When children don’t want to live any more

‘…it was in his nature to do it…it is the beginning of the coming universal wish not to live’
Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure, 1895

It is the most infamously morbid passage in English literature. It is more shocking than the infanticides of medieval history or Jacobean tragedies, worse than the murders of the Little Princes in the Tower, Macduff’s children, or Tamora being fed her own sons by Titus.

Jude’s eldest son, nicknamed Little Father Time because he has an old soul in his tiny body, overhears his father and step-mother lamenting they cannot afford to feed so many children, and then, being precociously intelligent and logical, kills his infant siblings and himself in the belief he is helping his parents.

Hardy was congenitally cruel to his characters when he finished his sport with them – his betrayal of Tess, just as she’s being executed, by throwing her younger sister at Angel Clare fulfills his private misogynistic fantasies rather than any loftier authorial purpose.

Jude’s little boy is a fatalistic novelist’s symbol of society’s moral decay, he lives and dies as a plot device, it is hard to believe anyone so frail themselves would have the strength to hang a baby, but there is something uncomfortably plausible, even inevitable, about Little Father Time’s character. He is clearly not a criminal, not a misfit. The wise child is the next stage in human evolution: the executor and inheritor of our will, even if we’re too cowardly to sign it.

There is nothing more terrible under the sun than the death of a child. The death of a child by his or her own hand is the most terrible of all,  and it implicates all of us, not as individuals, not when even the kindest, most loving of parents is unable to save their darlings from reality, but collectively, as a species of social animals, unable to make our environment safe for our young.

Painting, 1592, of the legend of the Pied Piper copied from the glass window of the Market Church in Hameln, Germany (c.1300-1633). Image: Wikipedia

We are hateful, and don’t be resigned, not here, anyway. Face up to it, and for humanity’s sake don’t click Like. Not on this blog. It’s not a “popular” blog”. It’s my blog and I’ll cry if I want to.

Don’t like, don’t be resigned – change. Change what is happening in the world. What is popular is seldom right. What we enjoy eating most is usually not good for us.

Even fastidious cats don’t know what’s good for them to eat, only what tastes nice. Maybe an innate fatty, sugary death-wish will kill us all before the bombs do. About a third of the children you see in over-developed western nations are too fat; elsewhere in the world they are starving to death; there are others butchered by perverse strangers, or their own feral parents, or even each other; and now there are a few, discomfiting ghostly presences on the edge of liberal consciences, lingering in suicidal despair because of war and exile, because of the society we have colluded in.

Henry Wallis The Death of Chatterton 1856 © Tate. Image: Wikipedia.
“The marvellous boy” who committed suicide in 1770, aged seventeen, became a symbol to the Romantics of resistance to social injustice and cultural repression, of the battle of the authentic self
against modern society’s crass oppression.

We can’t blame the food: it’s us, it’s what we’re made of, our rottenness, poisoning the children. Thousands of years ago, societies sacrificed children for the common good. Now there are children doing the dirty work for us.

Refugee children in Sweden, one of the few countries in the world where asylum seekers are well-treated, have been exhibiting symptoms of a death-wish when their families are threatened with deportation. They dwindle into a  semi-comotose state, refusing to eat or drink, confined to wheelchairs and have tubes stuck in their mouths. This has been called uppgivenhetssyndrom, “giving up on life syndrome”.

It has been identified as resignation, but in adult refugees similar behaviour might be called hunger-strike, passive protest or martyrdom.

The children were lied to when they were brought into the world. They see for themselves that living without hope is not worth the cost of existence. They believe they are burdens on their parents.

Through their death-wish, the children might be trying to help us.

Summer disturbed

g1775-7

The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly, one of Gainsborough’s intimate studies of his daughters made in the late 1750s, which took 18th century sensibility forward into a Romantic awareness of individual development through the senses. Image © copyright The National Gallery London

He sees beyond the fragile innocence of two little girls, in the glancing light of a fashionably Rousseauian childhood idyll, to a more profound understanding. He is not just a portraitist exploiting vulnerability and shimmering fabric; he is their father who loves them and worries about them.

He would prefer to think his daughters are happy and well, hale and whole, but he dared to paint the anxiety showing in their faces as they ran, clutching each other’s hands, through the sinister half-darkness of a wood, which is both catalyst and externalization of their unconscious minds.

Happiness as represented by the decoratively winged insect is always out of their reach; they experience, as Keats described, “the feel of not to feel it”.

Love and madness disturb a summer’s day two hundred and fifty years after two little girls chased a butterfly.

I try to imagine again my first happy impression of this painting, first seen on visits to the National Gallery, when I was no older than the girls in the picture had been when their father painted them.

I took for granted they were living the ideal childhood of which I could only dream, long before I knew for a fact that both girls suffered from a genetic mental disorder, and grew up into deranged middle-aged women.

I didn’t see the sadness in their eyes, because I didn’t want to see it. The mysterious twilit wood looked enticing, not forboding.

When we look at their father’s painting, in ignorance of biographical details about the girls, shouldn’t our hearts still ache for them, with some knowledge intuitively divined, as Keats put it, “without irritable reaching after fact and reason”?

Or do we always impose our own preconceived ideas on everything we see, until some bossy person lectures us about it?

Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that the girls would have fared better in our time. Nowadays, Mary and Margaret might be taken away from Thomas Gainsborough, who loved them so, and his unstable wife, whom he also loved, to be put into mental hospital or a lifetime of unreliable drug dependency.

gainsborough wife

The painter’s wife, Margaret Gainsborough, by Thomas Gainsborough, c 1779, when she was about fifty years old.
Image © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Imagine being both the painter and the parent of those little girls, chasing their butterfly, never being able to catch it.

One person’s wistfulness is another’s indifference. Nothing we see feels the same to the person in the picture. We congratulate ourselves on feeling so deeply about art that we must be good people or, at least, better than we thought we were a moment ago

Good or not, we cannot help the girls in the picture.

We chase the butterfly.

Foreshades of Grey (5 and a half)

or, To understand all is to forgive all

louis1715

Hyacinthe Rigaud, State Portrait of Louis XV, 1715, Musée National du Château, Versailles. Image source: WGA
An hereditary absolute monarch plays with his toys.

Louis XV’s contemporary Rousseau (1712 -1774) was the first educationalist of the modern era to impress upon parents who could afford to educate their children in the first place, that they should not be treated and dressed as miniature adults.

Forming habits early on was bad for personality development. In a natural education, parents and guardians should provide “well-regulated liberty” for the child to play and follow his or her natural instincts. Before reaching the age of reason, the child learns through sensation, not through having ideas of right and wrong, and certainly not of entitlement, forced on him.

There was nothing remotely natural about Louis XV’s childhood.

Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner” is a French proverb of disputed origin. Madame de Staël wrote in her novel Corinne (1807): “Car tout comprendre rend très indulgent, et sentir profondément inspire une grande bontée” .
“To understand everything makes one tolerant, and to feel deeply inspires great kindness”.
With grateful acknowledgments to Fake Buddha Quotes