I’m an egghead (Sonic Rainboom)

Rarity may have lost the Best Young Flyer competition,
but just wait until she goes to Neigh Orleans next Mardi Gras.

It’s February 18, 2011. The top song is still Bruno Mars’ execrable “Grenade,” but he pleaded guilty to cocaine possession a few days ago, so hopefully that won’t last much longer. The top movie this weekend is Unknown, because we’re living in an Abbot and Costello routine. I’ve never seen it and have no idea what it is, so I think we can safely assume it didn’t make much of a splash.

In real news, the “Arab Spring” protests continue, especially in Algeria, Iran, Bahrain, and Wisconsin, while Libya is in full-blown civil war; the IBM-built AI Watson wins Jeopardy! in a special competition against Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings, the two most successful players in the show’s history to that point; and Facebook adds civil unions and domestic partnerships to the list of available relationship statuses.

In ponies, we have “Sonic Rainboom” by M.A. Larson.  The last time Larson wrote for the show, the resulting transformation of the canon led to the show’s near-destruction and forced evolution. The show now exists on two levels, as a children’s show to teach youngsters about friendship and sell toys, and as a philosopher’s stone capable of transforming online communities. Larson has already emerged as the most fan-friendly writer, so he is very much up to the challenge here. On the level of children’s show, this episode is about Rainbow Dash nervous about winning a contest, but then her friends are in danger and she saves the day, pretty rainbows, Rarity learns not to be so vain, a fun time is had by all. I’m being a bit glib here, but this is good work–quality children’s television is hard work. If Season Three has proven anything so far, it’s that it’s very, very easy to write a pony episode that contains actively toxic elements.

At the more adult level, this episode is about Rainbow Dash seeking to recover something she did in her youth. Specifically, it is something that she was once able to do without knowing how she did it; when she tries to recover it intentionally after years of training as a flyer, she is unable to do so. This recalls Heinrich von Kleist’s “On the Marionette Theater,” in which he discusses and contrasts the innocent, unconscious grace of childhood with the conscious effort of adulthood, and argues that the former is in many ways superior. Near the end of the essay, however, he suggests that it is possible to eventually acquire a grace superior to the innocence of childhood, one born of so much experience that it effectively wraps back around, alluding to the story of Eden from the Bible and the two Fruits of Life and Knowledge.

In the European occult tradition of which alchemy is a part, the Fruit of Life represents the primordial state of spiritual perfection, revelation, and enlightenment, while the Fruit of Knowledge represents civilization and learning. Alchemy is a matter of using knowledge and formulae to attain the Fruit of Life, the philosopher’s stone–it is precisely what Kleist is talking about when he refers to eating the Fruit of Life twice.

As I said, Rainbow Dash’s quest in this episode mimics the path Kleist describes. In her initial state of childish innocence (which we will see later this season, in “The Cutie Mark Chronicles”) she is able to do things without understanding how she does them, the way a small child learns a new language. By the time of this episode, however, she can no longer do it. She struggles and strains to recover that ability, just as an adult struggles to acquire a second language. In the end, however, she finds a way to do it, and we will see later she can now do sonic rainbooms and variations thereof at will: she has passed from sweet innocence, through corrupt experience, to perfect mastery.

Much of the appeal of the show is its sincerity, its depiction of a world where people get along and care about one another without needing to hide behind cynicism and irony and all the other armors with which we guard ourselves from emotional harm. Many of us have lost the ability to trust easily, to empathize openly, to care about strangers. We’ve learned that this hurts, and this experience has led us to abandon the free and easy socializing of children in favor of emotional isolation, practiced coolness or detached cynicism. The popularity of My Little Pony proves that many of us ache for what seems a simpler, more innocent time, but we seemingly cannot recover it. We have passed from sweet innocence to corrupt experience, but mastery appears out of reach.

But there is a way, and the key is this episode’s rainbow iconography. Throughout the series, starting back in the first story, rainbows exemplify the magic of friendship, most obviously in the visual effect generated by the Elements of Harmony. The sonic rainboom is no different, as “The Cutie Mark Chronicles” will make emphatically clear; even in this episode, Rainbow Dash is only able to do it when she stops worrying about winning the contest, and instead acts for the benefit of others in her desperate dive to save Rarity and the Wonderbolts.

So it is with our lost access to the magic of friendship. We live in a cynical world because so many of us are cynics; the cure is for more of us to refuse to be cynics. We can pass through cynicism and realize the limits and costs of cynicism itself; eating the Fruit of Knowledge a second time, we can pass through experience to mastery. The secret is astonishingly simple: Help one another. Help strangers. Reach out and do good. Prove that cynicism is wrong, that some people can be trusted, by becoming one of those people. Dive to save someone who is falling, and you will find the magic of friendship exploding once more. The emergence of Bronies for Good (the first of several brony charities) a few months after this episode suggests that the transformation has begun; bronies are beginning to change, to become something different than your run-of-the-mill geek fandom.

It’s fitting (to the point of being, in hindsight, perhaps inevitable) that a glorified toy commercial would show us the way. Of course the ultimate expression of commercialized cynicism, a merchandise-driven children’s show, would eventually pass through to a new sincerity on the other side. How else could it show us the way to do the same?

Next week: Fluttershy and the CMC. In one episode. I’m not sure I’ll be able to stop squeeing long enough to actually do any analysis…

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