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Delanceyplace: The Souls Of Toys

Charles Beaudelaire, the famed French poet who chronicled
the industrializing mid-1800s in Paris in such poems as Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), made the following observations about parents, children, and the souls
of toys.

I would like to say a few words about the customs and manners of children in relation
to their toys, and about the notions of parents on this stirring question. -- There
are some parents who try never to give toys. These are solemn, excessively solemn
individuals, who have made no study of nature, and who generally make everyone around
them miserable. I do not know why I think of them as reeking of Protestantism. They
can neither understand nor allow such poetic ways and means of passing the time.
They are the same individuČals who will gladly give a shilling to a poor man on
condition that he stuff himself with bread, but refuse him a farthing to go and
slake his thirst in the nearest tavern. When I think of a certain class of ultra-reasonable
and anti-poetic people at whose hands I have suffered so much, I always feel hatred
pinching and gnawing at my nervous system.

There are other parents who look upon toys as objects for mute adoration. There
are certain clothes which one is at least allowed to wear on Sundays, but toys
must be handled with greater care! Thus no sooner has the family friend deposited
his offering on the infant lap, than the fierce and parsimonious mother swoops it
up and away into a cupboard, saying: 'It is far too lovely for a child of your age;
you can play with it when you are bigger!' A friend of mine confessed that he had
never been allowed to play with his toys: 'And when I was older,' he said, 'I had
other things to do.' -- Furthermore, there are some children who do the same thing
of their own accord: they do not make use of their toys, but save them up, range
them in order, make libraries and museums of them. Only rarely do they show them
to their little friends, all the while imploring them not to touch. I would instinctively
be on my guard against these men-children.

The overriding desire of most little brats, on the other hand, is to get at and
see the soul of their toys, either at the end of a certain period of use, or on
occasion straightaway. On the more or less swift invasion of this desire depends
the lifetime of the toy. I cannot find it in me to blame this infantile mania: it
is the first metaphysical stirring. When this desire has planted itself in the
child's cerebral marrow, it fills his fingers and nails with an extraordinary agility
and strength. He twists and turns the toy, scratches it, shakes it, bangs it against
the wall, hurls it on the ground. From time to time he forces it to continue its
mechanical motions, sometimes in the opposite direction. Its marvelous life comes
to a stop. The child, like the populace besieging the Tuileries, makes a last supreme
effort; finally he prises it open, for he is the stronger party. But where is its
soul? This moment marks the beginnings of stupor and melancholy.

There are other children who must instantly break any toy that is placed in their
hands, almost without inspecting it; as to these, I confess I do not understand
the mysterious motive which causes their action. Are they seized by a superstitious
furor against these tiny objects which imitate humanity, or are they perhaps forcing
them to undergo some Masonic initiation before introducing them into nursery life?
-- 'Puzzling question!' "

Author: Charles Baudelaire, edited by Kenneth Gross
Title: On Dolls, from "Philosophy of Toys"
Publisher: Notting Hill Editions
Date: Introduction and selection copyright 2012 by Kenneth Gross
Pages: 18-21

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