By way of Mind Hacks, one of my favorite psychology blogs, I came across an article (PDF) in the latest issue of The Psychologist about author Maurice Sendak and his most famous children’s book, “Where the Wild Things Are”. With the movie adaptation of the book coming out soon, Sendak’s works are enjoying renewed interest — and I’m persuaded to think that maybe we could all use a fresh dose of the author’s perspective.
“Where the Wild Things Are”, along with most of Sendak’s books, deals with how children survive the vicissitudes of childhood. In particular, Sendak addresses loss, disappointment and destructive rage — emotional experiences of the child that shape his or her character. Since we are an amalgamation of experiences from throughout our lives, the topics Sendak tackles apply to the adult psyche as well.
Sendak tells us, in very few but powerful words (there are only 10 sentences in “Wild Things”) that survival requires imagination and resilience. Quoting from the article:
So, ‘How do children survive?’ It would seem that Sendak’s answer must include the power of art…transforming otherwise crippling traumatic circumstances into his (or her) very means of survival, growth, and positive maturation.
The question could just as easily be rephrased, “How do we survive?” We’re living in tough times, and many of us have been hit hard by circumstances not in our control. Responding with disappointment and rage is natural, and Sendak’s work would seem to argue that these responses are necessary for survival — if, that is, you can move on from them. From the article:
Sendak asks the question of resilience: How do children surmount and transform in order to prosper and create? It is tempting to imagine that Sendak conceives of the trajectory of his own life and art as a model for the way he has handled these questions in his works.
Sendak knew a lot about loss, disappointment and rage from the experiences of his life, and the characters in his books explore routes to resilience that he explored as well. Most notably in “Wild Things”: Max finds his demons, conquers them, and then leaves them (what Joseph Campbell called ‘one of the greatest moments in literature’). That may be a lesson learned in childhood but also one that resonates throughout adult life, if one learns it at all.
The article has much more to offer and I highly recommend it. For me, I’ll be breaking out “Wild Things” again and taking a new look at Sendak’s story. I have a sense that Max and his monsters have more to tell us, and the message isn’t just for kids.