Of Children’s Pencil Boxes And Ersatz Smartphones

It’s a simple enough object: a pencil box that looks like a smartphone. The box’s lid looks like a smartphone screen decked out with app icons, the ones that all of us smartphone users are used to: the phone, the messages, the various entertainments, the calculator, and so on. Pencil boxes have been decorated and adorned in many ways over the years; this happens to be the latest one that our civilization has devised for it. (My school days pencil box was covered with various geometrical shapes; presumably the manufacturers assumed that I would be spending my class days constructing the figures that lay within the box: a pencil, ruler, compass, divider, and a protractor.) But it is not just the decoration of the pencil box that approximates the smartphone’s look and feel; it is also sized similarly, thus rendering the simulation ever more realistic. Especially if you are only a child, who has not used a real smartphone but has merely seen others using them around it. Of course, the more you play with this ersatz phone the more you realize just how removed its functionality is from the real thing; it makes you want the real thing even more. Which is what it is supposed to do; to the children who play with it.

My daughter is the proud owner of once such pencil box. I’m her disgruntled father. A year or so ago, she, by exerting that unique species of emotional pressure that only a four-year old can, managed to convince her mother to buy the smartphone-pencil box for her. But she had been relentlessly enticed herself: over the course of a few mornings, by a glittering array of such temptations placed directly in her path when she walked into her pre-school’s lobby. A vendor of these ‘toys’ had struck a deal with the pre-school; presumably they would sell their goods to the children, relying on them to badger their parents; proceeds would be shared with the school. My daughter had, of course, seen both my wife and I using our smartphones; she had often reached out to them and we had, with varying measures of success, resisted her advances. But not on this occasion; my wife succumbed, and my daughter had her way.

I’ve been a parent for some five years now, and so I’ve become accustomed to the scale and reach of the child-industrial complex, that giant consumer good industry dedicated to selling you stuff for your children. Still, something about the utter cynicism of this particular maneuver, the unholy alliance struck between the vendor and the school (a private one with a few seats reserved for children in New York City’s free pre-K program), stood out for me. Addiction to smartphones and social media is not a minor problem for today’s children, and one of the hardest decisions a (privileged) parent has to make these day is to decide when to let their child have access to these. To see a school allow a vendor to sell such products was astonishing to say the very least. But the commodified logic of this world will brook no interference with its plans to sell to all and sundry.

I’m sad to say that I did not do too much beyond my initial reaction of irritation (I could have, for instance, had a word with the school’s principal); I was worn out by too many parenting discussions and besides, some other childcare crisis had already presented itself for resolution. So I moved on. My daughter still has the pencil box and I’m still holding out the hope that she will grow tired of it in the right way: by finding something literary or artistic or musical that will hold her attention in more fulfilling ways.

Schopenhauer On Disillusioned Lovers

In On Human Nature: Essays Partly Posthumous in Ethics and Politics (1896:1957, Allen and Unwin, London, pp. 14), Schopenhauer writes

Every human perfection is allied to a defect into which it threatens to pass; but it is also true that every defect is allied to a perfection. Hence it is that if, as often happens, we make a mistake about a man, it is because at the beginning of our acquaintance with him we confound his defects with the kinds of perfection to which they are allied. The cautious man seems to us a coward; the economical man, a miser; the spendthrift seems liberal; the rude fellow, downright and sincere; the foolhardy person looks as if he were going to work with a noble self-confidence; and so on in many other cases.

And then there is the converse of this uneasy co-existence of the sublime and the sordid that Schopenhauer refers to. One that is painfully familiar to disillusioned lovers, to that pair of humans whose crossed stars are just their psychological dispositions.

For as those whose relationships flounder know all too well, the very qualities that first attracted us to those who subsequently repel us are the ones that have now morphed into their ‘allied defects.’ The gay, carefree, quick to laugh social raconteur now strikes us as impossibly frivolous, incapable of entertaining a solitary serious thought; the blunt and refreshingly straightforward shooter from the hip comes across as a tactless boor; the affectionate dispenser of physical touches makes us cringe from their cloying, overpowering invasion of our private spaces. There is a reason why the mutual hatred and fury and anger of a pair of humans engaged in the deconstruction of their former love is quite as appalling as it is, both on the inside and the outside: the disappointment and shock at the transformation of the previously beautiful into the ugly is among the most acute sensations we will ever experience. We are betrayed; we have been cheated; our most precious illusion has been shattered; the ramparts of this most sturdy fort we had built against the advances of this world have been breached by the most insidious Trojan horse of all.

It was there all along, that snake that raised its head and bit you as you trod on it; it’s tempting to think that you just ‘mistook’ it for something else. But it was what it was, the ‘same thing,’ now understood and experienced differently. For the partners in the relationship are now different; their lives and circumstances and dispositions changed (often in response to the presence of ‘the other one’, the ‘significant other.’) Many are the rueful words written by former lovers that speak of how they ‘knew it all along’, how they were ‘blind’ to ‘not see this coming’ when ‘it was there all along.’ And, of course, of how they went on and on, blithely ignoring the warning klaxons, hoping the rocks rising out the waters, looming above them, would simply sink beneath the waves.

Rust Cohle and Naked’s Johnny

As I watched Rust Cohle in True Detective, it occurred to me he reminded me–in some ways–of another character I had found memorable; Johnny in Mike Leigh‘s Naked, . Johnny doesn’t seem to have a quite as philosophically inflected take on life as Cohle, but his dialogue delivery makes his lines epics of rage and dry cynicism.

