Adolescence

Literaisons on Wonder and Adolescence. She quotes Proust:

There is hardly a single action we perform in that phase [adolescence] which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to annul. Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity which made us perform them. In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.

Compare the words of a much less elegaic and nostalgic man, which I have quoted elsewhere:

Just as in dreams we are able to inject an inexplicable feeling that cuts through the whole personality into some happening or other, we are able to do this while awake–but only at the age of fifteen or sixteen, while still in school. Even at that age, as we all know, we live through great storms of feeling, fierce urgencies, and all kinds of vague experiences; our feelings are powerfully alive but not yet well defined; love and anger, joy and scorn, all the general moral sentiments, in short, go jolting through us like electric impulses, now engulfing the whole world, then again shriveling into nothing; sadness, tenderness, nobility, and generosity of spirit form the vaulting empty skies above us. And then what happens? From outside us, out of the ordered world around us, there appears a ready-made form–a word, a verse, a demonic laugh, a Napoleon, Caesar, Christ, or perhaps only a tear shed at a father’s grave–and the “work” springs into being like a bolt of lightning. This sophomore’s “work” is, as we too easily overlook, line for line the complete expression of what he is feeling, the most precise match of intention and execution, and the perfect blending of a young man’s experience with the life of the great Napoleon. It seems, however, that the movement from the great to the small is somehow not reversible. We experience it in dreams as well as in our youth: we have just given a great speech, with the last words still ringing in our ears as we awaken, when, unfortunately, they do not sound quite as marvelous as we thought they were. At this point we do not see ourself as quite the weightlessly shimmering phenomenon of that dancing prairie cock, but realize instead that we have merely been howling with much emotion at the moon.

Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities

The wonder (or awe) of adolescence was for me, as for many others, distinguished by the sheer inability to communicate in words the overpowering emotions and the shocks of being put into juxtaposition with new and unheard of arrangements of things and ideas. It is only as we attempt to express these things, translating them from private experience into a lingua franca, that we find we must adapt our ideas to the standards of the commonwealth not just to make them understandable to others, but to give them sense to ourselves. Otherwise they are nothing more than the neurological side effects of brain growth, “powerfully alive” but undefined. In language we’re cut down to size but also brought into the world.

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