Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Of Plato, kids, and "Ender's Game"

Don't let the Buggers get you down, Ender. From tvtropes.com)
The thought of our past years in me doth breed
Perpetual benediction...
—Wordworth, Immortality Ode 138-39
I read Orson Scott Card's children's novel Ender's Game for the first time ever this summer. For those who might not know, Ender's Game (a film adaptation of which is about to be released) is a science fiction book about a six-year-old named Ender Wiggin. Ender, who is a kind of military-tactics prodigy, is conscripted by the government of Earth as a trainee general in an ongoing cold war with a species of insectoid aliens. (Spoiler alert—skip the next sentence if you haven't read the book and plan on reading it.) At the end of the book, it turns out that the whole "training" part was a ruse: Ender was actually waging a sophisticated drone war against the alien civilization the entire time, even though he thought he was just running training programs on a computer.

Ender's Game was published in 1985, and so a lot of kids who grew up in the '90s have happy memories of it. And it has all kinds of things that a reader under the age of 13 would love: space battles, long zero-gravity acrobatic sequences, preadolescents who (without explanation) somehow have the privileges and responsibilities of adults. But reading it as an adult—in particular, reading it for the first time as an adult—is really weird. First of all, there's all the hubbub around Orson Scott Card himself, who made some pretty damningly anti-gay remarks a while ago, and also has a disconcerting range of quasi-libertarian, conspiracy-theory-inflected views about history and politics. Okay, fine—I wouldn't want to meet J.M. Barrie or A.A. Milne, either.

Yet with that in the back of your head—and my life may not be worth much after I post this—it's hard not to keep seeing a lot of things in the book that seem vaguely offensive, wrong, or just really creepy. The teacher-officer who recruits Ender explains that Battle School is mainly boys; girls "don't often pass the tests to get in. Too many centuries of evolution are working against them." (When in fact, the difference in physical strength between preadolescents by gender is pretty small—to say nothing of test scores.) Ender gets the better of bullies by beating the living daylights out of them, although he feels remorse for it. Infelicitously, given Card's recent remarks, the aliens in the first book of the series are called "buggers." One minor character introduces himself thus: "We doing OK, Ender Bender. I Rose de Nose, Jewboy extraordinaire, and you ain't nothing but a pinheaded pinprick of a goy. Don't you forget it." And despite having come from the imagination of a man who publicly reviles homosexuality, there are an awful lot of moments when the boys at the school are rather gratuitously described as running around naked for no particular reason. &c., &c.

Doubtlessly, all of this stuff will be scrubbed from the movie adaptation. (At least, I hope it will be.) But it remains endlessly fascinating to me that we have this intense moral discussion over various pieces of children's literature that we rarely ever have about adult literary fiction. Intelligent adults who would go to the stake to defend the freedoms of speech and the press suddenly adopt an unappealable stance as moral censors to prevent their kids from being brainwashed. The cases span all political convictions. I know New Yorker-reading young parents who probably shudder to think of their kid reading Ender's Game at age 8, and I knew parents of friends growing up who wouldn't let them read the Harry Potter or His Dark Materials because they might lead them out of the fold. It has nothing to do with sex or profanity, and everything to do with ethical outlook and worldview.

There is some sense at work that children are especially impressionable, and if they read the wrong thing before they have a proper context, it might be far more damaging than if they read the same thing after their critical faculties have been more fully developed. Socrates makes this argument in book 3 of Plato's Republic:
The young can't distinguish what is allegorical from what isn't, and the opinions they absorb at that age are hard to erase and apt to become unalterable. For these reasons, then, we should probably take the utmost care to insure that the first stories they hear about virtue are the best ones for them to hear. (378d)
On this pretext, Socrates says that large classes of literature, music, and art should be banished from the ideally just city-state—namely, anything that represents things that would seduce the future guardians of the city-state from what is good and beautiful. (This is separate from, and prior to, Socrates's notorious argument that mimesis itself is to be banished.) At this point, Socrates enthusiastically asserts that the arts are a vital part of a good education—it just has to be of the right kind, and therefore all art should be heavily censored. He has a point. As anyone who has ever tried to chaperone a twelve-year-old's Internet use knows, once something is out there in the world, it's hard to keep away from the kids.

