a small emperor
September 13, 2011, 3:36 pm
Filed under: chronotopes, the sweet life | Tags: , , ,


When we were kids, the day we were in was all there was:  overflowing with possibility, rife with potential for joy and cataclysm, made to be shaped by our persistent wills and the limits of our imaginations.  Then, suddenly, slowly, we grew up.

Now we are grown, the long childhood days have shrunk; the obligations of the present shares equal time with memories and lessons of the past and hopes and preparation for the future.

I like to think the best among us once in a while – perhaps even regularly – let the day grow long again, let it fill like a languid balloon with the fanciful preoccupations we had long ago.  Like dipping a tin cup to drink in the abject joy and the wonderment we lived every day as children.

There is also great beauty in the relentlessness and preoccupations of adult life.  To let the balloon deflate and find ourselves back in our grownup day to day is necessary and in the best sense enlivening.  Ratios are meted out:  of wariness and abandon, dullness and pleasure; and the art of taking and giving back measures of each without throwing off the hairline balance of it all, is the beauty of living.

Following is a description of the gulf between the worlds of child and adulthood from Alastair Reid’s book Passwords.  The description of adult life in the second half is particularly illuminating.  He describes our lives as odd, uncomfortable, inhibited, and even dangerous.  Our past, present and future conspire, and concoct a mix of mystery and caution, of events and relations, that hold us in a sort of trance or habit.  Childhood, he says, is a ‘limitless present’ where adult life must be “intelligently endured.”

I want to know more about the connection back in memory to the childish ‘enormous present.’  Is it possible?  Is it dangerous to want it too much?  What are the limits to going back?  Can it add dimension to our ‘endured’ lives?  Perhaps this is the definition of creativity or even art:  the windows that open up on the wonder of a child’s ‘limitless present.’  Flashes of light.

From Passwords:

The principal difference between childhood and the stages of life into which it invariably dissolves is that as children we occupy a limitless present. The past has scarcely room to exist, since, if it means anything at all, it means only the previous day. Similarly, the future is in abeyance; we are not meant to do anything at all until we reach a suitable size. Correspondingly, the present is enormous, mainly because it is all there is…. Walks are dizzying adventures; the days tingle with unknowns, waiting to be made into wonders. Living so utterly in the present, children have an infinite power to transform; they are able to make the world into anything they wish, and they do so, with alacrity. There are no preconceptions, which is why, when a child tells us he is Napoleon, we had better behave with the respect due to a small emperor. Later in life, the transformations are forbidden; they may prove dangerous. By then, we move into a context of expectations and precedents of past and future, and the present, whenever we manage to catch it and realize it, is a shifting, elusive question mark, not altogether comfortable, an oddness that the scheme of our lives does not allow us to indulge. Habit takes over, and days tend to slip into pigeonholes, accounted for because everything has happened before, because we know by then that life is long and has to be intelligently endured.

Alastair Reid (b. 1926), Scottish poet, essayist. Passwords, Little, Brown (1963)

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