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17 October 2011 @ 05:04 am
Psi for Children -- Matilda (Part 2)  
(Again, the whole book can be found here. The page numbers are different in the PDF version.)

Where we left off, little Matilda and Miss Honey are walking to Miss Honey's cottage. Matilda is very animated, and positive, despite Miss Honey's earlier reaction. She doesn't wonder why her teacher has reacted with fear, and she doesn't take any of that personally.

"It was Miss Honey this and Miss Honey that and Miss Honey I do honestly feel I could move almost anything in the world, not just tipping over glasses and little things like that . . . I feel I could topple tables and chairs, Miss Honey . . . Even when people are sitting in the chairs I think I could push them over, and bigger things too, much bigger things than chairs and tables . . . I only have to take a moment to get my eyes strong and then I can push it out, this strongness, at anything at all so long as I am staring at it hard enough . . . I have to stare at it very hard, Miss Honey, very very hard, and then I can feel it all happening behind my eyes, and my eyes get hot just as though they were burning but I don't mind that in the least, and Miss Honey . . .

"Calm yourself down, child, calm yourself down," Miss Honey said. "Let us not get ourselves too worked up so early in the proceedings."

"But you do think it is interesting, don't you, Miss Honey?"

"Oh, it is interesting all right," Miss Honey said. "It is more than interesting. But we must tread very carefully from now on, Matilda."

"Why must we tread carefully, Miss Honey?"

"Because we are playing with mysterious forces, my child, that we know nothing about. I do not think they are evil. They may be good. They may even be divine. But whether they are or not, let us handle them carefully.""

Again, the reaction could be a lot worse, but it could also be a lot better. She doesn't seem to allow for the possibility that this is just something that happens to some people -- not a "higher power" or any "higher forces," but maybe just something that happens. I mean, no one really knows why some children are prodigies, either. It's very rare, but it happens. There's no need to evoke divine (or evil) forces to explain it.

"These were wise words from a wise old bird [they are?], but Matilda was too steamed up to see it that way. "I don't see why we have to be so careful?" she said, still hopping about.

"I am trying to explain to you," Miss Honey said patiently, "that we are dealing with the unknown. It is an unexplainable thing. The right word for it is a phenomenon. It is a phenomenon."

"Am I a phenomenon?" Matilda asked.

"It is quite possible that you are," Miss Honey said. "But I'd rather you didn't think about yourself as anything in particular at the moment. What I thought we might do is to explore this phenomenon a little further, just the two of us together, but making sure we take things very carefully all the time."

"You want me to do some more of it then, Miss Honey?"

"That is what I am tempted to suggest," Miss Honey said cautiously.

"Goody-good," Matilda said.

"I myself," Miss Honey said, "am probably far more bowled over by what you did than you are, and I am trying to find some reasonable explanation."

"Such as what?" Matilda asked.

"Such as whether or not it's got something to do with the fact that you are quite exceptionally precocious."

"What exactly does that word mean?" Matilda said.

"A precocious child", Miss Honey said, "is one that shows amazing intelligence early on. You are an unbelievably precocious child."

"Am I really?" Matilda asked. "Of course you are. You must be aware of that. Look at your reading. Look at your mathematics." "I suppose you're right," Matilda said.

Miss Honey marvelled at the child's lack of conceit and self-consciousness.

"I can't help wondering", she said, "whether this sudden ability that has come to you, of being able to move an object without touching it, whether it might not have something to do with your brainpower.""

I'm not really sure why one has to assume that a five-year-old discovering that she can do something must be construed as an ability "suddenly" coming to her. Maybe she could do it all along, and she never tried! And maybe it's developmental, and so she developed it at five and didn't have it when she was younger. But we're supposed to believe that she really just "suddenly" developed PK. If it does have something to do with her extraordinary intellect somehow (genius minds working very differently and all), then it further supports the interpretation that this is not something she just suddenly developed, but something she just discovered.

""You mean there might not be room in my head for all those brains so something has to push out?"

"That's not quite what I mean," Miss Honey said, smiling. "But whatever happens, and I say it again, we must tread carefully from now on. I have not forgotten that strange and distant glimmer on your face after you tipped over the last glass."

"Do you think doing it could actually hurt me? Is that what you're thinking, Miss Honey?"

"It made you feel pretty peculiar, didn't it?"

"It made me feel lovely," Matilda said. "For a moment or two I was flying past the stars on silver wings. I told you that. And shall I tell you something else, Miss Honey? It was easier the second time, much much easier. I think it's like anything else, the more you practise it, the easier it gets."

[Well, it's a good thing she doesn't take it to heart that the first person she tells wonders if using PK might actually be hurting little Matilda, The Rockinghorse Winner style. How convenient that "dangerous psi" makes you feel scary and creepy and peculiar, and "good psi" makes you feel marvelous and lovely, and gives you visions of flying past the stars on silver wings! They go into the cottage, and spend some time talking about other things.]

"You know," she said, "I've been thinking very hard about what you did with that glass. It is a great power you have been given, my child, you know that."

"Yes, Miss Honey, I do," Matilda said, chewing her bread and margarine.

"So far as I know," Miss Honey went on, "nobody else in the history of the world has been able to compel an object to move without touching it or blowing on it or using any outside help at all." [It's a pity she just says this without comment, instead of offering to help Matilda investigate a context for her abilities, helping her research others who have experienced PK, and so on. Information may sometimes be hard to come by, but that doesn't mean one should not try! It would be more interesting, I think, for Miss Honey at some point in the book to have helped Matilda with this research -- but then again, we're nearing the end of the book, and Matilda "poof" stops being psychokinetic once "justice" is achieved.]

