My own perspective on Where the Wild Things Are

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I was up for the gig writing the screenplay for Where the Wild Things Are a million years ago, when the project was at Universal. I had mixed feelings about taking on the project, because the book is so slim, and so primal, so, well, "wild," that I knew no studio would spend $100 million doing it properly. Where the Wild Things Are should be weird, intense, edgy and deeply personal, the exact opposite of what i knew a studio wanted out of a four-quadrant hit.

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Sam and the Firefly

P.D. Eastman, Wikipedia says, was a protege of Dr. Seuss. His Go, Dog. Go! is a staple of the beginning-to-read set, and his Are You My Mother? is always welcome around my house. But for my money, Sam and the Firefly is not only Eastman’s crowning achievement, it is also a compact, brisk, efficient course in storytelling, a small masterwork of character, plot and dramatic structure, far more accomplished than the much-more-famous, but ultimately-rather-meta The Cat in the Hat, and all achieved with a set of words designed for a 5-year-old to read.

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Bartholomew and the Oobleck

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Bartholomew and the Oobleck, for the uninitiated, is about a king who gets bored with the weather and commands his creepy magicians to make something new come down from the sky. As I read the first part of this story to my kids tonight, my son Sam (6) interrupted me to ask “Is that really a good idea?”

Oobleck was published in 1949, a time when it seemed that the kings of the world did indeed seem to be bored with the weather of the world and, aided by creepy magicians like Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, deemed it necessary, for reasons having to do with hubris and pride, to have something new fall from the sky.

The narrative tension of Oobleck is palpable as Bartholomew, the lowly page boy, tries first warn the king against his foolish whim, then waits with nameless dread for the coming apocalypse, then desperately races to warn the kingdom of the king’s disastrous mistake.

It’s hard to read this story without feeling a lot like Bartholomew. We all knew our current king’s folly was a bad idea, everyone tried to tell him so, but kings will be kings and so the creepy magicians (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Halliburton, the Carlyle group, PNAC, etc etc etc) created an apocalypse for the boy tyrant.

(With plenty of little army men for him to throw around the floor of his throne room while he made exploding noises, but don’t let me mix my metaphors.)

The effects of oobleck, it turns out, can be reversed with a simple act of humility on the part of the king. Our boy king, of course, we have learned is incapable of an act of humility, and even if he were, this particular oobleck is, alas, here to stay. Our boy king’s plan, his stated plan, is to keep the war in Iraq going long enough to become someone else’s problem, and, theoretically, never end at all.

(A canny commentator remarked recently that Bush is not, and never was, interested in being president. What he was interested in was winning the election. We’ve seen, indeed, over and over, that Bush’s main objective has always been to win, no matter what he has to do, what laws he has to break or who he has to kill to do so. We’ve also seen that he does, in fact, have no interest in leading, making decisions or doing anything remotely presidential, like treating other leaders, or anyone really, even his own mindless supporters, with anything like dignity or respect.)

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The Cat in the Hat part 2

Preamble: When my son Sam (6) first began to read, I handed him a copy of The Cat in the Hat and asked him to read the cover. He went for the “Beginner Books” logo in the lower center of the cover and read aloud, “I CAN READ IT ALL BY MYSELF.” Then he looked up, amazed, and said “How did they know that?”

Anyway. To review:

The kids (Sally and I) are All Humanity, and they have been abandoned by God (Mom). They sit and stare out the windows of their house (that is, out the eyes of their skull, or the “windows of their perception” [The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley, 1954, The Cat in the Hat, 1957]).

The kids, however, are not alone. No, Geisel has given them a companion — a fish. The fish, we will see, functions as their superego. When the Cat encourages the kids to be bad, the fish instructs them to be good. When I first started reading a spiritual metaphor into The Cat in the Hat it seemed flat-footed and obvious that the spiritual superego would be conveyed by a Christ-like fish, but then Geisel is working on a literal level too, and what else would kids have around the house? A gerbil? Would it make sense for a gerbil to pontificate about right and wrong? What’s more, a fish is the natural prey of a Cat (and a black cat is the traditional companion of the witch) (and “gerbil” was probably not on the list of permissible words).

So: kids, house, absent God, Christ-fish. Let’s move forward.

“And then Something went BUMP!”

The Cat arrives.  Walks in the door, nice as you please.

