Posts Tagged ‘Charles Schulz’
The week before last I blogged on “Peanuts.” Not the most august subject, I know. But there’s something about that comic strip that haunts me, that continues to mystify me. So I’m returning to it today.
In my earlier post, I wrote that for the last three decades of the strip’s existence the spirit was gone. Charles Schulz just imitated himself over and over, hardly ever striking an emotionally authentic note. But there’s an exception. I remember one episode from sometime in the 1990s where the feeling was exactly right—not the same feeling “Peanuts” had in the 60s, but something just as true, that ran just as deep. Three years ago, reading David Michaelis’s brilliant biography Schulz and Peanuts, I hoped he might discuss the episode, where it came from, what it means. I was disappointed. Michaelis doesn’t even mention it.
Here’s what I recall:
Charlie Brown goes to dancing classes, hoping to find relief from his loneliness. There he meets a lovely little girl whose name I remember as Emily. The two glide about the floor in each other’s arms. Not his unattainable “little red-haired girl”; plainly she likes Charlie Brown a lot, and he’s smitten with her. Dancing with her, he’s in heaven. Lying in bed that night, he muses: “I like to think about good things that have happened to me during the day,” and the ensuing frames recall the joys of dancing with Emily.
The next day he goes back to the dance studio to find her. She isn’t there. Nobody there has ever heard of any Emily. In the last frame of the strip Lucy, who’s been observing Charlie Brown’s bafflement, says something like: “Poor Charlie Brown. He doesn’t understand …”
Huh? Understand what? What has Lucy realized, that Charlie Brown—along with myself—has been unable to grasp? That Emily never existed, that she’s a figment of his yearning imagination? But in the strips where they dance together, there’s no clue she’s any less real than Lucy or Linus or Charlie Brown himself, or that these strips depict anything other than the “consensus reality” of the “Peanuts” world.
I was baffled, yet deeply moved, when I read these strips. I’m still baffled. The sudden appearance of this cryptic, evocative episode, amid the dreary waste of banality, repetition, and gimmickry that was the later “Peanuts,” points to something powerful, perhaps transformative emerging within the soul of its creator. I have no notion what.
Michaelis, who probably knows Schulz and his work better than anyone, provides no enlightenment.
For my birthday last November, my wife bought me a book called Peanuts Treasury, a collection of weekday and Sunday strips from Peanuts’ glory days. I’ve read them all by now. Yet I keep the book beside me, often when I eat, dipping into it and rereading at random. It reminds me what an extraordinary, wonderful thing that comic strip once was.
Charles Schulz drew Peanuts for half a century, from 1950 practically up to his death in 2000. The strip went through three phases. It started as a conventional strip about cute, often smart-mouthed little kids—clever and amusing, but nothing out of the ordinary. In the middle or late 1950s, it morphed somehow into a thing vast and profound, a brilliant, heartbreaking evocation of the angst and unbearable pain of existence. (“I can’t stand it!” was Charlie Brown’s despairing refrain.)
So it remained through the 1960s. Then the spirit died. For the next thirty years Schulz tediously imitated himself, even while his characters—above all the obnoxious Snoopy—became international celebrities. I stopped reading Peanuts; like Charlie Brown, I just couldn’t stand it. Could I perhaps have enjoyed it as a modestly amusing kids’ strip once more, if I’d been able to forget its vanished years of splendor? I’m not sure.
What accounts for that splendor? What, even, was the “classic” Peanuts about? The conventional answer was that it depicted children who talk, who act like grownups. To which one critic replied: no, they’re still children—but children with all of Western culture as their mental equipment. But that’s not quite true either.
Some years ago I came across a Sunday strip, I imagine from the late 1960s, that seems to me to encapsulate the secret of Peanuts.
Charlie Brown’s little sister Sally is jumping rope, blissfully smiling. At one point she laughs out loud. Then suddenly it all changes. Her smile fades; she stands still; her jumprope drops. She throws her head back and lets out a loud “WAAH!”
Linus comes running. “What’s the matter, Sally? What happened? Why are you crying?”
“I don’t know …,” Sally says. “I was jumping rope. … Everything was all right … when … I don’t know …” And in the final frame: “Suddenly it all seemed so futile!”
In those ten frames, Sally Brown is transformed from child to grownup.
To brood about the “futility” of this or that action, the very concept of “futility,” is alien to a child. The child simply does, and the delight of the doing is sufficient. That’s Sally at the beginning. Her life’s meaning lies in its being. Only when it dawns on her to ask for meaning, is she doomed to living without any meaning. (For the question, “What is the meaning of life?” can’t possibly be answered.) She’s cast out of Eden, by the fatal error of becoming conscious of its existence.
Is there a way back in?
This question is particularly relevant to those of us who call ourselves writers. We have a lot to learn from Sally-at-the-beginning. If we can write without any thought for what we achieve by doing so, only for that laugh-with-delight feeling of the child Sally skipping rope, then we’ve got a pretty good chance of finding happiness in our art.
Ask, “What’s the point?”, and we sink into futility. Because mostly there is no point. It’s just what our spiritual limbs demand we do, as Sally’s arms and legs demand she jump rope.
I wonder if that’s what Linus told her.