Why Animal Farm is the Best Dystopian Novel

I recently watched an Intelligence Squared debate between two inimitable men of letters, Will Self and Adam Gopnik, on the motion entitled “Brave New World vs Nineteen Eighty Four.”

But the real purpose behind the debate, much more than a simple literary analysis of two great novels, became clear immediately with the moderator’s introduction. “Rarely can a debate [such as this] claim to be so urgently topical. And yet somehow with two novels, one written in 1931 and the other written between 1948 and 1949, you nevertheless have two works that speak to us in our own time with great urgency and topicality.”

Ah, yes. The great urgency and topicality, always, of dystopian fiction.

In one sense it’s a completely ridiculous statement to make. The world today is far from a dystopia; and, in fact, it’s becoming increasingly less like a dystopia. Consider just a few key metrics: Poverty, Literacy, Health, Freedom, Population, and Education. Max Rosner, economist at Oxford and the founder of Our World in Data, plots each one of these variables from 1820 to today, giving us a snapshot at how things have actually changed over time.

Over 90% of the world was living in extreme poverty before the year 1820. Only a very priviledged few lived on more than $1.90 per day (today’s dollars). The rest of the world eked out a hard existence as either subsistence farmers or laborers. But industrialization, economic growth, and technological advancement began to completely reshape our relationship to wealth and the resources it begets. This change was even occuring at the time Brave New World (76% in poverty) and Nineteen Eighty Four (72% in poverty) were being published. Slowly, more prosperous modes of trading goods and services were being made available to more people. This didn’t happen magically overnight and wasn’t achieved without serious challenges to overcome like child-labor, widespread pollution, and the many other burdens of industrialization. But to be born in today’s world means being born with a 90% chance (as opposed to 10%) of living a materially comfortable life. And if you enjoy such a life it may do well to seriously ponder your luck and its implications.

The numbers for Basic Education, Literacy, Democracy, Child-Mortality, Population, and Vaccination are all very similar.

In light of these facts there might be many reasons why a highly-educated, influential, and wealthy British man might stand on a stage and opine with a straight face that debating which dystopia our world most closely resembles “speaks to our time with great urgency.”

For one thing it’s true human life has improved incredibly but there’s no guarantee things will go on getting better indefinitely. Just because things have been going really well for the past 200 years doesn’t mean serious reversals are impossible. In fact, as things continue to get better we will by definitition also have more to lose. (This was pointed out to me by futureofreading in re my post Coffee Stains, ‘Nam, and Donald Trump, where I probably don’t emphasize this enough.)

Another reason is that with the economic/technological expansion of the 20th century also came bloody wars and genocide on a level heretofore unprecedented, with European totalitarianism playing no small part in the bloodshead; so, um, maybe some of the preoccupation with dystopian novels, especially on the part of European intellectuals, is partly understandable regardless of the current state of the world.

But something in me cannot help laughing at the image of three educated, highly literate men making the case that a primary lens through which to see our current situation should be a dystopian novel, not simply as a piece of entertainment but as serious social criticism.

I don’t know. It’s a feeling, man.

For what it’s worth I think the most instructive dystopian novel for our times is Orwell’s other dystopian novel, Animal Farm. A far better book than Nineteen Eighty Four, in my opinion.

The original subtitle of Animal Farm, which was dropped by all but one publisher, was “A Fairy Story.” This is instructive, and partly the reason why Animal Farm is a higher form of art than most dystopias. Most dystopias are either, scientific, political, or both. To take an example beyond the two above, The Handmaid’s Tale for instance is based entirely on politics and futuristic speculation, exaggerating certain elements for dramatic effect. Atwood has said she didn’t use anything in Handmaid’s Tale that hasn’t actually happened historically, but in order to make it a dystopia and not simply a history book the stakes must be raised. This is where the social criticism is always buried in a dystopic story. Wherever the writer exaggerates into the future is what they think is going wrong in the present. Nineteen Eighty Four can be said to be a critique militarism inherent in totalitarian states, while Brave New World is a critique of hedonism and consumer pleasures, and The Handmaid’s Tale is a critique of conservative politics.

