29 Following

All the World's a Page

Currently reading

The Adventures of Augie March
Saul Bellow, Christopher Hitchens
Roland Barthes, Stephen Heath
Selected Poems and Four Plays
W.B. Yeats, Macha Louis Rosenthal
On the Edge of the Cold War: American Diplomats and Spies in Postwar Prague
Igor Lukes
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie - Laura Joffe Numeroff, Felicia Bond If you give a mouse a cookie is the story of the perversity of desire, and more particularly the stunted pleasures of the bourgeoisie. Written by the exquisite Laura Numeroff, in what can only be assumed was a violent passion for sterile aloofness from the society which she condemned, and a lust for concision which would socialize her treatise against the deadening wants, making it accessible to the masses. I can imagine her, unbathed, ignorant of her own hunger and thirst, cutting every insignificant word in a Flaubertian frenzy for le mot juste.

The titular titmouse is a scathing manifestation of our ruling, yet tirelessly servile, middle class – his small figure manifests the smallness of our self-worth, and the relative largesse of our smallest desires. Every visible aspect of the overall-clad hero hearkens us to the plight of the middle class in the late twentieth century. The mouse, like man, is easily won over to new “needs” – endlessly trying to fill the vacancy of his own heart, deadened by the loss of illusion, by the evaporation of virtue, and the brutal ennui of routine. But as the significantly unnamed mouse usurps his pleasures and whims from his remote human benefactors, we too usurp our desires. Whether from the conspicuous consumption of the upper classes, from the romantic visions of novels and television programming, or from the simple white noise of broadcast advertising, which we subconsciously mold into our own desires – desires for things which we do not want. René Girard identifies this parallel with chilling accuracy to our present condition: "The distance between Don Quixote and the petty bourgeois victim of advertising is not so great as romanticism would have us believe.” It is easy to replace “bourgeois victim” with our murine hero, raising to idolatry his search for false desires, which leads to a parodically circuitous odyssey of “want.”
Numeroff’s story is one of deceptive simplicity, but with a jarring impact. In less than three-hundred words, she is captures the movement of emotion of her literary predecessors, primarily of French origin, though also hearkening back to the Homeric epics. Proust, James, Balzac, Dickens are among Numeroff’s literary forefathers, and her precision for language shows a heavy influence of Flaubert, contemporarily manifest in the logical exactitude of Truman Capote and Ernest Hemingway. Take or example the opening sequence: If you give a mouse a cookie,
He’s going to ask for a glass of milk.
When you give him the milk, he’ll probably ask you for a straw.
When he’s finished, he’ll ask for a napkin.
Then he will want to look in a mirror to make sure he doesn’t have a milk mustache.
Immediately we are drawn into a contained cosmos of desire – which is postulated in a hypothetical, though illustrated in an ever-present reality. While we are kept somewhat distanced from our mouselike counterpart by the conditional, we are drawn in by the seeming reality of the action, the omniscience of the narrator, an almost godly knowing, reminds us of a master Chess player, foreseeing the hero’s moves, up to his ultimate epiphany, from the first line. We are acquainted with the mouse with such immediacy, we feel we know him, we feel as though he is a part of us, or perhaps more than we are – despite his size. Though we are removed from the hero’s consciousness, we feel he is both naïve of his circuitous desires, but also disturbingly manipulative. This contradiction, this naïvete matched with perturbing self-possession, concerns the reader – how aware am I of my own desires? We are moved, our uncertainty of the hero’s self-awareness is never satisfied. We observe the seeming naïvete and it enlightens us to our own short commings of self-awareness. “To see someone who does not see is the best way to be intensely aware of what he does not see” argued Barthes, and it is precisely the salient power of If you give a mouse a cookie.

