LEARNING BEDLAM

On a walk in southern England we came to an iron railing that marked the end of land. My son was four. When he saw for the first time that wrinkled, grey, grandly and immovably flat THING that sprawled there forever, he looked at it for a long time from between the two rails. Then he got down and looked at it upside down from under the bottom rail. After a bit he climbed up and looked at it over the top rail. It was still there. I wish phenomena could still astonish me just by being. Well of course they do, sometimes. But not always. Not by a long shot.

Of all the people in the world my favorites are children of three and four and five. Women are fascinating, god knows, with their minds and their hearts (not to mention their bodies), the novels they write and the way they walk, but to my mind the company of the aforementioned tykes is the best of all social delight. I have no desire to teach them anything, I don’t want to change them. It is enough just to be with them and listen to their talk.

They make me laugh, they astonish me with their wit. One morning when my daughter was about three I offended her in some way I have forgotten. She looked up at me in a total rage and swore she was going to “put you in the garbage and FROW YOU AWAY!”

When my son saw snow falling for the first time he asked, “Why is the sky frowing that white stuff down?” While I groped for a meteorological explanation he answered himself. “Because the sky doesn’t want it?”

And that deepest of questions, “Where was I before I was anything?”

My daughter was drawing a goat amidst a scatter of chevrons which she said were mountains. While she methodically drew the head and the body of the goat I racked my brains to think how she would relate this animal to the mountains. Three years of art school was no help. When the time came she simply ran a firm line from each corner of the goat to the nearest mountain. Well, of course! How else?

To dismiss children as `cute’ is to belittle them. I see those early years as the workplace of being human. Fancy: a child begins without one conceptual stone to pile on another. They must master a language and make sense of bedlam. And there is no time to lose; it must be done within five years or thereabouts. And they pull it off, for the most part, if they get a chance. Even if, as Rupert Sheldrake and others would claim, the child is simply tapping into the Master Memory and slowly re-minding themselves, the achievement is immense. Deeper than the Unified Field Theory. Longer than the great wall of China. And the paradox of it all is that this non-stop childwork, dawn to dark, is the wildest play.

Today, when I watch small children trotting along the street behind their impatient elders, stopping to look under things and pointing to phenomena in wordless excitement, I see the world again through their eyes, I cannot help smiling. When I watch a man in a coffee shop with his small child, feeding it, talking to it, I ache to be that man.

But concomitantly I wonder how long the excitement for each child will last. Sixty years ago I went to school with Leonard Nesbitt, Bill Hutchinson, Peter Isaac, Penny Hayhurst and Cokie Argue, farm boys all. By the time we were approaching adolescence the bloom was off the world a little, our native wit which once had contemplated time and beginnings, was reduced to quoting the repartee of Fibber McGee and Molly on the radio. Still and all, I clearly remember our common intelligence. In winter the cattle would paw through the snow on the south side of strawstacks and eat out little caves in the golden straw. On a saturday morning in February it would be our pleasure to lie in one of these caves, out of the wind. The pale winter sunlight, focused and intensified by the straw, was so warm you could take off your mitts and open your jacket. And there we talked boy talk about the best kind of inner tube for making slingshots, various odd events and thrilling acts of violence that had happened in the district_largely mythological I think_and most of all, of course, what do the older guys do when they’re alone with girls? And I clearly remember that their speculations on these weighty matters were as ingenious and misplaced as my own. They may not all have come from as bookish a home as I did, but my book-learning merely amused them; it didn’t interfere with our friendship.

Those were the companions of my mind. Now I am a half-assed scholar, artistic jack-of-all-trades and master of none. And they? I don’t know, I have never been back.

