Survival Till Seventeen

It will be largely among those people called philosophers that a child’s thoughts will be developed. Therefore a child should admire the philosophers. Theirs may not be an adventurous voyage, but theirs is indeed a safe harbor, and one a child will never want to be out of reach of as he bobs around in his little boat. Whenever he is beyond his depths and in danger, these faithful lifeguards of logic will rush out to rescue him. And a child in the arms of a lifeguard is surely one of the most beautiful sights in the world.

It will be largely apart from those people called mystics that a child’s devotions will be pursued. But he will come to learn that it is because of their prayers that he is what little he is. Therefore a child should love the mystics. Theirs is a perilous experience, but a child will no more want to uncrown a mystic of a halo than he will want to quench a lighthouse, faithful and constant, beckoning ships with treasures to come to him, winking to himself to stay where he is.

The time has come, the walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of ships and shoes and sealing wax
And cabbages and kings.

Somewhere between the lifeguard and the lighthouse you will find the child at his best, without ship or shoe under him, running barefooted in the wind. It will be just at that point where the sea and land meet each other on those terms we call the shore. There the child is at once safest and most adventuresome. There he is most himself. He will imprint his footsteps on the wax of the soft beach and watch them being washed away by the wave. He will furrow with his motions the foamy ruffles of surf and watch them being absorbed by the sand. In point of importance he will think himself to be no more than a rolling pebble or a drifting seaweed. But in point of independence he will be king of all creation.

The wind on the seashore comes at you in widths and depths. It has no length. So you trap it and send it streaming through the smallest aperture you can find — your own lips pursed — and release it in the form of pure line. You whistle. And lo, you have music!

Later on when this pure line begins to surface (to paint) itself in your music lessons, you will have harmony. Still later when it begins to shape (to sculpture) itself, you will have symphony, as you discover the afternoon your mother and father bring you to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra, just twelve miles away from Lynn. There in a large hall, with lowered lights and hundreds of people listening ever so intently, you will find that music is still music, able to triumph over any instrument that can make it. Being music it will never be able to define itself, for art cannot define anything, least of all itself. It does not know what anything is or what it is for, but simply that it is, and points to that. Its only credential is beauty (the splendor formæ of St. Thomas). Its only excuse is delight (the id quod visum placet). What music is or why it is, we do not know. But that it is we do, because we have heard it giving such a magnificent account of itself in symphony, pitched half way between sheer silence and sheer noise — sculptured with noise by the mallet of the kettledrummer, sculptured with silence by the baton of the conductor. And yet, brought indoors and put on expensive display, music will never be more or less than the same little free whistle you made on the beach when you were running barefooted in the wind.

However, I have no intention of experimenting with childhood so as to discover the meaning of art. There are some child psychologists who enjoy doing this. They put a child in a nursery, surround him with tunes, pictures and blocks so that grown-ups may learn from his unerring reactions what are music, painting and sculpture. The compliment is enormous, but the procedure is vicious, and one that is violently protested by the child’s Guardian Angel.

Art is for childhood, not childhood for art,
The lesser for the greater;
Neither is the other and they must be pried apart,
Sooner or later.

Fortunately the job of prying them apart was nicely done for me by the Providence of God.

In the year 1907, when I was ten years old, my father and I went to New York for a business trip. My father went for the business, and I for the trip. We had relatives there — “distant relatives,” my father called them — and with them we stayed. At least I stayed while my father went — about his business.

These relatives could not get over the fact that I was their relative, for they had never seen me before. I could not get on to the fact that they were my relatives, for I had never seen them before either. They seemed afraid that at any moment I might stop being their relative, so they tried to talk me into it, even saying I looked like them. I was afraid that at any moment they might begin to be my relatives, so I tried to stare them out of the notion, inwardly denying that I looked like anyone. They spent most of the time talking, and I staring.

There is nothing so dangerous as an epidemic of cousins. Once you get infected with the idea it will begin to spread. You will end up by being related to practically everybody. Grownups are great ones for claiming relationship. Children are great ones for protesting it. I thought these cousins of mine were called “distant cousins” because New York was so far away from Lynn.

