Saturday, December 23, 2006

The animated world

Upon exiting, be sure to shake the hand of a any child that offers it.

I was at McD's a few hours ago, being all Santa up in it. For my cram school I donned the cheap red suit, the cheap itchy beard (it sheds!), and handed out spoon-fork-and-chopstick kits (for the mere utterance of "Merry Christmas!"). Well, it was fun seeing my students out of the classroom. I really do enjoy kids. One of our teachers, I discovered, has a couple small ones herself. The two-year-old was a hoot. We played the point-at-each-other-and-smile game for a good five minutes, before mommy put his hand away. Despite my being he skinniest and worst clad Santa south of the North Pole, the kids ended up taking to me very well (even when I went beardless).

Well, as I was leaving, one little boy, the brother of one of my students, insisted on saying goodbye. I met his hand with a slow high-five, a sort of upright handshake. Just as we made contact, my teacher instinct kicked in and I emitted a small "Bing!" As I descended the stairs I pondered how that effect struck the boy. As a teacher of primarily middle school and elementary kids, I not only get to see how they interact with each other, but also how they react to various stimuli I send their way. Invariably, making small or large noises (bing, ding, biang, dong, etc.) to accentuate words and actions gives them a rush. Such cartoonish extras strike them very well; they bridge the gap, I think, between the fading world of cartoons from kindergarten and the new, saner, more boring world of high school and (gasp) incipient adulthood.

Weeks a go I was subbing at a kindergarten and gained a whole new insight into the matter, the "lived vision" of children (literally their world-view). Being kindergarteners, the kindergärtners weren't too interested in my long-winded diversions in grammar and etymology, nor even in my long-winded mantra to sit sit sit sit sit. But they were interested in drawing. So we drew. What struck me about all their artwork was its surrealism. Enormous suns, trees growing sideways, floating houses, three- (and no-) armed people, etc. And nothing was to scale. Colors were out of whack. I cut them some slack, of course, on account of them lacking advanced motor skills. But I wondered. Perhaps their internal sense of the picture they wanted to draw was to scale, but their little fingers just couldn't pull off the vision. Perhaps internally they did know the right color schemes, but Crayola's meager offerings weren't up to the task, and so they fudged the colors too far the other way. Perhaps, I granted, it was just a matter of time till their motor skills caught up with their otherwise very accurate internal sense of things.

But something in their eyes made me wonder in the other direction. Their eyes were much looser in their heads than mine (though certainly much tighter than mine in their heads). Their heads wobbled in too many directions, I thought, to give a steady, clear view of he world. Washing machine TV, I said to myself. Plus, when it came to certain tasks, like writing words on, or coloring within, the lines, they did pretty well. They certainly all had enough manual dexterity to work video games and remote controls. So why was their artwork so skewed?

Ask an adult to draw a landscape, and you'll probably get something very realistic, even boringly so. No matter how poor her artistic motor skills are, the adult won't draw mammoth suns (yes, plural), leaning trees, houses smaller than their residents, rivers that flow mid-sky, etc. You'll see an accurate, if sloppy, picture of an internally imagined landscape.

Ask a child to draw a landscape however and you'll see all the surreal joy of the pictures I've described. I am convinced this is a function not of children's motor skills, but of their actual view of reality. Kids actually have cartoon eyes. Because their brains are still more neurally fluid, not yet fossilized, everything can be experienced more fluidly, more surreally. Because the child's brain is plastic, her perception of the world is plastic. And everyone knows kids love plastic toys.

Why do small children find even the simplest motions done again and again with zest, funny? Because in their eyes, that moving thing really is far out. Why do kids find even the smallest missteps or dropped objects so funny? Because in their looser sense of causality, that sort of thing is random, magical, funny. Because kids are not yet bound by "the way the world really works", they meet things in the world more spontaneously. They don't anticipate a cup on the edge of a table will in all likelihood" (magic, likely?) fall; so when it does, it's a pure surprise, sheer madness. Falling cups! Who would imagine! Hearing a man's voice is not just hearing "another man's voice"; for children, every voice is more unique. Types and patterns are not yet so neatly classified for convenience. Everything is in disarray, like a party. Anchor float and balloons crush the earth. The artwork on any parent's refrigerator door is the paper trail of the madness within.

