Saturday, December 2, 2017

Lucy, Charlie Brown, and 43 Footballs Part 6: 1979

1979: A descent into chaos

July 30, July 31, August 1, August 2, 1979
1979 begins a sort of opening out of the football kicking strips. They have always been a two person operation between Charlie Brown and Lucy. They have always taken place on one day, with no lead in or follow up strips; they have always appeared on a Sunday. They could stand alone. Not in 1979.
In 1979, the actual attempt to kick the football develops over four daily strips, from July 30 to August 2. There is also a long setup this year, a story that starts on July 3 (!) during baseball season (!) when Charlie Brown suddenly feels "kind of woozy" on the pitcher's mound. Lucy walks in from right field and says "You've probably been hit on the head with too many fly balls." Things escalate quickly from here. Charlie Brown goes to the "Ace Memorial Hospital" Emergency Entrance by himself because his parents are "at the Barber's Picnic" (July 9). We are never told, and neither is Charlie Brown, what ailment he has. On July 14, he says "I wonder if I'm dying . . . I wonder if they'd tell me if I were dying . . ." as he lies in bed. He continues in the next panel, " I wonder if they'd tell me if I'm not dying . . . maybe I'm already dead." You are not dead Charlie Brown. The next day he seems to have escaped his dread, as he calls himself "Joe Patient." Except for a brief appearance in the first panel on July 22, we do not see Charlie Brown again until Sunday, July 29 when he returns home and greets Snoopy. July 29 also reminds us of one of Peanuts' best running gags--Snoopy does not know Charlie Brown's name. He stares, from the top of his doghouse as Charlie Brown talks to him. In the final panel, Snoopy thinks "Now I remember! He's that round-headed kid who always feeds me. ." (There are two dots after this thought--neither the full-stop of a period or the gesture toward continuation of ellipses.) Snoopy here reminds me of the narrator of Kafka's "Investigations of a Dog" (which becomes a really interesting story if one imagines that Snoopy is the actual writer of the story, but that is for a different post), whose investigations center on "the question [of] what the canine race nourished itself upon." Unlike his fellows, Kafka's dog seeks to know where his food comes from. Snoopy has his own personal answer; it comes from the round-headed kid. Anyway, the two weeks of July 1979 when we do not see Charlie Brown (except for the one panel on July 14 as noted above) focuses on how his friends respond to his hospitalization. Sally, his sister, feeds his dog, but also moves into his room. Marcie and Peppermint Patty are denied a visit to Charlie Brown because they are two young. They instead sit on a park bench outside the hospital, upon which Marcie confesses her love for Charlie Brown and even says "In fact, if he asked me, I'd even marry Chuck!" Peppermint Patty then tries to check Marcie into the hospital for being "sicker" than Charlie Brown.

But what about Lucy? What does Lucy do when she finds out that Charlie Brown is in the hospital? Her first response, when Linus tells her that Charlie Brown is in the hospital, on July 16, is "I'm glad it wasn't me!" She says this with a frown, her elbows perched on the small brick wall that the characters often converse at, her hands at the side of her frowning face. A few days later, on July 19, she is crying on Schroeder's piano. "He's got to get well! He's got to! OH, BOO HOO HOO HOO! SOB!" Schroeder nonchalantly responds to her emotional outburst by saying "It's interesting that you should cry over him when you're the one who always treated him so mean!" Does Schroeder think Charlie Brown is dead? Why does he use the past tense? He does not seem too concerned, as he then tells Lucy "And stop wiping your tears with my piano!" Everybody has their own obsessions. It is just under five months until Beethoven's birthday. Almost a week later, on July 26, Lucy tells Schroeder that she "can't eat or sleep" because she's so worried about Charlie Brown. Lucy is traumatized by Charlie Brown's continuing illness. She lashes out. "Maybe I could send him a threatening letter" she says, as Linus rolls his eyes. Two days later, at home, Linus tells her "I just talked with Charlie Brown's mom . . . He's not any better." Maybe Lucy briefly, or even unconsciously, remembers telling Charlie Brown in 1975 "I'm not your mother, Charlie Brown!" Mouth agape, arms thrown in the air, Lucy has a three panel meltdown. "What's wrong with a world where Charlie Brown can get sick, and then not get any better?" Lucy cares deeply for Charlie Brown. Maybe, Lucy loves Charlie Brown. This month of strips should be read by anyone who complains that the kids in Peanuts are mean and cruel to each other, and especially to Charlie Brown. They might be, but a sense of belonging and togetherness underlies the meanness and cruelty. They know each other; they are friends; they play out the same routines year after with love. Lucy returns to form in the last panel. With a fist raised and sweat flying from her face, she exclaims through an open mouth and clenched teeth "I NEED SOMEBODY TO HIT!!," with the word "hit" nearly the size of her head.

