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Book review: Green Eggs and Ham (Dr. Seuss)

Green eggs and ham, as a recolorized staple breakfast food, captures the reader's attention by turning this diurnal sustenance into an unexpected and apparently unappetizing foodstuff. It thus symbolizes the existential angst of modern life, wherein we are unfulfilled by modern life, and are repelled by something that might impart nourishment. The "protagonist" to be convinced of its desirability remains anonymous, while the other actor refers to himself with an emphatic identifier "Sam I am", formed with a pronominal subject and copular verb of existence. This character thus seeks to emphasize his existence and existential wholeness, and even establish a sense of self-existence, with an apparent Old Testament allusion to Elohim speaking to Moses as the "I Am". This emphatic personal identifier thus introduces a prominent theme of religious existentialism to the narrative, probably more in line with original Kierkegaardian religious existentialism, rather than later forms of existentialism that were less theocentric and more nihilistic and darker.

The anonymity of the protagonist speaks of his lack of personal existential identity or lack of spiritual fulfillment that results from his pursuit of ordinary modern life. The modernistic lifestyle requires, prescribes, and enforces standard, conventionalized modes of thought, such as insisting on standard eggs and ham, and deeming deviations from the norm as distasteful and to be avoided, a pirori, even though pursuit of non-orthodox forms of meaning in modern society might actually lead one to the fulfillment that one might be seeking as a lonely, nameless person. One might benefit from embracing the unconventional, but modern society has taught us to simply accept what everyone else likes and accepts and values, and we are unable to find happiness outside of the lonely conventional framework that the modern world imposes upon us. Thus, we are nameless, devoid of identity, and unable to see that the unconventional might actually impart meaning and joy to our otherwise mundane and futile existence.

In various mythologies, eggs denote fertility, and thus, new life and rebirth. Ham may indicate a strong source of nourishment and gustatory pleasure, but also, what was once ceremonially forbidden under older religious codes, but is now allowable (it is not clear to me if this change in religious dietary restrictions is a relevant part of the existential analogy that the author is attempting to convey, though). Both are rendered as green - verdant, the color of spring, life, nature, and growth. The religious symbolism is very apparent here, and perhaps also the author is playing with Jungian archetypes here to set up the religious existential elements. The food items being offered are not just a physical enjoyment or pursuit, but something of spiritual value, leading to renewal, growth, and sustenance at this higher level of existence. The protagonist rejects this offer outright, not realizing their spiritual benefits, not recognizing the higher level of existence and life to which he is called. He remains confined to the purely physical realm that he knows and understanding, refusing to recognize or embrace what lies beyond the material.

The protagonist declares he would not eat them here or there; in a house or with a mouse; in a box or with a fox; in a boat or with a goat; or in other localities or with other modes of transport, such as in a car, in the dark, in a plane, in the rain, and so forth. He rejects the pursuit of this nourishment in various modalities of modern life, in various locales, and in various social settings (with mice, foxes, goats, or even at home alone). The character dismisses pursuit of a lifestyle deemed unorthodox by modern or post-modern society in any locale or social realization. He refuses to think outside the box ("not in a box, not with a fox"), confining himself to his mere material existence. A sort of literary merism is employed here (part-whole metaphors that denote entirety, such as "day and night" meaning "all the time" in poetry). He excludes the possibility of eating it "here or there or anywhere" - an emphatic merism - or an any locality, or any mode of transport, that is, in any path of life, or going about his mundane, meaningless daily routine, he still rejects the offer. In whatever social circle, be it with creatures deemed dirty such as mice, or probably even alone at home - at home by himself in his existential despair, angst, and loneliness, in the location where he is most comfortable and most "himself" - he would reject this offer. In doing so, he also rejects the sharing of somethng substantive and spiritual with other social companions, and would instead prefer to be home or otherwise alone, accepting and (in a philosophically perverse way) enjoying his conventionalized, lonely, angst-driven life that modern society has imposed.

Sam continues to offer the unusual, greenish manna, and finally the protagonist relents and tries it. He undergoes a personal epiphany and spiritual transformation. He goes beyond his conventional existence and experiences for the first time an unconventional fulfillment. He has taken an existential leap of faith into something higher and deeper, rejecting hollow social norms and the materialistic values that society offers. He receives the new gift, the new enjoyment, with great joy and enthusiasm, and declare his desire to consume the product anywhere and everywhere, in whatever locale or social context, in whatever path of life (train, car, plane...) he finds himself. Thus, he makes a full commitment to that which lies beyond the material, conventional existence that humans know by nature, and fully and whole-heartedly embraces a radically different set of values and avenue of fulfillment.

Sam, as the one constantly offering the new experience, always begging him, always probing for a new situation or context (in boxes or houses, with fox or mice...) in which he might be willing to open his mind, serves a crucial mentor role. In fact, as such, and as one implying a self-existence with "Sam I Am", he serves as a literary Christ-figure or Christ-type. The nameless protagonist undergoes a spiritual and existential change, growth, and renewal. As such, he functions as an existential type of hero, one that undergoes an internal spiritual or personal transformation, takes a leap of faith, and finds a greater fulfillment beyond mundane social expectations. As an existential experience, it is perhaps hard for the reader to understand why such chromatically differentiated foodstuffs would become so enjoyable, so worthy of such enthusiastic embrace, that it is something that only one who personally experiences it, such as our hero here, can understand, and can only partially communicate to others. Likewise, the literary Christ-figure Sam could only offer it and express descriptively and experientially, not propositionally, about the desirability of the food items - a benefit that the hero was not capable of understanding or accepting until he himself tried it.

This existential leap of faith is perhaps reminiscent of Pascal's wager, wherein Blaise Pascal claimed that sometimes one comes to the point where one cannot accept or psychologically apprehend propositional truth about matters of faith, but one can only take a leap of faith, try faith oneself, try it experientially, before one can actually understand it or come to grips with it, in order to determine its reality and validity.


To explore this great existential parable by Dr. Seuss further, one might listen to a famous public reading of the story by the Rev. Jessie Jackson in a way that brings out its poetic flavor; for further mystical exploration, one might find the Latin translation (Virent ova! Virent perna!) helpful.


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