Child’s Play

Creativity is dangerous.

Playing with words, images, and colors can reveal uncomfortable truths not only about the artist but also the world at large. The subversive potential of art cannot be underestimated.

As a writer, creating fiction means putting myself into the shoes of a child.

The child’s perspective is always a creative one. All his life, Pablo Picasso tried to see the world through the eyes of a child; unprejudiced and without models; without respect. So how come children still tend to be seen as pretty pink blessings surrounded by naivete? Why do I as a writer make use of a child’s perspective so often? Are children dangerous?

The concept of »childhood« is always abstract, and heavily influenced by ideologies. [1] It has undergone radical changes throughout history. Artists, as well as society itself, have sought to fill the vacant state of someone not yet formed by experience. As a reaction to the growing functionality of industrialization, a »Cult of Childhood« blossomed in literature and visual media in the nineteenth century, which was made possible by the wealth and comfort of the bourgeoisie.

Though already here, the seeds of cynicism and irony toward the concept of childhood innocence had been planted. These can be traced back to phenomena represented in early advertising, when »childhood« started being used for marketing techniques of branding.

Representations of childhood made a radical departure from light to dark after World War II. In American cinema, for example, horror films featuring child protagonists came into fashion, such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973).

These films, and the work of other artists such as Paula Rego – who challenge taboos by connecting childhood to themes of violence, pain, and sexuality – reveal a great deal about the twentieth-century fear of the future and the state of mankind.

Facing the fact that children are also capable of crimes, like the brutal murder of toddler James Bulger (committed by two ten-year-olds in Liverpool) or school massacres in the United States and Germany, show that the child/adult dichotomy is ever more negotiable.

However, this blurriness also reveals the potential of child characters in fiction. Misbehaving children are often compared to monsters or animals, and thus question human nature and civilization itself. Their great anarchistic potential is a threat to the patriarchal order into which they are supposed to grow.

As a writer of screenplays and poetry, I observe myself adopting the role and language of a child. In my twenties, I suspected this had to do with age. In my thirties, I became worried and began to ask myself: why can`t I get rid of a child’s perspective? Have I been taken in by a Romantic notion of childhood innocence? And furthermore, perhaps I idealize childish values such as the concept of »play«, for example. As Siri Hustvedt puts it – »play is universal« – and »part of every human being’s creativity and the source of a meaningful life. Making art is a form of play.« [2]

So putting myself into the shoes of a child helps me enter a place where such form of play is allowed to happen. It helps me to gain freedom within the writing process and enriches my imagination. It serves as a limitation, but it also allows my characters to behave in unpredictable and unconventional ways.

The original idea for my short film, EAT was a child who imagines that it consumes the world. The model protagonist only appeared later when questions of feasibility and casting came into play. The basic idea for BIESTER (a girl who rents ideal parents) is a childish wish that accompanied me for as long as I can remember.

So, somehow the idea of being small, of being uneducated but not miseducated yet, limits the radius of the fictitious world and thus automatically creates a space that differs from our preconceived concept of reality. Our everyday and modern lifestyle, which emphasizes rationality and profit-thinking, can be subverted by literary strategies neglecting logical thinking and thus put light on the actual chaos, irrationality, and instability of the world that surrounds us. [3] By means of rhythm, enumeration, and the juxtaposition of seemingly incongruous words and images, new ways of thinking and seeing the world can negate the what-we-already-know. A sur-reality can be created in which language and images form a space of their own; a world that is based on absurdity and that can contradict the logic of cause and effect.

Therefore, my slipping into the child’s perspective has been an unconscious strategy to leave behind the orderliness of everyday adult life and enter a world where words don’t necessarily have a rigid meaning; where a new order of things might even reveal a sort of horror within our human existence; a strategy to express fear. And, on rare and happy occasions, a technique that is driven by the urge to overcome that fear.

As an author, choosing the perspective of a child seems apolitical at first sight. But questions of power are inherent in the limited view of someone being small, and thus automatically dependent and powerless. A child`s protest against a corrupt and bigoted adult world, as we see it in Die Blechtrommel by Günter Grass, can serve as a seismograph of society, and thus reveal its nuisances and inadequecies even more effectively.

A child’s perspective, moreover, can serve as camouflage: No one would expect someone small and seemingly innocent to tear the mask from the world`s face. Colors of pastel can be used to gild and balance the atrocities of mankind.

In Agota Christof’s novel, Le Grand Cahier (1986), the reader reads the young twin brothers’ notes about their everyday life in wartime. Since their mother left them at the house of their cruel grandmother who despises them, they have no place to belong. Their only goal is to inure themselves against the brutal world that surrounds them. They write down their daily routines and activities in the matter-of-fact, objective tone of a report and in the simple language of children. Thus, the reader witnesses their transformation. They are becoming monstrous human beings who kill other people; and in the end even their own father. This contrast between the child’s perspective and voice, and the inconceivable atrocities being told, arouse a seductive pull into a world of almost unbelievable inhumanity. The voice of a child for this particular story contrasts with war’s gruesomeness, while also depicting the metamorphosis of seemingly innocent beings into monsters.

So the usage of the child’s perspective in fiction can even allow us a more ambiguous, and perhaps more surprising glimpse into the abyss of our human existence. In the depiction of childhood and youth, authors also automatically raise questions about time: »Memory and imagination cannot be separated.« [4]

Traveling back into childhood memories during the writing process allows me to manifest an inner landscape of surreal images and dreams; a place that my mind can easily enter; a space filled with pictures.

Entering this fictitious childhood world offers me an entirely different perspective: a room in which things I »already know« become strange and mysterious. A room that I generally need in order to express the insecurity that I feel towards »reality.«

  1. Jump Up Compare: Patricia Holland: Picturing Childhood, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd London 2004.
  2. Jump Up Siri Hustvedt: Playing, Wild Thoughts, and a Novel’s Underground, in: Living, Thinking, Looking. London 2012, p. 38.
  3. Jump Up Compare: Marion Poschmann: Mondbetrachtung in mondloser Nacht. Über Dichtung. Berlin 2016.
  4. Jump Up Siri Hustvedt: Playing, Wild Thoughts, and a Novel`s Underground, in: Living, Thinking, Looking, Sceptre Hodder & Staughton UK, 2012, page 40.