Tuesday, September 20, 2005

All Pigs Is Equal

There's a fairly large proportion of "new" children's books aimed at the under-3 set that are illustrated versions of nursery rhymes or kiddie songs. I strongly suspect this is for a combination of two reasons: first, the story's in the public domain, so there's no tricky creative problem of thinking up an original idea or possibly being sued by another author. One rather thinks that there's a diminishing return on new ideas in this literary space, anyway, since the kids have never heard the stories before; the cry for novelty, the emergence of boredom, and the demands of being fashionable have to wait until a kid is at least five or six. At least until they've run through the canon. The other reason, obviously, is that the story is pre-marketed. Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt Ethel, etcetera, all know "Old McDonald" already, so they just need to be sold on the version: some cutesy artistic style, or a drawing that's evocative of something else that will trigger that buying decision. (If it seems like I'm cynically imputing pure avarice and sales to the authors' selection of a text for their books, I'm not; I'm making a factual assumption about publishers who select authors for publication.)

Parenthetically, note I didn't mention fairy tales: the fairy tale seems to be absent from the early early childhood reader, or present only in extremely watered-down versions. The fairy tale requires some narrative sophistication from the tot to figure out how Goldilocks might get from table to bed, to provide a backstory to why she's in the woods, and so forth. Further, since most fairy tales have rather grisly implications or outright twists to them, it requires the buying audience not be offeneded. To that end, the re-use of classic folk tales takes on two variants, neither of which is necessarily a good thing for the literary tot. The first is the bowdlerization of the tale in favor of sensitivy, self-esteem, or whatever childhood development trend is deking publishers and parents into mediocre tameness. Case in point: in the library some months ago, I happened across a version of "The Three Little Pigs" that had a friendly wolf; I think the pigs and the wolf all sat down, ate hummus, and sang kumbaya at the end of it. The threat of destruction, being eaten, and the retribution of the victims towards the aggressor at the end, of course, is all absent. The three pigs and the wolf might just as well have come out of the same bottle in the 'Brave New World' Universe for all the differences they seemed to have. Don't get me started about where conflict resolution techniques might enterer into it. The other trend towards novelty, by the way, is a form of cultural imperialism that some might call diversification: using the myths and folktales of other cultures. This is not entirely a bad thing, as at least it provides education and novelty for the parent. Although the question in the world of the monomyth, of course, is the same as why college curricula may or may not wish to continue to teach the works of dead heterosexual men from the power elite. My son has a very charming little book from some Inuit cultural standpoint called "Mama, Do You Love Me?" (which we've read in both English and Spanish), in which the mother provides all these great ripostes to the kid's challenge of what-ifs: e.g., what if I turned into a walrus, would you still love me? The mom uses umiaks and mukluks and all sorts of culturally-significant iconifiers to answer the question, over and over, I'm going to love you no matter what, even if you become a man-eating serial killer (polar bear, orca, whatever). My question in reading this to my own kid is: well, that's cool, but is my kid learning about other cultures or being hopelessly confused by having completely alien objects to illustrate common emotional concepts? Although, honestly, it doesn't bother me, since I'm of the opinion that any reading is good reading and being able to dive into alien worlds is one of the best things about the literary life at any age. In any event, to get back to my main example, this particular 'Three Little Pigs' book was marketed to the pre-schooler (the current term for a kid between the toddling years and kindergarten, if you're not familiar with marketing niches for kids) so the discussion of the fairy tale will have to wait for a couple of years when my kid is old enough. We're talking right now about just nursery rhymes and old songs that are re-re-recyled into children's books.

I will digress away again for a moment and tell you I love bacon. It tastes great, and cooked pig in all its forms is mighty fine food. At one point, though, I gave up the flesh of the swine for a number of years. It wasn't (at the time) for any particular health concern. It was because I read an article about some reasearchers who had taught pigs how to play video games. They were trying to learn something about porcine cognitive functions, presumably so they could figure out how pigs could be research subjects for the usual gamut of human conceptual and cognitive research topics in psychology, neurology, etc. They did the usual thing of starting out the pigs with a food reward, but discovered after the pigs had learned the "rules" of this game (it was sort of, I gather, a form of Pig Pac-Man, where the pigs had to negotiate a character through a maze using their snouts on joy-sticks, and if they completed a level they'd get some food), that the pigs would play whether or not they got a food reward. (This has, of course, been exploited by the PETA crowd as more 'evidence' of some kind of higher moral character due to the higher cognitive function, as if having more cognition among the animal kingdom was some kind of special qualifier for not being eaten. On the contrary, one sees a definite correlation between higher cognitive function and cruelty.) In any event, PETA or no PETA, the idea that an animal that would play something for fun's sake, for some reason, really took to me, and I became weirded out by the idea of eating pig meat. I think it was the same way I don't want to eat dog or monkey, because they like to chase balls and masturbate, to no apparent purpose except self-gratification, among other qualities -- just like us! And we don't eat one another, do we, except under special circumtanxes, like Andean air crashes, or symbolically, like the Eucharist. (Rather coincidentally, my wife's cousin apparently saw the same study and gave up pork, too, for a similar reason...for a while.)

