“Teaching” Peter Pan today, for the first of several class periods, and I did not find in the discussion, or even seek to find, what I thought, a few weeks ago, I would find there. The thought of the play–for a handful of personal associations–makes me feel vaguely sad; but then re-reading it yesterday in preparation for class, I found none of the notes of sadness, and, perhaps irritated by that, pushed the class into my own passive aggressive quarrel with the cloyingly, pathetically fulsome narrator of the stage directions. To be nostalgic in response to the play, or even in response to the idea of the play, at all is to feed right into Barrie’s hands; there are few works of literature (none that I can think of, actually) that make such a show of acts and scenes of nostalgia for, what Jacqueline Rose points out, is a fantasy of innocence made by adults, for adults, and “for” children. But the nostalgia that the play demands isn’t only for purity and innocence, but for a time of life when nostalgia isn’t imaginable: Peter is incapable of nostalgia.
Or at least he is capable of nostalgia in one sense, and it is a sense of nostalgia that many children lack. All children know what it is to want to return home, to a place of safety, to a place of departure; Peter is no exception here. One of his fantasies is the home he has built for the Lost Boys. But Peter, and many children, do not feel the yearning pain for a home that is an origin, that is a place from where they have not only traveled, but grown and taken shape. I don’t think I’m corrupting the term to say that nostalgia is accompanied by the sense of the shape of a life. Peter’s life cannot be given shape beyond the conflict with Hook, played out repeatedly. He and the Lost Boys need a mother to tell them stories because their life, for all of its crude adventures, lacks what stories have: a shape. He knows absence, but not loss.
All children of course know loss, and many even know loss of the most painful sort. But the loss that children know can afflict them both more and less than the same loss afflicts adults because they webs of stories about their own lives–though they are webs, though their are stories–have not taken on the density and order, for the loss to be measured as something that might be replaced, or not; they lack the perspective in time, but also the experience of time itself that, of its own accord, affords a life not only a shape, but a keener sense of shape–of the other shapes that might have been possible, of the shapes that other lives have.
I hadn’t wanted to write about Barrie at all for this post, but could not find the passage in Proust that I first thought would have served as a better starting place (one of the few lengthy books that is absolutely resistant to an index or the search function on the keyboard). But of course there’s something shoddily, presumptuously Proustian about what I’m writing: Peter Pan’s as a life without a shape; a play that makes me self-indulgently melancholy for having grown up hearing its lines; reading it again now not only for what it means, but, upon entering into it, finding there also whatever that earlier experience I had of it still in place, and so far removed from my current one…
Barrie is a better starting point that Proust, though, because I wanted a starting point that opened everywhere and we all know that Proust wrote a book not only about what novels are and do, but about what it means to want or need to write a novel in the first-place: and that is to desire to take the measure of a life’s shape, its time, and wanting to account also for its losses and waste. The waste of life, the waste of time: these become the great concerns of so many novels…even Austen, even Richardson, who do not give us a long-view as Tolstoy or Eliot do, or even a middle-view as Defoe, know that they write about scenes of crisis where the waste of a life, inevitable to some degree, is determined. The structure of time in which Austen’s gentry lives is taken for granted; the shape of an entire life does not need measuring by the novelist, because it can be assumed, depending on the choice of partner, but the novelist nonetheless accounts for the time of a life when its shape is placed under greatest pressure: the time of the mating ritual.
I’m saying something so grandiose that it can swallow the sea that contains and sustains it: Do only novels do this? What about tragedies? Dramatic works? Am I left with the dull claim that the Novel includes everything within itself, that sees it as some sort of apogee of all literary forms. I’m not. Of course poems and plays can measure the shape of lives too, can account for waste. One of the essential functions of literature, perhaps, is to demarcate what life wastage is tolerable, what not; doing so, all literature must reckon with time, as well as reckon time. Novels are just another way of reckoning with time.
The divide that interests me, that brings me back to Barrie, is between Children’s Literature and Non-Children’s Literature. The difficulty of the distinction came up in class the other day and I floundered as much as the students, and not only in some wily show of ignorance. But Barrie’s play offers one way of distinguishing children’s literature from other literature: children’s literature does not reckon with time in the same way. It does not worry over the waste of a life, the shape of a life, even when a life has a shape.
At the same time, children’s literature might–as Peter Pan does, as parts of Alice Through the Looking-Glass do, as Kipling’s Jungle Books do, and as the Oz books do–bristle with awareness that shape is imminent, that the shapelessness of a life cannot be maintained, and that there will be waste (a different sort of “impossibility of children’s literature” from what Rose had in mind); and maybe it appeals to children in part because their lives are not bristling but awkwardly impinged by harbingers of the same, though they do not know what these are harbingers of, let alone that they are harbingers. Some of this feels pretty smack-on-the-head obvious to me now, and not worth the fuss, even for my own state of mind (maybe sleep would do better).
What’s more, I had thought it would lead me to work out a hunch that I think now is even more obvious: that of all of the things that we gain from entering into works of literature, and moving around there (and that’s how I’d define criticism, and that’s how I’d justify teaching literature in school), we gain new experiences–not experiences of the world, of cultures, that literature provides (though these, however much they can be overplayed to dubious ends, can be gained)–but experiences of the literature itself. And what this means is as simple, and as indefinable, as an experience of time that is inseparable from that work of literature: literature, all of it, does something to time, reckons with it, reckons it, and also acts on it. It represents experiences of time; but it is also itself a renovated, reordered or renewed experience of time–and this beyond the phenomenology of reading-time. I don’t think a new critical style or idiom is needed to do justice to this aspect of literature; it’s recognized already in the best criticism. Maybe a way to say it would be to say that entering into a work of literature we are entering into a particularly successful, or forceful and coherent, assertion over time, or against time, where time is not an abstract substance or category of thought, but set of practices of coordination and narration, the sort that barrage us always. Maybe, because they can become so easily un-tethered from a particular work or author, and become instead reflections on A-Series and B-Series and Augustine and Aristotle and Ricoeur and Bergson and all of the rest, these are foolish questions to ask at all–and certainly, because they can assume a Gnostic and idiolectic background of thought, stupid questions to ask in the classroom, I’ll nonetheless from time to time ask myself: What does this author do to time? What sorts of time shape life in this work? What is the shape of a life’s time in this work?