Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The sound of a person v. the look of a person

I have been babysitting one family’s children for three years. Connor is now four and Zachary is three; their baby sister will be one in November. The two older kids are at a neat stage in their development because they are learning how to play make-believe. They love to pretend that they are animals and they enjoy telling me what to be even more. If we are playing sea creatures, both of them want to be the shark; if we are playing house animals, they both want to be the dog; if we are pretending to be at the zoo, they both want to be the lion or the bear. Sometimes tears ensue when they want to be the same animal. I suggest alternatives and ask them what is wrong with being a minnow, a kitten, or a penguin. Then I ask, “Well why can’t you both be sharks/dogs/lions?” I think the make-believe is an outlet for their ongoing power struggle. Since they are so close in age, they are constantly competing for dominance and attention. Tonight, they will both be trick-or-treating as Spider-Man, but they will wear different colors to try to minimize the arguing; Connor will wear a red costume and Zachary will wear a black costume. Last year, Connor was Buzz Lightyear and Zachary was Superman. The costumes that Connor and Zachary wear signify similar characteristics: strength, power.

In Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the powerful characters, the German cats, are shown to have the desirable characteristics despite their physical strength. Cats are predators that hunt and play with their prey before tearing it piece by piece. The Nazis in Germany similarly hunted Jewish Europeans, and then kept them in concentration camps before killing them. Nazis did not believe that a person could be both Jewish and European, or Jewish and a human being worthy of life. There was no room for Jewish people or people of Jewish descent on the Nazis’ map. In Maus, the animals that represent different nationalities (and the qualities that those nationalities have come to typify), do not always act the same way. For example, there is one pig (representing a Polish person) that, despite being a prisoner, perpetrates violence on other prisoners as a Kapo (Spiegalman 32) and then uses Vladek to his advantage. However, there is another pig that is not at all self-interested. He is a priest and shows Vladek how his tattooed identification number is a sign of fortune (Spiegelman 28). Vladek recalls of this pig, “He put another life in me.” This shows that outer appearance does not always reflect what is inside. Similarly, in an interview about his book Totality and Infinity, Levinas encourages people not to notice the color of the Other’s eyes, but to enter a social relationship with the Other through speech because outer appearance is meaningless; it does not reflect a person’s inner potential for social relationships. Levinas says that “it is discourse and, more exactly response or responsibility which is this authentic relationship” (88). Levinas goes on to suggest that it is only through interpersonal relations that justice is possible. He says, “Justice, exercised through institutions, which are inevitable, must always be held in check by the initial interpersonal relation” (90). The priest-pig in Maus demonstrates the social aspect of justice; he shows that it is speech—not appearance—that is the true indicator of a person’s soul and capacity for meaningful relationships.

Connor and Zachary’s obsession with physical strength and power does not worry me much now because they are still very young; however I hope that when they get older, they realize that being strong does not necessarily mean physical prowess. As they grow, I think they will learn that being a mouse (minnow, kitten, penguin) is not a sign of weakness, and they will also learn that looking like a cat (shark, dog, lion) does not necessarily condemn a person to viciousness and inhumanity. Hopefully, they will learn to trust the sound of person, rather than the look of him or her.

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