…is looking out the window.
Do you agree, dear Reader? Or do you find the activity too introvert for you?
I came across this quote by Edward Gorey (1925-2000), a recluse and weirdo, but to the world an American illustrator with a very peculiar pen-and-ink style, specialising in The Adams Family-like scenes, set in grim Gothic and Victorian settings.
His illustrations convey a sensation of aloofness and spookiness through proportion play, a stark black-and-white colour palette and the complacent or impassive facial expressions of the characters, which oftentimes eerily mismatch the emotions that would be considered natural in the scenes depicted.
Although they seem to ostensibly target children, the unconventionality of Gorey’s illustrations makes them subject to interpretation by creating levels of meaning, typically out of reach of the average child.
What, in turn, is supposedly within reach of the average child, are textbook illustrations – a window through which it embarks on guided quests to tame the world. What a pity that oftentimes these guides are so dreadfully stupid.
This little Gorey chap for instance, is strangely not excited about his birthday cake. Maybe the lack of company has something to do with it, or maybe he, like Thomas Hardy’s Gabriel, is hampered by his best clothes.
In contrast, excitement and conviviality reign supreme in this illustration, part of a lesson on Work and Play in the Family from my son’s first-grade fatherland knowledge curriculum. No need to do much thinking here – the full-colour picture, the invariable presence of the father and mother figures providing loving supervision, as well as the typical birthday party attributes such as baloons, presents, friends and cake, all help convey to the children a sense of inclusion and predictability, which ultimately mean safety. Note the gender roles though – the mother is giving a present, relating to the material world and the tekne, and the father, his hand on the birthday boy’s shoulder, is offering moral support and perhaps an advice aimed at bringing his son one step closer to his future participation as free citizen in the agora democracy. I am speaking figuratively, of course. On the immediateness of the literal plane, though, the refreshments consist of fast carbs exclusively, topped by a huge cake.
Here we don’t have the excuse of a birthday party, but still see a cake of sizable proportions, promoting itself from the illustration’s foreground as part of the foods allegedly contributing to Health – A Priceless Treasure. What tosh. The cake is in the company of croissants, bread, jam and fruit, jointly making carbohydrates the best-represented macro-nutrient group on the table. In my previous post on first-grade illustrations, I enclosed two pictures of family evenings in the living room, inexplicably accompanied by a sugar pot in one and a box of candy in the other. In the picture above, notably lacking are eggs, which are perhaps compensated by an eyebrow-raising carbohydrate – a bottle of wine, tucked between the soup tureen and the bowl of fruit. The picture clearly shows a wide choice of food that is supposedly – to quote the parlance of food business companies – all part of a balanced diet, but lacks focus and a message.
The lesson on the advisable and healthy daily routine for first-grade pupils includes a picture of a child, breakfasting on a sandwich and a soft drink, consumed with a straw. Drinking with a straw is actually sucking, which has been proven to remind us subconsciously about breast-feeding, and so is, on a certain plane, similar to substance abuse aimed at making us feel that we’ve almost succeeded in crawling back into the womb, but whoever’s thought of that…Oh, and by the way, given the current exposure, sugar consumption, in soft drinks and elsewhere, can count as substance abuse too.
Here we have lunch, when the first, and perhaps only, protein of the day, in the face of a chicken drumstick, is introduced. There are vegetables, soup and half a slice of bread – I am satisfied and have nothing to say. (This should be marked down as a rare occasion indeed.)
Dinner time. Half past seven strikes me as a bit early, though – I pat myself on the back for good time management if I get dinner on the table at around eight. Moreover, I cannot make out what the nondescript yellow mass on the plate is. It bears similarities to pasta, but then having bread would be nonsense. So maybe potatoes? They are not eaten with bread either. So I don’t know and chances are that children won’t be able to guess what’s for dinner either, which means that the illustration has completely failed to fulfill its purpose.
This uncanny-looking boy, clad in a full-evening strait jacket, is Ernest, who choked on a peach…That’s where healthy eating takes you. If he had sucked at a freshly-squeezed peach juice through a straw, he could have had a happier fate. Little Ernest is part of Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies, which are 26 one-sentence tales of the untimely demise of children in the form of an alphabet book. This genre is a bit more hard-core than zombie animation series Monster High, but is generally appealing to most pre-teens, who, as I can testify from experience, frequently become infatuated with vampires, Gothic make-up and goriness as a coping strategy.
I think Ernest above is adorable, but I am endeared by this little boy too, and am also in awe of his mother’s offering him a repast far-removed from the carb fare traditionally pushed on children. Taken from a 1940s primer, the boy’s name is Hrusan, which I have encountered for the first time ever in this picture. Caption title reads “Hrusan is eating .” The text goes like this – “Hrusan is having butter and cheese. Mommy is offering him nuts too. Hrusan is having a good time.” It may be that this diet is the result of the limited number of letters the 1940s first-graders have been taught up to the point of meeting Hrusan, but anyway.
The mere fact that such a menu has been suggested is admirable. The more modern illustrations, as we saw above, convey the idea of food, but often do not go into specifics. Or if they do, they specify sugar, in an effort perhaps to help children identify more easily with the illustrations, by taking advantage of sugar being invariably among their most liked and consumed foodstuffs.
It seems that, in doing their job, modern illustrators have been taking the path of least resistance – getting the job done, while totally failing to cause any mental stir in the individuals the illustrations target or need to be approved by – how very comfortable for everybody.
I will bid you good night now, dear Reader, as I was supposed to sit down at the computer to work. But it is Saturday night and I rebelled. I have a life! 🙂 I’ll suck it up and do some work tomorrow morning, I guess.
Now I lay me down to sleep,
Pray the Lord my soul to keep.
Take my hand, we’re off to never-neverland,