What makes something ‘real’? For that matter, what does that even mean? Is a character in one of my favourite books any less real than what I remember of an uncle my family used to visit when I was a child? I used to wonder about that until I was old enough to be able to transition from pretending the space underneath the bed was a fort, to the understanding that it was somehow actually -and ‘really’- just a bed.
But imagination -so important to a child at play- assumes a different purpose as we age. It continues to offer an escape from the world around us perhaps, but in the cognitively unimpaired, begins to wear the patina of context -its potential seldom all-consuming, its boundaries identifiable.
And yet, for an adult living in a different perceptual Magisterium, the innocence of a child’s beliefs and the questions arising from them can be difficult to answer in kind. Once the heavy obligations of maturation have hardened the boundaries, even words may require translation, and unintended metaphors may have consequences.
I came across an interesting essay on this in Aeon in which a philosopher from Florida State University, Nathanael Stein, was wondering how to answer his young son’s queries about reality: https://aeon.co/essays/can-a-philosopher-explain-reality-and-make-believe-to-a-child
The difficulty seemed to be in deciding just what his son wanted to know. Was it simply a variation of the universal ‘Why?’ question, or something more deeply probing about reality itself? As he notes, ‘there are surprisingly many ways of distinguishing what’s real from what isn’t. One of the most familiar contrasts we draw is between reality and appearance… reality is sometimes contrasted with what we might call mere appearance, like the motion we create on screens: pixels are turning on and off, and changing colour, so there’s change going on, but nothing that seems to be moving really is. This is different again from the kind of illusion of motion we get from certain patterns.’
We also distinguish ‘what’s real from what’s merely imagined or dreamt… what has existed at least at some time from what never has. Dinosaurs and ancestors are real in this last sense, but unicorns aren’t.’ His young son, though, was perhaps only trying to differentiate between what was ‘really’ real and what was only pretend-real, or make-believe.
Stein then goes on at length on discussing which of the several reality varieties his child was probably puzzled about, but ends up wondering if philosophy could ever solve the riddle for a non-adult. In fact, his concluding sentence seems to concede this point: ‘My son is only four, and by the time he’s able to explain what he means by Why?, he’ll have forgotten what puzzled him – if he hasn’t already.’
Stein’s difficulty in understanding the Lebenswelt of his son reminded me of a lengthy discussion I had many years ago with my similarly aged daughter.
“Daddy, what’s a ‘stralyer’?”
My daughter had a habit of coming up with sounds, part-words, and checking them out on me.
“You mean trailer, don’t you sweetheart? It’s a thing on wheels that you pull behind you…”
I could see a sly look come over her face as she prepared to correct me. “That’s a wagn, silly.”
Pronunciation was never a strong point with my children. “I asked you about a ‘stralyer’…”
Catherine was only about three feet tall then, so it was hard to look her in the eye without considerable effort. She also insisted on wearing at least one of her golden curls on her face -to hide behind if necessary. She wasn’t hiding, however, so I crouched down as best I could and tried to read her expression. Actually, I was trying to read her lips. She repeated the word with me about six inches away and nose level, but it didn’t help much.
“Where did you hear the word, Cath?” Sometimes you can trace these things.
I waited for an explanation, but Godot would have arrived before she caught on. “And what was Michael talking about?” I finally asked. Michael is my son, and he was terribly precocious for nine, I think. His questions were worse, though, because I understood them.
Catherine looked at me as if I were inordinately dense. “About a ‘stralyer’, of course.” Sometimes I saw too much of her mother in her, with her hands on her hips, one foot tapping impatiently, and an expression of utter condescension nailed to her forehead. Only with Catherine, it looked benign -comical, almost. They lived with their mother then, so I supposed neither of them would adopt any of my mannerisms.
Children are tautological creatures; they have the good sense to stick to their guns when all else -adults, by and large- fail them. “Ahh, you don’t happen to know what else Michael said, do you?”
She nodded her head vehemently, convinced she was getting somewhere at last.
She just looked at me. Sometimes I wondered if she was really four, or whether she had forgotten something somewhere around two and a half.
