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Good Grief

Good Grief
October 10, 2007

A few weeks ago, a new edition of the selected works of Edmund Wilson appeared. Another monumental book this season is David Michaelis’s Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography (HarperCollins). The critic and the cartoonist never crossed paths, so far as anyone knows. But there is some overlap between these publications, it seems to me. The biography of Charles M. Schulz, who died in 2000, calls to mind Wilson’s The Wound and the Bow, a collection of essays published in 1941 and reprinted in the second of the two Library of America volumes.

The connection is indirect but insistent. In the essay that lent The Wound and the Bow its title, Wilson revisits one of the lesser-known plays by Sophocles -- a telling of the story of Philoctetes, who also appears in the Iliad. Philoctetes is a skilled and powerful archer, but he is also a man in exile through no fault of his own. A snakebite has left him with a wound that not only festers but reeks. Unable to bear the stench or his groans, the Greeks abandon him on a desert island. And there he stays until Odysseus is forced to bring him back into service as the only man able to bend the bow of Heracles.

Wilson (who had started using psychoanalysis as a means of interpreting literary works well before this was required by law) saw in the figure of Philoctetes something like an allegorical emblem for the artist’s inner life. Neurosis is the agonizing wound that leaves the sufferer isolated and bitter, while genius is the ability to bend the bow, to do what others cannot. Creativity and psychic pain, “like strength and mutilation,” as Wilson put it, “may be inextricably bound up together."

Not such a novel idea, after all this time. And one prone to abuse -- reducing artistic creativity to symptomatology. (Or, worse, elevating symptomatology into art: a phenomenon some of us first encounter while dating.)

In Wilson’s hands, though, it was a way through the labyrinth of a writer’s work, of finding hidden passages within it. The two longest studies in The Wound and the Bow were interpretations of Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling: two authors whose critical reputations had been nearly done in by their commercial success. Wilson’s criticism, while biographical in method, did not take the debunking route. If he documented the wound, he also showed the strength with which each figure could draw the bow.

Now, I’m not really sure that the archer serves all that well as a model of the artist. (The myths of Daedelus or Orpheus work better, for a variety of reasons, and cover much of the same analogical ground.) On the other hand, Philoctetes did tend to complain a lot -- as did Charles Schulz, it seems. The cartoonist emerges from his biographer’s pages as a man of numerous griefs and grievances. His life was shaped by an upbringing that was economically secure but emotionally complex. His childhood was spent among among relatives who expressed affection through joking insults (to give things the most positive construction possible).

Michaelis, who has also written about the life of the painter N.C. Wyeth, offers numerous well-framed appreciations of Schulz’s artistry. The book is Wilsonian, in that sense. But any revaluation of “Peanuts” as cultural artifact is bound to be less a topic for conversation than the unveiling of details about his melancholia and his resentments.

An episode of the documentary series "American Masters" on PBS airing later this month will be tied to the book, which should reach stores any day now. Soon it will be common knowledge that everyone who met the cartoonist’s first wife had a pretty good idea where Lucy originated. Numerous “Peanuts” strips are embedded throughout the book -- each of them echoing events or situations in Schulz’s life or some aspect of his personality and relationships. (Members of his family are complaining about the biography, a development to be expected.)

The cartoons themselves -- however telling as illustrations of things the biographer has discovered about Schulz -- are rich works in their own right. They fall somewhere between art and literature; but those categories really don't matter very much, because they create their own little world. The biography derives its meaning from the cartoons and not vice versa.

So in an effort to restore some balance, I’d like to recommend some supplementary reading about “Peanuts” -- an essay that says very little about Schulz himself. It focuses instead on what he created. How an artist becomes capable of bending the bow is difficult to understand. Biography is one approach, but it does not exhaust the topic. (In a way it only begins to pose the riddle.)

