The Neverland of Childhood
Childhood, despite, (or perhaps because of) our attachment to it, is something that exists only as an idea. It is always only in constructions, thoughts and memories. No one actually remembers the beginning and end of their childhood as a period. One’s access to childhood, can then be understood as a continuous re-writing of how things were—that is, how one wants to remember them, and not necessarily how they happened. The period of childhood has to have ended (or not happened at all), for this retrospective construction. One needs to get out of it to long for it; the ‘it’ that never was.
The idea that one needs to grow out of being a child, in order to become an adult, is itself problematic. There is a huge assumption about childhood and adulthood being two different spaces that need to be inhabited, one after the other. What we overlook in this process of transitioning from childhood to adulthood, is that these demarcations are only in our heads, assumed by common consent, and adhered to as the norm. It is interesting to think about what happens when these imaginary (and strict) lines of differentiation begin to threaten us. What if childhood and adulthood stop being clear phases that should happen one after the other, but rather flow into each other, finding points of intersection? How does this lead to the frustration of having to be a child and adult at the same time?
It is not uncommon to find ourselves shifting between these two spaces, as though we have no control over it. In simplistic sense of the terms: We feel like a child, but act like an adult; think like an adult, but desire like a child, and the list goes on. There are these tensions all around us, either pushing us to do something or restraining us from doing it, and sometimes both at once. Whether or not they manifest into evident behaviours to be characterized as that of an adult or a child, it is safe to say that these tensions do play out. One particular field that allows us to think about these ideas much more critically is that of children’s literature. It includes not just the ideas of childhood and adulthood, but children and adults as people in its discourse. Books are written by adults, for children, and hence children’s literature strives on the imbalances arising from these spectrums (that of childhood and adulthood) at all stages: be it creating, producing or consuming it.
In this paper, I will first explain the concept of a ‘child’ and ‘childhood’, and then go on to use children’s literature to explore the ways in which adults and children respond to and through this medium. I will also explore the intersection of the adult-child world, and the tension it causes, commenting on how childhood is an imaginary idea, a sliding signifier that has to slip away, to exist.
Virginia Blum, in Hide and Seek: The Child Between Psychoanalysis and Fiction, remarks, “Psychoanalysis is the story of the adult’s relationship with an internalized, repudiated, but nevertheless ceaselessly desired child – not the actual child the adult has been, but rather the ‘dead’ child mourned by a present-tense self”. She talks about the ‘child’ not as a person, but an idea. The ‘child’ in the adult becomes that which has to die, for the adult to live. The “present- tense” self is what rejects this child in the adult, while yearning for it; to yearn for it. Often this inner child is associated with the Freudian Id.
“Childhood is not an object, any more than the unconscious [is]…The idea that childhood is something separate that can be scrutinised and assessed is the other side of the illusion which makes of childhood something which we have simply ceased to be” says Jacqueline Rose in The Case of Peter Pan, or The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction. Childhood, then, becomes a way of leaving all the irrational, untamed (even dark) desires behind, in order to become mature, sensible beings. That childhood is associated with innocence, but might actually be a hidden place for desires is a thought to hold on to.
A Freudian understanding of the unconscious would tell us that we repress the untamed desires in our childhood, but they find various ways to come back, whether consciously or not. David Rudd, in Reading the Child in Children’s Literature, writes, “…childhood is not only the source of all our later neuroses, but also the place which, once revisited, might be cleansed and renewed”. He suggests that childhood is a process—of going back, erasing, writing and re-writing.
It is interesting to think about childhood as that which can constantly be written and re-written. Children’s literature seems to be a medium which allows for this re-writing quite literally. It does so in two ways: First, in the case of adults who summon the ‘child’ in them in order to write for children and second, adults who read for the ‘child’—in them, or in their life.
What do I mean by summoning one’s child in order to write for children? If we were to go with Freud’s understanding of repressed desires, an adult writing for a child will have to try and access this repressed space in themselves. In thinking like a child, or on behalf of a child, the adult has to lose control over the “rational self”, ultimately drawing back to that space which was supposed to be rejected, left behind, forgotten. The adult is now in a confused space of adulthood, with threatening remnants from childhood.