From my EMS training and my scattered medical reading I understand that he appeal of hallucinogenic and psychotropic drugs is that they loosen the bonds of reality and open "the doors of perception" (as Aldous Huxley put it). The normal barriers and locks in our brains open, allowing stimuli to enter in the out door and one hemisphere to dialogue more freely with the other. The world melts, the user floats, inhibitions disappear, should and must take flight, everything is funny, everything is a surprise, everything is beautiful. The funniness of hallucinations is of course dependent on the user being in a pleasant environment. Being "setting-dependent" drugs, hallucinogens can just as easily make a surreal nightmare for a user in a bad setting. This only underlines my point about children: because their brains are that much closer to a hallucinogenic status, they are that much more likely to perceive the world like a psychotropic user would.

Realizing, dimly, the cartoonish "affect" of younger children (I had seen cartoonish antics work so well in the classroom), I accentuated it by all the funny noises and silly mannerisms.

And so, to come full circle, when I "binged" the boy's hand tonight, I had to wonder if he didn't see, peripherally as it were, a small bulb flash when our hands met. I nearly did. The sound was so apposite; free for a moment from the adult world of noiseless handshakes, I could enter the boy's perceptual "matrix", where a flashing, ringing handshake is just as to be expected as the dull adult kind. For a moment I saw the world as he did: animated.

I quote at length from Chesterton's "Ethics of Elfland" (in Orthodoxy):

In fairyland we avoid the word “law”; but in the land of science they are singularly fond of it. Thus they will call some interesting conjecture about how forgotten folks pronounced the alphabet, Grimm’s Law. But Grimm’s Law is far less intellectual than Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The tales are, at any rate, certainly tales; while the law is not a law. A law implies that we know the nature of the generalisation and enactment; not merely that we have noticed some of the effects. If there is a law that pick-pockets shall go to prison, it implies that there is an imaginable mental connection between the idea of prison and the idea of picking pockets. And we know what the idea is. We can say why we take liberty from a man who takes liberties. But we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince. As IDEAS, the egg and the chicken are further off from each other than the bear and the prince; for no egg in itself suggests a chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears. Granted, then, that certain transformations do happen, it is essential that we should regard them in the philosophic manner of fairy tales, not in the unphilosophic manner of science and the “Laws of Nature.” When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o’clock. We must answer that it is MAGIC. It is not a “law,” for we do not understand its general formula. It is not a necessity, for though we can count on it happening practically, we have no right to say that it must always happen. It is no argument for unalterable law (as Huxley fancied) that we count on the ordinary course of things. We do not count on it; we bet on it. We risk the remote possibility of a miracle as we do that of a poisoned pancake or a world-destroying comet. We leave it out of account, not because it is a miracle, and therefore an impossibility, but because it is a miracle, and therefore an exception. All the terms used in the science books, “law,” “necessity,” “order,” “tendency,” and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a MAGIC tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.

I deny altogether that this is fantastic or even mystical. We may have some mysticism later on; but this fairy-tale language about things is simply rational and agnostic. It is the only way I can express in words my clear and definite perception that one thing is quite distinct from another; that there is no logical connection between flying and laying eggs. It is the man who talks about “a law” that he has never seen who is the mystic. Nay, the ordinary scientific man is strictly a sentimentalist. He is a sentimentalist in this essential sense, that he is soaked and swept away by mere associations. He has so often seen birds fly and lay eggs that he feels as if there must be some dreamy, tender connection between the two ideas, whereas there is none. A forlorn lover might be unable to dissociate the moon from lost love; so the materialist is unable to dissociate the moon from the tide. In both cases there is no connection, except that one has seen them together. A sentimentalist might shed tears at the smell of apple-blossom, because, by a dark association of his own, it reminded him of his boyhood. So the materialist professor (though he conceals his tears) is yet a sentimentalist, because, by a dark association of his own, apple-blossoms remind him of apples. But the cool rationalist from fairyland does not see why, in the abstract, the apple tree should not grow crimson tulips; it sometimes does in his country.

This elementary wonder, however, is not a mere fancy derived from the fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this. Just as we all like love tales because there is an instinct of sex, we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him. This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.

To close: all these musings have convinced me there is a great mini-documentary to be made about people drawing landscape. The film would focus on their hands, how fastidious they are about scale and order and accuracy. It would be a study in contrasts: children and adults being asked to draw the same things, with magically different results.

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