Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Exemplary Narcissism of Snoopy

It really was a dark and stormy night. On February 12, 2000, Charles Schulz—who had single-handedly drawn some 18,000 Peanuts comic strips, who refused to use assistants to ink or letter his comics, who vowed that after he quit, no new Peanuts strips would be made—died, taking to the grave, it seemed, any further adventures of the gang.

Hours later, his last Sunday strip came out with a farewell: “Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy … How can I ever forget them.” By then, Peanuts was carried by more than 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries and read by some 300 million people. It had been going for five decades. Robert Thompson, a scholar of popular culture, called it “arguably the longest story told by a single artist in human history.” (...)

Peanuts was deceptive. It looked like kid stuff, but it wasn’t. The strip’s cozy suburban conviviality, its warm fuzziness, actually conveyed some uncomfortable truths about the loneliness of social existence. The characters, though funny, could stir up shockingly heated arguments over how to survive and still be a decent human being in a bitter world. Who was better at it—Charlie Brown or Snoopy? (...) Every character was a powerful personality with quirky attractions and profound faults, and every character, like some saint or hero, had at least one key prop or attribute. Charlie Brown had his tangled kite, Schroeder his toy piano, Linus his flannel blanket, Lucy her “Psychiatric Help” booth, and Snoopy his doghouse.

In this blessedly solid world, each character came to be linked not only to certain objects but to certain kinds of interactions, too, much like the main players in Krazy Kat, one of the strips that Schulz admired and hoped to match. But unlike Krazy Kat, which was built upon a tragically repetitive love triangle that involved animals hurling bricks, Peanuts was a drama of social coping, outwardly simple but actually quite complex. (...)

In fact, all of the characters were survivors. They just had different strategies for survival, none of which was exactly prosocial. Linus knew that he could take his blows philosophically—he was often seen, elbows on the wall, calmly chatting with Charlie Brown—as long as he had his security blanket nearby. He also knew that if he didn’t have his blanket, he would freak out. (In 1955 the child psychiatrist D. W. Winnicott asked for permission to use Linus’s blanket as an illustration of a “transitional object.”)

Lucy, dishing out bad and unsympathetic advice from her “Psychiatric Help” booth, was the picture of bluster. On March 27, 1959, Charlie Brown, the first patient to visit her booth, says to Lucy, “I have deep feelings of depression … What can I do about this?” Lucy replies: “Snap out of it! Five cents, please.” That pretty much sums up the Lucy way.

Schroeder at his piano represented artistic retreat—ignoring the world to pursue one’s dream. And Snoopy’s coping philosophy was, in a sense, even more antisocial than Schroeder’s. Snoopy figured that since no one will ever see you the way you see yourself, you might as well build your world around fantasy, create the person you want to be, and live it out, live it up. Part of Snoopy’s Walter Mitty–esque charm lay in his implicit rejection of society’s view of him. Most of the kids saw him as just a dog, but he knew he was way more than that. (...)

Once the main cast was set, the iterations of their daily interplay were almost unlimited. “A cartoonist,” Schulz once said, “is someone who has to draw the same thing every day without repeating himself.” It was this “infinitely shifting repetition of the patterns,” Umberto Eco wrote in The New York Review of Books in 1985, that gave the strip its epic quality. Watching the permutations of every character working out how to get along with every other character demanded “from the reader a continuous act of empathy.”

For a strip that depended on the reader’s empathy, Peanuts often involved dramas that displayed a shocking lack of empathy. And in many of those dramas, the pivotal figure was Lucy, the fussbudget who couldn’t exist without others to fuss at. She was so strident, Michaelis reports, that Schulz relied on certain pen nibs for her. (When Lucy was “doing some loud shouting,” as Schulz put it, he would ink up a B-5 pen, which made heavy, flat, rough lines. For “maximum screams,” he would get out the B-3.)

Lucy was, in essence, society itself, or at least society as Schulz saw it. “Her aggressiveness threw the others off balance,” Michaelis writes, prompting each character to cope or withdraw in his or her own way. Charlie Brown, for instance, responded to her with incredible credulity, coming to her time and again for pointless advice or for football kicking. Linus always seemed to approach her with a combination of terror and equanimity. In one of my favorite strips, he takes refuge from his sister in the kitchen and, when Lucy tracks him down, addresses her pointedly: “Am I buttering too loud for you?”

It was Lucy’s dealings with Schroeder that struck closest to home for Schulz, whose first marriage, to Joyce, began to fall apart in the 1960s while they were building up their huge estate in Sebastopol, California. Just as Schulz’s retreat into his comic-strip world antagonized Joyce, Michaelis observes, so Schroeder’s devotion to his piano was “an affront to Lucy.” At one point, Lucy becomes so fed up at her inability to distract Schroeder from his music that she hurls his piano into the sewer: “It’s woman against piano! Woman is winning!! Woman is winning!!!” When Schroeder shouts at her in disbelief, “You threw my piano down the sewer!!,” Lucy corrects him: “Not your piano, Sweetie … My competition!” Now, that’s a relationship!

