1/28/13 - parents, children, and the souls of toys

In today's selection -- Charles Baudelaire, the famed French poet who chronicled the industrializing mid-1800s in Paris in such poems as Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), made the following observations about parents, children, and the souls of toys:

"I would like to say a few words about the customs and manners of children in relation to their toys, and about the notions of parents on this stirring question. -- There are some parents who try never to give toys. These are solemn, excessively solemn individuals, who have made no study of nature, and who generally make everyone around them miserable. I do not know why I think of them as reeking of Protestantism. They can neither understand nor allow such poetic ways and means of passing the time. They are the same individu­als who will gladly give a shilling to a poor man on con­dition that he stuff himself with bread, but refuse him a farthing to go and slake his thirst in the nearest tav­ern. When I think of a certain class of ultra-reasonable and anti-poetic people at whose hands I have suffered so much, I always feel hatred pinching and gnawing at my nervous system. 

"There are other parents who look upon toys as objects for mute adoration. There are certain clothes which one is at least allowed to wear on Sundays, but toys must be handled with greater care! Thus no soon­er has the family friend deposited his offering on the infant lap, than the fierce and parsimonious mother swoops it up and away into a cupboard, saying: 'It is far too lovely for a child of your age; you can play with it when you are bigger!' A friend of mine confessed that he had never been allowed to play with his toys: 'And when I was older,' he said, 'I had other things to do.' -- Furthermore, there are some children who do the same thing of their own accord: they do not make use of their toys, but save them up, range them in order, make libraries and museums of them. Only rarely do they show them to their little friends, all the while im­ploring them not to touch. I would instinctively be on my guard against these men-children.

"The overriding desire of most little brats, on the other hand, is to get at and see the soul of their toys, either at the end of a certain period of use, or on oc­casion straightaway. On the more or less swift invasion of this desire depends the lifetime of the toy. I cannot find it in me to blame this infantile mania: it is the first metaphysical stirring. When this desire has planted it­self in the child's cerebral marrow, it fills his fingers and nails with an extraordinary agility and strength. He twists and turns the toy, scratches it, shakes it, bangs it against the wall, hurls it on the ground. From time to time he forces it to continue its mechanical motions, sometimes in the opposite direction. Its marvelous life comes to a stop. The child, like the populace besieg­ing the Tuileries, makes a last supreme effort; finally he prises it open, for he is the stronger party. But where is its soul? This moment marks the beginnings of stupor and melancholy.

"There are other children who must instantly break any toy that is placed in their hands, almost without inspecting it; as to these, I confess I do not understand the mysterious motive which causes their action. Are they seized by a superstitious furor against these tiny objects which imitate humanity, or are they perhaps forcing them to undergo some Masonic initiation before introducing them into nursery life? -- 'Puzzling question!' " 


Charles Baudelaire, edited by Kenneth Gross


"Philosophy of Toys" from On Dolls


Notting Hill Editions


Introduction and selection copyright 2012 by Kenneth Gross


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