The writer of children’s literature integrates all of these thoughts, consciously or otherwise. The result is a seemingly fantastical (even silly, to some) work, with shouting undertones of “adult matter”: paedophilia, violence, misogyny, xenophobia, to name a few. Lewis Carroll’s Alice and J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, were both based on real children from their life. They were both accused of having objectionable sexual feelings towards the children. In a poem dedicated to (the real) Alice, Carroll writes: “Still she haunts me, phantomwise”. He points to the lingering (almost ghostly) presence this child has in his life. The use of the word “haunt” is interesting too; it goes back to the psychoanalytic idea of the repressed never going away completely.
Reading children’s literature, too, is a layered process. The target audience is of course children, who internalize these stories without really knowing what they might mean. They become passive receivers, taking in the thoughts of adult writers as the voice of authority. It becomes problematic only when they grow up having internalized ideas that were imposed upon them while they were younger.
I am interested more in the layered readings rather than the passive ones that children are targeted to. By that, I mean adults re-reading children’s literature as active receivers (involved in meaning making). This kind of reading reveals the hidden undertones to the reader now. The rabbit hole that Alice falls into, is no more just a hole, but her entry into adulthood; the wonderland now becomes an unlocked world of desires; Peter is more than just innocent child; he is a sexual being: violent, psychopathic. The same tales tell different stories now.
In Negro and the Psychopathology, Franz Fanon says, “In every society, in every collectivity, exists – must exist – a channel, an outlet through which the forces accumulated in the form of aggression can be released” (p. 464). It is not hard to see the parallels in the way literature works. Through these stories, writers and readers do more than just producing and consuming works of fiction. Literature becomes a way of understanding psyches—individual as well as collective.
Fanon goes on to say, “This is the purpose of games in children’s institutions, of psychodramas in group therapy, and, in a more general way, of illustrated magazines for children -each type of society, of course, requiring its own specific kind of catharsis. The Tarzan stories, the sagas of twelve-year- old explorers, the adventures of Mickey Mouse, and all those “comic books” serve actually as a release for collective aggression” (p.464). He talks particularly about a Negro growing up reading white literature and relating to it. The black child, while reading Western writings, thinks of himself as the white hero, forgetting that he is actually the black savage in the story. This realization comes to him only after he sees how the real world functions. In a way, what he reads as a child, only hits him when he grows up and revisits his childhood.
At this point, we see the lines between the producer (adult) and the consumer (child) of children’s literature blurring. We started off by saying that children’s literature is written by adults, for children, but we can see from above, how that would be a simplistic argument. For Jacqueline Rose, “Children’s fiction is impossible, not in the sense that it cannot be written (that would be nonsense), but in that it hangs on an impossibility, one which it rarely ventures to speak. This is the impossible relation between adult and child […] Children’s fiction sets up a world in which the adult comes first (author, maker, giver) and the child comes after (reader, product, receiver), but where neither of them enter the space in between.” Rose’s argument, however, assumes the adult and child as two different entities, never colliding. But the impossibility that she speaks of, arises from the very fact that both the adult and the child (in the adult) try to enter “the space in between” all the time, constantly failing.
The impossibility is that the adult (author, maker, giver) and child (reader, product, receiver) can never be independent of each other. The author and reader have to come together to produce meaning; the maker and the product cannot exist without the other; the giver and the receiver are in fact both giving and receiving; the adult and the child, both are being one while wanting to separate from the other.
Children’s literature becomes this interesting moment of stutter which gets the adults (as writers or readers) to confront the ‘child’ in them which they had repressed. The ‘child’ comes to signify all those moments which the adult cannot make sense of—the irrational wants, socially inacceptable desires, and all the hidden mess of thoughts which don’t fit in with the personality the adult consciously constructs. Just as the process of writing literature, the idea of childhood too, is re-written, re-read and re-visited. Every peek into the psychological world of childhood adds something, takes away something, and changes things around. The adult sees childhood as a closed chapter, done and dusted. But what it really remains to be, is blank pages one after the other, constantly being written, erased and re-written.
Blum, Virginia L. Hide and Seek: The Child between Psychoanalysis and Fiction. Urbana: U of Illinois, 1995. Print.
Carroll, Lewis, John Tenniel, and Alexander Woollcott. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking-glass and the Hunting of the Snark. New York: Modern Library, n.d. Print.
Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2004. Print.
Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan, Or, The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1984. Print.
Rudd, David. Reading the Child in Children’s Literature: An Heretical Approach. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.