July 27, though reveals the true depth of Lucy's caring for Charlie Brown. In the first panel, Lucy stands outdoors, solitary in a pitch black night. She is in what Maurice Blanchot, in The Space of Literature, calls "empty night," a space of darkness beyond "the first night" of mere darkness and sleep. It is the paradoxical appearance of "everything has disappeared" experienced in the first night. Lucy, in her desperation, meets this appearance of disappearance, embodied by  "apparitions, phantoms, and dreams" with a finger raised and a promise to Charlie Brown. She sees what she fears most--the apparition of Charlie Brown's foot connecting with the football, the dream of the smile on his face when he finally kicks the ball. And Lucy is willing to endure this darkest night for Charlie Brown. Panel two of the comic draws in on her solemn face; we can no longer see the ground, only the black space behind her head. Her eyes are shut in straight lines; her mouth is a small oval, as she raises her right hand and says "If you get well, I promise I'll never pull the football away again!" The repercussions of this promise will echo forward through every strip that follows for the next twenty years. In panel three, Linus walks out of the darkness into the frame and tells his sister "That's quite a promise" With this statement, Linus has become part of the football-kicking routine. He will serve as guarantor of this promise. He has notarized it. The next day, on July 28, Linus asks Lucy to confirm her promise in the mundane light of day. As she sits in her beanbag in front of the television, Lucy once again raises her right hand and confirms "That is my solemn promise!" The very next day Charlie Brown is home; he spends this Sunday strip talking to Snoopy. The beginning of the reckoning will start the next day.

On July 30, Lucy, reclining in her beanbag in front of the television, hears a "KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK" at the door. In the third panel, she opens the door to Charlie Brown's smiling face. She exclaims "Charlie Brown! You're back!! You're well!" Her late-night promise has worked and her happiness at Charlie Brown's return is about to turn into something else. Noticeably, we can only see Charlie Brown and Lucy from the chest up; we cannot see their hands. Panel four takes a wider perspective, and we can see that Charlie Brown is lightly tossing a football up with both hands. His illness, and Lucy's despair at it, are now forgotten. He turns away from her and says over his shoulder "I heard something about a promise . . ." Lucy can only respond with a frown and an "Oh, good grief!" as they both stand on her front porch. Linus has told Charlie Brown about Lucy's promise. But this is not a Sunday strip, so we are left with this scene for a whole day, with the football, Charlie Brown, and Lucy all poised, frozen in the moment before they walk to the grass where the football kicking will take place.

July 31 shows us that Linus has indeed taken an interest in Lucy's and Charlie Brown's routine. He stands on the left side of the first panel, as Lucy, in the middle, kneels and holds the football. Charlie Brown, on the right, points at the football and says what Lucy usually says. "You hold the ball, and I'll come running up and kick it" He does not even need an exclamation point. Lucy stares at the ball. In the second panel, Charlie Brown, in profile, eye closed and finger in the air reminds Lucy of her promise. As he turns and begins walking away from the football in panel three, Lucy, holding the football in both hands, not yet ready to place one end of it on the ground and balance the other end with her finger, asks "Can't I change my mind?" Charlie Brown, once again without an exclamation point, says as he walks, "No, you can't break a promise to a sick friend" Lucy cannot deny her promise and she cannot deny her friendship. Charlie Brown walks off panel and Linus exclaims "Ha!" at his sister, as he asks her what she is going to do. She responds "Quiet! I'm thinking!" She is in trouble. She will not renege on her promise and she has no plan. She has no document, no banana, no sunglasses. She has no verbal weapons to throw at Charlie Brown, no appeals to her innocence, no tears, nothing. She still holds the football in both hands, reluctant to tee it up.

On August 1, she has given up. The football is ready to be kicked. Charlie Brown continues to walk away from the football, with Linus right behind him. Charlie Brown says "This time I'm really gonna kick that football. He is resolute. His hands in front of him, he looks like he is about to clap in anticipation. As if Charlie Brown's doubt cannot be fully erased, Linus embodies it and gives it voice. "You're crazy Charlie Brown! She'll pull it away like she always does! Don't trust her!" he says, his arms spread wide. Charlie Brown must recognize these words as his own from years past; nonetheless, he responds to Linus by spreading his own arms out wide and simply says "But she promised she'd never pull it away again if I got well . ." He starts to run toward the football with confidence. "I feel great! Here I go!!" He voice no hyperbole--he's not going to kick the football to the moon or out of the universe; he is just going to kick it. Charlie Brown, as he always has, trusts Lucy. In the background, Linus covers his eyes and says "I can't look. ." Which is stronger? Charlie Brown's faith in a promise from a friend? Or Linus' doubt of his sister (a doubt, of course, that is well-earned by Linus)? Spreading the routine over four daily panels raises the tensions and the stakes. I cannot even imagine what it was like to read these comics in 1979 in a newspaper. Did the world come to a stop on August 1st? Were people waiting at their doorsteps for the daily paper to arrive early on the morning of August 2? I might  have read these strips in the newspaper; I was eight years old in 1979 and I know that I had been reading Peanuts. I do not remember, though, maybe I was only reading the paperback compilations I checked out of my school library.

