Phantasia is the realm of the imagination, the realm into which nothingness first erupts, and the beginning of philosophy…
The Unending Story by Michael Ende is both literally and in several other ways the most wonderful book I’ve read in ages. I think it will be easily received into the canon—hitherto almost exclusively English—of great “children’s literature” along with the likes of Wind in the Willows and the Alices. (Die Unendliche Geschichte, Thienemanns Verlag, Stuttgart 1979. In English: The Neverending Story, Doubleday 1983, illustrated; G.K. Hall 1984, large print; Penguin 1984, paperback.)
But first a puzzlement, expressed in the raised eyebrow quotes above. What exactly makes “children’s literature” children’s literature?
Criteria close at hand are: Who it is for or by or about (and assorted other prepositionally expressible relations). Perhaps, first of all, children’s books are those written for children. However, one famous such book (I forget which) is dedicated to “children of all ages,” which rather ruins the category. What is more, at least one pair of very famous ostensible children’s books, the Alice books, is notoriously detested in childhood by the same people who later love them as children’s books, myself included. For one thing, I despised the simp of an author who seemed seriously to believe that sweet (albeit perky) innocence was an essential attribute of little girls when I, an expert, knew that they constitute a considerable part of society’s criminal element. And for another, I was repelled by what I could sense, though not pinpoint, as a hidden agenda. For the Alice books, being among other things romans á clef, require a key, and an unpossessed key is just alienating, in distinction from unplumbable depths, which feel mysteriously homey. Furthermore, whomever they might be written for, children’s books are, willy-nilly, largely read by co-opted adults who would surely go crazy reading them to children if they didn’t develop their own sneaking attachment to them, as they certainly do. Just try shouting “Dr. Seuss” in the right adult company and back will come a chorus: “I do not like green eggs and ham! I do not like them, Sam-I-am.”(Incidentally, I’ve often wondered in how many children “Dr. Seuss,” by one of those homonymic misassociations that enrich infantile imaginative life, fosters friendly feelings toward the Greek “father of gods and men.”)
Nor are children’s tales exclusively written by adults. Besides the endless oral fabrications with which children regale their peers (or at least used to), they also occasionally indite quite fancy and elaborate stories. By and large these productions are a lost corpus, of course, but there are Austen and Bronte juvenalia, C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy records in some detail the modes and motifs of his childhood works, and I can even cite one extant, purportedly genuine, child-written classic: Daisy Ashford’s nine year-old summary judgment of the Victorian world, The Young Visitors (“To tell you the truth my Lord,” says her socially shaky hero, Mr. Salteena, “I am not anyone of import and I am not a gentleman as they say he ended getting very red and hot.”)
No more is being about children a sufficient test, since, although, as far as I know, children’s books always have some children as heroes or assistant heroes, so do some eminently adult books, for instance the pitiful and spooky brother and sister pair which is in unholy cahoots with a corrupt ghost in James’ Turn of the Screw, and the juvenile perpetrators of all manner of un-innocent mischief in a good many Saki stories.
Nor are there topics and tones which are peculiarly suitable or unsuitable for children. Take supposed children’s modes like fantasy, fairy tales, and magic, and there will be plenty of authors who can do that for grown-ups (somewhat heavy on the Irish, to be sure). W.B. Yeats, W.H. Hudson, H. Rider Haggard, James Stephens, George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, Walter de la Mare, Charles Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien come helter-skelter to mind. Take, on the other hand, a topic to which it might be thought to be hard to recruit children: political philosophy, and I can name a children’s book which I recognize in retrospect as a childhood propaedeutic to the study of Plato’s Republic; it is Hugh Lofting’s Voyages of Doctor Dolittle in which the island Indians of Popsipetel force the Doctor to become their king, acclaiming Doctor John Dolittle as King Jong Thinkalot. “As for the poor Doctor, I never saw him so upset by anything. It was, in fact, the only time I have known him to get thoroughly fussed,” says Stubbins, the Doctor’s ten-year-old assistant and companion (compare Republic 347 and 520). In the morning the unwilling, but duty-bound philosopher king dispenses justice and in the afternoon he teaches school. “I have often thought,” Stubbins observes, “that Popsipetel under the reign of Jong Thinkalot was perhaps the best-ruled state in the history of the world.” If asked nicely I might produce an article on the parallelism between the Popsipetelian and the Platonic paradigms, plus a comparison of Socrates and the Doctor. The one tone which was thought, at least until recently, to be entirely taboo in children’s books, because children both shouldn’t and couldn’t be made to respond to it, was that of erotic passion. Now, Freud aside, the latter is surely false: In high-strung times especially, children are quite capable of sudden accesses of full-blown desire. Such an episode is described in Thomas Mann’s Depression story, “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” to the uncanny accuracy of which I can bear personal witness. As for the sense that children shouldn’t be subjected to explicitly erotic descriptions, some adults think that they shouldn’t be either. On the other hand there are plenty of children’s books that have a strong undertow of implicit passion, and quintessential passion too, the kind that possesses and tyrannizes and even destroys such, for example, as surfaces in the self-surrender of the lovable little clairvoyant boy, Charles Wallace, to the seduction of “It” in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.
