In my previous post “I (verb) my views of (noun), open to (noun)” I talked about Jonah Lehrer’s chapter on Gertrude Stein in Proust Was a Neuroscientist, and how language has this built-in structure in our brains. Sentences make sense, even if they seem nonsensical, as long as they follow the basic grammatical rules. I continue my intellectual crush on Lehrer, by examining it from a different angle.
One thing that seems to mark children’s books is flirting with the absurd. Think about the images and the context of Dr. Seuss. He ties up his images and underlying message (often telling children to think outside the box and that anything is possible) with a nice rhyme structure, so that it seems easy to swallow and quite innocent. The concepts and images in The Lorax, or Horton Hears a Who are often absurd, but Seuss keeps them within the defined language structure so we accept them. From Oh! the Places You Will Go:
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
That is the brilliance of Dr. Seuss. He is teaching children independence and to question everything, under the guise of a children’s book. Children are little half-baked biscuits at the age they read Dr. Seuss, and these messages are being ingrained in their concept of reality. By the time we are adults, we remember Dr. Seuss fondly, but all the limiting beliefs about what is possible is ingrained in us too, and hard to shake.
I’ve been reading into the concept of hyperreality, the postmodernist idea that our consciousness cannot discern reality from fantasy. Umberto Eco uses Disneyland as a prime example. (For the record, I am fascinated with Disney, and love it. I completely respect Walt Disney and his ability to separate the dreamer and the critic). Disneyland is this artificial world, made to feel more realistic than real life. Think about the documentaries Disney creates – documentaries on nature, chimpanzees, etc. We go and watch this documentary that tells us what nature is like, instead of going and experiencing it. Disney has created an illusion of what reality is, and makes it more desirable for people to buy this reality, with its carefully edited footage.
The interesting thing is that although Disney is supposed to be for children, adults love Disneyland. Adults go to Disneyland and remember the wonder and awe they felt as children, exploring worlds for the first time. They reject reality (with paying bills, horrible bosses, poverty, war, crime, etc) for this illusion of reality, and want to revert back to being children when none of those horrible things existed yet.
At my first year at Burning Man (2010) I thought about writing children’s stories, for adults. I envisioned each part with an drawing explaining it, like in children’s stories. I don’t know what these mean – I was just writing fast, writing the first thing that popped in my head without thinking – of if they are “good,” or even make sense, but they amuse me. Gertrude Stein’s experiments on the structure of language reminded me of my own thought experiment. These are a few of the stories I wrote:
Three days go by before Clara realizes she’s still hiding under the bed. The dust devils led her down to their lair, lavishly furnished with alabaster staircases and canvas doorknobs, Knock one and a half times to enter through the clock, but the duck doesn’t wait for pencil nubs, since the horseteeth-banker stole all the post-its. Yellow post-its are for things you are supposed to forget, while lucid zephyr post-its time travel to the doors of exotic Cincinnati, where a polar bear wearing diapers will steal your wallet.
Monkeys are close to whales since they both have 10 tales. Each tale has its own stripes, but white stripes blend in with the porcelain toilet sink, heavy with toxins and kool-aids, razors ready to crash and burn before outing Aunt Marge for spiking the holiday raisin razor. Spiky sharp razor teeth are the only way to cut through cream cheese and apathy, rubies being better for dilution of the watch.
And (my favorite):
Green is the color of gold honey, dripping slowly along powerlines and grasshoppers, needling for needlework, working wonders. The man with the snowy beard sipped a latte on his soapbox, but alas, they voted him off the island, and sent him adrift, floating on copper coins and rainbow sherbet, trickling down in oily splendor, flags ablaze, mushroom caps on chaps, galloping down the empanada dream boat.
What is interesting is that I wrote those before I even thought about hyperreality and adults wanting to revert back to children, rejecting their own reality. I guess, being at Burning Man, I was tapped in to what our society is feeling now in this postmodernist phase. What is Burning Man except a rejection of our current state of society, and a desire to create a new one? The difference between Disneyland and Burning Man though is that Disneyland seems to be spoonfeeding us only the good, capitalizing on our desire to revert back to children when the world seemed good and easy, without offering ways to bridge that gap between reality and the reality it creates. Burning Man seems to celebrate the inner weirdo, in a hedonistic, pleasure-seeking explosion of art, creativity, and self-expression, but doesn’t necessarily give us the structure and discipline needed to implement ideas into action in the real world. Many people go to Burning Man, let loose for a week, and then return to their corporate jobs, still working within the same reality that they wanted to escape. The key to real change is by implementing what we learn from these escapes into our notions of reality now. No one else is going to build your bridge for you.
What if someone tapped in to society’s desire to revert back to childhood, and created children’s stories for adults that re-wired their brains into thinking of ways to solve the problems that they are trying to escape from in reality? What if I did that? Of course, Burning Man shows us that people are hedonistic creatures, drawn to pleasure.
As Gertrude Stein asked, “Why should a sequence of words be anything but pleasure?”