Monday 23 December 2019

The Tiger who Came to Tea - don't try to make a nuanced point about it.

This is a warning for anyone trying to say something nuanced about literature (or probably any of the arts) in the mainstream media outside of the arts pages. 

On BBC One's 'Imagine' I was asked to speculate about 'The Tiger who Came to Tea' - a book that I love and admire enormously. I tried to make the point that when we writers, artists create unreal or surreal images we don't know exactly what these represent. 

This is hardly a new or controversial point. Shakespeare nearly makes the point several times. This is a central point of Freud and many writers, psychologists since. So if you come to me and tell me - as some have - that a little poem I wrote - as I thought about the death of my mother, uses the image of a van going off because somewhere in my mind I have the image of vans or trains taking Jews away during World War Two, I'm not going to 'deny' this. I can say, 'I don't remember having that image when I wrote the poem', but this is not ultimately the 'truth'. The impact of history on our minds is not fully known to us. (I wrote a Ph.D about this, now published as 'The Author'!)

So, I suggested that when Judith Kerr created the tiger, I floated the possibility that this quite genial creature is in its own way just a bit threatening also. A tiger is a tiger is a tiger. Tigers, when they appear in children's books or as soft toys are indeed cuddly and giant-cat-like. But tigers are also at some level in our mind predators. So, I suggested that perhaps Judith had put into her image of the tiger some of her perhaps-repressed or hidden fears of the door knocking and someone dangerous being there. 

According to Freud and others we 'sublimate' our fears or we 'displace' them, we make them 'safe'. We are so successful at this, that we don't even know that we've done it. That's the argument.

Since I tried to make this point, the news media have had a glorious time, saying that I said that the tiger = the Gestapo. I didn't say that. I tried to make a more nuanced point. O foolish Rosen. 

(For people who don't know Judith's life: when she was 7, her family fled Berlin because the Nazis had just come to power, and Judith's father was under immediate threat of arrest for being both Jewish and 'subversive' (he was a left-wing theatre critic).)

It's being repeated all over the news media at the moment because the wonderful animation company Lupus, who made the animation of 'Bear Hunt' - have made an animation for this Christmas of 'The Tiger who Came to Tea'.

So if you see anywhere that Rosen said that the Tiger = the Gestapo', I didn't.