The piece in question is “The World of Charlie Brown” by Umberto Eco. It appeared in his collection Apocalittica e integrati, a volume that became rather notorious when it first appeared in 1964. Parts of the collection were translated, along with some later pieces, as Apocalypse Postponed (Indiana University Press, 1994)

Like other essays in the book, the analysis of “Peanuts” is part of Eco’s challenge to familiar arguments about “mass culture,” whether framed in Marxist or conservative terms. Either way, the theorists who wrote about the topic tended to be denunciatory. Eco, who was 32 when Apocalittica appeared, had published a couple of monographs on medieval intellectual history and was also working on semiotics and the philosophy of language. Aside from teaching, he paid the bills by working for a television network and a trade publisher. All the quasi-sociological hand-wringing about the media struck Eco as rather obtuse, and he did not hesitate to say so.

From the vantage point of someone who had written about the aesthetic theory of Thomas Aquinus, it was not self-evident that “mass culture” was the fresh horror that worried his contemporaries. He saw it beginning with the cathedrals -- or at least no later than the printing press. The fact that Eco wrote about Superman and television worried some of the reviewers.

One of them complained that treating “Plato and Elvis Presley” as both “equally worthy of consideration” was bound to have grave consequences: “In a few years the majority of Italian intellectuals will be producing films, songs, and comic strips....while in the university chairs, young dons will be analyzing the phenomena of mass culture.” It would be the closing of the Italian mind, I guess.

“The World of Charlie Brown” is evidence that Eco meant to do more than stir up argument. It originally appeared as the preface to the first collection of Schulz’s strips to appear in Italy. It is the work of a critic determined to win “Peanuts” a hearing as a serious work of art.

Eco seems unable to resist a certain amount of elitist chain-yanking. He says that the translators lavished on their work “the meticulous passion that Max Brod devoted to the manuscripts of Kafka...and Father Van Breda to the shorthand notes of Edmund Husserl.” The round-headed Charlie Brown embodies “a moment of the Universal Consciousness,” he writes, “the suburban Philoctetes of the paperbacks.” (I confess that I did not remember that part of the essay until rereading it just now.)

But the tongue soon comes out of his cheek. Eco reveals himself as a devoted student of the history of the American comic strip. He triangulates “Peanuts” with respect to Jules Feiffer’s satirical cartoons and “the lyric vein of Krazy Kat” -- comparisons that are so brilliantly apt that they immediately seem obvious, which they aren’t.

And Eco warns the Italian reader that appreciating the strip involves learning Schulz’s rhythm of theme and variation. “You must thoroughly understand the characters and the situations,” he writes, “for the grace, tenderness, and laughter are born only from the infinitely shifting repetition of the patterns....”

At this point, it is tempting to quote at length from Eco’s quick analysis of the essence of Schulz's characters essence. Each one embodies or resists some part of the human condition -- even, and perhaps especially, Snoopy.

In the world of “Peanuts,” writes Eco, “we find everything: Freud, mass-cult, digest culture, frustrated struggle for success, craving for affection, loneliness, passive acquiescence, and neurotic protest. But all these elements do not blossom directly, as we know them, from the mouths of a group of children: they are conceived and spoken after passing through the filter of innocence.” The strip is “a little human comedy for the innocent reader and for the sophisticated.” A child can enjoy them, and so can the reader who is tempted to draw analogies to Samuel Beckett.

The sophisticated part of Eco’s sensibility can recognize in Schulz’s art a depth that is full of shadows: “These children affect us because in a certain sense they are monsters: they are the monstrous infantile reductions of all the neuroses of a modern citizen of industrial civilization.” But the depths aren’t an abyss. The little monsters, while sometimes cruel, never become unspeakable. They “are capable suddenly of an innocence and a sincerity which calls everything into question....”

Charles Schulz was a neurotic, no doubt; but most neurotics aren’t Charles Schulz. He was something else. And it may be that we need an Italian semiotician to remind us just what: "If poetry means the capacity of carrying tenderness, pity, [and] wickedness to moments of extreme transparence, as if things passed through a light and there were no telling any more what substance they are made of,” as Eco wrote, “then Schulz is a poet.”

Bio

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

 

 

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