A Bleak Tale of Existential Horror

oh_the_places_youll_goOH THE PLACES YOU’LL GO

Dr Seuss ISBN 978-0-00-790680-2

I first encountered Oh The Places You’ll Go only recently – this year in fact – and it struck me at once as very distinctly different from all the other Dr Seuss that I was familiar with. What was Dr Seuss attempting with this slim volume? It cannot have been to provide education or encouragement for children, except perhaps for the preternaturally precocious savant. This is a dark, twisting story about ambition, creative endeavour, failure and depression. It is a tale of an adult life full of adult worries and it is frequently deeply cutting.

When we open the book we find Oh The Places You’ll Go rendered in friendly blue block writing, and at first this seems to be a promise of something self-helpish or joyous in these pages. But this is a trick – or at least it perhaps ought to read Oh The Places You’ll Go If You Are Willing to Really Suffer For It. Let us read on. In the opening scenes the young protagonist walks blithely out of a blank white space (an allusion to the great blank space of possibility perhaps?) and into a landscape that seems sunny and delightful, but is full of awkward maze-like paths. Our unnamed protagonist is on his way, he is out the door and journeying into the world but despite his naive smile, is it possible that he is already lost before he has begun?

Soon he encounters streets he does not wish to go down and he makes that decision, cleanly and easily with a smile. But those streets have strange green monsters occupying them, rising up out of dark holes… now perhaps this could be taken literally – there are dangers and traps for the unwary in life, but this particular fellow is smart and he’ll skip the most obvious of them. And yet he has avoided these troubles so easily. They do not seem like the potential traps of early adulthood: these are not addiction or credit problems, no. I think the clue is in their position. They are rising out of the darkness beneath – these are the subconscious anxieties that haunt us and yet we refuse to engage with them. What appears to be a triumph – avoiding being drawn into trouble – is really a failure – the protagonist has refused to deal with his own dark issues… but who can blame him? How many of us really truly confront our own psychological complexes that have piled up from early childhood and adolescence?

Unaware and unprepared for the travails ahead, he walks on.

Again, he walks through a sunny landscape, but there are still maze-like paths, even if those paths are unobstructed and are delineated only by blue and green patches of what is presumably some sort of weird alien grass. This landscape, which seems so welcoming, stretches off into the distance and it is without end and without change. There is no rest here and there is nothing to aim for. It is a desert where the maze doesn’t need to keep the protagonist in – the lack of walls does not matter when there is no goal. This is now turning into a dark book.

And on the next page our protagonist is starting to experience ‘things happening’ and the advice is just to go along with it, don’t fight it or stew. The protagonist is now escorted by elephants carrying a pavilion, and he looks happy… he seems contented… but it is impossible not to notice how alone he is. He is blindly walking into the future, expecting great things and already encountering some success now doubt, but he is alone and his success so far has been just too easy. Those elephants just wandered up and started walking along with him. He did nothing to deserve them. Trouble is brewing…

There is a momentary pause in a space that the protagonist has wandered into – but this is a nightmare landscape of harsh lines and black darkness – if only the protagonist had dealt with those subconscious issues. Now they have manifested into an impossible landscape of bright colours and trick-filled angles. The protagonist sees this landscape only briefly – perhaps in the seconds before falling asleep – and immediately turns his back. He cannot deal with all of that. He needs to focus on something, anything to distract him.

And he does find distraction. Next, he is in a balloon rocketing along and racing against others and he is winning the race. He has achieved great things… or has he? Did he do anything or is it all just a trick of luck. That balloon looks suspiciously as if it does not have any controls or any way to steer it. Isn’t is so true that we tend to blame circumstances for our failures and give ourselves credit for success when it is so often only ever a matter of luck? The tragedy obvious in his oblivious smile is heart-wrenching. Look at me, that smile screams. I am a success! I am accepted by others! I am loved! And yet, he remains alone… eternally alone…

Perhaps it comes as a surprise to the protagonist, but it does not at all surprise the reader… this wild ride of false success must come to an end. The protagonist’s balloon hits a snag and is punctured. That all his supposed success was really a matter of circumstance and it is ended by mere circumstance is a cruel irony. The existential horror on the face of the protagonist is clear as he watches all the other lucky people in their balloons blow off into the distance without him. Again, he is alone.

And now the full psychological horror of this work comes to bear. The character passes into a state of bleak despair and gloom and depression. But he does not wander through the landscape of slump in a sad or contemplative mood – no indeed – his eyes are wide with fear. If only he had dealt with those dark psychological complexes. But it is too late now. No sooner is he able to pass out of his dark depression and he is faced by one of the great crises of our age: in a world where a person could in theory do anything, how does one make a choice? Choice itself is paralysing, and the protagonist stands at the edge of a dark city of choices and lingers there, afraid. Of course he does charge in, but he charges into the city of choices with a flurry of useful activity down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace. Was ever a more tragic sentence writ in the whole of the English language? I think not.

