Life as an uncle
In On Certainty, an unfinished book he composed between pints of sherry in the last months of his life, Ludwig Wittgenstein created a series of thought experiments designed to show what apparently strange beliefs human beings can hold. In one of the most famous experiments in On Certainty, Wittgentstein tried to rebut his friend GE Moore's claim that simple 'common sense' teaches each of us that the world certainly existed before we were born:
Men have believed that they could make rain; why should not a king [of some distant country] be brought up in the belief that the world began with him? And if Moore and this king were to meet and discuss, could Moore really prove his belief to be the right one?
If the example of Wittgentein's king resonates with us, it is perhaps because many of us have sometimes had difficulty in quite believing that the world ever existed without us. We know, of course, that the earth is four billion or so years old, that humans have walked the earth for hundreds of thousands of years, and that each of us has innumerable ancestors. Yet when we are young, especially, we find it difficult to appreciate properly what latecomers we are, and how much natural and human history has backed up behind us. Like the photos of the quaintly-attired great grandparents mounted on mantelpieces or in old albums, the time before we were born seems colourless and faded. It contrasts sadly with the vivid colours and giddy vistas that we remember from our early childhoods. We know it is absurd, but when we are in the flush of youth we can never quite dispel the idea that the years and decades and centuries before we were born were a sort of prehistory, a period designed to prepare in some obscure way for our birth. We create our own teleologies.
On Monday night, at about half past nine, I became an uncle for the first time. While my niece was making her slow but calm way into the world, or into the austere antechamber of the world that is a hospital birthing room, I was wandering around west Auckland, looking for a bottle of champagne and a fat smelly cigar to offer to her father. Because of the bizarre liquor licensing arrangements of Waitakere City, I ended up buying myself a packet of chewing gum instead. When I reached the hospital with Skyler, though, I was pleased I did not bear intoxicants. Nurses and midwives moved up and down the cosily panoptic spaces of the maternity wing with a quietness that seemed almost reverential; occasionally one of them paused, turned, lowered her head slightly, and disappeared into one of the dark rooms that opened off the proliferating corridors, as if she were ducking into a chapel to pray. It must be strange to spend five days a week witnessing an event which still, in our secular age, seems somehow miraculous.
A couple of friends have asked me whether I feel older, now that I am uncle. I can understand such queries. When I was a boy, the word 'uncle' summouned up images of frayed cardigan sleeves, sagging paunches, carelessly trimmed moustaches, and RSA lounges that smelt of stale cigarettes and the dregs of beer jugs. Uncles were old, slightly terrifying figures who told war stories, berated the All Blacks selectors, and lamented the advent of one-day cricket. They seemed to have existed forever, but it was hard to imagine that they had ever been young.
My niece is only one of a succession of children born to friends and relatives this year. For these kids, I will be a prehistoric figure: an obscure face in a faded, poorly-composed photograph, or a tipsy windbag who traps them them at a barbeque or a wedding reception and reminiscences about Richard Hadlee or the 1987 World Cup or the marches against the Iraq war. I find the idea of my own obsolescence liberating: it is, after all, a burden being young, and suffering from the delusion that one's life is consequential.
I don't have a poem for my niece yet, but I did write a piece a while back for Martin and Lou, two Franco-Spanish kids whose parents are old friends of mine. Martin and Lou lived with Skyler and me for a couple of weeks in September 2008. Lou was very small, and tended to communicate in hisses and slaps; Martin and I, though, created a barbarous patois, composed of the dozen French phrases I knew, the hundred or so English words he knew, and the five or six Spanish words we had both mastered. We talked endlessly in our impoverished language, becoming steadily more confused at one another's meaning. I suspect that my attempts to impress the nobility of cricket and the drama of the Spanish Civil War on Martin made me seem like a typical old windbag uncle. This poem celebrates the sense of irrelevance that children like Martin make me feel:
The Boulder at North Head
I kneel beside the boulder,
whisper in its mossy ear.
I instruct the boulder
in its solemn task.
I instruct the boulder
to stand still, and let the earth
the elephant grass
the gravel shelf
the tunnels and caves
the layers of andesite
roll under it -
to stand still,
as Martin and Lou forget about
their father's car, and the airport, and the plane aimed
home, to the land of schools and snow -
to stand still, as Martin and Lou chase their echoes
into the sunlight
and over the crest of North Head,
away from the gunpit
and the flat blue gulf,
and the gulls that blow about
like the paper that wrapped our chips -
to stand still, and to shudder
invisibly, at the first kick
from Martin's sandal,
to shudder secretly again
at Lou's friendly slap,
to take both children on its smooth black back
without sagging, without sighing
to know that one day this boy and girl will return
as an old man and an old woman
to find a boulder standing in the same place,
letting the earth roll under it.