i’m in the milk and the milk’s in me

I started writing a post about the remarkable In the Night Kitchen a few years ago.  It sat in the draft queue and languished while I finished my dissertation.  I had grand plans to make a milk cake.  But since I’m just not that interested in baking in the day kitchen — and the book was far more complex than I had remembered — it sat.

Until today, when we mourn the death of Maurice Sendak and the long afterlife of his rebellious, courageous, playful and inquisitive little heroes.

I had got stuck on what I found offensive in In the Night Kitchen, the big flaw in the children’s book as I saw it.

No, it was not the innocently naked body of Mickey that made censors gnash their teeth when the book was released and still causes the book to be banned in some localities.  It’s just that I couldn’t justify the cry to God smack in the middle of the book.  Just as Mickey tumbles down into the milk bottle, he cries:

I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me!  God bless milk and God bless me!

And there, suddenly, God makes his entrance.  My question as an atheist and a truth-seeker is, suddenly, this.  How would one explain to a child this unnecessary turn to this new character at the moment of truth, a child unfamiliar with the concept of God?

I realized that Sendak’s writing often pulls a stunt like this that keeps his characters from meaning any one thing or appealing to any one child or parent.  Often naughty and unrepentant, the boys and alligators and monsters and all too occasional girls yell at authority figures and refuse to be cowed by anyone, even if they were clearly in the wrong.  A lion needs to do more than merely eat Pierre, for example, to get him to care.  Only regurgitation, a rebirth from the pit of lion stomach hell, can convert him to returning the love of his (what we’d now call co-dependent) doting parents.

Eating functions as a constant in Sendak’s mythology.  Kids demand certain foods and make it for others.  It’s a crux of power, an essential currency for love and autonomy.

In an interview with Terry Gross, Sendak relates one particular story that illustrates this power nicely:

Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.

He loved it so much he ate it.  It’s almost like a joke without a punchline or a terrible truth for someone unconvinced by digestion or perhaps a Catholic:  How do you keep a Wild Thing forever?  Eat it.

Likewise, in their chaotic imaginary worlds, Sendak’s boys ascend to power and threaten the forces against them by denying them food or telling them they’ll be eaten up.  One might think, if one were to stop there, that Sendak thought it was a dog-eat-dog world, where boys needed to either consume or be consumed.

The beginning of In the Night Kitchen illumines the dark side of consumption, where boys may lose their selfhood and morph into food.  When Mickey awakes to the thump in the night kitchen, he crossly hollers out to see who is there.  Hearing no response, he tumbles out of his clothes and through the floor, and falls splat into the batter for a “morning cake” being prepared by three chefs.  He declares:

I’m not the milk and the milk’s not me!  I’m Mickey!

To Terry Gross, Sendak commented that the chefs and baking ovens were suggestive of the crematoria of the Holocaust, a nightmare kitchen, and that might explain the creepy, automaton triplet chefs with Hitler mustaches who don’t seem to notice Mickey’s hollering or presence in their cake, as they sing out for milk:

Milk in the batter!  Milk in the batter!  We bake cake and nothing’s a-matter!

If the chefs are Nazi exterminators, the “morning cake” easily transmutes into “mourning cake,” the night kitchen the long night of diaspora and the blind eye of discrimination.

But then there’s the cry to God, at the moment of Mickey’s triumph.  Having fashioned an airplane out of some bread dough, he flies up and over a giant milk bottle (tiresomely likened to a phallus by the idiot critics of Mickey’s nudity) and tumbles into the milk with a pot in his hand, chanting that troublesome mantra:

I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me!  God bless milk and God bless me!

Instead of taking himself and the milk away from the night kitchen, escaping, he becomes something edible, and it’s the very thing he took pains to distance himself from earlier.  Now he is immersed in the milk, both inside and outside, and moreover, it’s all blessed and sharable, even with the creatures that want to destroy him.

That’s something beyond allowing a child to identify with triumphant Mickey, the one immersed in the nightmare of history, the one who refuses to become a cake and challenges any scary, unjust, or immovable institution the chefs represent.

Throughout the book, we can’t help but think of Mickey’s outside and inside, his body and the consumption that he undertakes and delivers.  Yes, the book teems with sensuality — not the weird timid pedophilic touch feared by the censors, but sensuality in the non-sexual realm of tactility and texture.  It’s about bodies and what your senses can experience.  The boy falls out of his clothes and into liquids of various sorts that morph and change and engulf him in tastes and smells and feelings as he ventures off into the unfamiliar.

Sendak’s books often do that.  My favorite of his little verses, “Chicken Soup with Rice,” puts the soup in the mouths of children but also turns the children into birds stirring soup in their nests, and then into vessels containing the soup.  We are made out of the same elements as the water, air, land — everything organic.

And because of that, we can change into whatever we like, eat and be eaten, turn ourselves upside-down or inside-out.  We can become and unbecome our enemies and foodstuffs, in the most elemental and visceral ways recognizing our difference and our commonality.  It’s blessed to transform. I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me.

And up, and up.