Why does this not surprise us? Why has no one, of any age, in all humanity, ever in the past 50 years reached this point of the book and said “What? A six-foot-tall talking cat?! With an umbrella?! Fuck this shit!” We buy it. We buy that the Cat is six feet tall, we buy his clown-like outfit of hat and bow tie and gloves, we buy his umbrella.

We buy the Cat because we, like the kids, are waiting for something. That’s why we picked up the book — to be entertained. God is dead and so our lives are meaningless, we live in a state of anxiety, out of balance, waiting for something, anything, to give us some kind of answers about, well, about anything at all.

“I know it is wet and the sun is not sunny. But we can have lots of good fun that is funny.”

The Cat, master con man, magician and trickster (and lame jam-master — honestly, that’s your opening line, dude, is “fun that is funny” the best you can come up with? Is this how you make an impression?) is all too ready to fill this void, the void God’s absence has made. Obviously, the Cat must be the Devil.

Or is he? Maybe, maybe not — it depends on your definition of the Devil.

“‘I know some new tricks,’ said the Cat in the Hat.”

Tricks, not truth. The Cat has nothing meaningful to offer the kids. Not yet, anyway. And he adds subversion and divisiveness to his offer — “Your mother will not mind at all if I do.”

“Then Sally and I did not know what to say. Our mother was out of the house for the day.” The kids are lost, directionless. They cannot stop the Cat from walking in, they don’t know what to make of him, they don’t think twice about a six-foot-tall cat in a clown outfit with an umbrella (the umbrella shows that the Cat can move in a Godless world and not be affected by it — a skill the kids are keenly interested in). Some kids might react strongly at the sight of a six-foot-tall cat in a clown outfit (the hat, gloves and tie are a parody of being “dressed up,” ie “adult”) who can talk, in rhyme, in anapestic tetrameter, but not these kids — they act like it’s the most normal thing in the world.

Why? Why don’t they run screaming? Why don’t they hide? Why don’t they call the police? Because, as I say above, they are living in a world absent God and are looking for something, anything, to fill that void. They don’t run, they don’t scream — check out their faces — they gaze at the Cat with dumb acceptance. They look exactly like children watching television (which is maybe why Geisel did not put a TV in the house — the Cat is “evil entertainment” enough for one story).

The fish, of course, sets them straight, saying, essentially, “HEY! SIX-FOOT TALKING CAT! HEL-LO?

(The kids don’t react to the talking fish either — why should they? He’s just a fish, a normal, life-sized, unclothed fish. Once you’ve seen a six-foot talking cat, a normal-sized talking fish [one who’s a wet blanket, at that] isn’t going to raise your pulse much.)

The Cat’s first trick is to humiliate the fish, just as the Devil’s first trick is to force you to cast doubt on your faith. Then he goes into his circus act — the ball, the ball, the book, the fish — as the kids look on in mute helplessness. They’re helpless, entranced by the Cat’s shenanigans. They could probably watch him balance a book (the Book?) and a fish (Christ) while balancing on a ball (the Earth) all day long. I know I could.

But the Cat seems to get bored and restless by his own act, and starts adding to it. He adds a boat, a birthday cake, another book and some milk.

The boat seems to signify Christ again, the fisher of men, while the birthday cake perhaps indicates a “new birth” that has taken place, or will soon. The milk is perhaps that of human kindness, but what could the second book be?

In any case, the Cat is not just juggling household crap, he’s juggling signifiers. And doing so masterfully. As one would expect from the Devil.

The act keeps growing — growing, I’m afraid, into the realm of ridiculousness. A rake, a little man, a Japanese fan, a third book, a cup. I could probably find significance in this yard-sale collection of objects, but I think it’s just household crap now. The string is broken — the Cat, not knowing when he’s ahead, has piled too much stuff into his act.

And so he does the only thing he can — he falls. He falls and all the crap falls with him. If it was losing meaning before, it’s lost all meaning now. Now it’s just household crap all over the floor — a mess. The Cat has failed. He’s failed to entertain, he’s failed to provide meaning, he’s failed to replace God.

The fish scolds him and the Cat, instead of eating the fish like a real cat would, picks himself up, dusts himself off and, undaunted, announces a new game.

And here’s where it gets interesting.

