Curiouser and Curiouser: The Queerness of Childhood Temporalities

Fiona Noble submitted her PhD thesis in Hispanic Studies and Film and Visual Culture at the University of Aberdeen in January 2015.  Her interdisciplinary research investigates diverse articulations of childhood, performance and immigration in post-Franco Spanish cinema, interrogating the issue of (in)visibility through theoretical frameworks such as queerness, gender performativity, the haptic, spectrality and waste.  She writes the blog Spanish cinephilia.

 The opening scene of Lewis Carroll’s canonical children’s story Alice in Wonderland stages a curious encounter between the child and time.  At the novel’s opening we join a listless Alice, the child protagonist of the tale, who is becoming “very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do”, feeling “very sleepy and stupid” due to the hot day and “considering, in her own mind […] whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies.”[1]  Along comes a White Rabbit, who is, unlike the idle child, pressed for time:

‘O dear!  O dear!  I shall be too late!’  […]  when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and, burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.[2]

The opening scene of Alice in Wonderland captures the curiousness of childhood temporalities.  This curiousness applies not only to the ways in which children experience the passing of time, but also to the ways in which the child is often deployed as an ahistorical agent.  In support of this, consider J. Jack Halberstam’s assertion that children “inhabit different understandings of time, and experience the passing of time differently”,[3] that children are “always already anarchic and rebellious, out of order and out of time”.[4]  For Halberstam, it is precisely the uniqueness of the child’s experience of time that lends itself to postmodern conceptualisations of time as “not linear […] more twisty, curvy, more relative.”[5]  What’s more, the uses to which the child is put precisely echo this curiousness of the child’s experience of time.  As Henry Jenkins observes, while childhood tends to be nostalgically imagined by adults as “a utopian space […] beyond historical change”, it is in fact “not timeless but, rather, subject to the same historical shifts and institutional factors that shape all human experience.”[6]  The complexity of childhood temporalities therefore lies in their situation between the local and the global.

The relationship between the child and time forms part of my doctoral thesis, in terms of its representation in four Spanish films – El espíritu de la colmena/The Spirit of the Beehive (Erice, 1973), Cría cuervos/Raise Ravens (Saura, 1976), El espinazo del diablo/The Devil’s Backbone (del Toro, 2001) and El laberinto del fauno/Pan’s Labyrinth (del Toro, 2006).  In the thesis, I focus more specifically on the intersection of childhood and history and contend that the historically-situated, impermanent and anti-linear childhood temporalities of post-Franco Spanish cinema challenge the Francoist construction of Spanish history as ahistorical, static and continuous.  I also argue that these childhood temporalities evidence the unreconstructability of Republican history and memory which were subject to complex processes of suppression and atomisation during the Civil War and the dictatorship.  At present, I’m working on an article entitled “‘Once Upon A Time’: Childhood Temporalities in Post-Franco Spanish Cinema” in which I extend my focus on the child and time within the specific historical context of post-Franco Spain to consider both the local specificities and global implications of the childhood temporalities depicted in these films.  In this post, I offer a brief overview of these local and global resonances, which concern postmemory generations in post-Franco Spain and the queerness of childhood temporalities respectively.  While the article discusses three films – El espíritu de la colmena, Cría cuervos and El laberinto del fauno – I concentrate here on El espíritu de la colmena, since this canonical work paves the way for subsequent cinematic representations of the child and childhood in post-Franco Spain.[7]

Figure 1

Figure 1 (El espíritu de la colmena, Victor Erice, 1973)

Figure 2

Figure 2

The opening credits of El espíritu de la colmena attest to the paradoxical ubication of childhood between conflicting temporalities through the juxtaposition of two introductory intertitles.  The first of these, “Erase una vez…” (“Once upon a time…”) (Figure 1), locates the action of the film within the mythical temporality of the fairy tale, before the second, “Un lugar de la meseta castellana hacia 1.940…” (“Somewhere on the Castilian plain around 1940…”) (Figure 2), grounds the film within a particular political, social and historical context: that of post-Civil War Spain.  The opening intertitles place the child and childhood at the intersection of myth and history, underscoring the ambivalent relationship between childhood and time.  In other words, both the child and childhood find themselves caught between historical specificity and universality.  At a conceptual level, the positioning of childhood at the juncture of historical and mythical temporalities evidences how, as Jenkins observes, “Our modern conception of the innocent child presumes its universality across historical periods and across widely divergent cultures.”[8]  Drawing attention to the falsity of this universality, Jenkins asserts that the innocent child as a figure is palimpsestic, a myth that “has a history”, a “palimpsest of ideas from different historical contexts – one part Romantic, one part Victorian, one part medieval, and one part modern.”[9]  That said, within the very specific socio-historical production context of the film, the placement of the child and childhood at the intersection of mythically- and historically-informed temporalities implicitly undermines the censorship still in place at the time of the film’s production.  Utilising the universal appeal of the child and childhood, the film seemingly delocalises the specificity of children’s experiences in post-Civil War Spain so as to evade the censorship that remained in place until 1978.

