The Cat in the Hat
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Dec 16 07:06:14 MST 2002
The New Yorker, Dec. 23, 2002
by LOUIS MENAND
What Dr. Seuss really taught us.
The Cat in the Hat was a Cold War invention. His value as an analyst of
the psychology of his time, the late nineteen-fifties, is readily
appreciated: transgression and hypocrisy are the principal themes of his
little story. But he also stands in an intimate and paradoxical relation
to national-security policy. He was both its creature and its
nemesis—the unraveller of the very culture that produced him and that
made him a star. This is less surprising than it may seem. He was, after
all, a cat.
Every reader of "The Cat in the Hat" will feel that the story revolves
around a piece of withheld information: what private demons or desires
compelled this mother to leave two young children at home all day, with
the front door unlocked, under the supervision of a fish? Terrible as
the cat is, the woman is lucky that her children do not fall prey to
some more insidious intruder. The mother's abandonment is the psychic
wound for which the antics of the cat make so useless a palliative. The
children hate the cat. They take no joy in his stupid pet tricks, and
they resent his attempt to distract them from what they really want to
be doing, which is staring out the window for a sign of their mother's
return. Next to that consummation, a cake on a rake is a pretty feeble
This is the fish's continually iterated point, and the fish is not
wrong. The cat's pursuit of its peculiar idea of fun only cranks up the
children's anxiety. It raises our anxiety level as well, since it keeps
us from doing what we really want to be doing, which is accompanying the
mother on her murderous or erotic errand. Possibly the mother has
engaged the cat herself, in order to throw the burden of suspicion onto
the children. "What did you do?" she asks them when she returns home,
knowing that the children cannot put the same question to her without
disclosing their own violation of domestic taboos. They are each other's
alibi. When you cheat, you lie.
When you look through the secondary literature on "The Cat in the Hat,"
you read that children instinctively respond to the cat's sense of
mischief. I wonder how many children really do react that way. My own
identification, as a child, was entirely with the fish. I didn't admire
his hysteria, of course (very uncool). But I understood what he was
trying, with his limited vocabulary, to say, which is that "fun" is only
a distraction from the reality of separation and abandonment. Pink snow,
and those personified genitalia, Thing One and Thing Two, are no
substitute for what we have lost. We don't want to be amused; we don't
even want to amuse ourselves. We want to be taken care of.
Later on, in the nineteen-sixties, I, along with many other Americans
born around 1952, began to understand the cat's appeal—in particular,
the whole Thing One and Thing Two business. The fish, let's face it, was
an uptight little dude, a tin-pot Puritan, and the domestic sphere in
which he served as resident superego proved, on closer examination, to
be a site of exclusion and oppression. New combinations seemed
possible—seemed necessary. Maybe bricolage and différance were the way,
after all. Misrule became the new rule, and the cat was its cockeyed
lord. Having learned to read, we learned to misread. Phonics, which was
supposed to make us into superscientists, cooking up formulas for
landing those ICBMs right in Khrushchev's kitchen, had unleashed instead
the spirit of "anything goes." It was Pinkisme partout.
Dr. Seuss, too, flush with the wealth his contributions to the national
security had brought him, fell prey to the countercultural forces that
his own cat, one of the Cold War's most potent unguided missiles, had
helped set in motion. In 1971, he published "The Lorax," a book about
the environment that was much despised by the patriotic timber industry,
and in 1984 he brought out "The Butter Battle Book," a work criticizing
(of all things) the arms race. "The Butter Battle Book" was attacked in
The New Republic for being soft on Communism. That's not the kind of
thing people used to say about "The Pokey Little Puppy." Dr. Seuss took
the same course as that other doctor who hitched a ride on the baby boom
and the government gravy train it rode through school and into college:
Dr. Spock. They went pink. (We won't get into the later career of Noam
But that was then, a long time gone. Now we have something different: we
have "anything goes" without the spirit. "Transgression," "subversion,"
"deconstruction" are praise words bestowed as solemnly as "structure"
and "order" once were, little gold stars awarded to rappers and
television comics. Cakes on rakes are everywhere. A million cats cavort
frantically for our attention. Even the fish has been co-opted (though
what choice did he have?). "Enjoy!" cries the fish. "Consume! Everything
will be fine when your mother gets home." But the fish is whistling into
the wind. The mother has left, and she's never coming back. It's just us
and that goddam cat.
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