Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Tove Jansson’s Finn Family Moomintroll is prefaced with the falling of snow. Moomintroll, a child, watches the valley that is his world nestle beneath its winter blanket. ‘Tonight’ he thinks, ‘we shall settle down for our long winter’s sleep.’
‘Outside the snow fell, thick and soft. It already covered the steps and hung heavily from the roofs and eaves. Soon Moominhouse would be nothing but a big, round snowball. The clocks stopped ticking one by one. Winter had come.’ For now, winter is a prelude to awakening. Chapter One begins with the coming of spring, and the arrival of the first cuckoo in the valley, perching briefly on the roof of Moominhouse at four o’clock in the morning. ‘Moomintroll woke up and lay a long time looking at the ceiling before he realized where he was. He had slept a hundred nights and a hundred days, and his dreams still thronged about his head trying to coax him back to sleep.’ If I am to privilege a single work for attention here, or for the sake of convenience isolate one as definitive, it would be Finn Family Moomintroll. If anything, it establishes the normative routines, patterns and structures for Jansson’s world against which other stories might deviate.
There are nine Moomin books, all published originally in Swedish between 1945 and 1970. English translations appeared relative quickly. Finn Family Moomintroll, published originally in 1948, was the first to be translated into English in 1950, with its predecessor Comet in Moominland following soon after. The first book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, was not translated until 2005 and then only as a limited edition. As well as these books, Tove Jansson produced a comic strip for the London Evening News published in the 1950s, and carried on by her brother Lars until the 70s. She also wrote and drew four Moomin picture books for children.
The characters and stories have subsequently been adapted for a number of animation projects – notably the Polish made series from the late 70s/early 80s, which in its English version was my own first encounter with the stories. This series retains a great deal from the books, adding its own considerable charm and resonance through the use of almost flat stop-motion characters and haunting theme tune. It was an adaptation that Jansson was reportedly close to, and pleased with. The stories have in recent years become immensely popular in Japan, a transition that has perhaps retained less of Jansson’s original work. Yet the rights and creative control of the Moomins as a franchise are retained by Jansson’s neice, Sophia, whose father Lars had worked on the comic strips for over a decade. In Finland, while there is a rather Disney-like Moominworld theme park, it is also possible to visit the more authentic Moomin Valley Museum, with its collection of Janssons drawings, models and tableux and a sense of entertainment that is more in line with the stories themselves.
And this is the quality that I would like to address here, which for now means returning to Moomintroll’s act of awakening, coaxed back towards sleep by one hundred nights’ worth of dreams. Just as he settles back into slumber, he sees that the bed next to his is empty. This had been occupied by his best friend Snufkin, who had already climbed out through a window and down a rope ladder. By tracking footprints in the wet soil, and following the music of a mouth organ, Moomintroll finds Snufkin sitting by a river. The river, we learn, has been the site of many adventures, through which they have befriended others into the extended family that congregates in and around the Moominhouse. Snufkin and Moomintroll are not related. They are not even of the same species. Yet Snufkin, like the others they befriend, is welcomed by Moominmamma and Moominpappa into their house, by means of, we are told, ‘just adding another bed and putting another leaf in the dining room table.’ This is further described. ‘And so Moominhouse was rather full – a place where everyone did what they liked and seldom worried about tomorrow. Very often unexpected and disturbing things used to happen, but nobody ever had time to be bored, and that is always a good thing.’
Around this house, and the form of open-family within, is a loosely suggested form of kinship, of cooperation and freedom which in the importance of responsibility to self contains an ethical commitment to the other. It is possible to draw parallels between life in Moominhouse, and the fictionalised account of Jansson’s own lifestyle given in her short novel Fair Play. But while this is a novel with protagonists that have less days ahead of them than behind, and are preoccupied with a sense of time running out, the Moomin books are rendered, generally, from the perspective of youth and childhood.
The narrative of the books is episodic in form, but these episodes constitute a diegetic and thematic whole. Finn Family Moomintrool is structured around the discovery of a hat by Moomintroll, Snufkin and their friend Sniff. It turns out that anything placed inside is magically transformed, randomly it seems, into something else: when used as a waste-paper bin, discarded eggshells are thrown into the hat, only to re-emerge as clouds upon which Moomintroll and his friend can ride. Afterwards Moomintroll, using the interior of the hat in a game of hide and seek, is temporarily transformed, all his fat parts having become thin, everything small grown big. When the hat is thrown into the river, it changes the water to raspberry juice.
