a past vision of the future

I spent an hour this morning doing nothing but reading Brave New World. I do not recommend this. I’ve read Aldous Huxley’s novel once before–I think I was in college–and I remember being mildly traumatized by it, but I wasn’t sure if it would still have the power to upset me on this second reading–or, more accurately, whether I would still be vulnerable to its power.

This question of external imposition versus internal responsiveness is important when comparing Brave New World with its more popular 20th-century dystopian classic counterpart, George Orwell’s 1984. (It’s worth noting that Brave New World predates 1984 by 17 years.) I recently came across a comparison of the two novels that made a lot of sense. (I wish I could remember where I read it.) Brave New World, it said, provides the more insidious vision of the future. 1984 is all about a government that imposes external controls on free thought, personal choice, and open communication. That’s frightening. But in Brave New World, the government doesn’t need to impose such controls because citizens are conditioned from birth to look, speak, act, and even desire like members of their caste. That’s more frightening.

This is horrifyingly illustrated by the one scene I always remember when I think of this novel: Infants from one of the lower castes are placed on the floor in front of brightly-colored books and bowls of flowers. When the babies begin crawling toward the items, the behaviorist operatives who are raising them in place of parents (“mother” and “father” are dirty words in this efficiency-worshiping society) play loud sirens and send electric shocks through the floor, causing the babies to scream and retreat from the books and flowers. (I can’t even type this without tears coming to my eyes.) A scientist who is giving students a tour of the child-rearing facility proudly explains that after 200 repetitions of this experience, the infants will develop a lifelong revulsion for books and flowers, which are deemed economically pointless for people of their caste.

It’s scenes like these that make Brave New World powerfully prescient, decades after its original publication in 1932. There are some details that don’t work as well. The flying machines that have replaced cars sound like something you’d see at Walt Disney World’s deliberately kitschy and nostalgic Tomorrowland. Huxley’s descriptions of the music that plays such a key role in the social and religious lives of the citizens are hard to mentally convert into something you could actually imagine hearing, so the point he is evidently trying to make about the power of music is blunted. There are also some racist overtones in his descriptions of the music.

But, as I discussed with my independent study student today (did you think I was rereading Brave New World for fun??), the dystopian future that seems the most relevant today is not a vision of a tyrannical government imposing restrictions from the top down (not that those aren’t a concern) but rather a vision of what we might do to ourselves. That’s why in more recent dystopian classics like Feed and The Hunger Games, the entertainment industry seems more threatening even than the government. And that’s why Brave New World is still worth reading–or more worth reading than ever before. I just recommend frequent breaks and somebody to debrief with.

More Beauty and the Beast thoughts: Be my guest

Sorry, I just really wanted to use one of those cheesy thematic post titles that I told you last week I wasn’t going to use.  Before I move on to other topics (such as, possibly, another Fantastic Beasts post next week, since the Blu-Ray is coming out tomorrow!), I want to share a few more observations about Beauty and the Beast  (the live-action Disney adaptation released earlier this month, as if I needed to clarify that).

  1. Last week I wrote about literacy, which crops up a number of times in the film, and I later posted on Facebook that the literacy issue is also an issue of wealth and poverty.  Many of Belle’s fellow townspeople would probably argue that they are too busy working to have time to read or even learn to read, and there’s also an access issue: clearly the town has a shortage of books and of educators (and the limited resources that do exist are allocated almost exclusively to boys).  Meanwhile, the Beast in his castle can afford a magnificent library and, as a member of the leisured class, has plenty of time to read the books it contains.  Maybe I’ve just read A Tale of Two Cities too many times, but the castle storming scene in this film had definite French Revolution overtones for me, especially when I remembered the Prince’s pre-curse ball we witnessed at the beginning of the film– lavish and luxurious almost to the point of being laughable, and very Marie Antoinette-style.  I don’t think the filmmakers were trying to make a political point necessarily–after all, the Beast isn’t really the bad guy, and it’s hard to pin down the exact time period (as it should be in a fairy tale)–but the contrast is definitely there.  Two more things to consider on this topic: a. The Enchantress is portrayed as an impoverished outcast.  b. On the other hand, it does appear that the Prince’s castle was a source of steady work for some people in the village.  We learn at the end of the film that both Mrs. Potts and Cogsworth were married to townspeople.
  2. If you’ve read my review of the Walt Disney World restaurant Be Our Guest, you know it really bothers me that in the original animated film, Belle doesn’t get to eat during that iconic song.  I argued that this results from the misguided idea that a fairytale princess could never be seen to eat because eating is somehow a coarse, unfeminine, embarrassing activity.  So I was happy to see that in the new film, Belle at least appears to be hungry (she frantically reaches for several dishes as they dance by), but disappointed that, in the end, she still doesn’t get to eat anything–and that she walks away from the table seemingly okay with that.
  3. Before the film was released, someone told me she’d heard that Belle has to save the Beast in the wolf attack scene.  This is not true.  The scene plays out almost identically to the parallel scene in the animated movie.  The Beast is perfectly capable of saving himself (he is a beast, after all), but Belle does have to help him get back to the castle.  So rather than an in-your-face attempt to make Belle a proper 21st-century feminist, this scene is actually a lovely example of two people caring for each other in a budding relationship (well, a relationship that’s about to bud).  Because Belle was already such a strong character in the animated version, there was really no need to update her to make her extra tough, so I’m glad there was no attempt to do so.  The reason Disney’s Belle is still one of my fictional role models is that she’s both brave and kind (like Disney’s 2015 Cinderella), capable and feminine.

Please continue to send me your thoughts about the movie!

This is my brain on the first day of classes.

Although I warmed up by teaching an intensive class last week, nothing ever really prepares me for the first day of a semester.  Today, after teaching a maxed-out children’s lit class (there’s a waiting list–not because of my popularity, but because it’s a required course for education majors), conducting a meeting while hungry (I hate that), and answering the emails that kept pouring in–plus the ones I neglected over the weekend–I barely have enough brain function left to make a cup of tea, let alone craft a memorable blog post.  But I think it’ll be easy enough to list some of the things that made me happy over the weekend and today.  So here we go.

  1. Saturday-Sunday, I went camping, backpacking (though I barely carried the pack a quarter of a mile, since our campsite was so close to the car), and scrambling up a popular local rock face known ominously as Devil’s Marbleyard.  Although I love hiking and being outdoors, I’ve rarely camped and never backpacked. Fortunately, I was with a friend who is a certified wilderness EMT and adventure guide and I don’t know what else, so she showed me how to set up a tent, boil water for hot chocolate (very important) in a Kelly Kettle, and wash dishes with hippie soap (it seriously had hemp in it) in a freezing cold creek by the light of a headlamp.  The part I was most worried about was staying warm at night, but with a zero-degree sleeping bag and a lot of those Hot Hands packs that are popular with hunters at this time of year, I was downright cozy.  As for scrambling up the rock face, I just pretended like I was Frodo or Sam traversing the Emyn Muil–just without the elven rope.
  2. Last night I went to see Hacksaw Ridge (side note: I went out last night wearing leggings as pants, and I was regretting that style choice all the way to the theater and thinking, “Wow, I’ve really let myself go.”  Immediately after getting there, I saw at least three women wearing leggings as pants.).  If all you’ve heard about Hacksaw Ridge is that Andrew Garfield has a bad accent in it (he really doesn’t, though, and he is adorable), you should give it a chance.  It’s about Desmond Doss, a WW2 medic who refuses to carry a gun due to his religious convictions and past traumas, but ends up saving dozens of lives in one night, under relentless attack, through his (figuratively) insane work ethic and (literally–almost) insane fearlessness.  It was especially poignant to watch the film in Lynchburg, VA, where Doss grew up.  (We actually drove on the PFC Desmond T. Doss Memorial Expressway while coming back from the mountains yesterday.)  If you think you’ve seen enough WW2 movies, see this one anyway; you’ve probably never seen one about a conscientious objector.  They tend not to make movies about conscientious objectors.
  3. After the movie, I rushed home to watch the second half of the Steelers-Chiefs game.  I rarely write about football on this blog, and I won’t take the time to start now, but since I’m listing things that have made me happy, I’ll just say that I’m happy that the Steelers won–and, like all good Western Pennsylvanians, sick with apprehension about next week.
  4. Finally, my students, as they so often do, have made me happy today.  My children’s lit students seem to think I’m a comedienne (I try), and most of them appear to be totally on board with the Walt Disney World-style character breakfast I’m planning for the last day of class.  Meanwhile, a student from last week’s class sent me a Harry Potter article and a recording of Neil Gaiman reading A Christmas Caroland he told me that I’m currently his go-to person to discuss Harry Potter with.  Just what I’ve always wanted to hear.

