Nothing New

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Matt Geiger

We rode our bikes as fast as we could, and when the whir of the chain and the wind reached their highest pitch, and the pedals began rotating faster than our legs, we’d slam our feet on the breaks to careen along the gravel road. After each run, we’d measure our skid marks and declare a winner. The longest mark won, and we played forever, or at least until we had to go home and have the pebbles plucked from our knees, watching with horror and fascination as the hydrogen peroxide bubbled and hissed and spat in our open wounds.

This was life before the Internet. A vast world where people were separated by untraversable geographical distance, where children in summer were compelled to engage in the somewhat biblical task of seeing what kind of mark they could leave upon the earth.

I don’t do it anymore, primarily because I’m too big to feel cool on a dirt bike. These days, for fun, I like to read things on the Internet that upset me. I tripped and fell down another rabbit hole last night. One minute I was checking my work email on my phone, the next I was watching YouTube videos of an obscure Russian folk band. Then I blinked, and when my eyes opened again a flat earther was talking himself in circles for two hours, saying again and again that Antarctica doesn’t exist. Then I checked in to see if the current, unmoderated, profoundly un-curated online literature of the day still suggests we are being controlled by a clandestine society of lizard people. It does.

Somewhere along the way, my browser suggested I watch some Disney music videos. Probably because my five-year-old daughter has watched and listened to them a thousand times, and the Internet knows that if you do something a thousand times, you’ll probably want to do it a 1,001st time, as well. 

I’m not sure quite how, but I started reading the comments beneath the videos. There were literally thousands of them, and they nearly all stated the same thing, as if the topic were homework assigned to every angry person who sat in front of a screen that evening. 

The initial comments were about “Aladdin.” My five-year-old daughter loves some of the songs, so they automatically pop up whenever I try to do anything on my phone. 

Nearly every comment went something like this: “This NEW Aladdin is GARBEGE!!! I like the Originol & why can’t they leave the orjinel alone!!!?”

I was a little surprised that these people were even familiar with the original story, which was later called “Aladdin and His Magical Lamp” and dates to at least the 1700s, when a Syrian storyteller relayed it to a Frenchman who then added it to “The Book of 1,001 Arabian Nights.” (It probably has origins as a folk tale much further back.)

“That’s amazing,” I thought. “That so many people like the original version.” In the original text, the story takes place in China, the genie comes out of a magical ring, and there are no hilarious animal sidekicks. Women, it should be pointed out, were a form of property when the story first became popular, so there were no anthems of feminist empowerment. 

Of course, when people said they were faithful to the “original” “Aladdin,” they actually meant the 1992 movie in which Robin Williams played the manic, big blue genie. They were not, I think, referring to the 1926 film, the 1939 cartoon (which features Popeye), or any of the countless other variations that have been told and retold over the years. 

But according to everyone, the only real version of “Aladdin” was the one they saw first, in 1992. Imagine the kind of narcissism it takes to think that something is 400 years old, and yet the definitive version is the one that just happened to get released when you were 12. The genie–played by Mrs. Doubtfire–gains his freedom at the end, slaps on a Goofy cap, and decides to go on vacation to Disney World? That’s your “original” genie. 

“The Lion King” is based on Hamlet, which is a play by William Shakespeare. It was written in 1609. Before it was a successful Disney movie (in 1994 and 2019, respectively) it was also a very popular comic book, and then cartoon in Japan in the middle of the 20th century. “Why did THEY need to RemaKE this storee AGAIN?! Once was enough!!! Leave it alone!!” reads a comment that pretty much captures the tone and content of all the others. Several commenters blamed Donald Trump. A few blamed Obama.

Some of the most angry comments were directed at “Beauty and the Beast,” which is a fairy tale written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and published in 1740. It was later turned into no less than 21 movies and television shows. But apparently, the “original” version was a 1991 movie featuring the voice talents of the old lady from “Murder, She Wrote.” There is wonderful irony in millions of people angrily stating that there is only one version of a story that Angela Lansbury sings (over and over again) is “a tale as old as time.”

“The Little Mermaid” is a Danish story first published in 1837.

None of the stories you enjoyed when you were a child were new, because NO stories are new. In the book of Ecclesiastes, which was written 3,000 years ago, an ancient philosopher named Qoheleth says again and again that all of human life is but vapor, that there is nothing new under the sun, and that all the rivers flow into the sea, and yet the sea is not full. Hemingway used it for the title (and epigraph) in “The Sun Also Rises,” several thousand years later. “The sun also rises, and the sun goes down,” it states. It was also turned into a hit folk song, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” which was catchy but used far too many exclamation points in its title. 

The point is, people are universally vain, which binds them together, but we are also connected by the fact that we are universally unimportant. We are not even particularly original. Our clothing might change, our hair might be styled in different ways, but we have told the same stories, feared the same fears, loved the same brief moments with family, for 100,000 years.  

I don’t particularly like any of the new Disney movies, but I’m not supposed to. Because they are not for me. They are for my daughter. I think that’s what upsets people about them; it’s not the fact that they are not entirely original, but rather the fact that they remind people in their 30s and 40s that they are no longer the most important generation. That their time–our time–has come and gone. You often hear adults lie to their children and tell them it is they who will “change the world.” Of course, they won’t because people are not important enough to really change the world, or even themselves. And that’s okay. Because the world is a beautiful place, and the people who inhabit it are beautiful too. But the sun rises, and the sun goes down, and all is but vapor, all is but dust.

My daughter would not exist for another 20 years when the Disney movies I grew up with came out. Robin Williams died before she was able to read, write, or cross the street on her own. And most of these stories had already been around for a few centuries when she was born. So of course, these stories are being retold for her. And of course they are the same stories, yet of course they have all changed, because the people telling them have changed, and the people who are seeing and hearing them for the first time have changed, and all folk tales migrate and evolve with those whose lips they touch and those whose ears and eyes they meet. 

“The Jungle Book” is an amazing story, and it deserves to be retold again and again. I hope it gets remade a hundred more times. But its author, Rudyard Kipling, was a devoted imperialist who believed the British Empire had a moral obligation to rule benevolently over people in India and beyond. Kipling was a sensitive and brilliant writer, but his views on colonialism were obviously incorrect, so why on earth shouldn’t we keep the beauty he gave to the world, and gradually forget about some of the ugliness? Why can’t his stories change a little, but also stay the same?

Because the joy of Shakespeare isn’t just seeing it for the first time, the joy is not merely hearing these stories for the first time; the joy is in telling them, for the first time, too.

Since the prior sentence will probably anger conservatives, I’ll offer up something to offend liberals as well: when it comes to folk tales, there is no such thing as “cultural appropriation.” Good stories belong to everyone. They are a gift to all eight billion living people on earth, and everyone has the right to tell them, to hear them, and to have them enrich their lives. Just think how well Hamlet, a play written by a white, British guy more than 400 years ago, works when set in Africa, and think of the fact that the story, set in Africa, was seen all over the world in 2019, and its global box office total reached $1 billion in just 19 days. A good story is a good story, and it can be had by everyone, but held onto by no one. A story, like a child, is something that is meant to make your life better, and then to go beyond you, and on, and one. Story after story, child after child.

Because as any child who ever flew along a gravel road knows, as any child who ever came to a stop and looked back on the mark they left upon the earth knows, as any adult who realizes how quickly those marks were wiped away and replaced knows, things change, but really they stay the same, and there is nothing new under the sun.

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