Or, a Prolegomenon to Myth Logic, Disney Style
This business of making it up as you go along, while it has its charm, also presents problems. Once lost in the bushes you might find your way back out by following the light breaking through the underbrush, but you might just wander even deeper into strange territory. Sometimes it pays to stop walking and to think.
That’s what I’m doing here. The first thing I want to do is to separate what I will call the core story from the costuming and sets used to present it. One cannot tell a proper story that is about only some being that is born and separated from its mother. It has to be some particular kind of being, whether a flea, an angel, or, in this case, an elephant.
So that’s what I do in the first section. The rest of the post is about the costumes and sets. My larger argument is that Dumbo is as much about the costumes and sets as it is about the emotions and actions in the core story.
The Core Story
goes like this:
1. An odd infant is delivered to its mother.
2. That infant is ridiculed by the mother’s companions but defended by mother, of course.
3. The infant is threatened by some other creature, and the mother punishes that creature.
4. That creature’s protectors separate the mother from her infant and lock her up. The infant is devastated.
5. The infant attracts a protector who defends him against mother’s erstwhile companions.
6. The infant then precipitates a disaster that injures mother’s companions and results in the infant being ostracized by said companions.
7. Infant visits mother and both are comforted.
8. Infant has a vision and is changed, discovering a new capacity that is rooted in the very oddness that caused all the trouble.
9. Infant triumphs and punishes mother’s companions.
10. Infant and mother are reunited and happy.
The Funny Animal Principle
In this particular story the infant, its mother, and her companions are elephants. There are other animals in the story, including a mouse, who becomes the infant’s mentor. There are also humans in the story. Though some of the humans play important roles, they are secondary to the elephants, the mouse, and some crows.
That’s strange, though there have been many such strange stories told. It’s strange because we are humans and we identify with those core animals as though they are humans.
I don’t know quite what to make of this conceit, common though it is. I can talk about its effects, indeed I have done so at some length, but that seems like talking around it without really getting at the heart of things.
For it is this conceit, this convention, that gives the story a metaphysical dimension that is not inherent in the core story. It’s that metaphysical dimension that I’m calling Myth Logic, as though that explains anything. It doesn’t, not yet anyhow.
However it works, let’s call it the Funny Animal Principle. When applied to a core story involving a small handful of key characters, the Funny Animal Principle extends that story from a merely personal one to one about the boundaries and nature of society. When told as a story about humans the core story doesn’t have this social resonance, not even when the humans are creatures of greater complexity and sophistication than the central characters of Dumbo. Apply the Funny Animal Principle, though, and voilà! instant society-wide amplification and resonance.
The Funny Animal Principle is about ontology, in that it exploits ontology as a cognitive construct (in particular, see The Great Chain of Being as Conceptual Structure). The Funny Animal Principle systematically violates the principles of ontological cognition. By violating that structure it is somehow able to imply the whole world that is implied by that structure. This conceit works because the ontological violation is transparent and conventional. No one comes away from a funny animal cartoon believing that animals can actually talk and expecting them to do so upon the next encounter.
I don’t know what will be required to deliver on the implications of the previous paragraph.
The characters in Dumbo can be arranged into three groups. First we have the characters who are not in the circus. This group includes the storks, the crows, and the members of the circus audience, including the boy who ridicules Dumbo.
The characters in the circus can be arranged into two groups, though it’s not clear how to do so. I want to put Dumbo, his mother, and Timothy Mouse in one group. And I want to put the roustabouts into that group as well. The other group includes the matron elephants, the ringmaster, the clowns and the animal handlers.
Can that division be made by defining a sorting criterion rather than simply by listing the characters in each group? Note that this division comes into being on account of Dumbo himself. That division is a consequence of his being odd. And that division disappears when Dumbo learns to fly and converts that ability into a successful circus act.
But, even when the circus is once again a united group, the crows are still outside that group. And what about the larger world organized around and implied by those Dumbo-styled high-tech bombers? That world is certainly outside the circus.
Myth Logic is about why Dumbo’s oddness brings that division into being and it is Myth Logic that dictates what must be done in order to dissolve that division. And it is Myth Logic that allows this core story, which takes place among characters within the circus, to reach out beyond the circus to society at large. It is society at large that validates Dumbo’s identity as a flying elephant.
Here I’m thinking about Pink Elephants on Parade. Superficially that episode seems unrelated to the rest of the story beyond the fact that, hey! it’s about elephants. And yet, as I have argued, it is thematically central to the story. I’m calling that apparent mismatch an aesthetic gap.
The idea is that artists as skilled and experienced as those at Disney do everything they can to make a story work seamlessly. If, nonetheless, they can’t quite pull it off and there’s something in the final film that sticks out like a sore thumb, it must be important to the story. So important that they included it even if they couldn’t figure out how to make it blend-in.
Disney is not the only artist who has such gaps. I first learned about them with Shakespeare. For example, one of his very finest plays, The Winter’s Tale, has a 16-year hole in the action between the third and fourth acts. And it achieves a happy ending when a statue is wheeled onto the stage and the statue comes alive. Can there possibly be a more clunky ending than that? And yet it works. The play is magical.
Well, so is Dumbo. Pink Elephants on Parade sticks out like a sore thumb, a very pink sore thumb. But it’s necessary. Without it Myth Logic would fall flat. With it, the film flies.
Transformation in Pink Elephants
At the moment I’m thinking that we need to look at transformation in Pink Elephants. We begin with simple and visible geometrical transformation, a bubble changes shape from a sphere to an elephant. And THEN it becomes pink, as though it had become ensouled.
Then stuff happens, including the hospital bed and, all of a sudden, we’re looking at this Orientalistic fantasy of a pseudo-elephant babe doing the hootchie-cootchie. Sex!—but in a plausibly deniable form (recall the veil-dance of the goldfish in Fantasia).
After this we focus on a pair of elephants, presumably one is male and one female. We follow them for awhile as they dance, skate, and ski. Is this courtship, albeit highly abstracted? Then they dance electric and SHAZAM! two become many. Reproduction? I think so, albeit highly abstracted.
And THEN, and only then do they—or at any rate, two elephants, exactly which two hardly matters—transform into machines: cars, trains, motorboats. This order is important, geometry first, then social relations (courtship and reproduction), and then geometry again, this time from elephants to cars.
It’s going to take a fair chunk of apparatus to pull that off. The crucial insight is that we’ve gone from a logic of physical appearance to a logic of social relations. There is this notion that comes out of the anthropological study of taboo (Lévi-Strauss, Mary Douglas, Valerio Valeri) and evolutionary psychology that social relations provides the richest ‘template’ for abstract thought. So—here comes the tap-dancing and hand-waving—if Disney wants to ‘insert’ machine age technology into a pre-machine world via Myth Logic, he’s got to tap into the logic of social relations to do so. For is not Myth Logic but the projection of human relations onto everything?
And Pink Elephants on Parade—in conjunction with the Funny Animals Principle—is Disney’s way of doing that projecting.
* * * * *
That’s what I think is going on. Now all I have to do is demonstrate it.