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  • A Pride of Pleasures
  • Margaret R. Higonnet (bio)

At the end of the eighteenth century, modern aesthetics was born with the publication of Kant's Critique of Judgment. The term aesthetic, referring to the pleasure derived from works of art, was critical to the concept that verbal arts should be distinguished from more practical, utilitarian, or purposive kinds of verbal practice. Whereas literature be fore had referred to many kinds of texts, including sermons and scientific texts, post-Kantian theorists have tended to limit the term to texts defined by (aesthetic) "purposiveness without purpose" (a leitmotif in Kant). To cite one of Kant's formalist visual examples: the pleasure inspired by the design of a tatoo may be separated from our assessment of its visual and physical impact on the body. Over the past two centuries, the pleasure of texts (not to mention tatoos) has continued to hold our attention, perhaps especially in the domain of children's literature, in part because the Romantics cultivated an image of childhood as a realm protected from adult purposiveness by the golden aura of innocent play. But the evident importance of didacticism in children's literature of the period also made it suspect, subject to debate: children's literature had a purpose and therefore could not be considered aesthetic.

Perry Nodelman's talk about children's literature concentrates on the pleasures of narrative, as he himself experiences them and as children (we speculate) may experience them. Although his own, confessedly adult, pleasure is his starting point, the purpose of his argument is to define children's literature.

Undoubtedly he is right that the key feature of children's literature, as commonly understood, is the situation of "adults writing books for children." These authors, he suggests, write across a gap in "experience," "knowledge," and "wisdom."1 From this thesis flow many of his other arguments: that the pleasures of reading children's literature derive from the interplay of binaries, for example. Writing across difference may indeed lead to the reinscription of differences.

But a number of the themes and narrative structures to which Nodelman [End Page 30] is drawn in books for the young seem to me equally prevalent in adult culture—not surprisingly so, given the initial premise. Fantasy, as he acknowledges, has an enthusiastic adult following, whether the variant is Star Wars or Paradise Lost. Precisely the mix of the fantastic with a realistic mode intensifies the psychological power of E. T. A. Hoffmann's novellas, such as The Sandman. This generically unstable mode was a characteristic offspring of the Romantic era, the period when children's literature began to come into its own.

Nodelman suggestively links narratives of adventure that lead to chastening conclusions, which he interprets as stories of the passage from "innocence" to "experience" or "wisdom," with the narrative pattern of home-away-home, in which a chastened childlike protagonist returns to familial security with a new awareness of the dangers of ignorance. The Tale of Peter Rabbit typifies this pattern. Although common in books for children, narratives of maturation are also common in books for adults.2 The Bildungsroman, another great Romantic invention, is one of the foundation blocks of the nineteenth-century novel. Similarly, the circle of a departure leading eventually to a return marks much of literature through time; consider the Odyssey.

Part of what fascinates Nodelman, however, is a psychological interplay or equilibrium between innocence and experience that seems to drive us to return to the same or similar texts. Tellingly, he confesses that the "activities of the wise" are less pleasurable or interesting than those of the unwise; we do not read, in short, in order to learn to avoid dangers or mistakes. The point is important: texts that look didactic often function in the opposite direction, opening a window onto risk-taking, defiance, anger, overeating, and other activities that we normally inhibit. Freud, commenting on our fascination with certain kinds of themes, suggests that reading itself puts us in a protected position: from the safety of an armchair, we can follow a protagonist into danger and even death, gaining imaginatively an experience that we could not literally gain without great cost. This is...


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pp. 30-37
Launched on MUSE
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