Nor does security and gentleness, in the manner of Mister Rogers’ relaxation exercises, universally obtain in children’s books. The Hauff Fairy Tales, which generations of German children grew up on, were smug and cruel at once with a kind of philistine sadism, and the children’s poem which was the gaudium of the nursery, Wilhelm Busch’s “Max and Moritz,” ended with the two bad boys being ground through the flour mill, their particles promptly forming two loaves shaped in the images of those holy terrors. This literature may have something to answer for, but that’s very much an undecided question in child psychology. Still, I do know that a modicum of suffering is the spice of a tale and that when I was little I always specified to my father that my goodnight story should be “very sad,” by which, I understand in retrospect, I meant that it should be as excruciating as possible right up to ”and they lived happily ever after.” (German tales end, incidentally, with “and if they haven’t died before then on this day they’re living”—not exactly sweetness and light either.) These unholy joys were encouraged in later childhood, in latency as they used to say, by the wildly popular adventure novels of Karl May, fat, satisfying green and gold tomes of Indian adventure, homoerotic sadism and missionary zeal. (The latter by-passed me, but completely, in my German Jewish childhood—the white scout’s noble Indian intimate Winnetou—mine too, for a year or so—converts on his death bed, and I never knew it until a recent re-reading: Karl May is now available in this country in translation.) And then came comic books, the American outlet for these tastes—two years of alternating greed and surfeit which started in my third week or so in this country behind a vent on the roof of the YMHA of Boro Park, Brooklyn. Consequently, the first English word whose meaning I ever consciously sought and savored was ”sinister.”
Comic books are, of course, read by adults as much as by children, with naive absorption as by soldiers stranded in barracks and with nostalgic sophistication as by student connoisseurs in dorms. There are even upper class imported comics, the Tinlin series. In fact the earliest comics I know of, proto-comics really, the running caricatures of the aforementioned Wilhelm Busch (Victorian, in English periodization), are really meant for adults. The point this is ambling towards is that being in pictures isn’t confined to children’s books either—though I’ve never seen adult picture books as telling and discovery—rife as, say, Mitsumasa Anno’s Anno’s Journey.
Finally, trying to find some ideal characteristic of children’s literature, Clifton Fadiman (“The Child as Reader,” Great Books Today, 1983) comes up with this: It supplies children with a sense of freedom enjoyed in security. True enough, but so does adult escape literature. And, come to think of it, what novel-reading isn’t escape—from the mundane to an enhanced world?
The long and the short of it seems to be that no set of criteria infallibly picks out “children’s literature.” One is thrown back on a purely extrinsic determination—who it’s meant for—and that’s easily subverted. Let but a well disposed grown-up read a good children’s book and presto!—it’s adult literature, wrong addressee notwithstanding.