As Roger Ebert described him:

From the way he talks and certain things he refers to, we gradually conclude that he has had an education – is an “intellectual,” in that his opinions are mostly formed from words, not feelings….It’s not that we like him or approve of him, but that we must admire the dogged way he sticks to his guns and forges ahead through misery, anger and despair.

The Wikipedia entry for Naked notes:

Intelligent, educated and eloquent, Johnny is also deeply embittered and egotistical: he will fight and provoke anyone he meets to prove his superiority. His tactics of choice in verbal interaction are based on a particular form of intellectual bullying, uniformly directed at people less cultured than himself, and summed up in domineering, scholastic barrages drawn from eclectic sources. His overall behaviour is reckless, self-destructive and at times borderline sadistic, and shows a penchant for aggressive sexual domination at least twice throughout the film. He seduces Louise’s flatmate, Sophie, simply because he can, but soon gets tired of her and embarks on an extended latter-day odyssey among the destitute and despairing of the United Kingdom’s capital city.

During his encounters in London’s seedy underbelly, Johnny expounds his world-view (which in different instances seems to be fatalistnihilist or transhumanist) at long and lyrical length to anyone who will listen, whether Archie, a Scottish boy yelling “Maggie!” at the top of his voice he comes across in Brewer Street, or Brian, a security guard of acres of empty space, ‘a post-Modernist gas chamber’, whom Johnny marks down as having, ‘the most tedious job in England’.

Johnny’s condition[edit]

It is subtly hinted throughout the movie that Johnny’s unusual personality and behaviour could be the result of a variety of (presumably undiagnosed and untreated) medical conditions, including manic depression and whatever it is that causes him to experience episodic, severe headaches. In the scene in the top room of the flat, where an obviously concussed Johnny mistakes the landlord for someone else, Johnny seems to portray a young boy fearful of physical and maybe even sexual abuse from an adult, hinting also at a probable very early cause for his outlook and behaviour. These conditions are certainly affecting him physically, so much so that one of the characters he meets thinks he is about 40 years old, when he is only 27.

 Here are some of his epic rants.

Exhibit #1:

Louise: How did you get here?

Johnny: Well, basically, there was this little dot, right? And the dot went bang and the bang expanded. Energy formed into matter, matter cooled, matter lived, the amoeba to fish, to fish to fowl, to fowl to frog, to frog to mammal, the mammal to monkey, to monkey to man, amo amas amat, quid pro quo, memento mori, ad infinitum, sprinkle on a little bit of grated cheese and leave under the grill till Doomsday.

Exhibit #2:

Louise: So what happened, were you bored in Manchester?

Johnny: Was I bored? No, I wasn’t fuckin’ bored. I’m never bored. That’s the trouble with everybody – you’re all so bored. You’ve had nature explained to you and you’re bored with it, you’ve had the living body explained to you and you’re bored with it, you’ve had the universe explained to you and you’re bored with it, so now you want cheap thrills and, like, plenty of them, and it doesn’t matter how tawdry or vacuous they are as long as it’s new as long as it’s new as long as it flashes and fuckin’ bleeps in forty fuckin’ different colors. So whatever else you can say about me, I’m not fuckin’ bored.

Exhibit #3:

Johnny: Has nobody not told you, Brian, that you’ve got this kind of gleeful preoccupation with the future? I wouldn’t even mind, but you don’t even have a fuckin’ future, I don’t have a future. Nobody has a future. The party’s over. Take a look around you man, it’s all breaking up. Are you not familiar with the book of Revelations of St. John, the final book of the Bible prophesying the apocalypse?… He forced everyone to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead so that no one shall be able to buy or sell unless he has the mark, which is the name of the beast, or the number of his name, and the number of the beast is 6-6-6… What can such a specific prophecy mean? What is the mark? Well the mark, Brian, is the barcode, the ubiquitous barcode that you’ll find on every bog roll and packet of johnnies and every poxy pork pie, and every fuckin’ barcode is divided into two parts by three markers, and those three markers are always represented by the number 6. 6-6-6! Now what does it say? No one shall be able to buy or sell without that mark. And now what they’re planning to do in order to eradicate all credit card fraud and in order to precipitate a totally cashless society, what they’re planning to do, what they’ve already tested on the American troops, they’re going to subcutaneously laser tattoo that mark onto your right hand, or onto your forehead. They’re going to replace plastic with flesh. Fact! In the same book of Revelations when the seven seals are broken open on the day of judgment and the seven angels blow the trumpets, when the third angel blows her bugle, wormwood will fall from the sky, wormwood will poison a third part of all the waters and a third part of all the land and many many many people will die! Now do you know what the Russian translation for wormwood is?… Chernobyl! Fact. On August the 18th, 1999, the planets of our solar system are gonna line up into the shape of a cross… They’re gonna line up in the signs of Aquarius, Leo, Taurus, and Scorpio, which just happen to correspond to the four beasts of the apocalypse, as mentioned in the book of Daniel, another fuckin’ fact! Do you want me to go on? The end of the world is nigh, Brian, the game is up!

Brian: I don’t believe that. Life can’t just come to a stop.

Johnny: All right, I’m not saying that life will end or the world will end, or the universe will cease to exist. But man will cease to exist! Just like the dinosaurs passed into extinction, the same thing will happen to us! We’re not fuckin’ important! We’re just a crap idea!