‘Le Petit Prince’: On childhood

Jan. 22, 2023, 10:38 p.m.

Ben Marra’s column “Le Petit Prince” showcases a sensitive young man as he navigates social life and loss on a completely normal and functioning college campus.

I often have a desolate feeling that the Bay Area, to some a kind of center of civilization, is near the opposite. Some kind of chaparral — barren on the edge — covered with malls and cube headquarters, yes, but all selling nothing, selling empty projects and childish visions to other desert visionaries. There is no attempt to emulate the past — orphaned narcissism of the “forward-looking.” It’s the reductio ad absurdum of the pleasant dreams of speculative capitalism: warm life studded with ever more smooth little hardware things, life-changing, each; agave plantings. All quite empty, temporary and certainly all a mistake. I fill with angst and get lonely.

I wish this was a sharp ethical radar for falsehood and tragedy, but that’s not really it.

It’s mostly that I’m homesick, and somewhat lonely. Just these — two of the most basic of our feelings, fuel complex machinations; alone in the room; staring at the anemic sun over the quad… Sustained loneliness is sharp pain, pain becomes indignance, indignance finds a shape when the intellect can sniff out hypocrisy or plain ugliness. In that order. I’m glad for whatever awareness I have of vice and immorality, which is probably in the air in every place in the world, but as a function of memory, the omnipresence of childhood has always seemed to me maladaptive and strange. I feel bad that I so often spit up new places like an infant. 

You walk around with your childhood on your shoulder. What for? That the Memory exists to keep us from harm, to avoid dangerous behavior and repeat beneficial ones, can’t explain its subtlety. I existed in a different place before, and now I am here. The other place lives with me like a sour companion, malcontent or absent. It is sensible to yearn for what is productive, what is fertile or nourishing, to always be chasing, and never be satisfied. This sustains life. Yearning for what is lost to us does not. Why are the painters of memory so incessant and vivid? There are simple sense memories from childhood that ring with more poignance and moral weight than new information ever will. 

In fact, it’s not hard at all to be led into moralizing by nostalgia. Some regional things I believe: People need seasons. People need overcoats. People wearing loungewear to poetry readings is abominable. 

Displacement and loss can feel distinctly moral, especially to the young mind. This is painful, something must be wrong here. As if we’ve innocently sat on a barb — as if there were no innate barbs. 

My limited engagement with psychology comes through my mother, a psychotherapist. She taught me recently about Melanie Klein, an early, seminal psychoanalyst in the field of infant development. Writing in the early 20th century, she argued that an infant’s moral system forms around an essential binary projected onto the mother’s breast, between the “good” breast, when it has milk to give, and the “bad” breast which is dry, “splitting” the world into a so-called “good-breast-bad-breast” schema. All other phenomena, in this early stage, must fall into one of these two categories; demarcating quickly all the relevant things which will be good or bad in her life. For Klein, various pathologies occur as a result of a mind which is stuck in this good-breast-bad-breast stage. It is the perception of nuance and complexity, in some way, that defines the mature mind.

To my mind, her insight, at the harshest, suggests that black and white moralizing might be the most infantile thing we do, our most basic defense against the uncomfortable. The child experiences the injury of hunger and avoids the pain of incomprehension by way of one of our most essential gestures. The split resounds. 

I love moralizing. Moralizing gets the world out of the way so we can do what it is we were going to do anyway. After a day of exposing myself to whatever little wounds pop up — there was a suggestion, maybe, that my writing was self-satisfied — I can go back to my cave and say, well, they’re all bad here, they don’t understand what’s important. A sentence or two, and she who would threaten my world is sentenced. I can do what I need to do — like an infant, then, I’m content. I drink milk and fingerpaint, secure that I’m the center. 

Am I still dichotomizing in crucial areas? To think that others lack nuance is no surprise— in fact I think it every day. But the task of this column, as my generous readers have implored of me, is to be as honest and frank as possible about the world that I see. What I see today, is that I, like all of us, am stunted. 

I think of my anxiety — that my mind resists the idea of the banality and neutrality of others and the world at large, preferring extremity and conspiracy. There is something comforting in that sense of knowing the worst, we subduing what could be bad by believing and denouncing it. 

Many people bad-breast their childhoods. This seems to me an equal and nearly identical gesture to nostalgia. For me, with my mostly nice, connected upbringing, I like to good-breast it from here in lonely California. Childhood ceases to be nice, normal, untraumatizing and becomes an emblem of good. When on earth did I have a violin recital in that old manor house up in Bedford, when the girls all wore white and the boys wore black, and the old stone garden bed had an impeccable mess of daffodils? A mistake to leave that day, that place, that coast. 

As Proust knew, childhood is, it never was. In some mysterious way it lives underneath our thoughts, and it can always be brought out. A childhood that is being moralized and used to defend against the present, whether it’s idealized or, probably more commonly, condemned, is that much likelier to intrude on our present and change it. 

I must be the last person to put it together for myself about ego being tied up with childhood, and to comment, as many others have, that simplistic moralizing about our incomprehensible present is traditionally our best defense against it. After all, as with the infant, pain without explanation hurts the ego most, suggesting blasphemously that his is not the central experience, the one charged all throughout with meaning. So the past comes back, skewing, orienting, reasserting its pre-eminence. I come from the center – the center of culture, or beauty, or vice, or evil. My story is then the story, the one which all others orbit. 

It may be that I’ll never love the Bay: I have a crotchety soul. I do need the desolation of a snowfall. But while I’m here, it would be a good thing to see it. The agaves are pretty, the people strange and unironic — scrub oaks stay miniature and look like bonsai. 

Guarding ego robs you. Moralizing difference all day impoverishes, hobbling the mind’s instinct to roam the present or learn with any fluency. As if instruction could come from the convolutions of the limited mind and not its open stillness. I say it’s why I remain in the desert of tests and desolation, not that desert of the bush that burns without dying. 

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