Thursday, 11 February 2016

Two is the Beginning of the End - Catherine Butler

“Oh, why can’t you remain like this for ever!” cries Mrs Darling at the beginning of J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, as the two-year-old Wendy winsomely hands her a plucked flower.

Mrs Darling is described a few lines later as having a romantic mind, but we might add that she also has a Romantic one, for her delight in Wendy as a perfect Rousseau-esque girl-child is Romantic through and through, as is her regret at the thought of childhood fading into the light of common (i.e. adult) day. The plucked flower tells its own symbolic story, but ironically it is Mrs Darling herself who gives Wendy a sly push from the perch of childhood:

This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.

The very act of wishing that Wendy might stay the same becomes the means by which she is forced to change, impelled towards an understanding of herself as a temporal being destined in due course to grow up. If only Mrs Darling had kept her thought to herself! But sooner or later someone else would have said something similar. The damage was done as soon as Wendy learned to understand words, as Rousseau would no doubt have pointed out.

Of course, the irony of Mrs Darling’s speech is wrapped up in a larger, comic irony. “Two is the beginning of the end” is a hyperbolic mockery of the very Romantic ideals it appears to be endorsing. Barrie is impossible to pin down, here or anywhere. Were we to unpeel the onion-skin ironies of his book we would be here all day, and left for our pains with nothing but tears and smelly fingers.

“Two is the beginning of the end.” Overblown as it may be, that negative reaction to Wendy’s dawning awareness finds its echo in many books, and not just ones for children. Consciousness itself gets a surprisingly bad rap in literature, considering that it is a precondition of reading. Think, for example, of the boy whose story is told in Heinrich von Kleist’s essay “On the Marionette Theatre” (one of Philip Pullman’s favourites). He was a beautiful youth, and full of unconscious grace until this fact was pointed out to him, at which point he became clumsy and mannered, never regaining that precious unconsciousness. In a very different part of the forest we might think of the lexicographer Syme in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, who enthuses to Winston Smith that the ultimate end of Newspeak is to make heterodox thought – and in time all thought – impossible: “Orthodoxy means not thinking - not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.” Sadly, even Syme’s enthusiasm is itself an example of thought, and he is liquidated accordingly.

Going back 500 years or so there’s Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, which coined the term sprezzatura, the art (or anti-art) of doing something well and gracefully and without any apparent effort, as if by instinct in fact - a quality viewed by the beautiful people of Renaissance Urbino as preferable to a technically proficient performance smacking of hard practice. Sprezzatura is still an object of assiduous daily study in our own times, not least among teenagers.

Which brings us full circle to Barrie, and Captain Hook’s obsession with “good form”. Of all the kinds of good form, Barrie’s narrator tells us, the most valuable is the unconscious variety, a quality Hook suspects in his bo’sun, Mr Smee:

Had the bo’sun good form without knowing it, which is the best form of all?
      He remembered that you have to prove you don’t know you have it before you are eligible for Pop.

(Pop, by the way, is an exclusive club at Eton College, Hook’s alma mater. Boris Johnson and Eddie Redmayne were both members, so we can assume they were able to prove that they didn’t know they had good form. Do you think it shows?)

According to David Eagleman’s series on The Brain (now airing on BBC 4), it is at two years old that the brain has the largest number of neural connections. Thereafter, as we adapt to our environment (learning the language spoken by our parents, for example), the brain too adapts, sculpting its neural network into a form optimised for the world where it has found itself, but in the process losing the universal potential it previously enjoyed. In that sense, two really is the beginning of the end – if you choose to look at it that way.

I don’t; but to indulge this fantasy a little further, picture infancy as a bare room at the centre of a vast panopticon, with perspectives onto various interesting (and not so interesting) futures stretching in every direction, all visible through a series of tinted glass doors. To reach any of those enticing places you must pass through the doors, but they will swing shut behind you, and there is no handle on the far side. Take any route from the centre of the panopticon and you shut yourself off from hundreds of other routes for ever. The unopened doors and the unexplored rooms behind them are plunged into darkness, and there is no retracing one’s steps. Step by step, door by door, the multi-coloured fan of possibility folds shut. Well might we envy those still at the panopticon’s centre, their cup of life still brimming. It becomes hard to remember just how bare and white that room was, how much less interesting than any of the vistas visible through the tinted glass. Besides, it is lonely on both sides of the doors: as humans, we wish for company.

In this way the healthy continuance of human discontent is assured, and (like Mrs Darling) we sabotage the young, calling them to join us, perhaps even by wishing aloud that they would not. Often we do it with love, telling ourselves it is for the best. No one ever claimed that Judas was a bad kisser. But more often we do it without thinking, because, after all, it’s the most natural thing in the world. That’s sprezzatura, that is.


Penny Dolan said...

What an interesting argument, Cathy.
Maybe, in that white room, there's no sense of time and so the joy or pain experienced is always "now", always immediate and intense, and gone without any sense of sequence or cause. Then the Wendy child begins to follow the pattern, to see there is a path and therefore "Two is the Beginning of the Story" as well? (An idle idea, and written without any of your evidence to support my pondering.)

Catherine Butler said...

It's an interesting question how, or how far, very young children experience a sense of the past or future. Peter Pan regularly forgets his own past so maintains a kind of of living in the present that way. On the other hand, I've observed children as young as four being nostalgic for the good old days.

Stroppy Author said...

Brilliant post. Two is also the point at which parents often have a subsequent child, particularly those parents who wanted a baby rather than wanting a child. Their baby has gone so they have another; two is also the end of the beginning. I went to really good lecture on Friday: 'Peter Pan and the Mind of J. M. Barrie. An Exploration of Cognition and Consciousness' by Ros Ridley, a lecturer in psychology. I don't know whether she has published on it, but there seemed to be a good deal of overlap with your interests here.

Catherine Butler said...

I've not come across her - sounds like I should check her out, though!

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Brilliant. My mother always used to say that the biggest difference between youth and adulthood was the doors shut behind you and all the solidified choices. At the time I couldn't wait for everything to be as solid as it possibly could, rather than this fluid and undecided mess. Now I'm between two doors, I think. Or as we say in French, not particularly elegantly, 'le cul entre deux chaises' - 'the ass between two chairs'. Children's literature is all about the conflicted lures of stability and adventure, no?

Catherine Butler said...

It's still slightly more elegant than "falling between two stools"...

Children's literature is all about the conflicted lures of stability and adventure, no?

Absolutely. Possibly that's true of life in general, in fact.

Nicky said...

Just been reading 'The Case of Peter Pan' so this is a very timely blog.

Catherine Butler said...

Happy to oblige!