Friday, 21 April 2017

The English and Children (from fiction in progress)

We took the child on a river boat, and to the Tate gallery to see the Blakes. He pointed to "Ghost of a Flea" and shouted.From there we wandered through Battersea park and finally to the white stone church where Blake was married. On a path outside the church the child stamped and scuffed his feet on the gravel to make a noise. "This is a cycle path" mumbled a middle-aged man on a bike with muffled rage.
The English in fact hate children. You only have to travel to Greece or Italy or Spain, where the baby or toddler in a restaurant or other public place is the star of the show, a VIP, an entertainer applauded and feted by all. You only have to witness the delight of the waiters and shop workers, suddenly lit up and animated by the prodigal presence of the child, and who always meet the baby half way, as it were, and become babies themselves, to realise that, by contrast the English resent and are embarrassed by children and wish them invisible, inaudible or unconscious. Of course, their hatred wears the mask of concern, or the muzzle of concern, as in “that baby should be asleep!,” or “They shouldn’t be letting it behave like that..” and so on. They "blame the parents” and can be heard sniping at the parents from adjoining tables, barely audible of course, for most of their cancerous bile is directed inward, to their own organs,  where, with other monsters, it festers and mutates. They cannot admit to themselves they hate children, for that would amount to confessing that they hate life. But this is exactly what the English do hate. The vitality and exuberance of the baby, or the wobbling toddler, circling in gleeful triumph around the listless ironic adults, shrieking and laughing, screeching and crying, are the stream and bubble of life in its pure state. The shriek of a toddler is an arrow of pure life fired directly between the torpid eyes of those who long ago sent the child they once were to rot in exile. 

Genius is the voluntary reclamation of childhood, Rimbaud says, by which he means not the memory of childhood, a la Proust, but the plastic powers of childhood to perceive, play and create. If we can retain these powers, invoke and use them, then we are geniuses. A genius sees the world differently and walks roughshod over the established symbolic parameters, which is also what the child does. The small child spends much of its time in a state of sweet delight, as Blake knew. It notices that a piece of wood makes pleasant sounds when hit against a wall or a cupboard; a tennis ball is better employed knocking over a glass; a small drawer’s contents can be scattered over a large area; doors are for slamming, and a switch makes a pleasant click which can also plunge the world in darkness or call up from nowhere a small room which adults call a “lift.” Each day there are Olympian leaps of the understanding, jubilant discoveries, new creations and ecstatic destructions. What a life to live, this exponential and daily increase in the body’s powers, the collapse of familiar boundaries, and, even within the wall of house and garden, an ever-expanding universe...

All of this, for the English, is to be extirpated, re-programmed and subject to regimentation.  Children in all their fabulous innocence are labelled miscreants from the start. They are naughty or possessed or hateful. Original sin is simply the sin attributed to children by adults, the labels and symbols used to defame the exuberance of the child, which properly understood and heard would corrode their Englishness as salt dissolves a slug. For it is not unfair to say that Englishness is, point by point, the antithesis of childhood. Everything that the child incarnates, in the way of joy, unstopped desire and piping glee, is then drained away by the cultural apparatus of Englishness, and replaced with repression, glumness, irony and resignation. The laughter of a child and that of an Englishperson are completely different, if not the exact reverse of each other: the one affirms and spills over, the other denies and drains.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Ideas: the web spun by our imagination

The baseball cap belonged to Grenson, a friend of mine at Oxford. He owned very few books and I never saw him in the library. He was working on a PhD in Logic and all he had to do was think, as he told me, just sit and think and write. This was an enviable position to be in, I always said. He could do this anywhere, unencumbered by books or tangles of footnotes. He could sit by the canal, for example, with his laptop, working through the logical structure of sentences and scribbling notes, wearing his cap. I remember very clearly the little spot by the canal where he used to sit on sunny days. I’d join him and we’d analyse a film we’d seen, or we’d talk about a woman he was pursuing. It was always a question of uncovering the implicit rules of the situation and following them. Every sphere of life had its explicit and implicit rules, and in every case the task was to identify what rules were operating and behave accordingly. And just as one could not simply choose to speak and communicate outside the rules of grammar, without making grammatical mistakes that impede communication and lead to misunderstandings, so there was no way to simply sidestep the rules and laws of interpersonal behaviour. 

I always thought that this view of things, of a world structured according to manifold rules and laws, was a great imaginative construct on Grenson's part. It suited him, and pleased him, to think of the world in this way, to act and behave in a world so structured. No doubt he would say that the world really is like this, it really is structured by rules and laws, and his view simply reflected this fact, just as Leibniz might say the world is really composed of monads. But just as Leibniz's system is now thought of primarily as a fantastic imaginative construct, almost a work of art like Joyce's Wake, so Grenson's picture of the world as a network of rules can likewise be seen as, in fact, the web spun by his own imagination and expressing his soul. Most of our ideas, whatever philosophical rigour they appear to exhibit, are also always webs spun by our imagination and expressing our own peculiar form of life. All the great philosophical systems shine forth as imaginative and aesthetic constructions long after their truth content disappears or at least dwindles. The great systems, whether it be Plato or Hegel, but also more modest systems, such as Grenson's, are in fact, independent of their truth, lattice structures which conduct flows of psychological and affective energy, great machines which we plug into and from which we derive cerebral and emotional pleasure.