Representation: Some groundwork

Veronese Hercules

(After Veronese)

To establish some groundwork for my investigation into painting as language, I want to linger a while on the concept of representation, at the same time considering its intimate connection with expression. In the studio, I have seen the word ‘representational’ used passionately, dogmatically, often loosely, but sometimes also cautiously—generally to single out a particular kind of painting that pitches itself against ‘abstract’ painting, though it is also sometimes the preferred term of painters who are equally opposed to ‘realistic’ painting of a more photographic flavour. In such circles, ‘representational painting’ roughly categorises the kind of painting that recognisably looks like something, even if, as in the case of, say, Vuillard, the eyes must linger a while and actively search. Among such artists, there are always some (myself included) who would assert that all painting is an abstraction to some degree—or perhaps better: even the paintings that most closely approximate reality are still an interpretation of things seen.

I like this barrier between painting and the world itself that abstraction and interpretation insert, because it reinforces the idea that an artist never tries to and indeed never can duplicate the physical world, but humbly models her own take on it, a version of it mingled with her own thought and with her own labour—with her very body. Thus, there is only a certain kind of abstraction that such artists would distance themselves from, and it is one that shuns the physical world entirely, expelling it even from memory; a kind of painting that removes all content and distils painting to an exercise in formal properties like shape, colour, tone and the physicality of the surface of the paint. And even then, these representational artists are already very well-versed in such abstractions and use them as jubilantly as their opponents—and usually much more knowledgeably and subtly. The difference, then, must come down to a desire for content, or for the lack thereof.

Thus, we might crudely say that representation implies content—some thing represented. And it may be represented with a high degree of abstraction, though the artist risks being misunderstood the further she strays from the recognisable, or from interpretations of reality that we are already familiar with. The Impressionists took just such a risk, though they finally succeeded when we learned to make sense of their organisation of light (in Gombrich 1959: 275). But much philosophical work has been done on the finer points of representation. It is certainly not enough to appeal to the level of similarity between a picture and that which it represents. Plato (in Gombrich, 1959: 99) decried art for deceiving the mind with illusions, but we are certainly not so taken in by paintings that we believe ourselves transported to another realm, or that we believe the person portrayed to be standing before us. Likeness or resemblance was thus a very early explanation of representation, a crude equivalence of which we have both nothing to fear (in terms of deception) and little to gain. For while Velázquez’s portrait represents Philip IV of Spain, Philip IV does not represent his portrait.

(After Van Dyck)

(After Van Dyck)

Goodman (1976: 4) points out this simple observation in Languages of Art, and I think it is a good place to start, if only to remind artists themselves that likeness is not the Promised Land, and that representation opens up a much more generous, exploratory realm. To capture this idea that representation implies content, but that the implication only goes one way, Goodman (1976: 5; 233) appeals to the term ‘denotation.’ When a picture represents some object, the picture denotes the object, that object is denoted by the picture. Denotation introduces symbolism into representation. The picture operates as a symbolic reference to the object, but the object does not symbolically refer to the picture, whatever similarity exists between the two. ‘Denotation is the core of representation and is independent of resemblance,’ explains Goodman (1976: 5). Denotation more explicitly conveys the asymmetry of representation, since we naturally think of a symbol as somehow dependent on the thing it signifies. Denotation runs in one direction.

We thus need another term to capture the relation in the other direction: Goodman (1976: 52; 233) chooses ‘exemplification.’ The object exemplifies what is represented in the picture. With such a relation, we can identify a particular object in a painting, though it was not the very same painted by the artist. We might even align our own private emotions with the content of the picture, finding the picture to be expressive of an emotion we personally feel. The artist surely did not seek to paint our emotion, but our emotion exemplifies that embedded in the painting. More complex than plain symmetry, Goodman has developed a system grounded in symbols comprised of two opposing currents, markedly different in character.