But Animal Farm is different for a few reasons. Firstly, as we’ve said, it’s a fairy story, a fantasy. It doesn’t take place in the future or in some totalitarian world-state with carefully exaggerated elements for the purpose of social criticism. Animal Farm is a metaphor. In fact, many critics at the time faulted Orwell for the metaphor saying that it was too blatant a riff on the Russian Revolution, to which he replied, “Of course I intended it primarily as a satire on the Russian revolution. But I did mean it to have a wider application in so much that I meant that that kind of revolution (violent conspiratorial revolution, led by unconsciously power-hungry people) can only lead to a change of masters. I meant the moral to be that revolutions only effect a radical improvement when the masses are alert and know how to chuck out their leaders as soon as the latter have done their job.”

The story begins when a pig on the farm named Old Major has a dream that he wants to tell the other animals. In the dream the animals rise up and take over the farm from their human masters, running it more productively and equitably, living more peaceable and happy lives.

Well, the animals do just that. Old Major dies. They honor his memory and vision. Some of the younger pigs follow his lead and begin to organize—to quick and very climactic success. They have a battle with the humans. They kick the humans off the farm. They begin to produce crops of their own. The farm is renamed from Manor Farm to Animal Farm. At first everything is going great.

The job of the reader of Animal Farm is to determine where and when things go wrong after the animals take over the farm. Things progress slowly, almost imperceptibly, from happily ever after to very very bad. It’s in these details that Orwell outshines any other dystopian prognostication whose premise is political. Animal Farm is universal in that it describes how any well-meaning movement can turn into a power grab. It doesn’t discriminate, in that sense.

If you haven’t read Animal Farm, please, close this window and go read the book. You’re missing out on one of the most perfect novels in the English language.

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Wrong about Lamb Testicles

If you’re anything like me, everyday is a sort of information gauntlet. An audio book on the drive to work. At the desk a cup of coffee while checking morning headlines. Do morning work. More audio book at lunch. News breaks and more in-depth article reading interspersed throughout the afternoon. Do afternoon work. Audio book on drive home. Eat dinner. Spend time with family. After everyone goes to sleep I stay up and read. Sometimes fiction, sometimes non-fiction. Just finished Animal Farm.

Maybe this is atypical. I’m a culture freak.

But lately. Hm. How to say it?

Nothing can replace direct experience. It’s easy to forget that. Culture sometimes does such a good job at making us feel informed. But have you ever had the experience of seeing behind the curtain? Even just for a moment. Maybe you met a celebrity in person or emailed a longtime hero of yours. You can get a whiff sometimes, if you put your nose to the wind, of this manufactured quality. Smells like money. Tastes like shareholder interests.

I don’t know.

There’s this one story Mike Rowe told a while ago in his TedTalk about being on the show Dirty Jobs and working one day in particular at a farm castrating lambs. Rowe had checked with the Humane Society and the SPCA and PETA beforehand about the proper and approved technique, which is to tie a rubber band around the testicles until blood flow ceases and the testicles fall off. But the farmers Rowe was on the job with didn’t use the rubber band. Instead, Rowe watched warily as the farmer took out a long sharp knife, quickly sliced the scrotum, and bit off the testicles (yes, with his teeth).

Mike Rowe had to do something he’d never done before on Dirty Jobs. He stopped the cameras. He said, Stop. We need to do this the right way. We need to do this with the rubber bands.

Like the Humane Society? the farmer said.

Yes! Rowe said. Let’s do it so the lambs don’t squeal and bleed. We’re on Discovery Channel in like five continents, dude.

Okay, the farmer says.

They begin filming again.

The farmer takes out a box of rubber bands and puts one on the next lamb’s scrotum. The lamb walks, takes two steps, and falls to the ground. The lamb gets up again and walks to the corner, lays on the ground and begins quivering, in obvious distress.

How long will the lamb be like this? Rowe says to the farmer.

A day, the farmer says.

How long until the scrotum falls off? Rowe says.

A week, the farmer says.

Meanwhile Rowe looks over and sees the first lamb, the one the farmer did his original procedure on, prancing around and eating grass. The bleeding had already stopped.

Rowe says in his TedTalk: “I was just so blown away at how completely wrong I was, and reminded how wrong I am so much of the time.”

This anecdote has stuck with me for a while. I love it because it shows what you can learn from being wrong. Very few people talk about how great it is to be wrong. But those experiences, the ones that teach you a lesson—failure, trial and error, being confronted with your own limitations—are yours because you have to earn them. Nobody can take those away from you. You pay a real price for them. Being wrong earns you truths you cannot get by reading an article or book, someone else’s hogwash.

