"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, January 19, 2018

Otherworldly Children–Precocious, Unique, Unaccountable, And Frightening

Pearl, the daughter of Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is a mystery even to her mother. Defiant, unconventional, precociously mature, willfully assertive, and without any childlike compassion.

Her nature appeared to possess depth, too, as well as variety; but — or else Hester's fears deceived her — it lacked reference and adaptation to the world into which she was born. The child could not be made amenable to rules. In giving her existence, a great law had been broken ; and the result was a being whose elements were perhaps beautiful and brilliant, but all in disorder; or with an order peculiar to themselves, amidst which the point of variety and arrangement was difficult or impossible to be discovered.

Image result for images book cover the scarlet letter

Where did she come from, her mother wondered.

She could recognize her wild, desperate, defiant mood, the flightiness of her temper, and even some of the very cloud-shapes of gloom and despondency that had brooded in her heart. They were now illuminated by the morning radiance of a young child's disposition, but later in the day of earthly existence might be prolific of the storm and whirlwind.

The child was hers but not hers,  and frighteningly so:

Her mother, while Pearl was yet an infant, grew acquainted with a certain peculiar look, that warned her when it would be labor thrown away to insist, persuade, or plead. It was a look so intelligent, yet in- explicable, so perverse, sometimes so malicious, but generally accompanied by a wild flow of spirits, that Hester could not help questioning, at such moments, whether Pearl were a human child. She seemed rather an airy sprite, which, after playing its fantastic sports for a little while upon the cottage floor, would flit away with a mocking smile. Whenever that look appeared in her wild, bright, deeply-black eyes, it in- vested her with a strange remoteness and intangibility; it was as if she were hovering in the air and might vanish, like a glimmering light that comes we know not whence, and goes we know not whither… Pearl was a born outcast of the infantile world. An imp of evil, emblem and product of sin, she had no right among christened infants. Nothing was more remarkable than the instinct, as it seemed, with which the child comprehended her loneliness ; the destiny that had drawn an inviolable circle round about her ; the whole peculiarity, in short, of her position in respect to other children.

Anna, the stepdaughter of Tom Brangwen, a principal character in D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, is much like Pearl.

The girl was at once shy and wild. She had a curious contempt for ordinary people, a benevolent superiority. She was very shy, and tortured with misery when people did not like her. On the other hand, she cared very little for anybody save her mother, whom she still rather resentfully worshipped, and her father, whom she loved and patronized, but upon whom she depended. These two, her mother and father, held her still in fee. But she was free of other people, towards whom, on the whole, she took the benevolent attitude. She deeply hated ugliness or intrusion or arrogance, however. As a child, she was as proud and shadowy as a tiger, and as aloof. She could confer favours, but, save from her mother and father, she could receive none. She hated people who came too near to her. Like a wild thing, she wanted her distance. She mistrusted intimacy.

In Cossethay and Ilkeston she was always an alien. She had plenty of acquaintances, but no friends. Very few people whom she met were significant to her. They seemed part of a herd, undistinguished. She did not take people very seriously.

Image result for images book cover lawrence the rainbow

As she grew older, her misanthropy increased.  Not only was she harshly judgmental of others, but her antagonisms did not stop there but became visceral hatred.  Anna was precocious in her canny understanding of petty nature of the catty intrusiveness of her classmates; the inflexibility and ignorance of her teachers; and the drudgery of the colliery men around her.

She had not done her lessons: well, she did not see any reason why she should do her lessons, if she did not want to. Was there some occult reason why she should? Were these people, schoolmistresses, representatives of some mystic Right, some Higher Good? They seemed to think so themselves. But she could not for her life see why a woman should bully and insult her because she did not know thirty lines of As You Like It. After all, what did it matter if she knew them or not? Nothing could persuade her that it was of the slightest importance. Because she despised inwardly the coarsely working nature of the mistress. Therefore she was always at outs with authority.

From constant telling, she came almost to believe in her own badness, her own intrinsic inferiority. She felt that she ought always to be in a state of slinking disgrace, if she fulfilled what was expected of her. But she rebelled. She never really believed in her own badness. At the bottom of her heart she despised the other people, who carped and were loud over trifles. She despised them, and wanted revenge on them. She hated them whilst they had power over her.the catty intrusions of her classmates; the ironbound and senseless discipline of her teachers; and the plodding drudgery of the colliery life around her.

