Cultivating Apprehension: Beauty & Kid's Lit
If it were possible via the internet, I would begin this article by asking you to close your eyes and listen, as I read a short story called “An Epiphany Tale” by George MacKay Brown. The story is about a young boy who is blind, deaf, and dumb.
On one single startling day, three strangers successively visit his home – pausing on their pilgrimage to another Child, far far away. The first visitor gives the boy the gift of hearing. For ONE MINUTE. The second visitor, when he comes, gives the boy the gift of sight. For ONE MINUTE.
The third visitor gives the boy the gift of utterance: for ONE SECOND.
How – the boy wonders – could any human being endure such ravishment of the senses, every hour of every day for many winters and summers?
It is so easy to not see beauty. To not hear it. To not speak it. To not apprehend and respond to it: every hour of every day for many winters and summers.
Ready apprehension of ‘simple’ or ‘natural’ beauty seems innate in young children; yet if not practiced, that ‘readiness’ is so easily lost. What stops a child in his or her tracks –
a dandelion ; a snowflake ; a dragonfly
– can become invisible to the ‘maturing’ human. The ability to readily apprehend can be re-cultivated; but what a gift if never lost. And in the course of maturation, from child to adult, one of the great gifts of great children’s literature is that it can repeatedly call the maturing child to keep, maintain, sharpen that ability to apprehend beauty,
and, to respond to it.
And implicit in that transmission between author and child – what the child somehow learns – is that it is possible to be an adult who isn’t too cynical or blind or self-important or simply too busy to do the same: for, such are the authors who wrote these books.
Apprehending beauty is not always easy. For apprehension of beauty requires participative effort on the part of the beholder. Sometimes it is simply a matter of remembering to see when we look, listen when we hear: the backdrop of a sunset; the giggle of a baby. But, as with the development of any ability, sometimes education is necessary.
You may think that an example of ‘obvious visual beauty’ would be, say, a Monet – and yet critics declared his the ‘horrid work of a lunatic’ when they first saw it.
Responses to Degas,
to Renoir, were the same.
Van Gogh only sold 3 paintings during his lifetime. Viewers had to learn a new visual language to access the beauty of these paintings.
This was true of myself with abstract art. Not familiar with the language, I didn’t understand it, nor did I take the time to engage with it. For me, once, a painting like this by Fujimura was inaccessible, unappealing. Nice colours at best. My response was childish: I don’t get it; I don’t like it. I am slowly learning to be more childlike in my responses: curious, asking questions, open to learning something new. Less scared of changing my opinion. Seeking out education. I am far from fluent in the language that abstract art speaks, but I’m starting to understand it. And as I do so, I become increasingly able to apprehend its beauty. To respond to it, to take delight in it. To engage with it. Not least because: this is an expression of another human’s apprehension of some aspect of God’s world. But it requires an effort; a cultivation of reception on my part. A choice to treat the other – whether a living creature or a creation (by God or a creation by someone made-in-his-image) – as something worthy of my attention and response. To “I-Thou” it, if you will.
That I make that effort does not guarantee that I will apprehend the intrinsic beauty nor am I arguing that beauty will always exist within human creation – but if I do not make that effort to apprehend, I will never know. Nor have the right to declare it absent.
It is this type of education – education in the apprehension of different expressions of Beauty – that many voices in classic children’s literature proffer your children.
And although I hope this is not their only source of such education, the worlds that lie between those book-covers, the friends your children make therein, provide one of the richest educational environments available for a continued development of the skills and attitude of apprehension – counteracting the usual attrition incurred during the process of aging.
There once was a man who did not like spiders. At all. But one day he began to watch one. One that looked just like this.
He became attentive. And in that space of attentiveness he began to see what a wonderful creature it was, and,
what a skillful weaver. So unobjectified became that spider in his perception, that he even decided to name it. Wanting to share the beauty that he had discovered, he wrote a story …
At last Wilbur saw the creature that had spoken to him in such a kindly way. Stretched across the upper part of the doorway was a big spiderweb, and hanging from the top of the web, head down, was a large [grey]spider. She was about the size of a gumdrop. She had eight legs, and she was waving one of them at Wilbur in friendly greeting. “See me now?” she asked.
