|“I got this at Hot Trotic, do you like it?”
Joy is not shallow.
We as a culture tend to treat it as being somehow less worthy, less deep, than other emotions. We associate joy and happiness with childhood, and cynical world-weariness with adulthood (the precise opposite of my own experience of maturation), and so we tend to see happy, joyful things as less important, less serious, than the somber, the despairing, and the angst-ridden.
Angst, however, is itself an adolescent phenomenon. In English, the word originates with Kierkegaard, who used the term to refer to the anxiety that comes with freedom, the fear and stress created by the need to choose between possibilities. It is, in other words, an emotion felt by one who is no longer bound by the strict rules and supervision that encompass childhood, but has not yet attained the equanimity, confidence, or self-assurance to make decisions without agonizing unnecessarily over them.
This does not mean that only adolescents experience angst; rather, any experience of angst is an opportunity to mature past that angst. Maturation is not a linear process with a fixed end-point; no one living is ever completely grown up. This also does not mean that any anxiety or emotional pain is adolescent; rather, it is self-inflicted anxiety, anxiety in the absence of something actually worth worrying about, that is immature. Anxiety because of a probability of something going wrong is natural and inevitable; self-destructive angst because something might not go right enough, or might go right in the wrong way, is childish–the Internet meme of “first world problems” is a close equivalent. However, this should not be taken to mean that angst is somehow not a legitimate emotion; it of course is precisely as legitimate as any other emotion, because legitimacy is itself a purely emotional concept–but by the same token, there is no reason to treat angst as more legitimate or more serious than any other emotion, joy included.
Finally, angst should not be confused with genuine clinical depression or anxiety. These are medical conditions, and the emotional distress they produce is a symptom of a disease and source of genuine suffering. At the same time, as symptoms of a disease, the feelings produced by clinical depression and anxiety have no greater philosophical or artistic depth than an impacted tooth or a collapsed lung.
All of which serves as preface to the following statement: Background Pony is half a million words of pure adolescent angst, a determined rejection of joy and light in favor of wallowing in despair for no better reason than a delusional belief that misery is somehow more serious and worthy than the fun offered by the source text of Friendship Is Magic.
The premise of Background Pony is actually a fascinating idea, filled with potential: What if a background pony–those characters who recur throughout the series in the backgrounds of shots but rarely or never speak–existed as such in an intradiegetic sense as well as extradiegetic? What, in other words, if she were in some sense invisible to the other characters? Thus we have the story’s main character, Lyra Heartstrings, one of the better-known background ponies in the fandom. As the story opens, she has been living in Ponyville for nearly a year, cursed to be unable to leave the town and to be almost immediately forgotten by anyone she talks to.
As a metaphor, this forgettability could be deployed in countless ways. It is an excellent metaphor for the breakdown of community, for instance–the way in which most of the people we encounter in modern urban life are strangers, alienating us from the geographic community in which we exist. It works well as a metaphor for homelessness and poverty (a concept which early chapters flirt with and then largely ignore). Most of all, it works well as a metaphor for feelings of isolation, loneliness, depression, and angst, which is largely how the story uses it.
This is where the trouble begins, because the nature of a metaphor is that one concept signifies another. The presence of the signified undermines the metaphor. To use an example, part of Lyra’s curse is that she feels cold when it takes effect–the reason she cannot leave Ponyville is because she feels colder the farther she gets from the center of town, and she gets chills whenever a pony forgets the interaction with Lyra they just experienced. This chill serves well as a metaphor for fear and loneliness, except that at the same time as she feels cold Lyra is talking (and talking, and talking, and talking–this story never deploys a few precise words when it can vomit up dozens of sloppy (and frequently straightforwardly wrong) words instead) about how frightened and lonely she is. The result is that the declaration feels even more blatant and unsubtle than it already is, while the metaphor, with nothing left to signify, ceases to be a metaphor and becomes just a chill.
