Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Inscrutable Angst of Little Round Headed Kids

Unlike some, I will not say that I was ever Charlie Brown. That is too easy a self-pitying look back across a troubled childhood. I was equal parts Linus and Snoopy, although I think some of my imaginative flights of fancy outdid even the great beagle. "Peanuts", thankfully, remains one of the few relics of my childhood which can still be enjoyed as something more than a guilty pleasure. Unlike the Star Wars trilogy or the Hardy Boys mysteries, which now appear mystifyingly dull and childish, there remains a marvelously deflated innocence in the "Peanuts" universe; one which often appears to me as some perverse, contradictory creation which is simultaneously utterly innocuous and near-terrifying in its implications. Looking at it now, it reads like an episode of the most odious, cliched sitcom imaginable which has been somehow rewritten by Samuel Beckett. Perhaps this strange contradiction is the secret of its wide appeal.

A new biography of the strip's creator apparently reveals a newly comforting look at the strip and its creator. The author of this review is disappointed by the destuction of her childhood illusions
Some readers may feel much the same after finishing Michaelis' biography. Not, however, about the affair with Claudius, which was heartfelt and, in its own small way, tragic. Schulz was no philanderer, though he was prone to crushes on "distant princesses" (c.f., Charlie Brown's little red-headed girl). Rather, it's learning about the depressive, anxious, detached, resentful, self-defeating and self-deceiving personality of the comic strip's creator that's likely to puzzle and sadden some of those who grew up with "Peanuts."
These revelations of lifelong unhappiness and extramarital dalliance may upset some, but I find them strangely comforting. It is somehow comforting to know that one's suspicions that there is something more than mere charming whimsy going on in a still admired piece of childhood literature are confirmed. Of course, some of these are not really revelations. Schultz never made much of a secret of the fact that the oft-noted despair of his work was deeply ingrained in his own psyche. Which was, of course, the secret to his creation's highly unusual success. Indeed, the most fascinating aspect of "Peanuts" success is the fact that it is nearly unique among the icons of American popular culture in that it is fundamentally pessimistic. While American literature has sometimes embraced pessimism, its popular culture is almost uniformly dedicated to optimism. Not only does "Peanuts" have no happy endings, it has no endings whatsoever. The Sisyphean cycle of missed footballs and kite-eating trees continues on infinitely. It is fitting that Schultz ended the strip without tying up any of its loose ends. A baseball game won or a Great Pumpkin seen would have untied the Gordian knot that made "Peanuts", even in its later years, a thing of mottled greatness.

Perhaps "Peanuts" remains popular because it touches on one of the unspoken anxieties of America, something that is rarely understood by foreigners: the sense of infinitude, of unendingness to a continent so vast that it can never be grasped or even truly concieved of. On the two coasts, perhaps, there is a sense of a world bordered by the sea. But in the vast, unknowable interior which is nine-tenths of the American land mass and thus nine-tenths of its soul, there is that sense of a horizon which never ends, of being wrapped about by an infinitude which echoes the infinitude of death and the universe beyond. Fitzgerald described it as the place where "the dark fields of the republic roll on under the night." Indeed they do, on midwestern nights, the land and the sky merge and one has the sense of traveling through an illimitable ocean without beginning or end.

To return to the mundane, it is clear that "Peanuts" takes place in that overwhelming interior, where the vast aimlessness of the land and the sky push the individual towards contemplation of a world which seems as indifferent and uncaring as it is impossibly enormous. The simple stone wall on which Charlie Brown and Linus regularly discourse on the meaninglessness of life's small degradations is a weak, artifical barrier against this feeling of an alien enormity.

But it is mistaken, and not merely pretentious, to see "Peanuts" as a kind of existential fairy tale. Existentialism proposes action before essence. "Peanuts" sees action as meaningless and degrading, a perpetual dash for a football which is always pulled away at the last moment. And really, if the football were finally kicked, what would it matter? Charlie Brown is beloved and heroic (he is undoubtedly a rare brand of hero, but a hero nonetheless) because despite his many humiliations, he is utterly and undeniably good. What saves "Peanuts" from being a flaccid morality tale is the fact that his goodness guarantees neither happiness nor success. Indeed, it often prevents him from achieving either of them. But Charlie Brown's goodness is unshakable. It is as real a part of him as his enormous, impossibly circular cranium. Charlie Brown's endless grief is nonetheless redeemed in the eyes of the reader because of how deeply touching it is to see good persist in the face, not of evil, but of emptiness and futility.

This futility is the source of the strip's humor. The truth is that "Peanuts" was never particularly funny. Its humor lies in the absurd; the absurdity of the situations and circumstances in which its characters find themselves. What gives the strip its primal force is the fact that, good or bad, each of its primary characters is possessed of an interior, incorporeal, unshakablesoul. They are, in short, undeniably and achingly human. The most prominent emotion in "Peanuts" is a sort of pleasurable sadness; a melancholy which leads us to a kind of warmth; a comfort which is all the more real for its unsparing despair.

In this sense, "Peanuts" may be the most truly American creation of the 20th century; and it is fitting that it should take place in such an aggressively democratic medium as the comic strip. Its fundamental image, that of a modest yet inescapable good faced with an implacable emptiness, may sometimes appear cliched, pat and arbitrary; but to rid ourselves of it would be a loss not only for the child within us, but also for the adult who has forsaken nostalgia without foregoing the willingness to look upon things with eyes not yet ready to accept a complete divorce from the possibility of a simple happiness.