Bow Down Before My Reproduction

Orlando Figes’ book “The Whisperers”, on silence and trauma during and after Stalin’s Terror, is a heartbreaking read. Despite the incredible cruelty and misery he chronicles, however, some part of my mind could not help responding in a way he would neither have intended nor wanted.

I noticed, in the many old Russian family portraits now being published for the first time, how uncomfortable the children always looked. Of course, in those days it took a lot longer to make a photograph. I remember my own grandfather, who always looked grimmer than the Reaper. This was partly because he was a Welsh Baptist minister, and so was obliged to look suitably stern, piety being indistinguishable from bellyache. But quite apart from the worm theology, it was surely easier to hold a grim expression for the long exposures than to hold a smile. On this take, children looked uncomfortable in old photographs because it was simply not given them to intimidate the viewer like the patriarchs and prophets, and their natural expressions could not long survive that particular technology.

That is one explanation. But the parade of uncomfortable children in this collection made me wonder: could it also be because they knew that the whole point of a family photograph was to document their progenitors’ reproductive success, and the point of that in turn was to poke contemporaries in the eye? That is to say, the children looked uncomfortably aware of being merely Parental Status Technology.

Funnily enough, it was not long after reading Figes that I was looking at the family-bragging portrait of Henry VIII with his three children. It has been suggested that the columns are there to show that the two princesses (Mary and Elizabeth) were “spares” to the true family unit – the absolute monarch together with his male offspring and with Jane Seymour, who was long dead at the time but as Edward’s mother more valuable for propaganda purposes than the living queen Catherine Parr.

Of course, as sovereign Henry had the excuse that his successful reproduction affected the welfare of everybody in the kingdom. The individuals in Figes’ book, in the albums of my childhood and for all I know on Facebook today, seem equally full of themselves – without having that crucial justification but still demanding the same admiration.

Posted on November 12, 2018 at 13:21 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: PARENTAL STATUS TECHNOLOGY, Having Or Being A Family?

Leave a Reply