April 03, 2003

Childhood Memory/Childhood as Memory

Not only the individual advances from infancy to manhood, but the species itself from rudeness to civilization.

-- Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water-rats;
There we've hid our faery vats,
Full of berries
And of reddest stolen cheries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

-- William Butler Yeats, The Stolen Child

Where is childhood?

The other day I saw a CN (Canadian National Rail) freight train on the Hell Gate Bridge. I wasn't expecting to see it, though indeed there's no reason why it should have surprised me. But it did surprise me, and it stopped me in my tracks. All of a sudden I was transported back to childhood...wheat fields, prairies, blue skies, vast empty spaces, loneliness ... the sight of a CN freight train that I didn't expect to see somehow unleashed a flood of memories, or of those bits and fragments that we call memory.

But transported how, and to where? I don't know wheat fields, prairies, vast open spaces. That was not my childhood. Well, not directly, at any rate.

We Canadians do not have a history. Oh, sure, Canada has a history, and there are of course many histories of Canada. But Canadians do not have a national history, a grand narrative the meaning of which is revealed through the unfolding of significant events in accordance with a unifying theme which gives them their meaning. We just don't. We make fun of Americans' historical mythology, and partly we are right, but partly we are just jealous. Anyway: want to stir up the patriotism that lies dormant in the Canadian soul? Forget history (Laura Secord? that's a box of chocolates; Confederation? hit the snooze button; the Statute of Westminster? well, there is something impressive about the move from colony to nation without bloodshed, yes, it is a blessing to live in uninteresting times, but it hardly makes for compelling narrative). No, if you want to call forth Canadian patriotism, history won't do. Instead you must turn to geography. A mari usque ad mare is our official motto. In geography we find our mythos.

The sight of that CN freight train called forth memories of something already once removed. Memories not of a direct experience of prairies, wheat fields and vastness, but of the invocation of prairies, wheat fields, vastness, and freight trains running from sea to sea as the essence of Canada. The grade four geography textbook, the childhood experience of watching countless CN freight trains go by, and thinking of the pictures in that textbook, and imagining the vastness, and somehow feeling both small and insignificant and also part of something large and lonely and magnificent.

I often wonder what my son will remember of his early years, and how he will remember it. I take it as a given that he has, or will have, "that within which passeth show." Though some people tell me differently: "A boy? Well boys are easier to handle: they're more transparent." I am just a little bit irked by this, it sounds like saying boys are just a little bit stupid. Not my boy, I think.

How complex is the modern self! We have inward depths and multiple layers; we possess a rich interiority. It doesn't matter whether or not we really "have" this self, whether or not there really is this "self" that we can have. If we think we have it, then we do. It's not a question of whether or not this sense of self is accurate or true. This sense of self is very obviously a culturally and historically specific construction (quite simply, people have not always and everywhere conceived of themselves as having inward depths that they could plumb), but the fact is, we either are or else we do possess the sense of ourselves that has been constructed along these lines, and I doubt very much that we could deconstruct this construction of self, and in any case, I, for one, would not be much interested in trying.

This has all been brilliantly and beautifully explicated by Charles Taylor in his Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity. But what Taylor doesn't deal with is our idea of childhood, and our notion of the child as the source of the adult self. This is the subject of Carolyn Steedman's Strange Dislocations: Childhood and the Idea of Human Interiority, which argues that the adult's interior self is perceived as the product of its own unique and personal history, the internalization of childhood memory as that which is "lost and gone." We all, or at least most of us, believe this, and not only those of us who pay our devotions to the secular religion that is psychotherapy. We think we can excavate this memory, and that the further we dig, the closer we come to the truth about ourselves that lies buried in childhood. I don't think we really can recover this truer, more authentic, and prelapsarian self, which is one reason, I suppose, why I find the idea of nurturing one's "inner child" so cheap and tawdry: it is both a shortcut and a dead end.

We think of childhood in terms that are at once developmental and historical. At its most simplistic, the child as our future, as a repository of our hopes and dreams, or, more social-scientifically, as a kind of "human resource" (ghastly term) to be carefully studied, managed, and marshalled in support of some socially useful goal or another. But more often, I believe, we think of childhood in terms of time past. And not in terms of a past time that can be represented as a series of discrete events which we then connect in accordance with a grand narrative, but in terms of time past as the unfathomable depths of our being: when it comes to the history of self that we apprehend through the memory of childhood, we are all historians of the annales school, committed to a notion of the longue duree. We long for a past which we would, but cannot, retrieve and recover. And of course we romanticize the pre-modern self as the self that we ourselves once had in the past that we call childhood. We think of this self as simple, not complex: as a self with integrity (wholeness) instead of a self made up of those layers and divisions that hide "that within which passeth show."

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at April 3, 2003 02:46 AM