The Synaptic Years

Jenny Diski

  • And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison
    Granta, 215 pp, £14.99, May 1993, ISBN 0 14 014240 1
  • Eating Children by Jill Tweedie
    Viking, 314 pp, £15.99, May 1993, ISBN 0 670 84911 1

It’s a race against time, but, as this century totters to its close, we might, in the final few years, catch up with the arithmetic and discover that it’s the 20th century we’ve been inhabiting, and not, after all, a dreamlike prolongation of the 19th. We’ll feel bereft, of course, as we pack away the old Middle-European 19th-century philosophies – we’ve played with them for so long there appears to be no alternative. Actually, we’ve got nothing to lose but certain habits of mind, and not much to fear since forming habits of mind is a special talent of our species. And there might be enough of a hiatus to feel sweet relief as the weight of Marx and Freud lifts off us, and the burden of history, public and personal, becomes a thing of the past.

Suppose, just suppose, that somewhere, someone is scribbling down an entirely new version of what we really are: a boldly different theory for the 21st century whose premise is that the crucial years of an individual’s psychological development are not from birth till five, but between the ages of 42 and 47. According to this theory, the psyche and personality in the first half of life are malleable and unfinished; childhood trauma not trauma, but neutral and neural experience: the Synaptic Years. Then it would be a simple matter for each of us to be analysed between the ages of 40 and 42, and by the time we reached the critical age – the Mid-Life Crisis which we’ve already labelled, but whose significance we’ve only dimly begun to grasp – we’d have got ourselves sorted out, our experience assessed and ordered, and be ready to spend fruitful years from middle age to the end of our days, as positive, harmonious and psychologically healthy as Houyhnhnms.

Certainly, we’re not there yet. Personal excavations into the undergrowth of family continue to roll off the presses. And – twitch, twitch, twitch – what would become of those of us who make our living raking over the ashes of our singular and desperately consequential childhoods? How are we to earn our crusts if we lose all the excruciating, delectable pain and pathology of the nuclear family, and relinquish the myths and monsters which sustain our sense of our uniquely interesting selves? Does the recent escalation of books on Life-with-Father suggest a kind of panic, perhaps, that the game is almost up?

Mind you, the whole edifice of the Freudian family horror story might collapse simply because all the best titles are gone. Turgenev has long since taken the solid and serious Fathers and Sons, and Sylvia Plath, the seminal ‘Daddy’. Germaine Greer’s used up Daddy, We Hardly Knew You, and now Blake Morrison has bagged And When Did You Last See Your Father? Which leaves me, I guess, with a choice between Oh, mein Papa and Daddy’s Little Girl. I’d better get a move on, or I’ll be lumbered with When Father Papered the Parlour, which wouldn’t do at all,

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