“Oh, yes indeed,” said Wilbur. “Yes indeed! How are you? Good morning! Salutations! Very pleased to meet you. What is your name, please? May I have your name?”
“My name,” said the spider,” is Charlotte.”
“Charlotte what?” asked Wilbur, eagerly.
“Charlotte A. Cavatica. But just call me Charlotte.”
“I think you’re beautiful,” said Wilbur.
And so now do thousands of children, who have read their story. Perhaps not all of them, and perhaps they do not think the same of all spiders. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find a reader of Charlotte’s Web who would describe Charlotte as ugly.
Part of what enabled E.B. White to marvel at the beauty of that first Aranea cavatica is that he made an effort – even if just a little one, to come to know it. As do then the readers of his story. It is not perhaps an unfamiliar phenomenon with you that the more you come to care for someone, the more beautiful you perceive that person to be…
By introducing our children to certain authors, we are introducing them to voices we implicitly indicate that we trust. And many – if not most – of the voices in what is considered classic children’s literature are voices of people who have chosen to cultivate an apprehension of beauty. Chosen to pause and listen, look, ponder; to engage with the world around them; to make an effort to understand; to develop a relationship, to come to know. To – in all their ‘maturity’ – be childlike rather than childish.
These voices become the friends of our children; the company they keep. And just as I might call my nieces over to see the colours of an iridescent bug, or make them stop and listen to the frogs at night – being more able to invite them into my own perception because of the relationship they have with me – so too can Mary of The Secret Garden
(because they have journeyed with her, developed a type of relationship with her) remind them not only that every bulb is a miracle waiting to happen and that there’s something wonderful about the smell of rain and fresh-turned dirt. …they may even come, like she, to apprehend that Dickon – with his turned up nose and oversized mouth – is beautiful. Beautiful because of who he is. Indeed, Mary herself grows more beautiful – even physiognomically – as she becomes more able to apprehend beauty. Apprehending this is an educational exercise – one that better equips the reader in his or her ‘apprehension of beauty’ outside the covers of that storybook.
As they model such apprehension, such authors frequently defy convention. I know I was not the only child-reader of George MacDonald’s fairy-tales struck by the continuous pairing of beauty and age – the old wise women are always beautiful in his tales because they are so old.
MacDonald led me to swear as a 12 year old that I would never pretend to be younger than I am, but would welcome each grey hair, see each wrinkle as its own story.
He also taught me to look at hands differently:
I doubt if the princess was very much happier even in the arms of her huge [ancient beautiful] great-grandmother than […] Curdie [and his father] were in the arms of [Curdie’s mother]. True, her hands were hard and chapped and large, but it was with work for them; and therefore, in the sight of the angels, her hands were so much the more beautiful.
Viewing the world alongside such visionaries can sustain and nurture both the attitude and ability of apprehension in children.
By the end of The Velveteen Rabbit,
most readers understand that that raggedy creature is not just loved, but beautiful; those who travel through Wind in the Willows
learn not only the beauty of an untamed river, but also of the friendships found in its reaches. And speaking of untamed…
perhaps few characters present beauty from so many different angles as Aslan:
in playing a game of tag with Susan & Lucy; as he laughs at the wildness of Bacchus; as he weeps over the body of Caspian; as he sings Narnia into being; as he cries out “further up and further in.” With each of these scenes Lewis is teaching a different mode of apprehending, of engaging with, beauty. Modeling a response. An adult voice that shows our children that maturation does not mean ceasing being childlike; that one can age and yet remain “as one of these” – continue to apprehend beauty, and respond to it. Even, to participate with it. Yes, participate: the heavens declare the glory of God; in apprehending their beauty, in stopping to seethe sunset, you participate in that declaration.
By encouraging your children to regard the world through the eyes of authors
who understand that Christ’s call to be childlike cannot be divorced from his call to be attentive either to the lilies of Monet, or to the lilies of the field, you are providing an opportunity for them to develop a life-long attitude of apprehension, to cultivate ever-growing skills of apprehension of beauty.
Be forewarned: you are also increasing the likelihood that they’ll draw you into participating with them –
if not every hour, at least every day, for many winters and summers.
May it be so.
(Keynote, St. Timothy’s Classical School Gala, Ottawa. 2014;
re-published May 2015 for blog Everyday Theology)