Finally, she got the idea. “He said it was under something.”
That’s what I like about Catherine: just like her mother, she remembered only things that stick out: a flower outside a thousand year old French cathedral, the smell of Machu Pichu, the colour of the mud in Manaus… Context, for her, was merely the background against which the really important things were displayed.
“I don’t suppose he happened to mention what it was under, did he?”
She was silent for a moment -no mean feat for Catherine- and then a smile lit up her face and her eyes grew large. “Under the water, I think…”
There are only so many things that sound like trailer and are under stuff -especially water. I took a stab at it. “Australia?” I said in my best adult voice.
“That’s it, Daddy… What is it?”
“Well,” I said, not entirely sure how much she wanted to know, “it’s a country.”
“But we live in a country…”
“Yes.” I also nodded, to give it added strength.
I could see her playing with it for a while before leaving it on whatever shelf she filed such things -Catherine’s face was a movie screen sometimes. But after a minute between shows, I could see a new thought growing. “How many countries are there, Daddy?”
That’s a good question, actually. Does anybody know? I was so relieved that she hadn’t asked me what a country was that I offered to look it up. “Have you ever seen an atlas, Cath?”
A new word! She perked up immediately. “Anatlus? Nope… Is it what reindeer wear, Daddy?”
Where do kids get their ideas nowadays? “Antlers are what reindeer have, Cath. Atlas is what I’m going to use to count the number of countries,” I said, but I don’t think it stuck. I think she liked the idea of finding countries on reindeer heads.
“But don’t the reindeer have to know where they’re going?”
“You know. On Christmas eve.”
Actually the thought had never occurred to me. I guess I just figured they did it by the stars, or that Santa kind of navigated by instinct, or something. Kids aren’t satisfied with the old stories anymore. “Ahh, well maybe if you looked at the atlas you’d understand what I mean.”
Her eyes positively sparkled. “You mean you have some reindeer here?” She looked wide-eyed around the room, expecting to see a nose pop out of a closet any moment, I’m sure.
“Cath, we don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Just wait here, okay?” I went into the den and rummaged around for the atlas. It was an old Reader’s Digest variety -you know, solar system in the front few pages, then what each country does for a living and how many did it, at least in 1969. The rest was a smorgasbord of colors and names that brought back painful recollections of Miss Pleasance in Grade 4 or 5 and having to pronounce them in front of the whole class by memory. I could never say ‘Afghanistan’ and everybody would wait for it and laugh. Not Miss Pleasance, though. It’d just get me another turn the next day. I hated geography.
When I returned, Catherine was prowling through the cupboards and sniffing. I didn’t ask why. “This is an atlas, Cath,” I said proudly, holding it in front of me like a jewel.
She took one look at it and her face lost interest. “That’s just another book, Daddy,” she said, her voice pleading with me to say I was kidding.
“Just another book?” I pretended to be hurt. “Catherine, this is a genuine, nothing-else-is-remotely-like-it Reader’s Digest version of the world.”
Her eyes resumed their dinner-plate imitations and her mouth fell open. “The world! In there?” I had the sinking feeling that I’d lost again. “Lemme see,” she said grabbing the book firmly, but reverently from my hands.
I was pleased to see that she at least started from the front, but she whipped through the solar system at a breakneck pace and was half way through the gross national product of the Netherlands before she slowed down. “Awhh…” She leafed through a couple of pages of countries outlined in their pale reds and yellows, crammed with lines and unreadable letters and put the book down gently on the table. She looked at me -sadly, I thought- and shook her head. “Daddy,” she said slowly, and carefully, sounding for all the world like she was choosing her words carefully so as not to offend me. “Daddy, did you pay a lot for the anatlus?”
“Atlas,” I corrected as gently as I could. “No, not a whole lot. Why?”
“Well… I think you got gypped.”
She stared at me and sighed with a little shake of her head -just like her mother used to do. “I saw the world on T.V. and it’s different.”
She was right, you know. And I’ll bet they pronounced Afghanistan correctly, too.