Representation, for Goodman (1976: 40), bears some similarity to verbal description. It runs in the same direction with respect to the object: both verbal descriptions and visual representations denote the object. But for Goodman, the emotional tint of the picture runs counter to this cold, symbolic summary of the object. The emotions come from the side of the viewer, who apprehends the picture ‘through the feelings as well as through the senses’ (Goodman 1976: 248). The expressiveness of the picture is then a subjective experience, coming from the way the spectator identifies with the content of the picture. He integrates its symbols into his own symbol system, and finds his own emotions reflected back at him.

(After Pacetti)

(After Pacetti)

Gombrich (1959: 310) openly questions the division of expression from representation in Art and Illusion. Writing almost two decades earlier than Goodman, he is more liberal with his language analogy, pointing out that not only is verbal language descriptive, it can at the same time be highly charged with emotion, and every shade in between (1959: 310). He suggests a simpler blending of the two, rather than a fundamentally and logically opposed relation. Thus, representation is not simply comparable to verbal description, not simply a record of information by translatable symbols, but it is the very means by which we convey a broad spectrum of descriptive and expressive content. ‘Representation,’ argues Gombrich (1959: 319) ‘is the instrument of information and expression.’

But what can this ‘instrument’ really refer to other than the way paint itself is used? By which I mean the body of the artist mingling, through movement, with the substance of the paint to give both physical form and visual presence to things thought, seen, or imagined. To remove the paint, or other medium, is to force a reliance on something purely conceptual that may take on any physical guise: probably symbols, which may be more readily substituted for words. And this is a mistake that Gombrich falls into. Continuing the analogy with language, Gombrich (1959: 326) argues that ‘all human communication is through symbols.’ Painting, then, may be blanched of its paint, may be stripped to its pictorial skeleton, dissected, analysed, and thus understood. My complaint with him (and with Goodman) is that symbols are not enough; representation consists in so much more: that when we represent something visible by visual means, every physical element is necessary and contributes in some way, even if ever so slightly, even if with such feathery nuance, even if so delicately integrated with other elements that it cannot be individually extracted and examined. Representation may indeed serve description and expression in such a blended way, but always via the medium invoked.

kaninchen_und_ente

(from the 23 October 1892 issue of Fliegende Blätter)

Gombrich’s appeal to illusion is grounded in a very simple example, which I think demonstrates this fundamental problem in his position on representation. He cites the optical illusion of the duck-rabbit—a picture that at some times resembles a duck, but which by effort of the attention transforms its beak into the long ears of a rabbit. Gombrich’s argument is that one cannot experience illusion at the same time as one experiences reality. It is either rabbit or duck. Thus we cannot be absorbed in the illusion of the picture and at the same time consciously aware of the painted surface. What Gombrich disregards is that we can indeed simultaneously see that the rabbit, drawn in fastidious lines, is printed in black ink on paper, and that likewise, the duck, comprised of the same lines, even as it appears as a duck is evidently printed in black ink upon a page. It is the duck and the rabbit—the content of the representation—that we cannot see at the same time. In fact, the illusion works precisely because of the printed ink: paint would destroy the trick, for colours would suggest different creatures and tone would give greater or lesser volume to beaks and ears than our eyes would believe. In each case, the representation is bound up in the simplicity of the medium of pen and ink, which can conveniently leave out information that would detract from the other representation. The analogy is misplaced: we certainly cannot see simultaneous competing representations, but we can see a representation and at the same time be aware of its physical extension.

