Spike Milligan was of the view that childhood did not die, but that it was murdered. Still it wearies me to think that a little boy or girl will laugh several hundred times each day, whilst its dour parents struggle to manage more than a couple of minutes.
When I was a child, I thought as a child and spoke as a child: the world was fresh and bright: the days were as big as seasons, and every taste or smell would sting my palate. It is no wonder that Arthur Koestler placed the Jester closer than anyone else to the fount of creative thinking, or that Einstein – an eternal child himself – divided humanity into those who saw nothing as a miracle, and those who perceived everything as one. I’m proud to count myself amongst this second legion. The sight of a feather or a honey bee is enough to make me marvel. A couple of years ago I was contemplating the difference between the arts and the sciences – or more to the point, their innumerable affinities. I named my poem after the catechisms of Ted Hughes’s Crow, yet with more than a nod to the travellers’ tales and fabulous beasts of the medieval epoch: the cameleopard, the kraken, the brazen anthropophagi with eyes upon their shoulders and, in the middle of their chest, a ravenous and brutal maw.
A BRIEF BESTIARY
To carry the child into adult life
Is good? I say it is not,
To carry the child into adult life
Is to be handicapped.
– Stevie Smith
There are the scientists. They know how to play.
There are the children, who know how to play and how to weep.
There are artists, who play and who purport to weep.
There are misfits, who yearn to play and weep.
And, last of all, come the decent grown-ups
Who have forgotten how to do either.
If, indeed, they ever found out.
Why have we killed the child inside?
Since it is better (we suppose) to forfeit joy than to
Admit the possibility of failure. Better to do nothing
Than to risk a humiliation of mistakes. Instead
We’ll tilt at windmills; and bind our bones with iron
Against the breeze.
To run free as a child, as Hillaire Belloc tartly reminded the Edwardians, was to risk being eaten by lions. But there might come metaphorical lions as well, with the benchmark of sharper experience: ogres of disillusionment, of glimpsed emperors without clothes, of recognising a doctrinal system which defines its citizens – not only their happiness, but their very selves – merely as extensions of the tokens and totems to be acquired through quiescence and cash.
…When Nurse informed his Parents, they
Were more Concerned than I can say:-
His Mother, as she dried her eyes,
Said, “Well – it gives me no surprise,
He would not do as he was told!”
His Father, who was self-controlled,
Bade all the children round attend
To James’s miserable end,
And always keep a-hold of nurse
For fear of finding something worse.
How intimidating, how overwhelming, are these nuances of triviality that pass for our adult domain. Franz Kafka implored his readers, if they needed to rustle up some subject about which to write:
You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table, and listen. Don’t even listen, simply wait. Don’t even wait; be quite still and solitary. The world will offer itself to you freely to be unmasked; it has no choice. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
Of course, the world will do nothing of the sort. It remains as trite and insulated as our adult perception demands that it must. I think back to Aldous Huxley, in The Doors of Perception, battering his head against the glass ceiling of his own creation, or wallowing in hallucinogens so as to ape the wide-eyed wonderment that in a child comes as naturally as blueness comes to the sky. A child has no need of the Sublime, still less the Divine or epiphanic. A child simply sees. No doubt we all remember Picasso’s bragging: “I needed four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” If you say so. For me, there is more wisdom to be found in Friedrich Nietzsche: “In every real man a child is hidden that wants to play”.
Vanity, all is vanity. It took a Revolutionary to remind us that inside each revolutionary lurks a secret policeman. In front of a kangaroo court of young Brick Lane film-makers, I once had the nerve to suggest that untrammelled self-absorption was what propelled both artists and despots. The conundrum was this: could one become a hero purely through something akin to the florid externalised inadequacy of a dictator? The parallels were in place: a tenacity amounting almost to obsession: a vision that lacked accountability to anybody else, and monstrous attention to detail.
