The Animism of childhood


 

   Imagination is the method a child uses to begin to understand his surroundings. It has an animistic quality by which all things have the capacity to carry an animating spark. Magical dancing shoes, talking trees or enchanted swords are all examples of the sort of animistic thought I am referring to and which can be found in fairytales and children’s literature. More recently Disney animation studios employees animistic concepts in its many animated features from the capacity for animals to understand human speech and emotion in Snow White to the semi-intelligent broom stick in the Sorceress Apprentice. Mickey, Goofy, Donald Chip and Dale are likewise examples of animistic beings. Disney, by using these concepts has tapped into the very heart of primitive imagination, albeit I believe unknowingly.

   What child has not given the idea of life to his teddy bear or her doll? This too is imaginative animism and the implication for how we formulate our awareness by giving life to inanimate objects is tremendous. It is part of what I would call the pure child-mind. Which is to say the mind that is open to unrestricted possibilities? Imagination is one of the most eloquent expressions of the epicurean ideal by which we gain understanding of the universe through the awareness made possible only by self indulgence. This is not to say selfishness in a negative sense. Children are by nature selfish beings; their whole being is centered on the immediate concerns of the self. As infants the necessity is for food and shelter at any cost to the parent. Infants lack the capacity to consider the well being of anyone other than themselves. As the infant grows into childhood proper this self indulgence shifts into the realm of the imaginative. No longer is a child’s physical concern solely for itself. It begins to grasp the idea of the other, which is the first formation of duality to be experienced in life. Prior to this all things relate to the self but after this moment of epiphany new experiences are defined around the self as opposed to or in relation to the other.

   Animistic imagination (and thus healthy emotional growth) is dependant on the awareness of this duality between self and other. It is an oversimplification to claim animism is a branch of religion that holds all things are connected. In fact it is quite the opposite. Animism holds that all things are relate to one another but are not in and of themselves related. To understand this we must venture back to the beginning and consider this with an unpolluted mind. It begins with the understanding that all things are in fact apart from each other. This is the recognition that a human child and a wolf cub are not the same origin even though they may share similar attributes. By understanding this we may begin to define ourselves on an individual basis and a part of this process is defining those things which we are not. In this case, we are not a wolf cub so we must define what the cub is in relation to what perceive ourselves to be. Only after the initial awareness of difference and through exploring those differences do points of connection begin to appear. This is conventional animistic thought which holds that all things inter-relate in the universe (note: this is not the same thing as being physically interrelated – it is the difference between a tree growing around a rock. Each object inter relates with the soil but they are not themselves interrelated with each other. Ancient man understood this far better than we give them credit for. That is why we do not see ceremonial burials of trees or rocks amongst ancient man)

   The same drive to define the self against the other exists even today only with advance of understanding (scientific, philosophical and religious) it has befallen children to be the shamans of our culture and their ritual occurs through the working of their own imaginations. In children’s literature and in childhood itself we see enacted the very same spiritual journey that primitive man once undertook. It would be a mistake to assume this imaginative journey is only a petty childhood game. It is of the utmost importance to the child’s development socially as well as emotionally. Only by passing through this animistic phase of life does the child understand what that “other” really and how he is different it as well as how he is related to it in the larger universe. In this childhood game of imagination we discover the roots or racial awareness, individual identity, sexual understanding and social and political ideology. The trick is not to discourage the child but to allow the child to take that journey while we as adults act as guide, not interfering only offering occasional direction.

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