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Fairy Tales for the Disillusioned

By Richard Marshall.

Fairy Tales for the Disillusioned: Enchanted Stories from the French Decadent tradition. Oddly Modern Fairy Tales. Edited by Gretchen Schultz and Lewis Seifert/ Princeton, 2016.

Pierre Veber’s ‘The Last Fairy’ includes an advert: ‘Get eternal youth with Z cream…’ It’s a version of our impassible contemporary world, all its freights, crew and cargo, where even champagne feels like prison water. A sensibility that grew out of the 19th century and the chaos of France: its perpetual revolution, regime change, two empires, two monarchies, three republics – these are this time’s fairy stories, and so ours too in a certain mood. Decadent fairy stories were popular between 1870 and 1914 and have been told ever after, versions of ourselves as ‘… diminished and more unhappy than before, because they have understood that mankind has succeeded in conquering supreme magic, and that there is no longer a place for fairies in the modern world.’ This is a beautiful book that features a wide range of decadent fairy tales from France that fills a large gap in English readers’ access to such texts. Gretchen Schultz and Lewis Seifert have done a wonderful job in bringing these together in what is increasingly becoming essential, the great Jack Zipes’ ‘Oddly Modern Fairy Tales’ series.

The conte de fees appeared from the late 17th century to the Revolution and were aimed at adult readers. New versions of the familiar fairy stories appeared via writers such as George Sand, translations of the Grimms and Anderson, opera adaptions by Offenbach and Dukas, the films of Melies and so forth. A burgeoning children’s literature made Puss N Boots, Cinderella, Red Riding Hood etc ubiquitous and so distortion, perversion and deliberate tinkering with them became an effective vehicle for agendas political, social and aesthetic. So, for example, Charles Perrault’s ‘ Stories or Tales of Yesteryear’ of 1697, became mistranslated deliberately so that ‘spectre de la rose’ became ‘ spectrum of rose’ on wet nights, and the mood and atmosphere changes just like that. The innocence and enchantments of flowers were translated into something much more wild, sexual and violent in these writings. In Rachilde’s ‘The Mortis’ everyone becomes ‘… larval men wrapped in filthy rags, creatures struck with vertigo who spun faintly before dropping to the ground. Roses repopulated the deserted city. They came to life tumultuously, rushing forward with heads knocking together like troops of children in love with ruins for the disorder they provide. They were no longer bouquets, but rather gangs…’

What drove this was a refined, desperate, reactionary and anti-modern, usually religious sensibility that asked in all seriousness sequences such as: ‘Who hasn’t dreamt of dying gloriously at the Battle of the Dunes casting dice upon a drum, smithereened by a cannonball? Of receiving inheritances from cousins of Outarde? Gazed on towers ruined on orders from Richelieu, pale and quaking, as if a dream without rain would not be anything less than an absolutist craving for rain as charm?’You get the gist. Here gravity is of the order of ‘an ogleful of tears’, a crooked homage to the gulf between the here and the light of an aristocratic beam of eternity, a hungered nice little whimper of the mystic strange and exalted death of a wronged Bluebeard by treacherous Pierre and Cosme, those two with him a syzygetic threesome who ‘… ran their swords through his body from behind and continued to strike at him long after he had breathed his last.’ It’s an imagination that tends towards a truncated and perverted version of what has been lost.So here the version of Bluebeard takes this infamous character from a different perspective where everything points to something else and gestures beyond itself to something which stands in its place not in allegorical glory but as a form of post truth realism. It’s a cavalier attempt that criminalises the wives, working like the uncanny feeling Freud’s wolfman feels witnessing the beating of horses, the same guy who asks Ninya whether God has an arse. It is the conquest of intellectual modernity filtered through some wild supreme magic and the queasy yellow of lost absolutism.

