‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Hunger Grimms

Bad pun, that title. Sorry about that. Bad. You'd think, wouldn't you, that I could come up with a better title for a post about Suzanne Collins's enormously successful book and Grimms' fairy tales. Ah well.

Here's the thing: The Last Psychiatrist (a stimulating psychoanalytic blog that seems, sadly, to be in abeyance) really doesn't like The Hunger Games series, and is particularly irked about it being lauded as in any sense 'feminist'. I don't entirely disagree with this, and certainly some of the more outré claims made for the series, as quoted by the L.P., are daft ('Hunger Games was written by a woman and stars a woman—much as we love JK Rowling, her series isn't named after Hermione——making it a true lady-centric blockbuster franchise!') But I think there's a hole in the main argument. Excuse me quoting at some length:
We can start with the obvious. The book is about 24 kids thrown into an arena to fight to the death, only the toughest, the most resourceful, the strongest will survive, and it better be you because your whole village depends on it. It is such a scary premise that there was some concern it was too violent for kids to watch. Well, big surprise: Katniss wins.

Hmmm, here is a surprise: Katniss never kills anyone. That's weird, what does she do to win? Take as much time as you want on this, it's an open book test. The answer is nothing.

This is not a criticism about the entertainment value of the story, but about its popularity and the pretense that it has a strong female character. I like the story of Cinderella, but I doubt that anyone would consider Cinderella a strong female character, yet Katniss and Cinderella are identical.

The traditional progressive complaint about fairy tales like Cinderella is that they supposedly teach girls to want to be princesses and want to live happily ever after. But is that so bad? The real problem with fairy tales is that the protagonist never actually does anything to become a princess. Forget about gerrymandering or slaying a dragon or poisoning her rivals: does she even get a pretty dress, go to the ball and seduce the prince? Those may be anti-feminist actions, but at least they are actions. No. She is given two dresses, carried to the ball, and the Prince comes and finds her. Twice. Her only direct and volitional action is to leave the ball at midnight, and even that isn't so much a choice as because of a threat. The clear problem with this isn't that girls will want to hold out for a Prince, but that it might foster the illusion their value is so innately high that even without pretty clothes or a sense of agency a Prince will come find them. Sleeping Beauty and Snow White are worse: they don't even have to bother to stay alive to get their Prince.

The Hunger Games has this same feminist problem. Other than the initial volunteering to replace her younger sister, Katniss never makes any decisions of her own, never acts with consequence—but her life is constructed to appear that she makes important decisions. She has free will, of course, like any five year old with terrible parents, but at every turn is prevented from acting on the world. She is protected by men—enemies and allies alike; directed by others, blessed with lucky accidents and when things get impossible there are packages from the sky. In philosophical terms, she is continuously robbed of agency. She is deus ex machinaed all the way to the end.
Hard to contest the feminist point. The L.P. notes, quite rightly: 'that these "adolescent girl" stories—Twilight and THG—have women who are essentially lead by men, circumstance, and fate—whose main executive decision is "do I love this guy or that guy"—is a window on our culture worth discussing. When you have a daughter, your first question should be, "how is the system going to try to crush her?" and plan accordingly.' Well, I have a daughter, and of course I earnestly and strenuously hope there will be much more to her adult emotional, intellectual and social life than 'do I love this guy or that guy?'

Still, I think the L.P. misses something important about these books, and the films made from them. What he takes as a bug I think a feature. So:
Though this is a story about kids killing kids, somehow Katniss never actually plans and executes any kids, she's never guilty of murder one. She does kill Rue's murderer, but it was reflexive, a defensive act. Importantly, she does not choose NOT to kill, she does not choose a pacifist position, she explicitly states twice in the book how much she wants to kill. But she never does it. She tries to kill big bad Cato at the end, twice, and fails. Only after he is torn to shreds by mutants does she perform a mercy killing on him, at his request. In other words, she doesn't choose to kill or not kill—it doesn't come up. The story goes out of its way to prevent her from having to make choices and especially from bearing their consequences.
This is true, of course, and often commented-upon. It's the author's thumb in the balance, no question. But two things occur to me. One, which I suspect is only very glancingly relevant here, is to wonder about the ethical status of 'choosing to be violent', or 'choosing to kill', where the moral good of exercising agency is surely vastly overshadowed by the moral evil of violence and murder. But the reason I don't think that's really relevant to the Hunger Games is that I don't think that's the question the books are interrogating. I think they are about play.

Put it this way: what is a fight to the death in which nobody actually dies? It is, clearly a play-fight. My 7-year-old son stabs me with his toy foam sword, and I expire on the carpet with, I can be honest, OSCAR-WORTHY groans and contortions. Then (and this is the really crucial thing) I get up again so we can resume the fight.

