the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Greg Sheridan

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.

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