Peter Pan an Alzheimer's patient?
Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/12/peter-pan-alz etc ...
During a stretch in my life when you might suppose that childrenâ€™s lit would have had its weakest hold on meâ€”my twenties, with childhood solidly behind me and marriage and children not yet firming on the horizonâ€”I idled my way through a number of old-fashioned classics. I read â€œPinocchioâ€ and â€œThe Secret Gardenâ€ and â€œThe Wind in the Willows.â€ I read â€œHeidiâ€ and â€œTom Sawyerâ€ and â€œKimâ€ and â€œPenrodâ€ and the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. â€œJourney to the Center of the Earth,â€ â€œTwenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea.â€ â€œLittle Women,â€ â€œLittle Men.â€ â€œBlack Beauty,â€ â€œWhite Fang.â€ I read Mary Mapes Dodgeâ€™s â€œHans Brinker,â€ or â€œThe Silver Skatesâ€ (1865), which popularized the tale of the civic-minded Dutch boy who steadfastly kept his finger in the dike, and which, unforgettably, offered a footnote acknowledging the historian Thomas Macaulay. (Oh quaint, vanished Victorian young reader, some Constance or Willkie, who might plausibly be led to Macaulayâ€™s â€œHistory of Englandâ€ by way of a novel about a Dutch ice-skating competition!)
I liked a good many of the books, but Iâ€™ve regularly gone back to revisit only two: Robert Louis Stevensonâ€™s â€œTreasure Islandâ€ (1883) and J. M. Barrieâ€™s â€œPeter Panâ€ (1911). Islands chockablock with pirate treasure are notoriously elusive objects, drifting here and there on the map, yet one of the great pleasures of Stevensonâ€™s classic is its fixity. Year after year, it remains the same book: a well-proportioned adventure story unfolded in a tone of brisk, tonic lyricism. (Stevenson is one of my favorite English stylists.)
â€œPeter Panâ€ is another matter: a different book whenever you pick it up. In this year, the seventy-fifth anniversary of Barrieâ€™s death, I read it twice. Recent rereadings have left me increasingly feeling that the bookâ€™s preoccupation with forgetfulnessâ€”an utter lack of fixityâ€”is a little chilling. Naturally, the bookâ€™s heroine, the levelheaded girl-child Wendy (an instinctive nanny and nursemaid, or, in modern parlance, a born primary care-giver) sees the issue most clearly. Peterâ€™s hopeless. He canâ€™t retain anything. I know of no other childrenâ€™s book in which forgetfulness is so pervasive and disquieting a theme. Wendy begins fretting about Peterâ€™s memory even before they reach the Neverland. While still in mid-flight, he seems to forget the names of Wendy and her two younger brothers. The bookâ€™s high jinks havenâ€™t yet begun, and already, debating within herself, sheâ€™s worried about his ability to retain them: â€œ â€˜â€”And if he forgets them so quickly,â€™ Wendy argued, â€˜how can we expect that he will go on remembering us?â€™ â€ Wendy is confronted with the prospect of Peter Pan, Alzheimerâ€™s patient.
This may all sound terribly arch and glib (the boy who never grew up subsiding into a second childhood without ever leaving his first?), but anyone who has ever lived close beside the ravages of Alzheimerâ€™sâ€”as I did with my mother, who long suffered from it before dying two years agoâ€”understands how little humor it provides. The disease consists of equal measures of despair and terror, with little room for levity.
Peter is hardly the only character subject to memory lapses. All of his compatriots in the Neverland, those Lost Boys whom Wendy eagerly adopts in her role of surrogate mother, spring from a hazy past. (The dialogue often sounds like something you might overhear in a nursing home: â€œ â€˜John,â€™ he said, looking around him doubtfully, â€˜I think I have been here before.â€™ â€˜Of course you have, you silly. There is your old bed.â€™ â€)
Fearful at the way that her brothers, John and Michael, quickly start forgetting their pre-Neverland world, Wendy addresses the problem in her commonsensical fashion:
These things scared her a little, and nobly anxious to do her duty, she tried to fix the old life in their minds by setting them examination papers on it, as like as possible to the ones she used to do at schoolâ€¦ They were the most ordinary questionsâ€”â€œWhat was the color of Motherâ€™s eyes? Which was taller, father or mother? Was Mother blonde or brunette? Answer all three questions if possible.â€
One is reminded of Macondo, the insomniac, amnesiac town in Gabriel GarcÃa MÃ¡rquezâ€™s â€œOne Hundred Years of Solitude,â€ where collective failings of memory become so severe that the townâ€™s inhabitants take to marking familiar objects, both indoors (table, chair, clock) and outdoors (cow, goat, pig), with name tags. The trouble with this plan is that it presupposes everyone wonâ€™t forget the art of reading as well. (Similarly, my mother would ask me to write the names of her sons on the backs of old photographs, meaning thereby to keep our boyhoods straight.)