The Cat brings in a box, a big red box (I wonder if the big red box is any relation to the “small red box” of David Bowie’s song “Red Money.” Or the small blue box of David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr.) “In this box are two things I will show to you now,” says the Cat. The “two things” turn out to be, of course, literally Two Things: Thing One and Thing Two.

And this is where I must pause. This is very peculiar. What is going on here? Two things? Two things? The work of Dr. Seuss overflows with imaginatively-named creatures, from Cindy-Lou-Who to Dr. Terwilliger to Gertrude McFuzz, why are these creatures Thing One and Thing Two? They’re not Frick and Frack, they’re not Gary and Jerry, they’re not Wizzer and Wuzzer, they’re Thing One and Thing Two. They’re not even described as creatures, only as things. Dr. Seuss has not only refused to give them names, he’s drained them of all possible personality.


Well, let’s look first at what they do. What do Thing One and Thing Two do? They introduce themselves to the children (who are helpless to resist), then they trash the house in the name of “play.” They fly kites, they knock over a vase, they push over an end-table, they endanger Mother’s dress and teapot and bed (Dr. Seuss, have you met Dr. Freud?). Come to think of it, Thing One and Thing Two don’t hurt the kids and they don’t damage anything that belongs to the kids — only Mom’s things are endangered.

It is only here that the narrator (“I”) puts his foot down. He realizes, finally, what is at stake here and says “I do NOT like the way that they play! If Mother could see this, oh what would she say!”

When I behave in a moral fashion, I occasionally stop and wonder why. A little voice inside me tells me don’t steal that newspaper, don’t throw that wrapper in the gutter, don’t kick that animal. Who does that little voice belong to?

It doesn’t belong to Jesus, and it doesn’t belong to a talking fish. It belongs, inevitably, I think, to my mother. It is our mother’s voice I believe we inevitably hear when we’re tempted to do something immoral. It’s not Dad’s voice, that seems clear. It is, in fact, probably just the opposite for Dad — if Mom is the one who says “Look both ways before crossing the street,” Dad is the one who says “What, you gonna be a pussy your whole life?”

So maybe the missing Mother isn’t God after all. Or if she is a God, she’s a secular, post-war, atomic-age God. A humanist God. God is absent, the humanists say, and therefore we must be moral, for the good of humanity. There is no punishment or reward that awaits us after life in the godless postwar era, only the world we create here on earth through our actions. What are the kids doing? Waiting for Mom to get home. What are Thing One and Thing Two doing? Destroying Mom’s stuff. This bugs the kids (or the boy, anyway — Sally doesn’t seem to have much of a say about anything in this story — Seuss somehow lived through the entire sexual revolution without ever getting around to writing a feminist book).

Okay. Thing One and Thing Two. Let’s take a step aside for a moment and talk about Bruno Bettleheim. In his book The Uses of Enchantment (which I strongly recommend to anyone who wishes to become a storyteller) Bettleheim instructs us that there are always fewer characters in a story than there appear to be. The Wicked Stepmother in “Hansel and Gretel” isn’t really a wicked stepmother, she’s merely the children’s mother when she’s in a bad mood. There is also no “strange woman who lives in the woods” — that too is Hansel and Gretel’s mother, and the story is how Hansel and Gretel feel threatened by their mother and so kill her (which is why she is magically gone at the end of the story when Hansel and Gretel get back from their adventure). In children’s stories, we kill the mother and replace her with a wicked stepmother so that the child can revel in the negative feelings they have about their mother without actually endangering their relationship with her. The proliferation of characters by proxy is a powerful and elementary device in storytelling and Seuss employs it beautifully here.

Why, I ask, Why are they named Thing One and Thing Two? They are named Thing One and Thing Two because they are not real creatures — they are empty signifiers — they are the physical manifestation of the children’s worst selves.

That is the trick, the truth that the Cat in the Hat brings into the house. The Cat allows the children to see their worst selves. The things that Thing One and Thing Two do are exactly what a couple of bored kids would do if they were feeling devilish enough while mother is out. “Good” kids will sit and wait and watch for Mother’s feet coming up the walk (we don’t see Mother’s face, of course — how does one put a picture of God in a children’s book?), “Bad” kids will run around and engage in horseplay and knock stuff over and break things.