One could argue that Socrates has an impoverished notion of what literature can do—that representations of bad people can be profoundly instructive, whether Medea or Lolita. Yet Socrates could just as easily reply that one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch, and so such stories should be kept far away from children, lest young readers misinterpret them. (What parent of a six-year-old hasn't cursed the parent who let their kid watch some slasher flick, which she then proceeded to tell the entire first grade about?) We like to dismiss Socrates' case against literature—or really, for the utter bowdlerization of literature—as silly. But in a sense, he's simply doing what most writers claim they wish more readers would do: taking literature's power to shape the minds and actions of an audience in the real world very seriously.

But does literature really affect people—and kids, in particular—in this way? Well, maybe; maybe not. Most of the people my age and younger whom I've known who read and liked Ender's Game when they were kids have not been irreparably warped on account of it. But the few I've read who really like it, to the point of giving it credit for playing a major formative role in their lives, position themselves somewhere out in Orson Scott Card ideological territory. One of my college friends once called the Harry Potter books her moral compass; and, for a generation of now-young moderate-progressives who have a keen sense of fighting social inequality, fear of difference, entrenched hereditary privilege, and racism, that might well be true on a mass scale. J.K. Rowling may turn out to be the most influential ethical preceptor of a generation. There are the people one knows in high school who are seduced by V For Vendetta, and then the people who are seduced by The Fountainhead. To some extent, we become what we read.

Except when we don't. And maybe we should credit the sensibilities of youth with a little more resilience than some wary parents would allow. When I was eleven, I was enthralled by completely crackpot semi-occult theories about the lost continent of Atlantis; that was a phase that passed. I read Ayn Rand's Anthem at age fourteen, and felt as soon as I finished it that I had never encountered a more concise expression of everything I didn't believe. Anne Fadiman, one of my favorite essayists, tells a story in her foreword to the anthology Rereadings about rereading C.S. Lewis's The Horse and His Boy, which she'd last read as a child, to her son, and finding herself horrified:
Henry loved The Horse and His Boy, the tale of two children and talking horses who gallop across an obstacle-fraught desert in hopes of averting the downfall of an imperiled kingdom that lies to the north. It's the most suspenseful of Narnia books, and Henry, who was at that poignant age when parents are still welcome at bedtime but can glimpse their banishment on the horizon, begged me each night not to turn out the light just yet: how about another page, and then how about another paragraph, and then, come on, how about just one more sentence? There was only one problem with this idyllic picture. As I read the book to Henry, I was thinking to myself that C.S. Lewis, not to put too fine a point on it, was a racist and sexist pig. 
Henry, however, proves completely and blissfully oblivious to all the politically incorrect baggage that saddles the book, and simply wants to hear the story:
He didn't want to analyze, criticize, evaluate, or explicate the book. He didn't want to size it up or slow it down. He wanted exactly what I had wanted at eight: to find out if Shasta and Aravis would get to Archenland in time to warn King Lune that his castle was about to be attacked by evil Prince Rabadash and two hundred Calormene horsemen. 
We cannot all will ourselves into such a state of obliviousness to the social and ethical messages of literature, whether written for readers at age 7 or 70. But maybe that is the sweetest, most innocent moment in the life of a young reader: the time before the critical consciousness blinkingly awakens, when one can read deeply affecting and polemically charged stories without having a word of it sink into your head for very long. It's a short moment, and you wouldn't want it to be that way forever. But that's the time when you can be enthralled by Ender's war, or Harry's, or Meg's or Lucy's or Will and Lyra's, while yourself enjoying a fleeting immunity from being unwittingly drafted by either side. The privilege of the young reader is that of being, however briefly, a noncombatant in such grown-up matters. 

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