And he sailed off through night and day…

Maurice Sendak, Children’s Author, Dies at 83

Something we’ll get to. But first indulge me, for just a few moments.

On this, Australia’s budget night, I was going to write about the eternally shallow outlook of People, that great unreflective, capitalised majority for whom the Roman name rings most appropriate: Plebeians.

I was going to write something about Mark Bouris: Businessman – the only engaging member of this week’s Q&A panel (but thanks for lowering the bar, Kate Miller-Heidke).

With his eloquent tone, economic credentials, salt ‘n’ pepper hair and commitment to making sense, Bouris seems better suited to running for U.S. President (or at least Australian treasurer in a Malcolm Turnbull government) than propping up underwhelming political discussions on ABC-TV.

I was going to write about his politely veiled comments on the pointlessness of ascribing intelligent, rational motivation to what the plebs might think regarding government budgets:

I don’t think the electorate really understands the difference between surpluses and deficits for a start. I don’t really think the electorate understands all the various assumptions and inputs that go into building a budget and therefore I don’t think it’s going to make much difference. I think what the electorate wants to know is what I’m going to get out of the budget.

Polite because, of course, it’s perfectly reasonable to be concerned, on one level, with your individual circumstances or that of your family. But while the electorate doesn’t really understand the difference between surplus and deficit or, for example, the actual purpose and workings of a carbon tax, they seem more than happy to alter their votes according to whatever hyperbolic narrative (regarding these and other policy issues) best suits the opposition.

Admirably, ABC coverage featured opinion from members of the public who were highly intelligent, able to distinguish between what the budget meant for them personally versus its broader implications. But this was, after all, the ABC. Bastion of left-wing bias. Such absurdly self-aware public representatives would surely not pass muster in the plebeian world of current affairs programming.

I was going to write about how this narrowness of vision, the inability to operate beyond pre-determined systems of thought or entirely self-contained realms of value, operates not just within our current political climate and public discourse but throughout the world of academic inquiry, too. A world back into which I’ve decided to step, tentatively, as one who believes that studying literature should be about illuminating the world of human complexity, not manhandling it into this or that theoretical straightjacket. I was going to write about how the increased specialisation of research and reliance on obfuscating jargon has rendered the majority of arts & humanities scholarship no more meaningful or even decipherable to the averagely intelligent and interested reader than a nuclear physics textbook.

I was going to write about how video of a moderate, truly fair-and-balanced journalist on Fox News has gone viral with his comments about the current state of politics: weird, creepy, and lacking even the loosest attachment to anything like reality.

About how, apart from the appeal of that bluntly delivered, manifestly true observation, Smith’s position as a Fox anchor itself reflects, because it challenges, our own perhaps simplified assumptions about the politicised landscape of modern media.

I was going to write about all of this. But then it seemed, when I heard the news, more appropriate, meaningful and real to write instead, and briefly, about the death of Sendak, beloved creator of “Where the Wild Things Are.”

In a political age of selfish populism, hollow rhetoric and proud ignorance, among politicians, plebeians and professors alike, remembrance of wild things past seems to spring from the words and images of Sendak, “who wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and plunged it into the dark, terrifying and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche.” A complex, melancholy and sometimes lonely figure, he was also “a man of ardent enthusiasms — for music, art, literature, argument and the essential rightness of children’s perceptions of the world around them.

But I was reminded, too, of the underlying lesson presented so beautifully in Spike Jonze’s 2009 adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are: that freedom and escape from authority, from adulthood, must inevitably come full circle. Max runs away, angry and defiant, after being sent to bed without his supper. After running and sailing “in and out of weeks / and almost over a year” he comes “to where the wild things are.” But of course, on becoming king of these giant, troubled monsters with a promise to “keep out all the sadness”, Max begins to realise the challenges of leadership, of being a grown up: life’s complexities and contradictions, its regrets and disappointments, cannot always be met with only raging anger or wild rumpus. Things don’t always work out just how we’d like and sometimes, to paraphrase Hemingway, things are left behind, though we don’t want them to be.

One of the saddest monsters, Carol, expresses this feeling to Max by showing him a beautifully crafted model city:

“We were gonna make a whole world like this,” Carol says. “Everyone used to come here, but you know… you know what it feels like when all your teeth are falling out really slowly and you don’t realize and then you notice that, well, they’re really far apart. And then one day… you don’t have any teeth anymore?”

“Yeah,” Max replies.

“Well, it was like that.”

Carol is unable to accept that some things change, that some things cannot last forever and that, after all, the world is more than our own wants. While not featured in the film itself, Arcade Fire’s song ‘Wake Up’ plays hauntingly over its trailer:

If the children don’t grow up,
our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.
We’re just a million little gods causin’ rain storms
Turnin’ every good thing to rust.

In a world of weird, creepy politics, where discourse has detached from reality and the majority of people, refusing to grow up, become just “a million little gods causing rain storms / turning every good thing to rust”, perhaps we should all take a moment to remember Maurice Sendak. Inside all of us is hope, inside all of us is fear.

We are all wild things, capable of everything that implies. Try and remember.


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