Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Homer Simpson is the Americanized Version of Russia’s Ivan the Fool, Aysin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 22 – One of the many benefits of studying another culture is the insights it provides on one’s own, something that often is especially true when members of that other culture draw analogies between their own and yours because that both modifies and expands one’s understanding of both cultures.

            Such a contribution is made by Kazan scholar Ruslan Aysin on the 30th anniversary of the American television program, The Simpsons. He argues that Homer Simpson is the American counterpart of Russia’s Ivan the Fool as described in Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 short story of that name (business-gazeta.ru/article/451109).

            In analytic psychology, he continues, there is the term “trickster.” First introduced into scholarly discussions by American anthropologist Paul Radin on the basis of his research into the mythology of the Winnebago Indians.  As he observed, the trickster “views the world as a game and form of entertainment.”

            “Sometimes his actions are criminal, sometimes funny and at times senseless, Aysin says. The trickster “stands to one side of good and evil and does everything to reinforce that. He doesn’t do evil to achieve good “but he also doesn’t cover with false good real evil. He is always ambivalent, dual and paradoxical,” the embodiment of a senseless movement without end.

            For the trickster, “the process is important, not the end.”

            In Russian popular mythology, this role is played by Ivan the Fool, someone many view with sympathy but no one wants to emulate. Now, in the United States, a new embodiment of the trickster has emerged, Homer Simpson, the patriarch of the family on the comic television series The Simpsons, that has conquered much of the world.

            (Aysin notes that it is even shown in the conservative United Arab Emirates where scenes showing Homer drinking beer or eating pork have been edited out.)

            Shows like The Simpsons, Aysin continues, are part of the mass culture and define what culture is for those who “at times are not in a position to answer the simple question: ‘What is culture and what are its paradigmatic foundations?’ This show provides in a caricatured, post-modern way a description of the values shaping culture now.

            “Beyond doubt,” the Kazan scholar says, Homer Simpson (whose first name taken from the pillar of European civilization as consciously chosen) is the Americanized form of Ivan the Fool, “a modernized trickster reduced in cultural status to the average man,” something he says Americans like. 

            For them, Aysin argues, “even an idiot must not be separated out of the common gray mass, since he himself is their complex expression. But The Simpsons is not simply a Soviet-style TV series.”  The American show is a definer for those who view it of what culture is like today.

            For example, its viewers saw Donald Trump elected president on the show long before he was elected president in fact. “Trump there has been a frequent guest. The world of laughter sometimes conceals behind a curtain a harsh and inexorable reality.” And thus it is today, Aysin argues.

            “The contemporary trickster is a joke, Homer Simpson and Donald Trump,” the Kazan writer says. “They have merged in a bizarre exposure of the senselessness of the contemporary world. But as John Dewey, the American philosopher of pragmatism put it in words that have become the worldview of Americans, if it works, that means it is true.”

            It thus turns out that The Simpsons, just like Ivan the Fool, is “a genuine reality, albeit shown in the form of comics. And we find ourselves surrounded by this dance of the tricksters.” The question now is “Is there any way out of this?” 

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