The godless landscape of If you give a mouse a cookie is one marked by a total secularization of morality and gratification. The parallels to our own secular society, in which we are diminished to figurative animals - beasts of pure will driven in the vain effort for satiety of our animalistic desires. Instead of a God, the world within the story is governed by a maternalistic hand - more reminiscent of Neo-Marxian doctrine of entitlement than it is to the classical Judeo-Chrisitan rule of centuries past. Instead of being ruled by virtue, or protagonist is ruled by the ever-demanding "want!" of his body. Cookies, milk, soft bedding, but no time for self reflection, no orison nor even secular gratitude is shared by our profane hero. We compare the mouse's struggle for "want" to the Defoe's struggle for need in Robinson Crusoe, and we are dismayed at the descent from virtue of our present day society, in which our vices and excesses have supplanted our virtues and reservations.

In his gustatory pursuits, we observe his coy glances, his polite demeanor, but ultimately his ingratitude. And what disturbs us as the reader is his humanlike disposition, his canny vanity, his concern with appearances and hygienic preoccupations, and his servility to routine. His look into the pierglass is so human that one expects to see our diminutive friend the next time we check for our own milk-mustaches – the parodic symbol of self-indulgence and minor fall from poise. The vanity implicit in our héros de rongeurs is startling parallel to our own fall from grace, manifest in Milton's Paradise Lost. Despite his many pleasures, his many "wants" they are startlingly mundane to us, they are self-serving but unambitious. He foregoes the search for self-discovery, for transcendent pleasure, for the pleasures of immediacy, which feed his vanity and his comfort. His look into the mirror reveals to us a world of pleasures forgone, given up, in the vain restraints of society, with which he is disturbingly complicit. His concern for his milk-mustache, his imagined need for a haircut - a purely imaginary need for our rodent friend, one which is purely vain and removed from true necessity, disturbs us, but warms us to him. He is made more human to us, but that is precisely the element which disturbs us and makes us question our own vain pursuits.

But our hero’s desires are manifold. What begins as a novel of unhealthy appetite of necessity and hunger, become a hunger for a higher appetite: the hunger for the aesthetic. He’ll probably ask you to read him a story. So you’ll read him one from one of your books, and he’ll ask to see the pictures. When he looks at the pictures, he’ll get so excited he’ll want to draw one of his own. He’ll ask for paper and crayons.What began as low hierarchical needs (according to Maszlow), rises with expediency to needs of self-realization in his pursuit for artistic expression. This passage is the greatest drop of the mask of our narrator revealing her greater purpose: to expose the mimetic nature of our deepest desires. Upon hearing the story, which we imagine is the very story we are reading – a classical representation of the meta-literary play often attributed to post-modern writers, and seeing the illustrations, he is moved by a previously unknown desire. Due to the constrained world in which the narrative takes place –a small house, presumably in the suburbs, a set-manifestation of the class so brutally satirized – we must consider this desire within the constraint of the story. What moves our hero to request a bedtime story? We can only assume it is a routine he has usurped from his benefactors, a further emulation of their posh lives which they take for granted. The story is so moving to the mouse that he is immediately affected. What author can claim artistic impulse in a void? Certainly no contemporary author is without his or her literary influences. Literature too is circuitous in its search for the truth: every author seeks the “answers” behind his characters, behind his plot, behind the meaning of his life’s work, but each author usurps his questions from his literary forefathers (or foremothers). Where is literature without Homer? Without Sophocles or Plato, Plutarch? The question we are never answered is what moved the unnamed author of the unknown bedtime story to write it? We know only that our bourgeois protagonist seeks emulation of that art.

If you give a mouse a cookie ends with an almost Borgesian nihilism: “ Looking at the refrigerator will remind him that he’s thirsty so…he’ll ask for a glass of milk. And chances are if he asks for a glass of milk, he’s going to want a cookie to go with it.” Thus desire begets desire, begets desire – the search for fulfillment is endless, and our hero is left always hungry for something new, but can never identify what that is. We are left haunted by this “children’s” story, but the foolishness of the petite protagonist, who wants big things – but those “big things” seem very small to us. It makes the reader turn in upon himself/herself and wonder: what do I want? And what is the ultimate path of my “wants”? Can I ever be fulfilled or am I resigned to the mazy route of routine-desire?

Imagine waking up to realize the fruition of your ultimate desire is only the begetting of more desires? Desires of things which you only believe that you want? Chilling.