MAURICE Sendak, the groundbreaking author of Where The Wild Things Are died this week, leaving the world a tamer place. Sendak wrote books for children, but his influence has been far wider and deeper, reaching from Spike Jonze’s recent blockbuster film to many adult authors. His art was distinguished by both courage and originality. He refused, above all, to sugarcoat the experience of childhood. The result was a body of work with a wild strangeness at its heart –a useful reminder to all of us that the world is less tame than the images we tend to make of it.
Before Sendak, children’s books were more often hortatory tales or romantic adventures, both coloured by an ideal of innocence that had lost touch with how troubling childhood could really be. As Sendak wrote in a cartoon strip co-authored with Art Spiegelman in 1993, “I remember my own childhood vividly. I knew terrible things, but I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.”
Our imaginations had tamed what it was to be a child, creating an image more comfortable for adults to deal with – life shorn of its grown-up worries – but not always addressing the fears real children had to cope with. It is always more comfortable to tell ourselves tame stories about the world than to confront truth in the wild, but such mental blocks leave us blind and helpless when things go wrong.
It’s much the same for the world of business as it is for childhood: too readily tamed in the popular imagination, it becomes perceived as an idealised world, not this time one of innocence but of mastery, where every success must be a conspiracy and every failure shows the need for a more intelligent designer to step in. So this week’s Queen’s Speech, casually sending the supermarkets off for more obedience classes while imagining that the Vickers reforms will help to perfect banking.
But business is not tame. It is, in economist Joseph Schumpeter’s phrase, about creative destruction. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has said that his key goal is to “move fast and break things”. Of course, there are always companies that want to tame the marketplace they find themselves dominating and try to enlist government to help, but they are enemies of business, not its advocates. Business is distinguished by its ceaseless drive to add value and improve the products and services it provides, never able to rely on a customer’s loyalty or a competitor’s laziness. It is a dynamic process, not a system of control, and as a result, not easily housetrained.
When politicians imagine that business is a tame thing, something they can break and parade on a lead, their delusion becomes dangerous. For business, like all products of the human imagination, has wildness at its heart. Wild things don’t come when called; and if we have forgotten how to see their true nature, sometimes the only moment we realise our mistake is when we whistle for our imagined pet and find that nothing answers our call.