That, of course, is only a problem with the metaphors that are actually explored. Many, many more are simply declared and then left to sit, a recurring feature of the story’s purple prose, along with what later chapters describe as “philosophizing,” which appears in this story to mean the declaration of aphorisms and leading questions without any attempt to construct an argument or address questions of ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, politics, or any other known branch of philosophical inquiry.
Which is not to say that the story is all bad. It does do some things right–certain chapters, most noticeably the self-parodying Pinkie Pie encounters in Chapter 10 and the four musicians’ stories in Chapter 14, work extremely well because they are able to temporarily set aside the angst and bathetic, interminable purple prose and tell a story. The breakdowns of reality in chapters 16 and 17 are likewise well-handled, paying off the use of first-person perspective throughout the story.
This last requires some expansion. In some ways, first-person is the most natural perspective to tell a story in, because the context in which most of us tell stories is in response to questions about ourselves–for example, when a parent asks “What did you do in school today?” Amateur writers thus often instinctively default to a first-person perspective in their stories. However, first-person is the most limited of all perspectives, unable to convey any information to the reader except for what is filtered through the perceptions of the perspective character; anything outside those perceptions is lost. Thus, more mature writers will generally avoid first-person unless there is a reason to employ it, either to explore the way in which the character perceives reality (most obviously, in the use of an unreliable narrator) or to deliberately hide information from the reader. Background Pony does an excellent job of the latter; magic is at work that obscures perception and erases memory, and as the story enters its second (vastly superior to the first) half, we learn that Lyra herself is not immune to these distortions.
Chapters 16 and 17 also benefit from the horror element at work in them; in general, the story is at its most effective when dealing with objects of terror and fear, where the purple prose helps disorient the reader, and at its least effective when dealing with Lyra’s feelings, where the prose is simply pompous and self-serious. The entire story remains continually at a register of maximum emotional intensity for everything (for example, Lyra, not suffering from any sort of heightened sound sensitivity, describes the sound of a quill scratching on a parchment as setting her nerves on fire), with almost no contrast, so rather than seeming poignant or sad Lyra’s continual losses and failures blend into an indistinguishable blur of misery. Those rare moments that appeal to other emotions (most particularly the horrific description of the Unsung realm) are thus an extremely welcome touch of color in an otherwise gray emotional landscape. Unfortunately, the story does not permit them to last for long; the horror-humor (as I’ve argued before, these are closely interrelated genres) of Chapter 16, for example, gives way to the absurd bathos of Discord–Discord, the unflappable trickster god!–giving up on life in despair over memories of a lost love.
Ultimately, the biggest problem is that the premise of the story makes it impossible to take its relentless despair seriously. We know it can’t be that bad to be Lyra for two reasons. The first is that she is someone who observes the lives of the residents of Ponyville, comes to know and care about them, while remaining utterly unknown to them and able to influence them only indirectly and with great effort. This is precisely the relationship between the fan of any work and the characters in that work, and we know, because we experience it, that fandom is much more a source of joy than despair.
Second, we know that it can’t be that bad because nothing in Equestria is that bad. This is a world where curses explicitly do not exist according to a highly accomplished scholar of magic, where friendship and love are the most powerful known sources of magic, and where the cosmically empowered ancient evil has become an ally of the heroes by the end of the second episode. Simply put, the problem of Background Pony is the problem of any grimdark pony fic: since Equestria contains no grimness or darkness to speak of, the only grimdark is that which the author brings with them–it is not recognizable as a derivative work of Friendship Is Magic, but rather appropriates the names of a few characters and locations to tell an entirely unrelated story.
When it comes down to it, the problem with Background Pony is in the claim that Equestria began with a song. Oh, there is nothing surprising in that suggestion itself; that Equestria began with a song is self-evident. The fundamental error of Background Pony lies in the suggestion that this song is an elegy or suite of elegies; there is nothing elegiac, mournful, or grim about the song that began Equestria. After all, by this point we all surely know it by heart:
I used to wonder what friendship could be
Until you all shared its magic with me…
Next week: Feeling a bit boxed in…