Harold and the Purple Crayon is the saddest book ever written, also the most transparent. It is either a book about a lost son or a book about every man. It begins with scribbles on the first page. We are entering the story on the other side of some unnamed conflict. Order has given way to chaos. Something has gone terribly wrong.
But then: stillness, as if suddenly removed from a world outside his control, into quite something else. Harold looks away to the night, turning a blind eye to the domestic disturbance behind. He is free. He can now escape into the world of unfettered creativity. The night is filled with endless possibilities. Harold has a crayon.
So Harold leaves home to follow the moon on a two-dimensional search for he knows not what. The world is a surface, a canvas for his self-expression. He has his pen of dominion, a life of perfect freedom of the will in the realm of infinite possibility. He begins by creating the ground beneath his feet and the light for his path. Naturally, it begins as a straight and narrow path, but eventually, and just as naturally, he wanders off. Now the night is following him.
Eventually, he needs a companion–for it is not good for man to be alone–and so begins expressing himself to find a suitable helpmate. But something foreign seems to be embedded in his memory, something that either looks nothing like him on the surface or quite like him beneath. We begin to see what has been lurking about in Harold’s heart. It is an image curiously familiar in modern Western culture, an artificial fruit tree protected by a very real monster.
He creates a monster to guard a secret tree but discovers that the monster has a mind of its own and is no respecter of persons. His creation drives him away in fear. He accidentally draws a great deluge but saves himself on a boat. It is still night.
Harold makes it to land. He is famished. So he listens to the voice of his appetites to instruct him in his need for nourishment. Harold lives on pie alone.
Turns out he’s got god-sized eyes but only a human-sized stomach. He is left with a surplus of sweets. The producer creates consumers. From the surface of things, you’d never imagine this entire economy were born of a lost little boy’s aimless appetites. It all seems much happier than hunger. Everyone smiles at the pies—of course they smile—because in Harold’s world everyone is starving.
Harold feels sick. Maybe it was the pie, but it seems closer to the heart than the gut. He decides to start looking for home. He proceeds to draw a tower reaching the heavens. He now begins search for home. But his search never leads him to turn around, to go back, to regress and become like a child. His search leads him upward and onward. But a certain gravity eventually pulls him from the top of his tower back down to the surface. The height of his power turns out to reveal only how far he could fall.
But he saves himself again by making a balloon. He has defied nature itself floating first and now hovering over otherwise abysmal conditions.
With no ground beneath him, however, floating seemed hardly any different from falling. This caused him to wonder about things like motion and the position of his moon–and the source of its light. But he did not bother long with that thought and drew new ground to stand on. He then thought Why not make make a new home? He drew it exactly how he remembered it, but it was still foreign to him.
But he puts his hand to the plow again, except not the plow at all. He is now determined, now in the big building business. He has set out to realize new horizons with raw materials of mud, metal, and imagination. This new creation has been liberated from the creations of the farm, rather from a life of fighting with thistles and praying for rain.
He has still not once considered turning around. Even if home were behind him, there’s no reason to believe he could go back. Time doesn’t work that way, nor the human heart. He can no longer believe that the home he remembers in that latent longing is one he actually belongs to. It is infinite progress, not ancient memory, that must satisfy his eternal longing. So the cure for his aching existence must come by way of forgetting, for while ancient memory always seems to haunt every present moment, it still feels somehow more distant than the ubiquitously advertised future that is forever at our fingertips.
So Harold tries to give form to the haunted hole in his heart in order to create a home to belong to. He builds more windows, hoping against hope that he will discover through one the bedroom mirror hanging on the inside of his bedroom door at home. He builds an entire city. And in the saddest scene ever illustrated, an anxious little boy climbs his towers with crayon in hand making a kingdom of windows that only reveal the gaping hollow of his homesickness.
