The Marvelous Blue Button Box: Reflections on Chronological Snobbery

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Recently, in preparation for guests, I spent some time cleaning the house more thoroughly than I normally would. (I am no particular lover of tidiness).  As I sorted through my stacks and piles of neglected objects, I recalled how much more present things seemed to me when I was a child. I remember a mushroom-shaped pin cushion with a luscious green velvet top that seemed amazed at its own worthiness to display my mother’s pearly-tipped pins. Then there was the salt and pepper shaker set—tiny red glass strawberries balanced on a prickly silver vine– and the venerable, marvelous blue button box. It was my great-grandmother’s button box, though it was a cookie tin in actual fact, and it rattled with so many buttons, so various and interesting that I wanted to tip the tin over my head and let the buttons trickle down the back of my neck or tilt the box onto the floor so that I could flex my toes amongst the treasure.

Now, when I lose a button, I buy a new shirt. I am much less sentimental about objects—I don’t really care what hangs on the Christmas tree and one tea cup is as good as another—but in achieving this grown-up detachment it is possible that I have stunted the growth of my relationship with the the world.

I understand now that boxes are for containing things and do not get lonely on the shelf and that my bathroom mirror has nothing to tell me that comes from inside itself and is not merely reflected from the space between it and the opposite wall. The problem is that my childhood intuitions were not wholly or inherently wrong. It was only when I began to think about them that they became a problem. It is not accurate to say that, when I was a child, I believed that all in the world was alive in the same way that I was. It was only gradually, in a confusion of thought and sensation, that I began to believe anything or have any ideas at all.  It is silly to look back on a feeling and say it is wrong because it does not match your subsequent idea when feelings and ideas are two different ways of knowing.

If our feelings, our intuitions, are misrepresented by our nascent ideas then maybe, instead of simply replacing feelings with a newer set of (more rational) ideas, we would have been better served to allow our feelings to grow-up, to inform and be informed by our ideas, so that we didn’t end up trapped in the belief that one is “just a feeling” and the other is “just an idea.”  If our early, egocentric beliefs about the world amount to clumsy attempts to explain our previously unreflected-upon intuitions (what Shelley called the “before-unapprehended relations of things”), the problem is not with the original intuition but with the ineffective attempt to explain it, with the very belief that anything can be explained through representation.

At this stage of our development, it is rationality that has not gotten its feet yet.  It is rationality that is the pretender-god, thinking it can grasp the ungraspable, but we laugh away our intuition because our rationality says that intuition is the way babies know the world and, of course, babies can’t really know anything because they can’t think about anything.  I assure you that there is nothing on the earth or in the heavens that is not possessed of some degree, some kind of life but, in my rush to maturity, I put this knowledge away with as much shame as I attached to my security blanket or first, unbearably awkward crush.

Perhaps the relationship between feeling and rationality should be imagined as more like a continuum than as a series of succeeding stages.  A child cannot make a sophisticated aesthetic judgment (a judgment made from an intuitive sense of wholeness or, at least, a sense of how things fit together) because the child’s judgment of an object cannot be separated from the immediate, visceral effect the object has on the child. The child feels that he likes or dislikes something based on egocentric, almost animal drives.  A child needs individuation, perspective (in other words, rationality) to see the object for itself, rather than for himself.

When a child has her needs met by food and affection, the world is a seamless perfection of regularity and proportion.  Objects are a functional part of that perfection, not distinct from it, but, when a child begins to distinguish the world from herself, perhaps she begins to expect the same principle of regularity and proportion to exist as conditions for (and within) the existence of objects (including other beings) as well as a condition for (and within) her own existence.  Everything breathes together, so to speak.

In other words, she senses that everything is alive and, in a provisional sense, distinct from each other but nothing could be either alive or distinct from her internal world unless it was a function of the same rhythmic principle (manas or logos, we adults might call it) upon which her internal world operates.  All of this is felt and not thought, not consciously reflected upon.  It does not exist as a stage of oceanic, egocentric consciousness or as a stage of individuated, non-egocentric consciousness but somewhere along the continuum between them.

Empathy, a sense of kindredness, is only possible when we on some level know ourselves to be the same but different from the object of our empathy.  The less we feel our connection to objects, the fewer objects seem worthy of our empathy.  This is how we lose our feelings for rocks and trees and fail to see that this loss is as pathological as a loss of feeling for each other.

I do not want to remain a child forever. I want to use my rationality to understand the worth of an individual and the vital necessity of keeping my individual head above the crowd of sensations that is the undifferentiated world. I want to be able to appreciate objects for their own nature rather than simply love them because they are umbilically attached to myself but I never want to fully sever the cord. Abandoning the intuition of one stage of consciousness for the rational mistrust of another precludes the possibility that we can shape an intuition into a solid, reliable, grown-up thing—informed by our analytical mind that loves to distinguish but grounded in our empathetic mind that loves to relate. This will change, not only the way we think about rocks and trees, but how we feel privileged to make use of them. Perhaps when we understand that everything has a soul, we will cease to contrive unworthy vessels to contain them. Then, all of our homes will be filled with objects that speak to us.

9 thoughts on “The Marvelous Blue Button Box: Reflections on Chronological Snobbery

  1. I LOVE both of these last two posts!

    I’ve written about the use of the term “escapism” as a derogatory word with regards to fantasy literature on my own blog. One of the points I make there is that fantasy in and of itself is not escapist. In reality, fantasy (if not all art) evokes true contemplation of the real world, whereas people (particularly adults) pass through life in a mode of escape.

    In childlike wonder, we observe and interpret the world around us with great intensity when we are young. However, as we age, we lose that sense of wonder to be found in the ordinary.

    I could not have expressed this idea better! Great post:D

  2. Thank you very much! My papers for Mythcons 41 and 43 were both about how The Inklings teach us to use our imaginations to wake up to the world, instead of sleepwalking through it. It is a topic that is very dear to me. Will you post links to your pieces on escapism? I would love to read them.

  3. I’m sorry to say I’m not overly familiar with Owen Barfield, other than knowing he was once an Inkling.

    Looked him up quickly on Wikipedia…my “To Read” list is going to grow!

  4. I am glad that I took the time to go back and read this post!

    “The less we feel our connection to objects, the fewer objects seem worthy of our empathy. This is how we lose our feelings for rocks and trees and fail to see that this loss is as pathological as a loss of feeling for each other.”

    This, I agree with so so much.The school of thought in which all objects have spirit, is close to my heart, and at least, whether there is an objective truth to this or not, like you write here, if you subscribe to this way of existing, you exist with a great deal of respect and empathy for the surrounding world.

  5. Your beautifully written ideas in this essay are a pleasure to read. Readers who feel inclined to hurry through this essay might rush past the wise insights and still appreciate something of them, but they will surely feel completely charmed by your warm and wonderful sense of remembrance. Seeing how your moments of childhood seem to shine a little, I wonder… if I could go back to see myself as a child, what would I see? I especially love the poetic ending, summoning the hope of “objects that speak to us.” Focusing on your arguments concerning intuition versus rationality, I wonder whether I agree, and I ponder what I can learn. But whatever conclusions I draw, I am grateful to consider from new angles the significance of sensibility and empathy in our lives, and to remind myself of the value of all the moments in my memory that recollect the evolution of selfhood, constantly woven from intuition and rationality as we negotiate our way into the future, traversing the sidelong fading and renewal of the self.

  6. Pingback: The Scrolls of Badgaladriel | The Grey Havens Group

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