Sunday, January 23, 2005

The age of reason

The Toddler
Today marks the dawn of a new era in toddlerhood. At age 26 months and 3 days, Helena asked "Pourquoi?" Never mind that the answer was "Because mommy's tired."

This word heralds the advent of curiosity, acknowledges the existence of something outside oneself, recognizes free will and that others also have the capacity to use it. The questioning in itself implies that things happen for a reason.

Her Aunt
My sister managed to escape the police state that is her neighbourhood this weekend, flee the country even, to pay us a visit. She came bearing books for everyone! (We love her dearly.)

We had a weekend full of toddler-sponsored tea parties, leisurely meals, red wine, and penguins. We even discussed politics, cuz we're family and we enjoy that sort of thing.

(We — that is, I — are stupefied by America's lack of an "official opposition" such as in Canada to provide checks and balances on the governing party. Certainly the media does not fulfill this task.)

The Working Class
The other day I came across an article, The Classics in the Slums, on working-class autodidacts, who "read the classics in part because contemporary literature was too expensive":

"Every miner has a hobby," explained one Welsh collier. "It may be a reaction from physical strain. The miner works in a dark, strange world. He comes up into light. It is a new world. It is stimulating. He wants to do something. . . . Think what reading means to an active mind that is locked away in the dark for hours every day!"


We are most of these days locked away in the dark for hours in our office cubicles. Of course, the social plight of past centuries was a bit darker. Just because the life of the mind was made somewhat rich for some, it's not to obscure the awfulness of general daily conditions. Still, it's good to be reminded that literature and opera — "the finer things" — are not always the domain of the wealthy and "educated."

...a miller in sixteenth-century Italy who acquired and read (with a highly independent mind) a vernacular Bible, Boccaccio's Decameron, travel books, perhaps even the Qur'an. ...Vermont farmers stocking their home libraries with Homer, Virgil, Cicero, Dr. Johnson, Walter Scott, Oliver Goldsmith, Laurence Sterne, and John Locke. ...workingmen who haunted second-hand bookstalls along the Seine, devouring Ch√Ęteaubriand, Alexandre Dumas, Goethe, Shakespeare, and the philosophes of the Enlightenment. ...black Americans discussing Milton, Spenser, Homer, Aeschylus, Longfellow, Dryden, Pope, Browning, Pindar, and Sappho, as well as Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Impressive networks of workers' libraries were set up not just by Welsh colliers, but also by Colorado miners, the Social Democratic Party in imperial Germany, trade unions in interwar Poland, study circles in Sweden, the Histadrut labor federation in mandatory Palestine, and anarchists in pre-Franco Spain. ...cigar makers listen to the classics read aloud while they work — a Cuban tradition, but also practiced in many other parts of the world. Everywhere we look, in a diversity of cultures and historical periods, we find "common" readers tackling remarkably challenging literature.


I'm reminded of Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge. Larry goes off to work in the mines and befriends a Polish brute, a man who contrary to everyone's expectations — Larry's, the narrator's, and ours — is well read and seems to know a little something about the path to enlightenment. I wonder if Maugham knew this sort of autodidact to occur more often in life than generally thought.

"Be not afraid of greatness!"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

what an adorable little girl...rotten toddler notwithstanding :-)!