More Gripes About Zipes

I’m getting to the point where I’m quite seriously annoyed with Professor Jack Zipes, he of the erudite fairy tale scholarship whom I’ve considered, recently, my academic guru. I was reading his 2011 book The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films (New York: Routledge). And what I was almost afraid to call “intellectual snobbery” in my last griping post (because, after all, who am I to disagree with Zipes?) is just constantly tripping me up in this book, and it’s no longer deserving of the gingerly approach I gave it then. It’s got to be called what it is: SNOBBERY. Okay, I’m skipping over quite a lot of what he says because it’s not relevant to my current study, and I only have so much time to read right now, so I’m zeroing in on what matters. But over and over he is scathingly dismissive of some works of adaptation, while highly praising others. And what is it that draws down Dr. Zipes’ ire the most? The name “Disney”.

Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, for example, is castigated as “a banal adolescent love story” in a “rendition [that] is so stale, stiff and stupid [alliteration much?] that one must wonder why the film was such a success when it premiered in 1959.” Well, one must wonder that he still wonders, as in the preceding paragraph he is dismissing the film’s hypotext, the Grimm’s version, so much tamer than the Basile and Perrault tales of which it was an abridgement, as “a boring fairy tale” (88). Excuse me? Why does Zipes think this story has endured as one of the perennially favourite fairy tales, as part of the Western Canon? Why is it that it’s the boring Grimm’s version that’s stuck with us, not the (presumably) exciting French/Italian one with rape and hidden children and baby-eating ogresses? Well, maybe it’s because the common people like boredom. Or is it that there’s something in these stories that Zipes just fails to see?

My bet is on the latter. Here he is on “Cinderella”: “[T]he musical adaptation of Perrault’s tale that truly ignited filmgoers’ hearts [well, at least he admits that much] was Disney’s animated Cinderella (1950) … It is difficult to understand why this film … had so much success. The music is mediocre; the plot is boring; and the themes are trite” (181). I’m afraid it’s not at all difficult for me to understand why Zipes finds it difficult to understand. He’s just answered his own question. He fails to comprehend the film’s success because he finds the story boring. Condemned from your own mouth, Dr Zipes.

Now, I don’t mean to put Disney on a pedestal – far from it (far from it!). I have my own complaints about those insipid airheaded princesses and cardboard princes (“Someday my Prince will come”, indeed! Get a life, girl!), and the commercialism of the Disney enterprise just gives me the willies. But that does not lead me to write off the films that they made and their enormous success as just a case of the masses falling under the spell of the culture industry. People ain’t all that stupid, you know! And I think it’s a piece of bloomin’ arrogance to talk as if they were. Not just arrogance, ignorance. It’s missing something vital about those stories – the main, core reason that they have been popular for centuries, and keep getting told over, and over, and over, and over.

The reason we love “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” and all those other stories, and one of the biggest reasons the Disney films were the blockbusters they were on their first release and are still being watched by little girls today with unabated fanaticism – in the case of Cinderella sixty-four years later, sixty-four! – is that there is something in the story, in the “boring” plot, that speaks deeply to us. And to dismiss the films because they happen to be made by Disney is, and I’m going to stick out my neck and just say it, folly.

As I said before, folktales are tales of the folk, of the people. The common people. And today’s commoners love the Disney versions. There is no way around that. And if Dr Zipes has nothing but scorn for those films, I’m afraid I must think that he is, somehow, missing a point.

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Adorno vs. Lüthi

So after my last post, Linda recommended I take a look at Theodor Adorno’s “Culture Industry Reconsidered”. And she was right, it’s quite relevant to what I’m thinking about right now. But as I was chewing my way through Adorno, I found myself, in the back of my mind, hearing the voice of Lüthi – and I was thinking to myself, “I’m sorry, Theo, Max makes more sense.” Now, I know it’s a piece of infernal cheek of me to presume to disagree with Herr Professor Adorno, and it’s quite likely that I don’t really know what I’m talking about. But, for what it’s worth, here’s the thoughts I thunk.