Finally, I know why the kids don’t react to the Cat in the Hat. The kids don’t react to the Cat in the Hat because there is no Cat in the Hat. The kids made him up — they created him. They threw the stuff all over the house, they put the boat in the cake, they put the fish in the teapot, they knocked over the lamp. They made up the Cat to take the blame, like children have done since the beginning of time, but then they took it too far — or just far enough, because when the boy is confronted with the physical manifestation of his worst self, he recognizes it for what it is and demands that it leave.

The superego fish says “Here comes your mother now! Do something, fast!” And the boy catches Thing One and Thing Two in a net amid the rubble of his ruined house and orders the Cat to take them away. Now the house is still a mess and there’s no way the kids can clean it up, but the Cat magically returns with a machine of some kind (the deus ex kind, I’m afraid, now that I think of it) and effortlessly cleans it up.

He does all this while Mother is still walking up the walk. Which is, of course, an impossibility. But that’s okay, because in all probability, none of this ever happened. Not content to push the story into the realm of psychology, Seuss now pushes it even further — there was no Cat, there were no Things, there wasn’t even an eventthe boy made it all up, a story, to pass the time while waiting for Mother to get home, exactly like the protagonists of Beckett’s late work (Rockaby, Ohio Impromptu, Company, etc.) “It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows” begins part 2 of Molloy, “It was not midnight. It was not raining” is how it ends.

So there is no Cat, there are no Things, and there is no destruction of the house. What there is is a boyand a girl alone in the house on a rainy day, and the boy tells the girl a story, a story about a giant cat who shows up and wrecks the place, who shows the children their worst selves, so that they may then, with the help of their superego fish, know how to act when their Mother is gone.

Now that the kids have cleared this psychological/spiritual hurdle, Mother does indeed return. The children don’t ask her where she’s been or why she was gone, they only light up like Christmas (sorry) trees upon seeing her.

“Did you have any fun?” asks Mother. “Tell me. What did you do?” To which the boy asks “Should we tell her about it? What SHOULD we do?” Well, indeed, what should he do? The children have taken their first step into a moral life; they’ve fantasized about destroying the house, they lived that fantasy to the fullest, but they have then thought better of it. They now have a secret — some part of them wanted to destroy their Mother’s house. If they tell their Mother, they run the risk of losing her trust (unless they’re Catholic,of course — confession is always forgiven). If they don’t tell her, if they keep their secret, they take a step toward adulthood, a step toward a moral life independent of their mother. Which is, of course, the whole point of good parenting, to get to the point where your children are capable of making their own decisions. Which is, of course, the story of God and humanity — God leaves us alone, refuses to show himself, so that we can learn to make decisions on our own, exercise our free will. In that regard, Mother (God) and Cat (Devil) are part of the same bargain — Mother sends the Cat in as a test of our will, our faith, our sense of duty.

Finally, The Cat in the Hat is not about the Cat, or the hat, or the fish, or the Things, or the mess.  It’s about the boy creating a narrative, to entertain himself and his sister (maybe that’s why he has a sister at all, to be an audience).  The boy is Seuss, most likely, and he creates a narrative because that’s what storytellers, and all of us, really, do in order to make sense of the world.  We make up stories about God and the Devil, or the Cat and the Fish, or Hamlet and Claudius, or Harry and Voldemort, or James Bond and SMERSH, so that we might have a roadmap to guide our life.

The Cat, as cats will, comes back. But that’s a story for another day.

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The Cat in the Hat part 1

It’s difficult for us, now, to fully appreciate the impact The Cat in the Hat had on generation of parents, children and educators. The Cat, as an aide to teaching children to read, seems as obvious and omnipresent as the alphabet itself and has not been improved upon in 50 years.

The story of the book, which has been told many times (and can be found in greater detail here), is that the reading programs of the US were a laughingstock for their inefficiency and waste, and an editor of children’s books decided to take it upon himself to rectify the situation. (If someone could find the name of that editor, I would be in your debt.)

Ted Geisel (that is, Seuss) was given an assignment to create a children’s reading primer that would tell a story that uses only 220 easily-recognized words, which were drawn from a list provided by an educational theorist. One might imagine that a book produced by this technique, in kind and understanding hands, would turn out something like PD Eastman’s charming but plotless Go, Dog. Go! But Ted Geisel came up with something more original, daring and explosive.

(Eastman would later climb this mountain beautifully with the woefully underrated Sam and the Firefly, which I hope to get to at another time.)