Which begs the question.

I often wonder how many lamb testicles I have rubber bands on, when I should be biting them off.

 

Coffee Stains, ‘Nam, and Donald Trump

Gizmodo

WHEN FORMING ANY VALUE judgement my goal is—although I rarely live up to my own standards—to condition said judgement with the right amount, or the right kind, of perspective.

For instance—

Let’s say I’m at work, quickly typing up some report, when all of the sudden I spill a piping hot cup of coffee on my lap.

The first reaction I will have to this will be instinctive, with an accompanied dose of curse words and negative emotion. More than likely this will be one of the most eventful happenings of the day. I will text my wife with frustrated emojis, OMG, of course these things always happen to ME. But after cleaning up, I might tell the story to a friend over a coffee break, recounting it with enthusiastic hand motions and displaying the brown spot on my pant leg with some good humor. And then, after work, my wife and I will have a good laugh about it at dinner.

There are probably very many complicated reasons why this is a normal way to process an inconvenience. We respond to events in real time with what our brain naturally intuits as the right or justified amount of any given emotion or thought—which sounds simple, but when you stop to think about life as a continuum and our experiences, every single one, assuming either large or small significance along that continuum, it then becomes very foggy just how our brains distinguish between something that is either very important or just medium-important, or not important at all, or just barely important, etc. Not to mention the subtle gradations that run along those axes, those pesky value judgements. Good, bad, etc.

Going back to perspective. What helps me during times of crises, at least on the emotional front, is thinking about what perspective I can assume to make the emotion better. So, the coffee example. If I am tempted to let the spilled coffee ruin my day, a zooming out of perspective will almost certainly help. This mess is only one moment out of the day, after all, and maybe a few minutes of cleaning up. I will most likely have some good moments during this day which will at least partly make up for my own stupidity. Also this is just one day I’ve lived out of many—thousands of days! I’ve spilled coffee on myself before. I got over it then. I’ll most likely get over it now.

This is a neat little trick you can do with almost anything.

A FEW MONTHS AGO my wife and I watched Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War, a new PBS documentary covering the entirety of the Vietnam War, complete with archived news reels, videos of combat, and extensive interviews with both American and Viet Cong, veterans and non-combatants alike.

The documentary is remarkably even-handed in its treatment of this embattled time in American society. A different film-maker who happened to be a highly motivated political idealouge, even a well-meaning one, would’ve been tempted to tamper with the effect it has on the audience because the sores and boils the Vietnam War dredged up have never really gone away. We are still playing essentially the same game of chess. The political lines that were drawn during that period of our history remain, not exactly the same, but true to their point of origination; I can’t think of a more relevant period in our history to survey in order to gain more perspective about the present moment.

A good piece of history-telling has the effect we were speaking about earlier, of zooming out our horizons to consider conditions beyond the bounds of our own lives. History can be therefore powerfully emotional in its impact because it allows us the chance to see our own lives for what they are—pretty small scale, bound up in tragic situations far beyond our own control, and ultimately mysterious.

One scene that touched me deeply was a series of late-stage student protests organized at airports to intercept veterans coming home, to taunt, humiliate, and even assault them so that the first thing these soldiers experienced on their return from fighting was an attitude not only of unwelcome, but open hostility.

This moment encapsulates Vietnam as a socio-political American tragedy (the Vietnamese have their own version of this).

The parts of the tragedy are as such:

1) Working class men are drafted into a war they don’t understand, which is spiraling out of control, quickly garnering mass public disapproval.

2) The war is handed off from Johnson to Nixon, who had promised to end the war, but it only grows worse. The draft threatens to balloon to include college-educated men, i.e. the middle class. Protests then reach fever pitch.

3) What motivates the protests? The instinct of self-preservation? Righteous indignation? Both?

4) In any case, middle-class hippies, basically correct in their critique of the war, direct their anger at those less fortunate than themselves, i.e. largely working class draftees.

5) Therefore those who have already suffered the most (from the American standpoint) suffer even more—as so often happens in tragedy—some having lost friends in combat, some maimed themselves, most unaware of the larger social and political implications of the Vietnam War and the dark shadow it would continue to cast over American life.

