Thursday, 4 June 2009

Donkey-Boys: Dostoyevsky, Brecht, Bresson, Disney

Brecht is said to have kept a small stuffed-toy donkey on his work-desk, around its neck a hand-lettered sign saying, ‘I, too, must understand.’ Quite often I feel like I am that donkey. But it’s no bad thing.
‘I’m all for the donkey, in spite of everything.’ Thus Prince Myshkin enthuses to the giggly Yepanchin girls in The Idiot. Such is the Prince’s idea of sitting-room small-talk with young ladies. Famously Kafka had to persuade Max Brod that Dostoyevsky's characters were not all lunatics but merely ‘incidentally mad’; and Myshkin is perhaps the maddest, if only because of his purity. I suspect that readers like myself who love Myshkin and The Idiot do so in much the same way as the Prince was ‘awfully fond’ of the ‘good-natured and useful’ donkey.
Robert Bresson, too, was very good on the ‘exquisite sensitivity’ of certain animals, and so was very taken with The Idiot, in particular the profound communication Myshkin claims to hear in a donkey’s braying. ‘Absolutely admirable’, Bresson declared, ‘to have an idiot informed by an animal, to have him see life through an animal, who passes for an idiot but is of an intelligence.’ He went on to make the exquisite Au Hasard Balthazar.
Now, Dear Daughter – yes, you knew we would get round to her eventually – spend much of last week puzzling over Disney’s Pinocchio, a fine piece of work if a tad perplexing (also a tad unsettling) for a 3-year-old, in respect of its complicated fantasy-morality, one of the high points of which is the forced metamorphosis of a pack of juvenile delinquents into a herd of pack-mules, carted off to a life of hard labour for their sins. Yes, a donkey’s lot can be a source of great pathos. One would like to think that at least some of Pinocchio’s mates ended up on sandy beaches wearing straw hats and giving pleasure rides to little kids.

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