The story goes that Geisel wrestled with the difficulty of creating his primer for months before taking the first two words from the list, “cat” and “hat,” and saying, essentially, “screw it, I’ll call it The Cat in the Hat,” and going from there.

The Cat in the Hat does its job as a primer very well indeed. It’s lively, funny, and tells a complete story with its bare-bones vocabulary (Seuss would later, of course, trump himself with the 50-word Green Eggs and Ham, which I discuss here). But the thing that makes The Cat in the Hat a classic, what makes it a book that sticks with you, is not that it teaches children to read but that it contains mysterious worlds of allegory and symbolism. It’s open to many different readings and addresses, in its way, some of the most profound questions of human life.

There was a wonderful piece by Louis Menand in the New Yorker a few years ago that gave a modernist interpretation to the story, and which is not available online, (although some criticism of it is — curse you, internet!). The Cat, says Menand, is Seuss himself, who’s been thrust before an audience of children and is required to entertain them with nothing but a handful of arbitrary, meaningless words — cat, hat, wall, cake, run, thing, etc.)

(The Cat carries an umbrella but the word “umbrella” does not appear in the book — not on the list, and difficult to fit into Geisel’s patented meter in any case.)

Having nothing to work with, the Cat throws a bunch of crap together (a ball, a rake, some books) and puts on a piss-poor circus act. One can feel Geisel’s frustration — “I could tell you some wonderful stories, but look what they gave me to work with!” — as the Cat abandons his mission of entertainment and moves on to destroying the house. The Cat becomes a Beckettian protagonist — ‘there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express” is the way the author of Waiting for Godot put it.

(Beckett, Seuss’s exact contemporary, would dedicate his life to paring down his work to Seussian levels of economy — was this the influence of The Cat in the Hat? Was it the dare of Green Eggs and Ham that took Beckett from the flourishes of his youth to the spareness of his mature work? The opening sentence of More Pricks Than Kicks, an early collection of stories, is “It was morning and Belacqua was stuck in the first canti in the moon.” The first line of his last work, Worstward Ho, is “On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on.” Worstward Ho, like many of Beckett’s late prose pieces, is about the author’s inability to express himself with the tools at his disposal — he would have recognized the cat’s dilemma immediately.)

The Cat, of course, has been denatured, neutered if you will, through time and love and wide acceptance, as all successful comic anarchists are, from WC Fields to the Marx Brothers to Richard Pryor, but the book itself still retains its mysteries and wildness. We see the Cat on a bookbag or bong and smile — he is there to comfort and charm. But, like Charlie Brown (another classic baby-boomer figure), the Cat represents something much darker and more interesting than the merchandising suggests.

“The sun did not shine.” That’s the opening line of this beloved classic. “The sun did not shine.” Not to torture Seuss’s place in the Modernist pantheon too greatly, but I’m reminded that the sun does not shine in a great many of Ingmar Bergman’s movies. In his case, it’s partly because the stories Bergman tells take place during the Swedish winter, when the sun does not shine as a matter of course. But Bergman always used the lack of sunlight (one of the peaks of his art is actually titled Winter Light) to denote a lack of divine light, an absence of God in the lives of his characters. (The Seventh Seal, lest we forget, was released the same year as The Cat in the Hat. There truly was something in the air — maybe fallout from H-bomb tests; that’s what critics thought the characters in Beckett’s Endgame, also published in 1957, were hiding from in their skull-like bunker.)

(When the sun does shine in Beckett’s work, as it does, unremittingly, in Happy Days, it is a harsh, burning, scorching blast without night.  Light in Beckett is always important, whether it’s Krapp caught in his Manichean dualism or the protagonist of “Ohio Impromptu” stuck in his unending night or the beings of “Lessness” caught in their gray un-light.)

