Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Three Temptations of Pinocchio

Pinocchio is a tale of a puppet on a quest to become "real."  I do not know the book, only the 1940 Disney movie, a movie I saw as a child during one of its re-releases in the 1960s and came to love because my father, perhaps without meaning much by it, once stated that it was his favorite movie.

In the course of the story, the puppet Pinocchio, with the ineffectual assistance of his "conscience," a cricket named Jiminy, faces three pivotal obstacles in the form of temptations.  The first is to skip his first day of school and become an actor in the company of the puppeteer Stromboli.  I take this to be the temptation to be inauthentic--a "player" pretending to be something he is not.  The second is to lie to the Blue Fairy--to distort what he knows to be true--a distortion that manifests itself in the distortion of Pinocchio's face:  his nose grows.  And the third is to succumb to the lure of Pleasure Island.

As depicted in the film, the suspect pleasures of Pleasure Island are brawling, smoking, and playing pool, activities associated with hooking up with a bad crowd.  For me, the problem with Pleasure Island might have been its association with just the sort of escapism that elsewhere Disney seems to endorse.  But then I didn't make the movie.

What Disney suggests is that Pinocchio needs to find equilibrium and balance.  But life, I think, is change, a perpetual becoming--and to live one's life for "real" you have, to some degree, to accept and negotiate the constant changes.  This requires you to accommodate imbalance somehow.  The sort of "balance" American popular culture recommends is "happy consciousness,"  as Marcuse called it:  "the belief that the real is rational and that the system delivers the goods."  This false consciousness or bad faith demands that each of us "get in step" and pretend to a rational balance that does not exist in reality--a belief we enter through otherwise banal amusements that encourage passivity and avoidance of the realities that do not fit the model.  It is more perfectly imagined in the land of the lotos eaters in the Odyssey than in Disney's Pleasure Island.

This is the temptation to remove yourself from the  energetic and erratic pulse of life.  Lulls no doubt are needed as a part of the wavelike pattern of progress, but I tend to think it's a mistake to seek ways to remain in those lulls.  I am not a big one for "creature comforts."  I do not want to live perpetually in a warm cocoon.

Heraclitus thought that pleasure poses a threat to the life of the soul, a way of turning a blind eye towards life and reality.  By pleasure he seems to have meant drunkenness and the sodden escapism of the couch potato (or whatever equivalent of the couch potato he might have been familiar with).  Heraclitus was not a big one for "creature comforts," either.

Karl Marx famously spoke of the opium of the people.  For him it was religion.  He followed this metaphor with the statement that "the abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness" (emphases mine).   "Real" happiness involves real engagement with the world, not escapism, not bad faith, not creature comforts that dull the wits and blunt the will.

Real pleasure, then, is the opposite of the dehumanizing pleasures depicted on Pleasure Island.  It is the opposite, too, of the obscurantist aspects of religion and the opposite of the enervating escapism of mass media.  Real happiness and real pleasure sharpen the senses and fire up the emotions, which, in turn, encourage self-discipline--and a sense of adventure--to navigate through the complicated fluctuations of life ... and the real world.

I don't think I am altogether reading Pinocchio against the grain in saying that through his failures in all three temptations, the little wooden protagonist learns to value life--to love the true as opposed to the illusory, and to seek adventure, as opposed to mindless self-destructiveness, the counterfeit of adventure--to accept the "becoming" of life as its real and only meaning--to face with courage the sometimes discomforting struggles of life (read: "Monstro the whale").  This is the true heart and goodness of soul that Pinocchio displays to prove his authenticity--his humanness--at the end of the tale.

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