Sorry Ass Devolution

This is an aside from a longer reading of Wordsworth’s “Immortality Ode.”  It felt blog-like, so here it is.

For me, the saddest thing in the history of ideas is a noble idea so corrupted that it comes to mean the opposite of its first intention. I suppose, to be charitable, this corruption can come out of innocent stupidity, but it’s difficult not to recognize how convenient the corrupted version is for the regime du jour, especially when the original idea is dangerous or potentially destabilizing.  Christianity is probably the most notorious example of this corrupting tendency, as most of the Christians around us have demonstrated ever since the Nicene Creed declared war on the world, especially on Christianity itself.  But the ideas of Romanticism have surely endured another such traumatic corruption.  The sentimentalizing of the Romantic metaphor of childhood is a case in point. The innocence, the perfection, the general mindless adorability of children is one of the most enduring Romantic clichés.   Its admirable origin is in work like German Romantic Philipp Runge’s painting The Huelsenbeck Children.

Philipp Otto Runge, The Huelsenbeck Children, 1806

The painting is not solely concerned with the children and the eyes of the boy that gaze so knowingly into our own.  It is also a social and symbolic landscape (the town on the horizon, the sunflowers).   In short, it is complex; it can be read.

“The pudgy faces and hands of the infant are alive with primal energy, and the elder boy is shown rushing forward, heedlessly wielding his whip.  Only the girl possesses any forethought.  She looks back in consternation as the baby instinctively grasps at one of the lower leaves of the sunflower looming above him.  Most arresting of all is the picture’s handling of scale.  Looking at the painting, we find ourselves in the children’s world. We are on their level, below the sunflower and close to the ground…. The effect of all this is to emphasize their monumental presence.”

(William Vaughn, German Romantic Painting)

Disgracefully, what followed the complexity of Runge reminds me of a scene in Peter Sellers’s early ‘70s satire The Magic Christian (1969)  (based on a Terry Southern novel of the same name, 1959).  At a certain point in the movie Guy Grand (Sellers) buys a “school of Rembrandt” painting from a snooty art dealer (played by a young and already pitch-perfect John Cleese).  Purchase made, Grand informs the dealer that he only wants the nose and proceeds to cut it out with a pair of scissors.  So it is with the eyes of the Runge children; they are taken from their context, only to become the soulless void of Victorian Romantic kitsch.

Things just get worse from there.  The “wide-eyed innocence” of the Romantic child is literally emptied, a perverse confession of misappropriation, and then, added insult, tied to the values of Daddy Warbucks and the free enterprise system, upon which all innocence must henceforth depend!  I give you Little Orphan Annie.

You know the rest, “All jumbled up together, to compose/A Parliament of Monsters” (Wordsworth).  What began as part of a revolutionary turn away from orthodox religion and toward what Wordsworth called “natural piety” becomes, if you will, consumer pabulum. Hence: Rebecca, an American Girl doll.

And the last drooling detail:

If you have a masochistic streak, look again at the Runge painting while thinking of Hello Kitty.  You’ll have it right in front of you, then, the whole sorry ass devolution.

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13 thoughts on “Sorry Ass Devolution

  1. My only qualm, Curt, lies with the fact that Hello Kitty is a Japanese export (courtesy of Sanrio), and as such I have to wonder as to her exact lineage. (Is she really the end product of the devolution of European Romanticism?) Perhaps Anne Geddes’s photos of kids dressed as sunflowers, peeking bright-eyed out of pots, would be more appropriate? (Although I like to think that she stole that trope from Beckett.)

    I had another comment about this, but then I forgot it.

  2. Adam: Thing is that there’s nothing specifically Japanese to antecede dear Kitty. The only thing I can think of is depictions of Boddhidharma after he ripped off his eyelids, or certain ferocious expressions on samara. They’ve got big eyes, but I don’t think you get to Hello Kitty from there. Hello Kitty comes out of the fetishizing of Western notions of “cute.” Thus, the present Culture of Cute in Japan. So, it’s a reasonable lineage if Western cuteness is a derivation of the Romantic depiction of children, which I think it is. The Japanese have also turned Cute into cartoon porn, about which I have no comment because I’ve never really seen any of it.

    Of course, I couldn’t care less if I’m accurate or if what I say is in some sense true. What I care about is the intuitive veracity of the story.

    • I was under the impression that the “culture of cute” thing (kawaii) extends back pretty far, and doesn’t descend from a Western source. (I see the Wikipedia mentions netsuke as an antecedent, for whatever that’s worth.) And I think you’re right—meaning, I believe you—that HK doesn’t descend from the “fierce eye” kind of thing. But I also know next to nothing about the subject. And the Asian genealogy also has nothing to do, in any case, with how Kitty-chan’s been received in the West.

      As for Samara, she is the opposite of cute…

  3. Adam, again: this thing is really more a poem pretending to be a piece of cultural criticism than anything “proper.” It is not a reasoned, persuasive, fact based anything. It’s a shot in the dark or, better said, an as-if. What if this were true? But I also think that it is important for those of us who write in this way, as some on this site seem to do, to think about what exactly they think they’re doing. Are we trying to persuade others with reasons? That seems to me pretty hopeless. Just ask your neighbor scientist how persuasion through the presentation of reasons is going. I think what we do is more subversive than that. At its best, poetry says, “I may not be true, but I am alive. Wouldn’t you rather be alive? Come live this way.” Sort of my Sufjan Stevens argument. The Tea Party sure as shit understands this in a sinister way. Being right has no importance at all for them. Even crude plausibility has no interest for them. It’s all a hateful mob action of fellow feeling. They glory in each other. They understand that they don’t have to know a god damn thing to have what they want, a community of people like themselves. It’s the revenge of Nietzsche’s slave resentment.

    • When viewed from that perspective, I am persuaded. Not that I didn’t agree with you from the start. It was only a qualm, and a qualm in the literal sense—an uneasy feeling or misgiving.

  4. If you want to get an idea of Hello Kitty’s ancestors, you might look at Post-WWII ceramic figurines made in Occupied Japan. Doesn’t really matter if the figures are western, Asian, or animals. Gone is the life of the figures, replaced with a vacuity that can only come from a culture that is “occupied.”

  5. Edward: Certainly. The Nicene Council was arranged at the insistence of the Emperor Constantine. He was about to make Christianity the imperial religion, except for the fact that there didn’t seem to be any one version of Christianity that everyone agreed with. The main point of argument was over the divinity of Jesus. Prophet or God? The decision that was reached under war-like conditions was that Jesus was “consubstantiate” with God. Those who felt that this was idolatrous, that Jesus was now an idol, were the losers and now heretics! This was the first official Christian heresy, the Arian heresy after Bishop Arius. This basically pitted the churches of North Africa against the Church of Rome.

    Oddly, Constantine’s son would later reverse the allegiance and attack the church of Rome in the name of the North African theologians, especially Anastasius (as I recall). And of course Julian the Apostate would try to return the Empire to paganism.

    How the Creed turned Christianity against the world is obvious, I think, given the last 1,800 years of Church history.

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