Tuesday, September 05, 2006
Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon 4 (of 4)
The lone poet in nature is traditional and Harold’s isolation does not feel unnatural until, searching for his bedroom window, he draws a city full of windows. Harold, concerned twice about getting lost (its why he drew the path he strayed from, and why his forest had a single tree), cannot find his way home. The city is the only thing in the book that overwhelms the frame of the page, and a city without people cannot help but recall, at least for older readers, a post-apocalyptic landscape. The dragon was unnatural and fantastic (and its seamless incorporation further emphasizes that in the mind there is no distinction between the internalization of reality and the imagination); the moose and porcupine were at most somewhat peculiar but cute animals made by a child’s scrawl. Harold’s policeman, however, is disturbing (something I have felt since I was a child), partly because it is the figure Harold is most unable to render even in a cute cartoon form: he is a mockery of a human form, a scarecrow with spikes for fingers. The disturbing aspect of the policeman is emphasized because while we may have assumed that Harold’s animals moved to eat the picnic leftovers (though the moose has not moved from Harold’s initial lines on the earlier page, the still image keeps this ambiguous) – though we may have assumed that were this a cartoon we would see Harold’s figures come to life – it is sadly clear that his policeman is completely stationary and dumb: he is the only of Harold’s “creatures” we see fully drawn on more than one page, identical with his arm pointing on both. Harold’s journey – which has taken him from his thought and the blank page, to field, forest, ocean, beach, and mountain has led us past an empty house to an empty city and the mute and paralyzed figure of the Law that would impress any psychoanalyst. This moment is very much the culmination of the journey, though not of the book, as the bleak moment causes Harold to wish more firmly for home, and to remember the way there.
The final pages give us a triumph of solipsism (though the silence of the Law is already pretty good): Harold remembers his window is the one that frames the moon, draws it and the room around it, and goes to sleep. He anchors his room around a completely arbitrary point, one he established on the second page and which has been on every page since. His mental anchor is the changing, shifting source of reflected secondary light – the moon of the generous night of Whitman, Stevens and Ashbery. And it is also, at the end of an extremely internal story, that we find an additional level of internalization as for the first time Harold draws himself inside an enclosure: his discovery -- his creation -- of the right window is not simply finding the one with the moon in it, but finding himself of the other side of that window (the city landscape was especially imposing in part because the cold regular faces of the buildings had no openings).
Harold and the Purple Crayon is a child's version of Romantic poetry, raising all the issues that haunt every poet after Wordsworth: Wallace Stevens for Beginners.
(Postscript: I think I may have made a mistake breaking this discussion into four parts; if you felt at all lost, and are interested, go back and read parts one through four in order.)