What kind of a man spends his time locked away drawing cartoon mice and convinces visual artists, musicians, innovators, and designers to devote themselves to his cause?
As I stated in part 2 of this series, Walt Disney was a modern prophet of the American imagination, a futurist who was able to see the world as he wanted to see it and begin to bend it to his will. Were his temperament inclined differently, perhaps he might have been responsible for great leaps in medicine, war, or humanitarianism. But underneath his charming, grandfatherly exterior which idealized the middle-class and entertained millions resided another man entirely. Someone not even his children understood.
Neil Gabler in Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (2006) writes that it was this Walt, the secretive Walt, that was able to tap into a dark triad and accomplish so much in such a short span of time. Disney, Gabler believes, spent as much time developing “Walt” as he did Mickey Mouse, overseeing the crafting of this alternate Walt with the same intensity as the parks he was building with the time.
The Walt Disney inside that image, the real man, was an obsessive perfectionist. I used the word “perfection” earlier, an obsessive perfectionist. A man whose expectations were so high about his own work that they inevitably could not be met. So he was a man who lived within a kind of constant string of disappoints. He was a man who suffered melancholy. He was a man who had no social life whatsoever. One of the things in going through his papers that I found repeatedly [were] invitations to various parties or function and Walt invariably would write in his bold hand in red crayon, “No”. This is a man who almost never socialized. His life was his studio. And to a lesser extent, a much lesser extent, his family. That’s not the Walt Disney that most of us think of. A tyrannical man in many respects who drove his employees to reach the same expectations that he had.
His biography is even more layered when we recall how Walt contributed to the construction of American culture. He was a devotedly patriotic man. So much so that, even during the blacklisting of Hollywood under Joseph McCarthy and the House of Un-American Activities Committee, Walt not only got a “pass” – he was designated as a special agent in charge. He often repeated the story of how he smudged his age and got his mother to change dates so that he could enlist in WWI (he joined too late to see war, instead driving an ambulance during the withdrawal of American Forces from Europe). More, Walt contributed to the social acceptance and celebration of N.A.S.A. and engineered a generation to mind their manners and preserve conservative values and mores through his films and television projects like The Mickey Mouse Club. For someone so grounded in building a terrestrial empire “in his own image”, who was mercurial and complex, and whose daughters admit had reservations about institutionalized religion, what if anything does Walt Disney have to do with matters of faith?
I propose that Walt’s vision of the future could not exclude religion. Personally, he may not have held much store by the Congregationalist faith of his parents (which he rejected) or even the Christian Science faith of his wife and daughters (which he was passively interested in), but there is simply no way that Walt, who drew on every period and experience of life, could skip religion. It was too present, too much a part of his life, to ever neglect it. To reconstruct how he may have seen religion – an arduous task, to be sure – we must understand a little about these two faiths. For brevity, Christian Science is a religious movement developed in the 19th century by Mary Baker Eddy in Boston. The movement saw its largest numbers before World War II, and dropped off considerably afterwards. Many religious commentators have seen a correlation between World War II and the precipitous decline of members after the war, reasoning that the teachings of Christian Science could not withstand the realities of war.
The religion’s adherents subscribe to a radical form of philosophical idealism, believing that spiritual reality is the only reality and that the material world is an illusion. This makes sense when we align it with Walt’s oft-repeated encouragement that humans can do anything, if only they believe it – a belief immortalized in the song When You Wish Upon a Star. One quickly begins to see how much the faith aligns with the teachings of Disney films and television – if you want something in life, you only have to believe it will come true and it will. There is a certainty in this; when you wish something to be true, it will become a reality. While many religions will allow for the miraculous, even the providence of the divine, Christian Science’s international logo of a cross and crown is encircled by the words “cleanse the lepers, heal the sick, raise the dead, cast out demons.” Emphasis on the miraculous in daily life is put front-and-center, emblazoned on emblems and promoted in doctrinal statements. What might this emphasis on the possibility of the impossible have had on Walt as he rejected the dogged resignation to providence of his Congregationalist parents?
Disney’s theology is clearly aligned with the “possibility” thinking that gave rise to Norman Vincent Peale, Zig Ziglar, Oral Roberts, John Osteen (and later Joel Osteen) and a rolling number of television ministers who promote positive thinking, positive confession, and the “wealth gospel” that is a signature of Western theology after WWII and had seen such success on the African, South American, and Asian coasts. It is noteworthy that these teachings see prominence in impoverished regions of the world – expressly, the Southern United States and economically disenfranchised in suburban areas like New York. It is a theology wed to the American ideal of hard work. If you have a positive attitude towards your employer, you will be rewarded, promoted, and financially secure. As Walt once said, “When you believe a thing, believe it all over, implicitly and unquestioningly.” What is this statement if not an expression of the American spirit of rugged determinism, even in the face of adversity?
Cont. in part 4
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.