Friday, June 18, 2010

`Childish in the Proper and Complimentary Sense'

“Plato held, and the child holds, that the most important thing about a ship (let us say) is that it is a ship…all these pictures are designed to express things in their quiddity. If these old artists draw a ship, everything is sacrificed to expressing the `shipishness’ of the ship.”

Several special-education students, higher-functioning kids than those in our room, were still at school Thursday morning as we cleaned and packed. There’s one boy I’ve never worked with directly but whose company I enjoy. I once helped him find the winter coat he had lost in the men’s locker room. That broke the ice. I like him because he’s spirited and funny and gets raw pleasure from laughing. He laughs with his entire body, without embarrassment, gums exposed and spit flying.

I don’t remember how it started but a couple of months ago we began barking at each other as we passed in the hall or on campus. We improvised a vast canine repertoire, eventually moving on to whimpers, panting, paw-giving, tail-wagging and so on. Our routine variously puzzles, annoys and amuses staff and students, which is just about the right mix of reactions you would expect to anything that gives pleasure. I do something similar with another student, a girl, except we make pig sounds.

While washing dishes in the kitchen Thursday morning I heard behind me the familiar bark-greeting. I replied in kind before turning my head and there he was, grinning and holding out a large wad of folded construction paper. “This is for you,” he said, and I took it and opened the page. On it he had drawn a perfect minimalist dog. There’s nothing crude or “cute” about it. There’s no mistaking it for anything but a member of the family Canidae, though the breed is less certain.

“It’s a dog,” he said, barking. The drawing amounts to seven curved lines of varying lengths – simple, elegant, beautiful. I had no idea this kid could draw (he can’t read or do elementary math). I thought of the passage quoted above from “The Grave-digger,” a brief essay collected in Chesterton on Shakespeare (edited by Dorothy Collins, Dufour Editions, 1971). The piece is ostensibly devoted to the grave-digger in Hamlet but Chesterton ranges about, beginning with a look at the medieval books he finds in the Rylands Library in Manchester. The “old artists” he refers to illuminated the manuscripts. He continues:

“These pictures are childish in the proper and complimentary sense of the word. They are childish in this sense, that they are Platonists. When we are very young and vigorous and human we believe in things; it is only when we are very old and dissolute and decaying that we believe in the aspects of things. To see a thing in aspects is to be crippled, to be defective.”

Chesterton never uses the word “realistic” and neither will I. Is the boy’s sketch of a dog “realistic.” I don’t know but it’s deftly drawn and uncluttered, like a passage in Hamlet (“the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!”) or a good dog impression.


rodney k said...

I love this blog--posts like this remind me why.

Anonymous said...

Hilarious and wonderful - you're a master deadpanner on a par with Beckett, i think, for humour with a straight face. One day i'll show you my dobermann impressions (the yawn, the stretch, the indignant yowl, the earnest biscuit-begging stare, etc.).