An A B C of Puerility: Anderson, Britten, Crane
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I. Boisterous Bourrée
What is puerility? Clearly, it is an artificial notion overelaborated into frigidity. Writers slip into this kind of thing through a desire to be unusual, elaborate, and above all, pleasing. They run aground on tawdriness and affectation. (6)
—Longinus, On Great Writing (On the Sublime)
Let’s abandon the pejorative dimension in the word “puerility” for a moment, the better to see what else it has to offer. In our casual usage, “puerile” means something like “sophomoric”: literally not only childish, but boyish, for a particular notion of what a “boy” is. Puerility makes everything into a game, even things that are not games, even things that must not be games. Puerility is detailed, nitpicky, often rulebound, but always in the service of play. Longinus detects a formal puerility in writing that evinces a desire to be pleasing. I might revise that: not so much a desire to be pleasing as to be fun.
Obviously, this is a review, of a kind, of Wes Anderson’s recent film Moonrise Kingdom.
II. Playful Pizzicato
There is hardly a more Foucauldian institution than the Boy Scouts—a most codified set of techniques of the self, each self a set of badges pinned to the uniform.
I saw Moonrise Kingdom the other night; the centrality of its “Khaki Scouts” highlights the way in which overinvestment in such systems conduces to tragicomedy, especially in Wes Anderson’s films—The Life Aquatic, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Rushmore function similarly.
Particularly notable to me are the juxtapositions of adults and children; there is often intergenerational buy-in. There is something truly hilarious about a group of boys taking their scouting very seriously. Funnier still is the truest true believer, the adult Scoutmaster Ward, who avers that being a scout master is his real job: “I teach math on the side.” But the boys’ and men’s beliefs exist in the same plane; Sam’s adorable self-importance as he gives Suzy camping tips (of very widely varying utility) is later validated by his scout master’s manner of offering sympathy: “I wish we’d had time for an inspection back there. I would have given you a Commendable.”
As ridiculous as the Khaki Scouts are, they are soon revealed to be no more ridiculous than the other disciplinary institutions that they mimic—the law, as figured by Suzy’s lawyer parents; the state, as figured by Social Services (Tilda Swinton, in some of the film’s most visually striking moments—of course); and perhaps the most absurd of them all, the police, as figured by Commander Sharp. In a climactic scene, all four avatars of systematized discipline bark into walkie-talkies attempting to sort out the proper placement of the two children, four criss-crossing domains of authority emblematized by five bewildered—but still entirely invested—adults. At the end, when Sharp agrees to foster the orphaned Sam, Sam switches out the Khaki Scouts uniform in which we have always seen him for a miniature police uniform. He has merely switched systems.
In Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf mocks men’s love of fancy dress by pointing to the pomp and circumstance of the military. Busby Berkeley’s Footlight Parade (1933) contains a military dance sequence (“Shanghai Lil”) that indeed quite undermines any distinction between the military and the Tiller Girls when it comes to examples of the mass ornament. What I am getting at is that there is a pettiness in these systems—and it is precisely the pettiness that interests Anderson—that we may identify as a form of puerility. It is “boyish” behavior, both highly elaborated and ridiculous, even if adults are frequently the originators of that puerility. (What is The Life Aquatic if not a story about a man playing with the people and things around him as if they were so many toys?) These are systems of play entered into for their own sake, and prioritized regardless of the consequences. (A pet dog is killed in one encounter; when confronted with this fact, Sam’s nemesis shrugs and says something to the effect that it can’t be helped; the dog is a casualty of war.)
Puerility and its powerful appeal—its necessity, even—is one of Anderson’s continual themes. Why do people invest themselves in ridiculous systems? When is such investment reprehensible? From what standpoint is one capable of distinguishing between puerility and grandeur of vision—or does any such distinction exist?
III. Sentimental Sarabande
Moonrise Kingdom‘s soundtrack is dominated by the works of the British composer Benjamin Britten. (Movie nerds will recognize the theme from his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra as the Rondeau from Henry Purcell’s Abdelazar, which was adapted (quite effectively, for solo violin) for a key scene in The Lesser Adaptation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.)
|“I’m a raven.”|
The amateur production of Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, staged in a local church and replete with children dressed as animals, is, like the Khaki Scouts, its own kind of child-adult collusion in overenthusiasm. Suzy is a failed raven just as Sam is a failed Khaki Scout, failed on social grounds rather than out of incompetence. It is a “play” that is taken utterly seriously, especially by the grown-ups (like the one who demotes Suzy from her raven role). Play taken too seriously, or serious enterprises (like child care) rendered all too game-like (as when the best scout of all, Scoutmaster Ward, manages to lose first Sam, then the rest of the troop), continually threaten happiness. The only possible resistance is yet another system, an alternative game, a union between Sam’s wilderness skills and Suzy’s fantasy world, the game of their private Moonrise Kingdom.
Thus when all the other social systems of discipline converge, they do so at the church, in the midst of Noye’s Fludde, in order to escape the actual flooding outside.