(After Delacroix)

(After Delacroix)

Better than illusion, then: let us follow Wollheim (1987: 185) in finding in representation a call to imagination. We are too aware to be fooled into thinking that representations are reality, or that we do not notice what the representation consists in. But we can gain immense satisfaction from picking up the hints a picture drops and adventuring along a train of thought that it sets in motion. For Wollheim (1987: 101), representation does more than communicate something, and more than stimulate some private daydream. It coaxes us in a particular direction, at the urging of the artist, who inscribes her very trails of thought in wandering streaks of paint. For Wollheim (1987: 7, 15) the medium is indispensable; one cannot divorce the meaning of a painting from the paint. For thoughts are worked through, laid up, reconsidered through the medium. And representation and expression—by means of the medium—‘are the two basic forms of pictorial meaning’ (Wollheim 1987: 305). Rather than looking for a dialogue between painter and spectator, Wollheim grounds everything in a kernel of meaning buried deep in a picture, discoverable, moving, compelling, but not linguistic, not ceremoniously imparted from ‘speaker’ to ‘listener.’ A painting does not speak, but guards a thought.

The medium shows its significance in a more primitive visual experience that logically precedes representation: that of ‘seeing-in.’ Wollheim (1987: 306) finds it most expedient to explain what it is to represent by this simple and familiar experience. It is exactly that cited by da Vinci (in Gombrich 1959: 159) as a stimulus to imagination—of seeking forms and faces, even battles and civilisations, in the coarse textures of crumbling walls—and exactly that deemed impossible by Gombrich, of seeing at the same time the suggestion of a figure and the ragged plaster. These simple fancies are the result of imagination, but exist by chance, moulded by the ravages of nature and not carefully crafted after human intentions, and so they are not representations. But the same thing happens when we look at a crafted picture: we are both ‘aware of the surface and [see] something in it’ (Wollheim 1987: 46). When the artist makes use of this feat of vision and applies her paint with the intention that a spectator should discover some particular thing in those marks, this intention, says Wollhem (1987: 101), is representation.

the artist

Expression, for Wollheim (1987: 89), colours representation. Emotions are crucial to painting, and expression describes the way they weave through the application of paint, the organisation of the picture, the deliberate colour choices and the atmospheric decisions, to list but a few variables, in order to provoke a particular emotional response from the viewer. This means the painter in fact steers away from ‘cold’ naturalism, from faithful visual description, and imbues her representation with visual qualities that imply something intangible. It means that we are invited to see emotion, as it plays out in the delicate interplay of painterly techniques. Something in reality is sacrificed, some accuracy or disinterested depiction, in order to co-opt expression into representation. The two are woven together with paint into one visual output. Expression abstracts representation into a more emotional variation on things seen or imagined.

But the viewer needs to bring a certain sensitivity to the expressive tint of the picture, a type of perception even, which Wollheim (1987: 80) calls ‘expressive perception.’ As Wollheim (1987: 82) elaborates, there are mirrored means of transferring emotions between ourselves and the external world; either our own mood alters the way we perceive what is around us—what we would commonly call projection—or we are affected by our surroundings. It is true that we could project our own feelings, likewise, onto a painting, but since the artist has mixed emotional content into the paint, a greater receptiveness promises to yield something specific from the painting. It is our own ability to project emotions onto what we see that enables us to sympathise with a painter doing the same in paint. She asks us to forget ourselves for a moment and to see through her eyes, through her sunny disposition or her fog of melancholy.

tinyryans

Wollheim’s demand for expressive perception is rather nice, because it requires a certain kind of attention from the viewer, but does not permit him to read just anything he likes into a painting. Viewers like to have something to do (Gombrich 1959: 169), and we will grant them this responsibility without giving away the creative authority of the artist. Wollheim’s (1987: 305) demand means that a standard of correctness accompanies both representation and expression. The artist intends to convey certain content laden with certain emotions, all of which is accessible to the viewer by direct communion with the picture, with the implication that he can be correct or incorrect about what he discovers there (Wollheim 1987: 85, 101).

