Here are some of the things that Maurice Sendak claimed he loathed: memoirs, e-books, Twitter, Roald Dahl, Rupert Murdoch, Salman Rushdie, the publishing industry, his own parents, most adults, the world in general. “Oh, screw the world,” he told The Globe’s John Barber in a memorable interview last year when he published his final children’s book, Bumble-Ardy. That, by the way, was a picture story about an unhappy pig whose parents get eaten on the first page.
When Mr. Sendak died this week at the age of 83, he left the world a much sorrier place. (“How could it possibly get worse?” I hear him muttering.) We’re now left with one fewer fantastic author and illustrator, a man who completely understood the dark and infinitely weird minds of children, but we’re also down a curmudgeon. And that’s a crying shame.
Certainly, the crankiness was partly for show, a sly wink to a world that wanted to hear him rage. When he told National Public Radio that “if I had a son, I’d leave him at the A&P,” you were pretty certain that there wouldn’t actually be a little Sendak wailing among the potatoes. In any case, there were no children of his own: He died five years after he lost his partner of five decades and didn’t live to see Barack Obama endorse same-sex marriage.
But he didn’t need to have children to understand them. He wanted the kids in his books to be “as ferocious and inventive and troublesome as they are in real life.” Few have better understood the child’s primal fear of abandonment (although the Disney people come close). Mr. Sendak was obsessed with the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby, which happened the year he turned 4. In his haunting picture book Outside Over There, he gave the child stolen by goblins the Lindbergh baby’s face.
It seems as if the age of the great cranks is passing, their kvetching drowned out by a happy-clappy world. I wonder what Mr. Sendak would have thought of the West’s obsessive pursuit of happiness – the governments and universities measuring it, the books promising it, the dissatisfied masses chasing it like children after a rainbow.
Maybe he would come to the same conclusion that author Oliver Burkeman does in his new book debunking the happiness industry, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. (It’s out next month.) In Mr. Burkeman’s elegantly argued thesis, a bit of crankiness is good for mental well-being, like the dash of black that enhances white paint. If anything, Mr. Burkeman writes, our relentless joy-chasing has made us more miserable: “For a civilization so intent on achieving happiness, we seem to be remarkably incompetent at the task.”
After weighing the scientific and historical evidence, he concludes that we need to approach contentment backward, by embracing negative thoughts, ditching goals and learning to love failure and uncertainty. In other words, thinking like a curmudgeon.
Mr. Burkeman finds a prime example in his book, after interviewing the wonderfully shouty nonagenarian psychologist Albert Ellis. Dr. Ellis (who died in 2007) hollered at him about the virtues of negative thinking – “because he was deaf,” Mr. Burkeman writes, “but also, I suspected, because he enjoyed shouting.” Simplified, the theory is that negative thoughts should be welcomed, because the anticipated outcome will never be as dire as we fear, and by trying to turn them away we actually allow them to dominate our thinking. Reality will almost never outstrip the cruelty of our imaginations: “If you are tortured to death,” Dr. Ellis told Mr. Burkeman, probably with some relish, “you could always be tortured to death slower.”
So remember that the next time a stranger comes up to you on the street and says, “Smile! It can’t be all that bad.” (By the way, this is not a cause for justifiable homicide. I checked.) Curmudgeons who relish their dyspepsia are probably saner than the rest of us. Or maybe I just have a soft spot for a sourpuss, thanks to my late father, who terrified small children with his eye patch and his tendency to bark, even at toddlers: “Life’s not fair. Get used to it.”
My father could have won the charcoal metal at the Cranky Olympics. Let’s put it this way: He once called the police from his hospital bed to complain about the level of medical care he was receiving. The hospital switchboard, thankfully, managed to intercept the call.
But, like Maurice Sendak, he found joy in music and books and art. Human beings might disappoint, but Verdi never did. I like to think that my father and Mr. Sendak are sitting in some afterlife diner right now, having a coffee and complaining about the service.