But that leads to a much deeper and trickier question: Do children read their books differently from the way an adult reads them? It doesn’t take much logical acumen to see that the answer is going to be bedeviled by a Cretan Liar type paradox: Those who argue for the otherness of childhood can’t claim to have much inside knowledge. That ought to be a stumbling block both to “child’s world” romantics and to epistemological geneticists. For suppose that children’s cognitive abilities do develop in stages that can neither be anticipated nor reversed, then each new stage effects a radical transformation in consciousness, which the fully developed adult (as exemplified in the experimenting scientist himself) can perhaps conceptually reconstruct but never empathetically recover. (As it happens, it does turn out that certain Piagetan experiments, when replicated under somewhat more empathetic conditions, come up showing children to have more cognitive capability at an earlier time than the geneticist staging predicts. In fact, I keep wondering if a case couldn’t be made for Piaget having shown that children are just natural Aristotelians: They apprehend motion as prior to time, they consider movements to be governed by their goals, they conceive place rather than coordinate space, and, in short, their cognitive ontology recapitulates the historical phylogeny of physics—a shift in perspective rather than in capability.) One fall-out from the strict developmental view of children is the notion of “reading readiness.” And yet unready reading provides the windfall joys of a child’s life. I recall getting into one of my father’s medical reference books (streng verboten!), section: tropical diseases, and thrilling to the illicit attractions, depicted in glorious technicolor, of some burgeoning cases of elephantiasis. And that was quite a while before I was ready to decipher the text. (I was slow to learn to read, probably because I spent the first grade, God knows why, at Volksschule No. 4, homeroom teacher Fraeulein Pfefferkorn, a young functionary of the BDM, the Nazi girls’ league, and our primer was all about an avuncular Fuehrer and a certain little brown Heinz who got to give him a pretty posy at a parade.)
On some Sunday mornings, ready or not, my father would break open a huge volume of the encyclopedia (Der Grosse Brockhaus) and read to me. My preferred course was to set out from the coolly scientific heading “Vulkan,” tracking references to doom-preparing “Vesuv,” landing finally in panicky “Pompeii,” where a black cloud of sulphur fumes and pumice hail is preparing the great romance of archaeology. Incidentally, when a decade or so later I discovered Bulwer-Lytton’s classical kitsch classic The Last Days of Pompeii, it was sheer reminiscent magic, including a persistent illusion that that slender-columned Campanian villa idyll came to an end on a Sunday morning in a villa in Berlin-Dahlem. (Actually, I have no idea what day of the week dawned, a silent blue scorcher—the birds had ceased to sing—on August 4, 79 A.D. The Berlin villa, having been legally stolen by an SS family, was destroyed in an Allied air raid probably as late as 1944.) Seven years more, and I was a declared classical archaeologist (though Greek rather than Roman, my taste having grown very pure in the meanwhile). Which goes to show how long-lived and far-working are such out-of-turn childhood experiences. And it isn’t only grownup wonders that children take to; perfectly mundane texts will also serve. I recall that just after I learned to read, I acquired an avidity for the ”Directions for Use” on boxes, bottles and cans. That taste too has stuck: I have a little collection of direction delights, among them the instruction booklet from an abacus (1947), touted as “the pet calculator of Japan,” “Which Brings Comfort and Convenience on Your Life.”
The relation of childhood to adult reading has of course got a history. Louis XIII of France was born in 1601. As a little boy, the Dauphin was told goodnight stories, for instance of Melusine, the tutelary fair of the house of Lusignan, who turned into a half-serpent on Saturdays. Just the same tale was told among adults at evening gatherings (Philippe Aries, Centuries of Childhood). In the course of the seventeenth century, adults turned increasingly to more sophisticated entertainments: “children’s stories” are originally abandoned adult tales. Generalizing wildly, I have an inkling that modern views on the distinctiveness of childhood have less to do with “the discovery of the child” than with the construction of new ideas of maturity—and of adult diversion, for instance that it fails to divert unless it reveals the true existential horror at the heart of things.
One test for continuity of consciousness is to read to yourself a book that was read to you when you were very little. I have tried it. There is a German nursery book, still in print and going strong in Germany, called Little Peter’s Moon Trip. It concerns a cowardly cockchafer (of the melodious species Melolontha melolontha, I’ve lately learned) whose hereditarily missing sixth leg must be recovered from the brute of a man-in-the-moon who keeps it hanging from a nail driven into a birch branch (broken from the birch in our garden, which I loved equally for its waving white and green grace and because it offered illicit bark-pulling, the most satisfying dismemberment there is). It has been over half a century, but the very cover wafted me back into that bourgeois nursery midsummer night’s dream (actually May, cockchafer time), with its character-crowded cosmos, its heavenly highway for secret excursions. But it also came back to me that at four I had been half-repelled by the book, and now I know explicitly what I then knew implicitly, namely why: Only unexceptionably good children were candidates for the moon mission, there was lots of piety in the sky, and all the goodies were blond—which left me out on all counts; besides the pictures were too broadstroked—you couldn’t walk into them and discover details, and there was no wit at all.
