Imps and Ogres

Marina Warner

  • Big and Small: A Cultural History of Extraordinary Bodies by Lynne Vallone
    Yale, 339 pp, £20.00, November 2017, ISBN 978 0 300 22886 1

In 1956, Lorenza Mazzetti, then a student at the Slade, made a film called Together, with her fellow artists Michael Andrews and Eduardo Paolozzi playing the main parts. She shot it in the bombed-out East End, which gaggles of children had made their territory; her camera catches the wild scrambling, dash and hurtle of scores of boys and girls playing together in the puddles and the rubble. Theirs is a no man’s land demarcated into tribal zones, the borders invisible to any but themselves. Andrews, in his twenties, overgrown and etiolated like a Giacometti shadow, has fine tapering hands and delicate features; Paolozzi is a little older, squat and square, with a pug nose, full broad mouth and strong pudgy hands. Together – the film’s title – they make a droll Beckettian pair (Waiting for Godot was in 1956 on everyone’s mind), but Mazzetti adds a twist: her heroes are deaf-mutes. We watch them communicating by signing and facial expression, while the film itself is silent except for the spooky nursery rhymes and songs the kids sing. The two men, tenderly and domestically bonded, rely on each other for everything. As they make their way home from the docks where they work to the cramped room where they lodge, they trespass inadvertently on the children’s territory and, oblivious, keep ‘talking’ to each other, chased by the children – who pull faces, mocking and baiting them.

Together looks unflinchingly at London’s postwar harshness and poverty, and brings a sensibility about exclusion formed by Mazzetti’s own story.[*] In 1944, when she was living in a farmhouse outside Florence with her extended family, Wehrmacht soldiers knocked on the door and killed her uncle, aunt and two cousins. The murders, which took place during the ferocious violence of the German retreat, seem to have been intended as a reprisal for Albert Einstein’s existence – her uncle was Einstein’s cousin. She and her twin sister, whose surname wasn’t Einstein and didn’t sound Jewish, were spared. She went to London, alone, and turned up at the Slade determined to enrol as a student; William Coldstream, the Slade’s director, happened to walk by while she was pleading her case with the receptionist, listened to her story and, without further ado, accepted her.

The film is haunting, and its two non-actor stars are its enthralling ghosts, embodiments of social exclusion. Their contrasting size makes them peculiar in a nursery way, like the Walrus and the Carpenter or Jack Sprat and his wife, but Mazzetti subtly lets their silence speak of other causes of persecution. The children play a last prank on the pair, and the film ends in a searing, understated disaster. Presented without comment or sequel, it reminds us again that the rationale of the death camps, where persons deemed anomalous were destroyed, is not bound to a state of exception but can flourish in quite unexceptional circumstances.

The popular imagination is crowded with anthropomorphic beings, many differentiated from us by their deviations from the human standard, especially in size: they have what Lynne Vallone calls ‘extraordinary bodies’ – Polyphemus the Cyclops at one end, Thumbelina at the other. Imps, gnomes, the seven dwarfs in Snow White, ‘le petit Poucet’ or Tom Thumb, and the whole crew of Pucks and fairies are tiny. Such wee folk also tend to mischief and trickery and possess enviable survival skills. By contrast, gods, tyrants and ogres are gigantic and often violent, and tower into the celestial sphere. Here is the partly divine Gilgamesh, hero of the earliest poem extant, in Andrew George’s translation:

Eleven cubits was his height,
Four cubits his chest, from nipple to nipple.
A triple cubit his feet and a rod his stride,
A triple cubit the beard of his cheek.

When Polyphemus rails against Odysseus from the clifftop, Homer asks us to imagine him visible as well as audible from the sea as Odysseus and his men make their escape (Arnold Böcklin paints the raging, blinded Polyphemus hurling a massive piece of mountain at Odysseus’ boat). Giants in legends and folk tales are clumsy and blundering and foolish, and their strength doesn’t always prevail: David fells Goliath with a slingshot (like a child in a bombsite playground), and poor boy Jack can outwit the ogre at the top of the beanstalk, however big and strong and vicious and rich he is, and make off with the golden goose. Such stories are popular parables of democratic power, the little man up against the mighty tyrant.

