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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Letting go

When I was an undergraduate (I should count how many times I've opened with that phrase) a hot topic was whether the family was  "functionally necessary". It was a question I was completely uninterested in, but you can, just about, see why others found it interesting, despite the clodhopping terminology. After all, alternative living arrangements, communes etc were still hanging on at the end of the seventies for those who hadn't quite got over, or had enough of the sixties.

One of the things we were assigned, but I didn't read, was Bruno Bettleheim's The Children of the Dream, a study of child rearing by the Kibbutzim. I had a copy lying around and a few months ago I got around to reading it. I gather that Bettleheim's intellectual star  waned  rather shortly after his death and that his therapeutic reputation has not recovered from the lurid details that have emerged about the way in which he ran the school he directed. My old LSE colleague Christopher Badcock has some interesting things to say about all of this.

The book is a bit of an  overstuffed turkey. It could have been a third as long and is rather badly written (the blurb writer who claims on the back that it is "beautifully written" must have  read a different book). The psychoanalytic content is not my cup of tea. But it does have one striking and rather moving insight. There is no rational reason to expect our children to have a deeply held love and appreciation of the the things that we have struggled to achieve.

He points out that the founders of the Kibbutz movement explicitly wanted to build something radically new. Many were the children of bourgeois Jewish homes. Papa went to the office, or the surgery and Mama stayed at home and coddled the children. They were expected to reproduce that life. Many never got the opportunity. Some of the lucky ones, radicalised by a form of socialist Zionism, rejected their background completely. They wanted to create a new way of living together, in a new land. This involved tilling the soil, reclaiming land for agriculture (let's not get into a discussion here as to whose land it was - another time) and a trial and process error of coming to terms with the fact of children. 

Children were not part of the original plan, but they came anyway and somehow had to be fitted into the collective way of life. As it happens this was dealt with in a variety of ways - there were important differences of opinion in the various branches of the movement. However it was handled though, all had to face the inevitable fact that what was an achievement for the parents was a given for the children. They were never going to look at what they inherited with quite the same feelings as those that created it in the first place.

Round about the same time and quite by accident I happened to watch the French movie L'Heuere d'ete which has exactly the same theme. A house and it's contents are a totality that have a meaning for the person that built it and collected them. They embody the memories  and dreams of a mother, but these are singular. They were part of the children's lives, an important part, but only a small part. The children have their own lives to build, their own preferences, their own dreams. Once we die what is left are the artefacts, but the creator, the living spirit that gave sense to the whole assemblage, is gone. 

You can put things in a museum but you can't preserve a whole way of life, the manner of being that made sense of the objects. An antique bureau was never meant to sit in a museum and be gazed at. It was meant to be used and sit in a domestic environment where it takes its part in a way of life.

Melancholy, but that's just the way it is.

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