First, here’s Adorno:

“In our drafts we spoke of ‘mass culture’. We replaced that expression with ‘culture industry’ in order to exclude from the outset the interpretation agreeable to its advocates: that it is a matter of something like a culture that arises spontaneously from the masses themselves, the contemporary form of popular art [the German says “Volkskunst“, “folk art, folklore”].”

“In so far as the culture industry arouses a feeling of well-being that the world is precisely in that order suggested by the culture industry, the substitute gratification which it prepares for human beings cheats them out of the same happiness which it deceitfully projects.”

Adorno, “Culture Industry Reconsidered” (from The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. London: Routledge, 1991) retrieved from here.

So, two points: according to him, “mass culture” is not the same as “folk culture” (Massenkultur vs. Volkskultur); to oversimplify, the former is bad, the latter is good. He and Horkheimer renamed “mass culture” to “culture industry” for the sake of making their points, but I’m going to keep to “mass culture” here (because it allows me to make my point better). Secondly, mass culture “arouses a feeling of well-being that the world is … in … order” (in this case the particular order suggested by the culture industry), which is only a “substitute gratification”.

Now, that’s what triggered the thoughts of Lüthi. Listen to this:

“The folktale is normative [Seinsollensdichtung, literature of what ought to be], but not in the sense that it presents us with a merely possible world that, unlike the real world, represents the way things should be, so that the real world can be contrasted to it. The folktale does not show us a world that is in order; it shows us the world that is in order. It shows us that the world is the way it should be. At one and the same time, the folktale depicts the world as it is [Seinsdichtung, literature of being] and as it ought to be [Seinsollensdichtung].” (89, bold-face mine)

“As a narrative type, the folktale simultaneously entertains and illuminates the nature of existence.” (92)

“It is as though the folktale wishes to give us assurance: even if you yourself do not know whence you come and whither you are going, even if you do not know what forces are influencing you and how they are doing so, even if you do not know what kind of [connections] you are embedded in, you may rest assured that you do stand in the midst of meaningful [connections].” (92)

Lüthi, The European Folktale: Form and Nature (Philadelphia: ISHI, 1982)

The folktale, Lüthi says, gives meaning, deep, existential meaning, by letting us experience a world that is in order, or rather, “the world that is in order”. And the way it draws us into that experience is by being entertaining. It entertains, and thereby presents a model of the nature of existence, of order, which is deeply fulfilling, existentially meaning-making.

Now, if it wasn’t for Adorno’s emphatic declaration that mass culture IS NOT folk culture, you’d almost think they were talking about the same thing, wouldn’t you? The entertainment that “arouses a feeling of well-being that the world is in order…” Mass culture – folk culture… To be quite honest, I’m not sure where the line is between “the mass” (as in, the common people, the crowds, the great unwashed and uneducated conglomerations of humanity) and “the folk”, “das Volk” (as in, the common people, the crowds, the – you get the picture, hygiene and education level aside). See, when the Grimms and their friends started to collect folktales, part of the big idea behind it was that they were folk tales, Volksmärchen – stories of the common people that the educated intelligentsia used to look down their noses at because they were so low-class, so low-culture. The Grimms, and many other folktale collectors following in their shoes, tried to collect tales “directly from the mouth of the people”, down to sometimes phonetically transcribing the dialect of the speaker (or so they claimed – but that’s another topic which I won’t go into now). They saw value in the art of the common folk, just like their contemporaries, the Romantic poets and painters, discovered the value of dirty, messy, uncivilised nature. The key point here is “common“, “plebeian”.

