HUMAN beings are really the weirdest things. Nothing in our cosmos is as remotely complex as the most ordinary human person’s mind, much less their spirit. Recently I have been conducting rigorous, scientific experiments into the radical developmental changes of the early human mind. I have been doing this by intense association with my 18-month-old granddaughter.
She lives in Sydney and I live in Melbourne, and I see her every six weeks or so. This provides the perfect series of snapshots, as it were, of the frankly astonishing progress of her mind.
Heaven lies about us in our infancy, so the saying goes, and there is no more innocent human being than a baby. But innocence is not the only feature of childhood, even of infancy. Some of the best treatment of childhood in literature focuses on the cunning of childhood. Think of the tragic and naughty little boy in Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust. Or the cunning child resentful of his father returning from the military in Nancy Mitford’s The Blessing.
Of course these are children certainly older than infants. I think we can mark it as a civilisational failure of literary imagination that creative writers have generally ignored the viewpoint of infants, especially the rational viewpoint of the toddler.
By watching and interacting with my granddaughter, Tatiana, I have been able to observe the breathtaking changes in the power of her mind. This is a process happening so rapidly it seems like science fiction to me.
Like many small children completely surrounded by love, Tatiana has come to the happy and reasonable conclusion that the known universe centres around her. She and her parents visited a few months ago, and one morning I came down to breakfast and began chatting to my son, her father. Tatiana walked over and spread her hands in a gesture of patent disgust, as if to say “Hello! I’m here! Why aren’t you paying attention?”
“Ain’t I neat?” — the underling dynamic of all autobiography — is hard-wired, as they say, into the human personality.
My son and his wife, as far as they can, have baby-proofed their living room. The TV has been put high up into the wall to prevent Tatiana pulling it down on her head. Knick-knacks and decorative objects have been hidden away. But Tatiana has discovered her parents’ one vulnerability. When she thinks the assembled company is paying her insufficient attention, she runs to the TV and removes the Foxtel card. There follows a little pantomime as someone chases Tatiana around the room and retrieves the card, which she yields up willingly enough.
Recently this episode was repeated three times as we were watching our beloved Bulldogs lose a mournful rugby league game.
My son has been fiercely working out at gyms since his mid-teens. He resembles in physique the Incredible Hulk. Thrice he raised his bulk from the lounge, lumbered over to the TV and set it going again. One could see Tatiana, though not remotely frightened of her father, nonetheless wondering whether she had gone too far.
What followed was the purest illumination of the growing powers of reason, but also an astonishing shrewdness and subtlety. As her father was lowering his great frame to the level of the box for the third time, Tatiana saw that it might not be a bad thing to emphasise to her dad that it was, after all, still a game. She ran up behind her father and covered as much of his back as she could with her outstretched arms to give him the most affectionate hug.
No doubt this represented the most genuine upspringing of emotion on her part. But it also had the desired effect. Her father forgot for a moment even the Bulldogs and was won over once again by his daughter’s charms. Such psychological and behavioural insight on her part, at 18 months.
There are people who think all this personality, all this spirit, Tatiana’s unique human genius, is the random working out of accidents of matter over millions of years. I look at her and see the unmistakable hand of the divine.
But, then, she is my granddaughter.