The poor little mites of my audience (doubtless drunk on a surfeit of that day’s Media Guardian) nearly rioted. But you know, that blithe spirit of yours comes at a cost. We prattle about a lack of guile in children, yet the minds of sociopaths have been compared to theirs: innocents both, and inclined to experiments of almost insouciant sadism. George Bernard Shaw, out on his country walks, used to complain about groups of brats gathered in the hedgerows, “torturing something.”
Now, the practice of a mature creative mind is the same, yet quite different. It has to be the art that conceals art: by which I mean, the most fruitful cocktail of vices. It is the easy posturing of one who has had to learn to walk for a second time. For real art, that supremely narcissistic of exercises, is not narcissistic at all. Self-consumed, it must present a disciplined structure that resonates with the full breadth of a human cosmos: infinitely egocentric, it depends for its self-insight on supreme reflexivity.
Stripped as they are of this essential slyness, I fear there might be little we can learn from the naked, helpless bleating of most Survivor or Outsider artists, so-called; unless drawing or poetry are a deemed to be no more than wounded indulgence. This they are not. Nor are they raucous self-pity, like a stranded cow bellowing amongst nettles. And yet, and yet…if damaged psyches have little to teach one of craftsmanship, what a revelation is to be found in their pathology. Imagine the brain as a boxing glove. Where your thumb goes, is the temporal lobe. At the front, the protruding knuckle, lies the frontal lobe. Where your fingertips rest, but deep inside, reposes the limbic system: a region of the midbrain involved in pleasure and pain. The frontal lobes have to do with ideation, they say, and in adults the balancing or curbing of ideation – those essential restraints that have to do with negotiating our adult society. The temporal lobe is thought to have more to do with the controlled ordering of that sequence in which thoughts and imaginings are released. The amygdala, an area of the limbic system beneath the temporal lobe, has to do with the mediation of emotional impulses. Its dysfunction has been implicated in psychopathy and chronic depression. Take an aneurism in some combination of these areas, or bungled brain surgery, and the system runs amok. I quote Dr Alice Flaherty, a scientist at Harvard University who has studied the “impassioned exuberance” of ruined minds: “Everything needs a braking system, some sort of control. When that’s gone, the result is usually disaster.”
Dr Flaherty’s field of study is a syndrome, Sudden Artistic Impulse, which flourishes in the wake of certain kinds of brain trauma. Here, as she expresses it, “the urge to create is like a heroin addict.” Such painters will cover every inch of wall or carpet with brushwork, and if caught on a beach without their crayons they are reduced to scraping with glass upon a rock. They might produce ten paintings per day, or seventy thousand artworks in nineteen years. Her patients are fearless, purged of any capacity to judge the consequences of their actions. One sees their overweening egotism, declaring as they destroy the lives of all around them, “Well, I’m enjoying myself.” Welcome indeed to the world of monsters – and of artists, were they to be stripped of their decorum. At the University of Liverpool, Professor Tom Solomon puts it like this: “We all have innate artistic talents, which our inhibitions and our lives suppress.”
Be careful what you wish for. If memory serves me right the Soviet neurologist, Luria, described the case of a journalist whose editor gave his staff what he imagined to be an inspirational talk every Monday morning. Noting that the journalist had seemed to pay no attention, the big man tackled him in the corridor and challenged him to repeat what had been said. And so the journalist did, word for word, every hesitation or scratch of the head. Increasingly incredulous, the editor demanded what had been said weeks ago, months ago. Again: word for word.
In this case the issue was synaesthesia, a blurring of sensory modalities (of sight, sound, taste) that can produce the most piquant of metaphors. Meeting you for the first time, the journalist might comment, “What a crumbly yellow voice you’ve got”. My point is that he ended up in an asylum, unable to forget a thing.
It would be hard to imagine a kindlier or more gentle man than Tony Cicoria, a former orthopaedic surgeon who was struck by lightning whilst cooking a barbecue in upstate New York. Within a couple of weeks, he started to crave piano music to the extent that he was driven to play an instrument he had never learnt, day and night, in order to free a recurring melody locked in his head like a captive wasp. “My music was haunting me”, he says. “It wouldn’t leave me alone.” The piece that began to fulminate in his brain, ready at last for performance after fifteen years, he calls ‘The Lightning Sonata’. Its premiere, judged by the harshest standards, is a hyperbolic pastiche of Liszt that scarcely rivals the divine Wolfgang. Nonetheless, for intelligence and invention, it beats the stuffing out of Gangster Rap. At the performance his family is reduced to tears, and indeed, from one without formal tuition, the result is little short of prodigious. Yet in his “marriage” to the piano, his wife and children seem to have been abandoned.
