Of Modern Epics and Diversions

I’m back home, where the mood is reminiscent of high-school senior spring and the theme is escapism—anything to catch a breath from the world’s cruel drama. Lately I’ve been biking to the waterfront to skip stones, a favorite summer pastime, down in the Shippan Point section of Stamford, CT. Shippan’s a small peninsula at the city’s southern extreme. Timothy Dwight––yes, that Timothy Dwight––called it “an elegant and fertile piece of ground” in his four-volume account of the region, Travels in New England and New York. William F. Buckley Jr. lived somewhere nearby and you can still hear echoes of his prolix English in the wind.

Skipping stones is a wonderful diversion and I’ve always had a knack for it. There’s something pure about the act. The brutal motion of throwing is tempered into a graceful side-arm. The stone grazes the water until it can no longer manage another ripple. Then it sinks into the sea. And, with the sea’s encouragement, soon enough it finds its way back to shore. Skipping stones is an act of equilibrium. Nothing is displaced and all components revert to balance. That kind of perfection is scarce.

In April, I tried another familiar escape. In roughly the span of a week, I watched––yet again––all three seasons of Avatar: The Last Airbender. More than a decade ago, when a family friend sent me and my brother the show’s first season on a four-disc set, we devoured it in a day. Avatar brought us happiness and comfort and insulated us from any outside trouble. We could lose ourselves in it.

Television often had that effect on me. It guaranteed permanence and perfection. Everything followed a strict choreography. Nothing went wrong without resolution. As long as the world of iCarly was alright, the world of the real would be alright.

A kind of banal assurance has always been built into children’s stories. Writing about peasant fairy tales in early modern France, Robert Darnton, the eminent historian of mentalities, has argued that “however edifying some folktale characters may be in their behavior, they inhabit a world that seems arbitrary and amoral.” Early French folktales were amusing, but they didn’t suggest an overarching moral view or a system of ethics to live by. The same reading applies to recent American children’s television. Some shows may have had didactic intent but were rarely moral. What they did best was to assure order and assuage fear. At times they may have blurred the line between diversion and delusion, but I loved these American fairy tales. 

Avatar afforded something else entirely. The show never dealt in the one-off reversals and restarts typical of other children’s shows and avoided Seinfeld-styled emptiness; it had time to develop its own “general principles of morals,” as Hume would say, without being didactic. Instead, Avatar built a compassionate modern epic for children.

Most other American children’s shows relied on inevitability as their lifeblood. That was the source of their comfort. They taught that relief was inevitable. The viewer could depend on every episode resolving its conflicts by the end. Avatar implied that its characters had lives outside of what was seen and that no such mundane inevitability  dominated them. Yes, the show arrives at perfect balance eventually––the kind only fantasy can effect––but it feels real and hard-fought.

When I finished watching Avatar this April, I felt an unexpected despair. For a week, like in early childhood, I was able to disappear into the show’s moral world. When it ended, its refuge ended. The feeling lasted several days. The internet called it “post-show depression,” the sudden crash after a great deal of emotional weight’s been placed in fiction. That explanation didn’t sound quite right. The show does have immense sentimental value for me. Its characters look and sound like old friends. But the show isn’t to blame––it hasn’t changed a bit. It’s the world Avatar let me leave and reenter at will––this one––that has.

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