“The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house all that cold, cold wet day.” Well, this is Endgame. Endgame is about exactly this — two people locked in the house on a cold, wet day. All the Cat would need to do is bring in two old people in garbage cans instead of two Things in boxes and they would be the exact same work. The characters in Endgame, like the characters in Waiting for Godot, like the children in The Cat in the Hat, are faced with interminable boredom and nothing but a handful of ordinary props (a stick, a hat, a chair) to entertain themselves. Geisel stands squarely at the crossroads of mid-20th-century angst. Except, of course, he’s an American, which means that his characters’ problem is that they have things, but those things are useless consumer junk, the things we buy with our post-war dollars in order to feel less empty. The kids in The Cat in the Hat sit staring out the window in their house full of junk — a ball, a bicycle (Beckett again, with Molloy’s preferred mode of transport), a badminton racket. In literal terms, the stuff is useless to the kids because it’s all “outdoor” stuff, and it’s raining outdoors. But I am reminded, again, of Beckett, and his sense of indoors and outdoors. For him, the outdoors is everything outside his skull, that is the “real world,” and the indoors is his mind.  The Cat kids are stuck not in a house but in their own minds, or in the mind of Geisel anyway.

(That’s why the shelter in Endgame has two windows — the characters are all inside Beckett’s head, and the windows are his eyes out onto the world, which, in Beckett’s view, is a blasted wasteland devoid of life.)

(It’s also worth noting that Beckett’s characters, like the boy and girl in The Cat in the Hat, are pseudocouples. That is, Didi and Gogo, Hamm and Clov, Mercier and Camier, etc, are not really two different characters, but only different aspects of the same mind, a pair of characters who appear to be a couple but who are really only one character arguing with him-or-her self.)

So I’m tempted to bring a both a psychological and spiritual reading to The Cat in the Hat, and will try to do so hand-in-hand here.

The kids stare out the windows of their suburban house the exact same way the characters in Endgame stare out the windows of their shelter, the same way Winnie stares at the landscape in Happy Days (Winnie also has nothing with which to face eternity but a toothbrush, an umbrella (!), some makeup, a hairbrush and a revolver — Seuss, apparently, couldn’t bring himself to include suicide in his list of possible activities for the kids of The Cat in the Hat), the same way The Unnamable stares, unblinking, out of its jar, at the void. They’re looking for life, and meaning, where experience has taught them none exists.

Beckett’s characters search for any signs of life at all — the possible appearance of a flea counts as a major plot point in Endgame — but the kids of The Cat in the Hat are searching for one specific sign of life — their mother.

Because their mother is out on this cold, cold wet day.

It took Time Magazine until 1966 to ask “Is God Dead?” (that’s Time for you, always behind the curve) but the question was very much on the minds of all the big thinkers in the middle decades of the 20th century.  For obvious reasons.  The end of the world had just narrowly been avoided, only to be threatened by a different end of the world, one that was in the hands of “the good” but which was still infinitely more scary than, say, Nazism.

In any case, the death of God was the central question informing Bergman’s greatest dramas, The Seventh Seal being only the most famous (Beckett’s works support a spiritual reading, but I think in the end his works are all about the act of writing itself — it is only coincidental that they invoke humanity’s relationship to God). But it’s not too far a leap, I think, to suppose that the absent Mother in The Cat in the Hat is God. God has left the children at home and gone off somewhere, she said she’d be back (like Godot) but there is no sign of her. And so all the children can do is wait (like Godot). They have a house full of stuff, certainly there’s a box of toys somewhere (although Seuss declines to put a TV in their house), but all the kids want to do is sit and stare and wait. Clearly, their mother’s absence worries them. Where has she gone, what is she doing, why is she not there? The story doesn’t say, but then God didn’t leave a note either.

The kids will sit and stare and wait (“All we could do was to Sit! Sit! Sit! Sit!” says the narrator [“I,” which I supposed would make “Sally” “Not I”]). Their house full of junk is meaningless and the world outside the house of their perceptions is a blasted void. Nothing has meaning, everything is dark, until their mother returns. Their anxiety about their lives in this suburban purgatory is palpable.

Alas, this is going on longer than I intended and my time grows short and I’m only on page 3. I will pick this up again on the nonce.

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Green Eggs and Ham

The inciting incident.

The unnamed protagonist of Dr. Seuss’s illustrated story Green Eggs and Ham wants only to be left alone — to sit in his chair and read his newspaper.  He is content, his world is whole and complete.  He is comfortable and complacent in his McLuhanesque media circuit.  The only thing missing from his life is a name — an identity.

Into this world bursts Sam, or “Sam-I-Am.”  Sam knows who he is; he even carries around a sign advertising himself.  He has such a strong sense of identity he feels a need to bring change to those who have none.

In the past, people like this have brought religion, political change or military turmoil to others.  Sam brings green eggs and ham.

