Monday, April 21, 2008

Sudden abstractions

verbatim from "Young Archimedes" by Aldous Huxley, 1928

(an English family spends a year in Italy and their young child befriends an older peasant boy)

"Though fully two and a half years older than little Robin - and at that age thirty months are crammed with half a lifetime's experience - Guido took no undue advantage of his superior intelligence and strength. I have never seen a child more patient, tolerant and non-tyrannical. He never laughed at Robin for his clumsy efforts to imitate his own prodigious feats; he did not tease or bully, but helped his small companion when he was in difficulties and explained when he could not understand. In return, Robin adored him, regarded him as a model and perfect Big Boy, and slavishly imitated him in every way he could.

"These attempts of Robin's to imitate his companion were often exceedingly ludicrous. For by an obscure psychological law, words and actions in themselves quite serious become comic as soon as they are copied; and the more accurately, if the imitation is a deliberate parody, the funnier - for an overloaded imitation of someone we know does not make us laugh so much as one that is almost indistinguishably like the original. The bad imitation is only ludicrous when it is a piece of sincere and earnest flattery that does not quite come off. Robin's imitations were mostly of this kind. His heroic and unsuccessful attempts to perform the feats of strength and skill, which Guido could do with ease, were exquisitely comic. And his careful, long-drawn imitations of Guido's habits and mannerisms were no less amusing. Most ludicrous of all, because most earnestly undertaken and most incongruous in the imitator, were Robin's impersonations of Guido in a pensive mood. Guido was a thoughtful child given to brooding and sudden abstractions. One would find him sitting in a corner by himself, chin in hand, elbow on knee, plunged, to all appearances in the profoundest meditation."


(Guido is discovered to have a gift for mathematics.)

"This child, I thought, has had the fortune to be born at a time when he will be able to make good use of his capacities. He will find the most elaborate analytical methods lying readily to his hand; he will have a prodigious experience behind him. Suppose he had been born while Stonehenge was building; he might have spent a lifetime discovering the rudiments, guessing darkly where he might have had a chance of proving. Born at the time of the Norman Conquest, he would have had to wrestle with all the preliminary difficulties created by an inadequate symbolism; it would have taken him long years, for example, to learn the art of dividing MMMCCCCLXXXVIII by MCMXIX. In five years, nowadays, he will learn what it took generations of Men to discover."

(Alas the story ends sadly for the fictitious young Guido, while happily for all of us in real life, the analogy breaks down. Clearly Guido should have contrived to be born not just in the modern age but also in Holland...)

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