August 2, 1979. Lucy, her head framed by three fluffy clouds, kneels in the center of the frame, one end of the football on the ground, one end held by her finger. She looks off to the right and we all know what she sees. The look on her face seems to say that she cannot pull the football away and that she cannot believe that she cannot pull the football away. While every comic panel is a static image, this particular panel seems frozen in time, stuck in the moment before anything happens. And then chaos. Panel two makes no sense, like a hieroglyphic without a Rosetta stone. In the lower left corner, Charlie Brown swings his leg into the air.  The football is somehow behind him. Lucy is flying through the air over Charlie Brown's head, feet facing upward, her screaming "AAUGH!" filling the upper left quarter of the panel. The expected recurrence of Charlie Brown flying through the air, of the football being pulled away by a kneeling Lucy is missing. Its absence denotes its choreography--the curving lines tracing Charlie Brown's ascent echoed by the smaller curved lines of the football as Lucy pulls it away from his foot. Here there is just chaos. Charlie Brown does not ascend; his foot only kicks up to the level of his chest. Lines radiate out from Lucy in three directions. The disjunctions of this panel make me nauseous. . . Panel three offers explanation but not resolution. The football sits unmoving on the ground in the background. Charlie Brown sits on the ground next to it  with a "?" to the left of and slightly above his head. He looks stunned as he sees Lucy in front of him, her head turned back, her mouth agape, her right hand held in her left, as she screams, surrounded by stars, "My finger! My hand! my arm!" She dances in pain. Her words fill the top half of the final panel. "You missed the ball, you blockhead! You kicked my finger! You kicked my hand!" In a smaller speech bubble below this, she screams "Ow! Ow! Ow!" The football lies on the ground, and Charlie Brown sits next to it; he looks down at it with another "?" and a chagrined look. He is tiny in the background, barely taller than the signature "Schulz" that runs up the right edge of the panel next to him. Lucy has kept her promise. She did not pull the ball away. Charlie Brown missed the football and kicked Lucy's hand. On August 3, she says "I kept my promise, didn't I? I didn't pull the ball away" Charlie Brown agrees. We see Lucy's right arm encased by a gigantic cast. Why did Charlie Brown miss the football? Was it an athletic failure, akin to his striking out with the winning run on base in the bottom of the 9th? Was it more of an inevitable turn, like his kite finding its way into the kite-eating tree? Did he miss on purpose, to keep the routine alive? Who knows? What was Charlie Brown sick with? Did Lucy's promise cure him? Have we witnessed a miracle? Is Lucy halfway to becoming a saint? Is Charlie Brown? Is John Coltrane?

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Lucy, Charlie Brown, and 43 Footballs Part 5: 1975-1978

1975-1978: Gender and other troubles

21. October 19, 1975
Lucy sings with glee and with four eight notes. Charlie Brown rolls his eyes. Lucy gives him a short version of the proposition. She doesn't say Charlie Brown's name. There are no exclamation points or ellipses in her offer, only a comma as Lucy says with a smile "I'll hold the ball, and you run up and kick it. In fact, the end of her statement has no punctuation whatsoever, a rare occurrence in the iterations of this statement in the football strips, and a relatively rare occurrence in Peanuts as a whole. Charlie Brown responds to this simplicity with utter contempt. He shuts his eyes tightly and scowls; his hair obscures it, but he may be furrowing his brow. He looks disgusted as he says what he always says. This actually seems like a moment when he might just walk away from the scene. But he does not. Lucy waves her arm at him, accusing him of "mistrust." "That's mistrust of me as an athlete, a person, and a woman! Do you mistrust all women?" Then she adds the kicker, "Do you mistrust even your mother?" And she has him. As he walks away from the football, Charlie Brown exclaims "Good grief, No!! If there's anyone in this world I do trust, it's my mother!" Lucy clearly is a psychiatrist; she has, in one panel, convinced Charlie Brown to transfer his trust of his mother to her. Charlie Brown runs silently toward the football. Is he thinking about his mother? We will never know. "WAM!" Lucy's final comment is inevitable. "I'm not your mother, Charlie Brown!" Charlie Brown looks out toward the reader with both eyes open. He knows that Lucy can manipulate him at will. As we have seen in 1968, 1969, and 1971, Charlie Brown cannot handle 1970s-era gender politics. He falls, literally, for Lucy's performative gestures of tears, innocence, and motherhood. Or does he? He does not look stunned in the final panel. There are no pencil swirls, no staring up at Lucy. His look seems knowing, or at least accepting. Lucy has not lied to Charlie Brown. She is not his mother. What about his mistrust of Lucy as an athlete? As a person? Is Lucy an athlete? Is she a person? Is Charlie Brown?