As my own children began to talk and learn the world in the fifties, it became clear to me that each child is born a complete person, alone and self-sufficient. There is an attractive idea of God that sees him as a dance of creation and destruction and creation. He has been described as the spirit of pure play. Mind you, this play is somewhat of a menace to spectators. It can include immense practical jokes, like the volcano that buries a city under tons of cosmic laughter. His carryings-on are also of questionable taste; imagine placing the organs of generation and delight an inch from the apparatus of defecation just to see how we would deal with it! It is not accidental perhaps that this ungainly behavior is similar to that of the small child: curious, amoral, autonomous_squashing beetles and laughing with huge self-satisfaction. When things go wrong, does God have a mother to run to when an experiment backfires, when mortals don’t laugh at his jokes?

We too, you and I, were once anarchic and splendid in the assumption of our autonomy. I find this anarchism moving. It is Blake’s vision of Eden. An innocent version of Nietzsche’s blond beast.

I hear the cynical voices of mothers with tired eyes and hair awry. `Anarchy, is it, Mr G? Moving, is it? That’s all very perspicacious and understanding of you, my dear. But did you ever clean up after the little brutes?’ (Yes, I have scraped the ammoniac shit out of diapers into a bucket, though not many, I admit.) Now mothers, you know yourselves, unless they utterly exhaust you, how fascinating the little brutes are.

What happens to the anarchism during the family years? At the same time they are exploring the world with such wide-eyed wonder, the tots are running into big trouble at home. A confrontation develops that is familiar to anyone who has ever gone through the Terrible Two’s with a child: irresistible projectile collides with immovable obstacle. The blond beast meets Bigfoot.

There are difficulties of scale; Bigfoot is immense. Further difficulties grow out of the child’s assumption that its every wish is to be met NOW. On the face of it, this is a reasonable assumption: since the child has never before existed, it has never been thwarted. At first Bigfoot is indulgent. The small fry is defiant, the adults are amused. The conflict is adroitly limned in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, although transposed to the age of six or seven, where the obstacles are Calvin’s mother and the monolithic Teacher. In the real family, which is not always amusing, it gradually becomes clear that Bigfoot is the immovable object. The child is met at every turn with barriers, soft or hard but implacable. The Bigfeet do hateful things with their hands and their spoons and their soap and their safety pins. Rage is in order, bur rage is worse than useless: it brings down punishment.

The resolution to this situation_if it is a resolution_is something that I myself would never have expected. It’s clear that the child must come to a truce with the adults. Force majeure, after all; what else can they do? But at the same time I should have thought the child would never forgive the adults for this humiliating defeat. Never! Yet the opposite is true: if the child’s home life is stable, they come to an accommodation with the world. Not only do they accommodate, they cleave to their worst enemies, specifically those who have destroyed their autonomy.

It comes to this accommodation by virtue of a questionable strategy, which I do not understand, called `love.’ How is defeat turned into love? I don’t mean a mere sighing and making the best of it, I mean that out of this conflict grow the powerful emotions that bind families together as well as breaking them apart.

I have wondered whether the child divides in two, one going underground. One personality submits to diapers, to the whims of women, to enemas, to defeat, to humiliation, to time, to death, to god knows what. And the other goes underground, and never submits, remains potent and unrepentant to the last. Elias Canetti in Crowds and Power says something like this. “No child, not even the most ordinary, forgets or forgives a single one of the commands inflicted on it.”

I am sceptical of both his version and mine, they feel like literary concoctions, but I have no other explanation

One way or another, the child becomes one of us, an adult, a standard model with identity card. This is fortunate for us of course: a personality that grew up with no let or hindrance would emerge like some spoilt prince of the Italian Renaissance, all charm and stiletto. Even Nietzsche would find the blond beast unnerving. So of course we have to lead our children into civility.

Nonetheless, if tragedy is misfortune that springs from the inevitable collision of character with event, this is the tragedy at the beginning of every life. The tradeoff is, the world gains, sometimes, with luck, a polite and useful person, but loses a creature as splendid and amoral as an angel.

We are born original and entire. As the years go by we dwindle into grown-ups.

But much more interesting than any angel.