Monday, January 23, 2012

Chesterton and the Ark

When Bruni and Dieter visited, they brought this gorgeous mobile for Louisa. It's been hanging on the wall of our living room, above the couch, as we haven't yet decided where its permanent home should be*. Louisa studies the mobile while she nurses. Maria loves prodding it, making the animals dance on their strings. She points to the Elephants and says "that Babar, that Celeste."

I think it's a lovely mobile with its bright colors and frolicking animals, and I'm excited to see it hung somewhere where it will be be free to rotate. But more than just being a colorful addition to our decor, the mobile has given me fodder for thought.

I've often been puzzled by the popularity and ubiquity of Noah's Ark themed toys. The Fisher Price Noah's Ark seems to turn up at every play date we attend. What surprises me is that adults deem it appropriate to the extent that it shows up in mainstream kids products. After all, the annihilation of most of the Earth's inhabitants is pretty dark stuff*.

The mobile is our first bit of Noah paraphernalia, and while contemplating where to hang it, I've been, in a roundabout way, contemplating the story of the Ark, especially as it relates to children. As it happens, I also recently finished reading Chesterton's Orthodoxy. The book is still resounding in my head, and it's only natural that Orthodoxy has made me think of Noah and his ship load of critters in a new light.

Chesterton begins Orthodoxy by describing some convictions that originated in his youth. From an early age, he believed that life was a "kind of eccentric privilege"--that we have all been saved from the cataclysmic possibility of never having existed. To make his point, he references another story of watery tribulation, Robinson Crusoe:

Crusoe is a man on a small rock with a few comforts just snatched from the sea: the best thing in the book is simply the list of things saved from the wreck. The greatest of poems is an inventory. Every kitchen tool becomes ideal because Crusoe might have dropped it in the sea. It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything, the coal-scuttle or the book-case, and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship on to the solitary island. But it is a better exercise still to remember how all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck. Every man has had one horrible adventure: as a hidden untimely birth he had not been, as infants that never see the light. Men spoke much in my boyhood of restricted or ruined men of genius: and it was common to say that many a man was a Great Might-Have-Been. To me it is a more solid and startling fact that any man in the street is a Great Might-Not-Have-Been.

The poetry of creatures on the Ark is the poetry of Crusoe's list. The biblical story is not just a story about the rewards of piety, but the story of a narrow escape.

It seems to me that children, are more aware of this narrow escape. It is the source of their great wonder. Chesterston traces his conviction back to his boyhood. His writing dislodged a memory of my own. I remember being seven or eight and thinking, quite distinctly, "I'm so glad I'm me and not a stone. How amazing it is that I am I." And now I'm going to share a quote from John Saward’s Cradle of Redeeming Love, that I came by through a blog. (Haven't read the book, but this quote seemed most appropriate.)

His [the child’s] mind is receptive of the glorious reality of the world, and he is amazed that things are, even before he knows exactly what they are... The child in the garden knows that the grass is, but his wonder at this apparently ordinary thing seems to indicate that he is surprised that it should be at all.

So, yes, Noah's story is dark, and I hope it will be a long time before Maria thinks deeply about the Babars and Celestes that didn't make it on board. But the story's darkness makes it especially suited to a child's eye view of the world. The creatures and people who populate the world are not to be taken for granted. The mere fact that we are should galvanize everyday life and fill us with wonder.

And now, back to finding a place for the mobile...

*We don't have a hammer. Putting in a nail means borrowing one from our landlord (and contingently, getting his approval to make a hole in the the wall/ceiling). As a result we haven't actually hung anything in our apartment.

*This was brought home a while back when a friend showed me an illustrated version of the story that shows animals that were turned away from the ark being swallowed by the rising tide.


  1. I've often wondered the same thing--why Noah's Ark? I used to think it was because the gross majority of children's toys and books are focused on animals--their names, the sounds they make, etc, so Noah's Ark fits well into the category. But your explanation shows it goes even deeper than that. I never thought about it that way, but I like it!

  2. Thanks for reading, Eva! I think you're right about the popularity being due mostly to all the animals. Plus, who can resist a set of toys that come in their own thematically-appropriate carrying case!