Wild Things

How to contain these wild things, these primal urges, these desires that just won’t quit? Got me.

How to contain them in the inclusive as well as the exclusive sense of that word, that’s the real question, because the adults among us seem to believe that the exclusive sense is all that matters. Unless of course they get Utopian, and then they bleed desire, and if they’re ambitious and literary, they try to say that sex, that fumbling, bumbling and yet ecstatic meeting of bodies in the dark, is the last refuge of equality and extra-contractual reciprocity. No surplus value produced there, no sir, reproduction is the medium of counterfeit desire, whereas sex without a purpose beyond our immediate pleasure requires the real thing.  Why contain these wild things?

At that point, all they’re saying is that the Enlightenment specification of the relation between reason and desire, or bodies and minds, must be inverted in accordance with Romantic blueprints. Reason excludes desire, they assume, just as the world excludes our intentions, and so we must resign ourselves to it (that is, be reasonably bourgeois) or rebel against it (that is, be desirously bohemian).

At that same point, of course, they’ve attained adulthood, maybe even gotten married, but they know enough to resent these moments, these milestones, because they understand that a rebellion headquartered in Brooklyn is even more embarrassing than their impending resignation to (not from) the world as it exists. At that point, the news from nowhere—this is Utopia’s address—becomes their lifeline, their way of keeping themselves informed about the state of their antiquated, frustrated desires.

In The Contours of American History (1961), William Appleman Williams said this: “A philosophy without a Utopia is like the sky without the stars. It is very inspiring until it gets dark.” Now my admiration for Williams is almost boundless, but this statement is just so much silliness. It’s animated by the anti-revisionist sentiment of a residually Leninist American Left, in other words by the idea that Eduard Bernstein’s approach to the politics of socialism—the movement is everything, the goal is nothing, he claimed—was reformist, not revolutionary, and indeed became such a conformist doctrine that the German Social Democrats elected to the Reischstag voted for war credits in 1914.

The statement is animated as well by the idea that your principles, both theoretical and political, must be enunciated clearly so that you don’t wander into an eclectic wilderness and forget how to distinguish between right and wrong, or means and ends. A political philosophy without a Utopia, according to this idea, is a pluralist program without first principles, and so it is susceptible to every kind of fatal compromise.

But that’s exactly my address, where I want to compromise my principles and defer my purposes in the name of reciprocity, communication, commensurability, equality. I want to live my life in jagged profiles, not as a diagrammatic unity that makes sense—I want to surprise myself, among others. You can have Utopia. I’ll take pragmatism and pluralism, where mistakes are made and coincidences are commonplace, where accidents happen all the time and nobody’s got your number. That’s where the wild things are.

And now I want to talk about other wild things. Here goes. Maurice Sendak, as you know the author of Where the Wild Thing Are (1963), is the subject of a lovely exhibit at another library, the Morgan Library on Madison Avenue—the home and the uptown office and the library of J.P. Morgan himself, a residence completed in 1906—where I went recently with some other fellows of the Cullman Center at the NYPL

The irony of the exhibit is exquisite, because the big banker himself was a Renaissance and Reformation kind of guy.  The domed ceilings and intricate frescoes of the place he inhabited (you enter the museum via a wonderfully understated glass structure that connects the original buildings) are all modern restatements of late medieval and early Renaissance thematics. Here you witness a Pilgrim’s Progress, to be sure, but he’s going in style this time, so we’ll be skipping the Slough of Despond.

The irony resides in the cartoonish quality of Sendak’s art, and in the brevity of the exhibit. The wonderfully cranky Maurice was always interested in the externalization of everything—insides are outsides in his pictorial universe—whereas Morgan’s heroes understood and acted upon the conceit of Modern Man, which, according to Nietzsche, was the impossible idea that he had an interior to which no exterior could correspond, and vice versa.

Cartoons accomplish this externalization better than any other anti-realist art form because they abstract so thoroughly from any particular human figure or face, and turn the principle of plasticity—appearance is reality, gravity need not apply—into an imperative. Sendak grasped, and developed, that capacity of cartoons at least as well as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Will Eisner, who were proving the point in very different ways at the very same time.

I say there is irony in the brevity of the exhibit because museums don’t exist in the absence of the idea that a comprehensive display of the relevant artifacts is necessary to justify the enterprise. J. P. Morgan’s other project at the same time he was completing this residence and workplace—his biographer tells me he solved the riddle of the crisis of 1907 from the study that is preserved here, vault included—was of course the Metropolitan Museum on Central Park, where the whole of western civilization is contained and narrated (all artifacts are labeled) in two and three dimensions, as surfaces stretched and covered with colors to make you believe you’re looking into reality, and as more weighty representations that let you believe that for now you’re at least alongside it.

There are a total of 16 frames in the Sendak exhibit, two tables with two angled sides that contain original sketches, finished panels, and scribbled notes, verses, and stories that begin in the late 1950s, when young Maurice was trying to tame his demons by writing about “Wild Horses.” That’s it.