22. September 12, 1976

This one ranks with 1972, the year that neither Charlie Brown nor Lucy admitted their psychiatrist-patient relationship in the context of football, in what is unsaid. The opening panel introduces a variation. Lucy faces to the right, bouncing the football in her hands, and whistling (at least that is how I read the two eight notes speech bubble connected to her closed mouth). Charlie Brown approaches in the next panel. He must see Lucy because his speech bubble is a question mark: "?" Does the question mark signify speech? Maybe, just maybe, it is meant to sound like "huh?" or some other interrogative sound, but it might just be a means of signifying a curious look on his face. Regardless, Charlie Brown does not say any actual words in this questioning panel. Charlie Brown does not say any words in this whole strip, except for the involuntary "Aaugh!" that will come as he is flying through the air.  CHARLIE BROWN DOES NOT VOLUNTARILY SAY ANY WORDS IN THIS WHOLE STRIP. In panels two, three, and four, he looks expressionless. He is drawn in profile each time, but his mouth is not visible. His eyes are just dots. His eyebrows are not visible. The hair on the top of his head curls slightly forward like a question mark of its own. Lucy is brilliant. She describes exactly what she is going to do.  "I'm going to pretend to hold the football, Charlie Brown . . ." she tells Charlie Brown, who looks expressionless at the football. As he turns and begins to walk away from the football, Lucy says "But when you come running up to kick it, I'm going to pull it away . . . Okay?" Charlie Brown does not respond. And, judging by her facial expression, Lucy speaks matter-of-factly. She is not really smiling; her mouth is open just enough for her to say the words. Charlie Brown comes running. "WUMP!" Even as he has moved mechanically through the routine, Charlie Brown still feels the pain of the fall. He hits the ground hard. His tongue, which, remember, has not uttered a word, sticks out. Three lines and four starts radiate outward from his body. The final panel returns to a familiar tableau. Lucy, holding the football under her arm, leans over a prone Charlie Brown, looks him in the eyes, and says " Men never really listen to what women are saying, do they?" Charlie Brown, in pain, two lines near his eyes, can only look up in pain as Lucy offers a gender-inflected comment for the second year in a row. Maybe Charlie Brown thinks it would be better if Lucy said nothing in the last panel. They both seem to know that something more than a gender-difference joke is at stake here. The roteness of this year's routine does not work to alleviate the pain of the fall to the ground. Charlie Brown becomes purely reactive in this strip; he does what he is expected to do, what he expects himself to do, what Lucy expects him to do, with no thoughts and no words. While lying on his back, Charlie Brown should think of Nietzsche's question, "How well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?" If he thought of this question, he would see the answer when he looks up at Lucy. She calls herself a "fanatic" in 1965. Once a year, all that she craves is the recurrence of these events. Charlie Brown might join her in this affirmation, when Lucy tells him that the "confirmation and seal" was not notarized. Time is the shape of a football.

23. October 9, 1977

Charlie Brown takes the first panel this year. "Not again!" he says, eyes rolled toward the sky. Lucy, holding the football in both hands, calls out from panel two, "Over here! I've been waiting for you!" Has she been waiting a whole year? Maybe. But this year is slightly different. After more than twenty years of wearing the same dress, Lucy wears pants for the first time. But the routine remains the same. After Lucy makes the proposition and Charlie Brown responds with doubt--"Oh sure!"--Lucy offers Charlie Brown a "tip." "Just watch my eyes . . ." Charlie Brown looks her in the eye and says "Your eyes?" Lucy offers up a platitude that she knows will get the job done. "You can always tell what a person is going to do by watching their eyes!" As he walks away from the football, Charlie Brown convinces himself of the truthfulness of Lucy's statement. "Watch the eyes . . . I should have thought of that before . . ." He runs toward the football, exclaiming that he is going to "kick that ball out of the universe!" "WUMP!" He hits the ground hard. His legs fly up; his tongue sticks out of his mouth. FIVE lines and FIVE stars radiate from his body. In the final panel, Charlie Brown is granted the silence that he might have welcomed last year. Lucy kneels, holding the football, and for the first time ever in a football strip, faces directly outward, not in profile like usual, and not even in 3/4 profile like in the panels when she reads a document. Charlie Brown, too, looks outward and lets out a "Sigh." There is no eye contact. Lucy is wearing sunglasses. Specifically, she wears Snoopy's sunglasses, his Joe Cool sunglasses. Has she borrowed the sunglasses from Snoopy? Is Snoopy in on her joke? We do not know. There is something eerie about Lucy's eye-obscured silence. When did she put the sunglasses on? As Charlie Brown was walking away from the football? In the moment he tries to kick it. Once again, we do not know. Unlike every other year, we do not see Lucy pulling the football away. All we see is a panel of Charlie Brown flying through the air with an "Augh!!" Where were the sunglasses before Lucy put them on? I bet they were in her pants pocket. We are still left to wonder what she is thinking in a rare speechless (for Lucy) final panel. If you stare at the final panel long enough, it is haunting. Stare at it for five minutes and see.

24. October 1, 1978

This year starts strangely. Lucy is back to her dress. She holds the football with one finger and calls out "Over here!" But there's something else in the first panel. A banana? Is Lucy becoming a prop comedian? As Charlie Brown approaches, Lucy says "I have a bonus for you, Charlie Brown . . ." The bonus is indeed a banana, which she gives to Charlie Brown during her usual proposition. "I am not only going to hold the ball for you so you can kick it, but I am also going to give you a banana!" In the next panel, Charlie Brown is walking away from the football, holding the banana, now peeled, in his hand. Before he begins his run toward the football, there is a one-panel pause. Charlie Brown eats the banana, and says, inexplicably, "if someone gives you a banana, I guess you have to trust her." As we all know by now, Charlie Brown will accept, and/or create, any justification to run towards the football. He runs. "WHAM!" Tongue out; legs up; body vibrating. Lucy kneels near Charlie Brown in the final panel, further away from him than usual. She does not lean over him; we can only see the end of the football on the right; the rest of it is out of the panel. On the left, we can only see Charlie Brown from the stripe in his shirt to the top of his head. He looks outward as Lucy says "Bananas are high in potassium Charlie Brown, which promotes healing of muscles!" Lucy is not lying. She even acknowledges the physical pain Charlie Brown must endure as part of the routine (foreshadowing 1979!) and offers him a bit of relief. To my great chagrin, I just learned that Groucho Marx never said "Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana." Instead, a slight variation on these sentences first appears in a mundane place: an article called "The Uses of Computers in Science" by Anthony G. Oettinger, in Scientific American, Vol. 215, No. 3, September 1966. The sentences are used as an example of teaching generative grammar to computers, based on work that Oettinger did at Harvard with Susumo Kuno. The gist of the discussion is that "flies" is a verb in the first sentence and a noun in the second, even as the sentence structures look ostensibly the same. Therefore, syntax alone would not allow a computer to understand these sentences. Semantics and context become necessary, which Oettinger says are "all too nebulous" and thus much more difficult to teach to a machine. This post would be funnier if Groucho had said those sentences. What does a football fly like? Nothing, if it's not kicked. Time does not fly either, if Charlie Brown does not kick it. Last year, he said he would kick the ball "out of the universe." This year he talks to the ball and reduces the proposed kicking distance. "Get ready, Ball! You're going to the moon!" The football is sitting on the ground in the last panel. On the earth. Where did the banana peel go? Were we expecting Charlie Brown to slip on it? No. These football comics are not a joking matter. Here is a joke from A Night at the Opera. Groucho says, "That's in every contract. That's what they call a sanity clause." Chico replies, "Ha ha ha . . . There ain't no Sanity Clause." Imagine Lucy saying Groucho's line as she shows Charlie Brown a contract to get him to try to kick the football. Then imagine her saying Chico's line in the last panel. No. Do not imagine that. Lucy does not do accents.  Oettinger tells us "it is, after all, only an accident of nature , or for that matter merely of nomenclature, that there is no species of flies called 'time flies.'" True enough. But there are time lords. And they like bananas. The Tenth Doctor said, "Always bring a banana to a party." Time flies like an unkicked football; fruit flies like a TARDIS.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Lucy, Charlie Brown, and 43 Footballs Part 4: 1970-1974

1970-1974: Three-Faced Lucy

16. October 11, 1970

Some people say that the Altamont Free Concert of December 6, 1969 marked the end of the 1960s. I say it is this comic strip that truly marks the end of that decade. By the end of this strip, Charlie Brown will have given up all hope and all trust that he will ever kick the football. After the familiar preliminaries of the first three panels, Charlie Brown, after looking at Lucy holding the football, an expectant smile on her face, raises both hands to the heavens, turns his head back, and exhorts, "How Long, O Lord?" In words one would more readily ascribe to her younger brother, Lucy instantly recognizes the words. She picks up the football and says "You're quoting from the sixth chapter of Isaiah." She then proceeds to quote more of the verse, one arm held up even as she kneels, her other hand holding the football a bit askew as if it is an afterthought, as Charlie Brown walks away from the football. As Charlie Brown runs toward the football, Lucy performs a bit of biblical exegesis. "Actually there is a note of protest in the question . . . for we might say he was unwilling to accept the finality of the Lord's judgment." "WUMP!" Once again, Charlie Brown lies prone, facing the reader, as Lucy delivers a heavier blow. "How long? All you life, Charlie Brown . . . All your life . . ." Lucy is God. Charlie Brown is Isaiah. Lucy is God. But this chapter of Isaiah tells us that a seraphim has purged Isaiah's sins by touching a hot coal to his mouth. God calls out for a prophet, and Isaiah answers, Here am I! Send me." (Note the Schulzian exclamation point in the New King James Version). God speaks to Isaiah and makes him a prophet. Isaiah prophesies the downfall of many nations and kingdoms, but he also tells of the coming of a messiah. "For unto us a child is born, Unto us a Son is given." O course,  Linus recites a much longer and more palatable version of this prophesy from Luke in A Charlie Brown Christmas, but Lucy and Charlie Brown are more interested in the Old Testament God. And the reason for this is clear. In both Chapter Nine and Chapter 10 of Isaiah, Isaiah says this of an angry God: "For all this His anger is not turned away, But His hand is stretched out still." Lucy is the Old Testament God, holding the football under her outstretched hand; Charlie Brown the prophet cannot but attempt to kick it for all his life. 

17. September 26, 1971

We are back in the secular world, as Lucy cradles the football, shows her teeth in a wide grin, and sings out "Charlie Brownnnn . . ." Charlie Brown repeats three times "I can't believe" that Lucy would think he was stupid enough to fall for the ploy again. Lucy has a new plan this year, one that she must have been thinking about since at least 1963, when she told Charlie Brown that "A woman's handshake is not legally binding." Back in 1971, she tells Charlie Brown that she represents an organization, "And I'm holding this ball as a representative of that organization." That is all the explanation that Charlie Brown needs. As he walks away from the football, he says that as the representative of an organization, I guess she must be sincere . . ." And there is that word again--sincere--signifying for everyone in the world of Peanuts, either a place (a pumpkin patch) or a person (Lucy) who is utterly worthy of trust and free from artifice or pretense. "WHAM!" Lucy leans over a prone Charlie Brown, a triple pencil swirl and a star above his head, an uneven frown on his face, and delivers the punch she has been holding back for eight years. "This year's football was pulled away from you through the courtesy of Women's Lib!" She reveals her earlier gender-based reasonings as ironies for Charlie Brown to consider as he flies through the air with an ""Aaugh!"1963: Why shouldn't a woman's handshake mean the same as a man's? 1968: Why should a woman's "innocent look" engender trust? 1969: Why should a woman's tears lead a man to trust her? Why, Charlie Brown, why? Lucy is a second-wave feminist.

18. October 8, 1972

The two opening panels of 1972 offer a stark contrast. In the first, Charlie Brown's bodiless head becomes the center of an enormous, floating football, a football which we first saw three years ago. In the second panel, Lucy cradles a normal size football and sings out Charlie Brown's name. This year, Charlie Brown has a plan to break the routine. After Lucy lays out the same yearly plan, Charlie Brown says "I can't." In the next panel he explains, "I never do anything without consulting my psychiatrist." Lucy thoughtfully responds that he should indeed talk with his psychiatrist "and see what you want to do . . . okay?" In the next panel, we see that the doctor is in and Charlie Brown must have had five cents. He explains his "strange problem" to his doctor. He tells her "there's this girl, see" who always wants him to try to kick a football and then always pulls it away "and I land on my back and kill myself." His doctor listens attentively, her head resting on her hands, he elbows resting on the surface of the psychiatry booth. She moves her left hand to her right elbow and says "She sounds like an interesting girl . . . sort of a fun type . . ." Her diagnosis is that Charlie Brown should try to kick the football because "in medical terms, you have what we call the 'need to need to try it." This consultation has taken up most of the strip; there are only four panels left. We do not see  Lucy getting the football ready. We do not se Charlie Brown walking away from the football. As he runs toward the football he says "I'm glad I talked with my psychiatrist." "WHAM" Unlike in most of his falls, where Charlie Brown's full body takes the brunt of his fall, this time he distinctly lands on his head, bringing us back to the image of his head in the first panel, as if his mind is heavy with what his psychiatrist has told him. In the final panel, he stares up at Lucy as she says "Your average psychiatrist knows very little about kicking footballs." Charlie Brown has a look of disbelief on his face, as if he was expecting one of them to give up the charade and address the fact that Lucy is both his psychiatrist and the holder of the football. Are they both so driven by the desire to kick the football and the desire to pull away the football that they do not see these basic components of their identity? At this point, I will either stop writing or write a 1000 word Zizekian analysis of this strip. 

19. November 11, 1973

In panel one, a semi-deflated giant football rests atop Charlie Brown's head. From the second panel until the end of the strip, Lucy and Charlie Brown are up to something new. Visually, this strip uses the same visual imagery of every football-kicking attempt strip. But neither Charlie Brown nor Lucy never mention what they are doing. There is no sense of anger or doom voiced by Charlie Brown. Lucy never suggests that Charlie Brown kick the football. She never provides a rational for why Charlie Brown might succeed this year. Charlie Brown never offers a justification for why he might indeed kick the football this year. Instead, Lucy, while holding the football, asks Charlie Brown, "Do you like jokes and riddles?" He replies, "I guess so . . . why?" As the visual logic of the routine continues, Lucy sets up the football and asks her riddle. "What are the three things in life that are certain?" Charlie Brown quickly answers "Death and taxes!!" As he walks away from the football he cannot think of the third thing. As he runs toward the football, he says "It's so aggravating when you're trying to think of something, and you . . ." Here is where Schulz's ellipses come into their own.  He uses them to denote pauses all the time. He uses them to denote a thought trailing off. Here, he uses them to show us a dawning realization as Charlie Brown tries to kick the football.  If last year, Charlie Brown and Lucy were able to not acknowledge their psychiatrist-patient relationship, in this year's strip, they feel free to not even speak of the 19th iteration of their routine. Until the last three panels we might as well be in a world of dramatic irony. In the third to last panel Charlie Brown does not shout out "Augh!" as he flies through the air opened up by his ellipses at the end of the previous panel. He somehow pivots in the air so his face faces outward and  says "Now I remember!" "WHAM!" As he looks up at Lucy in the final panel, all she can say is "It was so obvious Charlie Brown!" It really was, Charlie Brown. 

