Showing posts with label blake. Show all posts
Showing posts with label blake. Show all posts


Are Philosophers Inspired by the Figure of the Child?

In this post, I discuss one of my favorite topics: how have thinkers, writers, and philosophers been inspired by the figure of the child?

I am stuck on this topic of the child as a figure of philosophical thought or inspiration. The question writ large is this: how can the child be both a muse and tabula rasa? In other words, how can the child be a figure of inspiration, yet at the same time, not capable of the label philosopher? The philosopher, artist, thinker, writer, goes to the child for their inspiration, but the paradox is this: the child is seldom seen as a locus of philosophical import. How can it be both? Both muse and empty of content? We call the child innocence but what we mean is empty, according to Kincaid. And i agree. The label of innocence creates a bind. A problem. Innocence maintains the status of muse but creates a problem by which the child is only able to miraculously appear through nostalgia and leaves whence she came. William Blake trumpets the child as a muse. Blake writes of a poet/piper in the introductory verse of the Songs of Innocence who is visited by a child on a cloud who commands him to write: "Piper sit thee down and write / In a book that all may read." Is the child merely an apparition for the romantic poet? Notice it is the poet and not the lofty nude boy cherub who puts words onto paper. How can it be that the child inspires the poet to write but is bereft of his own song?
I can name three famous instances where a child appears in the margins of the history of philosophy. In Plato’s Meno, Socrates employs a slave child to demonstrate to Meno that learning is recollection. Meno assures Socrates that the boy has no previous knowledge of geometry. The question is if the child has no prior knowledge of geometry can she still learn it? Socrates asks the slave boy questions. He does not supply him with answers as if his mind were an empty vessel. Socrates is notorious for asserting that we come upon the quest for knowledge at an instance of nothing. We know nothing. Nothing is a starting point. Just by the guidance of a question, the slave boy is able to come up with the solution to the problem of halving a square. Plato does not indicate the child's age. I would guess he is no older than sixteen. No younger than seven. Is it a coincidence that Socrates uses him as an example? To use a child to illustrate a philosophical point suggests something about the status of a child. In this case a slave child. To be a slave and a child at the time of Socrates was to be afforded little political privilege. Neither the child or the slave were properly thought of as citizens of the state. Philosophy is adult business. Citizen business. So to demonstrate the boy's ability to know, to recollect knowledge, as a priori to learning itself, is to present the child as exemplar, but still leaves us to question the concept of child as philosopher.
Nietzsche famously invokes the figure child in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in tandem with the lion and the camel, as the third stage in the metamorphosis of philosophical progress.
Augustine in the Confessions opens a random selection of sacred scripture whereby he is inspired by Saint Paul’s words to put on the person of Christ and rid himself of wanton desires. When the child enters the scene of philosophical history she becomes an example, as we can see in Socrates’s use of the boy, or as metaphor for something “new” and “fresh” as in Nietzsche. Or simply inspiration as in Augustine’s anecdotal story of his conversion.
For the most part children are excluded from the annals of Western Philosophy in the main along with discussions of sex, the body, and anything related to our finitude. Philosophers in the main have traditionally been more fond of loftier topics such as mind, reason, and clear and distinct ideas. Children are far from such sophisticated concepts being as they are undeveloped intellectually. While we can grant the child her own special status as philosopher who has not heard a child ask why? it is still fairly common to assume philosophy is meant for grown-ups. The long-standing view of children is that they are extensions of adults. Thomas Hobbes excludes the child as having the status of person in the Leviathan. Along with madmen and fools, the child is a brute beast, with no claim to the law or sovereignty. For Hobbes, the child is not a person. According to Phillip Aries, the concept of the child as independent from an adult only recently became adopted in the West in the nineteenth century. For centuries children were seen as diminutive versions of adults. Homunculi. The great modern revelation, it is said, is that children embody a consciousness that is temporally defined and authentic to childhood itself. How far have we come from Hobbes? But how uneasy it is for us to ask the child muse to speak her own voice. Children grow up. They become adults. And it is usually adults who provide the child's voice. The word "infant" means "without voice." The Romantic view of childhood, as seen in the Blake poems, and also with Rousseau, privileged the child as possessing a unique access to experience that becomes lost after the emergence of puberty. What Freud would later call the stage of latency, the period after infancy leading up to adolescence, becomes a period in the development of the human person infused with a new sense of interest and curiosity. Jean-Jacques Rousseau breaks the silence and places the figure of the child front and center, but he too retains a nostalgia for something lost. We vacillate, I conjecture, from positing the child as an empty slate to embodying all truths, but in each event, we are foreclosed to the child qua child.


Lesson Plan: An Example of Teaching Poetic Tone in the Classroom (with William Blake's "London" and "Jerusalem")

Class objective:  To continue the theme of Poetic tone by using examples from film and the poetry of William Blake.
The following class can be tailored to fit a high school language arts course or a college Introduction to Literature, or British Literature section.


A Gloss on the Child and Wonder

 "Blue Boy" Thomas Gainsborough 
Warning: This is merely a gloss and not a full argument. I am trying to think of the implications of the following issues for a larger paper on the topic of wonder: In 18th century British genre painting, the novel and lyrical poetry gives rise to the notion of the child as a category of spontaneity and innocence. Blake, exalts the child in his Songs of Innocence and describes experience as a rite of passage in the Songs of Experience. Art in this period glorified the child as well, like Gainsborough’s the Blue Boy. The child as imaginative exuberance fits nicely into the Romantic project for what poets like Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge tried to do was to break away from the stodgy hierarchies of Classicism to create a new kind of poetry that favored immediate experience and truth-seeking through the natural, everyday things of life. Coleridge sought to find the extraordinary in the ordinary, creating nostalgic lyrics that suggest tales of a Mediaeval source but are actually products of a childhood imagination. Romanticism, according to critics like Philip Aries and James Kincaid, created a rift between adult and child as two separate entities. Kincaid writes in his book Child-loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture, “However much of childhood radiance is lost by the adult and however difficult the connections may be to recover, Wordsworth and Coleridge are not talking about two species staring at each other across the chasm of puberty but about a form of imaginative and spiritual continuity” (63). For Coleridge the child and his own childhood is a spring of “imagination and spiritual continuity”.  There is this idea of the child who is not marred by Blakean experience, untrammeled by the vicissitudes of life, is the engine of art.
I wonder though if we have misinterpreted the project of Romanticism proper. It is not that the child, as such, is the inspiration for art, but that art is born from the child. To be an artist one must be like a child in only one way: to wonder. Bridging the gap of experience, the only thing the artist takes with him from childhood, is wonder, but transmuted -- not the wonder of being in its fullness, which puberty finds it to be a sham -- but the wonder of being in its limits. For isn't the project of adulthood the wonder of being a philosopher? The fear of death no longer is the fear that there is no God, the fear of the child, but rather, that in death, we will no longer be able to philosophize.
Feel free to share your own ideas, below: