Childhood, Ferocious Sleep

“How strange it is that when I was a child I tried to be like a grownup, yet as soon as I ceased to be a child I often longed to be like one.”

― Tolstoy

In her recent critique of kids’ books, Children’s Literature, Domestication, and Social Formation (Routledge; PB edition, 2018), Layla AbdelRahim recounts this striking tale from Onchukov’s collection of North Russian folk stories:

A man was walking to Njonoksa, on the bridge… he saw a she-devil rambling: “A dress to impress I had; everything was taken away; but today, into the water I probe in a fashionable German robe, all bright, and with a haircut short and never will I emerge again, and never will show my voice.

Her admirable English translation parodies pedagogical grammar in a kind of beat hopscotch: dress/impress is serpentine; robe/probe sounds slightly lewd (and why is the robe German, not Dutch or Turkish?). The haircut seems an unexplained rite (short, shameful?). You cannot show a voice, but a face – yet certainly a voice shows something? Colossal stature, or its opposite in a visual gag. The babbling she-devil is a loopy relative of the Grimm Scissor Man or the Japanese snow witch. Note that she’s met on a ramble, where all songs and accidents start (or end: ‘No more I’ll go a roving’). And bridges are common places for strange meetings, once upon a time.

Even a superficial reading gives the puzzling impression that something has ‘happened’ in this story, although everything is certainly uncertain. The same is true of Dylan Thomas’ poetry, or that famous line of Chomsky’s which is often cited as a paradigm of senselessness: Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. In light of this, the MIT Don’s sentence now seems to refer to childhood, or to an adulthood haunted by sylvan troubled sleep, by deep unquiet structures where each atomic word is obscured in octopus ink.

The argument of Children’s Literature is that most Western childhood classics contain, consciously or unconsciously, a virulent antipathy toward the natural world, animals and animal nature, and the Commons. Fear of the wilderness is a preoccupation of this morose literature, represented in mythic or animal forms that both allure and terrify. The result is the inculcation of the arid outlines of commodity relations over the vigorously dialectical childhood mind. Even when children’s books offer a critique of that terrible project which begins at childhood’s end – Adulthood – the best it can muster is a kind of sentimental admission of defeat, exemplified by A. A. Milne’s final paragraph in Winnie the Pooh. Like range in artillery, children’s books project the psychological and physical closeness of the world out into a plane of total abstraction: the target, the word that lies over the thing, a vanishing port. That many of these books were written after WWI is probably no coincidence – Prufrock sounds pretty childish, right?

Ms. AbdelRahim contrasts these books with antidotes from outside of the European or Anglophone world: Nikolai Nosov’s Dunno trilogy which managed to attack both Stalinism and the grotesqueries of Western Imperialism with true anarchist verve; and Tove Jansson’s lovely Moomin books, which use from a deceptively subdued but equally effective angle, somewhat similar to Oliver Postgate and Fred Rogers. She also contrasts oral legends from Africa and the Indigenous Nations with the iron-clad written texts of the West: sing-song contra lesson and staff, legends and ideas transmitted along utterly different paths[i].

The first written records were not poems or prophecy but bills of sale and credit. All prophets and teachers first favor the oral over the written, as Holy Writ inevitably creates a tension between the flash of divine revelation and outward historical time. Symbols, like all code, won out after the primary tone faded from living memory. Or to be cynical: “People believe almost anything they see in print”, as Charlotte’s Web laments. Later, Guttenberg’s linear engines constructed sentences word by word, block by block. The typeset leaf follows the mechanism which arranged it, joining the vessel with the spirit just as technology joins the will with the instrument. In the hour of the fixed and perfect page, Time is a barrier to be overcome by ‘immortal’ words printed over mere voice, transferred like data along fiber optic cables and linked to political power and scholarly interpretation. Maybe print is the origin of our awful preference for communication over listening, informational exchange over the earlier forms of echo and mimic [ii]. At the forefront of this program lies the discipline called Education, a system of transforming the passive sensual nature of the early years of life into an active state where vision, hearing and touch are identified as receptive nodes and used accordingly.

Many of Ms. AbdelRahim’s most piercing observations come from her analysis of how children are taught in the places like Sudan versus the Bismarckian methods that still dominate European and US schools. Child psychology, sociology, the obsession with the origins of language (Chomsky again, and Skinner), fear of ‘wild children’ or Hillary’s Super Predators loose in Manhattan, Midwich Cuckoos and Bad Seeds… all of these concoctions show that we still recognize the power and terror of the childhood mind. Behind the eyes of a child lurks Satan or Pan, green children from below, our old beings in funhouse distortion. So childhood and children are test-subjects to be handled with a vicious scientific timidity which must find either Eden or the serpent in the egg.

Ms. AbdelRahim’s critiques of Lewis Carroll, Frank Baum, Milne, Lewis and Sendak are incisive and carefully thought through, stated clearly but with a true feel for poetics and ambiguity. As arguments, they are probably irrefutable. But something is missing, perhaps because it may be beyond even the most imaginative and sincere adult: How children themselves read and think about those very patriarchal, very tutorial tales that confront them.