Not all deviations from standard size have been treated as repellent, of course. Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant distributes good dreams to children, and bilious green Shrek and his beloved Princess Fiona, pretty princess by day, ogre by night, inverted the usual expectations of ogreish brutality and scored a wildly popular success. Out of the ordinary bodies can be seductive, too, especially when confined to stories and images: as Aristotle points out in the Poetics, we enjoy representations of insects and corpses; we also thrill to horrible creatures – boggarts, bogles, guhls in the Middle East, bunyips in Australia – which would frighten and disgust us if we ever encountered them.

Vallone, a professor of childhood studies at Rutgers University, combines readings of children’s literature with social history (she has written a lively book about Queen Victoria’s girlhood). Disparities in bulk and weight interest her more than other aspects of monstrosity in the fantastic repertory that today aims to appeal mostly to children, and she doesn’t consider many zoomorphic fantasies – the chimaera, the minotaur, winged, fishtailed, hooved, scaly, horned creatures etc – even though several of these are usually portrayed as colossal. She bravely enters the zone where imagined creatures overlap with historic figures and their real bodies, inspiring curiosity and acquisitiveness as well as horror and pity. ‘I came to understand that we may look to the powerful and potent symbolic and symbiotic relationships between big and small as a means to understand … how and why we construct the world around us.’ So she maps the fantastic imagination onto actual instances of out of the ordinary bodies and vice versa, exploring what happens to the individuals who are housed in bodies of unexpected shapes and sizes.

The anomalous human subject often served as a warning of the dangers of deviating from the norm – ‘monster’ derives from monstrare, ‘to show’, inflected by monere, ‘to warn’. The Hunterian Museum in London used to exhibit the skeleton of the Irish giant Charles Byrne, whose fate inspired Hilary Mantel to write a fine novel, The Giant, O’Brien, which examines the surgeon John Hunter’s avid pursuit of specimen bodies to study, the more unusual the more covetable. At the Hunterian, which is currently closed for renovation, the Irishman’s skeleton was displayed beside that of the ‘Sicilian fairy’, Caroline Crachami, only one foot, ten and a half inches tall; Gaby Wood wrote about her in the LRB (11 December 1997) and about the morbid fascination with freakery. It’s unclear whether the two skeletons will return to display when the museum is reopened. Byrne had wanted his body buried at sea to avoid Hunter’s attentions; changing ethics about human remains on display in museums mean that many now feel his wishes should be respected.

Vallone gives a bold reading of Tom Thumb’s multiple appearances in 18th and 19th-century literature, matching them with contemporary speculations and discoveries in microscopy, alchemy and embryology – especially the search for the homunculus, a tiny fully formed human thought by some to be contained in semen. ‘Just as the illustration of the flea’s proportion and uniformity in The Wonders of the Microscope encourages thoughts of the goodness of God,’ she writes, Charlotte Yonge’s version of ‘Tom Thumb’ ‘concludes that the beauty and symmetry of the infant Tom’s body communicates his purity’. More recently, and more sinisterly, his perfect miniaturisation has been used as a propaganda image by US campaigners against IVF, who want to portray the foetus as a full person in little. When a prominent anti-abortion organiser set up institutions for pregnant women, he called them Tom Thumb Houses.