Of course, the gravest social outcasts are autistic men; including those who can reproduce a Chopin Ballade from a single hearing, or remember every word of nine thousand books. The speed and facility of their complex judgements are astounding: “islands of genius”, Donald Treffert of Wisconsin University terms them, scattered in oceans of profound disorder. Many of these Savants are too fragile to endure a brain scan but the suggestion is that, in at least some cases, abnormal levels of testosterone to the foetus might have caused localised poisoning and a release from what Dr Treffert calls, “the tyranny of the brain’s left hemisphere.” “We live in a left-hemisphere society,” he adds, “logical and sequential.” For normal people to get by, we depend on a sort of cognitive partitioning of the world, an overt and ruthless degree of conceptualisation in which particulars – incidentals – must be stripped of their uniqueness.
An experiment has been carried out by Allan Snyder from the Centre for the Mind at Sydney University. His volunteers are subjected to fifteen minutes of transcranial stimulation: that is to say, of magnetic pulses to the left cerebral hemisphere. The consequence, for some forty percent of his subjects, is a return privileged access for brief moments to a lower level of pristine stimulus. Their drawings are transformed. Immense amounts of information are instantly recognised and assimilated. The consequence too, for those to whom these gifts are innate, is a lack of empathy and social acuity tantamount to lifetime’s loneliness.
“Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order,” said Samuel Beckett. No drunkard can dance, but we dowdy adults are drunk on our own sobriety. As for alcohol itself, a dis-inhibitor which works by dehydrating the frontal and prefrontal lobes: it promises surely the most pitiful of all counterfeits for the liberation of one’s true voice, the voice of nature. Concerning Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire wrote:
Poe’s inebriation was a mnemonic means, a method of work, a method drastic and deadly, yet appropriate to his passionate nature. I am told that he did not drink as a gourmand but as a barbarian…as if to commit an act of murder, as if something in him had to be killed, a worm that would not die.
Contemplating this – contemplating sombre adventures of a more private kind – I wrote in 2006:
It is the big black before an execution,
Dark enough for him to feel the texture of a sound.
Fresh from an alcoholic stupor (giving a strange,
Recluse’s keenness to the senses): the tart aroma of
Soiled bedding, of his own stifling breath,
Bestowing a certain intimacy with his own extinction.
In the street, an urban fox shrieks – without passion,
The capacity for dread being peculiar to Man.
The lions and zebra mooch past each other,
Knowing that occasional slaughter is a
Transaction to be undertaken: briefly,
Perfunctorily, when and only when occasion demands;
An instance of necessary drama – no more – in the
Indiscriminate torpor of a dusted, saffron noon.
For Nature is strictly in the nature of a business.
It’s humankind, that feels the sting of personal affront.
A folly of our egotism, and the social clamour
That gossips, pitiably, behind our eyes.
You’ve got to admit it: there’s not one experience
That is not better when he’s pissed.
For then, and only then, does one stand
On the brink of specious possibility; can one ride,
With rising courage and purpose, the coat tails of
Mystics and brutes – a happy hour
Worth vomit, ruin and shame – to race
On flailing legs the blind, primeval track of the jaguar.
Sobered, he’s back in his box:
Each day the waiting prelude to a murder, to his own
Murder, conceived and rounded in his mind’s eye
…Leaving one to contemplate the vain encumbrance of a
Mind; and the benediction of good, cheap plonk.
Let white be this season’s black. May Ego rule. Let the act of becoming an adult be the new childhood. But it will come at a price.
Stephen Jackson’s poems and images are taken from his book DEAD PEOPLE ON HOLIDAY