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Kafkaesque vs Seussian

February 1st, 2020

A few months ago Netflix released a show, Green Eggs and Ham, based on the Dr. Seuss classic.

In the first episode there is a scene where one of the protagonists walks through a big office full of “bean counters and pencil pushers.” The room is filled with characters at desks literally counting beans, one at a time, or pushing pencils across a desk, one at a time. It’s a funny sight, if a bit predictable, but after watching it I felt that it was a lazy joke but there was something else about it I couldn’t put my finger on.

Describing it the next day to a colleague it came to me: the problem was that pencil pushers and bean counters is simply not Seussian! Seussian is defined as:

Seussian
Relating to or characteristic of the Dr. Seuss series of children’s books, especially in being whimsical or fantastical.

(definition from: The Oxford English Dictionary [lexico.com])

Emphasis mine.

Dr. Seuss wrote about people who make thneeds or sneeches with and without stars on their bellies. About wacky Wednesday’s and fights over which side you should butter your bread on. He wrote about wockets in pockets and a fox who wears socks while rhyming. I just don’t feel like he would fill an office with bean counters and pencil pusher —at least not by those names, beans and pencils are too mundane for Dr. Seuss.

Bean counters and pencil pushers called to my mind a different authorial adjective —Kafkaesque.

Kafkaesque
Characteristic or reminiscent of the oppressive or nightmarish qualities of Franz Kafka’s fictional world.

(definition from: The Oxford English Dictionary [lexico.com])

But that’s not right. The bean counters and pencil pushers are not nightmarish or oppressive (at least not in the show, I’ve met some that are in real life!) I thought of kafkaesque as more “absurdity of modern life.” But the dictionary disagrees. Maybe pencil pushers and bean counters would be more Roald Dahl, not Wonka but the world outside the factory gates? I’m not sure. I even looked up The Myth of Sisyphus [wikipedia.org] which is about the absurdity of life in the modern world, but it resulted in a bit of circular reasoning as “The essay contains an appendix titled “Hope and the Absurd in the work of Franz Kafka”. And “[Camus] maintains that Kafka fails as an absurd writer because his work retains a glimmer of hope.” So maybe pencil pushers and bean counters are kafkaesque after all. It’s all so confusing. But the central premise stands: they are not seussian.

Dr. Seuss used his wacky worlds to write about many real world problems: deforestation, racism, the nuclear arms race… [buzzfeed.com] but I don’t remember any about pointless jobs. Pointless jobs, or bullshit jobs [wikipedia.org] are plague on society that has been around since before Dr. Seuss, and I expect will continue for many years to come… but that theory is a topic for another day.

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