Sunday, December 28, 2008

Epistemological Explosion in Miracle on 34th Street (Part 1)

After a friend offered some critical feedback to my post Santa and Postmodernism, I decided to watch the original Miracle on 34th Street again. Esther and I both found the film confusing when we watched it as children, so last night we watched it as adults to see if we could make more sense of it.

We still found it confusing, but also very interesting because of the epistemological questions it raises.

Imagination and Reality in Miracle on 34th Street
William Symington said that “imagination is one of the noblest faculties...the sound and proper use of which is not only necessary to the existence of sympathy....but also intimately connected those higher exercises of the soul, by which men are enabled to realize the things that are not seen and eternal.”

We live in an age that has lost the noble faculty to which Symington refers. The endemic scepticism, materialism and commercialism of Modernism has flattened out the sense of wonder, magic and imagination that not only makes life worth living, but orients towards the unseen world of spiritual intangibles.

That is why a film like Miracle on 34th Street is appealing. The film seems to offer a solution to the endemic scepticism of the modern world. In the beginning of the film, it is clear that 9-year old Susan Walker has been raised to despise anything make-believe. She looks down on children who pretend to be animals and she has never even heard of Jack and the Beanstalk, much to the consternation of Fred Gailey, her friendly neighbour who attempts to expand her horizons by introducing imagination into her life. Meanwhile, Susan’s mother Doris continues to instruct her daughter in a nuts-and-bolts approach to life, where the only things worth believing are tangible facts.

This epistemological conflict centres around the character of Kris Kringle, a curious old man who claims to be Santa Clause. Kris joins Fred in trying to awaken a sense of magic and imagination in the life of Susan and her mother. This attempt is connected with Kris’s goal of convincing the pair that he is indeed the real Santa Clause. These are not two separate goals, for Kris assumes that once Doris and Susan abandon their nuts-and-bolts empiricism, they will embrace his identity as Santa Clause. Santa-belief thus becomes a powerful metaphor for the human need to have faith in something beyond the tangible facts of the material world. The following dialogues from the film illustrates this:

Fred Gailey: No Santa Clause, no fairy tales, no fantasies of any kind - is that it?

Doris Wood: That’s right. I think we should be realistic and completely truthful with our children and not having them growing up believing in a lot of myths like Santa Clause.

Kris Kringle: You don’t believe then?

Doris Wood: By filling them full of fairy tales they grow up believing life to be a fantasy.

Throughout the film, all the main characters operate on the basis of a juxtaposition between a nuts-and-bolts, just-the-facts empiricism bereft of all magic, make-believe and sense of wonder, versus an imaginative orientation which recognizes that there is more to reality than meets the eye and appreciates the value of beautiful intangibles. Since Santa-belief becomes paradigmatic for the latter approach, the more Susan and Doris turn away from their sceptical empiricism the more they turn towards belief in Kris’ identity as Santa Clause. This culminates in Susan writing a letter to Kris expressing her belief in him, while Doris movingly adds “I believe in you too” at the bottom of the page.

Category Confusions in Miracle on 34th Street

The association of Santa-belief with an imaginative orientation sets up a number of confusing dilemmas at the heart of the film. Since Kris claims to really be Santa Clause in a tangible, factual sense, it is hard to understand in what sense believing in him represents an alternative to the just-the-facts scepticism of Doris and Susan. Confusingly, the film connects Santa-belief with “faith in lovely intangibles” even though Kris claims to be Santa in a tangible sense! Further, how can Santa-belief be wrapped up with an ability to enjoy what is make-believe, seeing as Kris’ makes very clear that his identity as Santa is not a matter of make-believe at all? For all Kris’s lip-service to the importance of imagination (which he defines to Susan as the ability to pretend impossible things), he makes it clear again and again throughout the film that when it comes to himself imagination isn’t good enough: he wants everyone to accept that he is not just a pretend Santa Clause (like Macy’s former Santa), but the real thing. Confusingly, Kris colludes with the very fact-based epistemology he claims to repudiate, insisting that in his own case make-believe is not sufficient: he expects people to actually believe in his identity as Santa Clause.

Modernism and the Problem of Imagination

The above may be a simple ambiguity for the sake of the narrative, but I suspect it is symptomatic of Modernism’s fundamental misunderstanding of imagination. It takes imagination to enjoy fairy tales precisely because we know that fairies do not exist. Once fairies begin to be treated as entities which really exist in a factual sense, it not only destroys their magic, but means that we no longer need imagination to enjoy them, just as Santa requires imagination precisely until we begin to treat him as someone who really exists in the same sense that you or I exist. This may help to explain one of the primary reasons why so many parents lie to their children about Santa: in the modern age, belief in falsehood often acts as a substitute for true imagination.

I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’s comment that if Conan Doyle was correct in claiming to have seen a genuine photograph of a fairy, then fairies would lose their magic. Quite true, and that is why fantasies like Harry Potter which reduce magic to something mundane and prosaic ultimately require less imagination than a narrative like the Narnia Chronicles. Thomas Howard writes that ''what we encounter in the landscape of Narnia is true - not in the sense that we will come upon the ruins of Cair Paravel somewhere (there are none), but rather in the sense that Cair Paravel is a castle, and the man from whose imagination castles have disappeared is disastrously deprived, as is the man who has lost the capacity to appreciate how it can be that for a free man to bow in the presence of a great king, far from being demeaning, is ennobling.”

This highlights two different approaches to fantasy literature that have found expression in critical comparisons of the imaginary visions of J.K. Rowlings and C.S. Lewis. Steve D. Greydanus’ has argued convincingly that magic in both Lewis and Tolkien is always otherworldly, bearing little or no resemblance to the actuality of events in the real world. Magic in Lewis and Tolkien consists of obviously imaginary and fantastic phenomena that could never occur in the real world as opposed to Rowling’s more materialistic treatment of magic. Tolkien’s fantasy was intentionally non-realistic because he believed myths to be the best way of conveying truth that would otherwise be inexpressible. Something is lost when we try to translate myths into prosaic, materialistic fact since there are essences that can only be conveyed poetically. We see this dynamic at work in Miracle on 34th Street and the attempt to translate Santa into a realistic fact and to reduce the imagination to an approximation for believing in impossible things.

Miracle on 34th Street is symptomatic of a society that, because it has lost its sense of poetry and wonder, has reduced imagination to belief in fairies. Consider Fred’s treatment of Jack and the Beanstalk when he is talking to Susan. After she says that giants don’t exist, Fred responds that they used to in the old days, as if actual belief in giants was a necessary precondition for being able to appreciate the magic of Jack and the Beanstalk. As we have seen, this approach to magic ends up colluding with the very epistemology that the film tries to repudiate, since Kris asks people to believe that he is Santa in a factual, tangible sense which therefore has absolutely nothing to do with fantasy. The film thus invokes the dizzying paradox that those who think Kris is Santa in a make-believe sense (like Sawyer, Mr. Macy, New York County District Attorney Thomas Mara) don’t have any imagination, while those who believe Kris is Santa not merely as make-believe, are learning to use their imaginations!

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