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.