Because of course, the protagonist comes to The Waiting Place. The place you are when you can do no more but must wait. Waiting for that CV to be rejected. Waiting for your submission to be sent back. Waiting for your application to go unnoticed. Waiting for the girl you just asked out to say she’d rather be friends. Waiting and waiting. And in this place people are waiting in fact Everyone is just waiting… [for] Another Chance. The use of capitalisation here is a deft nod towards shared experience. It is the human condition to be lost, waiting hopefully for something, anything to impart meaning, and even for those with enough self-awareness to see that they have already failed, they are still waiting for Another Chance.

The unremitting horror of the waiting place cannot be conveyed with words. It is more hellish than any Bosch painting of the inferno. Look at the officer waiting for a phone call when we can see clearly that the phone line is cut. Look at the child hiding in the dark box, wide-eyed with horror, limp-stringed kite on the ground. What must have happened to that child to make them so devoid of hope?

And now the cruellest trick of all… the protagonist escapes the Waiting Place but only somehow. Somehow you’ll escape. Somehow. Dr Suess has used somehow adroitly because he knew that actually escaping the Waiting Place is not easily done and no advice can help you here. Unless you are lucky, you will be lost there. And this terrifying thought is conveyed in just one word: somehow…

But for our lucky protagonist, he does get away. He got Another Chance that so many were waiting for. He is riding elephants this time and playing a game and he is an adored winner again. Everyone loves him, right? He is famous now, right? So everything must be happy… except on the next page he is alone again. Now he is practising his game (a baffling and mindbendingly illogical game it seems: what better metaphor for life could there be?), but he is alone. And weirdly, he is practising alone atop a tall, twisted, implausibly tottering house. Why would he do this? Unless it is to face down the dark voices that keep whispering: Jump! Jump and it will all be over! No, he screams back at them. Look at my house tottering way up here. I could jump at any moment, but I do not. I defy you, o’ dark thoughts of mine! I defy you!

Dr Seuss, what a bleak and harrowing tome you have penned.

Because now, at last, we face the thing that has been ever-present but not mentioned. The protagonist is ever-alone and now he understands and sees the hollowness of his existence.

All Alone!

Whether you like it or not,

Alone will be something

you’ll be quite a lot.

Dr Seuss, what a bleak and harrowing tome you have penned.

Dark amorphous shapes – clearly subconscious complexes now but so much more powerful – stare at the protagonist. Screaming monsters rise up out of the dark ocean of the Jungian shadow, towering over the tiny rowboat of the conscious mind that we use to skim over that depthless sea.

Oh, the protagonist deals with some problems now to be sure – but they are external problems only. A bear in a cave. A precarious walk on top of the heads of a thousand identical birds. These are not true victories of the self over the meaningless of life – and from the increasingly blank and harrowed look of the protagonist’s face, we know that he knows it now.

He tries to compensate by owning and moving whole mountains. But what good are mere physical objects and monetary wealth? Sure, they provide some distraction, but just look at the mountain itself on this page. There are some animals, but all the houses are empty. The protagonist has done nothing but chase people away from his mountain and now he owns a ‘mountain’ that is empty.

And finally, on the last page, the protagonist is presented in a great white space, exactly the same as on the first page. Now the crashing horror of it all comes finally home to roost. Nothing was achieved. The ‘hero’ of this story struggled all his life, fought battles with the external world, but avoided and ignored deeper inner difficulties. And, at the end of it all, where is here? Exactly where he began. Alone. No meaning has been gained. No wonderment has been garnered from life. There is only this: alone on a blank page, eyes closed, desperately, desperately trying not to think of all the people who are not in his life.

Anyway, I understand from the internet that Oh The Places You’ll Go is often given as a high school or university graduation present in the US and Canada. What bleak nihilistic cultures those must be that such a remorseless and tragic tale of warning should be handing laughingly to the young and the hopeful.

Don’t hope too much, this book informs us. Don’t think ‘success’ as it is defined by others in anything more than luck, and even if you get it, success will not fulfil your life. No. Life is sorrow and struggle and loneliness punctuated by brief moments of distraction, my friend.

I had nightmares after reading this book. Dark and troubling dreams did flock around me and mock me in my sleep. Dr Seuss, you were able to face your own dark madness, your own nameless fears, and put that journey into words and whimsical paintings. You are a better human being than I.


About Christopher Johnstone

Christopher Johnstone lives in Melbourne
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