This is the imagination of the decadent movement in France reacting to the Third Republic (1870- 1940), the flames of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and the Paris Commune of 1871. Devastating losses to Prussia, rapidly evolving class powers, the entrance of women to the workforce were all seen as the start of the last events of last times. Decadent fairy stories were squibs of savage irony in the face of fierce modernist mortality. Labour movements, women’s rights, education for girls and marriage, all these reforms were threats and forced the aristocratic imagination to go backhanded against the shift. Anticlerical ressentement pressed a right royal ‘auf dem Tisch’ ie show your hand, commit yourself to the way back to the ancient forests. Republican secularism led to a secular state by 1905 and Auguste Compte and positivism. Science and progress. Darwin and evolution, modernity, railroads, automation, electricity, medicine and Louis Pasteur’s germ theory, photography, x rays, transatlantic ocean travel, automobiles, the telegraph, these all contributed to an episode of personal engulfment for the ancient regime that lay nakedly exposed, doomed and confined without sanctuary before the influx. The crisis was a very real thing, though cast in terms of a very particular social setting, that of an Absolutist French Enlightenment in contrast to the Scottish Enlightenment across the channel which, sans Absolutism, responded differently. But Aristocrats and Positivists both were aware of the link between knowing and being, and the vernacular of life resists translation into any sacred new modern language of truth. The question for Positivism was what had humanism of any kind got to offer in terms of truth and for the Absolutist they too saw how Positivism eroded a link that sanctified their powers and privileges. Both saw that no matter how we live and what we seem to need to do so, nothing of that linked with science and what was actually true. How the world really is and how we dwell in it were rightly seen by both Positivists and Aristocrats as irrevocably irreconcilable. The enchantments we live by are condemned as false by science and the disenchantment leaves us as exiles. This cognitive and sociological exile is the modern predicament and is the predicament shaping these fairy stories of the disillusioned.

The writers of these stories were serious and faced up to the crisis in their stories, posing the issue in terms of the end of fairies and fantasy worlds, but knowing that a whole new social order was being built out of the ruins of enchantments. So Ernest Renan recognized that ‘ … the richness of the marvelous endures up until the incontrovertible advent of the scientific age’ and Goyau wrote that ‘railways… put fairies to flight.’ Naturalism, hyperrealism, scientific approaches to literature championed by Zola required no irrationality, no talking animals, no naivety and wondrous didacticism. Science fiction such as that developed by Jules Verne worked with the acknowledgement that; ‘The good fairies of yesteryear are no longer among us… There is only one remaining today: the fairy Electricity, whose godson Jules Verne might well have been.’ Jean Lorrain wrote that the ‘… children of this generation read Jules Verne rather than Perrault,’ and as we noted at the start, Pierre Veber’s ‘The Last Fairy’ showed that any real fairies were now outperformed by technology.

The Decadence movement literally was a move to ‘to fall away’ from this. It was politically conservative, harking back to the lost Absolutism of an Aristocratic Ancien Regime but was nevertheless aesthetically radical. Philippe Jullian wrote that decadence ‘… responds to the profound need for a change of scene; their magic wand is a protest against Edison’s discoveries.’ These decadent writers looked back to classic fairy tales. The stories are more perversions than revisions where villains relate their version of tales against the original victims. They challenge the seriousness and authority of Perrault using mocking ironical voices. They also, as might be expected from their politically reactionary standpoint, ignored the women writers who had dominated the 17th century vogue for fairy stories. All the writers collected here are men. They also referenced other traditions beyond Perrault such as Arthurian legend and fantastic literature. The fantastic according to Tzvetan Todorov ‘is predicated on a narrative hesitation about the reality of seemingly supernatural events’ and this reminds me of Beckett’s letter to Axel Kaun on Beethoven’s seventh symphony being a ‘ sound surface torn by enormous pauses.’ Decadent writers used this hesitation to realign and reset their tales, tearing holes in the original stories as if rending them strictly to their shattered other side, jazzier and mirrored.

These decadent writers invented new characters too. So we have fairies as endangered species, and the maladapted but artistically refined protagonist of the kind found in Joris-Karl Huysmann’s ‘A Rebours’ 1884 and its protagonist Des Esseintes and the weird surrealism of Fantomas in both the books and Ernst Moerman’s silent film. ‘The Mortis’ by Rachilde which I quoted above has a character ‘the last of his clan.’ Daudet’s ‘The Fairies of France’ shows us the last fairy as an angry incendiary that modern rationality killed off. Veber wrote: ‘there is no longer a place for fairies in the modern world’ and Mendes commented that ‘ men and women had become too wise to require the help of a little fairy.’ Laboulaye wrote, “ When we were children… we were given fairy tales at the new year for our amusement…this no longer happens today. Fairy tales have acquired immense importance in literature. Now they have a genealogy or a history, like the great seigneurs. There is a geography, an astronomy, a zoology, and soon there will be a philosophy and a religion of fairy tales.’ The lean and slippered fairy Narcissus became bracketed, and it was felt that ‘the wittier the man, the more artless and tedious his tales.’