They’re surrounded by about 20,000 volumes of leather- bound books in French, English, and German, which taken together amount to the reading you’d have to do to understand the dialectic of Enlightenment, speaking of insides and outsides—the reading you’d have to do if your project was to master, to possess, the intellectual inheritance of western civilization and pass it along to those without your privileges.

These 16 panels stand as a rebuke to that project, as cartoons in general do, so it was nice to see them stand so alone, so sparely in a space that is otherwise overstuffed with artifacts demonstrating the volume and the continuity of intellectual effort since 1400—you can turn from the Wild Things to have a look at Schopenauer’s copy of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, all it takes is two steps, and you can move from there to the French version of intellectual collation in another three steps.

Ah, but the ironies don’t subside there. Over the enormous fireplace in this room of Morgan’s library there is a huge tapestry.  It’s about 20 X 12 feet, and it depicts one of the Seven Deadly Sin. It is intricate, busy even, and it bristles with bills, monetary representations of some kind–you can see them plainly because they’re foregrounded, in peering into this teeming reality you feel as if these bills are being handed to you. It’s a grand narrative of Avarice. His biographer says, “He had a sense of humor.”

And then the final touch. In a clockwise procession of frescoes on the ceiling of the same room you can see the West’s movement from ancient philosophy to medieval poetry to modern science, Plato to Dante to Galileo, illustrated or accented by a female figure in flowing white. When your eyes get around to modernity, there’s a panel in which a striking woman is paired off with Hephaestus/Vulcan, the blacksmith among the Gods who presumably represents the technological armature of science. It turns out that this is a portrait of Morgan’s mistress, coupled, of course, with the eternal cuckold. The man surrounded himself with reminders of his fallen nature and his unruly desires. He knew where the wild things are—close by, in every room he entered.

And Sendak himself? .

.I bought a copy of “Where The Wild Things Are” in the library store, went looking for the DVD of the Sendak interview, but settled for the children’s book. We had been privileged to see an excerpt of the interview before we got to the exhibit, and then to watch the book itself unfold under the spell of Barack Obama’s voice at the White House Easter Egg Hunt, so I wanted the whole thing. The book was enough, I read it almost out loud on the subway, on the way home. Nobody noticed.

I used to read it to my kids, of course, and constantly wondered what they made of its representations of madness, anger, and malevolence as organized around the pre-Oedipal fright of a child threatened by some very big Others, first Mom, then the Wild Things, but always by his very own primal urges. I remember they loved the sound and the sight of it, and especially the happy ending, when Max returns and his supper is waiting, “and it was still hot.”

It’s a dreamscape, a map of our drives.  Max sails “in and out of weeks and over a year” to Where the Wild Things Are, having infuriated his mother by his aggressive mischief—is he really going to stab the dog with his fork?—who calls him “Wild Thing” and sends him to bed without his supper when he responds with “I’ll eat you up!” A forest grows in his room, an ocean tumbles by with his private boat to bring him to the right place; this, too, is a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress but time will now stand still as he sails closer to the dangerous shoals of the unconscious rather than take a detour into the Slough of Despond.

And those Wild Things, “with their terrible roars and terrible teeth and terrible eyes and terrible claws”—that’s right, you want to pause over the drawings but there are no commas to slow you down, it’s all parataxis, mere juxtaposition—well, they’re both scary and friendly.  You might think of their world as an undiscovered zoo with no keeper, or an animal shelter of the mind with no volunteers, because they make the sounds and gestures of beings awakened to recognition and understanding of their situation by the intrusion of this very small Other. It’s a new world; the unarmed intruder silences the commotion by staring into the yellow eyes of the Wild Things without blinking.

Max stares down his primal urges, which is to say that he tames the Wild Things by looking them squarely in the face. And then he sets them free, he lets the “wild rumpus” start, and the book suddenly slows down, no words now, instead six pages of howling at the moon, then hanging from trees—how long are they going to hang there grinning at each other?—and then parading through the trees, everybody on their way, we guess, to Max’s quarters near the shore, where he knows he’s lonely, smells food from across the world, and decides to leave.

He doesn’t want to be King of the Wild Things, so he goes home. He entertains his unruly desires for a time, or rather he rules them on their island, which is his own bedroom—where the trees grew and the ocean tumbled by—and then he acknowledges that they have subsided.  He acts on them, and at that point he can reenter the world as it has been designed by the adults.

Rebellion or resignation, not again! No wait, they go together. Temporary relief, momentary spasms of desirous, bohemian, sexual transportation, these are what we need to get us through the rural idiocy of everyday life! You wouldn’t put it to your kids this way, having read the book to them, but that is what Maurice Sendak is teaching us, both the adults in the room who are doing the reading and the kids nearby who are doing the listening. Take your medicine—or your punishment—and go to bed, and maybe then you’ll wake up feeling refreshed and ready for a new day of routinized absurdity.

A place for everything, and everything in its place. The Wild Things are right where they belong, not among us but in a museum, not in public but in the bedroom. Not even in plain view, like the most common of those Seven Deadly Sins.  This is Utopia?




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2 responses to “Wild Things

  1. James Livingston

    Holy crap, I’ll figure this out.

  2. Mistakes were made. There is some repetition here, no?

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