20. October 13, 1974

After the intricacies of the previous few years, 1974 works almost as a reset to earlier strips. There is no giant floating football in panel one. Lucy sings out Charlie Brown's name. In the second panel, he hears her and says "Again, I can't believe it!" Lucy offers the regular scenario in the next panel. Charlie Brown refuses, eyes shut and mouth frowning. He takes up most of the foreground with Lucy small in the background, as we are given a close up of Charlie Brown's face. He looks dignified in his refusal and seems like he might actually refuse this year. But Lucy is ready; she has a document and by now we all now how much faith Charlie Brown puts in the written word. He should really read some Derrida. I suggest "Signature, Event, Context." Lucy tells him "You can't back out now . . . The Programs have already been printed." Charlie Brown turns back with a start, elbow pointed out, and says "Programs?" Lucy hands him a piece of paper. He then reads the program, with Lucy still small in the background, as if he could still walk away. He reads "At One O'Clock Lucille Van Pelt will hold the football and Charles Brown will run up and kick it." He starts to walk away but he is clearly now walking back to get the space needed to run up. He says "If the programs have already been printed, it's too late to back out . . . " Perhaps the formalism of his name--"Charles Brown"--convinced him of the truth of the program. "WHAM" He hits the ground hard; in the final panel he frowns, as double lines radiate from his eyes and a particularly intense pencil spiral (notice the dot at the bottom of it) topped by a star radiates upward from the area of his neck. Lucy leans a bit more forward than usual and says "In every program Charlie Brown, there are always a few last minute changes!" Like in the other document-based strips, Lucy is technically not lying to Charlie Brown. Derrida knows what to tell Charlie Brown. "Writing is read; it is not the site, 'in the last instance,' of a hermeneutic deciphering, the decoding of a meaning or truth." In other words, words can lie Charlie Brown. And maybe this is the appeal of written words, of documents, to Charlie Brown. Writing can lie while Lucy can tell the truth. She can hold the football and he can try to kick it.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Lucy, Charlie Brown, and 43 Footballs Part 3: 1965-1969

1965-1969: The Girl without Kaleidoscope Eyes

11. October 17, 1965

Lucy has turned this ritual into a yearly holiday as she calls out "It's that time of year again!" She sings with happiness in the first panel with an extended end note on her call to "Charlie Brown-n-n-!" She sings in the second panel as she sets up the football and awaits the answer to her call. "Tum Te Dum Te Ta De Dum" with a pair of linked eighth notes. When Charlie Brown appears and simply says "Okay!" to Lucy's entreaty, we can assume that this year he has a plan. And he does. He walks home and sits in a big comfy chair to make Lucy wait. "If I have to, I'll  sit here in the house until midnight and make her wait!" Lucy has the football set in the next panel, but she knows that something is wrong. Her mouth is a small straight line, and her eyes seem slightly unfocused as she looks silently at the football. Charlie Brown looks out his window, into the darkness, both hands pressed against the window. He is Franz Kafka's man looking out a window in hope of some connection. "Whoever leads a solitary life and yet now and then wants to attach himself somewhere, whoever, according to changes in the time of day, the weather, the state of his business, and the like, suddenly wishes to see any arm at all to which he might cling - he will not be able to manage for long without a window looking on to the street." He sees just what he hopes to see. The full moon has risen; under its light, Lucy still holds the football ready to be kicked, but her eyes are shut and there is a "Z" over her head. She is asleep. Charlie Brown sneaks out, checks that she is indeed sleeping and walks away gingerly to gain the space necessary for his run. As he runs he says "She really slipped up this time!" Lucy simultaneously opens her eyes, smiles, and pulls the football away. "WHAM!" In the final panel, she stands over Charlie Brown, who we can see from the zig zag of his shirt up to his head. Like in 1961, his head is turned outward; he frowns toward the reader, his plan ruined. Lucy looks down and says "We fanatics are light sleepers, Charlie Brown!" Was she truly asleep? Would Charlie Brown's plan have worked if he just been a little quieter in his run up to the football? Unlikely. But who is the fanatic? Fanaticism runs in the van Pelt family; think of all the Halloweens Linus has spent in a pumpkin patch awaiting the arrival of the great pumpkin. Think, too, though, of the number of times he has fallen asleep while waiting. Maybe fanatics are not light sleepers after all. One should also consider why Lucy defines herself as a "fanatic." The simplest answer might be that she feels a compulsion to celebrate this football ritual every year. Of course, Charlie Brown, in his desire to kick the football is also a fanatic. Is the whole football routine a secret ritual between two fanatics? Holidays have been established on less. As I write this, it is 27 days until Beethoven's birthday.

