Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Rhetoric of Amazement: What children's literature tells us about the world

The following is the text of my article "The Rhetoric of Amazement," which appears in the Summer issue of the Classical Teacher magazine:

Dr. Seuss is my favorite modern philosopher. I say this because of the view of the world his poetry betrays. Dr. Seuss writes what has been called “nonsense” verse. Yet it may be the books like Dr. Seuss that, in the end, make the most sense.

In Dr. Seuss books, we encounter creatures that we are tempted to think God forgot to create: creatures that will have you so surprised you’ll “swallow your gum.” You’ll ask, when you see these strange animals come, “Where do you suppose they get things like that from?”

We discover, with his help, the tizzle-topped Tufted Mazurka, whose neck is so long that if he swallows an oat the first day of April, “it has to go down such a very long way that it gets to his stomach the 15th of May.”

Hike all the way up to the mountains of Tobsk, and one finds the singular dwelling place of a thing called an Obsk, “A sort of a kind of a Thing-a-ma-Bobsk/Who only eats rhubarb and corn on the cobsk.”

Dr. Seuss, of course, follows Edward Lear in the pantheon of “nonsense” writers. Lear, the author of such words as:
There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, ‘It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!’
Along with the Pobble Who Has No Toes, the Pelican Chorus, the Quangle-Wangle’s Hat, the Owl and the Pussycat, and, of course, the Jumblies (“who went to sea in a sieve”), we have an entire bestiary of the seemingly bizarre. But, even as we are lured into believing that we are in another world than our own, we all of a sudden realize that it is our own world we are being introduced to—or, more accurately, reintroduced to.

“It is Mother Goose,” says John Goldthwaite, in his excellent book, The Natural History of Make Believe, “who first introduces us to who we are in the world … Our infant imaginations are jollied awake as she translates the toes on our feet into pigs going to market, sends a cow over the moon, and tucks the world’s biggest family into bed in a shoe.”

What is it that nonsense verse and nursery rhymes—indeed, all imaginative fiction—tell us about the world? Imaginative literature employs what I call the “rhetoric of amazement.” And lying behind it is something deeper: metaphysics of amazement—a view of reality that is implicitly transmitted to the reader—a view that underlies these books and that is necessary in understanding what this kind of literature does.

What is the world like, according to this literature? I think I can state it in one simple sentence: the world is enchanted.

We have often heard that “familiarity breeds contempt,” and indeed this is true. We take the world for granted. But what imaginative literature does is this: it turns things upside down and helps us to see them as if for the first time. The world is enchanted, and, in order to see it, we only need a little help from Mother Goose and her friends.

What Dr. Seuss and Edward Lear and the writers of fairy tales and other imaginative literature do is to take the created order apart and put it back together in new and unusual ways, allowing us to be surprised again at the things of this world. We are introduced to elfland only so that we can look in wonder once again on what Lord Dunsany calls “the fields that we know.”

“The mind is stubborn in its need for order,” says Goldthwaite. “Upset its expectations with a spiel of gibberish and, like a turtle looking to right itself, it will seek the stability of meaning every time. Nonsense might be defined more accurately as a flirtation with disorder, a turning upside down of the world for the pleasure of seeing it come right side up again.”

There is no greater defense of the rhetoric of amazement than the essay, “The Ethics of Elfland,” by G. K. Chesterton. “My first and last philosophy,” said Chesterton, “that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery … The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales.” Thus begins his great explanation of the rhetoric of amazement.

“This elementary wonder,” he says, “is not a mere fancy derived from the fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this.” Enchantment is a metaphysical reality, and fairy tales serve merely as a way to reveal it. “It is not earth that judges heaven,” he says, “but heaven that judges earth; so for me at least it was not earth that criticized elfland, but elfland that criticized the earth.”