The hat is in fact the property of the mysterious but ultimately misunderstood Hobgoblin, who is considered sinister, powerful and dangerous. Yet the narrative concludes with the arrival of the Hobgoblin during a party attended by all of Moominvalley’s residents. He comes not for his hat, but in search of a giant ruby he has sought for three hundred years. The ruby has come into the possession of Thingumy and Bob, two residents of the Moominhouse. The Hobgoblin refuses to take the ruby by force, and Thingumy and Bob refuse to exchange it, as it is as precious to them as it is to the Hobgoblin. To cheer himself up in what looks like an unresolvable situation, the Hobgoblin decides to perform some magic in the form of granting wishes. When it comes to Thingumy and Bob’s turn, they wish for a ruby as beautiful as the one in their possession, a gift for the Hobgoblin. Yearning, wishing and hope, are met and completed in a spirit of mutual generosity. It is the happiest of endings, but one that is still coloured by a seasonal transition to autumn, the knowledge that once again the snow will fall.
I want to think about these books for children in relation to utopia, as a form of utopian fiction. Doing this requires thinking about a recent edited collection that situates itself as the significant work in the field right now. – it is called Utopian and dystopian writing for Children and Young Adults, edited by Carrie Hintz and Elaine Ostry, published by Routledge in 2003. In the foreword, Jack Zipes – who has written extensively on fairy stories - suggests that while it would be misleading to argue that all writing for young people is utopian, there is, he says, ‘a utopian tendency present in stories for children.
He says this stems from a general sense of lack in one’s life, and a yearning for a better world. Of course, this as an idea that comes from Ernst Bloch. And Zipes, who is a Bloch scholar, evokes Bloch’s understanding of utopia here: ‘The utopian tendency of art is what propels us to reshape and reform our personal and social lives.
This paraphrasing of Bloch by Zipes sums up what I consider the relationship between art and utopia to be – it is a reshaping of things, an attempt to reshape them.
And Zipes brings up another side of utopia – that specifically described as dystopian, as of a bad place. He says that ‘As we all know, there is a real and strong “dystopian” tendency in our consumer society to make “better” consumers out of our children.”
So the role of utopian and dystopian fiction here is to allow children to question their social conditions and to be allowed to hope for more.
More generally, the editors of this book – Hintz and Ostry - link children’s literature with ideas of utopia. They put forward an ur-form, an origin of modern children’s literature. This is Sarah Fielding’s The Governess or, Little Female Academy from 1749. With this, “children’s literature” they say “begins with a utopian vision of an all-girls’ school that teaches ideal social organization. The history of children’s and young adult literature is entwined with that of utopian writing from that moment on.” What happens in utopian writing for young readers, they say, is that these readers must grapple with ideas of social organization.
They say that “utopian works propose to teach the young reader about governance, the possibility of improving society, the role of the individual and the limits of freedom.”
“These writings may be a young person’s first encounter with texts that systematically explore collective social organisation” They also consider the role of children as a utopian projection, as romantic myth of freedom from adult conformity, and seek to address the ways in which utopian writing might intervene in children’s development. And while on the one hand, they include a definition of utopia from Fredric Jameson as ‘a space of self conscious reflection’ , Hintz and Ostry go on emphasise fiction that is concerned with developing social setting to form utopia as genre. “An awareness of social organization” they argue “is necessary for a work to be called utopian.”
Therefore, the Moomin books are, in terms of predominant definitions, not eligible to be included in the category of utopian fiction for children. Specifically, the guidelines set by Hintz and Ostry are not sympathetic to Jansson’s world. These guideline emphasise works that develop their social settings in relation to an awareness of genre characteristics. The books are, not surprisingly, not included in Hintz and Ostry’s long bibliography of utopian works for children.
So, an awareness of social organisation is necessary for a work to be called utopian. But how far might it be possible to stretch the interpretation of this idea? My interest here is on a different aspect of utopia in fiction; it is in utopian impulse and sentiments rather than genre definitions. However, I would also like to suggest an expanded understanding of utopian form, that takes impulse more into account and might consider a looser sense of social organisation, particularly when the looseness of that social organisation is, I would argue, part of the book’s utopian quality. The books certainly incorporate a general projection of children as utopian, free from the conformity of adults, allowed to be imaginative, critical. There is also the sense of these books reflecting on and potentially intervening in the development of children, encouraging a critical eye in the young reader, perhaps sensitising them to action.
But does this reveal the social foundations of our own world, or the cracks that form in them? No. There is nothing so direct in Jansson’s books. Yet, on the issue of the limits of freedom, there does seem to be a quiet engagement. Similarly, the books consider ethics, responsibility, issues relating to property, ownership and communal forms of coexistence as much as they do emotional growth and the complexities of friendship. And on the issue of utopian and dystopian fiction as a productive place to address cultural anxieties, threats and to contemplate the ideal, Moominvalley functions, to greater and lesser degrees, to do just this. But here the social order is more familial. Neighbourly rather than legible as a structured form of governance.
