Chemical Seuss

by Ben Marcus

First published in Conjunctions: 29, 1997.


I mean to discuss certain reveries of reading that occurred during the interment of childhood I served in my parents’ home, reveries often centering around Seuss and his extreme attack on sense. Let’s say that I was often read to, that books were made a gift to me, ones I could not understand or even read but that joined the detritus of objects meant to secure my character, my future capacity of knowing. The books were an investment in the person-shaping activities my parents had undertaken with respect to me. If enough books were piled into my room, perhaps I might emerge a person, someone ready to square off with the other challengers coming through the pipes of childhood. It was in my best interest to posture a knowledge of a book, even if that entailed exhibiting grave silence in response to the typical interrogative. Possibly I learned grave silence before I learned to speak—it is a useful way to deflect attention, project authority, become a reader. Thus I “read” Dickens and Melville before I could properly think, and a page from Great Expectations was solely a field to accommodate, sanction, my own dayhiding, rather than a source I was supposed to study for narrative images. Reading was a time for wayward falling, plunging inward (wherever) as far as possible until the book asserted its world again, disappointed me with its specificity. A “good” book was a book sufficiently absent to allow me to inhabit its space and dilate (grow, fall, miss, lose) in whatever manner seemed fluid, a book that wouldn’t harass me over-much with its own terms. Most of what I remember reading as a child is instead whatever happened to be thinking while holding the book over my fact, growing up behind the page, etc. Only later did I learn the obligation, the disaster, of following the words. Wasn’t booked language the first sanction to let the mind form elsewhere? What a book is “about” is simply where you go when you read, where and how you move about in pursuit of yourself while the book is in action. It’s not what the book is about at all, rather what and where the reader is about. Reading can be discussed as a physical posture, an attitude or position struck to enable certain kinds of thinking, to hell with the specific book, double to hell with “writers” and their visions. The book is just equipment for the daily hunt, a shield. If you hold up a book, the world will leave you alone.

There were therefore occasions of storytelling I slept through. I can admit that most of what was sent my way fell short. One learned to offer up the typical listening cues to the mother or father storyteller: smile during a break in the language, nod, toss and put an arm over the eyes. Mostly I slept as the language fell over me. There is no better way to sleep than when being read to, first because I do not like being watched when language is coming at me, I do not want to be seen waiting for language. Second because the sleeper loses his pace without an ordered effort, a syntax, to the pursuit—language gives shape to the sleep act, structures the body’s drop, because to dream is to solicit pure grammar and thus perhaps discover something worth thinking, etc. One was often carried off to bed at this point, even when not sleeping, or awoken during this heave-ho, when it would be impolite to indicate I was awake. Childhood can be viewed as a set of strategies to secure carriage—in my case I was piggybacked, cradled, slung in a fireman’s carry. I was tossed and held and passed along, but, most importantly, I was kept off the ground (“The sacred or tabooed personage must be carefully prevented from touching the ground; in electrical language he must be insulated, if he is not to be emptied of the precious substance or fluid with which he, as a vial, is filled to the brim”—James Frazer). One wanted to be in their arms, to be brought into other rooms, preferably dark ones upstairs with cold sheets and a wedge of bed for them to sit and touch my hair, kiss the face that represented me, then close in on my chest for the great blackout.

Yet this business ceased when Seuss entered the orbit of noises launched to my attention. A Seuss encounter harmed my private effort of world-building. When it occurred, I could not go elsewhere because there was no elsewhere, no such thing as location. There was only one word and it was the word I was hearing, nothing could be substituted, or substitute away and nothing changed, because the spine of the thing had grown. The Seuss architecture at once woke me and began its rabid scaffolding, asserting an inner syntax bone by bone that has given body to every subsequent language enacted before me, owned and marked all future texts with its deep skeleton. To my view, then, one does not read Dr. Seuss, one is built by him. He is a builder of persons. He cannot be slept though.


