some thoughts on wild things

by anzya

I meant to post a link to this article a month or so back after seeing “Where the Wild Things Are” at the cinema. But with holidays, heatwaves, new years, etc, I’ve been a bit slack with my blogging… sorry! My friend Liam showed me this before we saw the film, and it really affected me and made me see the film in a different way. It quotes the original author of the book, Maurice Sendak, who explains that the monsters in the book are based on his European Jewish relatives who came to the US from “the old country”.

Those relatives would grab you and twist your face, and they thought that was an affectionate thing to do,” Sendak continues. “And children can be so cruel. My brother, sister and I would laugh at those people, who we, of course, grew up to love very much. But that’s who the wild things are. Foreigners, lost in America without a language.

Walking out of the cinema, my friend and I were talking about whether The Wild Things could be critiqued by a post-colonial approach- whether the monsters could be read as the wild/savage Others whose only purpose seems to be to provide the young white boy with a kind of self-realisation. But, after reading this article, and talking about the film, we decided that this kind of critique didn’t really fit the movie, or the book. I felt that the Wild Things, rather, are fictitious creatures who are part of Max, a sensitive, imaginative boy who creates them from the images, people and things he is surrounded with in his world, which he uses to work through his complex thoughts and emotions.

Another aspect to this article about Sendak also moved me is that Sendak is a gay man who never came out to his parents, despite living with his partner for 50 years. The article quotes an interview he gave with the New York Times in 2008, where he said

“All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew.”

I think this says so much about the experience of queer Jews who are descendents of Holocaust survivors. There is so much guilt tied to the obligation to marry and procreate (to make up for the lives of your cousins/aunts/great aunts who were lost and to live the lives that they were never able to, etc) in the Jewish community which seems to stem from this trauma. And Sendak talks about the guilt that he grew up with, knowing that so many of his family in Europe died in the Holocaust.

“If I was staying out late and dinner was on the table and I’d been called three times, my mother’s voice would tell me that I’d better go up now,” recalls Sendak, who grew up in Brooklyn. “So I’d go up. And she’d say: ‘Your cousins, you know they’re your age. They don’t play ball. They’re dead. They’re in a concentration camp. You have the privilege of being here. And you don’t come up and eat.’”

I think this explains a lot too, about how the Wild Things, which are so loveable on the one hand, also have a menacing quality that is potentially dangerous to Max. I just love how that line- “Oh please don’t go — we’ll eat you up — we love you so!” – has so many layers and resonance when you think about these influences on the book.