But rather than suggest that these books should be included in a bibliography like the one compiled by Hintz and Ostry, I would rather emphasise the point that work that is excluded might well have produced some subtle and resonant variations on utopian fiction. This is best defined as a shift in attention from programme to impulse.
Utopian impulse is the subject of Ernst Bloch’s work The Principle of Hope. As Douglas Kelner suggests, ‘Bloch provides a method for discerning and criticizing ideological content in theories, philosophies, and cultural artifacts whose ideological nature and effects are often overlooked.’
‘Bloch's practice of ideological criticism discerns emancipatory utopian dimensions even in ideological products, ferreting out those aspects that might be useful for radical theory and practice. Bloch therefore provides exciting methods of cultural criticism, a new approach to cultural history, and novel perspectives on culture and ideology.’
And hope is important here. ‘For Bloch, hope permeates everyday consciousness and its articulation in cultural forms, ranging from the fairy tale to the great philosophical and political utopias. For Bloch, individuals are unfinished, they are animated by "dreams of a better life," and by utopian longings for fulfillment. The "something better" for which people yearn is precisely the subject-matter of Bloch's massive The Principle of Hope, which provides a systematic examination of the ways that daydreams, fairy tales and myths, popular culture, literature,’ and all forms of art contain emanicipatory moments. They project visions of a better life. This projection is enough, as it puts into question the organisation and structure of the social context in which it is made.
This impulse can also be found in philosophy, religion and also forms of social and political utopias – these utopian programmes contain within them utopian impulse.
And while much critical theory, particularly Marxist critique, will often dismiss both stories and utopian plans as nothing more than ideology, serving the needs of the ruling system, Bloch’s reading allows for the presence of something else, of a profound form of questioning, desire and emancipation.
So, utopian desire could be interpreted as a fundamental impulse. Rather than lapse into the everyday misuse of the word as a fantasized and unattainable ‘good place’, it is possible to l return the origins of the term utopia as ‘no place’.
Bloch, argues that utopia, or rather utopian impulse, exists in every future-orientated thought and action. For Bloch, utopia can be found in the overstepping of boundaries, in acts of hope and a desire for change, and is potentially inherent in any creative act.
Utopian impulse is certainly present in the comforting world of Moominvalley, there is yearning, hope, dreaming, wishing, longing, adventure, moments of fear, but ultimately protagonist and reader are comforted. In part, this is reinforced by a sense of distance, of nostalgia, an alterity that is perhaps temporal, perhaps evoking an imaginary past. So perhaps it is possible to think of Moominvalley as imbued with a loosely suggested sense of historical distance. More significantly, this is a world in miniature. And it is with temporal alterity, and the idea of a world in miniature in mind that I would like to start to consider Moominvalley in propinquity with Walter Benjamin.
Childhood was always near the surface of Benjamin’s thought. This can be detected in his explorations into the depths of his own childhood, retold as object lessons in hermeneutics, as well as in his fascination with children’s books, revealed in his essay Unpacking My Library and elsewhere. But it is his Arcades Project that I want to draw attention to here: an unfinished collection of fragments, functioning as a double text. Both history and political education, a kind of doubling that is common to children’s literature. The decaying arcades of Paris were Benjamin’s worlds in miniature, sites of a complex engagement with history, dream, wish and what was essentially an emancipatory philosophical practice. To him the world in miniature of the arcade was like a city, and this space of the city is for Benjamin the space of his own childhood, analogous to the interior domestic spaces of Proust. As Susan Buckmorss describes, for Benjamin, the covered shopping arcades of the nineteenth century were a central image because they were the material replica of the internal consciousness, or rather, the unconscious of the dreaming collective. The dreaming collective refers to an entire generation of subjects in nineteenth century Europe, Paris in particular, during the first half of the century. All of the errors of bourgeois consciousness could be found there (commodity fetishism, refication, the world as “inwardness”).
Moreover, the arcades were the first international style of modern architecture, hence part of the lived experience of a worldwide, metropolitan generation. Benjamin’s original conception for a study of the arcades was as a politicized version of Sleeping Beauty as a fairy tale of awakening”. Retold along Marxist lines, it was intended to “set free the huge powers of history that are asleep within the ‘once upon a time’ of classical historical narration.” Although he dropped the title “A Dialectical Fairy Scene” pretty quickly, he maintained his fascination with the motifs of “dreamworld” and dream image,” and the understanding of dialectics as” awakening” from a dream.
For Benjamin, childhood and dream experience are hard to separate. His is a dream theory that is divided by the childhood of an epoch, and of a generation. An individual is then placed at the intersection between collective history and personal history, society’s dream and childhood dream. And it is this intersection, I would like to suggest, that characterises the utopian forces at play in Moominvalley. It is a childlike history, a childlike dream, but Benjamin’s notion of childhood is not an inherently passive receptacle for the historical unconscious, but rather contains the possibility of awakening.
