The Signficance of Child in an Imaginary Life

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Devaleena Das

THE TROPE OF THE CHILD IN AN IMAGINARY LIFE

In Postcolonial literature, the colonised other is represented in terms of tropes to justify imperial rule. The trope of the child, an unique trope, is an important appropriation to the discourse of empire. The child holds in balance the contradictory tendencies of imperial rhetoric: authority in balance with nurture, domination with enlightenment, debasement with idealization, negation with affirmation, exploitation with education, filiations with affiliation. The invention of childhood in the discourse of empire is coterminous with that of imperialism where the cross fertilization between childhood and primitivism becomes important since both need growth and maturation. In Locke’s greatest influence on the theory of childhood, the concept of tabula rasa, blank mind or absence is significant in the imperial enterprise where the negation of colonial space is a necessary preparation for the great civilizing mission. When Australia was declared by Captain Cook as a Terra Nullius, he made an explicit geographical use of Locke’s philosophy because of its potentialiaty, and amenability to inscription. This unformedness of colonial space is also the geographic metaphor of the savage mind, a place for inscription by which the place is constructed out of empty space and through this control of education the colonial subject is subdued. Montaigne’s essay ‘On cannibals’ where it is suggested that cannibals live in an Edenic state of purity and simplicity and later Rousseau’s comparison of the child’s mind to a wild plant further characterize the uncontaminated nature of colonial space which encourages paternity and imperial surrogation. The child with its subordinate status, while serving as the pretext for imperial conquest and domination also normalises the threatening identification with the other: the child is both pre-formed self and repudiated other. The image of the child achieves potency in Australia as an overt symbol of the nation. In the myth of the ‘lost child’ who wonders away in the bush, the full weight of Australian displacement is encapsulated. The child in the bush symbolises colonial displacement, a sign of the vulnerability of the society with the struggle for survival against the land. For David Malouf, the child is a powerful image of formation and transformation. In 12 Edmonstone Street he shows the emerging consciousness of the child, in An Imaginary Life, the Child becomes for Ovid an embodiment of life that lies beneath the reach of empire, civilization, language and identity itself. This figure of the Child re-emerges as Gemmy, a London urchin raised by Aborigines, out of the zone beyond language and representation in Remembering Babylon. For Malouf, the Child in all these novels is a protean force, rather than a sign of negation. Whether leading into the pre-symbolic realm of language or into the hybrid possibilities of a postcolonial future, the child is an evocative sign of transformation. In An Imaginary Life, the lost child moves from the dimensionless silence beyond language into imperial discourse. The child is a wolf-boy brought up among wolves in the snow, whom Ovid, who has been banned from the Roman Empire into exile in Tomis at the Black Sea, obsessively tries to introduce to civilization. We first hear of the Child by report, during the hunting season, as 'a boy of ten or so, a wild boy, who lives with the deer' exiled from humanity and soon after "Ovid" catches a glimpse of him: 'a small boy as lean as a stick’ in what is, putatively, the autumn of the year. In the autumn of the next year as "Ovid" accompanies the deer-hunting party, there is no sighting: 'I am crazy with disappointment'. Just a year later, comes another sighting, and Ovid reports him as 'an ugly boy of eleven or twelve, 'standing quite still and taller after these two years'. He is captured in the autumn of the next year....
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