In explaining this philosophy, Chesterton first draws our attention to certain facts about the world that do not contain their own explanation:
I am not concerned with any of the separate statutes of elfland, but with the whole spirit of its law, which I learnt before I could speak, and shall retain when I cannot write. I am concerned with a certain way of looking at life, which was created in me by the fairy tales, but has since been meekly ratified by the mere facts. It might be stated this way. There are certain sequences or developments (cases of one thing following another), which are, in the true sense of the word, reasonable. They are, in the true sense of the word, necessary. Such are mathematical and merely logical sequences. We in fairyland (who are the most reasonable of all creatures) admit that reason and that necessity. For instance, if the Ugly Sisters are older than Cinderella, it is (in an iron and awful sense) necessary that Cinderella is younger than the Ugly Sisters. There is no getting out of it … If Jack is the son of a miller, a miller is the father of Jack. Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne: and we in fairyland submit … that is true rationalism, and fairyland is full of it.
But then Chesterton turns his attention from the true rationalism of fairyland, and looks upon the irrationalism of our own world:
But as I put my head over the hedge of the elves and began to take notice of the natural world, I observed an extraordinary thing. I observed that learned men in spectacles were talking of the actual things that happened—dawn and death and so on—as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees make three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail.
One of the themes of modern thought is a sort of mechanistic materialist determinism: the idea that the world is nothing more than a vast, self-contained machine. This view sees everything, including the repetitions in nature, as merely a physical unfolding of what came before:
These men in spectacles spoke much of a man named Newton, who was hit by an apple, and who discovered a law. But they could not be got to see the distinction between a true law, a law of reason, and the mere fact of apples falling. If the apple hit Newton’s nose, Newton’s nose hit the apple. That is true necessity: because we cannot conceive the one occurring without the other. But we can quite well conceive the apple not falling on his nose; we can fancy it flying ardently through the air to hit some other nose, of which it had a more definite dislike. We have always in our fairy tales kept this sharp distinction between the science of mental relations, in which there really are laws, and the science of physical facts, in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions.
If Chesterton sounds fanciful here, we should remember that this argument had been made 150 years before by the 18th century British empirical philosopher David Hume. Hume argued that
just because we see one event repeatedly follow another, we have no basis on which to say that the first thing “causes” the second. No one has witnessed a cause; he has only witnessed event A repeatedly followed by event B. The belief in causation involves the assumption that the future is always like the past. Since B has always followed A in the past, therefore it will do so in the future. But we have no strictly rational justification for saying these sequences will occur in the future.

Hume’s argument shows that, from the point of view of the materialist, there is no basis upon which to believe in causation, since causation itself is a metaphysical, not a physical thing. From a non-theistic perspective, there is no way to justify science, which relies precisely on the assumptions Hume refuted. There is no rational basis for causation in the strictly mechanistic world that exists outside of Christian belief. Modern scientistic thought has given up on metaphysics, and because of this it has found itself in an intellectual cul-de-sac out of which it cannot reason itself.

Chesterton continues:
The man of science says, “Cut the stalk, and the apple will fall”; but he says it calmly, as if the one idea really led up to the other. The witch in the fairy tale says, “Blow the horn, and the ogre’s castle will fall”; but she does not say it as if it were something in which the effect obviously arose out of the cause… She does not muddle her head until it imagines a necessary mental connection between a horn and a falling tower. But the scientific men do muddle their heads, until they imagine a necessary mental connection between an apple leaving the tree and an apple reaching the ground. They do really talk as if they had found not only a set of marvellous facts, but a truth connecting those facts. They do talk as if the connection of two strange things physically connected them philosophically. They feel that because one incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible thing the two together somehow make up a comprehensible thing. Two black riddles make a white answer.
Science has come before us in all its formal regalia—its beakers and test tubes and laboratory smocks—and announced that, because it knows that things happen in a certain way, it therefore knows why they happen that way. But knowing that, and knowing why are two entirely different things.
Granted, then, that certain transformations do happen, it is essential that we should regard them in the philosophic manner of fairy tales, not in the unphilosophic manner of science and the “Laws of Nature.” When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o’clock. We must answer that it is magic. It is not a “law,” for we do not understand its general formula. It is not a necessity, for though we can count on it happening practically, we have no right to say that it must always happen. It is no argument for unalterable law … that we count on the ordinary course of things. We do not count on it; we bet on it. … All the terms used in the science books, “law,” “necessity,” “order,” “tendency,” and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.
Those who find Chesterton’s reasoning unscientific in its tone might be shocked to find that “The Ethics of Elfland” was included by Martin Gardner, the former editor of Scientific American, in his anthology, Great Essays in Science, along with essays by Darwin, Eddington, Fermi, and Einstein.
This state of the world, Chesterton argues—the fact that it is enchanted—is the root of the amazement we do or should feel toward the world. It is an instinct that we have as humans, an instinct that we associate with children, who have not forgotten it. When we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him.
One of the functions of fairy tales and nursery rhymes is to awaken what Chesterton calls the “ancient instinct of astonishment.”
These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.
“Every work of make-believe,” says Goldthwaite, “bears the same implicit message. Its miracles may be mysterious like [George] MacDonald’s, they may be tricks for fun like Helen Bannermans’, but they all announce to a credulous audience that the world is possessed of a quality that is beyond empirical knowing.”