Susan Buckmorss’s reading of Benjamin here suggests that from the child’s position the whole span of history, from the most ancient to the most recent past, occurs in mythic time. No history recounts his or her lived experience. All of the past lies in an archaic realm.’ I’d like to think of Moominvalley as such an archaic realm, but what is made possible in this reading of Benjamin is that the cognitive experience of childhood reverses newness, progress and fashion: in short, the obfuscatory, ideological myths of capitalist modernity. The child can discover the new anew. ‘This discovery reinvests the objects with symbolic meaning and thus rescues for the collective memory their utopian signification.’
Benjamin was fascinated by myth, but adamant in his opposition to mythic thinking, to thought that is obscured by oppressive and illusory forms of ideology. One technique of resisting such illusion, or of breaking it, is the dialectical image, an interruptive crossing of two parts of a language code – namely text and image. It is akin to Benjamin’s call to politicise aesthetics in order to oppose fascism’s aestheticisation of politics. Jansson’s books seem happy to play with such an idea, to allow images to interrupt the text. The images are sometimes contained within an outlined rectangular frame, sometimes form a rectangle themselves through the deliniation of drawn marks within the image, or might just be comprised of one or more figures unaccompanied on the space of the page. It recalls a somewhat simplistic differentiation between passive spectatorship and active reading, but nevertheless Janssons’s illustrations suggest a generative entanglement between text and image.
These images have a quality of intimacy, or nearness. It is hard to place, but I would like to suggest this sense of nearness resonates with Ernst Bloch’s discussion of what he describes as ‘Still life composed of human beings (796). Bloch, whose accounts of utopia are shaped by a propinquity to Benjamin and the Arcades Project, evokes nearness in an image as an impression of being narrow, of the contraction of a small surface that makes a pleasantly comprehensible circle. An existence that could easily become musty in real life becomes strangely warm when presented as a painting, or in this case drawing. Bloch suggests that a content and pleasurable comfort can be found in this secure circle. Within this circle, maintained by our own efforts, life is not cramped but securely enclosed, exhibiting peaceful warmth. Bloch’s primary example is in Dutch interior painting. Nothing, he says, but everyday life is painted in the Dutch Genre picture, but for all its nearness it is also presented in just the same way as a sailor might see it from a distance when he thinks of home: as the small, sharp painting which bears homesickness within it.
I would like to suggest that Jansson’s imagery functions in the same way, and that the Moomin stories are quotidian narratives of an elsewhere, of a dreamworld, which despite its alterity still succeeds in evoking a yearning for this place. There is a homesickness for somewhere that is both outside of lived experience, but perhaps simultaneously a no-place that is intimately familiar. And both no-places, and children’s literature, allow for a metaphoric space in which escape and criticism co-exist. In an influential work on children’s literature - Alice to the Lighthouse: Children’s Books and Radical Experiments in Art - Juliet Dusinberre argues that some of the most radical ideas about the structures of society and forms of change might be in books written for a new generation. Dusinberre describes an absence of pointed moral, linear narrative direction, the abdication of author as preacher or pedagogue, and a making use of words as play, as medium. These are qualities that emerge in the latter half of the nineteenth century, from Lewis Carroll and E. Nesbit, to become a quality of Woolf’s generation of modernist writing. Cultural change was both reflected and pioneered in the books which children read. Radical experiments in modernist literature began in the books which Lewis Carroll and his successors wrote for children.’ And the role of authorship is particularly significant here. Lewis Carroll, when asked about the meaning of the Alice books, replied that meaning was to be decided by the reader. Dusinberre claims that in 1865 such an overtly spoken challenge to authorial mastery in the children’s book was unprecedented. The relocation of power in reader rather than in writer has since then become a central tenet of modern critical theory. So I’d like to place the Moomins in this tradition of radical experiment, as a form of ambiguous but ultimately liberating pedagogy. Dusinberre reminds us that Roland Barthes says the refusal to assign ‘an ultimate meaning to the text… liberates what may be called an anti theological activity, an activity that is truly revolutionary since to refuse to fix meaning is in the end, to refuse God and his logic – reason, science, law. This is an act of critical refusal that we might find in both Janssen and Benjamin.
But Ultimately, what I would like to put forward in discussing Benjamin and Jansson’s Moominvalley together is a resonant and generative affinity, rather than a convenient mapping of one upon the other. Jansson’s dreamworld is very much in the late-nineteenth century tradition described by Juliet Dusinberre, of radical experiment in which linear narrative direction, use of text and image as play emerge as medium. It is a tradition that, from a distance, Benjamin was also committed to. His is a philosophical, utopian form of discourse as experiment. Both were concerned with a concrete sense of pictorial and textual image as a tool for facilitating acts of awakening.