Ian Garrick Mason

Articles and Essays

National Post -- February 28, 2004

The rise of Seussism

Dr. Seuss adopted radical, avant-garde techniques in both his illustrations and storytelling, using them to encourage children to see beyond the mental limits imposed by their society

by Ian Garrick Mason

In 1984, at the Whitney Museum in New York, the modern met the postmodern. In his performance of Muoyce, composer John Cage -- most famous for 4'33", his 1952 work in which a musician stays utterly silent for precisely four minutes and 33 seconds -- "wrote through" Finnegans Wake by chanting letters and word-fragments that had been systematically separated from their original syntax and context. As interpreted by Cage and his computer, James Joyce's text was reduced to sequences of meaningless pseudo-words: "permienting hi himself then pass ahs c." A cathedral of literature was presented as a confused pile of masonry and stained glass.

Such is the age in which we live. Bisected cows float in formaldehyde in prestigious art galleries. Teenagers tap txt msgs into wireless phones. Adults at their water coolers discuss the fortunes of fellow citizens living in the staged mini-worlds of reality television. Faced with this unchanging world of ever-changing surfaces, many of the leading thinkers of postmodernism have retreated into a jaded cynicism. Contemporary society, they have concluded, has reached a dead-end: "We are becoming like cats, slyly parasitic, enjoying an indifferent domesticity," wrote Jean Baudrillard in Cool Memories. We cannot see beyond the consumerist illusions we have crafted for ourselves. There is nothing to be done.

But is such pessimism really warranted? Not according to Philip Nel, an assistant professor of English at Kansas State University who contends postmodernism has simply forgotten its roots in the avant-garde, roots once nourished on a spirit of optimism and serious social criticism -- on a belief that the world is real, and that it could and should be improved. Nel, who writes about children's authors J.K. Rowling and Crockett Johnson, as well as literary giants like Don DeLillo, has always been interested, he said in a recent interview with the National Post, "in how postmodern literature -- fiction, poetry, children's books -- could be political. Many critics of postmodernism say that it's politically bankrupt, a pastiche, that it's merely being playful with different styles. But it's not true."

Just look at Dr. Seuss.

"Dr. Seuss?" said a children's librarian to educator Rita Roth (as recounted in her 1989 New Advocate essay "On Beyond Zebra with Dr. Seuss"). "Oh, we hide Dr. Seuss -- well, not really. We keep him over there on a special shelf -- We'd really rather they read something better -- something more like A.A. Milne." Many North Americans may chuckle over this; to them, Dr. Seuss is an uncontroversial part of childhood, a fond memory rekindled by yearly watchings of How the Grinch Stole Christmas or by reading Seuss's books to their own children. What could be avant-garde or subversive about him?

Plenty. Dr. Seuss may seem mainstream now, but after all, says Nel, "Every avant-garde is co-opted by the culture it wants to oppose." Born in 1904 (his centenary arrives March 2), advertising illustrator and freelance cartoonist Theodor Geisel -- Dr. Seuss's real name -- began writing and illustrating books in the 1930s. As Nel points out in his 2002 book The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity: Small Incisive Shocks, this was the decade in which the great surrealist exhibitions took place, showing the works of Salvador Dali -- who made the cover of Time magazine in 1936 -- Rene Magritte, Max Ernst and others. It would have been difficult to avoid their influence, and the "twists and turns and slipperiness" of Seuss's pictures, says Nel, show his debt to the surrealists. This can also be seen in Seuss's private paintings, many of which were published in 1995's The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss. Children's author and illustrator Jon Agee, reviewing that book, noted that "a couple of strange, hallucinogenic landscapes recall the paintings of Max Ernst or Yves Tanguy -- except that in each case, somewhere in the scene, there's a cat."

Nel discusses the artistic influences on Seuss in more depth in his new book to be released in March, Dr. Seuss: American Icon. He identifies the work of Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi as an influence on Seuss's buildings, which "echo and amplify the landscape surrounding them," and Rube Goldberg as an influence on Seuss's depictions of machines. Nel defines Seuss's style -- "Seussism," he calls it -- as "energetic cartoon surrealism."

Seuss also shared with the avant-garde an attitude to language. For Seuss, language was not an inherited set of rules, but a world to be explored, even expanded. "Why use snarl when I can use snerl?" Nel asks. In On Beyond Zebra (1955), Seuss imagines an entire alphabet beyond Z, consisting of letters like YUZZ, ZATZ, FUDDLE, and FLUNN. Seuss, says Nel, "literally goes after language itself -- going beyond portmanteau words to give us portmanteau letters." Pointing out the arbitrariness of language, of course, is a subversive act, reminiscent of French surrealist Andre Breton's declaration: "We make no claim to change the mores of mankind, but we intend to show the fragility of thought, and on what shifting foundations, what caverns we have built our trembling houses."

Yet Seuss did want to change the mores of mankind. Says Nel: "He was a moralist who tried to deliver his morals in a way that was entertaining and provocative, not didactic or condescending. He was trying to use the fun of nonsense to deliver serious messages." The Lorax, for example, in which a narrator known as the Once-ler commercially exploits Truffula Tree tufts until none are left, is clearly a critique of environmental destruction, and both Bartholomew and the Oobleck, in which an unwise ruler stubbornly refuses to take responsibility for his disastrous tinkering with nature, and Yertle the Turtle, the tale of a king who foolishly attempts to build a throne on the back of his subjects, are critiques of dictatorship (says Mack the turtle at the bottom of the pile: "I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,/ But down at the bottom we, too, should have rights.") "Seuss was very skeptical of figures of authority, of people in power," Nel continues. "In The Butter Battle Book, he wrote about Reagan and the arms race. He thought it was crazy, so he wrote a book about it." Nel pauses. "You wish he were around today to satirize the goings on."

Obvious messages were not ubiquitous in the books, however; Seuss also liked to use ambiguity as a technique. The Cat in the Hat ends with the approach of mother, the children's uncertainty as to what to tell her about the events of the day, and the author's lingering question "What would YOU do / If your mother asked YOU?" It is an open-ended conclusion that refrains from providing the comfort of a right answer or an ethical directive. "Seuss poses a question and leaves the audience to answer it," says Nel. For an artist, using ambiguity "is a strength because it is not dogmatic, a weakness because the reader might not arrive at the political point the artist was hoping for."

The surrealists were dedicated socialists and Marxists; for them, art was an ideological weapon. By contrast, Nel explains, "Seuss was left wing, but a liberal democrat, not a communist. He was out to change the existing order for the better, rather than to overthrow it." Despite all the Cat in the Hat's anarchic, destructive behaviour, "the Cat cleans up the house in the end."

Seuss never adopted the cynicism that plagues many of today's postmodernists. A successful American ad man rather than a bomb-throwing radical, he retained our trust as a mildly eccentric uncle with whom our children would come to no harm. Though he adopted radical, avant-garde techniques -- surrealism, subversion of language, ambiguity -- he employed them in constructive ways that encouraged children to see beyond the mental limits imposed by their society. We can do better, he was saying. If it is true, as cultural historian Robert Hewison asserted in The Heritage Industry, that "postmodernism is modernism with the optimism taken out," then we can thank Dr. Seuss for having put the optimism right back in again.