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The Great Cat Massacre and other Episodes in French Cultural History

In The Great Cat Massacre: and other Episodes in French Cultural History (1984), historian Robert Darton attempted to reconstruct and understand the mental world of early modern French peasants through their folktales. He began with the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” as told around firesides in peasant cottages during long winter evenings in eighteenth-century France. It’s a little different than the version you may have been told. The story went as follows:

A young girl was instructed to bring some milk and bread to her grandmother’s house. While walking down a path through the woods, a wolf stopped her and asked her where she was going. She told him, and the wolf took off down a second path. The wolf, “arrived first at the house. He killed grandmother, poured her blood into a bottle, and sliced her flesh onto a platter. Then he got into her nightclothes and waited in bed…”

When the young girl arrived, the wolf (disguised as her grandmother) offered her meat and wine from the pantry. “So the little girl ate what she was offered; and as she did, a little cat said, ‘Slut! To eat the flesh and drink the blood of your grandmother!’ Then the wolf said, ‘Undress and get into bed with me.’”

After a prolonged scene in which the young girl is instructed to undress and toss her clothes into the fire, the conclusion proceeds in the now familiar manner until, at the very end, the wolf eats the girl. No hunter comes to her rescue in the original version.

The version as we know it today, according to Darton, was taken by the Grimm brothers from Charles Perrault, a popular writer at the turn of the seventeenth century, who changed the stories to suit the tastes of the Paris elites. The ending we are familiar with, in which the hunter rescues Little Red and kills the wolf, was added by Jeannette Hassenpflug, the Grimm’s neighbor, from a popular German story “The Wolf and the Kids.”

Through an examination of folktales like “Little Red Riding Hood”, Darton hoped to unlock the mentalité of the French peasant during that time period. “Folktales are historical documents,” he argued. “They have evolved over many centuries and have taken different turns in different cultural traditions… they suggest that mentalités themselves have changed. We can appreciate the distance between our mental world and that of our ancestors if we imagine lulling a child of our own to sleep with the primitive peasant version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’”

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Nietzsche on the Origin of the State

In the mind of Nineteenth Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the growth of the state (Staat) was one of the most alarming developments of the modern world. Where others saw the promise of a new democratic age in which “the people” ruled, Nietzsche saw a “cold monster” that was destructive of creative and independent forces. He described the state as a “clamp-iron” pressed upon society, shaping and harnessing it.

Artist's impression of Çatalhöyük, a Neolithic settlement

Artist’s impression of Çatalhöyük, a Neolithic settlement

The modern state was particularly problematic because it potentially recognized no limits in its efforts to satisfy the wants and desires of the common man. To fully understand Nietzsche’s pessimistic understanding of the modern state, however, it is important to understand his beliefs about the origin of that state. Why is the modern state so different from what came before?

Prior to 4,000 BC, most if not all of humankind was organized into tribes and extended families that engaged in herding, hunting and gathering, trading, and subsistence farming. Some lived in cities like Çatal Höyük in modern day Turkey. According to archeologists, Çatal Höyük (7,500 – 5,700 BC) was absent of any public buildings. There are no signs of rulers, social stratification, or classes.

Then, around 4,000 BC, city-states began to emerge in Mesopotamia, and with them, hereditary dynasties. With some exceptions, the basic nature of these dynastic kingdoms, or states, did not change very much for the next several thousand years. In modern times, however, there has been a fundamental revolution in the nature of the state. Nietzsche’s perspective on this revolution, and why it occurred, is as challenging as it is insightful.

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Paper Towns: An Existential Mystery

Released in July 2015 and based on the novel by John Green, Paper Towns (2015) is a coming of age story centered on Quentin “Q” Jacobsen and Margo Roth Spiegelman, childhood friends who drift apart while growing up in a nondescript Orlando, Florida subdivision. I enjoyed this film. It weaves urban exploration, road tripping, and geography/cartography around deeper themes involving free will, expectations vs. reality, friendship, and how we confront our own mortality.

The title of the film, Paper Towns, comes from a type of fictitious entry that cartographers sometimes use to discourage plagiarism or copyright infringement. This becomes important when Margo Roth Spiegelman refers to Orlando as a “paper town” before she mysteriously disappears. Her friends attempt to track her down near a famous fictitious entry, Agloe, New York.

To briefly summarize the plot, as a young boy Quentin Jacobsen, played by Nat Wolff, is immediately smitten with Margo Roth Spiegelman, played by Cara Delevingne (a discount Emma Watson), after her family moves into the house across the street. They become inseparable, until one day they discover the body of a man who committed suicide in a park. Margo wants to investigate the man’s death, but Quentin chickens out. After that, the two drift apart. Quentin becomes a band geek who always follows the rules, while Margo constantly lives in the moment and falls in with the popular crowd.

One night, in their senior year of high school, Margo asks Quentin to help get revenge on her boyfriend and her friends, who betrayed her. After sharing this moment together, Margo mysteriously vanishes. Quentin begins to break out of his shell, and enlists the aid of his friends in a lengthy search for his missing soulmate.

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