The Misanthrope Turns Twenty

In Sylvie and Bruno, one of the lesser-known works by the author of Alice in Wonderland, Bruno tells Sylvie that there are 'around one thousand and two pigs" lying in the field. Sylvie responds that if he is not sure of the total number he should say "around one thousand" and ignore the extra two, to which Bruno replies very gravely, that, on the contrary, it is of the two pigs that he is sure because they are right in front of him, while of the other thousand he has no certainty.

The author, an Oxford mathematician called Charles Dodgson who wrote for children under the pen name Lewis Carroll, knew well that one thousand and two is just as arbitrary a number as one thousand. It is only our use of the decimal system that makes us prefer one number to the other. It is this same passion for multiples of ten that will lead to so few people going to bed early on December 31, despite the purely conventional nature of the calendar and the fact that, as we have been told ad nauseam, there was no year zero and therefore that the third millennium won't start until 2001. It is also this tyranny of ten that dictates that my adolescence has just ended.

Like all children I once wanted to be older than I was. I remember I desired it with such obtuseness that when I overheard an adult comment that exercise makes children grow faster I spent an entire afternoon walking to and fro in a vain attempt to become eight sooner than scheduled. The extent of my folly eventually dawned on me, but years later I discovered that Einstein's special theory of relativity does predict that an observer moving quickly with respect to the surroundings is, in effect, travelling into the future. Of course for the effect to have been perceptible I would have had to stroll at a speed approaching that of light.

But when I turned ten a funny thing happened: I started desiring to be younger (a much more problematic thing from the point of view of theoretical physics). Even at that age I instinctively disliked exchanging the vastness of the possible for the narrowness of the concrete. I wanted to remain forever at an age when I could still believe that I might grow up to be a professor, a firefighter, a musician or a carpenter. Furthermore, the scatological humor, casual cruelty and intellectual indifference of my own peers troubled me.

Being a little older and a little wiser, this time around I did not attempt time travel. I opted instead for idolizing adulthood, making it out to be the opposite of everything I disliked in those my own age. To me all adults were kindly creatures who cared nothing for the vile pursuits of popularity and appearance and who worried only about truly important things. They read "The Economist", knew all about electronics and conversed about biology and classical history. I thought I saw in adults the self-control, compassion and intellectual commitment that I missed in my peers.

So I decided I wanted to be a ten-year old adult. My father still laughs when he tells the story of how an old friend (exactly my same age, down to the day) came over to play while the rest of the family was absent. I played a recording of Handel's Watermusic and tried to explain to him what I had recently read about the structure of the atom. He never showed up again.

But time does not stop even for naive middle-class children with intellectual pretensions. Ten years have passed and I have discovered with dismay that the so-called "adult books" are not really about political economy or inorganic chemistry.

In the first page of his Antimemoirs, Andre Malraux tells how in a clear night he met a Catholic priest with whom he had fled months before from the German invasion of France and who at the time was busy handing out false certificates of baptism to persecuted Jews. Malraux asked him if confession had taught him anything and the priest replied that only very little, just that people are much unhappier that one thinks, and that, in the end, what happens is "qu'il n'y a pas de grandes personnes" (that there are no great persons, or, as one translator put it, that no one is truly mature).

And I, who went through adolescence longing for early childhood and believing in an adult race composed entirely of "grandes personnes," have just turned twenty.

Alejandro Jenkins '01 is a physics and math concentrator in Currier house. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.