Monday, January 18, 2016

"Serve Him with mirth"

Several of the books on that shelf in the last post are by Russell Kirk. His Enemies of the Permanent Things: Observations of Abnormality in Literature and Politics is a collection of previously published material, revised and integrated. From Chapter V, "Rediscovering Norms Through Fantasy," in which he discusses several authors, including J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and, here, Ray Bradbury:
Ray Bradbury
.... Bradbury['s]...real concerns are the soul and the moral imagination. When the boy-hero of Dandelion Wine, in an abrupt mystical experience, is seized almost bodily by the glowing consciousness that he is really alive, we glimpse that mystery the soul. When, in Something Wicked This Way Comes, the lightning-rod salesman is reduced magically to an idiot dwarf because all his life he had fled from perilous responsibility, we know the moral imagination. ....

The moral imagination is the principal possession that man does not share with the beasts. It is man's power to perceive ethical truth, abiding law, in the seeming chaos of many events. Without the moral imagination, man would live merely from day to day, or rather moment to moment, as dogs do. It is the strange faculty—inexplicable if men are assumed to have an animal nature only—of discerning greatness, justice, and order, beyond the bars of appetite and self-interest. ....

...[N]o recent writer is more buoyed up by the ebullient spirit of youth, and none more popular with intelligent young readers. Probably no one ever has written so understandingly of twelve and thirteen-year-old boys as Bradbury does repeatedly, particularly in Dandelion Wine, with its prosaic-romantic setting of Waukegan, Illinois (Bradbury's birthplace) and a thousand other American towns about 1928. Perpetual youth, and therefore perpetual hope, defy in Bradbury's pages the fatigue of this century and the ambitions of exploiting scientism.

If spirits in prison, still we are spirits; if able to besmirch ourselves, still only we men are capable of moral choices. Life and technology are what we make of them, and the failure of man to live in harmony with nature is the failure of moral imagination. That failure is not inevitable. ....

...Ray Bradbury discovers the same ancient truths beneath the surface of existence, in Waukegan, Illinois, say, about 1928. The outer life of good and evil in an American town is described in Dandelion Wine; the subterranean, inner reality, in Something Wicked This Way Comes.

A carnival comes to a small town; and two boys, thirteen years old, Jim and Will, are fascinated by it. But this particular carnival is not merry. Its master is the Illustrated Man, Mr. Dark, seeking whom he may devour. His captive freaks are sinners whose monstrous bodies are the personifications of their sins. His carousel, running forward or backward at great speed, will give human beings their desire of youth regained or age attained and send the iron into their souls. His Mirror Maze will entrap the folk who seek what is not in nature, and will convert them into caricatures of themselves. Mademoiselle Tarot, the Dust Witch, can murder with a whisper. For centuries, preying upon frailty and folly, this carnival has wandered the world, its proprietors setting their snares for the unwise and the unwary, and often with success.

Only one man in town Will's father, the library janitor, growing old, recognizes the carnival for what it is. The carnival is not Death. "But I think it uses Death as a threat," says Charles Halloway, the janitor, to the terrified boys. ....

Yet one power is stronger than the temptations and threats of the carnival; and that power is laughter. ...Evil, after all, is ludicrous; and though God is not mocked, those creatures who batten upon tormented souls are aghast at healthy mockery.

Just when all had semed lost, Halloway and the boys destroy the carnival by mirth. But other creatures who prey upon warped souls will come to town presently, in some other disguise, and the fools who want everything will become their freaks. ....
Russell Kirk, Enemies of the permanent things: Observations of abnormality in literature and politics, Arlington House, 1969.