Guest Post: Albert Camus and Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree

By Jess Phillips, Honours Candidate in Literary Studies, Monash University

The Red Tree is a picture book, written and illustrated by Australian artist Shaun Tan. It depicts a young, redheaded girl journeying from her bedroom through a series of surreal and what Tan and other critics have termed, ‘absurd’ landscapes. Our protagonist encounters a giant groper suspended above a city street, is submerged in a wine bottle within an old-fashioned scuba suit on the sea’s edge and in another spread, we witness her seated atop a giant snail, tallying her wait time on its shell. And yet our protagonist never smiles, not until the final pages where the red tree literally makes a home in her bedroom where it is at once bright, vivid and quietly waiting.

The Red Tree’s images are ambiguous and indeterminate, and the reader is never quite sure what Tan is attempting to convey. And yet the second person pronouns used in what little written text there is (you, your), the anonymity of our protagonist coupled with the unspecified time markers (sometimes, some days), convey something universal about the predicament facing the young girl: that her experience of not knowing who she is supposed to be, or what she is supposed to do are predicaments that can overcome anyone at any time. Her predicament is your predicament, my predicament and our predicament.

The Red Tree has long been a favourite book of mine, and one that I’ve gifted to my parents and my nephew. The images are bizarre, but in their bizarreness they most vividly and precisely capture what it is to feel lost, confused, isolated and as though “the world is a deaf machine.”[1] It’s a comforting read and one that eases the sense of feeling as though ‘nobody understands,’ without pathologising or minimising darker emotions.[2]

Recently I wrote an essay about The Red Tree and in my research, I was struck by one critic’s contradictory reading of the text that erased the very things I loved and valued most about it.

Sylvia Pantaleo begins her article by discussing the inherent value in The Red Tree’s plurality. She uses Roland Bathes’s theory of writerly and readerly texts to argue that The Red Tree is a ‘writerly’ text because it invites readers to invest themselves in “experiencing, understanding and interpreting Tan’s polysemous picturebook.”[3] She praises the text for its inherent indeterminacy, while at the same time imposing a definitive reading on it, as a picture book that “respectfully and thoughtfully explores childhood depression.”[4] So, while championing its ‘writerly’ qualities Pantaleo simultaneously argues that The Red Tree depicts a single experience. Her position becomes even more troubling when she describes the context for a study in which she ventured into a primary school classroom and over a series of weeks conducted workshops with the children wherein they were invited to work in groups to discuss what they felt the text ‘meant.’ This exercise felt to me terribly tokenistic. For if Pantaleo was so assured that the text depicted childhood depression, and was intending to write this in a critical paper, why seek out young people’s responses at all, if only to erase their interpretations with a definitive one that trumped their findings?

Pantaleo’s stance therefore erases the very things I love most about The Red Tree. Tan doesn’t pathologise the experiences of the young girl, but instead, through his use of second person pronouns, the anonymity of our protagonist and unspecified time markers, he implicates the reader in the experience. It is our predicament, not an isolated event happening to a fictional character and so it may help to alleviate the experience of feeling downtrodden when the “day begins with nothing to look forward to,” as the reader comes to appreciate that they are not alone in feeling this way. It is human to feel confused, sad and lonely; it’s not a pathology. By rendering what The Red Tree depicts as pathological, this has the effect of closing down subsequent engagement with the philosophical ideas that Tan is attempting to convey about meaninglessness and indeterminacy as aspects of the human condition. In short, positions like Pantaleo’s erase The Red Tree’s complexity.

I sought to remedy this erasure by using Albert Camus’ theory of the absurd as my lens for reading The Red Tree. He seemed to be the perfect theorist to use not only for the relevance of his philosophy to what is depicted in The Red Tree, but also because several critics, and Tan himself, have used the term ‘absurd’ to refer to the text’s contents, yet it has not been correlated or connected in any way with Camus.

In the Myth of Sisyphus, Camus contends that the most important question in philosophy is suicide. That is, judging whether life is worth living.[5] He argues that dying of your own volition implies that you have recognised that life lacks any fundamental meaning or worthwhile reason for continuing.[6] For Camus, the realisation that the universe lacks meaning leaves one feeling alone and estranged. This sense of the absurd is then precisely the recognition of the divorce between the absence of unity, cohesion and absolute meaning in this world and the constant human yearning for it.[7]

Camus argues that upon sensing the absurd one must undergo a journey or process of self-explication to reach the point at which one has developed adequate self-knowledge and awareness either to embrace the absurd and live on despite life lacking an essential meaning, or deny the absurd by committing metaphysical or physical suicide. When Camus’ theory is applied to a reading of The Red Tree, it is clear that inadvertent parallels exist between Tan and Camus and that both writers offer up a kind of reciprocal basis for understanding the other.

