MADRID, Spain--For reasons I needn't go into here, I recently had to search out some old photographs, in particular photos from my childhood and early youth. I showed some of these to my brothers and to their sons and daughters, my nieces and nephews, most of whom are now in their 20s.
And whereas the images of their parents and uncles, as babies or as children, produced in them a mixture of euphoria, retrospective tenderness and hilarity, they provoked, I think, in the subjects of those photographs a rather different combination of feelings: there was occasional hilarity, true, but tinged always, and perhaps inevitably, with a little pity, an occasional dash of embarrassment--a photo taken at the awkward age, or a photo in which one is wearing some particularly dated and thus antiquated item of clothing--and, now and then, a strange sense of simultaneity, or, rather, of immediate recognition and of time annulled.
This last feeling occurred mainly when I could instantly recall the exact moment and place when a photo was taken, could remember precisely the circumstances and even my general state of mind, or more concretely, could "smell" and "feel" the clothes I was wearing. To give one non-incriminating example: when I saw myself in the stout Tyrolean pants of which my godmother Olga brought us all a pair from Germany and which saw us through a whole school year, my immediate thought was: 'There I am in my Tyrolean pants, with the mother-of-pearl reindeer on the front,' and not, as occurred to me with other photos, 'There I am in those Tyrolean pants ...'
The difference is worth noting: in the first instance, I felt briefly as if I still owned those pants and--even more striking and, of course, more comical--that I could once again put them on as I so often did when I was about eight years old; in the second instance, the aforementioned Tyrolean pants were firmly in the past and I felt no connection with them whatsoever, clear in the knowledge that they were no longer to be found in my wardrobe and that I would never put them on again (not even for some eccentric trip to Bavaria, where even the grown-ups wear them).
I said earlier that when I look at these old photos I often feel a touch of pity. Don't misunderstand me: that word doesn't mean the same as self-pity, which would, in my view, be entirely misplaced. It isn't a matter of thinking how very innocent I was then (although I was, and it doesn't matter what date you put on that "then"); it isn't that I see myself in the light of today and am moved to pity, if I can put it like that, simply because the child or boy I was knows nothing of the troubles that await him, when the truth is he knows nothing of the satisfactions either, and rare is the life that does not contain both things: disappointments and contentment, enthusiasms and regrets.
One should avoid harboring such paternalistic feelings for oneself, largely because they're incongruous and absurd, but also because they're harmful and pointless, not only because it's ridiculous to feel moved by the person one was and, up to a point, still is, but because it implies that one is putting the past in a higher category than the present, and placing ignorance above knowledge. Looking back nostalgically on the days when "you still didn't know" or when "you still believed" or "still hoped" or "still dreamed" only makes sense in an age like ours that glorifies childhood and tries to make it last longer than ever before, even passing on the infection to those who should have long ago left childhood behind.
All of us (apart from those who were wretchedly unhappy as children) occasionally have a sense of childhood as our real home, a sense that everything that has happened since was mere accident, sham and artifice, and that the true and original "I" has been succeeded by a series of false "I"s with whom we have very little in common. This has led many a sentimental writer to declare--along with all the other nonsense that gets spouted in interviews--that they "have a child inside them", that "childhood is their one true homeland," and that they live, therefore, in a state of permanent exile.
Any feeling of pity arises, at least in my case, from the contrary idea: far from carrying a child around inside us (which would, it must be said, be a terrible nuisance), what we think we see in our photos or in our oldest memories is that the adult we are was already contained in the child that we were, and wasn't very difficult to spot either.
Often, in order to get a sense of someone with whom, sooner or later, I'm going to have dealings, I try to imagine what they would have been like as a child and how we would have got on, whether we would have been good friends or have hated each other's guts. One comes to realize that if anyone contains anyone, it's the child who contains the future adult and not the other way round; and when one looks at old photos, it's hard not to think, in a way, of the burden this implies.
Not that there's any place for self-pity here either: throughout all of history children have always been adults in the making, and the reason childhood has been seen as important is because of the way it shapes and influences what will come later, which is what matters. Nowadays, on the other hand, people give importance to childhood itself, as if humanity's sole crazy aim was to shape and create eternal, perennial children. Not a good idea. But that is how it is.
Javier Marias is an award-winning author and columnist based in Madrid, Spain. His work has been translated into 34 languages. His most recent book is the novel Tu Rostro Manana 3: Veneno y Sombra y Adios.
By Javier Marias