While considering the purpose of most children’s books, the author uses Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the doxa:

“The immediate knowledge a person has but is not aware of having”, which “goes without saying because it comes without saying”… “Doxa is the particular point of view, the point of view of the dominant, which presents and imposes itself as a universal point of view – the point of view of those who dominate by dominating the state…” This elliptical remark would seem to indicate that doxic beliefs, although shared by all, are themselves produced and reproduced by the dominant class. What is odd, however, is that this group never deliberately planted them in a given field’s epistemological soil. Doxic assumptions, then, are a sort of unseen and unintended support for the rule of the dominant.

But does not such a critique risk falling into the same dialectical trap which lies at the heart of children’s literature? An admission of the total triumph of Logic and its sleeping signs over the pure action of childhood reading, that way of perception which now looks so estranged to us and is – and is never again in one’s life – utterly indivisible from the torrent of autodidactic and autochaotic images, visions and sounds all around us? Could not The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe be freed from its own doxa by the seeds of its own destruction, by a daemon arising from an exterior which is also an interior? Childhood sight is childhood thought; childhood mind later becomes the orphan of every one of our phony homecomings – for there can be no ‘childhood mind’ once you have crossed into adolescence. Beyond this point, there isn’t even a drop of sweetness left in our cruelty. And no matter how accurate any indictment of ruling power and its labyrinthine mirror-effects may be, does it not conceal the doxa of the doxa? At the center is the same subject – The Child & Childhood – two concepts completely foreign to children. Perhaps doxic structures only exist when the subject recognizes them in the production of Childhood, is compelled to recognize them by various means above and below. But outside of this Childhood industry, such things are not even phantoms.

When you read kids’ books again as an adult, your own clouded memory of a childhood reading produces the suspicion – even if distorted by sentimentality, by a wish to defend a cloying preciousness against your own better judgment – that you are not rereading the same book at all. We are told not to judge a book by its cover, which is dangerous advice. They want to teach us to destroy an ‘innocent’ way of seeing things as adjacent screens, rather than as a set of eternal and unyielding oppositions (Is this the genesis of those terrible childhood dreams where every familiar face turns out to be a changeling? No one forgets them, or ever stops having them entirely). The defeat of our first ways of seeing is expressed in that fateful admission of emptiness described by Milne. He could see it in no other way than as the preliminary suicide of a tortured middle class, prey to a doxa before which only his child-readers might remain blind.

And how is it that children love to listen to words that ‘make no sense’ in languages they do not know, to books like Finnegans Wake, which adults always tell us are ‘incomprehensible’? In the most profound pages of her book, Ms. AbdelRahim recounts an arrogant lecture given a Somali mother by a well-meaning Swiss refugee camp worker (May Allah save us from the well-meaning). The ‘illiterate’ mother is a repository of language, legends, history and a past that has not yet been consigned to the Past – and perhaps this is the only way to retain your childhood – yet all the health worker can offer her are exhortations to the same devastating literacy that the Nativists and colonial states demand. The anarchist mistrust of analogy and metaphor most forcefully put forward by John Zerzan is given the starkest of proofs, here in a displaced persons’ camp in a West that can no longer read its own unreadable records, wandering ragged in its old German robes.

The knowledge of the learned is rarely anything more than the annexation of property from the periphery of a central point, an arrogant assumption of ‘facts’ free from uneasy questions and especially effective when humiliating others. In contrast, a child learns by anti-learning, by a substitution of the seer with the object (for adults, call it schizophrenia), by a series of dissolves and impersonations that are no different from the thing perceived. Before the law of voyeur voyant has been imposed (tellingly, from the world of Fashion), maybe the child ‘sees’ nothing at all – which is why every child wants to be invisible, and the death of parents is the greatest dream of this childhood when it first feels the weight of practical oppression (confession on the part of Sendak; polemic on the part of Time Bandits). In the end, we might have come too far to look back on childhood at all. Bakunin’s dictum that “anyone who makes plans for after the revolution is a reactionary” is more profound than we think.

By now, even the purpose of ordering childhood in order to order adulthood has been forgotten, leaving only sadistic models behind. Models are the fate of many children, who once constructed them with harmless glue and scissors: prison, mental asylums, the halls of the analysts and medical theorists, even gated communities. It began with the Word, which became bruised flesh in school and the only heat at home. What we have learned since then is all too obvious, which gives even the most reactionary kids’ book a pathos scarcely less moving than the little creatures in its pages. The author of Tarka the Otter, which I remember as a lovely book, returned from the First World War an agoraphobic ruin who found anything but fur and leaf impossible to bear. To heal himself, he joined Mosely’s British Union of Fascists. Safety first, I guess.

Capitalism does accept the right to be hopeless, a right that can only be superseded by fire. A recent newsclip shows a lonely gorilla attacking a steel crane on a last tract of wild land, which seems like a scene out of a children’s book. We speak different languages now, as permanent exiles often do. Goodnight, more than Moon.


[i] Ms. AbdelRahim uses her own polyglot childhood in East and West to make her some of her most telling observations. These beautifully-recounted episodes are some of the most compelling parts of the book.

[ii] Never mind here that the printing press was invented in China. We are speaking a ‘Western’ fable.



Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.