Matilda nodded but said nothing.

"The fascinating thing", Miss Honey said, "would be to find out the real limit of this power of yours. Oh, I know you think you can move just about anything there is, but I have my doubts about that."

"I'd love to try something really huge," Matilda said.

"What about distance?" Miss Honey asked. "Would you always have to be close to the thing you were pushing?"

"I simply don't know," Matilda said. "But it would be fun to find out."

[Chapter break]

"We mustn't hurry this," Miss Honey said, "so let's have another cup of tea. And do eat that other slice of bread. You must be hungry.""

Matilda goes home and spends the next week practicing PK. Everything is very reliable for her, and she has mastered macro PK in under a week. Not exactly realistic, but it moves the plot along quickly.

Then comes the chapter entitled "The Third Miracle," and Matilda uses PK to give Miss Trunchbull her comeuppance. ^_^

The comes this brief scene, which seriously can be lifted right out of the text with no noticeable break in the narrative (you can just go from "...after school as they always did" to "Matilda, who was perched on a tall stool..." immediately after this). I strongly recommend editing clip out if anyone reading this blog ever reads this book to any children:

One evening a few weeks later, Matilda was having tea with Miss Honey in the kitchen of The Red House after school as they always did, when Matilda said suddenly, "Something strange has happened to me, Miss Honey."

"Tell me about it," Miss Honey said.

"This morning," Matilda said, "just for fun I tried to push something over with my eyes and I couldn't do it. Nothing moved. I didn't even feel the hotness building up behind my eyeballs. The power had gone. I think I've lost it completely."

Miss Honey carefully buttered a slice of brown bread and put a little strawberry jam on it. "I've been expecting something like that to happen," she said.

"You have? Why?" Matilda asked.

"Well," Miss Honey said, "it's only a guess, but here's what I think. While you were in my class you had nothing to do, nothing to make you struggle. Your fairly enormous brain was going crazy with frustration. It was bubbling and boiling away like mad inside your head. There was tremendous energy bottled up in there with nowhere to go, and somehow or other you were able to shoot that energy out through your eyes and make objects move. But now things are different. You are in the top form competing against children more than twice your age and all that mental energy is being used up in class. Your brain is for the first time having to struggle and strive and keep really busy, which is great. That's only a theory, mind you, and it may be a silly one, but I don't think it's far off the mark."

"I'm glad it's happened," Matilda said. "I wouldn't want to go through life as a miracle-worker."

"You've done enough," Miss Honey said. "I can still hardly believe you made all this happen for me."

I don't think there's any evidence anywhere for anyone ever losing one mental capacity just because they are challenged in another. Nor is there absolutely evidence anywhere that psi children stop being psi because they are academically challenged. This is just ridiculous.

Basically, it's a convenient (if nonsensical) excuse for Matilda to lose the ability once the "fundamental disruption" in the lives of the characters is resolved, namely, Miss Trunchbull has fled town and given Miss Honey the house and money which is rightfully hers. Matilda's psi abilities are connected to, and tied up with, the life problems of other people (who are not psi). When she uses her psi abilities to help these other people with their problems, "poof," she loses them. But rather than try to come up with some half-baked story why Miss Honey's problems have literally led to Matilda developing psi so she can help Miss Honey with her problems, we just see these same elements juxtaposed with each other, with the only explanation being given for why Matilda loses psi abilities being that she is now academically challenged.

Which also makes no sense.

It is still, however, another way of telling the same old story that people who have psi abilities have developed them for the purpose of helping people who are not psi with their problems, for their benefit. With those other problems out of the way, there is no longer any "need" in the narrative for Matilda to be still psi. She has done what she "got the gift from God to do," and now that it's all resolved, God takes it back. (Or in other stories, the psi character dies somehow, having sacrificed him/herself for those non-psi people.)

Yes, we've seen this before: it's called the Flowers for Algernon Syndrome.

And no, it makes no sense why a child who just discovered she could master macro PK ina week and "save the day" for her teacher (and for the whole school) would suddenly be glad she could no longer do it. The only "explanation" for this in the narrative (besides for the above) is that it shows her humility -- she doesn't "want to be a miracle worker." But Matilda has been a prankster for the whole book, and now she can pull off pranks on a whole new scale. Doesn't she feel totally awesome about that? What about how fabulously empowered PK made her feel a few weeks ago? Now she's just glad to have mysteriously lost the ability?

This basically has a five-year-old psi child going, "Oh, I'm so glad I'm no longer psi! I mean, what a burden on me for my whole life that would be! I'm so better off without it."

Replace psi here with the under-represented or marginalized group of your choice, and see how this sounds. Just do it. Have a five-year-old (or older, if necessary) child expressing gratitude that they've "poof" stopped being in this group because it would be such a burden on them, and then happily eating their bread and jam and talking about random trivia. See how this sounds.

And then in several pages, the story wraps up, with Matilda's family fleeing to Spain to escape the cops, and Matilda asking if she can stay with Miss Honey instead, and the parents being like "yeah, whatever, fine with us," and driving off, leaving her there. The end!

I think there should be some discussion of narratives about psi people and their families, but I may make that its own entry. It's often the case that the hero/heroine, especially if he or she is psi or magical in some way, is presented as an orphan, or as raised by absolutely dreadful relatives whom he or she would be much better off without. (Say, Harry Potter.) Look, Matilda's biological parents are her Muggle Foster Parents!

This really deserves its own post, though.
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