Two protesters who participated in this drama are then interviewed, one woman and one man, now in their mid to late sixties. Recalling her harassment of soldiers, the woman begins to cry and apologizes into the camera, to any veterans she may have hurt. She regrets her part in it and now considers the youthful vigor in those particular protests misdirected, although she doesn’t regret being against the war itself. The man, on the contrary, says that extreme measures had to be taken to send a message to Washington that under no circumstances would the public tolerate further aggression in Vietnam, the only option being a swift and direct pulling out of the war. And since tepid communications had not worked, the only option was something that would get people’s attention.

AS WE PROGRESS DOWN the tunnel of history in our own time, and events take on significance, both large and small, political and not, we are fooling ourselves if we think examining our own histories will not help us hang on to some semblance of sanity—even helping us to deal with the emotional side of politics and current events. Otherwise our perspectives will be conditioned only by the present moment, tricking us into thinking that very unimportant things are important, and vice versa. Again, a wide perspective, more information rather than less, can teach us just how similar we are to other time periods, just how beholden we are to the same human passions that have directed the winds of time since the beginning.

You may be forgiven for thinking that the elephant in the room behind all this pontification is Donald Trump or the so-called times of political polarization we live in. But it isn’t. Watching the Vietnam War documentary and reading more about the period helped me to realize that we are no more polarized now than we were then. We are being sold an old line dressed up for a new age, and people on all sides are guzzling it down like their life depends on it.

To me, I’m not sure Trump is a new coffee stain on our pants. I think Trump just reminds us of the stain we’ve had on our pants for a while now. This causes me to view him and his administration in a certain light, not a light amenable to any one side of the debate re: Russian Hacking, Border Policy, General Bombastic Attitude, etc. because both sides of the debate are conditioned by an apocalyptic absurdity with every action and re-action. And all of this is made worse by the usual suspects. Click-bait, social media.

To every journalist out there: before you write an article, read a history book, will you?

Our future depends on it.

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From Quora: “Is it bad if I never open up about my feelings?”

It depends on what you mean by ‘bad,’ and ‘never.’ If by bad you mean bad for those around you—family, friends, etc.—probably it’s not great if you never express your feelings. How else will they be able to know where you’re at? And what about you? If you really never express your feelings, how do you know where you’re at?

You will hear a lot of cliches in regards to the expression of feeling/emotions. Self-helpy stuff will say you only have great things to gain from opening up. It’s true that there is much to gain from being vulnerable, but like anything of value it also comes with a cost.

Many people hide their emotions because they’re afraid to face what they really mean. Maybe you feel something and don’t know how to handle it so you bury it, you may be afraid of what somebody might think or feel about what you think or feel, or maybe the words just aren’t there to express what you mean. It can sometimes seem easier to simplify everything and just ignore what you think and feel and instead socially coast on what seems acceptable or safe or hide behind some other affectation.

I honestly believe many people live their entire lives like this.

But consider what could happen if you really confronted what was going on in your head. There would be much to gain and much to lose. Once you confront what you are and let that be known, you will lose everything false that went before it. Every mask you hid behind. Every pretense. Every lie. Gone. Truth is like fire. It will burn the dead wood off. You have to be ready for that.

But oh the rewards!

You can be who you really are for once.

I would recommend taking small steps. Pay attention to your thoughts for a few days. Take notes, mental notes, whatever. After going that for a little bit go out of your way to express one small thing to someone, maybe a loved one, or a trusted person. It doesn’t have to be anything grandiose. It could be about anything. What you thought/felt about a movie or a conversation. See how it goes. Pay attention to what you’re thinking and feeling while you’re sharing. You might feel a little nervous. That’s okay.

Keep doing this in small ways until you’re comfortable maybe trying it on bigger things. Eventually, if you get acclimated to this, you may eventually say something/do something that pisses someone off or hurts them. Another cost. It will happen. Own up to who you are without being a jerk. Have an idea of the best version of yourself to keep pushing for. Try to love others well, etc. Once you pay attention to what’s going on in you, you can pay attention to what’s going on in others and help them too. You may lose friends but you will certainly gain them too.

Here’s a C.S. Lewis quote, for kicks:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

Good luck, friend.

Dan

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Like good books & want to support the site? Check out The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis

 

This Woman’s Monologue was SO Outrageous that I Threw Up!

On Saturday April 28, 2018 comedian Michelle Wolf delievered the annual stand-up comedy routine for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

For those of you lucky enough to be unaware of the tradition, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is an annual event designed to raise funds for scholarships in journalism, put on by the WHCA (White House Correspondent’s Association).

