Imaginary Friends

It’s that time of the year when imaginary friends come out with a force. This makes sense if you imagine that December is the night of the year (in the north, at least), and given that Christmas is both a pagan and basically a completely arbitrary ritual, when else should the boogeymen come out to play?

(Interpolation, David Foster Wallace style: I think the Danes have got something right about Christmas because they don’t focus on the big S.C./F.C. as much as all his little helpers, the so-called “nisser” [loose translation: elves], who manifest just the right ambiguity between good and evil. I mean, they’ll bring you your gifts and all, but the little f***ers are equally capable of some good old mischief)

That said, once you start thinking about it, the imaginary friend business is quite a lot more insidious than the big obvious ones: God (et al.) and Santa. As both of the linked pieces suggest, what is really troubling about these two venerably imagined bearded men is the necessity of lies – and lying – to keep them as friends, be it lying to self, or children, or simply disavowing the entire empirical world.

Social (and commercial) events like Christmas become more insidious when you forget about the outright fantasies (babies in mangers and reindeer in the sky) and think about the lying that goes into even the mundane performance of these rituals. Like the cards people spend time, money and energy buying, writing and posting to each other with formulaic greetings and “best wishes for the new year”, not to mention the gifts that become such a drag simply because they have to be there.

Before any accusations fly at this writer of being holier-than-thou, let me say immediately that I am not exempt (who is?): I have spent money on gifts that are nothing but stocking fillers, and I have sent cards to my ageing aunties because that’s what they expect me to do (and I am a good girl). And let me also say that one of my favourite things in the world is to give someone a gift. But I hate to do it under constraint (and am equally uncomfortable receiving such gifts).

The problem is that the pressure from lack of time and money (and stupid crowds in malls) is a death-knell to creativity. Virtually every manufacturing industry benefits from this with their prepackaged “gift-boxes”. In the Body Shop you don’t even have to take the time to choose three items from the shelves yourself: just buy the cranberry exfoliating hamper and you’re good to go. Or in the bottle store, where the Christmas special is a bottle of Tanqueray Gin in a box with (FREE!) a glass and a measly tin of tonic water. Voila: a gift. (Imagine, instead, buying the bottle that somebody likes, and then finding – independently – some cool glasses to go with it).

But I digress. The gift issue is just a symptom of an entire way of life predicated on not having to think too hard, and Christmas is the time it raises its very real head in a most disturbing way. But there are plenty of other, non-seasonal imaginary friends that we must watch out for too. Take the government, which in South Africa has recently passed a law prohibiting teenagers under the age of 16 from kissing. The legislation, which is under the Sexual Offences Act, purportedly offers better legal protection for victims of sexual abuse, which is a fine intention for a situation which is clearly out of hand in this country.

But let’s imagine that this law is actually obeyed (and we’re not just talking banning kissing in public, like in Indonesia, or in Indian schools). Consequence a): Once they hit 17, a generation of sexually stunted individuals who have no idea of what to do with each other (and from there, a generation of miserable marriages). Consequence b): teenagers who are found kissing (not to mention ‘rubbing against each other’) are now criminals (will they have records?). I sorely regret that George Orwell or Michel Foucault are not alive. This is the stuff of nightmarish fiction.

The only mildly positive factor I can see here is the possibility that this ridiculous law will force young people to get more creative; not with taking up scrabble instead of playing kiss-‘n-catch, but with finding ways to keep growing up and not getting caught. Maybe they’ll be lucky enough to emerge with a stronger sense of identity than the spineless parents who thank the government for rendering them completely defunct.

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