If Treasure Island is any indication, a young person’s transition to adulthood has always been awkward and painful. At least it was so in the 1880s when Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his story for boys. Stevenson’s adolescent hero, Jim Hawkins, has resonated with youth ever since. What boy does not dream of adventure, travelling to exotic places, deciphering mysteries, and overcoming danger? Such dreams have motivated boys for millennia in the hope that they can find their courage and discover their place in life. If the opportunities are not forthcoming then boys will invent them, if for no other reason than to establish a place for themselves in their own minds and, hopefully, in the minds of their peers.
So it is with Jim Hawkins. As the son of an innkeeper he has little hope of adventure until a strange turn of events sets him on a hazardous sea voyage in search of hidden pirate gold. Jim proves to be the hero, thwarting the mutinous plot of rebellious sailors led by Long John Silver, saving the lives of the captain and loyal crew members, and discovering the treasure. Not bad for an 18th century version of an underprivileged wayward teen.
Stevenson could not have envisioned the retelling of his story as a space travel adventure in which his hero is not merely underprivileged, but rebellious, sullen, introverted, and destined for a life at odds with society. That is the Jim Hawkins of Treasure Planet, the 2002 animated feature by Walt Disney Pictures. This space age Jim reflects the jaded, self-absorbed youth of the post-modern world. We follow Jim’s transformation from wide-eyed, joyful toddler to embittered youth. It is not a transformation he undertakes willingly. It is not his fault that his parents quarrel, but he suffers incalculably on the morning his father walks out. In an instant Jim is abandoned by the one person who could set him on the right course, leaving him to cast about for someone or something to give him purpose. In time Long John Silver the pirate fills that role as the two of them develop a relationship that proves redemptive for them both. There is a happy ending after all, but not without anguish along the way.
Jim’s angst is the subject of I’m Still Here, a song written for the film by John Rzeznik. It is an anthem for an alienated generation which does not know its identity. Cast adrift to find their own answers, these young people feel (with some justification) that their elders would rather they remain silent and invisible until they are able to join the adult world. Yet how are they to do so if no one makes the effort to guide them? Thus the youth have only two alternatives: either despair and end their miserable lives, or hang on in defiance against all expectations. Rzeznik’s lyrics tell us the option Jim Hawkins selects:
And you see the thing they never see,
All you wanted, I could be,
Now you know me, and I’m not afraid,
And I wanna tell you who I am,
Can you help me be a man? ,
They can’t break me,
As long as I know who I am.
The song ends with Jim’s defiant, yet hopeful, refrain, “I’m still here!” His defiance is not unlike Job’s defiance in the face of what he perceives to be unjust accusations by his friends:
Teach me, and I will be silent; and show me how I have erred. How painful are honest words! But what does your argument prove? Do you intend to reprove my words, when the words of one in despair belong to the wind? (Job 6:24-26 NASB)
Pompous people lend themselves so readily to ridicule. Unconsciously, of course. By their very nature they would not stoop to the indignity of common humor since it punctures the mirage of superior respectability they strive to maintain. That is precisely what makes it so easy (and so much fun) to lampoon such persons – albeit usually without their knowledge since they generally are the ones who wield power. Whether it is the official in high office, the wealthy heir, or the elderly matron, such people disapprove of anything or anyone that upsets their self-imposed definition of what is right and proper. Such definitions tend to be myopic at best, as well as inflexible, brittle, and hilariously easy to dispel. Doing so brings amusement and some measure of relief to the oppressed even though it likely will not result in appreciable change, or perhaps even notice by the butt of the joke.
Which explains why the operas of W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan are still appealing. The best of their works feature masterful caricatures of England’s increasingly ossified Victorian society of the late 19th century. Perhaps the best of the best is The Mikado, a farce set in Imperial Japan, but featuring decidedly English characters and situations. This is apparent from the opening scene when a chorus of Japanese gentlemen strut haughtily about the stage singing of their lofty status. We soon learn that Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner of the town of Titipu, has a dilemma: the Mikado, Japan’s emperor, has decreed that since there has been no execution of a criminal in Titipu for quite some time, an execution must take place within a month. It just so happens that Ko-Ko is himself a condemned criminal on reprieve from execution and is next in line for the chopping block. He is “consoled” by two noblemen, Pooh-Bah and Pish-Tush. Pooh-Bah explains that his family pride calls on him to take Ko-Ko’s place, but his desire for self-preservation prevents him from doing so. Pish-Tush takes a different approach with this empathetic offering:
I heard one day a gentleman say
That criminals who are cut in two
Can hardly feel the fatal steel,
And so are slain, are slain without much pain.
If this is true, it’s jolly for you,
Your courage screw to bid us adieu.
Ko-Ko is not amused with either man’s offering, which leads Pish-Tush to confess the truth:
And go and show
Both friend and foe how much you dare.
I’m quite aware it’s your affair.
Yet I declare I’d take your share,
But I don’t much care.
That is not unlike the lamentable comfort of Job’s friend Eliphaz:
Remember now, who ever perished being innocent? Or where were the upright destroyed? According to what I have seen, those who plow iniquity and those who sow trouble harvest it. (Job 4:7-8 NASB)