Monday, August 28, 2006
Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon 2
Harold and the Purple Crayon has only four elements: the blank page (which finds contemporary analogues in some images from Grant Morrson’s JLA and Animal Man, and the white room in The Matrix), Harold (drawn in black and white – clearly on a separate ontological level from his drawings), his purple crayon and the things he draws with it, and the text of the story. Harold and the text are colored with the same faded black, suggesting they are linked, so Harold and his Crayon are really the only elements of the story – no parents, no other people or animals, not even a landscape; the fact that Harold draws everything he interacts with makes him a curiously isolated: Harold’s world is as populated as the average Wallace Stevens’s lyric, in which the self, rather than the outside world, is the only subject.
Harold Bloom writes: “’what the solipsist means is right,’ a gnomic Wittgenstein truth, is in traditional American terms the Emersonian admonition ‘Build therefore your own world,’ which in turn is founded on the central Emersonian motto ‘what we are, that only can we see.’” This is the world of Harold and his crayon. The first image of the story is a page spread with crayon scribbles on the first page that connect to Harold and his crayon on the second; the caption that tells us that “after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight”: the crayon scrawls represent Harold thinking it over, establishing the crayon’s creations as mental objects, letting us know the journey home we are reading takes place in a fully internal landscape, populated only with creations of thought.
The poetic analogue to Einstein’s law of relativity is trope (from the Greek, to turn): movement is only meaningful when understood as being relative to something; poetic freedom is only meaningful when, as Bloom says, it is “achieved against a prior plentitude of meaning, which is tradition, and so also language.” Harold’s walk on the long straight path is meaningless – “he didn’t seem to be getting anywhere” – because the laws of perspective mean Harold cannot detect his own movement unless he moves against something: it is only by drawing the long straight path that he can leave it and notice his own movement, against the figures of his own thought, his internalized landscape (the poet tropes, not against tradition, but against his internalization of tradition, as Bloom points out). Harold's journey for the rest of the book is now from left to right, the way one reads, rather than the meaningless movement toward the horizon and away from the reader: he moves by rejecting perspective and “realism” in art and accepting the left to right movement of the words at the bottom of the page, continuing the horizon line and drawing objects to move against.
And the words at the bottom of the page are words that, at several points, connect to the images not only as captions but also as puns: When Harold lands the ship he “makes land” and at the end of the story he “makes his bed” and “draws up the covers.” The words don't simply describe what Harold does, they participate in the kind of mental space the story is about.