Someone With Too Much Time On His Hands - The Bumper-Sticker Version Of Existentialism
Okay, consider these three books, simultaneously:
- Charles M. Schulz: Conversations edited by M. Thomas Inge, University Press of Mississippi 2000.
- Existentialism and Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre, Methuen & Co. Ltd. 1957.
- Peanuts Treasury by Charles Schulz, MetroBooks 2000.
Well someone at the magazine Philosophy Now has already done the work for you. I'm not sure why, but someone has.
What do you get? Charlie Brown as an existentialist.
See Sartre & Peanuts
Nathan Radke, Philosophy Now, Issue 44 - January/February 2004
Nathan Radke teaches workshops and tutorials in philosophy at Trent University in Peterborough, Canada. And he seems to be a man with too much time on his hands.
Of course one must agree with Radke on the breadth of influence of these cartoons - newspaper readers have been exposed to Charles Schulz's comic strip `Peanuts' for over half a century. Even now, a few years after Schulz died, many newspapers continue to carry reruns of his strips, and bookstores offer Peanuts collections. His characters are featured in countless advertisements, and every December networks dutifully show the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.
And Radke asks - is there any philosophical insight that can be gleamed from such a mainstream and common source?
Maybe there is. But one might ask as well, why bother? The question of why one should bother is no doubt anti-intellectual, or at least scornful of the discipline of formal philosophy.
But Radke has some interesting points.
First he draws us in with the unbearable sadness of Charlie Brown:
Oh my, that does sound familiar! Charlie Brown as everyman. That is my life from when I was fifteen to this day - no comfort, really.
Of course when I was fifteen I foolishly read Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" (1867) and the end of that stuck with me:
Yep. Life is tough, even if Schulz probably wasn't channeling Matthew Arnold when he thought up Charlie Brown.
And by the way, people don't generally stay "true to one another" these days, but perhaps I'm cynical from unique personal experience. I'm sure most marriages last and are quite happy, and for most good friends don't ever drift away. Ah well.
But is Radke serious about Charlie Brown as a cultural benchmark?
Radke paints him sitting nervously outside of the principal's office, waiting to hear what will become to him. He offers up a little prayer, but all he gets is a stomachache. Hardly the desperate philosopher-poet on the cliffs of Dover staring across the water at the last light of European tradition twinkling out on the coast of France into utter darkness - left only with his "true love," who may or may not be true - in a world of pain and meaningless war with no certainty of anything and no reason to hope for better.
I don't see the Charlie Brown cartoons as quite that dark. But maybe it's me. Radke claims then when we are exposed to something every day we can eventually lose sight of its brilliance.
I'm not sure. But I'm willing to entertain the premise.
Radke claims it is foolish to disregard "literature" simply because it appears in the funnies section of the daily paper. Schulz's simple line drawings and blocky letters contain "as much information about the human condition as entire shelves full of dry books. If any character has shown us the difficulties in existence, it is Charlie Brown"
Yes, Radke is right - there has been much discussion concerning Peanuts as a voice of conservative Christianity, including several books such as the 1965 work The Gospel According to Peanuts. But Radke sees more.
Perhaps so, but "deep and moving" may be a stretch.
What's Kierkegaard Got to Do With It?
Radke reviews S?ren Kierkegaard as one of the first existentialists, and argues Kierkegaard's religious beliefs impelled his philosophy, rather than limiting it. You see, Kierkegaard was forced to confront his deeply held belief in the existence of God with the tremendous empty silence that returns from the prayers of humans, and the results were his vital and compelling theories of faith and freedom.
Just like Charlie Brown? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Radke notes Schulz did not consider himself religious, neither did he refer to himself as an existentialist. In fact, he was unfamiliar with the term until the mid 1950s, when he stumbled across a few newspaper articles about Jean-Paul Sartre. "He was certainly not formally schooled in philosophical works. And yet, his simple line drawings provide illumination into the questions and problems raised by existentialism."
Ah, we see Radke is using the comic strip as a teaching aid in his course "Existentialism for Dummies."
Here's his game.
Linus and The Great Pumpkin? An ideal example of abandonment. That gets a long paragraph. Followed by this:
Waiting for Godot? Waiting for The Great Pumpkin? Same sort of thing. I suppose.
And this business about the cartoon showing no adults? Radke argues thiat in the absence of any parental edicts, the characters in Peanuts have had to become very philosophically minded in order to establish for themselves what is right and wrong.
Yep - bumper-sticker of existentialism.
Sartre would say we are created by our actions. We are responsible for our actions. Therefore, we are responsible for our creation. What we are is the sum total of what we have done, nothing more and nothing less. But why should this cause despair? Good question.
Radke reviews Sartre's comments on the characteristics of cowardice and bravery. If you are born cowards, you can be quite content, you can do nothing about it and you will be cowards all your life whatever you do; and if you are born heroes you can again be quite content; you will be heroes all your life, eating and drinking heroically. Whereas the existentialist says that the coward makes himself cowardly, the hero makes himself heroic; and that there is always the possibility for the coward to give up cowardice and for the hero to stop being a hero. And it is this very possibility that causes despair.
This lead to a discussion of Charlie Brown and the little red-haired girl. The very possibility that he could go over and talk to her is far more distressing than its impossibility would be; he must take ownership of his failure? When she is the victim of a bully in the schoolyard, Charlie Brown's despair deepens. He isn't suffering because he can't help her, but because he could help her, but won't: "Why can't I rush over there and save her? Because I'd get slaughtered, that's why..."
Ah, existential despair! And when Linus helps her out instead, "thereby illustrating his freedom of action," Charlie Brown only becomes more melancholic.
What a life!
And then Radke discusses how in order to combat despair, Charlie Brown succumbs to bad faith, which is to say, he denies his freedom: "I wonder what would happen if I went over and tried to talk to her! Everybody would probably laugh ... she'd probably be insulted too ..."
Yes, existence is problematic and disturbing.
And you don't even want to know about the link between Linus and Sartre's 1938 novel Nausea. Radke illustrates that.
But all is not dark:
Yep, and Matthew Arnold's narrator asks his love to be true to him - even if he knows better.
So there you have it - existential despair, and foolish hope, daily in your newspaper. Or not.