Saturday, February 28, 2009

`Light Vessel of Consciousness'

The school assigned me two children on Friday, both third-graders. The girl is tall for her age, skinny, with black hair and large black eyes. She has Down’s syndrome and is sweet-natured and eager to please. The boy is autistic, always moving, seldom talking. Both are largely independent, able to use the bathroom unaccompanied and punch in their lunch-account numbers on the keypad in the cafeteria. I spent most of the day just watching. What surprised me was how protective some of the other kids were of my special-ed. charges.

In grade school we were vicious with conspicuously handicapped kids. We taunted a first-grader with polio who wore cumbersome steel-and-leather braces on his legs. Kids on the bus threw paper wads and pencils at a macrocephalic kid and called him “Watermelon Head” (he died a few years later). This is predictable behavior, what I would expect. Kindness is a recessive trait and always a surprise.

Two girls adopted the girl with Down’s. They helped zip her jacket and wiped maple syrup from her face after lunch. They hugged her and stroked her hair and played with her throughout recess. They were unself-conscious in their solicitousness. Among girls this is not surprising. I thought of Henry James’ explanation for choosing a female protagonist for What Maisie Knew:

“…I at once recognised, that my light vessel of consciousness, swaying in such a draught, couldn’t be with verisimilitude a rude little boy; since, beyond the fact that little boys are never so ‘present’, the sensibility of the female young is indubitably, for early youth, the greater, and my plan would call, on the part of my protagonist, for ‘no end’ of sensibility.”

The little girls I watched, otherwise indistinguishable from their fellows, displayed immense “sensibility,” but so did the boys with the autistic kid. The three of them shot baskets for 45 minutes, performing the usual safely masculine high-fives and arm pumping, but also hugged and walked hand-in-hand or with arms around each others’ shoulders. A teacher told me this had happened spontaneously. No one ordered them to be nice to the handicapped kid. I went home, more hopeful than usual, to my own kids and to David Myers’ post about children, reading and writers:

“Only recently, after the birth of four children in five-and-a-half years, as I sit exhausted and happy from changing diapers, winding up toys, cooking dinner, pulling pajama tops over fine-haired heads, reading bedtime stories, and picking clothes off the floor and turning off lights, have I begun to appreciate how very little of ordinary life—family life—gets into American writing.”

Perhaps because so much American literature has been devoted to (and often written by) “isolatoes,” to borrow Melville’s coinage (Moby-Dick, Chapter XXVII: “They were nearly all Islanders in the Pequod, Isolatoes too, I call such, not acknowledging the common continent of men, but each Isolato living on a separate continent of his own.”). Solitaries often don’t have kids, which is probably a good thing. The best novel I know about children and family life was set in the United States and written here – by an Australian: Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children (Randall Jarrell wrote of it: “…if all mankind had been reared in orphan asylums for a thousand years, it could learn to have families again by reading [it].”).The best novel I know about a disabled child and a parental figure was written by a Hungarian -- György Konrád’s The Case Worker. The best novel I know filtered through the consciousness of a child is What Maisie Knew.

Myers’ list of American writers and their children or absence of children is intriguing, and there are many ways to read it. Let’s be grateful, for the sake of the offspring, that Chandler, Crane, Millay, Porter and Wolfe went childless, but pity the kids of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, O’Neill and Steinbeck. Which raises another question: What role did alcohol play in all of this?
Having children ought to signal the beginning of the end of selfishness. Your wishes and desires, indulged for so long, seem beside the point and shrivel in importance unless you happen to be Beale and Ida Farange – Maisie’s father and mother. Here’s what the childless Henry James wrote in his preface to What Maisie Knew:

“Small children have many more perceptions than they have terms to translate them; their vision is at any moment much richer, their apprehension even constantly stronger, than their prompt, their at all producible, vocabulary.… Maisie’s terms accordingly play their part – since her simpler conclusions quite depend on them; but our own commentary constantly attends and amplifies.”


Levi Stahl said...

As one of the childless, I'm not sure I'm fully authorized to weigh in . . . but to your list I'd add Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows (and, just to be evil, any number of Ivy Compton-Burnett novels).

Anonymous said...

I am reminded of "On My First Son," Ben Jonson's elegy to his son who died at the age of seven. As Jonson powerfully presents it, there is something enviable and sorrowful about being a child. So much hope and promise awaits, but that future also includes much suffering and sorrow. I assign this poem to students in my literature classes, but I know that they cannot fully comprehend the passion and sorrow embodied in the poem. The students are too close to being children themselves, and the fullest appreciation of childhood only comes to adults who take time to observe and remember -- and, as you have noted, read about children in literature.
In any event, I must tell you that I am pleased to have discovered your blog to which I will regularly return for your refreshing commentary and the suggestions about books offered by you and your readers.

Anonymous said...

Pity too the Down's Syndrome son of Arthur Miller, Daniel, who was wiped out of his father's life.

Anonymous said...

George Will in a Newsweek essay states his belief that a child born with Down syndrome is like any other child born—meant to be taken home: "On the second day of Jon's life, the hospital's geneticist asked his parents if they intended to take him home. Nonplused, they answered that taking a baby home seemed like the thing to do."