In this deeply dystopic strip, there was only one character who could—and some say finally did—tear the highly entertaining, disturbed social world to shreds. And that happens to be my favorite character, Snoopy. (...)

But by the late 1960s, Snoopy had begun to change. For example, in a strip dated May 1, 1969, he’s dancing by himself: “This is my ‘First Day of May’ dance. It differs only slightly from my ‘First Day of Fall’ dance, which differs also only slightly from my ‘First Day of Spring’ dance.” Snoopy continues dancing and ends with: “Actually, even I have a hard time telling them apart.” Snoopy was still hilarious, but something fundamental had shifted. He didn’t need any of the other characters in order to be what he was. He needed only his imagination. More and more often he appeared alone on his doghouse, sleeping or typing a novel or a love letter. Indeed, his doghouse—which was hardly taller than a beagle yet big enough inside to hold an Andrew Wyeth painting as well as a pool table—came to be the objective correlative of Snoopy’s rich inner life, a place that no human ever got to see.

Some thought this new Snoopy was an excellent thing, indeed the key to the strip’s greatness. Schulz was among them: “I don’t know how he got to walking, and I don’t know how he first began to think, but that was probably one of the best things that I ever did.” The novelist Jonathan Franzen is another Snoopy fan. Snoopy, as Franzen has noted, is
the protean trickster whose freedom is founded on his confidence that he’s lovable at heart, the quick-change artist who, for the sheer joy of it, can become a helicopter or a hockey player or Head Beagle and then again, in a flash, before his virtuosity has a chance to alienate you or diminish you, be the eager little dog who just wants dinner.
But some people detested the new Snoopy and blamed him for what they viewed as the decline of Peanuts in the second half of its 50-year run. “It’s tough to fix the exact date when Snoopy went from being the strip’s besetting artistic weakness to ruining it altogether,” the journalist and critic Christopher Caldwell wrote in 2000, a month before Schulz died, in an essay in New York Press titled “Against Snoopy.” But certainly by the 1970s, Caldwell wrote, Snoopy had begun wrecking the delicate world that Schulz had built. The problem, as Caldwell saw it, was that
Snoopy was never a full participant in the tangle of relationships that drove Peanuts in its Golden Age. He couldn’t be: he doesn’t talk … and therefore he doesn’t interact. He’s there to be looked at.
Snoopy unquestionably took the strip to a new realm beginning in the late 1960s. The turning point, I think, was the airing of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown in 1966. In this Halloween television special, Snoopy is shown sitting atop his doghouse living out his extended fantasy of being a World War I flying ace shot down by the Red Baron and then crawling alone behind enemy lines in France. Snoopy is front and center for six minutes, about one-quarter of the whole program, and he steals the show, proving that he doesn’t need the complicated world of Peanuts to thrive. He can go it alone. And after that he often did. (...)

But for many fans, it wasn’t merely Snoopy’s brothers and sisters dragging him down. There was something fundamentally rotten about the new Snoopy, whose charm was based on his total lack of concern about what others thought of him. His confidence, his breezy sense that the world may be falling apart but one can still dance on, was worse than irritating. It was morally bankrupt. As the writer Daniel Mendelsohn put it in a piece in The New York Times Book Review, Snoopy “represents the part of ourselves—the smugness, the avidity, the pomposity, the rank egotism—most of us know we have but try to keep decently hidden away.” While Charlie Brown was made to be buffeted by other personalities and cared very much what others thought of him, Snoopy’s soul is all about self-invention—which can be seen as delusional self-love. This new Snoopy, his detractors felt, had no room for empathy.

To his critics, part of what’s appalling about Snoopy is the idea that it’s possible to create any self-image one wants—in particular, the profile of someone with tons of friends and accomplishments—and sell that image to the world. Such self-flattery is not only shallow but wrong. Snoopy, viewed this way, is the very essence of selfie culture, of Facebook culture. He’s the kind of creature who would travel the world only in order to take his own picture and share it with everyone, to enhance his social image. He’s a braggart. Unlike Charlie Brown, who is alienated (and knows he’s alienated), Snoopy is alienating (and totally fails to recognize it). He believes that he is what he’s been selling to the world. Snoopy is “so self-involved,” Mendelsohn writes, “he doesn’t even realize he’s not human.” (...)

Snoopy’s critics are wrong, and so are readers who think that Snoopy actually believes his self-delusions. Snoopy may be shallow in his way, but he’s also deep, and in the end deeply alone, as deeply alone as Charlie Brown is. Grand though his flights are, many of them end with his realizing that he’s tired and cold and lonely and that it’s suppertime. As Schulz noted on The Today Show when he announced his retirement, in December 1999: “Snoopy likes to think that he’s this independent dog who does all of these things and leads his own life, but he always makes sure that he never gets too far from that supper dish.” He has animal needs, and he knows it, which makes him, in a word, human.

by Sarah Boxer, The Atlantic |  Read more:
Image: Charles Schulz