In the decadent tales fairies are affected by industrialization so that ‘… there were no longer many fairies in the region since the ravages of the war, industry, and the attentive care of the government had cleared their forests.’ Simple folks no longer believed. In the decadent literature ‘the marvellous becomes a means by which the decadent fairy tale casts a critical gaze on modern existence.’ In Willy’s ‘ Fairy Tales for the Disillusioned’ we find ‘there are no good fairies: the bad fairies killed them off long ago. ’ Bad magic also illustrates the crisis of masculinity of the time: in Arenes’ ‘The Ogresses’ we have a painter who falls in love with and is a victim of the Ogresses’ seven daughters. As mentioned above Bluebeard becomes a victim of scheming wives. A century before Margaret Atwood, AS Byatt, Angela Carter decadent fairy tales upended sexual stereotypes. Mendes’s Beauty refuses the prince’s kiss, preferring to dream on. Wily’s Daphnis and Chloe don’t marry, they just have sex: ‘ People have filled your head with ridiculously optimistic notions and persuaded you to believe in good fairies… All that, my children, is a farce, and you must believe the exact opposite of such nonsense.’ Once the women – Carter, Atwood, Byatt, Szereto etc – in the twentieth century joined the game the critiques of gender became broader and deeper, but even in the hands of sexist reactionary men the issue wasn’t neglected and was handled with both skilful humour and seriousness.

Decadent writers portrayed the modernisation of their contemporary civilization as being comparable to the Fall of the Roman Empire, focusing on the perversity of modern gender roles. Josephin Peladan, a Catholic monarchist wrote: ‘Periods of decadence display an inversion in sex roles, and degenerate bloodlines are full of women doctors and women artists.’ Non-normative sexual and gender comportment was frequently portrayed and fiction was regularly peopled with characters of what was considered sexual deviance. This was mirrored in science where what was seen as erotic aberration was studied by the likes of Havelock Ellis, Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Cesare Lombroso. Vivien’s ‘Prince Charming’ turns out to be a woman; Mende’s ‘An Unsuitable Guest’ a prince who preferred flowers to warfare; Rachilde has a prince who ‘loved in equal measure brunette ladies and blond pages, beautiful statues and heraldic dogs.’ The polymorphous perversity and liquidity of gender and sexual identity flourished in these settings. Reading them, it’s not at all clear cut as to whether the writer was actually criticising such perversions or finding in them attractive enchanted freedoms.

Baudelaire was an important influence, especially his ‘Flowers of Evil’ of 1857. His ‘Fairies Gift’ is his only fairy story where his angry fairy says at the climax, ‘ How do you like this conceited little Frenchman who wants to understand everything? He received the best of all prizes for his son, and yet he dares to question me and dispute the indisputable!’ Of course the point is that nothing was now indisputable, and in that recognition our great disenchantment has flourished, eroding all manner of belief and continuity. In Rachilde’s ‘The Mortis’ the flowers we met earlier, ‘ smoldering with forbidden fragrancies’ , attack Florence and a lone survivor eats rosebuds that look like the heads of women. They intoxicate and kill him.

Characters all have sensibilities ‘ the public could not understand’ and each story privileges artifice over any crude realism. These decadent fairy tales were written for adults where ‘wonderment falls victim to the contemporary moment’ so that for Palacio they are ‘devoid of naivete’ and didacticism. But their critique goes further than mere reactionary impulses and some find inspiration rather than annihilation in modernity. Modern worlds offer electricity as a marvel at the 1881 Paris Exposition and Edison’s light and Bell’s telephone seemed to twist about like actual enchantments so that Goyau could write that ‘ fairies and genies began once again to show themselves to people. The first automobiles they caught sight of convinced them that the prophecy had been fulfilled. They believed that women travelling in automobiles were fairies comes to revisit the realms they once inhabited.’

