Walt Disney’s Shrunken Ancestors
By John David Ebert
The various optical tricks and spatial distortions which Walt Disney utilized in the making of his theme park often conceal ideas and philosophical views about the world. Take, for instance, the spatial distortions of Main Street, USA. “Main Street was a function of clever foreshortening,” Neal Gabler writes in his masterly biography of Disney. “The lower floors of the shops were nine-tenths scale, the second floors eight-tenths, and the third seven-tenths. As for the rest of the park, Walt wrote an old acquaintance that the “scale of objects varies according to what and where they are’– what he called a ‘matter of choosing the scale that would be practical and still look right.” This kind of miniaturization “underscored the sense of nostalgia because it associated the past and the fantastic with the small and quaint. ‘[P]eople like to think their world is somehow more grown up than Papa’s was,’ he said.” (Gabler, 533)
Disney has here provided us with a comment upon how the gradually increasing scale of technology has had the effect of reversing the mythology of grand historical cycles. For the Greeks, the world of their ancestors was anything but small and quaint, for they believed that the heroes of the Mycenean world that had preceded them were actually giants. The Greeks were forever finding the fossils of extinct species like dwarf elephants and other large Pleistocene mammals which they assumed were actual physical evidence that giants had once walked the earth before them. Pliny, for instance, insisted that a 35 foot skeleton of Orion had been found on Crete, while the giant bones of Ajax were said to have been discovered at Salamis. All this was consistent with the Hesiodic myth of a gradually declining and shrinking world in which the age of the Homeric gods was followed by the Mycenean epoch of great warriors like Achilles and Odysseus, which was followed in turn by the age of mere men in which the Greeks saw themselves as living. This sense of the gigantism of a mythical past looming over the present continued down into the Middle Ages, when such relics as a mammoth molar and an elephant vertebra were venerated as evidence of the historical reality of the giant Saint Christopher.
It is only in the twentieth century, as a result of the gradually increasing scale of our own technologies, that the world of our ancestors has come to seem small and quaint, for that world has been dwarfed by our nuclear reactors, atom bombs, skyscrapers and jumbo jets. What monument of the ancients, save perhaps the pyramid of Cheops (or possibly the Colossus of Rhodes) could be held up against Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge for sheer scale of gigantism? In a roundabout way, then, we have come by means of the path of ever larger forms of technology to reversing the mythology of history, so that now we have become the giants looming over the shrunken old men of our Norman Rockwell past.
Thus, the visual effect as one strolls down Disney’s Main Street, USA, is to subtly make one feel like a giant who has outgrown his parents’ limited horizons and narrow vistas. This feeling is not an accident, either, for it is part of Disney’s vision of the unlimited path to progress of technology which he naively believed would make better human beings out of us. He was almost completely unaware of the shadow side of technology and the damage it has done, not only to the environment, but to the humanities and the arts, which have been left in a state of near total disarray, like a trawler in the wake of a Titanic. Indeed, his faith in the unlimited vistas opened up before us by the potentialities of new technologies is so naÃ¯ve that it is almost charming. The title of the pavilion which Disney, with the help of fellow colossus Robert Moses, designed for General Electric at the 1964 New York World’s Fair says it all: “The Carousel of Progress.”
And yet, the disconnected tableaux of Disneyland lay right there in front of him as evidence to the contrary, for as Neil Postman was always fond of pointing out, the one thing we forget to ask whenever any new technology comes along is, What way of life will this new gadget undo? For just as the advent of the printing press heralded the twilight of the Middle Ages and brought about the erosion of the use of Latin as a language of international learning — while also decentralizing the Church’s power through mass producing the Bible in vernacular tongues — so too Frontier Land, with its Romantic cowboyism and its Fenimore Cooper heroics was undone by the arrival of Main Street, USA, with its quaint barber shops, drug stores and Weekly Bugle newspapers. And Main Street, USA, in turn, was undone by the huge freeway systems of the fifties which made small towns irrelevant and burst open the seams of the city to spill forth a massive sprawl of decentralized suburbs and shopping malls.
All of these changes, without exception, were brought about by the advent of new technologies, the yearly proliferation of which has continued to make change the norm of our society. Disney’s nostalgia for his vanished small town America moved him to create Disneyland as a museum of vanished worlds whose ends were brought about by the very sorts of technology which Disney enthusiastically endorsed in the creation of his theme park.
–Excerpted from John David Ebert’s forthcoming Death and Fame in the Age of Lightspeed.