What Twain, Woolf, Roth, Morrison and more tell us about growing up and growing old.
We can go through life with such a terrible poverty of self-awareness. A poverty so deep we do not possess our own lives. Youth is a blur. Middle age can be a grind and old age, a brutal humbling.
But turn to literature – great literature – and awareness is there, says my guest today.
From Huck Finn on the river to King Lear at his end. Toni Morrison’s Sula. Virgina Woolf’s day-dreaming mother. The stories and insights to place us, ground us, in our own lives. Literature can get at the heart of what we’re doing and the experience we share can be illuminated.
This hour On Point: Growing up and growing old, in literature.
Arnold Weinstein, distinguished professor of Comparative Literature at Brown University and author of “Morning, Noon, And Night: Finding the Meaning of Life’s Stages Through Books.”
Excerpt: “Morning, Noon and Night: Finding the Meaning of Life’s Stages Through Books”
By Arnold Weinstein
Morning to Noon
The Language of Childhood
How to write about growing up? As children, especially as young children, we are too busy actually growing up to be able to put this experience into the distanced and interpretive frames of language and narrative. Not only are the great stories about childhood always written by adults looking back, remembering, perhaps inventing, perhaps fantasizing, but childhood itself might best be understood as an adult construct, a retrospective adult project. For starters, what would be the language of childhood? The French writer Georges Bernanos, late in his life, seeking to visualize the entry of his soul into the afterlife, saw himself as child-”l’enfant que je fus”-as the deadest of his dead, yet leading the way, even though irretrievable. And on the far side of words. Is it too much to claim that language itself is the price we pay for leaving childhood, the conversion of wonder into grammar? Or could we, alternatively, see language as prize, as central attainment and means of empowerment in the process of growing up?
These matters are at once primitive and abstruse. Anyone who has seen the vibrancy of children at play senses the gap (in beauty and power) between “being” and “speaking.” And that may be the least of it, for language also heralds a regime of deferral and translation. The immediacy of experience is exchanged for the mediation of words. We exit the Garden into a realm of signs. Consider, in this regard, the young Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who saw his fundamental life crisis in just these colors. Retelling his life from the vantage point of age and retrospect (in Les Confessions), Rousseau recalls the life- altering episode of a stolen comb. A stolen comb? Yes, stealing a comb is what the child is wrongly accused of doing, but when he passionately argues that he is innocent, he is not believed. You may ask: Where’s the crisis? I repeat: He says he is innocent, he is not believed. This is no less than the entry into language as facticity, language as unreliable conduit. “There ended the serenity of my childish life,” he writes; words are a broken bridge, our hearts cannot be read.
But the other side of this equation is no less crucial: language as empowerment, language as means of comprehension and agency, language as indispensable tool for growing up. We will have occasion to see that the most “successful” figures in my study, the ones who manage best to make their way into life, whether it be by overcoming adversity or understanding the nature of culture (the culture that contains them), enlist words as one of their chief resources. We will see this writ large, as it were, in the trials and exploits of figures like the pícaro Pablos, Faulkner’s Ike McCaslin, and Alice Walker’s Celie.
Further, what would we know about the lives of others if it were not for the written record, the vital transcription of experience into language? Our most precious accounts of childhood, of the experience of growing up and making our way, come to us by way of writing. Writing not only ensures the communication of this key phase of life, it is the tool that enables us to give shape and meaning to it, to retrace it, to convert its quicksilver into cadences and form. Writing eludes (as nothing else does) time’s entropy and erasure, so that the depicted childhood of, say, Rousseau or Dickens or Proust still shimmers in its immediacy (and in its mix of terrors and errors) while those men’s bones moulder in the earth. But that is the least of it: the stories of growing up, bequeathed to us by literature, partake of the miraculous plenitude proper to narrative: they are big with time, awash in culture, so that they yield an echoing script that not only captures the child’s experience but also signals much more: the gathered familial and cultural vectors whose weave inhabits the mind of the child and the foreboding temporal curve to come, as the child leaves childhood and enters the adult scheme. Through the narratives of childhood, the accounts of the voyage from morning to noon, we access something no photo, no single utterance can express: at once an unfolding of human potential and a peculiar map of private and public destiny, interwoven.
Childhood: Romantic Construct?