Across the hall from my cousins lived a young lady who was in love. She was the great subject of interest and discussion among my cousins while I was visiting them. The young lady across the hall was in love with an artist. Thinking love to be art, she went in for it all day long, and gave up all leisure. He, thinking art to be love, went in for it all day long too, and gave up all work. Mornings, noons, nights made no difference, for they had both lost all sense of time. They broke up later with a big bang, as my cousins predicted, and as was bound to be, for she expected marriage to be a perpetual courtship and he wanted it to be an unperpetual vow.

By the very worst of luck I unstabilized this romance. My cousins had to go one morning to a funeral, and they left me in charge of the young lady across the hall. I was, for the space of a morning, on the young lady’s hands and in her artist’s way. So we compromised in terms of a triangle — love, art and childhood — and went out for a walk.

With my left hand in hers and my right in his, you might have met us promenading on Fifth Avenue one morning back in 1907. We looked just like a husband, a wife and a child, and were greatly admired by all who passed us. The young lady enjoyed the experience because it seemed so real. The artist was pleased because it was so make-believe. I was totally disinterested either way, had serious distractions when passing store windows, and at times had to be forcibly dragged along.

Where did we go? To the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sent there undoubtedly by the Devil. The Devil can never touch love, nor art, nor childhood, but he can raise the devil with them when they enter the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the form of a triangle.

The artist was continually paying the lady compliments born of his trade. She was a picture, a song, a poem. I believe he even mentioned Helen of Troy, Venus of Milo, and Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair. The lady kept returning him tokens born less of judgment than of sheer affection. He was the equal of Rubens, Rembrandt, Raphael — in fact, on the point of surpassing them. But here was the devil to pay. She came off badly as a masterpiece and he as one of the masters, the moment we entered . . . the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sensing this clearly, they immediately made frantic efforts to keep up the pretense when genius and the fruits thereof threatened to destroy it. They proceeded to become totally oblivious of all the Metropolitan Museum of Art contained except themselves. I was the very first item included in this sweet forgetfulness, and I went around the place for a solid hour, totally lost.

When I found myself alone, I first made sure there was nothing there to frighten me, and found nothing. So I kept on walking and looking. None of the things I saw either surprised or interested me. I knew too little about art to be surprised at anything, and art knew too little about me to keep me interested. I simply wandered, and wondered.

Private faces in public places
Are wiser and nicer
Than public faces in private places

says the poet, W. H. Auden, and he is right. But he is describing surprise and fright, not wonder. Private faces in public places are surprising: for instance, meeting your next-door neighbor in London. You say: “Why, my goodness me! My goodness gracious! Mrs. Jones! You? And of all places!” Public faces in private places are frightening: for instance, meeting Mahatma Gandhi in your bath. You scream!!

But when you wonder, you neither talk nor scream. You take out of the storehouse of silence one of those little soft exclamatory syllables which are words pared down to a point, to show you have seen the point of something. Surprise is a love disturbed. Fright is a thought disturbed. But wonder is a silence disturbed. You say: Oh! . . . Ah! . . . Say! . . . My! . . . Gee! . . . Gosh! . . . Wow! . . . These are the wonder words.

What did I wonder at, when I was lost in the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Well, I wondered at a number of things in a simple sort of way. I did not know what the pictures and statues were about, or who had painted or carved them. I was absorbed merely in the fact that they were there, and kept noticing what wonderful things they did to a room simply by being in it. For instance, the paintings made the small rooms seem large. And the sculptures made the large rooms seem small. This rather primitive discovery delighted me, and I began to whistle softly to myself. The setting was now complete. For one of the three r’s of aesthetics is missing in the Metropolitan, but the music of my whistle added Rubenstein to Rembrandt and Rodin. And my little whistle, though smaller than any of the paintings or sculptures, easily filled every room I entered. Music is the only art that leaves rooms at their proper sizes.

I think it was the half-truth lurking in this absurdity that caused me to burst into laughter (a series of silly syllables, totally uncontrolled, the result of almost seeing too many points at once). At any rate, the only thing that surprised and interested me in the Metropolitan Museum of Art was what I myself had contributed. So I laughed all the more.

But I stopped suddenly when I saw the artist and the lady returning.

The artist came up to me angrily, seized me by the arm, and was prepared to scold me.

“Where have you been?” he said.


“What were you laughing at?” and his eyes filled with suspicions.


But beware of the dissyllable in direct reply. It is hesitating around the truth. The truthful answer was: