these dares while hooked up to a skin-conductance meter, which measures the amount of sweat produced, the atheists tested produced the same levels of stress as did the believers. Is there a latent fear of God and Christ that motivates atheists to choose them as their enemy? Oh, well! Merry Xmas, dear atheists!