But what is the nature of this empirical knowing? If there is not a mechanism behind the universe, then what is there? What is the origin of the enchantment we see in the world? Again, Chesterton has our answer:
Now, the mere repetition made the things to me rather more weird than more rational. It was as if, having seen a curiously shaped nose in the street and dismissed it as an accident, I had then seen six other noses of the same astonishing shape. I should have fancied for a moment that it must be some local secret society. So one elephant having a trunk was odd; but all elephants having trunks looked like a plot. I speak here only of an emotion, and of an emotion at once stubborn and subtle. But the repetition in Nature seemed sometimes to be an excited repetition, like that of an angry schoolmaster saying the same thing over and over again. The grass seemed signalling to me with all its fingers at once; the crowded stars seemed bent upon being understood. …I had always vaguely felt facts to be miracles in the sense that they are wonderful: now I began to think them miracles in the stricter sense that they were wilful. I mean that they were, or might be, repeated exercises of some will. In short, I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician.
This world, Chesterton thought, may not be the cold outworking of some dead mechanism. It may instead be the theatre of the Divine Magician who, like an excited child, wants to see things
again and again:
They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grownup people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore. Heaven may encore the bird who laid an egg. If the human being conceives and brings forth a human child instead of bringing forth a fish, or a bat, or a griffin, the reason may not be that we are fixed in an animal fate without life or purpose. It may be that our little tragedy has touched the gods, that they admire it from their starry galleries, and that at the end of every human drama man is called again and again before the curtain.
The rhetoric of amazement is, then, as we said at the outset, based on a metaphysics of amazement. Our attitude toward the world, the fact that we treat it as if it were enchanted, is based on the belief that it actually is enchanted. And it is only because we believe in God, who is the Divine Magician, always demanding—and bringing about—another encore.

We can, then, take this rhetoric of amazement into our classrooms—and our homes—in the confidence that we are not just engaged in some fanciful exercise in foolishness, but that we
are, in fact, making our children see the world as it really is.

I think my students wonder about me sometimes. Every once in a while, in the middle of class, I’ll get a call on the cell phone and it will be my wife, and she’ll give me the usual greeting, and say, “Hi, Daddy Bear.” And sometimes, oblivious of my surroundings, I will respond with the matching greeting, “Hi, Momma Bear.” And my students will look at each other, either thinking it is extremely humorous or, alternatively, that I might need professional help.

And sometimes, when I come home after a particularly grueling day at school (what my wife would term, “Daddy and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”), I’ll plop down on the couch, and my wife will look over, and say, “Sad Dad, Bad Had.” But come Saturday morning, when the hard week is over, we sometimes have pancakes, and we try to remember how many Almonzo and his brother ate in their little house on the prairie.

In the summer, when the corn in the farmer’s field behind our house gets to a certain height, and there’s nothing to do and the kids are getting underfoot and into trouble (“Wild Things,” we call them), they are told to go play in Farmer Maggot’s field.

And when the beans have begun to spring up in the garden, and Peter Rabbit is having his fill (such as was the case several weeks ago), Farmer MacGregor goes for his gun, making him highly unpopular among the little MacGregors. But these beans are worth defending, since they are magic beans—not because they grow a giant beanstalk that allows us to climb into the sky and sneak into a giant’s house. No. They are magic because we put them into the ground and they somehow, in a way that can only be explained by the fact that we live in an enchanted world, spring to life in new bean plants.

When things need to be cleaned up around the house, (usually because there are things people have left out—we don’t know which people because no one seems to remember leaving them out, causing us to attribute them to You Know Who—Mr. Nobody) and the children are dawdling, my wife will exclaim, “Let’s go! Spit-spot!” because that’s what a certain nanny says to Michael and Jane in a certain house at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, “where the houses run down one side and the Park runs down the other and the cherry-trees go dancing right down the middle.”

Recently, our veterinarian convinced my wife (when I was away on a business trip last year) to take two cats that needed a good home—just like it happened in Hilda Van Stockum’s book, Friendly Gables. They were orphaned when their mother was killed in a tornado, and had been raised thus far in a cage with only each other for company. When they arrived in their new
home, they quickly warmed to their new freedom and proceeded to terrorize everyone in the house by chasing each other all day and long into the night. For several days, the question before the family was what to name them. But there was no doubt in my mind what to call them.

They were Thing One and Thing Two.

When you want to express affection for a child around my house you say, “I’ll eat you up I love you so.” When the dog comes in out of the rain, “You never yet met a pet, I bet, as wet as they let this wet pet get.” When someone is not nice, “their heart is three sizes too small.” And you don’t play with the telephone, because you might call Australia.

And, of course, by that time it’s getting late, so we spank the children all soundly and send them to bed. But it’s okay. Because they are where someone loves them best of all.

In children’s imaginative literature, says Goldthwaite, “the miraculous becomes real by association with the mundane and the mundane is transformed by its association with the miraculous. When you hold a volume of Mother Goose in your hand,” he concludes, “you are holding a weight of proof that the world is real and a thing of make-believe both.”

A few years ago, my youngest son came up to me with a little plastic star. He wondered where it came from. I informed him that it must have fallen from the sky, an explanation he readily accepted. So I got out the ladder, placed it on my back lawn, and put the star back. I later noticed the same occurrence when we read Mary Poppins.

I'm not sure, but I think P. L. Travers got the idea from me.

1 comment:

dawn said...

Loved this article in the MP catalog, and linked to the catalog just to refer people to it. I'll link here too!