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Horton Hears A Who!

Todd Walters is delighted to announce that the roles of Socrates and Galileo will be played by Horton and the Mayor of Whoville respectively.

A few weeks ago I was dragged to see the new animated film Horton Hears a Who!, based on the well-known Dr Seuss book published more than fifty years ago. Given my general antipathy to cartoons, I went with low expectations. But despite my attitude and the lukewarm reviews that Horton had received, I realized that hiding just below the surface of this very simple tale about a well-meaning elephant is a wonderful allegory about scientific and philosophical revolution, the dangers of autocracy, and the political implications of religious faith.

While the screenplay augments the details of the original text, the plot remains fairly straightforward. Horton, a whimsical pachyderm residing in the Jungle of Nool, one day notices a tiny speck of dust floating around the air. Being an elephant, Horton’s extra-large ears provide him with super-acute hearing. Thus, he is the only one in the Jungle who hears the high-pitched yelps emanating from the speck, which he eventually realizes are the voices of the tiny people of the tiny town of Whoville, located therein. Horton manages to make contact with the bewildered Mayor of the town by way of a tuba-horn-amplified drain pipe.

The Mayor has already surmised that Whoville is not alone in the universe. The action heightens as Horton and the Mayor disclose their findings to everyone around them, and the crux of the story turns on the persecution of both noble protagonists by their respective societies for espousing their unacceptable beliefs about the existence of the other world.

The original book does not depict Whoville or its internal political and social dynamics in any detail, so this must have been the invention of screenwriters Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul. It provides an apt parallel to the events unfolding in the Jungle’s larger world. In the Jungle, children of various exotic species are already following in Horton’s footsteps by looking for their own inhabited, floating specks of dust. But their fun is spoiled by an authoritarian Kangaroo, who will have none of this nonsense. She haughtily dismisses the existence of anything that cannot be touched, seen, or heard (a notion that would certainly register with any movie-goers, young or old, who ever pondered the existence of a higher power or reflected on the debate between materialism and spirituality). The Kangaroo even goes so far as to hire a hit-man (a hit-eagle, actually) to confront Horton and destroy his precious speck, along with whatever fanciful worlds inhabit it. When the eagle fails in his mission, the Kangaroo leads an angry mob to imprison Horton and put an end to all the tomfoolery.

We have in Horton more than a hint of Socrates, a pariah who broke free from the conventional thinking of his ancient Greek contemporaries through his exceptional skill at grasping a deeper reality which unfortunately cannot be empirically demonstrated to the average citizen. Through reason, Socrates became one of the fortunate few to break free of his chains of ignorance and exit the allegorical Cave of illusion described by his pupil Plato – to escape into the daylight, where the true nature of things are understood for what they are, not merely for what they appear to be. Horton also stands accused of corrupting society’s youth with his alternative vision of the world – just as Socrates stood before an Athenian court accused of the same crime.

The Mayor, the only inhabitant of Whoville who senses any danger from the ‘outside world’, and for most of the story the only Who who has actually spoken with Horton, encounters the same kind of resistance. When Horton warns him of the potential doom that awaits Whoville, the Mayor takes the bold and courageous step of warning the other Whos. Like Horton, he is asking his society to accept on faith what he alone knows. But when the Mayor goes before Whoville’s oligarchic Council of elders, we see that he has no real power, and is merely a puppet of this exalted body. In fact, when the Mayor suggests canceling an upcoming celebration that will honor the town’s uninterrupted history of utopian hedonism, the elders bring down a giant glass barrier – what I can only describe as a ‘cone of silence’ to any fans of the old Get Smart TV show – in order to prevent the audience, the attending townspeople, from being exposed to so ludicrous an opinion. So the Mayor is the story’s Galileo. He has proved the relation of his own world to the larger universe above and beyond through a scientific instrument (the ‘speakerpipe’ through which he hears Horton), as Galileo did with his observations through a telescope. Metaphorically, and with due acknowledgment to Copernicus, the Mayor has realized that the sun does not revolve around Whoville; and the authorities persecute him for his trouble.

We see in Whoville society and its reactions the dangers of autocratic rule, the secrets autocracy requires, and its outright hostility to any sentiment that might disrupt the narrow party-line or the folkloric pillars on which society has been built. This is precisely equivalent to the Catholic Church’s reaction to Galileo’s new view of the universe, which went against the Church’s teaching.

The Council puts Whoville at risk by not heeding the Mayor’s warning. Though not a plot device conveyed by Dr Seuss himself, Whoville Council’s rejection of pluralism and their commitment to maintaining the town’s blinkered utopian existence nevertheless would speak to the post-World War II context in which Seuss wrote. It highlights the inevitable evils that lurk around the corner of any attempt to build a perfect society out of “the crooked timber of humanity,” as Kant called it.

The events in Whoville also speak to the general matter of authority and rebellion. A.O. Scott touched on this in an insightful essay on Seuss called ‘Sense and Nonsense’ in the New York Times Magazine back in 2000. “Seuss’s moralism,” Scott said, “was a vision not just of how children should behave, but also how the grown-up world should be. World War II, part of which Seuss spent making propaganda films for the Army... honed his temperamental distrust of authority to a fine political edge.”

One major downside of autocratic regimes is the dehumanization of the individual; and nothing defines Horton Hears a Who! more than its famous admonishment: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” Scott commented on this anti-dehumanizing dynamic in Seuss’s body of work too, when he noted that “An overt concern with social justice resounds through the anti-Fascist allegory of Yertle the Turtle, the satire of racism in The Sneetches, and the humanism of Horton Hears a Who!” It is exactly that – humanism – which is the central lesson of the Horton story; and this lesson, we shouldn’t have to be reminded, is worth teaching over and over and over again, to both children and adults alike. The message of the worth of individuals and the danger of autocratic power was relevant when the book first came out in 1954 in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the atomic bomb (according to some accounts the real target the author had in mind). And it remains relevant today, for a myriad reasons that should be obvious to all.

As my brain generated this philosophical analysis while sitting in the movie theater, I had to remind myself that, at the end of the day, for most viewers, Horton Hears a Who! will be nothing more than a colorful story about two imaginary worlds, with a simple take-home lesson: respect the rights of others regardless of their physical stature or societal position. So, despite the entertaining tale it tells, and the rich philosophical foundations on which the tale was built, I doubt this film will garner a spot in the pantheon of great Western thinkers for either Dr Seuss or the Horton screenwriters. The latter, by the way, have also brought us the recently released movie College Road Trip – which I can only imagine must be an alternative take on Homer’s Odyssey.

© Todd Walters 2008

Todd Walters is a graduate student at The Fletcher School, Tufts University. He also co-authors the politics and culture blog neitherpropertynorstyle.blogspot.com. He can be reached at: todd.walters@gmail.com. A version of this article is on themillionsblog.com.

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