Seussian Paradigm Shift

I wrote this for Dr, Seuss's 105th birthday, and thought it was worth posting (a bit belatedly) for his 108th.

I once read an incredibly entertaining literary critical analysis of _The Cat in the Hat_ which began from the premise that all the action in TCITH is an attempt to fill up the overwhelming absence of the mother from the scene. She has "gone out for the day" leaving her children untended, something she clearly is in the habit of doing, since there's a sequel with the same issue embedded. The glimpses we get of "mother's new gown" and her empty bedstead stand in implicit reference to what mother might be doing, The Cat's frenetic antics exist in precise proportion to how hard it is not to wonder what Mom is actually doing.

Whether or not you think this is an excessively close reading, you must admit, it adds a bit of engaging frisson to one's 87th repetition of the book. The fun thing about Dr. Seuss is that there's so much there to play with, even for the grownups. The books can generally be sung, recited from memory (and how many parents do know a full repetoir of the books perfectly?), sped up to get the kids to bed faster, have the words changed for pornographic or political discussions between exhausted parents desperate for a joke later... or for internet circulation.

My husband and I used to have Fox in Socks speed competitions to the delight and and amusement of my children, who got to declare the winner. One normally praises Seuss for what he brings to children, but his work is a gift (and occasionally a curse) to adults as well.

I was thinking of Seuss this morning, because my children are anxious to celebrate his birthday, but also because it strikes me that the world-turned-upside-down qualities of our present situation are in some ways Seussian. And how surprising is that, when so many of us were formed by his writing? I suspect, thinking about Seuss's endings and stories, that maybe we owe him more than we think - some measure of our ability to process reality, rather than fantasy, may come precisely from the fantasy creator.

Seuss books almost inevitably follow the pattern of a small, precipitating event (the offer of a snack, rainy day boredom, a horse and wagon on Mulberry Street, and encounter with a bird...), and preceed through a frenzy of wild variations on the theme, bringing things to a crisis point. The horse and wagon becomes a parade, the cat trashes the house, things deteriorate (or progess) into wild chaos.

In many cases, things as basic as language themselves begin to decompensate - a few words "fox, socks, box, Knox" becomes "When a fox is in the bottle where the tweedle beetles battle with their paddles in a puddle on a poodle eating noodle, THIS is what they tweetle beetle noodle poodle bottled paddled muddled duddled fuddled wuddled fox in socks, sir." And in _The Cat in the Hat Comes Back_ we actually see linguistically multiplying alphabet cats, and something beyond Z that annhilates language and imagination altogether.

Perhaps it is just me, but it does seem to me that (mostly without the funny bits) we're moving towards a Seussian style crescendo of many different parts as a society. Whether we like it or not, the events we're seeing are linked to one another. The uncertain situation we face in the global economy was helped by oil's meteoric rise - the destruction of our climate is presently being partly aided by the fact that we're all distracted by the economy, our oil decline may well be set in stone because we are not investing in energy infrastructure that would smooth our path. All the pieces are interconnected, and as each situation becomes more acute, responses become more scattered in many ways.

Dr. Suess books almost inevitably end in a full stop, brought about by another small thing that reshapes the crisis. Sam I Am takes a bite. The resentful turtle at the bottom burps. Horton's egg hatches. In the midst of all that wild language and its even wilder illustrations, things become quiet again - not necessarily because all the internal conflicts are resolved, but because the books reached the point at which there was nowhere else to go in the direction they were facing, and thus, another small precipitating event changes things. As we see from _The Cat and the Hat Comes Back_ further chaos is likely - but the direction has changed.

The idea that some comparatively small event can change things dramatically, bring the frenzy to a sudden halt seems right - we know, for example, that small oil shocks have large implications and small increases in carbon output can result in non-linear results. No one knows the future, but it doesn't take a crystal ball to know that at some point we will no longer be able to go on as we have been..

My own favorite Seuss book is _I Had Trouble Getting to Solla Sollew_ - in it, a young creature with a constant stream of unbearable troubles finds himself seduced by the promise of a trip to Solla Sollew, "...where they never have troubles, at least very few."

After an agonizing comic journey, he arrives to discover that Solla Sollew only has one trouble - but it is a trouble that means that no one can get it. Offered a chance to embark on another journey to "Boola Boo Ball, on the banks of the beautiful river Woo Wall, where they never have troubles! No toubles at all!" He considers it, and then chooses otherwise.

