Our ability to communicate with one another continues to change—not only with technology, art, culture, words, and simply time, but also with our ability to foster a deeper understanding of the people we’re communicating with. Whether that is through empathy, listening, or knowledge, each moment, as it unfolds, opens a window into a future that contains a mutual means of intercourse.
For decades, science fiction writers have been imagining modes of interstellar or extraterrestrial communication, offering readers a vision of what it might be like to talk to life-forms who are different from us here on Earth—and yet we can decipher these encounters as symbolic for our Earth-bound relationships, and extrapolate useful tools, applying them to how we talk to people in our own day-to-day orbits without ever leaving the planet.
In a way, although we do belong to the same species as each other, we sometimes lack an ability to access a common language—a common humanity—that might allow us to see past differences to something deeper, something unifying, that could connect the whole. The artist Rollo May, in his book My Quest for Beauty (1985), offers us the idea that our common language is found through our ability to express beauty and interpret it in the world:
We realize now that our common human language is not … something having to do with vocal cords and speech. It is, rather, our sense of proportion, our balance, harmony and other aspects of simple and fundamental form. Our universal language, in other words, is beauty. (Rollo, My Quest for Beauty, p. 229)
If we each have an ability to recognize the expression of beauty that lies in each of us, then through patience and understanding we might exercise it more readily—perhaps long enough to create new inroads into a new future, one that broadcasts more widely this new language in which beauty is seen and reciprocal, and in which the suffering of one is recognized as the suffering of all.
To be understood, to freely express one’s creative beauty in the way that is truest, is the center of author-philosopher Jesi Bender’s futurism tale, Kinderkrankenhaus. The work is a hybrid play—that is, one that incorporates drama and fiction with enticing and artistic visuals, such as the dictionary entries that come forward in the course of the play. These intrusions replicate the way thoughts pass through our mind. The play also teems with magical realism and social science fiction, and rather than leave Earth to imagine future modes of communicating with other life-forms, Bender shows us the hardened and haunting reality of our inability (failure, perhaps) to recognize the beauty of communication that is possible with the neurodiverse.
In an unknown time, in an unknown location by the sea, a child is left by its parents at the kinderkrankenhaus, an isolated, cavernous place, where every now and then it’s not uncommon for a child to let out a momentary shriek or a sustained, single-note hum. The newest arrival, Gnome, doesn’t know why they’ve been brought there, especially not after learning this is a place for the sick … or is it? It might be a hospital of sorts, a dark hole, far from the rest of the world, one devoid of color, where the children can’t readily express themselves and where they don’t talk much at all. Whatever the details, it becomes clear at the outset that Gnome’s parents have abandoned them—or perhaps more accurately, “washed their hands” of the difficulty of a “different” child.
The kinderkrankenhaus is run by Doctor Dorothy Schmetterling, who might seem to be “fixing” the children. In short, once Dr. Schmetterling makes a diagnosis, right or wrong, it becomes the law, and the staff set about trying to fix the children, despite in Gnome’s case their insistence that there is essentially nothing wrong with them. Still, Dr. Schmetterling probes, looking for the cause of Gnome’s “difference”—and does eventually find the “problem.” With the ailment named, Gnome’s new identity is forged: they are a deviant.
But what if there was nothing to fix in the first place?
Part of the beauty of Kinderkrankenhaus is its ability to offer readers a portal into a new future, one where our ability to communicate is not defined solely by language, but open to diverse interpretation. In this way, it acts as a viatopia, or a road to an unknown society in a dimension of existence, unruminated upon and expansive, in which there are many methods of communication between humans (and beyond), be it through tone, mathematics, and even color. This is dynamically shown, for example, when the children choose self-expression through numbers, or sound, or even silence. Gnome is showing us these alternative forms of conveying expression and emotions—they eschew verbal words, but this is perceived as a problem.
We might think of the kinderkrankenhaus, then, as an end-place for suffering children—or children who aren’t “behaving” like “normal” children. It seems like it might be a hospital, a place to which children are sent to get better and heal; but other interpretations are there for the reader or audience to piece together. Do children who engage in diverse methods of communication need healing and fixing? Herein lies the conundrum that Bender encourages us to consider, while unraveling—burning away, even—the preconceived way we interpret who and what is “normal.”
“Normal,” in this instance, is those children who are practiced in everyday speech and writing—who can operate in the society that lies just outside the walls of the sick-house. Those who cannot are diagnosed, and become imprisoned by the words ascribed to them by the doctor; they can never become anything more. (Read that again: you can never become anything more than the doctor says you are.) In the process, when the children who present differently are limited by “treatments” to “cure” them, they lose out on the beauty and exploration of their inherent and unique abilities to convey their own experiences.
For the reader or audience, Kinderkrankenhaus grants us an open-eyed awareness that speaks to the way our collective imposition of language upon those who use methods of communication besides words essentially creates a prison for them. We partake in constructing irrecoverable “deviants” instead of offering a platform of possibility. Bender shows us that our worldview still governs intelligence through the maxim, I think, therefore I am—but here, at the kinderkrankenhaus, we’re offered another way: I may think or not think (like you), therefore I am open to limitless interpretation.
The children inside the kinderkrankenhaus aren’t sick, suffering, or needing to be healed; but they are being dumped there as if they are. The tragedy is that they are very much capable of creating new vistas, without the archaic tools of words that the doctor uses to mark, tamper with, and dismiss them—for “where there is no language, behavior becomes nonhuman.” Bender’s created world essentially shows us the symbolic “cave” of the mind, and allows us a chance to delight in the freedom of what it might look like to live in a world without names, judgments, titles—even illness, hate, and difference.
It is absurd, really, to consider language normal, superior, when, as a form of communication, every word can have a different meaning, depending on who is witnessing it. Dr. Schmetterling gropes around in the darkness of the kinderkrankenhaus, trying to find answers to “cure” patients who aren’t really sick, just unexplained. Thankfully, the children triumph through their silent resilience—an act of defiance which becomes the key to unlocking their individuality, another theme which echoes similar triumphant moments in novels that celebrate individualism as the key to victory against a totalitarian society. In this instance, Gnome is given freedom in a mind with no end. It is immensely liberating.
In the new world born at the end of this play, no one is any longer trying to get “better,” or being forced to function a certain way. Instead, they are granted redemption through a multifaceted form of communicating that is natural and also mysterious. This outcome is worth experiencing—and this play worth reading—simply to be reminded that “there is nothing wrong with you”—a theme that applies to everyone, in any language.