Tuesday, 25 February 2014

How we spend our days

Days rush by in a powerful, rhythmic pattern. Day after day, measured in exactly the same number of hours; each one feeling a little bit different, yet familiar and recognisably the same. And just like that, completely beyond our control, time grows and all we can do is attempt to tame it where we can.

I came across these beautiful words about our attempts to tame time, to make it more productive by Annie Dillard in her book The Writing Life (found via brainpickings). They just really resonated with me:
"How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labour with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order - willed, faked, and so brought into being it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern."

Saturday, 8 February 2014

10 minutes

What do you do if you have ten minutes in your day to spare? (No, not the kind of ten minutes where you take food out the freezer or unpack the dishwasher or write a to-do list or sweep up something weird that your dog chewed on the lounge floor). Ten minutes of breathing space. Ten minutes of reading time. Do you scroll through your twitter feed? Browse links to favourite websites or blogs? Go to your facebook page? Or do you pick up a book that you're busy reading at the moment?

Recently I have been thinking a lot about reading in the internet age; about how it changes our reading habits subtly; fragments narratives, breaks reading down into bite-sized chunks. I've written about my concerns with reading and the internet here and here, but have only recently really noticed how it has changed my own habits as well. Where before I'd crack open the spine of a book to my bookmark, I'd more likely check my twitter feed and follow links to interesting articles online.

It happened without me really noticing it. Ten minutes just didn't seem long enough to warrant the effort of getting back into a story, ten minutes too much strain to pick up a narrative and let yourself be immersed in it again, even just for a moment. The longer I left it, the weaker the pull of the story, the more distant the characters became, hazy and fading like strangers. Ten minutes just seemed better suited for shorter things, for twitter, Instagram, quick bites of news... fast food reading.

And that is not a good diet! So I'm taking back those ten minutes for real reading: give me a book, my place marked in it, a cup of tea and just enough time to read a few more pages!

Saturday, 1 February 2014

The big, bad wolf

There have been repeated readings of Little Red Riding Hood  at bedtime here in our house. During one of these many readings, I began wondering about all the different versions of this well known classic. Each fairy tale book seems to take a slightly different angle when it comes to this story, so I started looking them up. The many variations got me thinking about scary stories and how we deal with them in children's literature.

The whole notion of being hunted by a wolf in a deep, dark forest is terrifying when you actually think about it, yet the two versions of the story we have conveyed that very differently (one a German Grimm version and one a rather more sanitised children's collection). In the newer, sanitised book, the kid listened spellbound and delighted to how Little Red Riding Hood and the grandmother were saved from a very gruesome end (Grandmother by hiding behind the woodshed and Little Red Riding Hood by screaming for her father, the woodsman).

The very comical and non-threatening illustrations of the newer one, made me think of how they contrasted early illustrations of fairy tales. Gustave Doré's amazing, yet incredibly sinister illustrations come to mind. The Doré illustrations below are from Little Red Riding Hood published in an 1800s Charles Perrault collection of fairy tales. They really do convey that terror of being stalked in the woods ... the menace in the lines of the wolf's body, the deadly claws and then the frozen look of fear on the girl's face after she has been seduced into bed with him (the old French version did a fair bit more moralising about young girls who strayed off the path and allowed themselves to be seduced. This version did not have a happy ending!).

Anyway, back to the Grimm version. Here the wolf attacks and eats the Grandmother in her bed and when Little Red Riding Hood finally arrives, he eats her too and finally satiated, falls asleep. It is only through the chance passing of a huntsman that Little Red Riding Hood and her Grandmother are rescued. The huntsman sees the sleeping wolf and cuts open his stomach to release the two. Heavy stones are then placed inside the wolf so that when he wakes up and tries to run away he collapses and dies. Pretty gruesome when you compare it to the new version!

Much of this difference is because traditional fairy tales were originally never meant to be for children specifically; they were folklore, but at the same time, children weren't necessarily sheltered from them either. The Grimm brothers initially started collecting German folktales not with the aim of entertaining children, but rather to preserve German culture. It was only in 1812 that they published the first collection of Kinder und Hausmärchen. While the old stories are far from the sanitised version we expect of children's literature today, there is just something about scary stories... you don't want to know what happens next, yet you can't look away.

In The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1976), the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim makes a compelling argument for such scary stories to be told to children by analysing traditional fairy tales (mostly the Grimm versions). This was in spite of the fact that the traditional versions of many fairy tales had a disturbingly dark and violent side to them; just consider Cinderella's step sisters hacking off their own toes and heels to fit into the shoe or the evil stepmother in Snow White being forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes at Snow White's wedding as punishment. Today we might say these are not appropriate for children to hear and would want these stories to be adapted and changed accordingly.

However, Bettelheim argues that these old stories hold a symbolic significance for children in that they are a safe way for children to work through conscious and subconscious fears such as death, abandonment, change, injustice and their own violence and anger in relation to the adults in their lives. They do so by interpreting these stories in their own terms and creating meaning out of them. So for example, Bettelheim explains how Little Red Riding Hood might hold greater symbolic meaning for the child:
"The child knows intuitively that Little Red Cap's being swallowed by the wolf - much like the various deaths other fairy-tale heroes experience for a time - is by no means the end of the story, but a necessary part of it. The child also understands that Little Red Cap really 'died' as the girl who permitted herself to be tempted by the wolf; and that when the story says 'the little girl sprang out' of the wolf's belly, she came to life a different person. This device is necessary because, while the child can readily understand one thing being replaced by another (the good mother by the evil stepmother), he cannot yet comprehend inner transformations. So among the great merits of fairy tales is that through hearing them, the child comes to believe that such transformations are possible."
I am going to tell the kid the Grimm version some time soon and see how she responds to it. I have a feeling that somehow it will all make sense to her. Perhaps these stories also force us to face the darker side of life, the things that lie in the shadows and ultimately force us, on some level, to confront our fears. As Alfred Hitchcock puts it, the big, bad wolf never goes away entirely and the sooner we learn to face our fears, the better:
“Fear isn't so difficult to understand. After all, weren't we all frightened as children? Nothing has changed since Little Red Riding Hood faced the big bad wolf. What frightens us today is exactly the same sort of thing that frightened us yesterday. It's just a different wolf. This fright complex is rooted in every individual.” 


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