The central event of the night is the comedy roast.

It’s what you would expect it to be. A dinner with journalists, celebrities, and politicians—an unholy trinity of sorts—where apparently important things are supposed to be expressed, “truth spoken to power,” and all that, from people with a little less power, or just a different kind of power, than those they are supposedly “roasting.”

And just as every other non-event in 2018, Michelle Wolf’s recent comedy roast has drawn much attention and comment from just about everyone. Even the WHCA, who issued this statement:

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Here you go. Watch and make up your own mind.

Now this is an important moment to stop and take stock, because what is about to unfold is a very proto-typical moment in current day pseudo-controversy.

Here are the typical steps:

  1. Somebody famous says something (celebrity, journalist, politician) usually with a note of exaggeration or of an inflammatory character, to promote something they are selling or a piece of entertainment that has recently been released, or a piece of journalism, or a piece of legislation. Controversy is key. Without it, nobody will watch.
  2. The media react to the inflammatory thing—usually on some supposed moral grounds, although they never clearly state exactly what moral grounds these are beyond very vague political positions. The key here is two camps are defined. Either for or against.
  3. A bunch of articles come out with some words in them and randomly pasted tweets from celebrities and journalists.

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4. Now that you know what the famous & rich people think, I, the supposed journalist doing some very deep digging into a very important issue, will give you my two cents about who is right and who is tanking Western civilization as we speak. I have to choose either for or against

a. If I am a super smart snooty journalist I will create one or two issues of sub-points in which I still take a side but with subtlety and many confusing statistics with the help of Nate Silver, and a brief history of the Roman Empire.

5. But first there must be a very juicy and headline-worthy title. I cannot simply release this very content-rich article without click bait, so:

a. Michelle Wolf, Female Comedian, Eviscerates Elites at WHCD & Donates All Revenues Attributed to Increased Viewership of Upcoming Netflix Special to Starved Orphans in North Korea.

b. Supposedly Feminist Comedian Mocks WHPS’s Eye shadow!

c. A Very Woke & Lovely Comedian Single-Handedly Tears Down White Male Patriarchy & Conservative Media Hegemony, at the Same Time!

d. This Woman’s Monologue was SO Outrageous that I Threw Up!

e. Media Elites’ Heads are so Far up Own Asses, Trump sure to Win Second Term

f. If You Didn’t Like Michelle Wolf’s Monologue, You Suck.

g. If You Did Like Michelle Wolf’s Monologue, You Suck

6. Also before article posts, ads must be placed in and around the article so that a certain percentage of people click the ad and buy the product advertised (baby wipes, beer, Pop Tarts, etc). The money from these people goes to the company that makes baby wipes, beer, etc. whose shareholders decide what % of that money should go back to these same media companies in the form of advertising dollars so the media companies can pay writers like me to write even more articles for you to look at with very important information that is very pertinent to your life alongside very subtle ads for these same products, and so on and so on. (This includes mentions within the article itself to entertainers with development deals with Disney or any other big media company that also owns one or multiple news stations).

7. Article posts. Hopefully millions upon millions click it. Doesn’t matter what their opinion is, only that a certain % click on that ad or subscribe to the publication (ha!)

8. Now begins the counter-article phase whereby articles about the original articles, normally called think pieces, or spicy hot takes, react to the reaction, in hopes of getting some bottom feeder secondary clicks. (Also known as leeches). Many sources are cited in these style articles and usually there is a narrative or a very artsy form mean to inculcate a certain intellectualism and cultured flair.

9. Rinse and repeat. Depending on how controversial a given event is, steps 1-8 could happen up to 7 times.

10. Eventually interest is lost and focuses on another burning issue.

It’s important to highlight this 10 step backdrop it’s the subtext for every instance of reportage in the modern world. Without understanding this dynamic you might make the unfortunate mistake that a) any of these people actually care about you and/or your opinion or b) that these events are reported in an earnest search for truth.

