Archive for March 2nd, 2009

Seussian Paradigm Shift

Sharon March 2nd, 2009

Today Is Dr. Seuss’s Birthday. Today is the day that anti-coal activists try to shut down the capitol coal plant.  Utility shut offs for those who can’t pay their bills have hit a new high.  Last week New Scientist magazine published its prediction that we would hit four degrees of climate change, and its apocalyptic vision of what that might mean. Friday we learned that economy had contracted nearly twice as much as predicted.  This Friday we can expect to find out that we’ve lost between 3/4 of a million and million jobs.  Somehow, all these things came together in my mind…

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 “mothers new gown” and her empty bedstead stand in implicit reference to what it might be that mother is out doing, while the The Cat tries desperately to distract the children from thinking about it.

Now 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 (his 105th), 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 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 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 some 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 call…at 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.  Whether we like it or not, the events we’re seeing are linked to one another.  The tanking of our 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 by the economy because we are not investing in energy infrastructure that would keep our decline rates stable.  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, another small thing that reshapes the crisis.  Sam I Am takes a bite.  The resentful turtle at the bottom burps.  Horton’s egg hatches.  And 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.

I have no crystal ball, but I wonder how much radical shift in direction we’re likely to see in the coming year.  My own sense is that we may well see such a shift – and quite soon – away from our frenzied attempts to prevent the worst, and toward attempts to mitigate what we must now acknowledge as inevitable - the extended Depression, the rising temperatures, the lifelong project of adapting to Depletion.  I do not know for sure by any means, but it strikes me that we are nearing a point at which we will no longer be able to go on as we have been, and the projects we engage in will have to change fundamentally.  We may have to admit that the hope of growing the economy again or rescuing the banks is futile – and turn our efforts, hopefully, towards mitigating suffering.  We may have to conceed that the planet will pass the 2 degree tipping point (and I say this with great pain), and that the best we can hope for is to not add more damage.  We may have to conceed that our children will be dealing with a national infrastructure designed for cheap energy – and without much of the energy, and turn ourselves to the national and world project of adaptation.

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 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 none are.  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.  Let us do so in his memory.

- In Memorium Theodore Seuss Giesel-