On the other hand, Doctor Dolittle, who came into my life at about six, had from the first and still has my whole-hearted allegiance, because I sensed then what I recognize now: that the books are an introduction to human excellence. It was to my moral advantage, I think, that for several years I was Tommy Stubbins and the Doctor was my own father got up in cutaway and top hat: the kindly physician who can’t remember to collect his bills but can call on all the animals for help in their own language, the unfussed explorer who simply sails out of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh on a borrowed boat, who in a shipwreck secures first Stubbins but right after his beloved notebooks, the muddling master of the jury-rig who, in the words of the parrot Polynesia, the senior animal in his menagerie, always “gets there,” the comfortable homey round gentleman whose rare righteous wrath shakes the earth, the world’s most learned naturalist who never stands on his dignity and never loses it—a just and a wise, and in the opinion of his intimates (and in mine), a great man.
Antipathies and allegiances that survive so long unchanged surely do betoken a continuity of consciousness. In fact, judging from personal experience, the only stage to which childhood is really alien is adolescence. Quasi adulthood is a time of such hot subjectivity, such excessively large and excessively particular passions that it devalues just those objective delights adults and children have in common.
Children’s writers (except for a few who don’t write but construct their books to satisfy a market, or what is worse, a theory) naturally work on the same-world hypothesis; indeed the highest praise they can hope for is that which Hugh Walpole gives the author of Doctor Dolittle: “Mr. Lofting believes in his story quite as much as he expects us to.” If they do preach or pull their punches or wax sentimental it is because they have for a moment lost that inward mirror-vision by which a grown-up sees the child within observing the grown-up without. Meanwhile, just by condescending, they acknowledge at least the commensurability of the worlds of children and adults.
The matter is worth dwelling on because it looks like a peculiarly accessible case of a set of problems, or rather of related impossibilities, that preoccupy contemporary philosophers: the impossibility of radical translation, translation utterly from scratch, of our language into another, the impossibility of entering empathetically into an alien or ancient culture, the impossibility of recovering the terms of a theoretical frame of reference after it has undergone a shift—and ultimately, the opacity of individual human beings to each other.
The relation of child to adult might seem to epitomize all four “incommensurabilities.” But there is the mitigating circumstance that while none of us can, in principle, have been members of a tribe that said “gavagai” while looking where we see a rabbit, or have seen the planets revolve about us as a Ptolemaic geocentrist, or have lived as “archaic” Greeks (situations considered by authors like Quine, Kuhn and Feyerabend), some of us, at least have been children. I for one would, to be sure, wish to claim something more: When I was little I said “Hase” where I now say “rabbit” and I feel somehow confident that then and now I mean the same by both vocables: some such creature as the immortal Hazel of Watership Down. Somewhat later, I spent four years studying intensely enough to see dance in my dreams just those pots and pans on which said “archaic” Greeks depicted themselves in looming black shadows and which archeologists call ”Geometric”: and though they never lost their mystery for me (and I certainly couldn’t do with the bizarre conceptual analyses so thoughtfully provided by proponents of the radical difference of the archaic mind) the satisfying way in which the glossy brown-black line ornament lay on the pot and the simple telling grandeur of the funeral scenes got to me. I knew that those pot painters knew what they were doing and that, but for the least substantial of obstacles, the twenty-eight hundred or so years between us, I would know it too. Minimally, at the time those Attic silhouettes felt closer than the non-objects of contemporary painting. And finally, living, like the rest of us, in a manifestly ptolemaic world, ignorant of all astronomy, and happening to study Ptolemy’s Almagest some time before Copernicus’ Revolutions, I couldn’t help but see the world ptolemaically, or so I thought. Or, looking at it from the flip side, why dwell on the inaccessibility of former centuries and other cultures when one’s own time can be completely uncanny and one’s intimates can be as the aliens from outer space?