Figure 3

Figure 3

Furthermore, and perhaps taking inspiration from the introductory image of Alice in Wonderland, the penultimate image of the credits – a series of illustrations produced by Isabel Tellería and Ana Torrent, the actresses who play child protagonists Isabel and Ana respectively – is of a golden pocket watch (Figure 3).  This illustration, and its prominent placement within the credit sequence, prefigures the symbolic significance of the pocket watch in the film as a whole.  Belonging to Fernando, the pocket watch is inadvertently bequeathed by Ana to a Republican fugitive, before being returned to Fernando via the Civil Guard following the fugitive’s execution.  Transferred amongst distinct male figures of authority, dissidence and diverging political affinities, the watch propels the plot forward.  That the watch features in numerous close-ups throughout the film also signals its symbolic significance (Figures 4 and 5).

 

Figure 4

Figure 4: Pocket watch close-up

While the opening intertitles juxtapose the local and global connotations of the child and childhood, the pocket watch symbolises the curiousness of childhood temporalities.  The circularity of the pocket watch facilitates a reading of the child and childhood along the queer lines established by Kathryn Bond Stockton in The Queer Child: Or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century.  Associated with the circularity of the pocket watch, childhood is no longer figured as a “vertical movement upward” toward adulthood, but rather comprises “notions of the horizontal – what spreads sideways – or sideways and backwards.”[10]  Moreover, that child protagonist Ana never knowingly possesses the watch implicitly indicates the child’s emplacement beyond history and historical time in line with Halberstam’s assertion that the child is “out of time”.[11]  However, Ana does instigate the transferrals and circulations of the watch amongst the aforementioned male characters in the film.  Given that the pocket watch is an object of inheritance typically passed down the paternal line, Ana’s interactions with this object destabilise patriarchal structures of inheritance and signify an alternative historical genealogy in which the daughter, albeit unknowingly, acquires the family heirloom and passes it to an anonymous Republican fugitive.  Through this political gesture, El espíritu de la colmena simultaneously undermines the configuration of childhood as a linear trajectory toward adulthood and aligns the child with the histories of Spanish Republicans, which were suppressed and atomised throughout the duration of Franco’s rule.

 

Figure 5

Figure 5: Pocket watch close-up

In sum, through its opening intertitles and the symbol of the pocket watch, El espíritu de la colmena depicts the curiousness of childhood temporalities at both local and global levels.  The intertitles situate the child and childhood at the intersection of mythical and historical temporalities.  This temporal conflict juxtaposes the conceptual emphasis on the universality of the child and childhood with the significance of the child and childhood in the very specific socio-historical context of post-Civil War and post-Franco Spain.  Similarly, the pocket watch emphasises both the local and global relevance of cinematic representations of child and childhood, evidencing the restrictiveness of linear conceptualisations of childhood as well as aligning the child with the atomised histories and memories of Republican Spain.  That films such as Cría cuervos and El laberinto del fauno, amidst a host of other works, adopt and rework these tropes – borrowed as they are from earlier illustrations of childhood such as Alice in Wonderland – testifies to the importance of El espíritu de la colmena and its depiction of childhood temporalities.  In Alice’s own words, depictions of the child and childhood can only become “Curiouser and curiouser!”[12]

 

Bibliography

Bond Stockton, Kathryn, The Queer Child: Or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009).

Carroll, Lewis, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (Bristol: Parragon, 1993).

Halberstam, J. Jack, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011).

– Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2012).

Jenkins, Henry, ed. The Children’s Culture Reader (New York; London: New York University Press, 1998).

Footnotes

[1] Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (Bristol: Parragon, 1993), p.7

[2] Ibid., 7, original emphasis.

[3] J. Jack Halberstam, Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2012), p. xxiii.

[4] J. Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011), p.27.

[5] J. Jack Halberstam, Gaga Feminism, p. xxiii.

[6] Ibid., pp 3-4.

[7] See my blogpost entitled “Childhood in Post-Franco Spanish Cinema” in which I discuss the shared visual rhetoric of El espíritu de la colmena, Cría cuervos and El laberinto del fauno.

[8] Henry Jenkins, ed., The Children’s Culture Reader (New York; London: New York University Press, 1998), p. 15.

[9] Ibid., p. 15.

[10] Kathryn Bond Stockton, The Queer Child: Or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009, p. 4.

[11] J. Jack Halberstam, Queer Art of Failure, p. 27.

[12] Carroll, p. 12.

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