How important are childhood books? I'm not sure. I suspect they can be very important. I read "The Cat in the Hat" when I was quite young, and became convinced of chaos theory.
I'm only partly kidding, you know. In that story, you may recall, these two children in a very tightly ordered house are looking through a window at the rain. They are bored. Bored bored bored! Mother is gone shopping or something-- not working, in those days. The house is supposed to be kept neat. Neat neat neat! The goldfish nods approvingly at the docile, cowed little children.
Suddenly, there is a knock at the door. Who could it be? It's the cat in the hat! The cat in the hat bursts into house in search of his "missing moss-covered, three handled, family gredunza". He tells the children that he is going to make their day very exciting. The children are conflicted-- would mother allow this? The goldfish says "No! No! No!" But it's too late. The cat in the hat turns the whole house upside down! There he is juggling furniture on his unicycle (even the goldfish bowl, the water shlepping overboard). Mayhem! Chaos!
Then, just when it seems like things couldn't get worse, the cat introduces the children to his two little friends, Thing 1 and Thing 2. They resemble little urchins, gremlins, munchkins. They behave like whirling dervishes, smashing everything in their paths.
I won't explore the Freudian overtones of "Thing 1" and "Thing 2". But it's rather obvious, isn't it?
The children? Are they amused? Alarmed? I think they were both. I think that girl grew up to burn her bra, and that boy burned his draft card. But it doesn't matter what they think. The house is now a disaster. And look! Whose feet do they see striding purposefully past the window? Mother! Authority. God? Now, all is lost.
You don't know what exactly mother is going to do. All you know is that it will be something very, very unpleasant. The goldfish righteously denounces the cat as an anarchist and atheist. (It is clear that the cat is liberal, the goldfish, conservative. Or is the mother a PC liberal?! And the cat-- Anne Coulter!) The children are in despair. What will they do? First of all, they kick the Cat in the Hat out of the house. But they'll never get this house back into an semblance of order....
Then a miracle. The Cat in the Hat returns. But he has brought a wonderful, magical cleaning machine. The machine cleans up the entire house in the flash of an eye. Then the cat and his machine disappears and mother appears in the doorway. All is well.
Is it really? I can vividly remember my childhood impressions of this book. There was an element of terror. The house, you see, was a metaphor for life itself. Everything seemed to be orderly and tidy and coherent. Suddenly, the cat enters the picture and the thin veneer of civilization and restraint gives way to a horrifying-- and fascinating-- disorder and violence. Furniture, appliances, and even creatures are exuberantly tossed into the air, juggled, hurled about with complete disregard for safety or sanity. The children stand helplessly by, overwhelmed, and enraptured. The goldfish-- like an ancient biblical prophet-- warns of doom and gloom. Indeed, when God's feet appear, all seems lost.
And it is lost. Yes, I know-- in the story, the cat in the hat returns with his magical cleaning machine and, in the nick of time, everything is put back in its place before mother enters and asks the children if they had an eventful day. But what can this possibly mean? That in real life, something magical is going to come along in the nick of time and rescue us from disaster?
I know that the children can no longer rely on this facade of order. They can no longer rely on the idea of a moral universe that holds together on the basis of clear rules and lines of accountability.
They are going to rock'n'roll. They will do drugs.