December 17, 2008

New book asks: ‘Should Dorothy have stayed in Oz?

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Admit it, you were afraid of the flying monkeys.

And you know exactly what is meant by “Ding-dong, the witch is dead,” “Follow the yellow brick road,” and “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

There can be no doubt that “The Wizard of Oz” impacted American culture. The books and movie also provide opportunity for philosophical discussions that involve names such as Aristotle, Plato, Joseph Campbell, Friedrich Engels, G. W. F. Hegel, David Hume and Immanuel Kant.

Randall E. Auxier, professor of philosophy at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, co-edits the latest offering from Open Court Publishing Co.’s Popular Culture and Philosophy series, “The Wizard of Oz and Philosophy.” His co-editor, Phillip S. Seng, an SIUC alumnus, is visiting assistant professor of philosophy at University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

The book examines the 1939 movie starring Judy Garland as Dorothy and Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West, and the “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum, the book on which the movie was based.

“Who doesn’t love the Wizard of Oz?” Auxier said, giving the most obvious reason for the book.

He noted that “some of the philosophical questions are exactly what you might expect” -- such as discussions of the virtues (what Dorothy’s friends seek); feminist- and Gregory Maguire (“Wicked”)-inspired examinations of Dorothy and the Witches; analysis of “the scary stuff.”

“But there are also some of the other philosophical puzzles, such as ‘Why does water melt a witch’ but not Dorothy? What is the significance of color in the movie -- why is Kansas gray and Oz in Technicolor? If all you’ve done is the movie, though, you’ve missed some of the epistemological moral puzzles in the book.”

The what?

Well, read the book to find out, but basically, and without spoiling it, this new philosophy book presents a deeper look into the legacy of the Wizard of Oz, and how the enduring themes fit into what we know about knowing things. In other words, this isn’t a book of film or literary criticism, but rather a book that dares to ask questions like, “Should Dorothy have stayed in Oz?” and “Why is the Wizard taking out contracts on the Wicked Witch’s life?” The answers, instead of referring to opinion, refer to some of the above-named philosophers as well as philosophical and sociological concepts.

Besides “The Wizard of Oz and Philosophy,” Auxier also co-edited “Bruce Springsteen and Philosophy” with fellow SIUC philosophy professor Doug Anderson and his essays appear in several other volumes in the series. He noted that while philosophical examinations of pop culture icons might not seem as “serious” as the more erudite academic philosophy he also writes, the pop culture and philosophy series is not fluff.

“I got into philosophy so I could help people understand and use it,” he said. “I want to write philosophy for people to read. I really set out to make it more digestible in a popular way.”

Auxier also edits the prestigious Library of Living Philosophers, published by Open Court Publishing Co. through SIUC, and edits the journal “The Pluralist.”