But such standards hardly remove the pleasure of looking at a painting. Wollheim (1987: 98, 100) is eager to convey that seeing the paint is a delightful experience in itself, and that simple visual delight in a painting, provoked by the deliciously expressive qualities of paint and its handling, comprises no small part of our encounter with painting. Wollheim sends us in the direction of Proust for a lovely elucidation of this experience. Chardin, Proust (1988: 102) describes, has seen serene beauty in a humble arrangement in a kitchen, and has painted it with palpable tenderness; his ‘pleasure was so intense that it overflowed into smooth strokes, eternal colours.’ The viewer, utterly seduced by Chardin’s vision, thenceforth notices that a fresh charm falls over ordinary domestic scenes. This delight, notes Wollheim (1987: 99), is stirred up by Chardin’s expert control of his own emotional projection that he invites us to sample. ‘Your awareness had to wait until Chardin entered into the scene to raise it to his level of pleasure’ (Proust 1988: 102).

sebastians

And so Wollheim (1987: 185) hopes to persuade us that representational paintings do not ‘trade on illusion,’ but rely on, rather, ‘in a supplementary role, imagination.’ Representation does not simply hand us a likeness, it does not forge a strict equivalence with the world, or simply stand in for it symbolically; nor does it seek to deceive us. Instead, it appeals to our pleasure in discovering that guarded thought in the lather of paint. This underlines the irrevocable importance of the paint, the matiére, the medium that carries the thoughts of the artist via her movements.

Representation, in a sort of self-conscious way, hopes to draw attention to its physicality while seducing us with a hint of something recognisable shot through with emotions. It invites us to linger on the interlocking cues in the way the paint is applied and in the content, to discover something of the artist’s insight. We are asked to imagine the world intentionally reconfigured in muddy paste on a flat surface; we are asked to imagine the way one feels if one looks at the world and projects emotions that colour the world this way or that. Representation is more fundamentally grounded in the technical than in resemblance, symbols or illusion. In bringing us ever back to the way paint is applied, it offers a firm starting point for a theory of a visual language.

plants-in-window

Gombrich, E. H. 1959. Art and Illusion. Phaidon: London.

Goodman, Nelson. 1976. Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. 2. ed. Hackett: Indianapolis, Ind.

Proust, Marcel. [1954] 1988. ‘Chardin: The Essence of Things,’ trans. Mina Curtiss, in Against Saint-Beuve and Other Essays. Penguin: London.

Wollheim, Richard. 1987. Painting as an Art. 1. publ. Thames and Hudson: London.

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Ruskin, visual collector

Ruskin

I’ll be upfront: I’ve yet to really read any John Ruskin. A British art critic in the nineteenth century, a well-travelled Oxford scholar, a prolific writer and a collector of observations—I was curious as to why a man who drew unceasingly his entire life would be branded an ‘amateur,’ and that even so he might be presented as ‘an outstanding artist in his own right,’ as the National Galleries of Scotland recently presented him in a dedicated exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.

While the gallery notes proclaim, ‘Drawing for Ruskin was an analytical process and represented an opportunity to mediate on many aspects of the physical world,’ sentiments that resonate strongly with me and my own predilection for drawing, his preoccupations seem to be more with the surface detail of things—column tops, archway ornaments and the correct shape of leaves. Very rarely do his drawings and watercolours come together as images. It became apparent very quickly during my visit to this show that Ruskin worked not as an artist, but solely to document intellectual curiosities. This is a fine task in itself, and it is laudable that Ruskin found a notation in drawing that enabled him to gather data from the physical world for further reflection, study and publication. What is discomfiting, then, is that a state gallery might conflate this visual collection with art. And that the members of the public shuffling around me might attribute awe-inspiring skills to the originator of a spread of drawings which I found largely fussy, weak and lacking either insight or confidence.

