Academic journal article German Quarterly

The Epistemology of Writing Childhood: Hans-Ulrich Treichel's der Verlorene

Academic journal article German Quarterly

The Epistemology of Writing Childhood: Hans-Ulrich Treichel's der Verlorene

Article excerpt

The voice of a suffering child has a unique ability to elicit empathy, and to diffuse the historical specificity of whatever cruelty may have been enacted against it. As retrospectively conceived innocent subjects in literature and film, children are generally depicted as having a limited range of understanding, a quality that makes them appear strange, even foreign, but one that also allows for profound insight, serving to offset the more hardened minds of adults. In his introduction to The Children's Culture Reader, Henry Jenkins points out that adult projections, fantasies, and desires continue to frame the child in dominant myths about childhood innocence. Referring to James Kincaid, he writes, "[t]he innocent child wants nothing, desires nothing, and demands nothing-except, perhaps its own innocence. [...] Childhood innocence is a cultural myth that must be "inculcated and enforced" upon children" (1-2). The child conveniently exists in a space that is both apolitical and asocial, and, as such, is conceived in close proximity to the "natural" and "primitive" world beyond historical specificity. The child's exceptional status, its perceived "innocence,"is the effect of a persistent ideology that posits a particular perception of Romantic childhood as the only conceivable way of understanding children (see Higonnet). As Jenkins has pointed out, we locate the child "outside the culture, precisely so that we can use it to regulate cultural hierarchies. [...] the innocent child is a myth, in Roland Barthes's sense of the word, a figure that transforms culture into nature" (15). Referring to childhood as a myth in Barthes's sense of the term makes clear that perceptions of the child are caught in a dominant belief system that hides its manipulative and socially vested interests behind the appearance and appeal of "common sense" and the "natural order" of things. In Mythologies Barthes maintains that the power of myth resides in the very fact that "myth hides nothing and flaunts nothing: it distorts; myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it is an inflection" (240) that manages to establish its convincing authority by naturalizing the concepts it presents.

In representations of violent chapters of history centered on child witnesses these powerful naturalizing tendencies are seductive and problematic in equal measure. On the one hand, faces and voices of children return us to history with great force and immediacy, eliciting affect and visceral identification (see Lury and Higonnet). But on the other hand, the aesthetically reconfigured child is charged with articulating the gravitas of historical events without possessing the maturity to understand and navigate historical facts and contexts. When used this way, "as an unexamined emblem of vulnerability and innocence" (Hirsch, Generation 16667), and aligned with the victim position, representations of children run the risk of framing the violence of history in uncritical and apologetic ways. In the following reading of Hans-Ulrich Treichel's Der Verlorene (1998) I will show how the ubiquitous but problematic perspective of a child can be mobilized in productive ways. I argue that by relying on a child narrator as the embodiment of a retrospectively reconfigured literary perspective, Treichel's text simultaneously accentuates and contests the ability of an innocent and naïve figure to perceive the complexity of a past that resides in the present. This voice is, in effect, the poignant voice of postmemory, a voice fraught with pain and confusion about past experiences that are not one's own. It is a narrative choreography that carefully overwrites a child's tendencies toward immediate experience and emotional vulnerability with an adult's inclination toward critical distance and belated processing. My reading will consider Treichel's text in relation to Marianne Hirsch's conception of postmemory, as well as Max Silverman's conception of palimpsestic memory. Both of these notions have recently energized critical memory studies and opened new ways of understanding transgenerational transpositions of trauma by probing how the present is always already overwritten by the past. …

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