Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Holy House of Mouse

Religious training for me was an odd thing. We weren't a church family, but my parents pushed us kids toward some measure of Christian exposure, just on the off chance it might take. We went to Sunday school, to Jesus camp, got conscripted into inept musical performances at services, which my Mom and Dad would attend only under pressure to support the kids. (To this day, they'll neither confirm nor deny their agnosticism, which I suppose is how you do it.) The church was like someone else's house, that I visited frequently. The faith belonged in the building, but I somehow fit in there too, all its nooks I knew, all the places a kid could tear around and play or act serious when people were looking.

So there I'd find myself for a Sunday a month, accompanying the yearly murder of Bach, or otherwise taking my part in some divine pageant or other, trucking the blue vinyl robes off their shelves, and hanging the silly gold diamond from my neck so that it would fall down my back in the most dignified way. The choir robes, at least those for us irregulars, had all the grace and durability of a graduation gown, consciously designed for appearance and not wear. It conforms with my enduring impression of church: insufficiently vacuumed back rooms, sterile kitchens, rooms full of battered folding chairs, boxes of filthy waiting-room toys, ragged stages heading auditoria of linoleum tiles, institutional smells. It's not as though these places lacked love, but it is impossible to apply the same sort of attention to an official space as the rickety box you spend most of your days living in. And it's not merely a flaw of the easygoing Protestants. The Catholics in town have it even worse, married to larger notions of frugal grandeur: "stained glass" of peeling applique, threadbare pews and fraying carpets, grand entrances with atrocious drafts. On Sunday evening, whether following the Latin or otherwise, all of the sacred vestments must necessarily get stuffed into some closet or other, maybe next to the choir robes, forgotten between cigarettes, coffee, and whatever business the cloth undertakes until they're used again at the next service. These objects can't take the sort of beating, the sort of love of everyday use. We don't caring for them like we do our dishes or our jeans, it's more like the occasional attention we pay to our halloween costumes, ignored for 50 weeks a year.

These humble dioceses, they'll attract their aesthetes I suppose, and certainly their locals, but in the business of marketing salvation, you need to have the look of success. Once upon a time, maybe it was enough to wave damnation around and send the flagellants through the town square every once in a while, selling, you know, that pie in the sky. Life used to be cheap enough (and no doubt it'll eventually be cheap enough again) to pull off the soft sell. For the rest of the Thomases, there's always the might of Rome to pound in the nails. What draws the discriminating into the the house of Peter? The thought that there's some mere spirit floating through the collective unconscious isn't going to do it, you can find that blowsy poetic crap any time people are left alone long enough to dream. Something must convince our unseemly pragmatic minds away from the low and local versions of wonder, and into the official corporate mysteries. The doctrinaire are pulled to the trappings of wealth, no faith worth its divine endorsement can subsist on Wonder and Welch's. If you've ever wondered what draws the penitents and pilgrims to Rome, it ain't the purity, it's the idea there is, in fact, no salvation on a budget. I've never been to St. Peter's, but I assume it's spotless, opulent. The Pope either scrubs the grease off the chalices himself, or else wipes his bedazzled sleeve over them and declares the blemishes holy. Whichever, and whoever, and who gives a fuck, so long as it's made of gold.

When my children were young enough to be easily impressed, we toured our share of low-budget amusements. Mother Goose, bereft of copyright and bound to her stations of the cross--here imprisoned the Shoe, there in a treetop Cradle, there with One Shoe On--immortalized, at least for a while, in rotting plastic, gathering mold seven months of the year, and dusted off by lackluster teenagers for the adulation of the cheap summer rubes. Icons of glory, um, lapsed. As children grow, many develop higher expectations of their faith. There is the expensive honor due the institution, sacred obeiscances and glorious tithes available to only to those of appropriately molded imagination. You can buy a hundred cartoon knockoffs, but in its deepest mysteries, Disneyworld markets the whole-family Hajj with the full force of its copious shareholder accounts, cramming an unfunny cartoon mouse onto cruises, into plastic fairy castles and styrofoam mountains, onto roller coasters, reducing him to ears (a bifurcated and bulbous excuse for a cross), and replicating those dispensible icons in profusion and moving them through innumerable gift shops. Make no mistake, there is no ground-in grime on Goofy's nose, and at the first hint of wear, his rubber suit is rapidly recreated in the smoke-belching Imagineering foundries. I do my best to bring my children up decently heathen, but the Spirit calls to them, it calls.

Seth Stevenson made a good pass at the experience, noting the corporate horrors, the more seductive for the enormous endowment glimmering from every carefully arranged crack. The reactions of the comments section is telling: how dare he question the teachings of Mickey? The truth of any living God must be in the myriad interactions of His smallest elements, eye-motes and tumbling sparrows and all that, but the Mouse's epiphany is decidedly top-down. Yeah, there's quality in there sometimes, but quality is only a gateway. Even the most precious Disney Moments are cribbed from better written material, and any actual genius is thoroughly digested to pap in the corporate tract before it is finally shit out as canon. The immortal Sheherazade gets a shade of Robin Williams, does a stint with the Disney Princess, dancing on lunchboxes with the rest of the shamelessly co-opted fables, makes a brief stop at Burger King before finally nestling snug in the landfill, eternally staring at wishing stars along with a generation's worth of other plastic dreck.

I guess what really pisses me off about the Disney experience is that vaunted attention to detail. They lay claim to the wonder of the mind in carefully packaged detail, much like the church would corner our spiritual journeys and the less coherent political and commercial powers are well served by a country that sucks up the idea of the American dream, shoehorning us all into the suburbs, onto highways, married with kids, struggling with shifting minutae of planned moral behavior, crippled under eternal and massive debt. There's nothing wrong with these narratives in themselves, but it chafes my spirit to watch my life shuffling along according to the mapped outlines. Real imagination takes us beyond the obvious story, at least in our minds, and maybe even pulls us out of the patterns of fervent consumption. To angle a monopoly on the very process of dreaming, sucking dollars off of it as it tumbles down every step of the value chain--that's inhuman. It takes a mouse.

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