But even suppose that my sense of secular solidarity is mere self-delusion, there is still that one case of crossing into another world which is not hopeless. I was never a Greek (I guess), but I, my personally identical I, was once, extensively and devotedly, a child, and it seems to me that in figuring out how one’s childhood frame of mind is recovered one might also learn how other places and other times become accessible. Do we have a faculty for this project?
Of course we do: memory for the recovery of our former self and imagination for entering into other worlds. These faculties (parenthetically: faculty psychology is back, see Jerry Fodor, Modularity of Mind) display a certain persistence and a certain evanescence, having to do, I suppose, with the character of their objects, which are not presentations but representations, that is, not solid things that are there, but the see-through shades of their absent selves.
Now what I want to say about the road to recovery naturally concerns only full-blown childhood and doesn’t reach into pre-linguistic babyhood. (Memory of and in infancy is a particularly fascinating but difficult chapter in cognitive developmental psychology.) Furthermore, since I’m thinking not about the daily coping of childhood but about its imaginative life, especially with respect to books, I’m not talking of adult memories of childhood existence, but rather of that remembrance of things past which is essentially memory of memories. What I mean is that as soon as a new book has been taken in it becomes part of the imaginative memory, there to begin its episodic afterlife, perhaps in the case of a goodnight story even in that very night’s dream. (Incidentally, this kind of remembrance is pretty recalcitrant to investigation—glory be!—and for all the enormous amount of work done on memory recently, I haven’t found much on it.)
In remembering one does, to be sure, sometimes come on oneself reading. (A vivid memory: reading my first self-read book, Robinson Crusoe—recommended to the parents of Europe, as I later delightedly discovered, as the one and only book fit to be a child’s first by Rousseau himself in Emile. While securing my island in imagination, I simultaneously worked away at poking a hole in the plaster wall of the nursery, intended in time to be an escape route from the enforced after-mid-day-dinner rest hour. Hole discovered on brother’s information. Scene and plaster job. Tremendous revenge on little beast.) But mostly, the images we remember were already memory images in childhood—and therein lies the recovery: We return through the imagination to the imagination, a hermetically sealed, secure depository.
Not really, someone might argue. Over time and growth the kaleidoscope of the mind has shifted out of all recognition and its image bits have entered new and transforming contexts. Well, I want to propose a figure which illustrates at least how it feels to live in both worlds. In 1832, Necker, a student of perception, drew attention to a phenomenon which is now all over the literature. “Necker’s Cube” is simply a perspective outline drawing of a solid. When observed, it flips, willy-nilly so that the front corner is suddenly, without transition, in back. It is impossible to see both positions at once, nearly impossible to fixate one position for long, very hard for those used to perspective drawing to see it as a flat picture. The so-called “perceptual paradox” associated with the figure is just this: that we cannot help seeing reversing cubes when the single stimulus itself is in fact a plane design.
The “interpretative paradox” is analogous. There is a common “flat” stimulus, the text itself, taken as mere material for make-believe. Children are, of course, fully aware that they can, with an effort, deflate the book, that there is a safety exit into plane prose. (I remember being at a play about an enchanted forest with Tony, a friend of mine, then four, who at the eeriest part whispered to me apotropaically: “You know, it isn’t real.”) But the spontaneous position is to read the text perspectivally, as a world with depth. And in that reading different corners come to the fore, unbidden and irrepressible, corresponding to the preoccupations of then and of now. Imagination-memory, I would say, is the capability for perspectival reversals, and so the faith is: unless the road is blocked by trauma, childhood is accessible, as are all other human terrains. (The day after I finished this jeu d’esprit I came on a multiply serendipitous reference—Clifford Geertz in “Found in Translation: On the Social History of the Moral Imagination,” citing Lionel Trilling, who in his last essay (on the ever-piquant theme of reading Jane Austen with American students) calls this ”one of the significant mysteries of man’s life in culture: how it is that other people’s creations can be so utterly their own and so deeply part of us.”)
That faith is reinforced by The Neverending Story, the Baedeker into imagination-land, the imperial realm of Phantasia (no, repeat, no, relation to the Disney extravaganza), which is certainly a children’s book by all available criteria, and a hugely popular one. There has, it appears, even been a movie.
