Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Adventures of Jonny Quest

This post isn't directly about the cartoon referenced in the title; rather, the cartoon title taps into what I'd like to explore. Literary critics consider the "quest" to be perhaps the most important narrative archetype, and "Jonny" is the all-American boy's name. I think the cartoon title reflects one of our great and perhaps now repressed cultural mores--the idea that young men should go on a quests.

What kind of quest? When most people think of a specific literary quest, they think of King Arthur's Knights' quest for the Holy Grail. As far back as Malory's Arthurian stories, though, the type of quest was secondary to the idea of simply seeking adventure. In many of Malory's stories, Lancelot and other knights set out not for any specific purpose, but simply to have adventures. The American analogue to this concept is Tom Sawyer, whose existence at times becomes Quixotian, but who can't shake the inner drive to experience adventure for its own sake.

Lest anyone think this idea is a purely fictional abstraction, I came across this story about one of the last surviving World War I veterans. Now 106 years old, he tried at the age of 16 to enlist in the Marines and the Navy, before his dogged determination paid off and he was able to enlist in the Army (by lying about his age). Once in the Army, he desperately wanted to get to the front. What was the reason for his enthusiasm? According to the article:

When America got into the war in 1917, the 16-year-old went looking for adventure. "I was a snappy soldier," he says now, holding a sepia-toned photo of himself as a doughboy. "All gung-ho."
This story echoes many that come out of the American Civil War era of underage enlistees seeking adventure. It also brings to mind Ernest Hemingway. While not underage, a still very young Hemingway had such an urgency to seek adventure that he settled for a job as ambulance driver just to get close to the action. The Romanticism with which many young men approached World War I is well documented, as is the way that trench warfare and chemical weapons forever altered the Romanticism of military engagement. By the time World War II came around, The Greatest Generation was certainly willing to fight, though we equate this willingness as a reluctant but heroic recognition of necessity, not enthusiastic adventure seeking.

The horrors of World War I are often credited with killing off the Romantic movement. Can we also say that they destroyed the desire of young men to have adventure for the sake of adventure? Perhaps, but there may be another contributing factor. The post World War I era also coincided with the rise of mass media: film, radio, and eventual TV. Prior to this, of course, people could live vicariously through books or the stage, and in fact Aristotle theorized that vicarious emotion was the reason for the popularity of live drama. Yet mass media allowed a new generation of people to grow up more or less saturated with vicarious thrills. Could such an experience contribute to a general deadening of desire to actually experience adventure first hand? If King Arthur had a DVD player, would the Knights of the Round Table ever gone out to search for adventure? If Tom Sawyer had a Playstation, would he ever have found treasure? Does the existence of a cartoon called "The Adventures of Jonny Quest" prevent real life Jonnys from having adventures and going on quests?

And if the above can be answered in the affirmative, it leads to a conclusion that turns upside down one of the assumptions about mass media. Watchdog groups often complain that the entertainment media forces kids to grow up too fast. But when compared with generations which saw teen-agers willingly go off to fight wars, could it be said that media forces kids to grow up too slow?


Blogger Tee said...

Hmmm... quite an interesting blog-point, Azor. You are such a deep thinker.. In fact, your face should me ON "The Thinker". Thats how I vision deep thought all the time.
Media has a tremendous impact on everything. I am SO glad I have little time for it.

7:17 PM  
Blogger Tee said...

I hit "this story" hoping I would get the story you described in your blog. Wikipedia gives many examples of "quests" but I didn't find the one about the guy in WWI. I'm interested in reading it.

7:24 PM  
Blogger Enjoy_Every_Sandwich said...

I think the media forces kids to grow up too fast by romanticizing drug dealing and whatnot.

It's not the media that is taking away our need for adventure, it's the fact that the paradigm of our time doesn't favour war, it favours staying home and living a safe life.

6:30 PM  
Blogger Tee said...

When you hesitate before hitting snooze on your alarm clock, are you being lazy?
I don't understand, if you hesitate, doesn't that mean you're actually considering getting up, therefore, you're not lazy?

I do this all the time.. when I hesitate, I'm dreading getting up or even hitting the snooze button... even contemplating putting a pillow over my head...just cause I study till wee hours of the morn.

11:40 PM  
Blogger Tee said...

sandwich not sandwhich... sorry

11:41 PM  
Blogger Azor said...

Tee, if you click on "Quest" it takes you to the Wiki page, but "this story" should take you to a "USA Today" article about the vet.

6:11 PM  

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