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  • Psychic Barriers and Contact Zones:Rereading Rose and the Rupture between Child and Adult
  • Alison Waller (bio)

Twenty-five years after the publication of The Case of Peter Pan, Or The Impossibility of Children's Fiction, Maria Tatar's Enchanted Hunters refers to Jacqueline Rose in just one footnote dealing with the "dark side" of Barrie's photographs of the Llewelyn Davies boys (268). The minor nature of this citation is hardly surprising since Tatar believes passionately in the possibilities of children's fiction, particularly in its ability to connect readers young and old with texts and with each other. Where Rose denies that we, as adults, can ever recognize how real children read, Tatar asserts that wonderment and horror form knowable touchstones for a framework of childhood reading, realized in its purest form in the "sensory bliss and horror" of fairy tales (12) and partly uncovered through adult memory.1 In some respects, however, Rose and Tatar are concerned with the same fundamental issues, even as they reach opposing conclusions about the nature of children's literature. Both critical works have at their core the structural relationship of adult and child, inside and outside the text.

For Rose, this relationship renders children's fiction impossible because of the ways in which a children's classic "is considered to speak for everyone—adult and child…. The child and the adult are one at the point of pure identity which the best of children's books somehow manage to retrieve" (5). Peter Pan acts as an emblem or exemplar for Rose, but, for her, all children's literature, or at least the books that society most values, invokes a similar reaching backwards to a mythical point of origin. The fictional child plays a crucial part in this process, since this figure acts as a kind of "pioneer" with special access to primitive states and can help to return us, as reading adults, to lost worlds of pure meaning and language. Rose queries the authenticity of any such [End Page 274] clear line of connection between child and adult. She points to the moments of anxiety that are generated when slippage between child and adult occurs within children's literature, moments where what she terms "psychic barriers" (70) are disturbed, either through allusions to troubling childhood sexuality, confusions in the textual voices of narrator and narratee, or the unsavory link between children and money in the commodification and production of literary texts for young people.

A quarter of a century later, and at the other end of the spectrum, Tatar embodies the very critical stance that Rose finds problematic, on the whole avoiding any potentially troubling fluidity in relationships between child and adult and exploring instead what she terms the "contact zone" represented in the particular social configuration of child and adult as they read a text together.2 In fact, her discussion of Peter Pan implies that Barrie's story in many ways does offer the very "point of pure identity" that Rose worries about, arguing that for readers, "Peter Pan continues to be one of our consummate bedtime stories, for it fuses childhood fantasies about an island where boys band together and take charge with adult nostalgia for the magical preserve of childhood" (120).

In this article I ask whether readers can accept such a fusion of child and adult perspectives in children's fiction, and whether psychic barriers between child and adult can be disrupted without the complete rupture that Rose argues is inevitable. To do this, I suggest that there is more connecting Rose's highly theoretical rejection of the purposes of children's fiction and Tatar's humanist promotion of childhood reading than is at first apparent. Whereas Rose points to dubious adult desires underlying the production of childhood innocence, and can therefore tease out the inevitable anxiety provoked by children's literature where ruptures occur between adult and child, Tatar aims to draw the real child and adult back together in a healthy "contact zone" of reading, where the only desire is for shared pleasure. However, each sees the boundary between child and adult as crucial to understanding children's literature as impossible or possible, even...