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.


ping33 said...

I think you hit the nail on the head... At one point Spike Jones was going to make a Harold movie and I wondered why so many people loved this book SO much. In the end I think it's the whole idea of the artist creating the world in which he lives in and then only existing within that self-manufactured world. It's the ultimate artistic wet dream to have the world wholly comprised of ones own creation and be able to live within that creation on ones own terms.

I always liked stories where people are confronted and forced to deal with "the other" more.

Björninn said...

Funny you should bring up the possibility of an adaptation, because I was just thinking about the relation between the element of white space in movies (as in The Matrix or American Splendor perhaps) and the blank page in the printed medium. The blank page can stand for total nothingness and, at the same time, unlimited potential. But white spaces, as they're used in movies, are not blank. Whether it's greenscreen or a spotless white set, something has been manufactured and put on film, whereas the blank page is simply blank. The lack of the usual printed matter creates a kind of rift, and the reader is confronted with the primary building block of the corporeal book: the page.

(The corresponding element in film would then be.. well, film. I can't think of an example of this being used to any real degree in movies, but the ending of Fincher's Fight Club comes to mind.)

This becomes even more interesting when used as in The Invisibles, where the layout of the first issues is very tame - black bordered panels on a sort of white background (with very few exceptions), which makes up the gutters. Is then the whole blank page just a great big gutter, in some way connected to the white space presented in the preceding and following panels (the white pin - along with a feeble ,,nothing" - and the blinding light of the sun, respectively)?

Now I guess I'm rambling.

But this blank space is something Morrison has used extensively. In addition to the books already mentioned, it can be seen in Doom Patrol and Flex Mentallo, and in Vímanarama he attempts to go even further. I was surprised to see him recycle the Animal Man 'awakening to his readers' in Zatanna, although the layout of the first issues (again, mostly simple bordered panels against a white background) made it clear that something along those lines was bound to happen. -As in the earlier books, the breaking of borders and limits is much more effective when the borders are clearly laid out from the beginning.

Any thoughts?

ping33 said...

Well there is Rey Parla (

Björninn said...

Looks interesting, thanks.

Still, when viewing abstract art I don't know if there is a sense of following a narrative, a kind of primary suspension of disbelief ("I'm following a story", not "I'm reading words printed on paper") that can be broken by the intrusion of the medium's bare skeleton.

I'm also probably wrong in comparing the printed medum's blank page to raw film, as much of what we see of film nowadays is on TV or DVD. And also not forgetting that in theaters we view the film from a projection screen and not the reel itself..

And I realize this is boring, formalist nitpicking, but what the hell.

Björninn said...

This also got me thinking of Don Hertzfeldt's Rejected, which I'm sure most of you have already seen (and someone may have pointed it out in a comment on this very blog, i forget), but I'll link to it here all the same 'cause it's just brilliant.

Geoff Klock said...

Ping: I think one of the things that interests me about Harold is that he is his own "other." It is important in poetry where genius is often thought of as external, and it is important in psychoanalysis, where there are primal other forces at work where we think we are most free.

Geoff Klock said...

Bjornnin: as for the "blank page" device in film, check out the Buggs Bunny Daffy Duck cartoon "Duck Amuck", the source of Grant Morrison's Animal Man: Coyote Gospel. At one point the "film" gets stuck between frames so that Daffy's feet (from one film cell) are at the top, and his torso and head (from the next film cell) are at the bottom -- he ends up fighting himself since, at this point, there are two of him.

And it is not boring formalist nitpicking (or if it is, this whole blog is); it is vital attention to form. Keep it up.

sara d. reiss said...

I think I still tend to want to go along with the first thoughts I had when I read Harold, which was sadly as an adult and not as a child. And that is, the wonder of being able to make something. Now, as a grown up trying to make a living as a painter I am often frustrated, saddened and maddened by the loss of wonder and joy at making something, at playing with art, in drawing. The narrative for me, is ultimately about spending a busy day in ones imagination, getting so lost in making up a world that it's hard to remember what is real and what is not when it's time for bed. What a great thing! It happens so rarely now, but when it does, when I can lose myself in my work and forget the real world, the end result, the finished piece, is more than just a piece of work, it is a map of that journey I took, like Harold's book, and it's that much better than another piece I nitpicked to death and held at arm's length.