Saturday, May 30, 2015


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Another uncomplicated set of thoughts about the death of Delmore Schwartz. Wondering what he felt as he dropped to the carpet in his New York City hotel. B. would like to say that as he aged, he got better. It wasn’t to be, and there we have it. It is what it is, they say as they say. Since this is Delmore Schwartz week, I think I’ll just look into another of his poems and see what’s in store. I’m choosing this one because of the great title:

“Dogs Are Shakespearean, Children Are Strangers”

William Wordsworth wrote about children a lot: “The child is the father of the man” is his great statement from “My Heart Leaps Up when I Behold”. Wordsworth mentions his “glad animal movements” thinking back on his boyhood with his sister in “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.” Here is the connection of children with animals, and from what I remember of my boyhood, it’s a pretty apt comparison. Freud, of course, had a lot to say about children and the stages of development they go through, and how interrupting one of those stages leads to various neuroses in the adult. They are expression of the id, pure narcissistic desire, so their obsession with natural functions is normal. For Schwartz, the idea seems to be that they live in a timeless, thoughtless existence, which the progressively maturing, educated adult, who dawn into a “knowing that heaven and hell surround us.” This sucks, but we have to end up figuring this all out if we’re to live as normatively functioning adults. Emerson called this dawning into knowledge of our existence The Fall of Man—Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, the biologists say, which means that the evolution of the organism, say a human, from fish through amphibian, to reptile to mammal, to upright primate mammal, is cycled through again as the embryo develops then loses its gill slits and its tail, all that. For Emerson, the development of the youth recapitulates the development of civilization. The child dawns into consciousness and eventually self-awareness and self-control. Emerson remarked how much the ancient Greeks remind one of a pack of unruly boys, except, I expect, they fight with dirt clods and bicycles rather than spears and chariots.

That line “this which we say before we’re sorry” is a good one. The wild animal and the pre-self-aware child don’t say they’re sorry, because they’re not developmentally capable of such a thing. Adults do, with their sophisticated understanding of their roles in the social world they dawn into. But Schwartz is telling us, wait a second. These beasts of our pasts aren’t quite the strangers we like to tell ourselves we think they are. We live them behind our unseen faces, and they’re not gone, but the thing is, this glad animal wildness doesn’t just fade into our backgrounds: It grows and develops with us. So the whole concept takes a new turn: We don’t leave the child/animal behind as we grow into newer, more socially acceptable incarnations. Rather, we paste on new faces, like with clowns with makeup, and the wildings beneath grow, and change in a continuous act of new becoming, howling, and dancing, knowing no future, but also more learned and adult than before.

How is this Shakespearean? I just think it’s a nod to Shakespeare’s understanding of the human person and its psychological layers. He saw it all, and well before Freud burrowed into his patients’ psyches, categorizing and generalizing from what he discovered there, Shakespeare knew it already. Hamlet, for example, has some pretty severe mother issues that it takes him awhile to unravel before he’s finally free to act and eventually get killed. Shakespeare seemed to be in touch with the things Freud studied three centuries later. Dogs, children, Shakespeare: We see them related. What connects them doesn’t fade as we mature, though, which we like to tell ourselves.. It’s always with us. So if you’re barking like a coonhound at your misbehaving child, you’re communicating effectively.

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