But even where this wasn’t the case and the politics of these male authors were resolutely anti-modernist, reactionary and absolutist we can still find something useful in their critiques. Which raises the question of why, apart from the pure pleasures of tight narrative, elegant style, erotic tang, humour, dark societal whoral-foras, we should continue to read these stories? One answer that strikes me is that they can still work as home-cooked thought-experiments, not quite good enough to pass as genuine thought-experiments (because there’s far too much extraneous material in each for them to hone in on any single issue) but good enough to suggest what the genuine experiment might be. So for one, the stories ironically work in tandem with the new positivistic science. Our contemporary philosopher Daniel Dennett discusses ‘cognitive auto-stimulation.’ This is where thought alone is used to produce new states of knowledge or ignorance. We can read these fairy stories of the disillusioned as a type of proto-cognitive auto-stimulate. When Thomas Hariot writes to Kepler: ‘ I have now led you to the doors of nature’s house, wherein lie its mysteries. If you cannot enter because the doors are too narrow, then abstract and contract yourself into an atom, and you will enter easily. And when you later come out again, tell me what wonders you saw…’ our initial reaction to bracket this along with the fairy stories invokes the realization that this is an exchange within serious working science. Our disillusioned fairy stories seem to open up ‘enchanted portals’. They also allow for immediate counter-responses to doubters. Thus another of our contemporary philosophers, Roy Sorensen, an expert in these auto-stimulates, writes: ‘much of the wonder expressed by ‘Why should thought experiment justify belief?’ is dispelled with the retort ‘Why shouldn’t it?’ If the disillusioned fairy stories work as surrogate thought-experiments then they furnish us with new knowledge.

They are not merely entertainment and spectacle. ‘In a room with only one man in it, the patient wakes up and cries out to the doctor: ‘mammy!’ How is this possible?’ The puzzle works to expose prototypical sexist expectations that doctors are male. Thought experiments raise conundrums that challenge the very question itself, like asking ‘when did you stop beating your wife?’ Experiments that expose fallacious assumptions (wholly or in part) Sorensen labels ‘pseudoanomalies’. So in Anatole France’s ‘The Seven Wives of Bluebeard’ Macbeth in an aside is the good and wise Macbeth and a young Duncan only killed – and in battle – after he had butchered some of lady Macbeth’s kinsfolk of Gruoch, his body found the next day in the place called the Armorer’s shop. This exposes the fallacious assumption Shakespeare’s play develops in full. France’s Bluebeard tale is a fully working pseudoanomalie with Bluebeard appearing as a personification of the sun, his wives dawns and his two brothers-in-laws the morning and evening twilight, the Dioscuri who delivered Helen when rapt away with Theseus. Bluebeard’s reputation for evil here becomes no more genuine than the claim that Napoleon existed only as a solar myth or that Gilles de Rais, hanged by law under a bridge of Nantes in 1440 for the slaughter of children, was actually guilty. This of course is doubly complicated by the fact that, despite France’s claim, de Rais was actually guilty of his heinous perversions. But France writes of shadows being cast that cover the truth with lies. It is Perrault’s shadow that casts evil over Bluebeard’s character and reputation just as Shakespeare’s was cast over the good and wise Macbeth, friend of tradesmen whom the nobles never forgave. And so according to France’s tale the stone-cutter of St Jean-des-Bois had papers of Bluebeard’s defence and a complaint against his murderers to take Bluebeard out of the distorting shadow and into the light again. This in turn raises issues of Sorensen’s ‘Modal gap illusion’ which help us question the strength and scope of restrictions on is/could and is/must gaps. So for the first, we aren’t to reason from ‘what is’ to ‘how things could be’. But counterexamples abound to inferring from ‘ the child did write a sonnet’ to ‘therefore it is possible for a child to write a sonnet.’ We can use this thought to reconstrue the original as ‘…barring inferences to uninstantiated possibilities.’ The is/must gap supposes that nothing that is contingently so implies a necessary truth. But we can find counterexamples such as, trivially: ‘all arguments with a necessary truth as its conclusion is valid.’

So consideration of the disillusioned fairy stories enables us to expand our search space and expand options for cognitive failures. For example, the is/must gap plays a role in the thought that what cannot be imagined is therefore necessarily impossible. Hume thought his failure to be able to imagine a mountain without a valley revealed a logical feature of the concept of mountain. But this conclusion must first overcome cognitive failures known to occur from causes other than logical necessity, such as ignorance, incompetence, bias, distraction, impatience and medical constraints. At a time when modernity precluded the imagining of fairies the disillusioned fairy stories were able to raise the issue of whether this was a necessity or just a cognitive failure resulting from causes other than necessity.

