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.