Toys and Words: Transgression as Indoctrination in Children's Literature

Shauna Toh, Columbia University

This paper attempts to use short readings of children's stories and rhymes by Daniil Xarms and Kornej Chukovskij to construct part of a theory of children's literature that combines a revelation of Chukovskij's own strictly systematized conception of art underlying his seemingly free and playful approaches with an application of Walter Benjamin's observations on children's cognitive development that infuse his work on revolutionary forms. It will hopefully contribute to the de-taxonomization of "compromised" and "uncompromised" modernist artists, with the eventual goal of removing such judgmental and simplified tags altogether.

The aims and attitudes of many of the post-Symbolist avant garde movements in Russia and the Soviet Union during the early decades of this century -- whether primitivist or futurist, abstractionist or constructivist -- were marked in appearance by a shift toward the concrete: from the spiritual to the material. With the rise of modernist concepts, artists began to direct their attention toward the form and matter of creation. The focus on material and external qualities, along with the increasing intermedial collaboration among artists, corresponded to the growing theatricalization of many artistic spheres, such as visual arts and literature. Art became more of a game, both in its outwardly flamboyant presentation and in its internal theorization, which was concerned with uncovering the founding rules and limits of creation.

This process of uncovering assumed an order underneath surface aesthetics, and concrete elements and guidelines of successful art were studied and classified, even at the same time that novelty, estrangement, and transgression in relation to just such systems were identified as most effective artistic devices. Transgression and rebellion became co-opted into normal elements, to be used toward whatever end the work of art was to achieve. Thus the issue of form's relation to content is confused: how does the appearance of artistic rebellion or formal innovation -- breaking rules and confounding expectations -- relate to an actual rebellion or innovation if the artistic act of transgression is itself classified within a set of rules?

These issues come to the fore when examining children's literature in the modernist period, where the inevitable issues of the pedagogical aims of literature in general and art as a whole, as well as those of form versus content, are prominent; it is not only important to determine what should be presented to children, but how. Chukovskij, for example, is a relevant case: a self-styled figure of command whose pedagogical philosophy drew from the implied general assumption that art for children serves to indoctrinate by transgressing rules to reinforce norms. Chukovskij's views on the learning process are an interesting comparision to Benjamin's, who saw trangressions, remnants, and the "outside" elements of culture as possessing key revolutionary potential when processed by the child's learning eye. Reading modernist children's literature within the framework of these two philosophies, this paper evaluates what these implications about "norms" and "abnormalities" contribute to the discussion of artistic didacticism.