Britten is a serious, even difficult composer who has, when you think about it, written a great deal for children—both child audiences and child performers. He’s especially known as a composer of liturgical music in a tradition famous for its boy choristers; it seems almost overdetermined that he did an operatic adaptation of The Turn of the Screw. I couldn’t help noticing a movement from his Simple Symphony when it appeared in the film—a movement tellingly titled “Playful Pizzicato”—I’d played it as a child, after all. Using childish sounds—”playful” pizzicato (plucked strings), glockenspiels, high-pitched child voices, and at times almost comical bombast (including in the didactic Young Person’s Guide)—Britten proffers Middle English texts and challenging harmonies. Thus, within the world of the film, his music marks the oscillations between “too easy” and “too hard” that marks every educational pursuit, every system for cultivating the self.
Anderson’s own oeuvre, so often described in the terms of miniatures and toys (and including an animated adaptation of a children’s book, Roald Dahl’s 1970 Fantastic Mister Fox) aspires to similar comminglings. In Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson focalizes childhood as a site of real difficulty, one whose difficulties are not discontinuous with those of adulthood, and indeed, one whose difficulties are most adult when they reside in the domain of play.
Suzy lugs a suitcase of stolen library books through the wilderness, imaginative resources for building a private universe. Her fictions are bulwarks against the flood.
IV. Frolicsome Finale
Stephen Crane is a master of the particular version of puerility; I think in particular of the Whilomville story “Lynx-Hunting,” in which a group of Whilomville boys, led by Jimmie Trescott, stolidly defend the town against a grazing cow.
Crane, too, is continually said to work in miniatures; thus Michael Fried reads the final scene in The Monster as a scene of “reading painfully what has already been written, with the stove representing a domesticated (in effect miniaturized) version of the catastrophic fire” (142). Indeed, Fried argues, “two opposing tendencies, one toward miniaturization and the other toward a certain monstrosity, coinhabit Crane’s prose” (141). The same could be, and has been, said of Wes Anderson’s filmmaking.
This brings us back to Noye’s Fludde, the systematized, aestheticized miniature of the real flood happening outside, which in the film takes on the cosmic significance of the Noah’s Flood, the narrator going into some detail about its historic devastation. At a certain point the real flood takes precedence over everything else, disrupting Noye’s Fludde and revealing every system as miniature, as diminutive.
Such moments appear in Crane as well. In The Material Unconscious, Bill Brown addresses Crane’s poetry only once, in order to reveal the dimension of childish play latent in “The Open Boat”:
The ocean speaks the lines of the poem, asking that the weeping woman on shore be told that her lover is dead: “Her lover I have laid/ In cool green hall.” The second and final stanza supplements the message:
“Tell her this
“That the king of the seas
“Weeps too, old, helpless man.
“The bustling fates
“Heap his hands with corpses
“until he stands like a child
“With Surplus of toys.” (W, 10:22)
The lines intimate an understanding of life and death that would make the entirety of “The Open Boat” intelligible as “play”…. (Brown 123-4)
The great fear is that there is no end to this regress, that there are, indeed, no grown-ups in the room. Not only are all the adults invested in miniature systems; the Cosmic Adults are so many babies as well, pulling the heads off dolls.
Thus in Crane’s story “Death and the Child,” the unaware toddler playing on a mountaintop, accidentally abandoned by the evacuating villagers, is possessed of a godlike perspective on the battle below. To him the action looks like a doodle, “fantastic smoky shapes” and “white circles and whirligigs” and “lines of flame” (Crane 962). When young Peza, foolishly overeager for battle, reaches the mountaintop and finds himself face to face with this baby, it is the baby who is in a position to inquire, “Are you a man?”
Of course, we don’t quite have the same fear that gods are babies in Anderson’s films. The weather exerts its whims, but there is always ultimately a grown-up chaperoning things—Anderson himself. The craftedness of his miniatures remind us that somebody has things under control.
That that register of control—the aesthetic—is the same register as that of the miniature, e.g. the church production of Noye’s Fludde, however, may give us a moment’s pause. In the end this film is deeply sympathetic to the ridiculous seriousness with which children and especially adults invest their play. For in the film, aesthetic satisfaction appears to be the only available site of even fictive shelter. One can but work on that production of Noye’s Fludde, or pull a crisis back into the realm of Khaki Scouting by inspecting the camp and issuing a Commendable.
As Crane writes in Black Riders:
If there is a witness to my little life,
To my tiny throes and struggles,
He sees a fool;
And it is not fine for gods to menace fools. (Crane 1303)
Brown, Bill. The Material Unconscious: American Amusement, Stephen Crane & the Economies of Play. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1996. Print.
Crane, Stephen. Prose and Poetry: Maggie: A Girl of the Street; The Red Badge of Courage; Stories, Sketches and Journalism; Poetry. Ed. J. C. Levenson. New York, N.Y: Library of America, 1984. Print. The Library of America 18.
Fried, Michael. Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane. Paperback ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. Print.
Kracauer, Siegfried. “The Mass Ornament.” The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1995. Print.
Longinus. On Great Writing (On the Sublime). Trans. G. M. A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966. Print.