To begin with, Ende’s Neverending Story, subtitled “from A to Z,” is beautifully made. (Incidentally, it abounds in puns like that on Ende’s name, repeated from his other wonderful book, Momo, and in paradoxes like the one expressed in the subtitle, providing young and old with the joys of catching on.) Each page is headed by a nice garland; each chapter begins with a full page illumination of its proper letter (by Roswitha Quadflieg). Best of all, the book is printed in two colors. For this is a tale of a passage into Phantasia, first reluctant and reversible and then deep to the point of no return. The print is red for the waking and working world (Mundus mundanus in my private cosmography) for Stop! Danger! Wake up!, I suppose, and it turns spring-green for Phantasia. Green-skinned too, is the slim, severe, noble lad Atreju of the Indian tribe of the Purple Buffalo, Bastian’s Phantasian friend and finally his savior. Bastian Balthassar Bux, the “hero of passage,” is a fat, serious and lonely little boy, gourmet of apple strudel and spinner of tales, flabby in body and sturdy in soul.
For content, this is a big substantial book containing myriads of characters and sub-worlds. For Phantasia is both infinite and highly anisotropic; in each of its places dwells a different kind of being. What is more, Phantasia abounds in stories to be: “But that’s a story for another time” is the neverending refrain, just as the book really starts when it seems to be ending. Here’s its skeleton: On a mundane morning, Bastian, running from his tormentors, finds himself on the inside of a glass door saying “Antiquariat” in mirror-writing. He feels compelled to steal a book bound in shimmering copper colored silk, entitled, of course, The Neverending Story, and bearing the sign of two snakes biting each other’s tails (recognizable by aficionados of the hermetic as the double ouroboros, the symbol of cyclical endlessness). With it he hides in the storage attic of his school where he makes camp and begins to read. The print turns green. He is looking into Phantasia, a threatened land. Its child empress is sick and her sickness is reflected in Phantasia’s progressive piece-meal annihilation. There is only one cure: a human being must enter Phantasia and give the Infanta her new name. As the school-tower clock strikes the afternoon hours it comes to Bastian that he knows the name, that he is chosen to save Phantasia—and not only Phantasia but also the real world, because in proportion as the former is swallowed by non-being, the latter is possessed by lies; their salvation is conjoined.
At two o’clock he slips out to take a break and eats his lunch apple; at eleven he glimpses a monkish ancient in Phantasia who is writing the copper colored book Bastian is reading. Just before midnight he realizes that both realms will be caught in a treadmill of eternal return unless he acts. At the stroke of twelve, he is in Phantasia, in the Night Wood of Perelin, and the print turns green until the end when Bastian tells his father the whole story except for once, when he prominently strews his initials BBB in red sand over the Painted Desert Goab. It is the first clue of his coming corruption. Now, having grown beautiful in body, celebrated as the savior, he conducts a triumphal progress through the realm. He is wearing the amulet Auryn, the golden, the Glow. It bears the ouroboros on the obverse and on the reverse the legend “Do as you will.” Bastian misunderstands it as license to “Do as you wish,” wherewith his desires become indefinite and destructive—the classical outline of a tyrant. As he goes, he falls deeper and deeper into self-forgetfulness.
On the way, there are many wonderful characters and episodes. There is for example Atreju’s conveyance and companion, Fuchur, the Dragon of Gladness (Gluecksdrache) who floats and swoops through the air in joyous bows (just like my dragon kite), and has a voice like a bell. (Hermann Hesse has a little essay—1949—on the golden sonority of the vocable Glueck.) The episode closest to my heart comes late in the book at the nadir of Bastian’s amnesia: his days with Yore the miner, who has charge of the “pit of pictures” and the “lode of dreams,” where are deposited transparencies, tablets thin as a breath: our memories and dreams, for “a dream cannot come to nothing once it is dreamt.” Bastian must search these image-archives for a familiar dream as a clue to guide him out of his oblivion. After several days of forlorn sorting, he finds a dream tablet of a man in a lab coat holding up the impression of a denture, which fills him with enormous longing. This is the beginning of his ascent and return to his father (who is in fact a dentist). The Neverending Story is full of delights which an alert child may sense and an adult connoisseur may decipher. It is a real work of literature, meaning that it maintains far-flung connections with its kind, being full of allusions, borrowings, references: like Carroll’s Alice, Bastian goes through the looking glass, like MacDonald’s Phantastes, he finds the road to fairy-land, like Rabelais’ Thelernites, he does as he will. And right in the middle of the book traces turn up of one previous Phantasia-traveler who made the song Bastian’s knights sing all the time. Translated from German, it goes: “When that I was and a tiny little boy / With hey, ho, the wind and the rain…” They recall his name as “Shexpir or the like.” Evidently one adult who made it.