Here’s the real kicker: people are promoted within these organizations if you, reader, viewer, etc. look at what they produce. All you have to do is change the channel or click their article, and bear witness to advertisements. It doesn’t matter what you think or feel. It’s not a new model, but one that has become so totalizing and omnipresent that it would be a mistake to pretend that Michelle Wolf, or anybody else, is just some regular funny person walking in off the street. Their checks come from Viacom, Bertelsmann, Comcast, 21st Century Fox, etc. The people who give us the news (the supposed “watchdog” of American politics) are the same people that entertain us, and this co-mingling of frivolity and fact should be unsettling since the terminus of this obscene logic has led to Donald Trump. No wonder the media react in a more or less unanimous fashion to the Trump phenomenon. Trump did not come from some wheat field in the Midwest. He came from Manhattan where all these people milk their own udders.

Michelle Wolf herself says it better than I ever could, at the very end of her set:

I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn’t sell steaks, or Vodka, or water, or college, or ties, or Eric [pause for laughs]… But he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster and now you’re profiting off of him…

If you want to see the most lightweight cream puffy White House Correspondent’s Dinner comedy routines, watch all eight under President Obama. Jeez. Then there were even more celebrities in attendance. Clooney, Spielberg, and even Trump himself. You’ve probably already forgotten about them—as they are articles of a bygone era, part of the wasteland we leave behind of opinions once dearly held, and then lost as new opinions are manufactured and shoved down our throats like Twinkies, for which it seems we have a hearty appetite.

Rejected Story Ideas, Part 3

Unfinished story:

Moon Town

‘Places, everyone!’ the Mayor of Moon Town said to the people in the crowded deli.

‘Rolling,’ Cameraman 1 said.

The Mayor leaned one elbow on the counter and made an inviting gesture to Camera 1.

‘On quiet evenings here in Moon Town it’s customary to head on down to the delicatessen for some Moon Town fine dining. Say there, Arnie. What’s on the menu tonight?’

‘Freeze dried protein paste,’ Arnie said.

‘Gee whiz, sounds good. Can I have a taste?’

‘Sure, Mayor.’

Arnie reached under the counter and brought out a prepared dish with tiny cubes of the paste and a garnish on the side. Normally the paste was eaten from a packet.

The Mayor ate a cube.

‘Mmm. This is really good, Arnie.’

‘Perfect,’ Cameraman 2 said. ‘Let’s cut straight to boy and Mayor casually sitting at counter.’

‘Come here, Tim,’ the Mayor said. A wide-eyed kid came forward through the crowd of extras. The Mayor helped him up onto the stool beside him at the counter. ‘Just like we practiced.’

‘Okay,’ Tim said.

‘Rolling.’

‘Moon Town is exciting. Don’t you think, Tim?’

Tim sat up straight.

‘Yes, Mayor.’

‘I don’t know about you, Tim, but I like taking long walks and watching the earthrise. What’s your favorite thing about Moon Town?’

‘I like moon rocks.’

‘Good man! I’m glad you mentioned moon rocks because I think our viewers would like to know that the moon rocks we harvest here in Moon Town are available at a major retailer near them.’ The camera panned and zoomed onto the Mayor’s face, who then puffed on a cigar. ‘And now a word from our sponsors.’

‘…And cut! Really great, guys,’ Cameraman 1 said. ‘We’ve got what we need for this scene.’

‘Delightful,’ the Mayor said. ‘Now get back to work everyone.’

 

 

Mickey Mouse: Building Character

Once upon a time Mickey Mouse’s name wasn’t Mickey, and he wasn’t a mouse.

In 1927 Walt Disney, then employed by Universal Pictures, created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit who looked like this:

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Oswald was an immediate hit.

Then in 1928 Disney walked into a contract negotiation with Charles Lint, then president of Universal, thinking that he had all the leverage he needed to negotiate another installment in his favor, but instead Lint informed Disney that he had already hired most of his [Disney’s] employees, retained the rights to Oswald, and was offering to re-hire Disney only if he took a salary cut.

But Lint hadn’t been able to entice one key employee of Disney’s, a man named Ub Iwerks, the sole animator of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. And it was Iwerks’s loyalty to Disney that made possible another version of the cartoon, this time conceived during late night meetings between Disney and Iwerks. The cartoon was called Mortimer Mouse, but then changed after much deliberation to Mickey Mouse.

The first two animated shorts featuring Mickey weren’t very impressive to distributors, but the third entitled Steamboat Willie was optioned and premiered in New York on November 18, 1928, and was a success with audiences, in part because of its use of sound which was synchronized with the visual action of the cartoon, using a click track (not an entirely new technique at the time but still a rarity for animation).

