Max’s choice

April 4, 2016

When I was in my teens I read John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden, an assigned text that propelled me into studying the Modernists and Modernism generally. You may remember that the key to the novel is the word timshel:

 But the Hebrew word, the word timshel — ‘Thou mayest’ — that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’ — it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’

In a closely argued essay about Where the Wild Things Are, Desmond Manderson explains how the story of Max may be read as a tightly compressed telling of the growth from strict obedience to personal responsibility — timshel, if you will:

 A rule can never capture the complex process of judgment that must always be experienced as both bound and unbound, unique and universal. To be responsible is precisely to respond to the particularities of a situation, and to make a choice in relation to it. Merely to apply in rote fashion the words of a rule is no exercise of responsibility at all, because it involves no decision at all; it is, in fact, to claim that one ’s hands are tied. No one would ask a machine or the wind to act responsibly. Obedience, then, is the polar opposite of responsibility. The recognition of difference, and the necessity of continually making judgments that attend to that difference, marks the end of the possibility of unquestioning obedience and the true dawn of responsibility. (123)

I love the ideas about law and love this essay traces, and how Manderson ultimately argues that the critical, thinking being is the best legal subject — and how he puts reading at the centre of that process. I like the normative claims and the ethical subjectivity he argues for. This is a fresh analysis of Sendak that has potential for opening up many other children’s and YA texts.

Source: Desmond Manderson, “From Hunger to Love” (Law and Literature 15.1: 87–141).