I’m ambivalent about a certain category of books, some of which I own and others I have handled and put back on the shelf. Using a popular book or movie or franchise therefrom, usually in the fantasy genre, these volumes examine the “Philosophy of Narnia” or “Harry Potter and Philosophy.” I am perfectly happy (and so are the textbooks, lately) to use metaphors from The Matrix to help explain ontological questions in Intro to Philosophy 101 — Neo’s experience in that movie series is the perfect shorthand depiction of what the last generation of metaphysics textbooks had called “the brain in the vat” theory. I am less comfortable with extracting new philosophical insights from vampire shows or latter-day Star Trek incarnations. But some literature captures the essence of metaphysics without appearing to try. Note I said “appearing to.”
In The Mouse and His Child (1967) Russell Hoban probably tries for the metaphysical, but because he doesn’t appear to, his book was published as a children’s chapter book. In 1977 it was made into an animated movie with Peter Ustinov as the voice of Immanuel “Manny” Rat; playing essentially the same part he did in Disney’s 1973 Robin Hood as the “phony King of England,” Prince John. But the Mouse film clearly belongs to a different genre, because the four words spoken in the book by the tramp are voiced by John Cassavetes. That takes us into another philosophical realm altogether (so much so that the comments thread for the YouTube of the film veers crazily from sweet nostalgia to “creepiest [vulgarity] thing…ruined my [profanity] soul”). Let’s just say that the soul is frequently a casualty of existential observation.
I am glad I saw the movie in 1978 and read the book yesterday. An awareness of its philosophical depth had lingered over the years, but I needed to be a student of the humanities in earnest before I read the words on the page. In chapter 4 crows perform the stage version of “The Last Visible Dog” in tin cans buried in the mud; between 1978 and now I have read Beckett’s Endgame; just this past week I introduced a freshman class to Aristotle’s Poetics and to Sophocles’ Oedipus only to then read about how the audience for those crows “purged themselves of all remaining pity and terror” (93). I found Thomas Kuhn’s scientific paradigm in the Muskrat’s pursuit of X and felt some of Sartre’s nausea when the mouse child peered through the manyness of dogs, past the last visible dog, into the infinity between the dots. The clockwork tin toys might not acquire souls at last, soul-search though they might; but they come to an understanding of what it means to be self-winding. One could do worse than journey backwards into the dark night of the soul and come out with an elephant for a mama and a seal for a sister.