Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A surplus of toys

A last (?) note on Moonrise Kingdom's puerility.

Stephen Crane is a master of the particular version of puerility; I think in particular of the Whilomville story "Lynx-Hunting," in which a group of Whilomville boys, led by Jimmie Trescott, stolidly defend the town against a grazing cow.

Crane, too, is continually said to work in miniatures; thus Michael Fried reads the final scene in The Monster as a scene of "reading painfully what has already been written, with the stove representing a domesticated (in effect miniaturized) version of the catastrophic fire" (142). Indeed, Fried argues, "two opposing tendencies, one toward miniaturization and the other toward a certain monstrosity, coinhabit Crane's prose" (141). The same could be, and has been, said of Wes Anderson's filmmaking.

This brings us back to Noye's Fludde, the systematized, aestheticized miniature of the real flood happening outside, which in the film takes on the cosmic significance of the Noah's Flood, the narrator going into some detail about its historic devastation. At a certain point the real flood takes precedence over everything else, disrupting Noye's Fludde and revealing every system as miniature, as diminutive.

Such moments appear in Crane as well. In The Material Unconscious, Bill Brown addresses Crane's poetry only once, in order to reveal the dimension of childish play latent in "The Open Boat":
The ocean speaks the lines of the poem, asking that the weeping woman on shore be told that her lover is dead: "Her lover I have laid/ In cool green hall." The second and final stanza supplements the message:
"Tell her this
"And more,—
"That the king of the seas
"Weeps too, old, helpless man.
"The bustling fates
"Heap his hands with corpses
"until he stands like a child
"With Surplus of toys." (W, 10:22)
The lines intimate an understanding of life and death that would make the entirety of "The Open Boat" intelligible as "play".... (Brown 123-4)

The great fear is that there is no end to this regress, that there are, indeed, no grown-ups in the room. Not only are all the adults invested in miniature systems; the Cosmic Adults are so many babies as well, pulling the heads off dolls.

Thus in Crane's story "Death and the Child," the unaware toddler playing on a mountaintop, accidentally abandoned by the evacuating villagers, is possessed of a godlike perspective on the battle below. To him the action looks like a doodle, "fantastic smoky shapes" and "white circles and whirligigs" and "[l]ines of flame" (Crane 962). When young Peza, foolishly overeager for battle, reaches the mountaintop and finds himself face to face with this baby, it is the baby who is in a position to inquire, "Are you a man?"

Of course, we don't quite have the same fear that gods are babies in Anderson's films. The weather exerts its whims, but there is always ultimately a grown-up chaperoning things—Anderson himself. The craftedness of his miniatures remind us that somebody has things under control.

That that register of control—the aesthetic—is the same register as that of the miniature, e.g. the church production of Noye's Fludde, however, may give us a moment's pause. In the end this film is deeply sympathetic to the ridiculous seriousness with which children and especially adults invest their play. For in the film, aesthetic satisfaction appears to be the only available site of even fictive shelter. One can but work on that production of Noye's Fludde, or pull a crisis back into the realm of Khaki Scouting by inspecting the camp and issuing a Commendable.

As Crane writes in Black Riders:
If there is a witness to my little life,
To my tiny throes and struggles,
He sees a fool;
And it is not fine for gods to menace fools. (Crane 1303)

Brown, Bill. The Material Unconscious: American Amusement, Stephen Crane & the Economies of Play. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1996. Print.

Crane, Stephen. Prose and Poetry: Maggie: A Girl of the Street; The Red Badge of Courage; Stories, Sketches and Journalism; Poetry. Ed. J. C. Levenson. New York, N.Y: Library of America, 1984. Print. The Library of America 18.

Fried, Michael. Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane. Paperback ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. Print.

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