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Pied Piper and Dionysus: Figures of Repression

Post Graduate (Master of Arts) in English Literature and Philosophy


Children's Literature Reinforces Social Norms

One of the earliest lessons that children are taught is to respect authority. Most of the works of literature written for children has an underlying theme of a common-law applicable to everyone and obeyed by the members of the society. In Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling uses the term “The Law of the Jungle” to signify a common law followed by the pack of wolves in the jungle. Normally, to children, the concept of jungle and wildlife represents chaos which mirrors the fact that a child taking the first steps to learn the social framework of the society may encounter chaotic and potentially paradoxical situations.
Hence, children's literature introduces the primary concepts of law and order prevalent in the society which helps the child to undercut the chaotic situations and identify the benefits of the presence of law and order in society.
The ability to identify and to accept the rule of law in society is generally considered to be a signifier of maturity in the child. The concept of the rule of law is taught to the child in generally two ways, by application of the two apparatuses available to the society, the repressive state apparatus and the ideological state apparatus.
A child first encounters the repressive state apparatus in school where the child is punished for any transgression from the 'rules' of the school. Whereas the application of the ideological state apparatus on the child starts from the home through various subtle ideologies which the child is taught and sometimes it is conveyed through various signs and symbols in daily life and sometimes to the kind of literature provided to the child, both at home and school.
The ideological state apparatus might also be propagated to the child through various social customs or by emulating the social behavioural patterns of the adults. For example, in a religious family, one of the first customs the child picks off from the parent is the habit or the custom of praying. Intentionally or unintentionally, these customs are imprinted on the child's mind and the child begins to follow those customs as if they were rules which the child should follow to stay within the confines of the social law. It is further emphasised through various literature meant for children where the protagonist may end up in trouble if he fails to follow the law. The effect these stories have in the child's mind is further reinforced by the repressive state apparatus which the child encounters at school if something takes place which breaches the law of the school.
The ideological state apparatus encompasses a wide range of social customs but it is also propagated through various forms of media which a child is exposed to. To prove this point, I would like to carry out a comparative study of the myth of 'The Pied Piper', particularly the rendition of Robert Browning and the role of Dionysus in Euripides' Bacchae or 'The Bakkhai'.
When we are first introduced to the Pied Piper in the poem he is dressed in a colourful garb of red and yellow or as the poem denotes in a "queer long coat". The colour itself is bound to attract the attention of the child as it will captivate the imagination of the child with its rich imagery. In the version of the book where there are rich illustrations by Kate Greenway, the visual effect of the poem is immediately enhanced. The image and text of the poem, both are transformed into a metaphor for the Piper itself as it leads the child's imagination with it into the narrative and the child reader blindly starts to follow the narrative. The attire and the appearance of the Piper are described in great detail and we see that the entire town council is mesmerised by his appearance as the poem notes:
“And nobody could enough admire The tall man and his quaint attire”
The word “quaint” is important here as it denotes both attractive and unusual. Hence, the readers can perceive that the Piper has started communicating with the townsfolk through the means of his appearance and captivates the attention of the residents of Hamelin so that he enjoys being the centre of attraction of the people. The Piper is 'armed' with a pipe or a flute and he says that he chiefly uses his “charm” to attract harmful people and animals, though it is made clear by the end of the poem that his “charm” may attract anyone, harmful or otherwise. So, it is clear that the Piper is a musician and the charm he uses is primarily his music, but it is also his mannerisms and appearance. So from the moment, he enters the scene he has conveyed through various signifiers that he wants to be the centre of people's attention and he can make a living being "follow" him by the use of his "charm". In the case of the rats, he 'led' them to the river, to their deaths and in the case of the children, he led them away from the town. In both the cases, the adults were spared and it can be said that the Piper has the power or ability to focus his "charm" on a particular section of society as per his whims.