Entering palaces, circuses, music halls and world fairs, Vallone records the ways in which princes, explorers and impresarios collected people who were physically extraordinary, deploying them to enhance their own prestige, and putting them on show for public delectation. In 1626 the Duke of Buckingham staged a banquet for the young queen, Henrietta Maria; its many courses included an enormous pastry from which, just as in ‘Tom Thumb’, a child sprang: Jeffrey Hudson, who, at the age of seven, was 18 inches tall (history doesn’t relate how he was baked in a pie without ending up cooked). The queen was pleased with her new toy, though Vallone is too diplomatic to use that word. In Van Dyck’s painting of them together a pet monkey is perched on Hudson’s shoulder; the queen, a giantess in a picture hat, absently caresses the animal as she looks out at us loftily. In other portraits of this kind, Vallone writes, a black page plays a similar role as foil and ‘exotic other’, and she suggests that Van Dyck’s painting ‘of the pretty dwarf as pet is clearly a portrait of the dwarf as apish or not quite human’. This doesn’t convince me: the tiny child, who grew into a tiny man (a manikin), embodied a singular wonder, and was a collectible just like a giant conch shell, a coral fan, or indeed a white peacock, a gift for someone who has everything.

When Velázquez was commissioned to celebrate the arrival of the Spanish heir to the throne, he painted a double portrait: Don Baltasar Carlos with a Dwarf (1632). The female dwarf is portrayed drawing away from the young prince, but keeping hold of a rattle and an apple – playthings which the prince, born to rule, must reject. Velázquez painted several more court dwarfs, including in Las Meninas, where another female favourite, Maribarbola, appears – in the description of the art historian Lara Bass – as ‘the imperfect twin of the infanta at the centre’. Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale ‘The Birthday of the Infanta’ picks up this theme and wrings pity from the reader with his portrait of a court dwarf: toyed with by a heartless princess whom he adores, he comes face to face with himself in a mirror and experiences a moment of terrible anagnorisis: he sees himself as a monster and realises that she has been laughing at him, mocking his loathsomeness, not delighting in his antics because she loves and admires him.

Vallone lingers on the display of smaller peoples, who were seen as embodying the youth of Homo sapiens, a view familiar from justifications of slavery that was invoked as a scientific pretext for their exhibition. She tells the story of Ota Benga, a young man bought in the Congo by Samuel Phillips Verner, a former missionary who was working as a collector for the St Louis World Fair. Visitors who paid an extra five cents could see Benga bare his filed and pointed teeth. When the fair closed, Verner took the nine pygmies he had ‘collected’ back to the Congo, and gave them a shared fee of $8.35. In 1906, Benga returned to the US with Verner and was put with the orangutan in the monkey house at the Bronx Zoo. Ten years later, he shot himself.

Benga’s story was retold for children in Jane Cutler’s 1998 book The Song of the Molimo: ‘By rewriting Ota Benga’s life as a happy story of African assimilation into American culture,’ Vallone writes, ‘his last act of defiance or of despair … is … erased.’ Children’s literature, with its palpable designs on the reader, usually sticks close to the prevailing ideals of every decade, and many books which I read and loved as a child, and others which I read with my son in the 1980s and 1990s, have been superseded and sometimes indicted: The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks, which seemed wonderfully imaginative and emancipatory, has come in for severe criticism for its appropriation of Native Americans. Vallone reviews the debate with judicious even-handedness.

Her book is buoyed by good intentions, as it tacks between children’s books and illustration, art, social history and theories of pedagogy. She traverses highly sensitive terrain, where many of today’s most incendiary issues – race, gender, age, reproduction technologies, disability and fatness – lie thornily around. The results are lopsided: at times highly detailed, at others sketchy, at times defiant (using the term ‘pygmies’, for example, when she could have used San or Khoi), at others compliant with current ideas of politeness. Tracking the way historical attitudes to bodily difference have changed, she hopes for more tolerance and less mockery of the kind the gang in Mazzetti’s film so insouciantly expressed. But her hopefulness feels strained. Commodifying bodies for entertainment and spectacle hasn’t come to an end, and the politics of stigmatisation are raging.

[*] Mazzetti tells some of this story in London Diaries, translated by Melinda Mele (Zidane, 146 pp., £8.99, August 2018, 978 0 9562678 5 6).