(It is, perhaps, significant that the protagonist reads a newspaper — movable type being, after all, the most important, world-shaking innovation in the history of the human pageant.)

Sam has more than an identity — he has mobility and, as we shall see, boundless resources at his disposal.  Maybe he’s a shaman,  maybe he’s a leader, maybe he’s a snake-oil peddler.  Maybe he’s the marketing executive in charge of the Green Eggs and Ham account and this is a viral campaign.  We are never told, and we must sort out the dense symbolism ourselves.  Is Sam a savior or a demon?  Seuss provides no easy answers.

The protagonist knows one thing: he does not like green eggs and ham.  This is the same sort of person who knows they do not like democracy, psychoanalysis, astronomy, penicillin, abolition or stem-cell research (or, if you like, political torture, monopoly, pantheism).  And yet, Sam will not stop pestering him.  If the unnamed (not to be confused with Beckett’s Unnamable) protagonist will not take Sam’s new food straight, perhaps, Sam reasons, he will take it in a more complex form.  In short order, Sam offers the protagonist his life-changing meat and eggs in a house, with a mouse, in a box, with a fox, in a car, a train, a boat, with a goat, on and on.  And still the man with no identity resists.  He spends the entire story trying to avoid change, even as change surrounds and engulfs him.  Eyes closed, head haught, he repeatedly waves away Sam and his unusual food.  He doesn’t even seem to realize that his life is continuously in danger as he stands on the hood of a moving car, then atop a moving train as it hurtles through a tunnel.

What can change this man’s mind?  Nothing less than a cataclysm — car, train, boat, mouse, goat — all must plunge into the ocean.  Finally, with death at his chin, the unnamed man relinquishes hiscontrol over his world (it’s a shame George W. Bush was not reading this instead of My Pet Goat on 9/11).

(What drives Sam?  A hatred of the status quo?  A religious conviction?  Do-goodism?  Or a simple desire to impose his will upon others?  What does it mean that he wants to get the protagonist’s head out of the newspaper, remove his thoughts from the machinations of the world at large, to concentrate on the fleeting, earthly pleasures of the gourmand?  Is he Satan?  Is he the serpent, offering the protagonist the eggs-and-ham of carnal knowledge?  Do the ham and eggs symbolize the penis and testicles?  Is this perhaps a homosexual overture?)

Finally the protagonist submits and eats the food.  And finds he likes it.

Of course, the story does not end there.  In a shocking denoument, the man, still unnamed, typically, goes overboard.  He has no greater a sense of himself than he did at the beginning.  The man who knew only that he did not like green eggs and ham now knows only that he does.  And, just as he was adamant about not eating it before, he is now adamant about eating it now.  He crows to the skies regarding his plans to eat green eggs and ham in every possible situation, whether it is called for or not.  For example it is not necessary to eat green eggs and ham in a box — in one’s kitchen, in the morning, would seemingly do just fine.  Why insist on eating green eggs and ham with a goat?  (Seuss draws the line at animals who would probably be interested in eating green eggs and ham, but it’s not hard to imagine that, before long, the unnamed protagonist will be forcing this food on chickens and pigs, unaware of his callous disregard for life.)  So while Sam is triumphant in his quest to spread the gospel of green eggs and ham, what Seuss is really getting at is the unchanging simple-mindedness of the masses.  “Thank you, thank you, Sam-I-am” intones the protagonist with the attitude of an “amen,” utterly forgetting that, just one madcap romp earlier, he hated this tiny, furry man and his plate of food.  The man with no identity still has no identity — he’s just as happy being a green-eggs-and-ham eater as he was being a non-green-eggs-and-ham-eater.  This is the knot of the problem Seuss, the master moralist and social critic, presents to us: things may change, but the masses, on a deeper level, do not change.  Today it will be green eggs and ham, tomorrow it will be television or hula hoops or iPods, whatever shiny new thing the persuasive new voice brings.  The day after it will be Nazism.

UPDATE: It occurs to me that the name “Sam-I-Am” is almost a homonym for “I am that I am,” the name the Old Testament God gave to Moses.  Perhaps Sam-I-Am is God and the “Green Eggs and Ham” represent the new covenant with mankind, a different kind of trinity.  This would, perhaps, make the unnamed protagonist Saul who became Paul and the train track the Road to Damascus. hit counter html code