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Mickey Mouse Slouches Toward Bethlehem

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

When I was a young, tame radical in college Walt Disney received an honorary degree from that college. The citation, written by a very famous English prof, William Lyon Phelps, contained the line, "he labored like a mountain and brought forth a mouse," which went over the nation's wires and amused everybody, even radical me. I was not amused, though, by the award itself. I had been brought up on Disney shorts, and had enjoyed them unreservedly like the rest of the world; but at the time of the honorary degree Disney was suffering a change of life, being deep in the production of full-length films-Bambi, Snow White and the like-that seemed to me and my radical friends to be wholly decadent, though they were obviously profitable outlets for the Disney entrepreneurial energy. Some French or classical voice in us whispered that a genre had been villainously encouraged to jump its bounds, with the result that a mouse had brought forth a mountain. And that was wrong.

Last week my family and I stumbled for the first time through the new Disney World in Florida — we have never been near the California establishment — and my old feelings swept over me again, though my radicalism was asleep. My family agreed. We found the whole show a rip-off. As we saw it the Disney interests had out-Barnumed Barnum; they had figured out a way to persuade half the country to travel tremendous distances to be relieved of significant sums; theirs was a triumph in the converting of people into sheep. We left early without using all our tickets.

Since our visit we have been quizzing citizens on street corners about the merits of Disney World, and the responses have been largely positive, a fact we are trying to live with. True, a garage man acknowledged that though he liked Disney World he liked it for the wrong reasons; that is, he had been privileged to see the "inside," all sorts of operational detail that the sheep miss. But the bulk of affirmation was unquestionably from the happy sheep themselves. They enjoyed it.

Now why should I knock pleasure? I shouldn't, I won't, I think pleasure is pleasurable. But I must stand firm and say that I don't think Disney World can be let off as a simple pleasure dome. Just as Wait Disney's original move from shorts to full-length cartoons violated, in the days before World War II, the natural and healthy pleasures of the original cartoon genre, similarly the new Floridian monstrosity violates the simplicities it celebrates; it is much more than a monument to the joys of Mickey, Minnie and Donald; it emerges as a sort of cultural, mebbe spiritual, shrine.

I grant that my first hint at being in the presence of holiness occurred before we actually arrived at Disney World. We spent the night at a clip joint nearby, paying more for minimal accommodations in the middle of a cold nowhere than we had spent each night the previous week, for pleasant rooms with kitchenette on the beach at Palm Beach. But hotel gods are minor deities and it was evident that these particular itchy Mammons were clustering in central Florida because there was a higher god, a true determiner of price. Sure enough we came into his august presence in the Mickey Mouse Theater the next morning.

First we were herded into a stand-up auditorium and treated to a short pious history of Mickey Mouse cartoons. Then we were herded into a sitdown puppet theater (the two-auditorium arrangement was a logistical triumph, since it speeded the flow through the show), where a concert by characters out of the whole Disney heaven took place for perhaps 20 minutes, with Mickey himself as the orchestra conductor. He and his orchestra rose from the pit at the beginning, and played a tune through in a mock symphonic manner borrowed from Fantasia; then the orchestra gave way to specialty numbers by Snow White, Donald Duck and so on for a few minutes, after which the whole cast was exposed for a grand finale that ended with Mickey turning around and bowing to us, the sheep.

Remember, the Disney characters were all presented as puppets. They were in constant motion during the show, doing their respective things, and they were programmed very precisely so that their mouths opened and their arms wiggled for just the right musical notes (I pictured behind the scene a complicated version of an oldtime player-piano roll), so that one could have said of the show—had one been disposed to defend it as pleasure merely—that it was merely a puppet show and a rather good one. But my point is that when Mickey turned to us and bowed, it seemed absolutely plain that he had graduated from his modest "merely" roles; he was no longer a simple fantasy figure from a smart artist's pen, but the central idol of a $400 million church. Certainly as he bowed he gave us sheep a moment of genuine confusion about what we were in the presence of. As a herd we clapped, ever so briefly, then stopped, embarrassed.

After all, what were we applauding? The player-piano machine? The engineers who built it? The entrepreneurs who financed it? Or the great imago, Mickey himself?

The embarrassment came, I think, from the sudden realization that we were applauding a puppet, and a computerized puppet at that, a puppet that had gone through its whole performance untouched by human hand. Furthermore it was an absurd puppet, a mouse puppet—nothing with a long beard and high forehead like a sage, but a plump round thing with large round ears that had nonetheless been presented as more than that, with the result that we sheep were confused about what we had experienced, and about the intentions behind the production —justifiably because the confusion was central, if that performance had been originally constructed as a serious satire on the capacity of human sheep to find huge, and hugely ridiculous, imagos for worship, not a single change would have been needed in the "script."

Pieties abound elsewhere at Disney World. Perhaps the central piety — which is behind the imago fascination of Mickey himself but controls as well the mythology propagated by the entire enterprise — is a faith in the simple virtues of children and childhood. But as those virtues get filtered through the American money machine they become, as we all know, drippy sentimental. This they of course do at Disney World. Even the cutie com of Winnie-the-Pooh has been incorporated. Furthermore many of the peripheral characters and myths that the Disney interests have appropriated over the years have been gimcracked to death, so that they have none of their original integrity. As my wife observed, Mickey Mouse is in some respects the only authentic figure on the grounds. Now I submit, Mr. Bentham, that when half the country is busy flying, driving and pedaling down to Fla. to be infantile—and infantile as well in the worship of gods that are false, and that drip —then there is at work here more than a pleasure principle.

I have just seen this phenomenon, and though 1 thought I was too old and experienced in the ways of my country to be shocked by anything, the experience did shock me. We are being taken. ladies and gentlemen, taken in a big way. We sheep weren't there just for pleasure, just for laughs. We were there for something higher, something ineffably cultural, an important life-experience, and perhaps more than that, an ultimate experience; at any rate something to fill the vacuums of our lives. The mouse knew our need.

And TV? (I have not forgotten that this is a TV column.) The precedent at Disney World shows us how far a country that lives in a social and ideological vacuum can be betrayed by a vacuum-ideology. I doubt if we can find in the history of the world a better example of the worship of a false god than now, west of Orlando; in our national emptiness we are, it has been convincingly demonstrated, open to anything. So the question immediately comes up: what will the next anything be?

If The Wizard of Oz were not a teensie weensie bit passé I would suggest that somebody build a $500 million empire based upon it in the Arizona desert. For would not the Wizard make another perfect non-god for eventual serious worship? (The film is halfway there already.) Aside from the Wizard my inclination is to look to the tube for the next big imago breakthrough, and while I don't know which tube celebrity to put money on — Lucy in the Everglades? Archie Bunker in the Tetons? —my heart sinks when I contemplate the tube's potential to follow the Disney path.

Yet so far, happily, the big TV money has been devoted to the production of simple pleasure shows, as in the early days of Disney and of the movies as a whole. I see little to fear from Lucy and the like as they now exist, and it seems to me shortsighted of the idealistic reformers of TV to keep proposing that TV perform somehow more significant functions. In a society that can make a god of Mickey Mouse the chief danger is probably not that TV fait to raise its sights, but rather that it do so and raise them toward the wrong targets, letting significance be created arbitrarily, created by unscrupulous entrepreneurs.

Do I mean that TV would do best simply to avoid "worthy" social and educational ventures? Of course not. I mean that TV's functions, whatever they are or may become, should be modestly conceived and performed; tube operators with high and churchy notions should be emphatically discouraged. In reverse, the talents of those still devoted to keeping the tube lowbrow and light should not be scorned. We could be in the hands of darker forces, and probably will be.