Beginning Books

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[Autobiographical text on beginning reading, the first books. Complements the previously published poem ‘The Good Oil of Reading.’ Photo I took in Melbourne five years ago: imagination and reality.]

Beginning Books

Where precisely can we locate the beginnings of the importance of books, stories, the creative imagination of the reading mind that, for some like myself, becomes such a central life-long pleasure? Surely with the first texts we hear or read in childhood and youth.

My earliest memories of books are of German ones: an alphabet book, Struwelpeter and Grimms Märchen. Still illiterate, reading is not yet a solitary activity. It begins within the primal matrix, within the relationship to mother, with mother reading to me.

Of the first book, the alphabet book, I remember nothing but one letter and one word, the German letter ö (‘O-umlaut’), an open vowel or diphthong. It is the first letter of the word ‘Öl’ (oil), a sound that can only be made by stretching out the lips (do I orally long, do I seek succour?) and yet somehow seems to simultaneously evoke a sense of pouting, even of outright disgust and rejection.

(Is that what happened, thinks the psychodynamic detective of Self? Seeking and rejection, longing and disgust? An unrequited, and thus ambivalent, oral longing? The unconscious origins of all your eating, processing, seeking patterns? And/or, thinks the Jungian, does my unknown memory selector choose ‘Öl’ because of some deep, unconscious, pre-petroleum knowledge of ‘oil’ as a symbol of soothing, consecration, purity, salvation? Can one sound – a kind of Primal Word, an ‘Urwort’ – perhaps dialectically incorporate or ‘constellate’ both oral alienation AND reconciliation…? )

Of Struwelpeter, I remember the pedagogically sadist images powerfully utilising Oedipal fears of punishment and castration: the bloody cutting off, with huge oversized scissors, of the thumb of the little boy who sucked his thumb (I nibbled my nails); the burning alive of the little girl who played with matches (as a dare I once set a paddock alight playing with matches); the pulling down of the richly laden table cloth by the restive boy called ‘Zappelphilip’, Philip the Fidget (and perhaps that is what that shy little boy I was at the time really wanted to do, namely create havoc at the dinner table at which he was so often force-fed?)

Of Grimms Märchen (1937 edition, Drömerscher Verlagsanstalt), sent from Germany by my mother’s cousin Tante Kätchen and which I still have on my shelves, I mainly remember the colour illustrations by Ruth Koser-Michaels. The strange thing is that I can hardly at all remember my mother or grandmother actually reading the tales to me, as they must have done. I can, however, well remember the sense of entering the world of these stories, the way the colourful, cosy pictures evoked those foreign yet familiar worlds of forests, fields and castles, all the characters, human and some of the animals, in eighteenth century costume, green flying monsters and swarthy devils, robust and round peasant folk, rich burghers, children dressed in the same clothes as adults, kings and queens, princes and princesses, lots of officers and soldiers, witches and stepmothers…The book was sent for my birthday. For me it for long became perhaps my main inner sense and imaginative feel of that other wholly constructed place over there called ‘Deutschland’….

And, later, in a perhaps ‘truer’ sense, the imagined ‘Deutschland’ was oral and aural, an imagined condensation of overheard stories. It was our visitors, the Uniewskis, Tante Rhode, speaking German, sharing memories, stories, gossip, opinions. They talk of the past at our table ritually laden with mother’s Kaffee und Kuchen. The bombing raids on Berlin, the phosphorous fire bomb ditched by hand from the burning attic, the British by night, the Americans by day, the fear, the cellars, the high pitched sound of a bomb falling towards you, the judging of distances by the sound force of the explosions, the entry of Russian soldiers into Berlin, the fear, the mass rapes, the black market, the anxious escape by train to Hanover on false passports…

I am perhaps five or six or seven and can still sit under the table, listening to their stories, imagining, seeing…and seeing at the same time Tante Rhode’s fine stockinged legs that I feel strangely excited about, that I once even dare to gently touch and stroke…

(Thus still excited by smooth long female legs, the excitement of secrecy and the illicit, the famous German ‘Verboten’, the forbidden fruit, is this all just early Pavlovian conditioning? Is there also an element of warding off the fear of death in these war stories by sexualising the anxiety into excitement? Did this also perhaps sometimes happen in the bomb shelter cellars of Berlin? Manic sexual activity as the bombs fell all around and the bodies piled up in the streets? But why psychoanalyse? Would not such promiscuous activity be eminently ‘rational’, i.e. purposeful, from the survivalist perspective of biological evolution? How many throughout history may have perhaps been conceived in the trembling spasms of fear and despair while the world collapsed around them? And could today’s ubiquitous sexualisation of culture also be defensively linked to the simultaneous epidemics of depression and anxiety in a decomposing late capitalism, in a world of increasing ecocide?)

Thus as a child I am sometimes already intensely lost in stories, the imagined world sometimes already becoming stronger than the real.

For example, there is a strong memory of a moment of shock at around seven: suddenly looking up from my comic book (Tarzan? Superman?) I discover myself on the western side of Naremburn’s busy main street Willoughby Road, my last memory however is of having just been on the eastern side, with no memory whatsoever of having crossed that road, my eyes glued to the comic, mother off shopping somewhere. Happily self-abstracted from reality, I could easily have been hit by a car and died with my mind in a comic book. Living in the imagination, preferring the imagination to the boring real world of cars, shiny wares and shopping…in another, richer world with Tarzan, Superman, the Phantom, the brothers Grimm…

All this seems like the small trickling beginnings of a lifelong Lesewut, a ‘rage to read’, a hunger to read and/or a rage and hunger perhaps also displaced into reading, into the mind? ‒ Be that as it may, waiting to grow up, wanting, I compare the real with the imaginative and find the real world wanting, less interesting, less dense, less stimulating.

That trickling stream later swells into a torrent, and then becomes a wider, deeper, more meandering river of mental pleasure taking in all kinds of increasingly varied landscapes, leaving behind all these real places or countries I seem to have been born into, going to a country of my own choice, the ethereal Land of the Book, to find other beings, other souls and sensitivities, other elders, other readers and imaginers and thinkers across time and space with whom I so often resonate as with seldom anyone or anything in everyday life.

However, there is not only the Land of the Book. There is also Disneyland. When I am seven years old television comes to Australia. We don’t have a set, but one evening in that first fateful year of television, 1956 or 57, I go across the road to my little friend Marion’s family to watch a children’s program on the new gadget. It is called Disneyland.

In the lounge room we all stare into the phosphorescent tube that has irrevocably entered modern everyday life with such enormous future repercussions. I remember the animated sequence of fairy Tinker Bell’s star-dazzling sweeping wand introducing the various Worlds at Disneyland. Of these I only remember the faux neo-gothic castle (based on the faux neo-gothic late 19th century Neuschwanstein of Bavaria’s mad King Leopold) of Fantasialand. I remember the beginning of the promising introductory song accompanying this:

‘When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are…’

Thus does Disneyland propagate the double promise of the culture industry: escape and egalitarianism. The overt promise of escape to a better, more interesting world, a fantasy world in the stars, populated with manufactured celebrity ‘stars’ to identify with, apparently open to everyone of any class, colour or country with the money to buy a TV set. There they are, the Mousketeers, all wearing their plastic Mickey Mouse ears, all singing the letters ‘M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E’, all gloriously transporting the American Dream right into the middle of our infantile hearts. Consumerism had arrived, and we were transfixed.

My parents, to their infinite credit, never bought a TV set till I was eighteen, and thus I remained: a reader.

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~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on June 1, 2015.

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