Literary and Philosophy Library, Newcastle upon Tyne

Literary and Philosophy Library, Newcastle upon Tyne

On revisiting Newcastle upon Tyne and discovering the glorious little haven of the Literary and Philosophy Society Library, I stumbled across a little volume by Marcel Proust, an introduction to his own translation of one of Ruskin’s written works, and was very curious to learn of Proust’s adoration of Ruskin. Proust’s gentle, meandering words ushered me more firmly down the pathway of my own reflections. ‘To what extent this wonderful soul faithfully reflected the universe,’ gushes Proust (1987: 49), ‘and under what touching and tempting forms falsehood may have crept, in spite of everything, into the heart of his intellectual sincerity, is something we will perhaps never know.’ Proust (1987: 32) describes how Ruskin’s many guises led to many conflicting things being said about him, and how these contradictions made Ruskin himself appear contradictory and dubious. Yet in Proust’s eyes, Ruskin pursued only beauty, and caused his art and his science to submit to the dictates of beauty. Accused of letting imagination run wild in science, and of binding up art in scientific tethers, Ruskin saw the task of both as akin to the high calling of the poet: ‘a sort of scribe writing at nature’s dictation a more or less important part of its secret, the artist’s first duty is to add nothing of his own to the sublime message’ (Proust, 1987: 31; 34).

Lit-and-Phil2

His best works on display in Edinburgh were without a doubt Mountain landscape, Macugnage (1845) and Crossmount, Perthshire; Study of crag, tree and thistle (1847), both sepia studies which blaze like beacons for their sheer strength as pictures. The former is my first encounter with a Ruskin landscape that dissolves atmospherically into the distance, and to great effect; the latter bulges from the centre in a rare expression of depth. At times one is delighted with his feeling for colour, and his ability to weave a peaceful colour harmony. Rocks and ferns in a wood at Crossmount, Perthshire (1847), which graces much of the promotional material, translates well into print, largely because of the soothing purple-green-blue amalgam of foliage. There is even something startlingly delightful about the dramatic twist of the trees from his viewpoint, something dreamily unsettling like a rolling William Robinson painting. But even here, one pleads with Ruskin; he is still so shy to lay down his marks. Botanical precision wins out as he carefully colours around pointed ferns, cautious to leave white paper for the paler fronds to be filled later. One does not frown upon precision; but his meticulous marks exhibit a fear of error rather than a certainty in what he has seen and a conviction in what he aims to record.

Mountain landscape, Macugnage, by John Ruskin (1845)

Mountain landscape, Macugnage, by John Ruskin (1845)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I read with horror but not surprise a passage of Ruskin’s writing selected and abridged by Proust (1987: pp. 30-31):

‘Every class of rock, every kind of earth, every form of cloud, must be studied and rendered with equal precision. … Every geological formation has features entirely peculiar to itself; definite lines of fracture, giving rise to fixed resultant forms of rocks and earth; peculiar vegetable products, among which still farther distinctions are wrought out by climate and elevation. In the plant, the painter observes every character of colour and form, … seizes on its lines of rigidity or repose, … observes its local habits, its love or fear of peculiar places, its nourishment or destruction by particular influences; he associates it … with all the features of the situation it inhabits …’ {Modern Painters, CW 3: 34-48} … ‘The greatest picture is that which conveys to the mind of the spectator the greatest number of the greatest ideas.’ {Ibid., CW 3: 92}

What ghastly sort of aesthetic utilitarianism demands the maximum communication of messages visually? Perhaps one who had so much to say had not the luxury of meditating on a single idea, and offering it elegantly and succinctly to his audience. Ruskin’s visual verbosity matches his literary manner, and his task differs dramatically from ours as artists. But as artists, we have far more to bring to our canvases than precise transcription.

Study of a Gneiss Rock, Glenfinlas, by John Ruskin (1853-4)

Study of a Gneiss Rock, Glenfinlas, by John Ruskin (1853-4)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Study of a Gneiss Rock, Glenfinlas (1853-4), painted in Scotland, more successfully merges Ruskin’s penchant for scientific details and an artistic sentiment. The details of the foliage at the top add to, rather than detract from, the greater image: the picture is solid. But what can we say of this oddity? Is it nothing more than a fluke? Having achieved this synergy between his desire to record fact and the production of a solid picture, one hopes against hope that Ruskin will surge onwards, equipped with this new skill, and at last emerge as more than an amateur. But alas, this work seems an anomaly in his tireless output.