There is an age-old philosophical perplexity, the dream wake confusion, propounded for instance by the Chinese sage Chuang-tzu on apparently awakening from a dream: “Who am I then? A butterfly dreaming that it is Chuang-tzu or Chuang-tzu dreaming that I am a butterfly?” (3rd century, B.C.), again by Descartes in the Meditations (17th century A.D.) and lately in The Bear That Wasn’t (reviewed in Gareth Matthews’ charming book Philosophy and the Young Child). Young children are, of course, very much alive to just such linguistic and philosophical puzzles. Parental anecdotes about their midget metaphysicians abound, always delightful, an occasional sense of oracular self-mystification notwithstanding. So out of the blue the aforementioned Tony said of God (who was not exactly the talk of his family): “He is so big, sooo big he’s an idea”—Anselm-in-embryo! Indeed there is more to it than pleasure in puzzles. Not for nothing do we enter upon rational life enthralled to negativity, the metaphysical problem. I mean the “terrible twos,” a condition whose essence a lovable little boy Peter whom I used to sit for (or rather, on) would express in the remarkable phrase he prefixed to his continual stream of objections: “Want not to want… ” Negativity first, and later existential panic: I recall awakening every night for some weeks to watch the darkly heaving ramification of the well-loved walnut outside the nursery window and to know that my mother could die.
Yet later, at seven or eight, my father succeeded in inducing in me the first conscious moment of philosophical wonder I can recall. He was taking a privatissimum on the first Critique with his friend Arthur Liebert, then the President of the Kantgesellschaft. On a Sunday morning walk through the spring woods, he showed me that my hands were bewitched, that, though like as two peas in a pod, I couldn’t bring them into congruence. A quarter century later, when I discovered his source in paragraph thirteen of the Prolegomena, Kant’s illustration of his claim that space is not a property of the things themselves but the form of their outer intuition, all the original amazement came back to me, and henceforth the pure material of the outer form of sensibility was permanently dyed spring-green. All these approaches to philosophy—and, really, they’re not peculiar to children—occur in The Neverending Story: playful puzzles, deep fear, serious questions. But literally the most wonderful mode is the predominant one: Here is a philosophical story book, a book of speculative myths, a working vacation for the imagination.
The grandest philosophic myths, those Socrates tells in the Platonic dialogues, are end-myths; they consummate the dialectical argument with the high of a cosmic vision. Now, in contemporary philosophy, grandeur being out of favor, mini-myths, flairless, little thought-constructs, are placed throughout the logical argument: Martians, counter-earthlings, brains-in-a-vat and possible worlds inhabited by that one-and-only unicorn whose affliction is non-existence. Finally, there are the real myths, the ones that are not made but re-told, and these are good as preludes to philosophy: In the Metaphysics (A) Aristotle says: “Wonder is the beginning of philosophy,” “myths are composed of wonders,” and so “the myth lover (philomythos) is somehow a philosopher (philosophos).”
But he also says that wonder is really a sense of one’s ignorance and that one takes to philosophy as “an escape from ignorance.” And so he announces a slow-starting but irresistible development: The way of science is the way away from wonder. Two millennia later, a founding text in natural philosophy will bear the still wondering legend “Wonder and is no Wonder” about its central diagram (the endless chain around the prism, Slevin 1605); four centuries later, it will be near-universal dogma that science and philosophy mean demythification. The myth-lover is meant to come to maturity; much of our education is devised to sober us up.
Yet there is also a sense, endlessly analyzed and bemoaned (and not only by those soft spirits who want to reimmerse themselves in magical murk), that something has been lost, that the world we hoped to gain by taking our two-and-a-half-thousand year temperance pledge has somehow lost its shape and color. What is it that myths did for the world?