There are some folklore theorists who hold to the (quite controversial) idea that fairy tales are actually not originally “folk” tales which were “literacized” by collectors, i.e. came from the bottom of society and penetrated to the top, but that they are literary tales, written as “high culture” by specific authors, which have been assimilated and “popularized” by the people – top to bottom, as it were. Now, the validity of that theory, or lack thereof, is another topic for another day. But there are documented cases of that top-to-bottom movement happening – “Beauty and the Beast” being one, or “The Little Mermaid” another (Andersen wrote it as an original story, but the story that’s known today is not “his” any more, it’s been assimilated and altered by common culture). And when that kind of adaptation happens, the style of the piece can change. The people accept it as “theirs”, and adapt it. Lüthi says: “Therefore one may indeed say that in the oral tradition of the folk, the folktale style passes through a process of self-correction […] The fate of the tales of Grimm and Musäus [or de Villeneuve or Andersen] when returned to oral tradition shows in what sense the folktale may be called a collective composition” (112). And he concludes:  “The tale-telling folk takes part in the creation of the work.” (102, German edition).

So why, may I ask, is today’s mass culture not the contemporary form of folk art? If the answer is because it didn’t “arise[] spontaneously from the masses themselves”, well then, much of our cherished folklore doesn’t qualify either. But if “Beauty and the Beast”, which was written by a seventeenth-century French noblewoman (people-suppressing ancien régime much?), is allowed into the hallowed halls of “culture”, then, perhaps, much as I dislike the thought – and now I am, quite consciously, moving onto very thin ice – even Disney might lay some claim to entry? Professor Adorno would be horrified.

Some Gripes About Zipes

Okay, so I just put that in the title because it rhymes. However, I do have a few minor gripes with Dr Jack Zipes, him who, as I might have mentioned a time or two (dozen), I greatly admire in many ways. He’s written far too many books, for one – I keep reading Zipes books, and every time there’s still a bunch more I haven’t got to. Sigh.

But the main thing that’s starting to get my goat a bit is his – okay, for lack of a better term, I’ll just call it intellectual snobbery. Or maybe it’s just a matter of taste. Whichever, it seems to me that whenever Zipes writes about a book or movie I like, he looks down his nose at it. Harry Potter, case in point – as far as he’s concerned, the series is a patriarchy-reinforcing product of the culture industry. On the other hand, he thinks Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials series is a great piece of work, whereas I tried to read Pullman some years ago and just couldn’t stick it. Gloomy, violent and disturbing – just not a fun read. So is this just a case of Zipes liking dark, heavy stories, and disliking lighter material? I kind of wonder. He really likes Pullman, for sure; in discussing Cinderella adaptations, he brings him in too, with I was a Rat. But as I mentioned before, when Zipes talks about a Gail Carson Levine adaptation of Cinderella, he ignores the brilliant Ella Enchanted and talks about Cinderellis and the Glass Hill, which isn’t a Cinderella story at all, but a retelling of “The Princess on the Glass Hill”, a different fairy tale entirely.

Which brings us to fairy tale adaptations, Zipes’ main forte. Okay, I’m with him to a point on Disney movies – the Someday-My-Prince-Will-Come bubbleheads of the 30s and 50s have me rolling my eyes, too. But the Disney fairy tale movies are still fun to watch, and what’s more, they’re incredibly popular. And that’s where I’m starting to wonder: does Zipes just disapprove of anything that the common rabble like? Is that evidence for him that the viewers/readers have fallen under the spell of the culture industry?

The thing is that the folktale, the original, oral tale, was just that – the folk tale, stories told by the Volk, the common people. In Why Fairy Tales Stick, Zipes complains at some point (I can’t find the page right now to give you the exact quote) that a great lot of the fairy tale books in print today are low-quality drivel. Well, yeah! I very much doubt that every fairy tale retelling by every nanny around the 16th-century nursery fire was a literary masterpiece. It just wasn’t preserved on paper for the next few centuries. Oral culture has given way to print culture (and it in turn to audio-visual culture, to an extent); of course there’s a goodly quantity of dross is either medium.