When I was five years old I suffered a period of deafness. Suffered might not be the right word, maybe engaged is better, because I regard the deaf period as one of the most fruitful in my regretful relationship with myself. Let’s say I entered occasions of deafness that started with my mother, the chief soundmaker of my early time. Her voice produced a tightness in my head (a brightness too—sun, stars, the rest of it) and, to be frank, I rather enjoyed it, although a side “effect” was a sharp drop in what I could hear. This is my own diagnosis, you understand—maybe I was not deaf, was simply focusing on her, but it did seem that the world’s acoustics had halted just short of my own body, which was acting as a baffle. The sound was falling at my feet and, as with most things, I saw its effect on others but could not feel it for myself. It is only now that I can consider that what she read to me, what she was reading to me that year, might have been the cause of my loss of hearing, that hearing the cadenced madness of Seuss was literally deafening, a force so exclusive it denied me other sounds, or echoed so resolutely that nothing new could approach, certainly a criteria for powerful literature, or powerful something, maybe just power. The completeness of her voice was enough to bind me in place, leaving no room for what else, the sound of our house breathing out our actions, the songs I made to remind myself I was alive. It is amazing to be denied even the noise of one’s own hands, the ruffle of doing nothing. I was deaf for only so long, but long enough to become a vigilant watcher of the mouth, realizing that I had to get at the mouth to get what I wanted, the mouth being all. The Deaf are known for reading lips, not eyes, and they read lips because the lips produce a first language, regardless of sound, since sound proves to be incidental to language, only a technology of it. If I had to choose, I’d give up so-called landscapes, sunsets, flowers, sky, bodies, anything notoriously beautiful or hideous, for all of the completeness of watching a mouth, just the sight of a mouth and what it does, given that the mouth renders other scenery ridiculous, swallows up the entire category of what can be seen. It is ultimately the only thing to see, and a mouth in the act of shaping out the Seuss lexicon is the premier vision. Stated another way, Seuss is brilliant because the mouth makes beautiful shapes to recite his work. That’s as far as my literary criticism goes, my primary aesthetic criteria. In honor of Dr. Seuss, I will admit that I do not look people in the eye, that I don’t regard the eye as the center of the “storm,” but rather the mouth, or the word hole, that carves language out of the wind. The eyes cheat and hide; despite the lore, eyes have never “said” anything to me, they seem built chiefly of water, easily poured from the head and discarded. The only thing eyes are good for is to look at the mouth. Dr. Seuss is an artist of the mouth because a recitation of his work requires a first gymnastic of the face, a series of basic face codes as primal as, well, as primal to me because it was my mother’s face that undertook the gestures, or that was overtaken by them, a semaphore of the head that said everything and gave me not only a mother, but a world. My other senses, at the time, were irrelevant.


My feeling is that the impossible must be made viable, and only through language, that language is not subject to laws of physics and therefore must not be restricted to conservative notions of “sense” or even “nonsense,” but must pursue what appears impossible in order to discover the basic things: what to do, what for, how and just what.

We do not have language only to duplicate the mistakes our bodies make, or to try to represent the body in action. The body is heavy enough to represent itself; enough with the body, let it rot. Language so readily affirms the impossible that to deny this potential is to harm the future of what can be known or felt, which makes life impossible. Thus for life to be possible, language must pursue what it is not. Seuss is a hero to me because he made manifest the rampant power of naming, proving that you can name a thing into being as well as name something right out of the world. Objects have no anchors, let’s go after them all and send them into the ether, clear the world of what we already know. If I Ran the Zoo is not just a cute bestiary of impossible flesh, but proof that words are harder than things, that guttural announcements such as “the Bustard, who only eats custard with sauce made of mustard” are far more sublime and revealing than any book of crappy facts. “Oh snow and rain are not enough! Oh, we must make some brand new stuff!” Hell yes! Has it ever been said any better? But Seuss makes new “stuff” because the language is built to amplify the catalog of things as long as we have artists able to laugh off the burden of boredom passed on by those “practitioners” who officially ruin the language each time they use it.

In this regard, Seuss is a doctor because he enacts a medicine of language that heals the scar left by reason, complacency, sense, predictability, a scar so complete it just looks like the world, and we often don’t know any better, don’t know we’re living on a wound. He is a doctor of structure, able to liberate the head from its habit of easy, empty associations, allowing a delirious collision of objects to stand in for boredom and the disappointments of the eyes. The fool medicates the serious people, exposes the dullness of their gravity. “For almost two days you’ve run wild and insisted/On chatting with persons who’ve never existed.” But it’s the fool who chatters at nothing who then allows for the nothingness to dilate, creating new rooms to be filled. Seuss plays the fool and enables the helium-knowledge of silliness, for to be silly is not only to lack sense but to be blessed, to levitate, transcend, stand above the earth (and not to touch it). The medicine is triggered without contact. He does not need to touch us. We are healed into the future by his manipulations of the great brain of language, which must be massaged in order to grow, and shocked, and jarred, and kicked and injected. It is thus not untoward to consider that Seuss is a chemical. The vocabulary will always change for that inscrutable, necessary thing that creatures pursue. Why not simplify? In place of whatever is more basic than food, air, touch, water, without which we would not even have life enough to die, insert a word that stands for all of it: Seuss. It should forever stand for everything important. Water can only do so much.