"I'd have no more troubles...that's what the man said. So I started to go. But I didn't. Instead...I did some quick thinking inside of my head. Then I started back home to the Valley of Vung. I know I'll have troubles. I'll maybe, get stung. I'll always have troubles. I'll maybe get bit, by that green-headed quail on the place that I sit. But I've bought a big bat. I'm all ready you see. Now my troubles are going to have trouble with me!"

The acknowledgement that our troubles are not going away, no matter how deeply we care, how much we wish to prevent them, no matter how we try to stop them, seems like a starting point for what we really can hope for - a shift in which we give events we are not fully in control of as much "trouble with us" as possible. That is, we face what is necessary, stop what harm we can, and set ourselves hard to the project of making sure that we get back some of our own by doing the work of mitigation. The message is for children, but it is a fundamentally adult one.

In Suessian stories, there are happy endings, of course. These are children's stories, after all. Horton, who hatches the elephant bird, the Grinch whose heart grows three sizes just in time. Because, as Seuss says of Horton's elephant-bird, "And it should be, it should be, it SHOULD be like that!"

But in the happy endings are also "happy enough endings" that teach children that solutions aren't always found at the end of the story. The Onceler can pass on a seed of the last Truffala tree, but he can't bring back the Lorax. The Cat in the Hat may have cleaned up his mess, but the children are still faced with the question of whether to lie to their parents about him. And the boy goes back to the Valley of Vung, this time better prepared, but still expecting to get stung.

Written into the text of Horton and his egg is the fact that the reason things happened the way they did, is because it is a children's story. That is, the transformation that made all the problems go away is narrative, something that can happen in stories because "it SHOULD be like that." But, in the very transformation he draws, Giesel reminds us that it isn't - those heavy, repeated "shoulds" force us to think of the ways in which it usually isn't.

This is a hard lesson for children, but one that it is good to embed early - to clarify the distinction between fiction and reality. It is one that is clearly hard for many adults to grasp - thus, the fact that we desperately *want* the economy to be restored makes us see signs of restoration where there is much more uncertainty. The fact that we want to address climate change without personal hardship makes us convinced that this is possible, that we want there to be fossil fuels without constraining our consumption means we choose to believe it. But navigating the fact that happy endings of the "Happy 100 percent" sort are mostly fictive is perhaps the life project for both children and adults.

And that may be his best gift to the world's children and grownups - that even as he trained us to see that the stories can end in joy, he also reminds us that sometimes, the best we can hope for is a future in which we give our troubles all the trouble we can. I've come to think of my repetoir of responses - my writings, my farm, my restoration work as the young creature's bat - I'll have troubles, of course, but let's not make it too easy on them. May we give our troubles troubles in his memory.

- In Memorium Theodore Seuss Giesel-


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From another March 2nd birthday baby, thanks for a thoughtful article. Best wishes!

I always think of the sneechers. Nobody ends up with anything and they are just left to get on with it regardless, poorer but hopefully a little wiser :) Definitely a cautionary tale! (and we too can recite Fox in Sox with the best of them)

viv in nz

Fox in Socks! Yes!
We do that one every couple of weeks. Even the 13-year-old drops what she's doing to listen and giggle (although she pretends she's not interested).

By Craig Thomas (not verified) on 05 Mar 2012 #permalink

Love Dr Seuss, love your article. I shall read them all again (to my niece & nephew, really!) with your thoughts in mind.

Cat in the Hat

By Cat Dorey (not verified) on 05 Mar 2012 #permalink

My father gave me a set of Dr. Suess when I was a kid. I loved those books until the binding were repaired with masking tape. But I outgrew them.

Once I had my own kids and returned to Suess, I realized just how subversive he was. I love the little turtle who burps and upsets his power hungry king turtle. In the end the little guy does get a voice. Horton's message of a " a person is a person, no matter how small" again reinforces the value of the little guy. Those Sneeches are a great lesson of how pointless the frenzy of consumerism can be.

Sometimes it's just no fun facing reality. Which is part of why so many of us prefer not to.

We've got a perfect example right now. Yesterday a teacher's aide at Smidgen's school suffered a massive stroke, and died. At school. She was someone Smidgen (now in 1st grade) had known, and liked, since pre-school.

Smidgen's teacher thinks that Smidgen was the only one in her class to actually comprehend the death; and it was making her very, very sad. We've never sheltered her in regard to death- on a farm, you can't entirely; but we've chosen full openness over "no, you can't go look at the dead horse." So she really understands what death is. And it's hard; always.

While I know plenty of Seuss, I think I'm not as familiar as some of you are; did he ever approach the subject of death? Sure, he confronts mutual annihilation in the Butter Battle; but it's not quite the same thing. He is a joy, in many ways. I wish his successors were anywhere near as sharp.

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