Thursday, June 25, 2015

Allegory Rises Again

Has anyone here seen INSIDE OUT, Pixar's newest film, yet? How strange and wonderful that one of the most highly praised movies of the year turns out to be—an allegory! C. S. Lewis, in his classic work of literary history THE ALLEGORY OF LOVE, laments that in his time "the art of reading allegory is as dead as the art of writing it." Nowadays the word "allegory" tends to suggest to most people a tedious, highly artificial narrative form that became obsolete after PILGRIM'S PROGRESS. And readers often mistakenly apply it to works it doesn't fit, as if it meant any fiction with an obvious "message." (Lewis's Narnia fantasies are sometimes labeled "allegories," usually by people who don't like them. They aren't, as would become instantly clear upon contrasting them with his true allegorical novels THE PILGRIM'S REGRESS and, to some extent, THE GREAT DIVORCE—or with the few arguably allegorical scenes in the Narnian stories themselves, e.g., the un-dragoning of Eustace in THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER as an analog of baptism.) Yet allegory—the narrative form that uses characters, inanimate objects, and landscape features to personify abstractions such as virtues, vices, mental states, natural forces, nations or other social institutions, etc.—has never completely died out. For instance, it flourished in the works of Freud, who invented a trio of homunculi named Ego, Id, and Superego that live inside the human mind and, through a process called Repression, banish undesirable impulses to a place called the Unconscious.

In tracing the history of this form in THE ALLEGORY OF LOVE, Lewis points out that to classical and medieval authors it seemed the natural way to write about emotions and internal states of mind. For example, when "hesitating between an angry retort and a soft answer, you can express your state of mind" as a dialogue between the two personifications of Wrath and Patience. Lewis contends that this viewpoint is not at all strained and unnatural. "No man is a 'character' to himself"; when a person looks inward, he or she doesn't find a unified personality. Rather, "within he finds only the raw material, the passions and emotions which contend for mastery." And that's exactly the kind of thing we see in the film INSIDE OUT.

In the command center of 11-year-old Riley's brain, her dominant emotions—Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust—staff the console that controls her response to external events both positive and negative. Colorful glass balls represent memories. Landscape features include the dream factory (like a movie set), the Islands of Personality (Friendship, Family, etc.), the realm of Imagination, the Subconscious (where the darkest fears lurk), and Long-Term Memory (from which mind workers take faded memories to the dump of permanent forgetfulness). Joy and Sadness travel on a literal Train of Thought. I wondered about the choice of emotions. The vital importance of Joy, Sadness, Anger, and Fear is obvious. But why Disgust as the only other named emotion? Others might deserve equal prominence. What about Boredom, Embarrassment, Envy, or Greed? If Riley were a couple of years older, surely Lust would join the cast (foreshadowed by the bright red "Puberty" button on the upgraded control panel at the end).

There's no Ego in charge, only a committee of emotions with Joy striving to steer the others in directions that will keep Riley happy. Interestingly, Reason, to whom medieval poets would give a major role, is nowhere to be seen. What does this movie reveal about our culture's concept of how the human psyche works?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

1 comment:

  1. Another cool feature: When Riley suffers her emotional breakdown, her Personality islands literally begin to break apart.

    A question that occurred to me later: What about physical sensations? Of course, they wouldn't be in the brain. But it would be appropriate to see them sending frequent messages to the control room from their stations in the body -- surely the emotions need to deal with feedback from hunger, thirst, pain, fatigue, heat, cold, etc.