Similarly, in the case of Dionysus in Bacchae, he uses his charm to gather a group of followers to revere him as a God. As per Greek myths, Dionysus is the God of wine, music and all the other arts. Similar to the case of the Piper, the common denominator in both the cases is music. A child, in its early days of learning, is attracted to music and poetry or anything that has rhythm rather than prose. It is normally understood that a child, before the development of the logical faculty to analyse the contents of various media, can only positively respond to rhythm and music. As the child grows, the logical faculty develops, but the immediacy of responding or being attracted to anything rhythmic or colourful is never diminished. Even adults demonstrate this behaviour of responding to primarily to rhythm rather than logic. Hence, many ideological state apparatus employs the means of music, poetry, rhythm or colour to convey the messages to the human psyche, which illustrates that these tools have a deeper access to the human psyche than the faculty of logic and reason. Both music and wine produce a sense of intoxication and addiction, hence the emotional faculty which supersedes the logical faculty exhibits an attraction towards both of them. Therefore it can be said that ideological state apparatuses appeal more to our emotional faculty as they slowly associate themselves to our personal tastes and mental constructions of attraction which develop during childhood and it is not always governed by the logical faculty. The origin of the Pied Piper and Dionysus are clouded in obscurity. Though Dionysus presents his version of ancestry, the readers do not get to know the origin of the Pied Piper. The people of Thebes, especially Pentheus rejects to believe Dionysus's ancestry as he knows that acceptance of his ancestry would also create the opportunity for Dionysus to have a legitimate claim on the throne of Thebes. Dionysus, as a figure is as ambiguous as the Pied Piper. The Piper claims that his charms only attract people who are “harmful” to the society, but he ends up using his 'charm' to harm the society instead. Dionysus embodies opposing characteristics within himself. As a God, he is both benevolent and vengeful and illustrates the differences which his followers portray within themselves- belief and madness, celebration and destruction.
The tension or the main theme in both the narratives is about honouring a legitimate claim. In the case of the Pied Piper, it is the sum of 1000 gilders promised to him by the "corporation" for his effort to rid the town of the menace of rats. As for Dionysus, it is his legitimate claim over Thebes and his recognition as a God. Furthermore, both can be viewed as rebel figures as both undermined the authority of the ruler and carried on with their own designs. As folklore, the story of the Pied Piper can be read as a medieval tale with a core morality where the audience or the readers are encouraged to honour anyone's legitimate claims, honour promises otherwise they might have to lose something which is precious to them.
The underlying emotion in both tales is fear. In the case of young readers, the fear produces a response at the emotional level of the readers, the readers to avoid the fearful outcome might think twice before dishonouring a promise. Hence the tale functions as an ideological state apparatus and coerces the reader to honour legitimate claims. Similarly, in the myth of Dionysus, the gruesome vengeance of God warns the reader of consequences of disrespecting a God and it renders the mind of the reader or audience into submission before a God.
The other thing common in both these narratives is the figure of a charismatic leader. Both of them, through their intoxication and music appeal to the emotion and not to reason. The authority of the charismatic leader seems infallible to a mesmerised and hypnotised group of followers. The communication between the leader and the followers are one-sided as we do not generally hear back from the group of followers in both the tales, not at least in the narrative where the reason has control over the emotion.
It might be noted that as both the texts are from the pre-Enlightenment era, the absence of reason has been portrayed in animals (rats), children and women. Before enlightenment (and to some extent after the onset of modernism) women were thought to be irrational or with a subdued rational faculty. In many literary examples, we can see women portrayed as mad or incapable of having rational thoughts, though will seldom hear the voice of the women speaking to us back till the late Enlightenment era. As in the case with children, they are still incapable of speaking to us. Hence both madness and childhood are still considered to be the domain of irrational thoughts which could be easily swayed by emotional triggers like music, wine, colours and any form of attractive media. These are the essential tools for the framework of ideological state apparatuses which forms the foundation stone for the repressive state apparatuses. In this regard, we might consider the figure of the charismatic leader (both the Pied Piper and Dionysus) as a key figure in the functioning of these two apparatuses.