But the other thing is that I think it’s okay to have fairy tales that are just fun, and that those can have an impact just as great as the heavy, worthy, “deep” adaptations. Perhaps a greater one, because, as I said, they’re FUN, so they spread. Take Disney’s Enchanted, for example – Zipes doesn’t have anything good to say about it, from what I remember (I think he does talk about it somewhere – once again I can’t remember where – and is quite scathingly dismissive). But it’s a piece in which Disney skewers their own conventions, in a postmodern multi-layered self-ironic style that’s quite a delight to watch. However, you have to be able to enjoy a good, sweet, princessy romantic fairy tale to get some value out of it. It’s not deep, it most definitely isn’t heavy – but it’s thoroughly satisfying for what it is, and has a really great message with it, to boot.

And that’s the thing that’s rubbing me the wrong way about some bits of Zipes’ writings: does literary criticism always have to mean “criticising” in the common sense, namely “fault-finding”? Yes, I know that’s not the academic definition of it, but more often than not, it seems that’s what it comes down to. Can we no longer find simple enjoyment in simple-ish stories? Can a sweet story without violence and heart-wrenching pain not also have literary and cultural merit – even if it’s a cash cow? Don’t get me wrong – I’m no supporter of big business, Disney among them, and their money milking practises. But if the enjoyment of a story that ends in a wedding and happily-ever-after means I have common tastes, then so be it. A folktale is a tale of the people – so shouldn’t we look to what is popular, what the people like, rather than to what literary critics designate as worthy of our attention? Even if those literary critics happen to be Jack Zipes?

And speaking of literary criticism, here’s a quote I ran across yesterday in Terry Pratchett’s Guards, Guards!:

[The Librarian of the Magic University] waited patiently as a herd of Critters crawled past, grazing on the contents of the choicer books and leaving behind them piles of small slim volumes of literary criticism.

(London: Corgi Books, 1990, p. 257)

I’m sorry, but after all the reading I’ve been doing that struck me as inordinately funny. It probably just proves once again that I have common tastes.

Max Lüthi

I can’t believe I didn’t find this guy before now. I thought I was pretty much done with my theory readings, but then I ran across this, one of the granddaddies of Folklore Theory: Max Lüthi, The European Folktale: Form and Nature (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1982). Or, as it were, Das europäische Volksmärchen: Form und Wesen (Bern: A. Francke Verlag, 1960). As far as I’m concerned, this is one of the definitive works on fairy tales, as important as Propp, Zipes and Warner, and a good deal more so than Bettelheim. And it’s nearly as old as Propp; the German version was first published in 1947 – not translated into English until 1982, but even that is pretty much contemporary with Zipes’ first work and Bettelheim. As I said, I’m really surprised I didn’t stumble across his theory before.

What’s so amazing about Lüthi’s work is that he looks at the form of the fairy tale – okay, the folktale, I guess – and precisely describes its elements, just what makes a fairy tale a fairy tale, and it really makes sense. (I’m going to use the word fairy tale for his original Märchen, because I think it’s a better fit, even though the English translator, John D. Niles, uses folktale.) Lüthi names five different elements or element groupings. I’ll give the English names Niles uses, because he’s the definitive translator, but I’ll tell you in a moment what I think of a couple of them. Here they are:

1.) One-dimensionality. By that, Lüthi means the fairy tales’ relationship to the supernatural. Otherworldly matters just exist, they are a matter of course. The fairy tale hero doesn’t blink when animals start talking to him, in fact, he’d much rather a wolf started talking than not, because then it isn’t a scary man-eating animal but “just” something supernatural. The fairy tale doesn’t move from “reality” to “the magic realm”, it only exists in Wonderland – in one dimension.

