Friday, October 13, 2006

Even the most unfortunate of unfortunate events must end, unfortunately

I don't like children's stories with morals, but I don't mind if they teach a lesson. Morals and lessons are not the same thing.

A moral is the "point" of a story. It is the usually obvious, usually conventional, usually cliched bit of wisdom every character and incident is in the story to prove, and even when it's not tacked on at the end in bold letters it's explicitly stated more than once throughout by a character or the narrator or both.

A lesson unfolds unobtrusively, often subtextually, along with the story itself. It's a useful fact of life that the characters and events can't help illustrating simply by being what they are. A character who picks up a hot kettle from the stove without using a pot holder and burns her fingers is teaching a lesson. The lesson turns into a moral when she says to herself or another character says to her or the narrator says to us, without irony, "Good little children think before they act and remember what their science teachers taught them about the heat conductivity of metal."

One story can teach many lessons. And usually it isn't necessary for parents or teachers to explain them. Sometimes it's best not to. It's best if the young readers figure it out for themselves or take it in without knowing it and only disover the lesson and its usefulness by having it proved by events in their own lives.

Having spent the last thirteen years sort of immersed in children's stories and forced to watch too many movies aimed at kids, I can tell you. There's an awful lot of excellent children's literature out there these days and some pretty darn good movies for kids, but it's the case that the stories go quietly about their business of entertaining while almost accidentally teaching lessons while the movies hit you over the head, again and again and again, with morals.

Usually the same stupid moral too, one of two trite variants of BE TRUE TO YOURSELF.

Live your dream!


Follow your heart.

Being true to yourself, living your dream, and following your heart are always presented as self-aggrandizing enterprises too. Nobody's true to themselves by being self-sacrificing and self-effacing. Nobody's dream is to cure cancer or work for world peace. Nobody's heart ever leads them away from the crowd, up a mountain, into the dessert, out into space, unless it's going to lead them back to the cheering multitudes ecstatic that the hero or heroine has been true to their self, lived the dream, and followed their heart and ready to make them our society's version of royalty, a celebrity.

Not that I'm recommending it, but if you work your way through the kids' and family sections at Blockbuster you'll be amazed by how many of these movies end with the heroes and heroines surrounded by cheering crowds or somehow shown to have earned universal love and approval.

Our most recent experience of that was the Mannion Family Movie Night feature of a few weeks ago, Hoot, a movie based on the book by the usually reliably cynical Carl Hiaasen.

Listen, children.

My own feeling is this. Back in the days of our earliest ancestors, wehnever some bright homo habilis' heart told him to see what was over the next hill, invent the wheel, or discover fire, art, or agriculture, thus disrupting the status quo for the rest of his tribe, the hearts of all those other homo habilii told them to rise up as one and kill the troublemaker.

I have to bite my tongue to keep from adding this moral to every movie we watch that pushes that other moral.

By the way, one of my favorite kids movies of the last year was Hoodwinked, which steadfastly refuses to preach any moral and pretty much doesn't even bother with lessons except the very useful one of how to set up and tell a good joke.

Fortunately, tongue-biting hasn't been necessary when it comes to the books the boys read and have had read to them.

Among my favorites of these non-moralizing books are the ones in the series that comes to its promised dreadful conclusion today with the release of the final volume, Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events. The last book is now on the store shelves, and it's the only one that Snicket didn't title alliteratively. He's simply called it what it is, The End.

Throughout the twelve books before The End, Snicket resolutely resisted morals. Which doesn't mean his books aren't moralistic. What it means to be moral, to be good, is one of the lessons of the series. But Snicket never preaches, and he never makes the lessons easy, and as you can expect from an author who has made sure that all thirteen books have thirteen chapters and is releasing the thirteenth book on Friday the 13th, and who has given the whole series the collective title The Horrendous Heap, the lessons are not always hopeful and they are often complicated by the fact that life is messy and has a bad habit of not letting you be true to yourself, live your dream, or follow your heart; and when it does let you, it will make sure that when you're done there are no cheering multitudes to welcome you home, if you still have a home to come back to, if you make it back.

Not surprisingly, the makers of the movie adaptation of the first three books tried to stick the Follow Your Heart moral in there. It didn't take. The books' essential grimness and dark comedy trumped it in the end.

So, kids, here are the overall lessons of the twelve books so far:

Life is one trouble after another.

Good times won't last.

Neither will the bad.

Some problems can never be solved.

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, no matter how good and decent you try to be, you will do the wrong thing and you will hurt people you care about.

Everyone you love and trust and count on will disappoint you in some way, if only by dying when you still love them and need them.

Even if they don't die, they might still drift out of your life or be carried away by troubles and adventures and needs of their own.

Keep trying.

Keep going.

Keep faith and keep on hoping.

Keep loving each other and hold on tight.

Cross-posted at the Anecdotal Antidote.


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