And more still: we see, thanks to the optic of these books, the elemental shock that the adult world, with its peculiar rituals, routinely inflicts on the young, and this is tonic, for it is what we adults have stopped perceiving for some time now. Aided, we now see the ticket we bought long ago for admission to “reality.” As readers, as thinkers, as folks with miles to go before we sleep, we’re already positioned on the far side of this dividing line, ousted from innocence and locked into experience, as William Blake would have put it, but for a precious while-as we negotiate, say, the poetry of Blake himself or the novels of Dickens, Twain, and Faulkner-we breathe another air and grope toward an earlier self. Literature restores to us the most moving chapter of our life-the truly kinetic time when everything was mobile, the time before things made adult sense, perhaps the only time things actually made real sense.
Or did they? It is well known that our current ideas about childhood as precious are profoundly inflected by the tenets of Romanticism, which did much to single out that special time of life as special: unspoiled, innocent, closer to nature, formative, holding in potential all that we might conceivably become or destroy. This discovery of the purity and preciousness of children is doubtless related as well to the increasing socioeconomic exploitation of them as it occurred in the Industrial Revolution of precisely that time period, as if to show that the value of young lives only becomes visible when those same lives are at risk and under attack. (Blake provokes along just these lines.) Here would be a belatedness hardwired into our thinking: it is damage that instructs.
But go further back than nineteenth-century Romanticism, and you find nothing so sweet or so value-laden. There was no mystique about children then. Their (virtually invisible) fates could be arduous indeed. As we saw, Oedipus the King traces such a fate, but Sophocles is not interested in child measures, only in adult measures. One is struck, in reading literature from antiquity to the nineteenth century, by the harshness and marginality of children’s lives, and it seems essential to pay heed, today, to those earlier, sterner accounts. Shakespeare and the authors of the seventeenth-century picaresque and baroque tales and eighteenth-century writers such as Abbé Prévost and Pierre Choderlos de Laclos had little interest (or belief) in angelic children, nor did they believe that the child was “father to the man,” as William Wordsworth famously put it in the following century. Even later writers who believed in the sanctity of children-the Brontë sisters, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Twain, Ibsen- surprise us with their findings, not merely about the vicious treatment children often received but also about their liabilities, vices, and blind spots. Of course, moderns such as Kafka, Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison and figures of our own moment are acutely aware of the ideological forces that not only beset children but also “compose” them, bleed into them as the work of culture, thus making us see that the consciousness of children is inflected by all manner of things beyond their ken.
Age of Children
In examining the suite of growing-up stories to come, many of them brutal and dark, I am concerned with illuminating the coming-of-age drama that each contains. Coming of age is of course a conceptual as well as somatic or temporal proposition, and we rightly see it as a kind of education, a movement toward understanding and maturity. What kind of education, understanding, and maturity? That is what these materials so richly display. Let me first clarify that my terms “childhood” and “old age” are not strictly age-specific. Faulkner’s Benjy (in The Sound and the Fury) is only a few years younger (thirty- three) than Joyce’s Leopold Bloom (in Ulysses), who is all of thirty- eight, yet I regard Benjy as a child and Bloom as man growing old. My reasons are simple: Benjy is constructed as an idiot who possesses no powers of ratiocination and is thus permanently infantilized, but Bloom sees himself as crucially past his prime, mindful of a more vibrant but long-gone past, obliged to find gratification via substitution. Each depiction is wise in lessons for us, regarding how life is parsed at distinct phases of our trajectory. Indeed, each is cued to a past that cannot be recaptured, but Benjy does not know this and Bloom does. One is permanently arrested on the front side of life, whereas the other reflects incessantly on his belatedness. We see (frozen) childhood and (reflective) old age in these postures.
Yet I am all too aware that growing up and growing old can-indeed, must-coexist in each of us, and that sense of tandem has a special pathos of its own as we go through life remembering and experiencing and taking stock. Finally, many of us who get to old age may find that we are still children or, worse, made into children, infantilized, either by culture or by senility. So if childhood is not a calendar truth, what is it? What follows are some of the generic features that shape and cohere the story of growing up.
