Monday, November 11, 2013

Freud Does Disney

Pastoral spiral3

I've now created a working paper out of two long posts offering psychoanalytic insights into Fantasia and Dumbo. The SSRN link is here. Abstract and introduction are below.
Abstract: Dumbo tells a coming of age story about a young elephant who must gain psychological independence from his mother; Fantasia consists of eight episodes on various subjects, but they are strung together with the image of the conductor, Leopold Stokowski, and his (famous) hands. Two of the episodes (Nutcracker Suite and Night on Bald Mountain) dramatize the use of hands in controlling the actions of others. I elaborate on these issues using the psychoanalytic work of Erik Erikson, Ernst Kris, John Bowlby, and Norman Holland and introduce material on the neuropsychology of motor control.
Unity of Being in Disney?

I wrote the two essays in this working paper while heading toward a post on “Unity of Being in Fantasia and Dumbo.” But I’ve not gotten there yet, not do I intend to jam that paper into these introductory remarks. But I’ll WILL try to explain why I wanted to write that paper and why I had to write these two pieces on the way there.

The phrase is obviously philosophical, and I am using it as such, but I have no particular doctrine attached to it. The Wikipedia tells me it is of Sufi originWahdat al-Wujud – but I claim no specific Sufi influence beyond having read, and taken seriously, a bunch of Idries Shah’s Nasrudin stories back in the 1960s and 1970s. I have adopted the phrase because I find its connotations and implications useful. If my use in fact is consistent with Sufi tradition, give credit there. If my use differs considerably, I mean no disrespect.

I adopted the term while I was working out a philosophical scheme inspired by Bruno Latour, Paul Feyerabend, and Graham Harman, among others. I needed a way to distinguish between two kinds of literary criticism. The kind I’m most interested in for myself I’ve come to call naturalist criticism. The aim of naturalist criticism is objective knowledge of literature, and film as well, and of any other aesthetic object.

What do I call the other kind of criticism and what’s it about? Well, Rohan Maitzen, a colleague of mine from The Valve, brought Wayne Booth’s The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction to my attention and he gave me a term for the other kind of criticism, ethical criticism. Unity of being is what ethical criticism is about. If beauty is what art is about, then the aim of works of art is to bring about unity of being in people who apprehend those works.

Unity of being is the goal of art. When it works in you, you experience unity of being. Unity of being is a phenomenon within the world which I, as a naturalist critic, study. Of course I, as a person, am not always being a naturalist critic, or even an intellectual. Much of the time I’m just a regular guy, making my way in the world as best I can. As a regular guy unity of being is important to me as the “envelope” of the art I enjoy, whether that art is created by others or whether it is my own. But once I go into the phone booth, if you will, and shed my regular guy clothes in favor of my naturalist critic uniform, unity of being recedes from my world, which is now dominated by whatever criteria determine intellectual validity and viability.

* * * * *

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is often portrayed in the shape of a pyramid with the largest, most fundamental levels of needs at the bottom and the need for self-actualization at the top. … The most fundamental and basic four layers of the pyramid contain what Maslow called "deficiency needs" or "d-needs": esteem, friendship and love, security, and physical needs. If these "deficiency needs" are not met – with the exception of the most fundamental (physiological) need – there may not be a physical indication, but the individual will feel anxious and tense. Maslow's theory suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher level needs.
Though Maslow, to my knowledge, never himself talked of the need for unity of being, that does seem like the sort of thing he was after in talking of those higher level needs.

It is abundantly clear to me, however, that unity of being must therefor be culturally specific. Disney and his crew created films that brought about unity of being in them. Those films were successful because they brought about unity of being in a large and international audience. But we cannot consider the values embodied in those films to be universal. They are of a certain time and place, a place that happens to be physically dispersed around the globe and a time that is slipping into the past at an undetermined rate.

The aim of an ethical critic is to articulate the way in which particular works of art achieve unity of being, or fail to do so, in their audience. The aim of a naturalist critic is, first of all, to create an accurate description of works of art. Then, working within those descriptive boundaries, the critic attempts to explain how those works, well, you know, afford people the opportunity to achieve unity of being.

To do that requires one to have some explicit statement of what unity of being is, a statement that is specific to the cultural milieu in which that work functions. What serves as unity of being for Disney and his audience is not necessarily the same as what served for Shakespeare and his contemporary audience, though there is a one-way historical relationship between the two.

What, then, was unity of being for Disney (and his artists, staff, and audience)?

I don’t know, I’m not even sure of just what words and concepts we need to express that. Whatever it is, it is something that exists in the world that I, as a naturalist critic, must examine and seek to understand.

But, if I can’t simply pull an account of unity-of-being-for-Disney out of the conceptual air, perhaps I can hope to reverse engineer it by examining movies that (apparently) met the criterion, with Fantasia and Dumbo serving as two examples. I chose those films because, like “Kubla Khan” and “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison”, they are distinctly different. Dumbo, like “Lime-Tree Bower” is organized as a narrative. Fantasia, like “Kubla Khan”, is organized along different lines. They are so different, in fact, that one wonders whether or not a single unity criterion can cover both cases in each pair (two by Disney and two by Coleridge).

But at this stage of the game that question isn’t an urgent one. It can wait.

As for Freud, as I explain in the appendix, as far as I can tell, for a certain range of issues, (some version of) psychoanalysis is the best conceptual tell we’ve got. It’s particularly important in the context of something being called “unity of being” as Freud is generally regarded as having shattered any illusions of personal unity by positing an unconscious that simply won’t listen to reason and do what its told. That’s why psychoanalysis has proven so fruitful for aesthetic analysis. Art won’t do what it’s told either. Art is, in some sense, a rapprochement between the conscious and the unconscious mind. Whatever unity of being is about – for given culture – it is about that rapprochement.

That is why I had to write these two pieces, one about attachment and personal growth in Dumbo, and the other about control, manual control, in Fantasia. As for formulating that account of unity of being in Disney, that can wait. All in good time.


  1. I enjoyed that. Having been the 'victim' of receiving a slap stick pie in the face I can't help noting the similarity to the substance used in comedy pie throwing with that experienced by Dumbo in the tub.

    I am not a fan of single answers so not suggesting error but I wonder if the theme of consumption is also at play in relation to classification and Dumbo's status.

    He is in the pie but very clearly not an animal to be consumed. His ambiguous status being played with in the gag, which may be based on deceit and disguising one substance for another.

  2. Certainly, ambiguity is in play. That's part of the underlying reason for centering cartoons around animals. They appear as (highly stylized) animals, but act and TALK like (highly stylized) people. Except for Roadrunner and Wile Coyote, who never talked, not once. The they sometimes scrawled a message or two.