The fairy stories also work, in tandem with this, as auto-jiggery devices we find in the work of another contemporary philosopher, Fogelin and his neo-Pyrrohnism. Auto-jittery devices present defeaters that erode confidence in previously held belief. They erode knowledge. This approach is a reverse thought experiment. Where thought experiments are designed to expand knowledge through cognitive auto-stimulation, auto-jiggery devices erode knowledge. Contemplating defeaters produces ignorance without producing new knowledge. They produce ignorance. The approach works by raising the level of scrutiny of any subject. This is done by producing defeaters that haven’t been eliminated. Reasonable other explanations are produced that then serve to raise doubts about the known explanation. Unless eliminated, these alternatives are enough to produce reasonable doubt.

The virtue of the approach is simplicity. It doesn’t offer to replace the initial account but rather sets another one by it that has equal plausibility. Its point is to dissolve over-commitment to any account by showing that a slight modification and fresh narrative will do the job as well as the initial one. The reactionary absolutists writing against modernity worked their auto-jiggeries to leave the reader with the thought that what they thought they knew was good was now no longer an unassailable belief. The writers hoped to make modernity’s goodness a subject of doubt. At best it was no longer known for certain whether modernity was good. By throwing into stark relief the loss of the enchanted world, the writers eroded the previously held certainty and confidence in its beneficence.

Often this form of auto-jiggery is too weak and even the disillusioned writers might recognize grounds for regret but not remorse, conceding that though initially there was room for greater caution because of overlooked alternatives, they nevertheless retained confidence that if pushed the new accounts could be vanquished. Many of the stories here, by eradicating innocence and wonder, enact this sort of feeling. Fogelin offers an account of how his auto-jittery device erodes any Gettier attempt to define knowledge as a kind of justified true belief. Fogelin recognizes philosophers who resist auto-jittery attacks: JL Austin, GE Moore, WV Quine, Jay Rosenberg amongst them. Sorensen calls them ‘tough guys’. Fogelin calls them ‘blessed’. So our disillusioned fairy story writers may be considered likewise blessed tough guys.

Sorensen writes about ‘conversationalists.’ This is a position derived from Schopenhaurean pessimism. The conversationalist doubts the optimism of the contextualist. Contextualists assume conversation tracks skepticism. Conversationalists assume that it tracks both skepticism and knowledge in equal part, seeking opportunities and hazards for both. Conversationalists think we swing about from optimism to pessimism about knowledge, seeing one then the other, in seeking a complete overview of the situation.

It’s possible to read some of these stories as not always assuming that skepticism grounds pessimism. We’ve already noted how Goyau could write that ‘ fairies and genies began once again to show themselves to people. The first automobiles they caught sight of convinced them that the prophecy had been fulfilled. They believed that women travelling in automobiles were fairies comes to revisit the realms they once inhabited.’ But Contextualists assume knowledge is always good. The point of many of these stories is that sometimes – perhaps in this context always – it isn’t. Misplaced recalcitrant knowledge prevents enchantments. This for some is to strike a realistic attitude. Simple examples abound: not only can’t you learn something you already know, you are likely to be motivated more if you don’t have negative outcomes of effort. If we knew in advance that we were going to fail at a task, we wouldn’t be able to strive for it. Our subjective illusion of times arrow and causality evolved in order to ensure the capacity to will in a timeless universe. Here the reactionary swerve of the tales warns us of modernity’s hubris.

But this is a dangerous swerve. Our world is currently only able to advance through continual cognitive and technological growth. Without this we are doomed. Reactionary absolutists in the USA, Russia, China and elsewhere have taken hold of the levers near to the centre of power and threaten the advance of this growth through similar dire warnings to those found in the fairy stories. But the alternative to the disenchanted modernity which is our modern inheritance is too dire to contemplate and is a chimera. That it is is beautifully illustrated in the scene in the second series of Fargo where the legendary Bruce Campbell, playing Ronald Reagan, is asked whether the sickness of the world is too complicated to be overcome. Reagan responds: ‘There isn’t a challenge in this world that can’t be solved by an American .’ When asked how, he looks away and in silent embarrassment leaves the bathroom. The rampant anti-intellectualism of our leaders is formication – the sound of ants crawling on skin – whose sound affinity with fornication suggests Atropos and the severing of the thread of life by the Fates, as in: ‘We’re fucked!’

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, December 31st, 2016.