Rubrics for the Narrative of Growing Up
Innocence (and Experience)
William Blake titled two major poetry collections Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, and nothing, I believe, stamps the perceptual drama of growing up more profoundly than this crucial binary. These two radically different lenses make visible how fatefully perspective shapes what we make of our lives. One thinks, initially, that we all move from innocence to experience (with whatever happy or catastrophic results that may occur), but it is no less true that we move from experience to innocence, inasmuch as experience alone makes prior innocence visible. Yet innocence also makes visible, which is what Blake’s greatest poems show us. “Out of the Mouths of Babes” is, like its folkloric sibling, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a window onto human foible and distortion or masquerade. It cannot surprise us that many of the books we most love move along such axes, often signaling in both directions: the child records more than he or she can know, while the sense-making of retrospect sifts and takes measures of what has occurred. Maybe that old Sphinx who tested Oedipus knew that every life is ultimately on four feet, two feet, and three feet, at the same time.
If Blake’s disturbing poems exploit innocence as optic, the great German novel of the seventeenth century, Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus, appearing more than a century before Romantic conceptions of childhood set in, is still more brutal in its use of naiveté as lens. Once again the optics are double-the book counts on us to “know” what its character does not-but this earlier text widens the stage immeasurably beyond Blake’s late-eighteenth- century London, giving us a rare sense of what “history” (bloody history) might look like at “ground zero,” prior to all abstractions. This shattering account of a simpleton’s experience of the Thirty Years’ War, written by a man who was there, reads almost like an allegory of the soul: how can it preserve its purity and integrity in a time of horror? The novel’s punch comes from its angle of vision: to render the convulsive antics of a world out of control, as perceived by an unknowing victim.
We continue our investigation of innocence as lens with Twain’s much- beloved Huckleberry Finn. Twain enlists the vision and voice of a school dropout, an uneducated boy with zero cultural capital, to tell the story at hand. What would slavery look like to such a person? The novel’s grandeur is to be found in the evolving moral education of Huckleberry Finn as he gradually, fitfully, registers the humanity of Jim, the runaway slave whom he is helping to free, who becomes his figurative father. Huck faces a shockingly modern dilemma, a dilemma no child escapes: can one possibly get clear of the dictates of mainstream ideology, especially if those dictates are lodged inside one’s head and go by the name of conscience?
Faulkner’s Benjy is my next and, arguably, supreme instance of innocence as vision. The Sound and the Fury obliges us to negotiate the jumbled perceptions of a mind that is completed unfurnished, along cognitive lines, while the emotions rise and fall and careen in roller- coaster fashion, as he responds to the sole and enduring tragedy of his life: Caddy (his sister) is not there (in reality) but is always there (in his heart). Benjy is one of the grand readerly challenges in modern literature, but this is not some intellectual puzzle; rather, his responses to life write large for us the fate of love: our need, its beauty, its loss.
I want to conclude this discussion of childhood innocence by examining one of the most endearing characters of contemporary literature, the little girl Marjane, the protagonist of Marjane Satrapi’s poignant graphic novel Persepolis, which depicts a female child’s coming-of-age drama in Tehran in the fateful years between the shah’s expulsion and the beginning reign of the ayatollahs. A daughter of privilege, good- hearted but politically unaware, Marjane not only registers the Iranian change of regime but also embodies the dynamic of a young girl moving toward adolescence, and this combination of forces at once personal and ideological achieves a surprising pathos and poetry in the graphic format.
In all five instances-Blake, Grimmelshausen, Twain, Faulk?ner, Satrapi- the eyes and voice of the unknowing child become our conduit toward knowledge, toward a shock of recognition: this, we understand, is what exploitation, war, racism, terrorism, and even love actually look like, feel like. We may have known those terms forever, but we have never envisioned the world from this angle, never put on these particular glasses, never inhabited this position. A curtain goes up, and the innocent child is our teacher.
Experience (and Innocence)
Experience is the name we give to what life either shows us or does to us. At the opposite pole from innocence, it is the tally sheet that records our actual passing through, and as such, it is in frequent warfare with the expectations of innocence. All coming-of-age stories negotiate these two poles, as if they made up a magnetic field that the young traverse. Experience almost always has a pedagogical tinge to it-”this is what life has taught me” or “this is what it really was like”-and its greatest virtue is its open-eyed, unflinching acknowledgment of things as they are, rather than as they might or should be. In this light, it will be seen that our greatest works of art record the gradual accumulation of experience on the part of the young, as if the task of narrative were to put them on time’s treadmill and then show what they encounter and how they alter. Here is the schooling of life itself, an education often at odds with the precepts that are drilled into us by culture.
(Excerpted from Morning, Noon, and Night by Arnold Weinstein Copyright © 2011 by Arnold Weinstein. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.)