Oxford

Oxford

 

A pair of his notebooks which are on display in a cramped corner might have served as a better focus for an exhibition on such a complex character as Ruskin. The notebooks quietly plead, ‘Let’s remember him as a collector, curious and interested, and not try to cloak his endeavours in ‘artistic impulse.’ I sense, rather than being compelled by any true artistic impulse, that Ruskin would have preferred to record all he saw with absolute truth and precision, had he the ability. He simply had no interest in imposing design on the natural world or in introducing visual lies for a pleasing quality of linework. More than anything, one senses his fear at failing to record nature with the utmost, unartistic truth in his timid pencil strokes and panicked application of watercolour. The pencil—a glorious medium in its own right—is abused as a crutch by Ruskin, who scratches an uncertain scene in graphite before tentatively filling the shapes with a wash of colour. Nowhere does he seem to use it as a guide for more assured brushwork; almost nowhere does he trust himself to simply apply paint. Everywhere, the skeleton of pencil is showing through—except in two notable, tiny feather paintings: Study of a peacock’s breast feather (1873) and Three feathers (1875). At last he stops scratching and picking, plucks up the courage to abandon his pencil, applies his infinitely fine brush with precision, and forces himself to draw well. I wish only that he had the courage to work this way more often.

Ruskin School of Art, Oxford

Ruskin School of Art, Oxford

Now, it may be true that Ruskin did not promote himself as an artist, but rather as an intellectual. His efforts in drawing were solely for his own improvement, his own engagement with and meditation on the external world. Nonetheless, seeing a show like this is extremely disheartening, for Ruskin was tutored in drawing from an early age, having demonstrated reputed precocious ability; he evidently devoted countless hours to the activity, toting not merely a small sketchbook for opportunistic scribbles but large and unwieldy sheets of paper in a determined effort to go out drawing. And let’s not gloss over the fact that he sat as the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University in 1869, going on to found his own school, The Ruskin School of Fine Art and Drawing, also at Oxford, shortly after in 1871. What is troubling about Ruskin, this jack-of-all-trades, dabbling in everything, is that evidence points to him more than simply dabbling in drawing, and yet never attaining a level of true accomplishment. Is hard work and undying curiosity not enough? Or is the lesson of Ruskin not to spread yourself too thinly?

Ruskin School of Art, Oxford

Ruskin School of Art, Oxford

The reception of the public was equally worrying, with the near-exclusively grey-haired visitors full of clever things to spout admiringly in Ruskin’s direction. Even with the marked contrast of John Everett Millais’s dignified and pictorially lovely 1854 portrait of the man, also painted at Glenfinlas in Scotland. One can’t help but think that celebrating an amateur is a relief and a comfort to the unaspiring layman, whose weak efforts might just as easily be described as ‘exquisitely detailed’ and ‘the result of an intense and passionate artistic impulse’ by gallery pamphlets. And that would be a real shame, for in celebrating art that is less than awe-inspiring, we set lower standards for the artists of our own time, who then need to do so little to bewitch an undiscerning public—which, arguably, is the great artistic malaise of our day.

Oxford

Oxford

 

Proust, Marcel. 1987. On reading Ruskin: Prefaces to La Bible d’Amiens and Sésame et les Lys with selections from the notes to the translated texts. Trans. Jean Autret, William Burford and Phillip J. Wolfe. Yale: New Haven.

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Memory, childhood and autonomy

Isle of Skye © Samantha Groenestyn

I had the privilege to attend a fascinating seminar yesterday given by one Joanne Faulkner, who presented her paper ‘Memory and “the Virtual” in Henri Bergson: Thinking Through Children’s Agency.’ I am aware that many people look back fondly on their childhood, remembering a freer, happier period of their lives; I am not one of them. To me, adulthood brings infinite possibilities, extensive liberties and greater joys than childhood ever could, simply because childhood was a period of being controlled and restrained. Faulkner presents an interesting take on why adults simultaneously idealise and infantilise children in the context of their own memory. In this respect, adults use children to try to attain something they themselves have lost.