Disney was an early adopter of Dr. Herbert Kalmus’s Process 4 technicolor or “three strip” process, producing technicolor shorts such as Silly Symphonies and Flowers and Trees, both of which became hits in the early 1930s. Disney had an exclusive contract with Kalmus extending until September 1935, barring all other animators from using the color technique. On February 23, 1935, seven months before other animators were given access to the technology, Disney produced The Band Concert, the first technicolor short featuring Mickey (and also Donald Duck), debuting to massive success, and is still considered a breakthrough in the history of animation.

Mickey’s look had changed and evolved slightly, going from black & white to color, among other small adjustments, but it was the work of animator Fred Moore throughout the late 1930s that transformed Mickey into his more current and recognizable form—giving the mouse pupils, a tail, white gloves, and his signature red pants.

And it was in this recognizable form that Mickey made his first feature length appearance in 1940 with Fantasia.

It’s with particular interest now that we turn to Fantasia which has puzzled viewers for years, but the meaning of this experimental film becomes clear in light of Mickey’s evolution as a character and his contribution to Disney’s growing empire.

Fantasia was only Disney’s third feature film after Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (a huge success) and Pinocchio (not a success), and because of the onset of World Ward II, it [Fantasia] was unable to generate a profit even though the critical response was positive. The story, as explained by Deems Taylor at the beginning of the film, is of the sorcerer’s apprentice, played by Mickey himself:

“It’s a very old story, one that goes back almost 2,000 years—a legend about a sorcerer who had an apprentice. He was a bright young lad, very anxious to learn the business. As a matter of fact, he was a little bit too bright because he started practicing some of the boss’s best magic tricks before learning how to control them. One day, for instance, when he’d been told by his master to carry water to fill a cauldron, he had the brilliant idea of bringing a broomstick to like to carry the water for him. Well, this worked very well at first. Unfortunately, however, having forgotten the magic formula that would make the broomstick stop carrying the water, he found he’d started something he couldn’t finish.”

Here is just about the entirety of Mickey’s brief appearance in Fantasia:

There is no dialogue in Fantasia, only pieces of orchestral music set to the accompanying action of a fairy-tale-like fever dream akin to an acid trip–complete with fawns, fairies, and unicorns–with a barely coherent narrative roughly spanning the mythological and scientific creation of the universe. And the creation of the universe begins once Mickey lets loose this magic of the broomstick that he cannot turn off.

Why am I spending so much time on Fantasia of all Mickey movies?

In Fantasia, for the first time, Mickey Mouse was a clear stand-in for Walt Disney himself. Mickey’s eager seizing of the wizard’s magic tricks is a perfect metaphor for Disney’s use of technology in his films (Steamboat Willie and The Band Concert); the magic broom carries the water to the cauldron as a piece of technology would assist its creator; but when Mickey realizes he cannot turn the broom off his attempts to thwart the broom creates only more brooms, and the cauldron begins overflowing with water, and it’s out of this overflow that the rest of the movie begins to make sense as a creation myth. The overflow creates the universe. Mickey’s foibles reveal the spirit of Disney’s Universe because the spirit of every Universe is equal to its downfall, and in Fantasia Mickey’s flaw is seizing upon magic he doesn’t yet understand so he can dream. And Disney said many times, “There’s a lot of the Mouse in me.”

Mickey Mouse was the first piece of lightning Disney ever caught, financing the early years of animated shorts by treading new ground in sound and color technology, always with Mickey as the tip of the spear, until the 1940s & 50s when Disney began pioneering still a new era of animated feature films and caught many new bolts of lightning (Dumbo, Bambi, Cinderella, Lady and the Tramp, etc.). Mickey then was only a very small part of Disney’s animation, and by the late 1950s & early 60s was all but retired as a character, appearing mostly in cameos or straight-to-video animated shorts. Other than the company’s logo and forever spokesmouse, the once centerpiece of the dynasty fell into the background.

Five years after the release of Fantasia, a 1945 article in the Irish Times wrote of Disney,

“Disney has been called everything from a genius to a philosopher—and denied that he is any of them. As a matter of fact when the English novelist, Aldous Huxley, praised the philosophy of Mickey Mouse cartoons and asked Disney how he arrived at their underlying subtleties, the answer he is reputed to have received was: “Oh, we make pictures for entertainment, and after they are made the professors come along and tell us what they mean!”

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