Charisma or compelling attractiveness in a leader can inspire devotion for the leader in the minds of the followers. Charisma or the devotion which stems from it does not have any rational basis but simply depend on the attractiveness of the persona or presence of the leader. It may even stem from the leader's promises towards its followers. The only true voice from the hypnotised followers we hear in the Pied Piper is that of a rat, who has been anthropomorphized to narrate its version of events once the rats hear the sound of the flute of the Pied Piper. The rat describes visions of vast stores of food which it saw in a hypnotised state, so it can be inferred that the rats had a vision of a 'better tomorrow' and blinded by the hope they followed the Piper to their doom. In the modern context, Piper's song may be related to songs which are used as political propaganda to lure voters or supporters of a specific ideology into a false hope. Political campaigns and propagandas take the advantage of the ideological state apparatuses to instil within the common people a positive response towards their ideology. Their campaigns are specifically targeted to instigate the emotional faculty of the people. Hence the use simple, yet attractive colours, emblems or catchy rhythms, tones or music in their campaign to appeal to the hidden child inside the adults because the adults had been taught since childhood by the ideological state apparatuses to have a positive response to such campaigns.
Both the Pied Piper and Dionysus challenges the authority but ends up being authoritarian on their own. As in the Bacchae, the Maenads had an unfailing belief in their God, Dionysus. Hence it was actually the Maenads belief in the authority of Dionysus which cemented his position as a God. The Pied Piper, being a part of the German folklore, it is easy to find such abuses of propaganda in Germany itself. Gunter Grass in his work Die Rattin or The Rat draws parallels between the Pied Piper and Nazi Germany and he sounds a warning through his work to stop potential neo-nazi uprising and anti-Semitism. The Piper is a highly dubious figure. He remains benign as long as he lures the rats to the river, but he has the potential to be revengeful. In a way, the Piper legend illustrates the possibilities of a rebellious figure who can command a large number of people at his will. The people he commands are often lethargic to identify any folly of the figure of the leader. It becomes the ideal breeding ground for ideologies in the formation of an autocratic government. In this regard, the song "Everything Is Awesome” from the film "The Lego Movie" might be a suitable example. In an article by Eric Brown in the paper International Business Times it is opined that the song is a parody of fascism, in the sense that the tune is so catchy that every character in the film knows the song by heart and loves the song and sings it whenever it is aired on the radio. Yet the song is almost mechanical and monotonous in the sense that the song actually works as an alarm clock to get everyone ready for work. The song also tries to build up a cultural homogeneity in the town of Brickburg, where the story is set. The song might also be considered as an aggressive commercial campaign which essentially monopolises the economy of the city for the ruler of the world in the movie who is known as "President Business". The people become so much mesmerised by the charisma of the leader that they are unable to decide anything for themselves and they become prisoners of their own device.
In a globalised world, the garb of the Piper has been passed to the media itself. The digital age has been blinded by the cacophony of various kinds of media, mainly advertising media which allure the minds of the customers into buying their products. We get accustomed to various tunes or taglines of various products and we can identify a product nowadays by simply hearing the musical jingle associated with the ad featuring the product. The popular media plays with the faculty of cognition where a potential buyer can associate himself in some ways with the product featured in an advertisement. In some ways, the ad creates an expectation of the product in the mind of the potential buyer. It is similar to the vision of the promise of a better life which the mesmerised rat perceived while being allured by the tune of the Pied Piper.
Similarly, ads for products like chocolates, biscuits and toys have kids as their target audience and the design the ads accordingly so that the ad can evoke a favourable response in the minds of the children so that the children could coerce the parents into buying various products for them. The bright wrapper or the catchy rhythm of the tune or something which is given free along the product captivates the child's imagination and creates a desire in the mind of the child for that product. It is similar to the effects of the intoxication produced by the song of the Pied Piper or the wine of Dionysus. The child's normal reasoning faculties are momentarily suppressed after seeing the ad and the child can only return to his normal rational state once the desired product has been bought by the parents, hence satisfying the desire of the child. Similarly, political campaigns are designed to lure the voter towards an ideology even when the voter might not understand the full implications of the ideology, as it has been evidenced by the Cambridge Analytica Scandal. Political campaigns hardwire our brains to suppress our reasoning faculty and push us to our baser instincts.
In Robert Browning rendition of the Pied Piper, we never get to know by what vision were the children led away by the Pied Piper, but in a globalised world dependent on consumerism, I suppose it would not matter anymore because in this era dominated by electronic media "the medium is the message".

Originally Published On Credible Meaning - The Credible Opinion Post

© 2021 Abhijit Chatterjee