Then, after some years had passed, I came across a history of the US Civil War that touched on the quick burials of the massive numbers of dead after some battles. The corpses had to be covered with only an inch or two of dirt as a temporary expedient until more regular burial could be accomplished. One significant problem in those days when the battleas were fought largely in open fields and in farm country was...well, livestock getting at the bodies. Specifically, it turns out pigs really enjoy the taste of human flesh, and ate the corpses with gusto, using those video-game-playing snouts to get through the top layer of soil. (The cemetary at Gettysburg -- you know, at the dedication of which Lincoln gave the Gettysbureg Address -- was the permanent cemetary, set up to avoid the pig problem.) And I say they prefer human flesh, because I've subsequently learned that dumping corpses on pig farms is a preferred method of disposing of the murder victims of organized crime in certain parts of the world.

So, my feeling since then, is: I better get the pigs before they get to me. Higher cognitive function be damned. Which leads me back to the thought" how ever did I get this vision of the pig as a creature whou wouldn't eat me, given a chance? Nature suggests that you're either a candidate for another species' dinner, or vice versa. Domesticated animals we've merely formalized a sort of biologicsl social contract with, in which they reproduce and live for fixed periods of time, rather than the rather random intervals and lifespans more typical of predator-prey relationships.

Why, the litrary canon of the nursery, of course. It's full of anthropomorphized talking animals who wear pants, talk on the telephone, hug their babies, and do similarly unlikely things. It is, after all, fiction -- as it turns out, virtually all science fiction when you stop and think about it. We raise each generation on "The Island of Dr. Moreau", filtered these days through progressively diluted characters marketed by Happy Meal merchandising tie-ins.

So my son has about five versions of "This Little Piggy", illustrated in a variety of ways, virtually all of them pretty happy. I suspect the "This Little Piggy" rhyme, like a lot of the rhymes and songs from the English folk canon, has its origins in some socio-political upheaval of 500 or 1000 years ago (you know, 'Ring Around the Rosy', 'Mary Had a Little Lamb', etc.) Who knows what a 'piggy' actually was when this rhyme was invented, literally or metaphorically? I don't. Told in the oral trradition, "This Little Piggy" is mysterious indeed. My earliest understanding, best as I can recoolect, was that 'Piggy' was just a synonym for 'toe'; but if you read any of my son's books, the conceit of illustration has turned all these piggies into literal domesticated but fully anthropomorphized pigs. The strangeness of what the market was (the pre-destination for a pig to the slaughter?) and the luck of the draw of life as to which one dies or 'stays home' is replaced by the confusing literalness og Pig 1 doing the grocery shopping, and Pig 2 under the bed covers with a thermometer in its mouth and a box of Kleenex (tm) on the bedside table. The question of why a pig would want to eat roast beef -- the carcass of a fellow barnyard animal -- and why another pig might get none is answered: one piggy likes the company of the diner, while another pig simply prefers peas ( "Good for Piggies!" says the label of the can.) Pig #4 doesn't even go hungry! Finally, in varoius versions we have, Pig No. 5 goes "weee wee wee!" all thw way home because (1) he is riding his tricycle, (2) he is happy to be out of school, and (3) he and another piggy (pig No. 6?) are playing hide and go seek with -- a wolf! They're having fun -- they're not in dire peril of being eaten, nor are they as the original rhyme rather suggests, beating a cowardly retreat. Nowhere, in any illustrated version, are there any human toes being wiggled. These books, exquisitely, are randomized metaphors without any actual symbolism -- anti-metaphors in a way. By being illustrated, they become oddly literal, picking at guessed meanings that neither make any sense nor produce mystery. In this sense, I think perhaps my son's conception about the five little piggies, like his future conception about the three little pigs and the big bad wolf, may end up being a bit less quixotic and puzzling than mine, but that also means his ability to create meaning between those odd spaces of the tale will be hobbled. What other rhymes and songs that will remain as spoken and song lore, and which will be marred -- perhaps ruined? by reading the picture books, time will tell. I do know that in some instances, "reading" a book may in fact be a poorer literary act than simply learning the story by word of mouth. God help us all if my son learns alternative words to "Popeye the Sailor Man" or "The Colonel Bogey March" via some illustrated book instead of the way the creator intended him to, that is, on the playground. I don't know where he's going to get the idea that pigs are, in fact, vengeful creatures intent on homicide, or even the idea that wolves eat meat, reading the kiddie books out there. Give me the flesh of flesh-eating swine. Then again, I myself had many misconceptions about pigs from the old stories, such as, just because they like to play video games is a reason I shouldn't eat them even though they'd eat me in a heartbeat if they could.

"Some Pig!" as the Bard once wrote. Actually, it's one of the best parts of "Charlotte's Web" -- Wilbur the Pig is spared the butcher's block through Charlotte's flim-flammerry -- but Charlotte dies in the end, anyway (and her children, most probably, ate her corpse.) I can hardly wait until my son is old enough to read the book and digest the implicit horrors. That is, if the digitally re-touched version hasn't supplanted it by then...

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