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American Imago 63.2 (2006) 235-251
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Reflections on a Philosopher's Recollections of Childhood
St. Agnes, Cornwall TR5 0ST
Describing the protracted gestation of this book, Richard Wollheim says that the desire to write it had long been in his thoughts "like a benign lump" that in his twilight years "now seemed to be growing" (124). The result is a truly exceptional work, an account of childhood that is at once distinctive and distinguished. Those familiar with the author's previous writings on art and philosophy might scarcely have anticipated so personal and undefended a work to be his final legacy. Notable for being somewhat reserved, even forbidding, in his writing (though not in his personal style), Wollheim was an erudite and impressive thinker, a philosopher of mind, of aesthetics and political theory, who had acquired a formidable if mixed reputation on both sides of the Atlantic over the last four decades of the twentieth century. He championed the academic study of Freud and of psychoanalytic theory when both the man and the subject matter were viewed with disdain by more positivistically minded colleagues. Though he once ventured into novel writing (a hobby not unknown to philosophers), and tried unsuccessfully a second time, he had never before essayed anything remotely like this, a childhood memoir devoid of self-pity, wry, funny, and sad.
It is not the subject matter that makes the book so unusual—childhood reminiscences have become a flourishing genre of late—but rather its utter clarity of vision and vividness of expression. Maybe it was felt in some quarters to be too uncompromisingly honest for its own good. At all events, this final project seems not to have appealed to prospective publishers, despite Wollheim's considerable academic renown. No doubt [End Page 235] his chosen title did not help its cause. Generally, this genre of book requires something alluring to capture the interest of the would-be reader, a title matching the hint of self-indulgence implied in its production. Germs hardly qualifies as such. Yet the topic of germs is absolutely germane to the unfolding story of Wollheim's early life, their occurrence, with the fear and phobia surrounding them, acting as a leitmotif for the actions and reactions that shaped its course. We cannot observe germs, but we are made aware of their existence early on. They are what as children we catch without noticing, what we carry, and what we communicate. They are what parents (and in Wollheim's case his nurse and later his governess) spend much of their time protecting the child from, often to no avail. Thus, both their unseen presence and their unseen absence become part of the fabric of the life we lead as children, of our ills as well as our illnesses. Finally, as he suggests in the book's closing paragraph, they and their residues are what we spend much of the rest of our life trying to scatter abroad.
Wollheim's own opinion, as reported by John Richardson (2003) in his obituary, that this was his best piece of writing, appears posthumously vindicated. Within a year of its original appearance under the imprint of a relatively obscure British press, it has now found a mass-market publisher and, with it, the prospect of a much wider audience. The best advice I can give is just to buy the book, and to read it with openness and without preconceptions. That is how it was meant to be. Yet as a reviewer writing for a psychoanalytically informed readership, I feel a need and a wish to comment. The remarks that follow are not a critique of the book in the conventional sense, but instead some thoughts about what may have gone into the impulse to write it—or, if you like, into what I take to be (though it's a horrid-sounding word) its latent rationale...