In an online essay, Tan extends an invitation to his readers to make meaning (in The Red Tree) from a work that “doesn’t mean anything in particular.”[8] While I don’t agree that Tan has no concern for what The Red Tree’s arresting visuals and prosaic text suggest in terms of meaning to readers, his claims about the meaning of his work serve to reveal an inadvertent parallel between himself and Camus. Tan strives for plurality of meaning whilst claiming that picture books are good for using one’s imagination to find personal meaning and significance in “ordinary, day to day experiences that may otherwise remain unnoticed,” and this implies that there is no absolute meaning to be found in his work. A reader hungry for cohesion, unity and the familiar will not be rewarded by a reading of The Red Tree; it is simply to indeterminate. This desire for ultimate unity, for absolutes and cohesion is however precisely what Camus claims debilitates man. Tan offers no explanation at the end of the text; he offers nothing that will clarify, summarise or make connections that would unify and generate an absolute understanding of The Red Tree. This is concurrent with Camus’ view that man will always be a stranger to himself; attempts at summarising, unifying and cohering will be “nothing but water slipping through my fingers… the gaps will never be filled.”[9]

In reading The Red Tree as charting the process of self-explication necessary for our protagonist to either embrace or deny the absurd, Tan’s work is afforded a richness and complexity that is otherwise erased by the imposition of closed interpretations such as Pantaleo’s. While by no means a definitive reading, the application of the thought of Camus to a reading of The Red Tree enables new insight about Tan to be revealed and likewise provides an opening for readers to develop new knowledge into and about Camus’ philosophy, thus enabling a book that may be demarcated as just for children or about a single experience such as ‘depression’ to have a much more nuanced resonance and importance for readers regardless of age.

 

Jess Phillips is an Honours candidate in Literary Studies at Monash University. Her major thesis explores the use of metaphor and simile in Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar to represent and describe the experience of madness. http://www.jessp.net

 

[1] Shaun Tan, The Red Tree, (Sydney: Lothian Children’s Books, 2001), n.p.

[2] Ibid, n.p.

[3] Sylvia Pantaleo, “Filling the Gaps: Exploring the Writerly Metaphors in Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree,” in Challenging and Controversial Children’s Books Creative and Critical Responses to Visual Texts, edited by Janet Evans, 272 (New York: Routledge, 2015); Ronald Bathes, S/Z. (1970), translated by Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993).

[4] Ibid, 240

[5] Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, translated by Justin O’Brien, (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 3. Camus argues that this is the most urgent of questions. Having witnessed many people end their lives because they judge life to not be worth living and having witnessed many more be killed for the very ideals that gave them a reason to live, he regards all other questions as futile.

[6] Ibid, 5-6.

[7] Ibid, 17.

[8] Shaun Tan, “Picture Books: Who are they for?” (n.d). http://www.shauntan.net/essay1.html

[9] Ibid, 19.

Guest Post: Sylvia Plath, Paul Ricoeur and the language of madness

By Jess Phillips, Honours Candidate in Literary Studies, Monash University

Sylvia Plath’s first and only novel The Bell Jar was published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas in 1963 and released just weeks before she committed suicide in her London home.[1] The novel is a first-person account of Esther Greenwood, a nineteen-year-old aspiring writer who whilst on a writing internship in New York begins to feel that something is wrong with her. Upon returning home to Boston, she discovers that she hasn’t been accepted for a competitive writing course at university. This news catalyses for Esther several suicide attempts and admissions to psychiatric wards.


What drew me to Plath’s novel was her remarkable use of simile and metaphor to describe and represent Esther’s experience. Her language struck me at times as inconsistent, ambiguous and highly nuanced, yet also strangely precise. Later I discovered this was for good reason. Plath’s vocabulary is derived from lived experience, not divorced from it. Her strenuous efforts at locating verbal equivalents for Esther’s experience point to the limits language has for expressing subjective states of being, whilst revealing nuances and insight into the experience of madness that are often obscured when a scientific understanding is privileged.

So how does Plath use simile in her writing and to what effect? What does her idiosyncratic vocabulary reveal about the experience of madness that a literal discourse such as the language of modern science would obscure? These are but some of the questions my research is exploring.

