The Cat in the Hat


CAT PEOPLE

by LOUIS MENAND

What Dr. Seuss really taught us.

Full text: The New Yorker: The Critics: A Critic At Large

Issue of 2002-12-23 and 30

Posted 2002-12-16

An excerpt:

Synopsis of “The Cat in the Hat Comes Back” is easy enough. Abandoned again by their feckless mother, those two sad sacks, Sally and me, are consigned to shovelling snow from a recent blizzard. The cat chooses the moment to make his return. Sally urges her brother to bar his entrance (“Don’t you talk to that cat. / That cat is a bad one”). The cat brushes off the brushoff and enters the house, where he is discovered soon afterward in the tub, eating a cake. He is banished from the tub by the boy (“I have no time for tricks. / I must go back and dig”), but when the water is drained a pink stain is left. The rest of the action concerns the problem of getting rid of the stain. It is first transferred, by the cat, to a series of household items, some plainly off limits to the children, including the mother’s dress, the father’s shoes, and the bed in what is described as “Dad’s bedroom” (no doubt a response to the mother’s extramarital adventures). Unable to erase the stain, the cat reveals, under his hat, various little cats named for the letters of the alphabet (“He helps me a lot. / This is Little Cat A”).

These semiotic felines do exactly what a deconstructionist would predict: rather than containing the stain, they disseminate it. Everything turns pink. The chain of signification is interminable and, being interminable, indeterminate. The semantic hygiene fetishized by the children is rudely violated; the “system” they imagined is revealed to have no inside and no outside. It is revealed to be, in fact, just another bricolage. The only way to end the spreading stain of semiosis is to unleash what, since it cannot be named, must be termed “that which is not a sign.” This is the Voom, the final agent in the cat’s arsenal. The Voom eradicates the pink queerness of a textuality without boundaries; whiteness is back, though it is now the purity of absence—one wants to say (and, at this point, why not?) of abstinence. The association with nuclear holocaust and its sterilizing fallout, wiping the planet clean of pinkness and pinkos, is impossible to ignore. It is a strange story for teaching people how to read.

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