If my early childhood was marked by a natural tendency toward discovering meaning (see my previous blog), the second phase of my life was marked by a strange loss of curiosity in things transcendent. My turn to the immanent frame was captured in a book published the year of my birth. Just as the Brothers Karamazov, would be the book that I would choose to characterize a later period of belief, there was one book that captured my early childhood cessation of a quest for meaning.
The first book which I checked out of the library and read as a child was Harold and the Purple Crayon. In the story Harold uses the purple crayon to create his own world and reality. He wants to go for a walk in the moonlight but in the absence of a sidewalk and moon, he uses the purple crayon to draw a walkway and a moon to walk by. (The editor to whom the author first sent the book, was confused as to where he drew the moon and walkway.) It was my first encounter with a first-person creation ex nihilo, in which the imagination is the blank canvas. There are no given parameters in Harold’s reality, other than the ones he fabricates. For example, at one point Harold needs directions so as to find home, so he draws a policeman who points him in the direction he should go (all determined by Harold).
In the beginning of the story, the sidewalk is straight and featureless and seemingly infinite, and so Harold cuts across a field and comes to a place where one should find a forest. Not wanting to get lost he draws only one tree – an apple tree. Realizing that the apples are unprotected and can easily be picked he draws a frightening dragon to scare people away. The problem is, the dragon frightens Harold so much that he falls backward, scraping the crayon as he goes, and he inadvertently draws an ocean into which he falls and starts to drown, but Harold saves himself by drawing a boat. The scenario repeats itself when he falls into a blank space on the other side of a mountain he failed to completely draw, but he rescues himself by drawing a balloon to float down on. His was a world of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, down to creating the boots, straps, and the abyss from which one needs to be pulled.
The author, Crockett Johnson (whose birth name was David Johnson Leisk), would strangely play out the Harold worldview in his own life. As he lay dying of lung cancer, two long-time friends came to visit – Andy Rooney (the journalist and television commentator) and psychiatrist Gil Rose. Johnson was afraid and in great pain, and in an attempt to relieve his anxiety and fear, Dr. Rose began to talk about his creations. He asked, “Well, what would Harold do?” As Crockett thought about what Harold would do, he calmed down. Literally, his creation came to provide him his dying comfort.
Johnson had served as art editor of the communist periodical, New Masses, and was a life-long labor union activist. His idea for the New Masses, to promote left-wing causes in a more subtle and attractive way, may not have been the explicit idea behind the Purple Crayon, but his book captures Johnson’s world. I am not saying Harold and his purple crayon sold me on this world, but it characterized a world I inhabited, one of my own limited fabrication. I did not recognize it as atheistic or existential or as anything, it was simply the blank-page-world that seemed to present itself, and I was content to dwell within the lines as they were being drawn.
Johnson drives the point home that one inhabits a world of their own making, when Harold becomes lost and cannot find his own home or his own window. He goes wild drawing a city of windows, none of which allow him entry into his own home. Then he remembers that he has to see his own home and window, framing the moon and world he has created, from the inside. He cannot find home by looking for it from the outside, but he has to view it from within. Thus, he is able to cross over and make his own bed so as to lie in it. Harold must literally draw the covers up under his chin so as to find their comfort.
The little bald-headed boy, alone in a room he has created, finally falls asleep and the crayon drops out of his hand. Through his own creation he has found home and a place to lay his head, in the same way his creator would find comfort in his own final sleep.