2.) Depthlessness. Representation of things, bodies, qualities, the internal world, relationships – none of them have any depth. Fairy tale people are the original flat characters. And that’s in fact the German word Lüthi uses (here’s one instance where I don’t entirely agree with Niles’ translation): Flächenhaftigkeit, the quality of a plain or of a flat wide surface. “Depthlessness” is a negative word, implying the lack of something; “Flächenhaftigkeit” is positive, the quality of flatness and expanse. Yes, the lack of depth or shape is part of it, but more important is this surface-ness, plain-ness. It’s the difference between a painted picture and a sculpture. Like abstract painting, which deals with the surface as a surface without trying to simulate depth through shading etc, the fairy tale is a flat, plain surface. Which leads us to:

3.) Abstract Style. The fairy tale paints the picture on its flat surface in sharply delineated contours and bright colours – literally, Lüthi points out, the fairy tale likes gold, silver, black, white, red (Snow White!) and the occasional blue, and not much else, no blended or muted colours. When he talks about this, I get an image of a fauve painting, a Matisse, for example. Bright, sharp, flat. Everything in the fairy tale is like that, formulaic, extreme, plain. The plot is simple, the characters are sharply outlined.

4.) Isolation and Universal Interconnection. This, according to Lüthi, is the “decisive identifying trait of the folktale. Isolation of characters, of plot, of episodes,” and following out of this, the “[c]apacity for universal interconnection” (that’s from the chapter’s subtitle in the table of contents). The characters are isolated beings, they have no strong connection to their families or home, which allows them to go out and connect or bond with the characters they meet in their adventure. The episodes in the plot are isolated from each other – often the hero learns nothing from one episode to the next, each scene takes place individually without following logically from the previous one. Things just happen, they generally are given no explanation.

5.) Sublimation and All-Inclusiveness. With this second word there is another translation that misses the mark just a bit. Lüthi’s word is Welthaltigkeit – “world containment”. “All-inclusiveness” is a pale term compared to this. The fairy tale contains the whole world in its little frame, and for this, it acquires and makes use of any motif it sees fit – the “magical, the mythic, the numinous” (I had to look up that word. It means “to do with the spiritual”.), “rites, erotic and worldly materials” – and it sublimates all those motifs, meaning it empties them of their predetermined purpose and makes them fit whatever it needs. The fairy tale “represent[s] … the contents of the world” (to quote from the Table of Contents again).

And out of this form of the folktale, that form of one-dimensionality, depthlessness, abstract style, isolation, universal connectedness and world containment, Lüthi says, we can see the function and meaning of the Märchen. The folk fairy tale (maybe that’s the best term to translate Märchen) is far more than mere entertainment. Unlike other forms of folk tales whose function can be wish fulfilment or normative, the folk fairy tale is Seinsdichtung, the literature or poetics of being. The folk fairy tale does not tell us how we wish the world was, nor how it ought to be, but how it is:

The folktale … is bound neither to reality nor to a dogma. Nor does it cling to individual events or experiences, for these are no more than its raw material. Not only does the folktale not need the support of the Church [unlike Saint’s Legends, with which Lüthi contrasts the folk fairy tale]; it continues to exist even in the face of clerical opposition. And yet, in its own way, it does give an answer to the burning questions of human existence, and this answer provides deep satisfaction. (The European Folktale, 84)

That’s sort of a nutshell summary of how I understand Lüthi’s theory. It’s a key piece in folklore research.

If you want to read an essay of a fairly extensive application of Lüthi to a particular piece of fantasy literature, which also includes a summary and explanation of the theory (a better explanation than mine, I think), check out folklore scholar Marie Brennan’s “That Fairy-Tale Feel: A Folkloric Approach to Meredith Ann Pierce’s The Darkangel. In fact, I’m very grateful to Brennan, as her essay served to steer me very definitely towards picking up a copy of Lüthi’s book.

I have another book of Lüthi’s sitting here, Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales, but I don’t think I’ll get to reading it before I write my paper. I’m still waiting for the German copy; I hope it gets here before I’m starting my next round of research. For now, Lüthi’s theory in The European Folktale is going to be a core part of my paper.