It’s as if all of human life were born out of some grand front porch that continually expands in the heart with age. And all we know to do is try to match its grandness with grandiosity. So white-knuckled men scrape the clouds in high flying homes that feel nothing like home. They feel like heartache. But they are not dressed like heartache. For that, one need only to visit the real lifeblood of any city, its subway. The grandiosity of the surface is deflated in its subterranean confessional, where the height of human reach above is curiously incommensurate with height of human beings below. Down there, it feels like an entire world that has been shrunk to an embarrassingly navigable size. Everyone knows exactly where they are going, though never feeling any less lost. This is why it is impossible to ride the subway without wanting to cry a little. There is something human there and something missing. There is proximity, and there are infinite distances. The city somehow feels at once like being in control and being in a cage. It is the longing for the divine economy and the consolation of towers of human trade.
Harold’s heartache creates an entire city the size of his homesickness. But it didn’t cure it. It is the saddest picture I have ever seen.
But Harold finds help. He turns to a law enforcement officer for help to find his way home, but he is no help. All he can do is enforce the law, which simply reinforces Harold’s constitution of self-governance. Harold must stay the course. To turn back would indeed be unconstitutional.
So he settles. He can neither find his home nor the light of day. He looks up to the lesser light of the night and wonders what makes it shine. He looks down again and sees his shadow, and continues to follow it.
Harold’s home will be framed around the endless night, his only vision of light, something like the vision in Plato’s cave–before the liberation. Refusing to turn around he will never discover the genesis of his sight, the very warmth that always seems to hit him from behind in the memory of a home he no longer can believe is real. So he exchanges the future for the past and builds a shadow of the home he longs for. He is now on the other side of that empty window in which the moon is forever imprisoned.
The story ends with the end of all possibility. Harold is not only given to the night, but any possibility of the morning with him. Harold will slip into oblivion, but only because he tried to create his way out of it. The only thing worse than embracing emptiness is denying it, which is the difference between the nihilism of creation and creation in nihilo, between hopelessness and false hope, between godlessness and the no-god, between an honest heralding of despair and today’s bullhorn gospel of progress: between the fall of Adam and the rise of Babel.
It is the far end of self-expression in the triumph of self-discovery, the absolutization of human freedom in rebellion to the Light. Harold has succeeded in constructing his hell.
Hell is the life that immortalizes emptiness as its god and when the paint dries will live forever in its image.
The book concludes thus:
“The purple crayon dropped on the floor. And Harold dropped off to sleep.
- Human freedom conceived of as the freedom of choice itself, rather than the freedom to choose the Good, is what the biblical creation account refers to as the freedom to eat from the knowledge of good and evil. To affirm freedom as such is to commit the primal sin, because it is determining what is good without reference to God, the absolute Good whose ‘self-expression’ alone is “very good” (Gen. 1:31), and elevating the contingent self’s will to ‘express itself’ in a groundless realm of a self-centered goodness with no shared referentiality, and thus outside of the realm of love. In such an ‘outer darkness’ there are no stable self-transcendent coordinates that can be identified as ‘good’, and thus the exercise of the will itself becomes the absolute good, that is, the will to power (Nietzsche).
The Triune God’s goodness is expressed in love, which is always self-transcendent and self-fulfilling, always, as a whole, to love and be loved, always including self and other in a shared goodness. Thus, God’s absolute freedom is co-inherent with God’s absolute goodness, not the effervescent collision of a Heraclitean flux, nor the all-consuming Parmenidean Self for whom all otherness is mere illusion and at best, in the end, Nirvana, nor even the compromised synthesis of a very large and progressive Hegelian circle (even if conceived as a straight line).
And thus human freedom is essentially the power of the will to love, which is precisely the power of the will not to. But the power of human freedom, the power of the Imago Dei, exercised in opposition to love is the essence of nihilism—just as God would be the first two die if the Persons of the Godhead erupted against one another in civil war.
Harold had discovered this raw freedom on the first page, but by this time he has created an entire civilization based on its irreducible nucleus he has discovered only the utter isolating effects of his self-centered will to power. And so the human family created in the image of the Triune God parses out into pixels, gathering only on the highly volatile principle of the sovereign will of everybody’s one-person world: nuclear fission in the nuclear family, the death of God and so of us.