They made it visible, I imagine, by—ugly but apt term—potentiating the appearances, that is to say, by making them significant. The Necker cube shows that even the objects of mere perception depend on interpretative preconceptions to take shape. Myths might be thought of as analogous interpretative schemata for the human shaping of phenomena. They bring out in appearances just that depth and color from which measuring science and rational philosophy soberly abstract; hence they give them visibility—a word used here certainly in an extended, perhaps in a private sense: I call appearing objects “visible” when I do not look past them as being mere unsuggestive particulars, or through them as being mere representative instances, but at them as recalling through their very looks both themselves and something beyond. (This mode of significant appearing is usually called “symbolic,” but it shouldn’t be, since by long-standing usage a symbol mainly “stands for” something else.)
Genuine myths, the sort that are not composed and read but received and reenacted, are mostly extinct, and the notion of reviving them through deliberate acts of creation is a practical contradiction in terms. Yet all is not lost. A grand enough fairy tale can stand in for those by gone world-frames. (So, come to think of it, can a great grown-up novel.) Such stories make something of the mundane world; they back it with a vibrant ground and bring it out with vivid contrasts.
Ende’s books, both Momo and The Neverending Story, do even more: They reflect on what they are doing while they are doing it—a feature they share with the finest speculative works. They tell wonderful tales and wonder about tale-telling. They represent the annihilation of the imaginative realm as the great emergency of contemporary life, and even as they tell the story of its peril they accomplish its restoration. Ende’s mythophilia is a beginning of philosophy which is not just to be left behind. Nil admirari advises the Roman poet, follower of a latter-day philosophy; he means both “Wonder at nothing” and “Think nothing wonderful.” Omnia admirari, “Wonder at everything and find everything wonderful” must be the Phantasia-traveller’s postulate. Its requirements determine both the kind and the mode of the thinking which begins in Phantasia. For first, certain questions can take on flesh and flourish there unashamedly which are skeletons in the logical closet. And second, the Phantastic mode of imagining is an unabashed reversal of the (pretended) order of rational investigation: Here the questions are candidly reached through the answers, since the imagination, for all its tolerance of the antic and the monstrous, is constitutionally partial to certain kinds of doing and being and inimical to others.
I’ll come to an end with a small sampling of the neverending stream of questions which wells up in Phantasia.
Phantasia, the realm of the imagination, subsists independently of human attention—and yet its existence depends on a periodic human invocation, a timely Adamic re-naming. Bastian says: “I would like to know, just what is going on in a book when it is closed?” And his discoveries speak to and, of course, contradict current solutions to long-debated problems such as: What is the nature of fictional, or possible, worlds? What is the standing of non-existent objects? How do they comport with “reality”?
Phantasia’ s topography is infinite and yet centered. It has, as Bastian learns, a perilous port of entry (Perelin, the Night Wood) and a magical place of exit. He enters each of its places as a separate world and yet he progresses through the land of phantasy as through one empire. The lay-out of fictional worlds (their boundaries and compatibility) is treated—with severely averted eyes—in the logic of fiction (“deviant” logic, so-called!). Its doctrines, particularly concerning the question “Are all fictional worlds connected?” deny Bastian’s experience of the cohesion of all stories.
Phantasia is the realm into which nothingness first erupts; that is what Bastion is called on to deal with, and he learns that escape from the treadmill of mere recurrence, the revivification of a sad daily existence, and truth telling itself depend on saving this realm of the imagination—a powerful though deviant answer to the question, endlessly revolved in contemporary philosophy, “What is the crisis of modernity?”
Phantasia can engulf and corrupt, too. As his sojourn loses its aim, as he forgets his daily shape and his human mission and tyrannizes the realm he has saved, it becomes a thicket of sophisticated un-meaning; here apes play aleatic compositional games, which when continued for all eternity will produce all stories and all stories of stories including The Neverending Story. Even Bastian in his pride is appalled at the insult this extreme of esthetic formalism offers his copper-colored book; he becomes a partisan in the great question of esthetics: “Does art have meaning over and above its form?”
And finally, as The Neverending Story ends, Bastian, emerged from Phantasia, tells his father the story of his reading of the story of his journey into the realm where the story of his journey is being written. He would like to know, Bastian says, “How could this book occur within itself?” He has found the fairy-form of a cluster of questions that are the fascination of present-day intellectual life: recursion and self-reference.
Enough said. The point’s been made: One way, a wonderful way, to philosophy passes through Phantasia.