Beneath Anna’s general bitterness and dissatisfaction – or because of it – she is desperately idealistic; but after a few years of marriage and a baby each year, she becomes less bitter but more disillusioned. Sex for her, as for most of Lawrence’s characters, is essential; but unlike her daughter, Ursula, one of the protagonists of Lawrence’s next novel, Women in Love, she can make nothing out of.  She has neither Ursula’s will, complexity, or insights.

Pearl on the other hand, thanks to a more mature intelligence and adult understanding, and having survived her mother’s ordeal, the Salem trials, and the eccentricities and abusiveness of the men in her world, turns out well and wealthy and just fine.

So Pearl — the elf-child, — the demon offspring, as some people, up to that epoch, persisted in considering her, — became the richest heiress of her day, in the New World. Not improbably, this circumstance wrought a very material change in the public estimation ; and, had the mother and child remained here, little Pearl, at a marriageable period of life, might have mingled her wild blood with the lineage of the devoutest Puritan among them all. But, in no long time after the physician's death, the wearer of the scarlet letter disappeared, and Pearl along with her.

Bart Haller was a colicky, difficult infant, born to proper middle class parents in a small town in Connecticut. He was a disobedient, demanding, and willful toddler; and a destructive, mean, and defiant child. He was naturally, inherently bad, the town gossip rumored.  A bad seed, an unexpected, unwelcome, irremediably antisocial child. The Hallers thought that such ideas were nonsense.  There was no such thing as child born bad. All behavior is derived from predictable genetic and environmental factors and can be mediated, reformed, or at least directed in positive ways.  As St. Augustine himself said, evil does not exist in the world –only the absence of good.  Such theological conundrums were, however, beside the point. Whatever words might be used to describe their son – evil, demonic, possessed, or simply a bad seed – the Hallers knew that he had been born with a congenital deformity.

Image result for images devil milton

By the time he was in the third grade (passed up quickly by lower-grade teachers who wanted nothing more to do with him), educators and administrators did their best to convince themselves and Bart’s parents that he was simply ‘different’ – that his arrogance, cruelty, and disrespect might indeed by part of a demanding, highly intelligent nature; one which only needed formation and guidance. 

However neither the psychiatrists the Hallers consulted, nor any of the school psychologists and social guidance counselors, despite their best and most positive thinking, could find no redeeming values in young Haller. After three years of suffering his abuse, recalcitrance, and absolute indifference to authority and care-giving, they all agreed that he was indeed a bad seed.

It is hard in an day and age to simply write off a child as worthless or worse, a perniciously destructive, antisocial being. In this age of tolerance, inclusiveness, and diversity, it was particularly unpleasant to come to the conclusion that Bart Haller would always be a social derelict, devoid of compassion or moral rectitude. Whether or not he ended up in a federal penitentiary was of no consequence.  Whether he broke the law or simply ignored it and any of the social customs that regulated behavior for the common good, he would always be irremediable.

The case of Bart Haller never got written up in any professional journal, but not because there was no interest in him. He was neither a dangerous sociopath, a devil to be exorcized, or a simply a foundationally amoral person with not even a scintilla of rectitude. He was one of a kind, one of a million, and a reminder that perhaps good does not prevail and that the human genome, as wonderful as it seems, is quite capable of producing irredeemable souls.

Where did Pearl, Anna, and Bart come from?  Given their parentage and the family life which they entered, their almost preternatural misanthropy was totally unexpected.  One might have expected, in the case of Pearl, some defiance of the oppressive social order of the time, but not such a devilish impudence expressed at a time when she herself might have been burned at the stake for witchery.  Anna was nothing like her mother and although Lawrence tells little about her natural father, certainly her stepfather with whom she had a strong tie, contributed little to her disobedience and callous indifference.  Bart’s parents were the most normal, socialized, devout, and communitarian of any member of New Brighton society.  Nowhere in their distant genealogical past was their any ancestor who resembled Bart.  There were thieves, carousers, and layabouts in the family tree to be sure, but nothing resembling him.  He had literally come out of nowhere; but contrary to Pearl who recovered her moral equilibrium and went off to find fortune and happiness; or to Anna who resigned herself to a life of sex and procreation, Bart never changed, reformed, or repented.

All three children had a precocious brilliance.  Even a bad seed needs more intelligence than most to use his cruelty; and Bart’s willful hatred was even admired by the nihilists of the town. The only lesson to be drawn for parents is to watch out.  The human genome is far more complex than anyone before or after Watson and Crick had ever imagined; and amidst the billions of bits of DNA clinging to the double helix there might be an anomaly so distorted that its bearer will never have the chance to reproduce, of no interest or consequence at all to the parents of that unique child.

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