What happens in The Hunger Games is that the p.o.v. character, Katniss, gets to fight to the death without having actually to kill anyone, or dying herself. Nor am I suggesting that redescribing what happens in this novel from 'fight' to 'play-fight' is in any way designed to diminish it. Play is extremely important, and kids are better at it than adults. One of the problems with play, though—or perhaps it would be better to say, one of the things that separates good play from dull play—is working out how to ensure it continues to matter, that you are able to keep the intrinsic triviality of play at arm's length. To ensure that you are playing at something that you care about, something that excites you (those two things are the same thing really). Willing suspension of disbelief is only part of the solution. Kids play at violence and murder all the time, but not because they are 'actually' interested in being violent and killing, in the Lord of the Flies sense. The reason play so often entails imitation violence and imitation killing is that playing that way means that something heavy-duty is at stake. To make sure it 'matters'.

To read The Hunger Games as being about play is, I think, to see it as being more than just the fun of forts made of sofa cushions and fighting with sticks. It is also about children 'playing' at grown-up matters, like politics and power, playing at engaging with a 'real world' axiomatically assumed to be horrible. And again, it's about 'playing' at love and sex: hence the 'do I love Guy A or Guy B?' element. I'm suggesting that many readers engage with the love and sex in these novels in ways similar to the way they engage with the pop-stars and movie-actors who decorate their bedroom walls in poster form. Which is to say: in play, rather than for real, but as play that is tremendously important and valuable.

Which brings me back to the question of gender. Because we might at least want to suggest one way Collins' books are gender-progressive: precisely, that they say this kind of play (from fighting in the woods to storming the tyrannical President in his Capitol building) is just as much for girls as boys. That girls' play need not be limited to sitting indoors brushing their barbies' hair, if they don't want it to be.


  1. I have to say, I completely disagree with that first quote. To claim that Katniss does nothing to earn her victory is to hugely miss what The Hunger Games, the book and the game-within-the-book, are actually about. No, Katniss does not win through strength of arms, but no one ever thinks that she could - all of her trainers and handlers stress that she hasn't got the skill or training for that. She wins through intelligence and guile. Specifically, she wins by working out that the Hunger Games are not a contest of strength but of likability, and that if she can position herself (and Peeta) as audience favorites, they can win the game. It isn't Katniss who works out the angle of presenting herself and Peeta as starcrossed lovers, but she's the one who figures out how to sell that romance to an audience, and does it so well that she's able to wrangle an unprecedented double-win out of the games' "producers."

    There's a lot of criticism to be made against The Hunger Games, including on the feminist level (and the fact that Katniss is never put in a position to kill anyone is a deep flaw in the novel, though I suspect that it probably seemed like less of a copout to a relatively unknown author embarking on the seemingly controversial project of telling a story about children killing each other than it does to us now, with The Hunger Games having become a global phenomenon). But the way that it examines the intersection between popular culture and propaganda, and how both are used as instruments of control, is surely its most unassailable aspect. The whole point of the book is that the game Katniss thinks she's playing is not the game she's actually playing. She's a heroine because of her ability to figure that out, and to win the real game.

  2. That last point is very astute, I think, and I absolutely take the force of it. But I'm not sure I'm won over by your first paragraph.

    "No, Katniss does not win through strength of arms ...She wins through intelligence and guile."

    The argument of the blog I link to is that she doesn't win through intelligence and guile: she wins because the narrative is tacitly structured so that she can't lose, and that narrative sleight-of-hand is veiled with references to her intelligence and resourcefulness and so on. She doesn't really have to 'do' anything: victory is dropped into her lap by the story, because the story can't bear to compromise her kickass splendidness by actually having her act ruthlessly, cruelly or in any way that might interfere with our admiration for her. Maybe, as you say, this cop-out is down to timidity by a relatively unknown author (though that doesn't strike me as an argument that reflects very well on Collins). But doesn't it sort-of make this tale more retrogressive than Cinderella? At least Cinderella is upfront about the reactionary passivity of its heroine. Hunger Games presents the form of an active, empowered kickass female lead, but the content is one of Katniss's deus-ex-machina specialness. It seems to me that there's quite a profound mendacity in saying that you can do what Katniss does without getting your hands metaphorically dirty, as she manages not to do.

    " ... Specifically, she wins by working out that the Hunger Games are not a contest of strength but of likability ..."

    Well, yes: but this comes after all the other kids have been killed. But once everybody else has been magically disposed of, yes she starts to grok the 'true' nature of the game. It's like the movie Gladiator in that respect: it's not about the killing, it's about the showbiz. But the difference is that Gladiator has no problem showing the nasty, brutal side of Maximus. That The Hunger Games chooses not to, or maybe dares not, show a similar side to Katniss is the whole nub of the issue. It's OK for Maximus to have that aspect to his nature because he's a man; it's not OK for Katniss to have that aspect, because she's a girl. That doesn't seem sexist to you, even a little bit?