Friday, March 06, 2009


Before school on Thursday I pulled Pascal’s Pensées off the shelf, the old green-and-white Penguin translated by the indefatigable J.M. Cohen, the edition I’ve owned and read for almost 40 years. I’m also indebted to Cohen for my first readings of Don Quixote, Rabelais, Rousseau’s Confessions and St. Teresa of Avila. Pascal is useful in the morning, like stiff coffee – an intellectual jolt – and I found what I was looking for without knowing I was looking for it – No. 304:

“Children are astonished when they see their comrades respected.”

Pascal confirms a phenomenon I witness daily. He’s specific about what inspires astonishment in children, and it’s not adults praising children, or children performing prodigious acts of scholarship or physical grace. It’s adults respecting children – deferring to them for information or opinions, or trusting them enough to let them make risky decisions. In my experience adults generally micro-manage kids or disregard them entirely, and I’m including parents and teachers, though plenty of kids deserve only the passive, boilerplate respect we owe every person.

Thursday morning in a high-school history class I watched a teacher listen respectfully as a boy explained that Harry Truman, in dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was motivated in part by a wish to send an implicit warning to Joe Stalin. This wasn’t news to me but clearly it had never occurred to the teacher. However, she listened attentively, asked questions, let a couple of other kids continue the cross-examination, and thanked the boy. She didn’t overdo it. Her reaction seemed genuine. A few kids giggled, uncomfortable with evidence of intelligence among their own, but others smiled at him, respecting the respect he earned from the teacher. The kid was glowing rather becomingly.

In one of those happy gifts of serendipity dedicated readers know well, I found this sentence in Cohen’s introduction to Pascal: “Furthermore, as a practical inventor he gave the world the calculating machine, and devised also the first public bus service, the first syringe, and the first wrist-watch.” I’m certain I’ve read Cohen’s introduction before, as well as a number of studies and biographies of Pascal, but I’d forgotten all about the syringe. What a remarkable man, I thought – the patron saint of junkies.

After school, thanks to Ron Slate, the boys and I stopped at the library to pick up Alissa Valles’ new book of poems, Orphan Fire. I know her as the translator of Zbigniew Herbert’s The Collected Poems: 1956-1998, one of the essential books of our age. I skimmed through Orphan Fire long enough to find “Pascal, Inventor of the Syringe”:

“What I hate in myself, I destroy in others.
What I don’t have I take away from them.
Lord, fill and destroy me with one needle.”

Such coincidences brighten the day and prove precisely nothing. In “Mr. Cogito and the Imagination,” Herbert writes (in Valles’ translation):

“he employed the imagination
for wholly different purposes

“he wanted to make of it
an instrument of compassion

“he longed to understand fully

“--Pascal’s night
--the nature of a diamond
--the prophets’ melancholy
--the wrath of Achilles
--the fury of mass murderers
--the dreams of Mary Stuart
--the fear of Neanderthals
--the last Aztecs’ despair
--Nietzsche’s long dying
--the Lascaux painter’s joy
--the rise and fall of an oak
--the rise and fall of Rome”

1 comment:

R. T. Davis said...

The fact that children astonish us (and their peers) from time to time says less about the children, I think, than it does about ourselves. In too many cases we have forgotten (or, in some cases, obliterated) parts of ourselves that were alive and well when we were children. The world of adults worked its pernicious power on us when we were children, and gradually some of our capacity for perception and wonder was replaced by something else. Now, as adults, it is nevertheless fortunate that we retain the capacity to be astonished by children; however, when we think about that too long, we tend to become wistful and melancholic. Indeed, the children are a mirror in which we experience remembrances of things past.