I don’t think Walt Disney intended for Pinocchio to be an absolutely terrifying experience for his audience, but to me it certainly was. Living wooden puppets with bugs for consciences and creepy old men who are really into making said puppets and also other creepy old men that are really into taking said puppets and turning them into slave donkeys and some fairy chick who essentially just popped in from time to time when things get especially fucked to say “I told you so” and bail?
I’m pretty sure that movie was my first drug experience.
I was about five or so when I first saw the film and heard the song “I’ve Got No Strings,” but it wasn’t until my early twenties that I got anything out of either (aside from sheer terror). In college, I developed a fondness for the Bildungsroman and picaresque novel, two forms of storytelling that I related to on a personal level.
The Bildungsroman (auf Deutsch) is a novel of development, in which the main character goes through some pretty heavy stuff and emerges as a changed, and usually better, person as a result. The picaresque novel, on the other hand, revolves around a protagonist that is typically a loveable scoundrel type who keeps getting into lots of weird spots and close scrapes—through no fault of his own, naturally. These picaros are typically portrayed as having lower class and moral character, but high wit and intelligence. There’s really no plot or development going on for them either: it’s just a neverending procession of happenstance episodes that walk the line between comedy and catastrophe. While the picaro isn’t necessarily a bad guy, his devil-may-care conduct and lone wolf hedonism often result in immoral and borderline criminal outcomes.
So the Bildungsroman is about a guy who doesn’t know anything but wants to learn, and through a series of hardships figures some stuff out; the picaresque novel is about a guy who knows a few tricks and figures that’s all he needs, and through a series of self-imposed hardships arrives at the same conclusion he had to begin with: none of this is his fault.
In short: the Bildungsroman is a coming-of-age tale; the picaresque story is a dumbing-with-age-tale.
Pinocchio kind of fits both bills, which is why I started relating to him so much. All this terrible, terrible shit kept happening to me, but I couldn’t figure out whether I was living out a Bildungsroman or just a picaro. Of course, it had to be one or the other, because I interpreted reality through literary paradigms, and not the other way around. I still do that today, but it was compounded big time back then by a steady stream of blotter acid.*
Pinocchio didn’t have any strings, but he was still a fucking puppet. He wasn’t a real boy, at least not in the sense that he wanted to be. He’d get up and do a little dance for everybody and proclaim how stoked he was on everything, but he’d just fall facedown for all to see and laugh and jeer at. Everybody else knew he was a fucking puppet, even if he wanted to parade himself on stage and say that he wasn’t.
I was Pinocchio and I had a lot of strings: drinking, drugging, womanizing, delusions of grandeur, elusive sanity, not holding down a job, not taking showers, not eating regularly, not brushing my teeth, not functioning on any level comparable to that of a real boy. Those were all very real problems for me, but I’d still get up in front of you and do my little dance and sing about how I didn’t have any strings, man. But you knew I did, and I knew I wasn’t a real boy no matter how often I lied about it.
Lying was another thing Pinocchio and I had in common, only my nose didn’t grow longer when I did it. My guilt and shame and the distance between you and me, however, did. And my conscience was a bug, too. It was always bugging me—gnawing away at my mind, scratching at my sensibilities, and eroding my sanity. I knew I was fucked, I just couldn’t do anything about it–just like those picaros in those novels I loved so much.
Pinocchio ends up a real boy once he wises up and starts behaving himself though, doesn’t he? He does, indeed. Turns out even a puppet is capable of learning some lessons from catastrophic tragedies as long as he’s willing to make some changes. Basically, Pinocchio got honest and started using his head a little bit. That’s it really. Maybe stopped hanging out with lower companions like Lampwick too. Pretty simple stuff.
As for my own story, maybe it’s neither a bildungsroman nor a picaresque story. Perhaps it’s a little bit of both: maybe if you take a picaro and put him through enough shit (or allow him to put himself through enough shit), he can wise up and learn a thing or two like those well-meaning characters in those Bildungsromans. I don’t know, it seemed to work out all right for me and Pinocchio.
We ain’t got no strings anymore, man.
*When in Berkeley, etc.