Henri Bergson’s explanation of memory is an original one, and, having thought extensively about it for an honours thesis, one I am partial to, though it is not without its flaws. For Bergson, memory is not stored—our brains are not hard drives. Our memories are not stores of photographs that we can flick through. Rather than granting memory a physicality somewhere in our brains, Bergson* calls memory in its purest form ‘virtual’—‘we simply prepare ourselves to receive it by adopting the appropriate attitude. Little by little it comes into view like a condensing cloud; from the virtual state it passes into the actual; and as its outlines become more distinct and its surface takes on colour, it tends to imitate perception’ (p. 171).

A famous literary example of memory merging with present perceptions is given by Proust** in The Remembrance of things Past. Proust recounts ‘involuntary memories’ that arise from the depths at a physical trigger, so absorbing one that one’s present is entirely consumed by the past. The narrator in Remembrance savours a madeleine with his tea and is transported to his childhood discovery of this flavoursome sensation. His buried past overwhelms the present and is lived again in all vividness through present perceptions.

Adults don’t ordinarily attempt to tap into their childhood solely to relive biscuit-tasting experiences, but Faulkner argues that childhood remains a ‘resource’ to adults, both when observed and when remembered. Childhood play in particular is something beyond the grasp of many adults, and yet something Schiller*** argues to be crucial to aesthetics, and something many creatives consider to be essential to their productivity. Most strikingly, Faulkner argues that adults use children to return to the time when they weren’t afraid of the future.

It is here she draws on Bergson: children are better at spontaneous memory because ‘they have not yet persuaded their memory to remain bound up with their conduct. They usually follow the impression of the moment’ (Bergson, p. 199). This is a powerful thing to be able to do—to be able to accept the present, and look to the uncertainties of the future with excitement, and to leap upon whatever it is that engages one’s attention without suppressing it. Such spontaneity opens the way for new creative connections—Steve Jobs famously claimed, ‘creativity is just connecting things.’ Working within strict boundaries does not allow one the necessary fodder for thought, and children have little notion of boundaries. As adults, ‘almost the whole of our past is hidden from us because it is inhibited by the necessities of present action, [but] it will find strength to cross the threshold of consciousness in all cases where we renounce the interests of effective action to replace ourselves, so to speak, in the life of dreams’ (p. 199).

Faulkner’s paper goes on to explore our repression of children, the way we desire to keep them innocent, the way we worry that girls are sexualised, that boys are violent, that every stranger is a predator. Our method of keeping children down, of taking resources from them, and of denying them their genuine curiosity simply wastes the potentiality that children possess. Children are predisposed to act in ways beyond the reach of most adults, and we envy them this. I have no consistent theory on how children ought to be raised, but as an adult determined to achieve great things, I suggest that the world of adults should shake its fear of children’s potential, and lose its embarrassment at responding to life with childlike reasoning. We ought to use our autonomy as we would have as children.

 

My citations of Faulkner relate to my own notes taken at her seminar. For further reading, you might like to look into her book, The Importance of Being Innocent: Why we worry about children. 2011. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

* Bergson, Henri. 1950 [1911]. Matter and Memory. London: Allen & Unwin.
** Proust, Marcel. Remembrance of Things Past. Translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. Vol. 1. London: Chatto & Windus, 1981.
*** Schiller, Friedrich. 2004. On the aesthetic education of man. Translated by Reginald Snell. Mineola, NY: Dover.

When Anna, Con and I took a road trip around England and Scotland one spring, we were met with unusually felicitous weather on the Isle of Skye, perfecting for sunset strolling and cider-drinking.

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