Thursday, May 06, 2010


Adultish Behaviour

Kindly take a close look at the two photos below. They both show the same historically important writer in two radically different poses. One of these poses is "childish" and the other is "mature". Can you tell which is which?

This might seem a very easy question. The figure on the left is a wannabe dictator planning an imaginary takeover of the world; clearly he has been ranting and raving with plenty of wild gestures and his expression might best be described as "hebephrenic". The figure on the right, in contrast, is wearing a proper shirt with buttoned cuffs and is perusing a highbrow newspaper on the eve of a British General Election; his expression might best be described as "socially aware". Surely he is the mature individual? Surely the power-crazed madman on the left is the childish one?

No. It's not as straightforward as that. Sorry. Being a dictator and trying to take over the world (or at least a part of it) is what adults do, whereas believing that one can understand society and the environment is an essentially childish delusion. It's the figure on the left who is striking the most authentic adult pose. Tamerlane, Hitler, Idi Amin, were adults.

Hitler is often called 'childish', as if his misdeeds were those of children in general, rather than of one highly specific adult! I hate Hitler, but he was hardly childish. How could he be? He invaded Russia! That takes a great deal of organisation, even if the operation ultimately backfired; far more tactical expertise than any mere child can boast. History records the actions of very few children. Never have I studied a factual account of a child invading Russia or any other nation.

It might be pointed out at this juncture that 'childish' is a reference to Hitler's petulance, not to the logistics of his campaigns.

Nonetheless, real petulance and greed are refinements of the adult. When we casually employ the term 'childish' to dismiss grown up people, we are committing an injustice, for children actually have fairly clean motivations and few requirements. They want attention, as is their due; unconditional love, entertainment, automatic forgiveness, presents. That's all. They almost never demand justice, sovereignty, empowerment, enfranchisement, hegemony or revolution. Their schemes are modest and small scale. You may try to point out that those schemes are of the same type: that a child's desire to take a coveted object, say a toy, away from another child is the same as a dictator's desire to deprive another ruler of a country, say Russia. You'll insist that the difference is quantitative, not qualitative. But in such cases quantity is inextricably linked to quality and adjusts the quality as a consequence. A toy is an insignificant thing really; Russia is not. Let's take it to an extreme. To be whacked by a stick once is qualitatively no different from being whacked a hundred times: so runs common wisdom. The difference is only quantitative. I ask anybody who accepts this to subject themselves voluntarily to a hundred blows and then judge the lack of difference in quality.

When we utter the insult 'childish' we are in fact objecting to actions or utterances that are properly and profoundly adult in nature. The correct word to describe examples of selfishness, power hunger, bursts of anger, the bearing of very long grudges, the attempted manipulation of psychology, and even the glib vocalisation of inappropriate responses, is 'adultish'. Adult behaviour rarely has much to do with maturity. The average adult is not mature. The average adult is not childish either, but far worse than that. The average adult is 'adultish'. I hope the word catches on.

My depiction of children as innocents who are satisfied with the basic emotional necessities of life may appear artificially naïve or deliberately contrived to further my argument. Children twist the arms of playmates; they pull legs off spiders; they are bullies. But who excels at such behaviour? Who acts that way on a vastly bigger scale? Adults. Rather than label adults who indulge in such cruelty 'childish', surely it's more accurate to say that aggressive and cruel children are exhibiting precocious 'adultish' traits!

A fully-grown man or woman who rants and raves, who is selfish, glib or petulant, grasping, egotistical, isn't acting like a child; on the contrary, a child in the middle of a tantrum is practising for adult life. The upshot of all this is hardly profound but is often conveniently forgotten: the normal adult human being is a monster. That includes you and me. Yes, you.

It would be nicely symmetrical to state that there is only one thing that is 'childish' when an adult does it, namely accusing other adults of being 'childish' in an attempt to belittle them. That truly is childish... But in fact adults do this all the time and children never do it, so it can't be childish; it must be adultish instead.

I am aware of a recent case where a playful individual made a comment to the effect that "it is better to make clever statements than true ones" for which he was berated by a serious individual in the following manner: the serious individual insisted that such an utterance was essentially juvenile. Indeed, the serious individual went further and even quoted the number 14 as a typical age for the utterance of such a comment.

Logically, that serious individual is now compelled to regard anyone in history who has ever uttered a clever but untrue statement as juvenile... Therefore Chateaubriand, Montesquieu, Samuel Johnson, Goethe, Chamfort, Valéry, Cioran, Lichtenberg, Pessoa, Gibran, Kierkegaard, Emerson, Adorno, Bruyère, Stirner, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Proust, André Gide, Oscar Wilde, etc, etc, are all juvenile. Ho hum.

The mighty Nietzsche made a virtue and a career out of issuing (in an ongoing accelerating process) clever statements that contradicted all his other clever statements. Was Nietzsche juvenile? Did Nietzsche remain only 14 for the entirety of his superb existence? Fourteen centuries perhaps; for it would take a normal man that long to match his wit and wisdom!

We value maxims and other aphorisms for their beauty, not for their "truth". What we look for in a maxim or any other memorable saying is a particular sort of music: rhythm, harmony, balance and symmetry (imperfect rather than perfect, as Borges so wisely pointed out). Truth has nothing to do with it. What is truth anyway?

A belief in Absolute Truth is the only truly childish thing there is.
And you can quote me on that...

"A belief in Absolute Truth is the only truly childish thing there is."


I always did wonder what Einstein was thinking in that photo.

As to Nietzsche, I think he was recently reincarnated as a schnauzer named Baxter who sleeps with my wife.
It's hard to invade Poland when one has to be in bed by seven.
That's a pertinent point. How about invading a smaller country instead? Andorra, for example?
Interestingly, there was no such thing as 'children' in their current incarnation prior to the twentieth century anyway. Children were expected to be mini-adults. A high infant mortality rate coupled with the upward flow of labour [children being expected to work for their parents as soon as they could walk] means that children were rarely regarded as children for long. Perhaps less so amongst the more leisurely classes of society, but even then most of those were palmed off onto nannies for the first few years of their lives, and expected to only interact with their parents at social functions and such like. Childhood as we know it is a fairly new concept really.
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