10 November 2011

The anti-authoritarian syndrome

Once when I was at Miss Maughfling’s (the preparatory school I attended) I got sent to write lines instead of going out to break. I was in the kitchen (a large room) with the other children, and the kettles were on to make the drinks that Miss Maughfling handed out. You could have milk, cold or warm, or hot orange juice made from concentrate, which was what the kettles were for.

The steam was coming out of the spouts of the kettles and I knew, from prior experimentation at home, that it was not actually very hot. Some other child sounded afraid of it, and I said ‘But it is not very hot really’, and passed my hand through one of the jets of steam, amused at the shock of the nearby children.

Just at this point Miss Maughfling came into the kitchen and was horrified. I was not to go out to break, she said, but must write lines – ‘I must not touch steam from boiling kettles.’

I did not think she was exactly in the right, and I did not think there had been anything wrong with what I had done. Nor did I mind about missing the break on the lawn at the back of the house, which was of little interest to me.

So I went up to the classroom and dutifully wrote out the lines, neatly and well-spaced as I wrote everything else.

It was just a thing to do, so I did it as well as possible.

By the end of the break I had covered quite a few of the pages I had been given (loose lined sheets of paper) and Miss Maughfling looked surprised as she inspected them.

‘You must have worked very hard,’ she said, nonplussed, as if she would have expected something different.

The fact was that I did not have an anti-authoritarian syndrome, as so many do. I had read too much, for one thing, to think of adults as unmotivated paragons or purveyors of wisdom.

But the important thing is that I always did things in the best possible way; if they were boring this seemed to me the way to make them least boring. In effect, this was centralised and later made it possible for me to get some intensity out of fairly dull work in the early years at the convent.

Many people have learnt a disidentification with what they are doing and this can be extremely difficult to overcome. They can’t, even if they want to, do things in an error-free way. They can only find them ‘interesting’ if done in a rush at the last moment. There are several variants of this, but they all more or less preclude any more advanced form of centralisation.