Thursday, April 12, 2012

Discarded Toys: Conflicting Concepts of Creation


I was thinking about discarded or forgotten toys and the literature and films that support the concept of their existence quite independently of the children who owned them and then discarded or forgot about them. In other words, the existence and character of a toy outlives its 'usefulness'. Although I dislike the stylistic qualities of the animation in the 'Toy Story' series of films, the concept is marvelous. Equally popular but older is 'The Velveteen Rabbit', a book that follows the life of a stuffed rabbit after his original owner is forced to part with him.

Being the person I am, I then pursued the topic to another level, which is the independent existence of Gods and Goddesses even if forgotten or repudiated by the humans who once worshipped them. There are those who believe that our Gods/Goddesses are created by us rather than accepting the principle that we have been created by a God/Goddess. My own belief is that, in the same way that any beautiful object that could be defined as 'Art' or Nature in some way embodies the larger, more abstract concept of Beauty itself, our visions of the Divine partly embody the Divine which is Infinite and thus cannot be encapsulated in ANY human concept, however sophisticated or elastic. We simply are incapable of perceiving the Infinite as we are incapable of creating a vessel that could capture the entire concept of Beauty or Truth.

As a woman whose childhood was populated by dolls and toys and who always has possessed a very vibrant and potent spiritual life, I would believe in the independent existence of my childhood companions and fancies as well as God if for no other reason than sentimentality. I do, however, truly believe in their existence on a spiritual level as well as the somewhat limited physical space they inhabit.

In trying to formulate my own philosophy, I began to think about the concept of the 'collective unconscious'. Certainly many minor deities and universal toys are recognised instinctively almost by individuals from different cultures and epochs as having specific attributes and powers. In the case of a toy, it can be one or more of the following: a source of comfort, a constant companion, a confidante, a surrogate child, the repository of dreams, wishes and secrets, a role model or concrete example of the owner's aspirations.

Minor deities can have the same qualities to some extent. The stories or myths that attach to a specific deity or saint are mirrored often in the stories that belong to or are given to certain dolls and toys. In the case of dolls and toys as in the case of deities and saints, the object is created usually to represent the protagonist or another character in a specific tale. Sometimes the creation of the doll, statue or toy then inspires further tales and an entire mythology or corpus of tales develops because of the concrete object. Films and video games have taken this to another level, where the object can be virtual rather than physical and often interactive.

Whatever the chronology, the idea that any doll, toy or deity will continue to live and perhaps have its own experiences after the original maker or owner ceases to take any interest in its creation is very comforting to me. In some sense, it is a triumph of Creativity and Art as well.

'Toy Story' is not the first tale of its kind by any means, but its enormous popularity may have affected a new generation and increased compassion and empathy towards creatures or objects who inhabit a slightly different reality from ours. It is a powerful manifesto against the idea of the 'disposable culture' and thus very compelling to me. It is based, of course, on Hans Christian Andersen's tale of 'The Steadfast Tin Soldier' which is a classic.

To me, all the tales of the lives of dolls and toys, including the wonderful tales of Raggedy Ann, are a lesson in the power of the lowly, the inarticulate and the forgotten. The humble rag doll was the doll who possessed the heart, empowering, inspiring and sustaining all the others, toys and human children alike.

Even Barbie, reviled for her 'plastic' beauty and lifestyle exists quite apart from the commercial universe that spawned her and has been given significance and depth by generations of children who create their own tales for her.

I worked in a doll shop a few years ago and often mothers and grandmothers would complain to me about the children for which they purchased dolls and toys, declaring that these children did not take care of them or treated them harshly.

My response was always the same. 'You have to teach children compassion and gentleness. When they drop the doll or toy on the floor, you should pick up the doll or toy as if it were a child or animal, imbuing the child with a sense of empathy towards it. If you don't do that, how will the child learn?'

Unfortunately, there are adults who teach children to view their dolls and toys merely as commodities or commercial investments. I was horrified to discover children who traded their dolls and toys commercially (especially after the creation of Ebay), selling objects for a quick profit that they had received as gifts of love from family members.

It was with great delight that I saw a little girl pick up the doll she had dropped and ask, 'Are you okay, little Heart?' Her empathy towards a doll extended to embrace other children and human beings of all ages but it was those early experiences with her dolls and toys who taught her how to deal with the complex mazes of the human heart. It is no accident that therapists use dolls and toys to persuade children to re-enact the dramas and traumas in their own past.

The idea of the family shrine can be found in many different cultures and whether inhabited by the symbols of family ancestors or by 'lares' (household gods of ancient Rome), they become the repository of the history of the home and family. In like fashion, the dolls and toys of childhood serve as the repository of memories of childhood itself.

The question that provoked my thoughts originally was: Did we create these symbols or did we simply discover them? I believe that the abstract realities of Beauty, Truth, Art and the Divine exist whether or not we acknowledge them or pay them any heed or respect. When an artist creates a doll or toy or the statue of a deity, does he or she simply discover and make concrete something that exists even if never put into physical form? Or is he/she in fact the creator of something new and finite that can be destroyed and removed from existence in the same way that it was brought forth into the light?

To wise King Solomon is attributed the statement that 'There is nothing new under the Sun'. That declaration would support my belief that all of these creations exist independently of their finite 'birth'. Whatever power or 'life' they possess derives from a common source, however. The idea of 'gods at war' in a literal sense is absurd. The idea that the Divine Being, aka God is 'jealous' of 'false gods' is absurd as well. Goodness and Truth and Beauty all can inspire different symbols, manifesting in different ways to different people or artists. Whatever is interwoven into the tapestry of an individual's life ta definition and 'life' even from that person.

Perhaps this is the significance of the old myths about the Creator God who 'breathes life' into clay to create humankind. Our lives and our interactions with our dolls, toys and gods 'breathe life' into them as they become symbols of specific periods or events in our lives or become associated with a specific individual, whether it is the giver or some one who is evoked by the object.

For any one who is unfamiliar with this wonderful tale, here is a link to 'The Steadfast Tin Soldier':

The Steadfast Tin Soldier

It is a rather sad tale, and it remains a very powerful and beautiful story that has inspired many generations.

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