The Children’s Playground AKA ‘The Yard’

Parenting entails many unpleasant duties. Changing diapers and dealing with toddlers reluctant to eat, sleep, or behave like rational human beings–which they aren’t–are often ranked lowest on the scale of parenting unpleasantness. But for my money, little can rival accompanying your child to the playground.

Here it may all be found: a mixed-age, mixed-gender space for interaction, populated by children and their curiously disengaged parents, featuring aggression, rudeness, selfishness, and ample opportunity for traumatic brain injury. Here is a cauldron of class and ethnic interaction and mutual misunderstanding and confusion, of excessive parental protectiveness and its counterpart, malignant indifference.

I was convinced, long before my wife and I had our daughter, that children were not innocent, that they were not unsullied human beings waiting to be despoiled by maturity and civilization. There was always something of the monstrous in them, too many glimpses of the unrestrained Id were all too clearly visible. The memories of my childhood–its bullies, the brawls, the tantrums, the ganging up on the weak, the merciless hunting down of the quirky, the taunting, the teasing, the mocking, the clique forming and exclusions–were still clear; I have had no desire to ever revisit it. Adulthood was not degradation and descent; it was growth in both the physical and moral dimensions. Within reasonable bounds, of course.

My experience at children’s playgrounds has given me ample opportunity to confirm this gloomy diagnosis of mine. Children are monsters. And in a space featuring everyone from pre-walkers to fleet runners, from those wearing diapers to those free of them, the range of interactions on display frequently show them off at their worst. You want your child to learn ‘the ropes’, the ‘tricks of the trade’; you want to be suitably disengaged and yet protective; you want children to ‘figure it out by themselves’ without adult intervention or supervision; and you cannot bring these competing desiderata together into a coherent vision of how to conduct yourself at the playground.

Sometimes you want to tell a parent to stop checking their phone and do something about their child’s selfishness; sometimes you want to tell a child (and his or her parent) to look a little closer at the misanthropic tendencies on display; sometimes  you want your own child to provide a better representation of your parenting abilities. Sometimes you want to make a hard right turn and avoid the playground altogether.

At the playground, you find your vision of the correct moral upbringing of your child dashed against the hard rocks of those Sartre called ‘hell’: other people. They will rapidly reconfigure it all; they will make you say things–if only under your breath–like ‘well, perhaps you should have pushed your way to the front; perhaps you should have shoved that other kid aside; the next time someone blocks the slide, just slide into them.’ Here, it all comes apart; here, you realize where the sophomoric theorizing about the ‘survival of the fittest’ and the invocations of ‘its a jungle out there’ come from.

Many years of this lie ahead. Some kinds of time should fly.

The Coven’s Vision of Hell and ‘Repetition Compulsion’

American Horror Story‘s third season, The Coven, ended last night. The show as a whole did not quite meet my expectations–a critique echoed here and here; but still, for various reasons, I quite enjoyed the season’s finale.

Among them was it’s take on hell: each of us has our own private one. Misty, the “swamp-dwelling, resurrecting sweetheart obsessed with Stevie Nicks” ends up in a school biology lab, forced endlessly to kill and dissect a live frog at the insistent bidding of a loud, cruel, bullying teacher; Fiona meanwhile is “doomed to an eternity of being smacked around by the Axeman in the afterlife.”

This vision of hell is not new for American Horror Story; indeed, one of the most chilling twists on our understanding of a ghost’s life was provided by its first season, when we realized that being a ghost meant staying alive forever, stuck not only in a  particular place–the Murder House–but in a particular stage of psychological development, and confronted again and again by conflict with others also locked into dead-ended trajectories of mental being. A ghost is trapped for eternity in the afterlife; unable to die, unable to move on, unable to ‘get over’ anything. It turns out traipsing through haunted houses and spooking visitors is no fun at all.

So hell is other people all right–as some French dude once suggested–but it’s also you yourself, unable to snap out of a groove, a rut, a slippery well whose walls you slide back down again and again.

This kind of hell is one we actively aid in constructing; our own lives, our patterns of behavior, our responses and pathological modes of behavior slowly develop a place–in the mind–that we dread visiting; and when we do find ourselves in its environs, we are unable to escape.

All of this is–as should be obvious by now–as Freud suggested in ‘Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through‘  a neurotic’s suffering, in which:

[A] person repeats a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again. This includes reenacting the event or putting oneself in situations where the event is likely to happen again. This “re-living” can also take the form of dreams in which memories and feelings of what happened are repeated, and even hallucination….’repetition compulsion’…describes the pattern whereby people endlessly repeat patterns of behaviour which were difficult or distressing in earlier life.” (Jan Clark and Jim Crawley, Transference and Projection: Mirrors to the self. (Buckingham 2002) p. 38 -as cited in Wikipedia article.)

The most frightening aspect of the neurotic’s behavior–for those who observe it, and those who experience it themselves–is that it is painful and unpleasant and yet compulsive; the patient seems to experience a powerlessness to exert her will over herself, to bring to an end, by her own agency, her self-inflicted pain.

The hellish afterlife is just that slice of this life which we have found to be the most unbearably painful. It is all the more so for being of our own making.

Note: Milton too, in Paradise Lost, had noted our interactive construction of our own private circle of pain.