J. M. Barrieâ€™s poignant symbol for memory loss is the inability to fly. In â€œPeter Pan,â€ children are ableâ€”with a little training, and maybe some fairy dustâ€”to take to the sky. They lose this capability as they get older, however, partly as a result of simply growing too large. The weight of adulthood becomes synonymous with conformity and pedestrianism. One of the most haunting moments in â€œPeter Panâ€ arrives when Wendy, years after her sojourn in the Neverland, now an adult with a child of her own, is again visited by Peter: â€œHe was a little boy, and she was grown up. She huddled by the fire not daring to move, helpless and guilty, a big womanâ€¦. Something inside her was crying, â€˜Woman, woman, let go of me.â€™ â€ A prisoner of her own voluminousness, she evokes the hero of another near-contemporary fantastic tale, the good doctor of Stevensonâ€™s â€œDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.â€ Jekyllâ€™s transformations into Hyde, initially voluntary, can hardly be an unalloyed pleasureâ€”Hyde is, after all, repugnant to everyone he meetsâ€”but one aspect is ecstatic: the immediate shedding of adult poundage, the regaining of a childâ€™s lithe quickness. The virtuous, stolid, earthbound doctor has his mischievous airborne youth restored to him, and so precious a commodity is youthfulness that it almost seems worthwhile to trade away for it oneâ€™s reputation and fortune, and, ultimately, oneâ€™s sanity and life.
To lose the ability to fly is to lose the supremacy of the imagination over reality: itâ€™s the demise of enchantment itself. Peter has the keenest imagination of all the Lost Boys. Alone among them, he makes no distinction between a meal of real and imagined foodstuffs; for him, the conceptual and the tangible are interchangeable. He has the most at stake as adulthood beckons, and heâ€™s the most determined to hold on to his boyish fabrications. He will not grow up. This may seem an easy way out of lifeâ€™s difficulties, but Peter is also singular among the Lost Boys in suffering chronic nightmares, from which Wendy can only half protect him:
For hours he could not be separated from these dreams, though he wailed piteously in them. They had to do, I think, with the riddle of his existence. At such times it had been Wendyâ€™s custom to take him out of bed and sit with him on her lap, soothing himâ€¦ and when he grew calmer to put him back to bed before he quite woke up, so that he should not know of the indignity to which she had subjected him.
The riddle of his existence? Barrie, who can take an omniscient viewpoint with the most confident of authors, suddenly pulls back from judgment. It seems that if Peter refuses the burdens of adulthood, his refusal brings burdens of its own.
Wendy is a creature of aplomb and equability, who handles in her stride pirates and a surreally ticking crocodile and a near-fatal arrow to her chest. But at one point in the book she seems positively flummoxed. It involves another of Peterâ€™s inattentions, only a year after their great exploits in the Neverland:
She had looked forward to thrilling talks with him about old times, but new adventures had crowded the old ones from his mind. â€œWho is Captain Hook?â€ he asked with interest when she spoke of the arch enemy. â€œDonâ€™t you remember,â€ she asked, amazed, â€œhow you killed him and saved all our lives?â€ â€œI forget them after I kill them,â€ he replied carelessly.
And a moment later, on the subject of fairies, Peterâ€™s negligence seems almost cruel:
When she expressed a doubtful hope that Tinker Bell would be glad to see her he said, â€œWho is Tinker Bell?â€ â€œO Peter,â€ she said, shocked, but even when she explained he could not remember. â€œThere are such a lot of them,â€ he said. â€œI expect she is no more.â€
Given the governing tenet of Peterâ€™s lifeâ€”above all, he must never leave childhoodâ€”failures of memory are all but forced upon him. If he could recall his adventures, he would have a history; he would have an accumulating past, a sensation, synonymous with experience and aging, of events layered through time. Peter lives almost exclusively in the present: he is â€œtingling with life and also top-heavy with conceit.â€ Hence, for all his winsome arrogance, he must forever be relinquishing even the most glorious of his recollections.
My motherâ€™s own Neverland was Iceland. Long a widow, she married again in her late seventies, to a man named Arthur who had once been a foreign correspondent. Arthur had seen much of the world, but not Iceland, a place my mother considered absolutely magical. She had visited it a number of times, years before, during intervals when I was living there. (Itâ€™s my own favorite island.)
As dementia gripped her more firmly, the once whimsical idea became an obsession: she must take Arthur to Iceland. There were plenty of times when she couldnâ€™t remember the name of the country, but her wish was unmistakable and unshakeable: she would share with Arthur â€œthat place.â€
Wellâ€”this had all the makings of a disastrous journey (health problems, psychological problems, weather problems), and yet, one day, a wondrous afternoon arrived of surpassing luminosity. Weâ€™d bought the tickets, weâ€™d boarded the plane. The three of us were on the south coast of Iceland, near the stunning rock formations of DyrhÃ³laey. We stood on a cliff, beside a lighthouse. On either side, the coastline outstretched before us in the sun. The cliffs, the rolling amphitheater of the sea, the blazing sky itselfâ€”everything had the burnish of beaten metal, the promise of brave durability. Peter Panâ€™s Neverland had nothing on us. â€œItâ€™s unforgettable,â€ my mother kept saying, over and over. She was expressing another wish, although this one, alas, was not to be granted. For to the Alzheimerâ€™s patient, it turns out nothing is unforgettableâ€”not even, in the end, the name of your spouse or your son.
For the boy who never grows up, time scarcely exists. For the rest of us, time is piratical, and before making us walk the plank it would strip us of our every possession. If Peter rashly forgets the name of one of the immortal villains of childrenâ€™s literatureâ€”our â€œman unfathomable,â€ who was â€œnever more sinister than when he was most polite,â€ the peerless Captain Hookâ€”the task falls on us to remember it for him. The more careless Peter becomes, the greater the burden on the careful reader. For it turns out that in literature, as in life, weâ€™re sometimes asked to note and to ponder and to treasure the bedraggled adventures of someone who will not or cannot preserve them on his own.