Time to go outside and try to clear my head with fresh air.

Be Our Guest

As you know if you read my May post entitled Disney Memories, Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite Disney animated movies. In that post, I wrote about what an excellent role model I think Belle is. (I don’t agree with the assessment that she’s a victim of Stockholm syndrome; I think she makes an independent and well-considered decision to pursue a relationship with the Beast.) But there’s one thing that bothers me about the portrayal of Belle, and that is that during the classic song “Be Our Guest,” practically a hymn to fine dining, she doesn’t actually eat anything. Sure, she takes a little sample of the grey stuff (and apparently finds it, as advertised, delicious), but after all the song’s fanfare about how she’s going to be sated with food as well as with music, she walks away from the table having eaten essentially nothing.
This post is not going to be a diatribe about the unspoken assumption that a Disney princess couldn’t possibly have a physical body that needs to eat, drink, rest, etc., although I think it’s important to discuss that assumption. Instead, I’m going to tell you about a recent way in which Disney has gone some way toward correcting the missed opportunity for somebody to actually eat all that food that Lumiere and co. prepared with such gusto.
Earlier this year, Walt Disney World added a new section to Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom. Aside from the fun roller-coaster called the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a throwback to the first Disney movie, the new section pays homage to two animated features from the early 1990s, now a nostalgic time for people in their 20s and 30s: The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. The visual focal point of the area is the Beast’s castle, which, unlike the iconic Cinderella’s Castle, is merely a cluster of decorative turrets on top of a huge faux rock formation, giving the impression of a large castle viewed from a distance.
Inside the “rocks” is where the culinary magic happens at Be Our Guest, a full-service restaurant with a French-inflected menu and majestic decor that should please young (and older) princesses looking to step inside their favorite movie, as well as adults who prefer a grown-up atmosphere. Guests can eat in the West Wing, an authentic (if better-lit) re-creation of the Beast’s gloomy Byronic bachelor pad, the Rose Gallery, where the centerpiece is a larger-than-life music box featuring a dancing Belle and Beast, or–where my family was seated–the Ballroom, with a breathtaking high ceiling and tall windows looking out on a dim “French countryside,” where it’s perpetually snowing. Guests are allowed to tour all of the dining rooms, as well as the vestibule with its beautiful tapestries and stained-glass depictions of scenes from the movie. Periodically, the Beast (announced by a striking selection from the film’s musical score) sweeps through the dining room and enters his study, where (as a commanding voice from above informs us) he will be receiving guests.

I ordered hot tea because I often do in restaurants and because I had a cold (alas) and thought it would feel good on my throat. I wasn’t thinking about Mrs. Potts and Chip, but I was delighted when my little teapot and cup arrived (plain white, no faces) and my sister reminded me of the connection. Everything on the menu looked good; I chose the braised pork, coq a vin style, served with creamed cauliflower and asparagus. It was excellent, and I can only imagine how much more excellent it would have been if all my senses had been working properly. Others in my party ordered ratatouille, sautéed shrimp and lobster in a pastry crust, and lamb with a side of buttered celery root, and everyone really enjoyed their meal.
For dessert, we were invited to try the grey stuff (a dessert featuring grey frosting atop a chocolate shell), and everyone else in my family did, but I chose, mainly on the basis of visual appeal (we were shown the desserts table side), a beautiful triple chocolate cupcake topped with a raspberry and a chocolate square embossed with the restaurant name. It also happened to be delicious.
Although we didn’t end up going into the study to meet our host, we felt royally welcomed and thoroughly enjoyed our meal. I tried to enjoy it for Belle, too.