Sunday, 22 January 2012

Little Humans

One day shortly after her return Deborah decided that the time had come to take down Menuchim’s basket from the ceiling.  Not without solemnity she turned the little one over to the older children.  ‘You must take him walking!’ said Deborah.  ‘When he gets tired you must carry him.  In God’s name, don’t let him fall!  The holy man has said that he will get strong.  Do him no harm!  From now on the children’s troubles began.

They dragged Menuchim like a misfortune through the town.  They let him lie, they let him fall.  They ill endured the scorn of their comrades who tagged after them when they took Menuchim walking.  The little one had to be carried between his two brothers.  He could not put one foot before the other like a human being.  His legs shook like two broken hoops, he stopped in his tracks, he collapsed.  Finally Jonas and Shemariah let him lie.  They stuck him in a corner, half-covered by a sack.  There he played with pebbles and with the dung of dogs and horses.  He ate everything.  He scratched the lime from the walls and stuffed his mouth full of it, then coughed until he was blue in the face.  He lay in the corner like a scrap of rubbish.

Sometimes he would start to cry.  Then the boys would send Miriam to him to comfort him.  Dainty, coquettish, with thin hopping legs, ugly hate and disgust in her heart, she would approach her ridiculous brother.  The delicacy with which she stroked his distorted ash-grey countenance had something murderous in it.  She would look about carefully, right and left, and then pinch her brother in the thigh.  He would yell and neighbours would look out of the windows.  She pulled down her mouth in an expression of grief.  Everybody had pity on her and asked her what was the matter.

One rainy summer day the children dragged Menuchim out of the house and stuck him in a vat, in which rainwater had collected for half a year.  Maggots swam about in it, decayed fruit and mouldy bread crusts.  They held him by his crooked legs and pushed his broad grey head a dozen times into the water.  Then, with pounding hearts and glowing cheeks, they pulled him out in the joyful and gruesome expectation that they were holding a corpse.  But Menuchim lived… (from Joseph Roth’s Job)

The cruelty of children.  How quickly we forget…  Thus we have the moral panic over a child killer, and all the old moralising about societal decline that accompanies the investigation and trial, like petty gossip in a funeral cortege.  The surprise is that more children are not locked up for murder.  Is it the strength of life, so vital when young, that protects the victim, enabling Menuchim to bounce back up again and again like a rubber ball?  Despite all the horror stories is it actually very hard to kill a child?  That is, after the first few vulnerable months (a time when mothers have relatively little maternal feeling for the baby; to allow for the possibility of infant mortality; an historically common occurrence).[i]

We see children as innocent and fragile.  But are they really?  Might they not be tough and cruel, and it is the adults who are actually the sentimentalists, projecting all their innocence onto what are little more than domesticated beasts. Is that why some men and women do not like children: they are afraid of the wild animal…[ii]

Later in the novel the brothers and sisters come to accept the disabled Menuchim, and even to love him; for by now he is incorporated into the habit of their lives, part of a family to which they are bound by affection.  Shemariah, Jonas and Miriam are not amoral murderers, but simply vibrant children constrained by the familial chains of caring for their feeble brother.  He holds them back.  He denies their freedom; and makes them a subject of ridicule for their closest friends.  He is a dam holding back an overflowing reservoir; and he is too weak to protect himself.  So life must have its say.  The water must run.  And Menuchim must be tormented by his loved ones.

[i] See the review of The Evolution of Childhood by Michele Pridmore-Brown in the TLS, 01/10/2010.
[ii] “I found it very helpful that I had at that time so much animal behaviour going on all around me, upstairs, in the garden and on the hearthrug.  Small children are so literally and unmistakably both animals and human beings that they show up the absurdity of refusing to bring these two notions together.” (Mary Midgley, The Owl of Minerva):
            However, Midgley argues against the popular conception of animals as aggressive and irrational, instead she writes of their generally civilised behaviour; although there are significant differences across the species.  Man, she suggests, tends towards the more violent end of the spectrum:
“The restraint apparent in wolves seems to be found in most other social carnivores, and well armed vegetarian creatures too.  Where murder is so easy, a species must have an adequate inhibition against it… Solitary animals and those less strongly armed do not need this defense.  Lorenz gives chilling examples form roe deer and doves, in both of which species stronger members will slowly murder weaker ones if kept in captivity with them, because in a free state these creatures save themselves by running away, not by relying on the victor’s inhibition.  And it is clear that man is in some ways nearer to this group than the wolf.  (Beast and Man)”
Later, man acquired weapons and thus became more dangerous.  Although a counter-trend is increasing number, and its associated urbanisation, creating inhibitions that reduce potential violence. That is, the more organised human life becomes the closer it gets to the cooperative societies of the more social animals, and where inter species violence is reduced by finding ways of displacing it through gesture and symbolic action.
            So if these children’s actions are not beastly what exactly are they?  Humanity in its purest form?  Do they represent our distant ancestors; those hunter gathers some people appear to like so much? 
The above passage suggests something much more complicated. Mendel Singer’s children acted because of a conflict within their natures – between the vitality of their being, a desire to just be and act, and the adult command that they restrain themselves to look after a weak brother.  Trapped within the cage of such adult responsibility they rebelled… Their actions arose out of the situation.  Moreover, one could argue that it is the parents who are to blame, that their judgement was at fault, by expecting too much from their children; by giving them too much authority and believing them more sympathetic than they could possibly be.  That is, Mendel and Deborah wanted Miriam and her brothers to be human when they were still overwhelming animal.  

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