Here are some of the great revelations of growing up:
1) drugs and rock & roll will not change the world.
2) true love is an oxymoron.
3) there’s always a little more toothpaste in the tube.
4) nobody ever grows up.
One of these is not really a great revelation.
I was sitting on the crumbling concrete steps of the Reine Sofia in Madrid, eating a very dubious chicken empanada and nursing a developing hangover. Everything was feeling a little unreal. You know that kind of sensation; you don’t dare to take your sunglasses off and it feels like you’re climbing up a dark circular staircase. I was watching a policeman with a handgun walk past a homeless man. Suddenly, a thought popped into my head, fully formed: my god, I thought, nobody is in control here!
Maybe it was the combination of congealing chicken grease, alcohol by-products and ever-present guilt floating around in my cerebellum, but I finally had my Big Revelation. I’ve heard that everybody gets only two or three in a lifetime. Some people waste them on LSD or Mescaline and spend the rest of their days droning on about How We Are All Connected, but some wait for them to arrive in their own sweet time. This is mine, and I’d like to share it with you.
Human beings are neotenous apes. Neoteny, for those of you unfamiliar with anthropology, is the retention of infant or juvenile traits into adulthood. Other primates like our close relatives have two distinct growth patterns. When they are young, apes have large brains, flat faces, fetal body hair, small noses and brow ridges, large eyes, an upright gait, and longer legs than arms. If that sounds familiar, it’s because those are the precise physical features that distinguish us from apes. Human beings are, in short, paedomorphic chimpanzees and, rather than growing to resemble our simian kin, we remain that way for much of our lives.
(Actually, there is a theory that older men start to resemble silverback gorillas – their buttocks shrink, they stoop, their shoulders hunch, and their ears and noses grow, but that doesn’t really concern us. Mentioning this theory in an old-peoples home might even get you punched in the face).
“Wake up, you old fool, you missed the article!”
“Who’s a fool? You READ it!”
Emotionally humans also resemble young primates. We are quick to anger or joy, emotionally expressive in terms of laughing and crying, obsessed with the manipulation of small tools (and our genitals), and extraordinarily inventive and curious. The human development of tools, sport, acting, music, art and architecture have their antecedents in the games of young primates.
If I seem to have gone off on a tangent from my Empanada Revelation -which is an actual Dubstep music outfit from Stepney- it’s because I had one of those weird hallucinations that are the reason I don’t need drugs to have a weird time (I used to sit in Psychology lectures and see myself surrounded by brains on stalks with swiveling eyeballs). On this particular occasion I hallucinated everybody around me as apes.
The apes around me were doing things that apes do. More importantly, they weren’t adult apes. They were all children. Baby apes, bumping into each other, wearing knock-off Ray-Bans, eating things. It was like that scene in Cosmopolis when Benno Levin talks about how the world could easily drive him mad:
“I thought all these other people. I thought how did they get to be who they are. It’s banks and car parks. It’s airline tickets in their computers. It’s restaurants filled with people talking. It’s people signing the merchant copy. It’s people taking the merchant copy out of the leather folder and then signing it and separating the merchant copy from the customer copy and putting their credit card in their wallets. This alone could do it. This alone,” he said. “I’m helpless in their system that makes no sense to me.”
This was my big revelation. I was looking at the world as it was but the people weren’t people. They were young apes, romping across the surface of the earth, and there were no grown-ups to be seen. No adult apes. Nobody was in control!
I was seeing beneath the skin of the strangest lie that we tell ourselves: that there is any kind of definitive border between childhood and adulthood. It’s odd that such an apparent falsehood has lasted, but it takes a powerful sideswipe of consciousness to dislodge the idea that something distinguishes children from grownups.
My Fear & Loathing moment passed. The sun came out from behind a gunmetal-grey cloud and I felt better. But the sensation remained. It couldn’t be ignored. Something had become…all shook up…in my approach to the world. You see, this happened a few months ago, and ever since then I’ve been seeing everything in these terms. In terms of there being no definitive grown-up behaviour. Of there being no grown-ups.
You see, when I was a kid, I had this strong impression that there were adults and they were in control. I accepted this idea whole-heartedly because the world didn’t make a lick of sense to me, but I assumed that when I came to maturity things would slot into place. And they didn’t. I’ve been eighteen, twenty-one, twenty-three, and nearly nothing about the way this world is organised makes sense. For a long time I blamed myself: I wasn’t mature enough, smart enough, or wise enough to understand. I was still in the process of growing up. That, or there was a defect in my machinery that made growing up impossible.
Now the awful truth began to dawn: there was no process. Maturity is a substitutive mechanism. Dry toast and strong coffee replace cocoa-pops and Coca-Cola. Carefree is replaced by careworn. Irresponsibility gives way to responsibility. But this mechanism only works on the surface of things. Look beneath the faded grey eyes of your bank manager and you can see the cheeky schoolboy he was. Behind the burned-out, thousand-yard-stare of the hippy is the youthful twinkle of idealism and the belief that mescaline and unprotected sex will restore the world to a natural balance. There are no adults: only children who’ve greyed out, colourful pointillism pictures reduced to numb static in the cavernous expanse of their lives.
No other theory can explain the state of the world in any meaningful sense. Would adults, as we understand them, consent to doing work too menial for computers while high-powered aluminium toys rocket through the space above their heads? Would adults consent to a world where a Kalashnikov rifle is cheaper than a sack of rice? Would adults elect leaders who were duplicitous liars, sitting enthroned on piles of human skulls?
Who knows. We don’t. There are no adults to ask, and that’s my point. There a five-year-old girls who put on mummy’s lipstick and high heels and stand in front of the mirror. There are five-year-old boys who shout threats and pull imaginary guns on each other. Functionally, is there any change in behaviour in the span of time that separates us from them? Observe a school playground and you’ll see a microcosm of human society playing out before you: a world of tiny, inconsequential dramas, of illogical spats, and of nonsensical, endless rule-making and rule-breaking.
A school playground is a zoo, a human zoo; both a proving ground for the future and an example of the arbitrary hurly-burly of adult life. The only difference is one of scale.
At least children’s games have some dignity to them.