Sunday, June 17, 2012

Adventures in Attitude Acquisition

[This post is a continuation of one from last month:

As I stood chatting with her father in their front yard, in the fading twilight, young Marya suddenly piped up:  “A dead mouse!”, pointing downwards and looking up at us.
And sure enough, its dim grey form curled amid the new-mown lawn.   I’ve lived eight years on this block without ever noticing a mouse, but right-on she spots one.  It’s easier, when you’re only two feet tall, to notice things nestling in the grass.
After a round of reveille to see if it were only sleeping, we were indeed driven to acknowledge the sad conclusion, which Monty Python once so eloquently predicated of a parrot, that said mouse was, though physically still with us -- defunct, demised, its little soul had flown.

The mother, coming to the porch, and perhaps feeling unusually self-protective as she is now big with child, shuddered at the news, pronounced the presence of such a cadaver horrible, and bade the father see to its immediate removal.  The father’s attitude was one of soldierly efficiency (he actually is reserve military, called up from time to time), and he acted with the same dispatch as he had shown on an earlier occasion in which his wife had motioned him to deal with a spider -- one so huge he thought it a simulacrum, a prank, until, he reaching for it, it leapt -- as wolf-spiders do indeed do.
Wavering in the middle was young Marya,  who at the tender age of twice two years, was acquiring the attitudes she would adhere to in later life.  Which to adopt -- disgust, or the brisk efficiency of corpse-disposal?

While her father went off to fetch a plastic bag, I decided, in my fondness and folly, to plant the seed of a different tree.
“That mouse died happy,” I said, giving it an expert and appraising look.  “He married a mommy-mouse, and became a daddy, and had many babies, who all grew up and were happy, and got married, and had families of their own.  So the daddy mouse said, ‘I am so very tired, so old and weary and yet content.  It is time for me to lie down in some snug tussock of grass, and to seek that sleep that soothes and never lessens, and to go meet my Maker Mouse, to thank him for all that he has done.’”
She nodded soberly, taking this idea in, where it will marinate and exchange chromosomes and compete with all the other themes and memes and wives-tales she’ll be exposed to.

Her dad came back, wrapped the small departed, and deposited him in the trash out by the curb.

Suddenly Marya again gave cry.  “A dead mouse!”, pointing excitedly at the shadows on the ground.
Her father and I peered carefully, but mouse we saw none, neither quick nor quelled.
“It’s an imaginary mouse,” she explained.

[Linguistic footnote]  For the linguist, the conundrum is:  How does a young child acquire a concept and an expression like “imaginary mouse” in the first place?

The paradigm case of semantic acquisition is ostensive definition, a.k.a. pointing: That’s a bunneh!  -- That’s a kitteh! -- That’s Uncle Fred !
But there can be no gavagai! ‘That’s an imaginary mouse.’

The possibility suggests itself, that the Platonic picture  is more deeply true  than ever we did dream …


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