French Philosopher Paul Ricoeur makes an interesting case for metaphor, not simile as the means through which new knowledge and surprising connections can be brought about through language. In The Rule of Metaphor Ricoeur argues that because metaphor involves implicit comparisons between two terms, because the connections or relations that two terms share are not always obvious, metaphor produces new knowledge about a subject, contradicts reader’s expectations and uncovers hidden relationships. For Ricoeur, “metaphor teaches us something…it contributes to the opening up of a field of reality other than which ordinary language is capable of laying bare.”[2]

While simile is like metaphor in that it too involves relations between two terms, for Ricoeur simile is less complex as it involves a direct or explicit attribution using ‘like’ or ‘as’. He argues that this direct comparison “reduces the dynamism and provocation of inquiry” that metaphor achieves so well.[3] He goes further to state that simile, unlike metaphor, relies on the connections between two terms, being “facts of discourse” or “perceived resemblances,” relations that already exist in our common language usage. [4]  So, he concludes simile does nothing special, nothing to generate new knowledge and insight about a subject.

While I agree with Ricoeur’s claims about metaphor, I feel that he dismisses the creative potential of simile when used to describe and represent subjective experience. In my research into Plath’s writing, I have discovered that contrary to Ricoeur’s claims that leave simile bereft of value, Plath reveals the creative potential of simile; its capacity to produce new knowledge and insight into the lived experience of madness.

Let’s have a look at how Plath achieves the apprehension of new knowledge and connections that at first glance seem purely “facts of discourse.” Upon returning home to Boston, Esther’s sleep begins to be disrupted. After leaving Dr Gordon, her psychiatrist following her first Electro Shock Treatment, she states that she hasn’t slept for twenty-one nights. Feigning sleep one morning until her mother has left for work, she describes her experience of insomnia using simile:

I crawled between the mattress and the padded bedstead and let the mattress fall across me like a tombstone. It felt very dark and very safe under there, but the mattress was not heavy enough. I needed about a tonne more to make me sleep.[5]

The drawing of mattress and tombstone into an explicit comparison using the term ‘like’ reveals new knowledge about Esther’s experience of madness and insomnia. Firstly, let’s look at what the tombstone connotes, that is, at what is implied in ‘tombstone’ in addition to its essential or literal meaning. What are some of the associations we make when we come up against this term?

‘Tombstone’ connotes death, a grave, graveyard and a weathered, heavy and oftentimes illegible memory of a life. One’s first inclination, as was mine, when reading this simile is to conflate tombstone with coffin or earth leading to the dissipation of surprise as this is an obvious connection, a resemblance that already exists within our common language usage.[6]  This relation would make good sense and seem compatible with Esther’s attempts at hauling her mattress over herself. But I sense there are hidden connections here, so let’s go a little deeper.

In burial, it is not the tombstone that falls across the body or coffin, but dirt, sand and earth. To replace dirt, earth or sand with tombstone in this simile suggests that Esther feels as though she is already dead; she is already buried and the tombstone which would act as a beacon to the living, to denote her position beneath the earth, has fallen across the remains of her body, making the memory of her life to the living world invisible. Therefore, we may conclude that Esther’s subjective experience of insomnia (and by extension of madness) is likened to an invisible death. “I crawled between the mattress and the padded bedstead and let the mattress fall across me like a tombstone,” when examined deeply and patiently says more about Esther’s experience of madness and insomnia and language’s inability to faithfully represent them, than a more literal rendering such as “I feel dead inside,” ever could.

This new knowledge and insight into the lived and felt experience of Esther’s insomnia and of madness is only made possible by the connections Plath generates between tombstone and mattress; connections that are not obvious facts of discourse. And it is simile, not metaphor that makes this new knowledge possible.

While Plath’s writing may unsettle her readers, in the absence of definitive meaning she reveals something very important about language and subjective experience. For Plath, language will always lack the means for expressing the subtle nuances that are highly particular to each one of us. Perhaps the absence of definitive meaning in favour of a multiplicity of meaning unsettles readers because it urges them to re-evaluate the motivations for and implications of attempts at imposing a definitive understanding over what are oftentimes chaotic, enigmatic states. And perhaps contrary to Ricoeur’s rejection of simile, it too is an important tool for conveying these nuances and deepening our vocabulary for expressing the difficult things.

 

Jess Phillips is an Honours candidate in Literary Studies at Monash University. Her thesis explores the use of metaphor and simile in Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar to represent and describe the experience of madness. http://www.jessp.net

 

  1. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, (London: Faber and Faber, 1963).
  2. Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor (1975), translated by Robert Czerny with Kathleen Mc Laughlin and John Costello, SJ. (Routledge Classics: Oxon, 2003), 174.
  3. Ibid, 29.
  4. Ibid, 29.
  5. Ibid, 29-30.
  6. Plath, The Bell Jar, 118.
  7. Plath, The Bell Jar,
  8. Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, 29-30.