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February 8, 2004 Odds and Ends

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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:


Our anti-hero sits, despondent.  He is alone, both physically and emotionally.  He is alienated from his peers.  He is fearfully awaiting a punishment for his actions.  In desperation, he looks to God for comfort and hope.  Instead, his angst overwhelms him, and manifests itself as physical pain.  There is no comfort to be found.


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 Arnolds "Dover Beach" (1867) and the end of that stuck with me:


The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd. 
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world. 

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.


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 Charlie Brown 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 - and this 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. 


This is not without reason; even a cursory glance at a Peanuts anthology will reveal enough scripture references to fuel a month's worth of Sunday school classes.  However, to suggest that Schulz's philosophical insights didn't make it past the church door would be a mistake.  While Schulz had a great interest in the Bible and the teachings of Jesus Christ, he was also highly suspicious of dogmatic pious beliefs.  In a 1981 interview, he refused to describe himself as religious, arguing that "I dont know what religious means".  Charlie Brown was no comic strip missionary, blandly spreading the word of organized religion.  Upon reflection, the trials and tribulations of the little round-headed kid provide deep and moving illustrations of existentialism. 


Perhaps so, but "deep and moving" may be a stretch. 

What's Kierkegaard Got to Do With It?  

Radke reviews Søren 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. 


In order to identify examples of Schulzs philosophy, a bumper-sticker version of existentialism should prove helpful.  In his seminal 1946 work LExistentialisme est un Humanisme, Sartre outlines some of the core aspects of his theories.  A key aspect is the idea of abandonment.  Kierkegaard felt that there was an unbridgeable gap between God and Man.  Sartre goes even further, and argues that even if there is an unknowable and unreachable God, it wouldn't make any difference to the human condition.  Ultimately, we exist in an abandoned and free state.  We are responsible for our actions, and since Sartre argues that there is no God to conceive of a human nature, we are responsible for our own creation. 

How does this apply to Peanuts?  Like the existential human in a world of silent or absent deities, Schulz's characters exist in a world of silent or absent adult authority.  In fact, the way the strip is drawn (with the child characters taking up most of each frame) actually prevents the presence of any adults.  Schulz argued that, were adults added to the strip, the narratives would become untenable.  While references are sometimes made to full-grown humans (normally school teachers) these characters are always out of frame, and silent.  The children of Peanuts are left to their own devices, to try and understand the world they have found themselves thrust into.  They have to turn to each other for support - hence, Lucy's blossoming psychiatric booth (at five cents a session, a very good deal).


Linus and The Great Pumpkin?  An ideal example of abandonment.  That gets a long paragraph.  Followed by this:


Sartre did not deny the existence of God triumphantly.  Instead, he considered it "extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven."  Without God, everything we do as humans is absurd, and without meaning.  Certainly, spending all night in a pumpkin patch would qualify as embarrassing as well.


Waiting for Godot?  Waiting for The Great Pumpkin?  Same sort of thing.  I suppose. 

And this business about the cartoons showing no adults?  Radke argues that 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. 


When Linus gets a sliver in his finger, a conflict erupts between Lucy's theological determinism (he is being punished for something he did wrong) and Charlie Brown's philosophical uncertainty (when the sliver falls out, Lucys position crumbles).  At Christmas time, Linus dictates a letter to Santa, questioning the validity of Santa's ethical judgments regarding the goodness or badness of the individual child.  "What is good?  What is bad?" asks Linus. 


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.  That goes like this: 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 leads 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 cant 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:


Existentialism has been accused of being defeatist and depressing (and Sartre didn't help his cause with terms like 'abandonment', 'despair', and 'nausea').  But Peanuts also demonstrates the optimism of the philosophy.  Why does Charlie Brown continue to go out to the pitchers mound, despite his 50 year losing streak?  Why try to kick the football, when Lucy has always pulled it away at the last second?  Because there is an infinite gap between the past and the present.  Regardless of what has come before, there is always the possibility of change.  Monstrous freedom is a double-edged sword.  We exist, and are responsible.  This is both liberating and terrifying.


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.