12. September 25, 1966
This year starts of in the realm of the mundane.  For the first time, Charlie Brown stands alone in the first panel. He utters a succinct "Oh, Brother!" The second panel changes the perspective so we can see that he has been looking at Lucy, who has the football ready. She simply asks "Well?" We can not see Charlie Brown's reaction. There is no argument, no attempt to convince. They both know what is about to happen. Lucy finally asks the question, "How about it, Charlie Brown?," with the now familiar grin that accompanies it. He crosses his arm in aggravation and Lucy resorts to a variation of her ploy from 1960. She tells Charlie Brown that only"an involuntary muscle spasm" will make her pull the ball away this year. She continues "the odds must be astronomical against such an involuntary muscle spasm occurring at the very moment you try to kick the ball. . ." Charlie Brown agrees and walks back and begins his run. "WUMP!"In the last panel Charlie Brown lies on his back, his head turned facing the reader, a pencil swirl of disorientation floating just above his ear. Lucy sits, her arm resting on the football, and produces a document from which she reads that the odds of an "involuntary muscle spasm occurring at that precise moment were ten billion to one!" Let us put aside the question of how Lucy was able to look up this fact and produce a document in the brief moment when Charlie Brown flies through the air and lands with a wump. More importantly, in the third to last panel, the one where Lucy pulls the football away, something happens for the first time in 1966. Lucy is not smiling. She looks perplexed; her mouth is a small line and her eyes look at Charlie Brown in the air with surprise. Every other year, Lucy has looked gleeful, with a smile, usually an open-mouthed grin on her face as she pulls the football away. She has only looked perplexed twice before, both in 1952 when she does not intentionally pull the football away. Even then, though, she grins at the result of Charlie Brown flat on his back. Here, her perplexed look continues as she reads aloud from her research in the final panel. Either Lucy is a very good actor, or she actually had an involuntary muscle spasm at the exact moment Charlie Brown tried to kick the football. By this point, though, we know that if Charlie Brown's and Lucy's actions are not voluntary, they are at least compulsory.

13. October 1, 1967

The summer of love has just ended and Lucy looks ecstatic as she holds the football with two hands and with eyes closed sings out "Charlie Brownnnnnn." She continues to smile as Charlie Brown heeds her call and responds "Oh, No . . . Not Again!? But Lucy tells Charlie Brown "I have a surprise for you this year." Charlie Brown holds his hand to his chin and smiles. He takes her promise of a "surprise" to mean "she isn't going to pull it away." He smiles in profile as he leans forward with determination as he walks away from the ball. He runs toward it, teeth bared in intensity while Lucy sticks her tongue out of the corner of her mouth, concentrating as she adjusts the ball. The Beatles released the song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" in 1967. John Lennon claims that the song's title has nothing to do with LSD. Instead, he found his inspiration in a drawing done by his three year-old son Julian. "My son came home with a drawing and showed me this strange looking woman flying around," Lennon said. When asked what the drawing was, Julian told him "It's Lucy in the sky with diamonds." Paul McCartney has compared Julian's drawing to a Chagall painting "with people floating around . . . I think it's something to do with kid's not realizing that people have to be put on the ground." Oh. Wait. Lucy is a child but she is not a flower child. She knows that people have to be put on the ground. Her surprise is of a different sort. The last panel shows us a television monitor connected to a camera. Lucy says, "And now for the surprise . . . Would you like to see how that looked on instant replay?" Charlie Brown lies on the ground like last year, a pencil swirl above his head. Even with the tools of mechanical reproduction at hand, neither Lucy nor Charlie Brown will be satisfied with the repetition of instant replay. They will come back, again and again, to produce both repetition and difference.

14. September 29. 1968

Once again cradling the football, Lucy gleefully sings out "Charlie Brownnnn" with three eighth notes in her speech bubble. We actually see Charlie Brown walking toward her this year in the second panel, even as he says "She must think I'm the most stupid person alive." After the usual exchange, Lucy tries a new appeal. "Don't I have an innocent look about me?" She leans on the football, looks up at Charlie Brown with a smile and continues "Look at the innocence in my eyes . . ." Charlie Brown is convinced. "She's right . . . If a girl has innocent-looking eyes you simply have to trust her . . ." But he does not look convinced. He says these lines with a neutral expression as he walks away from the football, standing straight and neither smiling nor frowning." He begins his run toward the ball with a determined look but with nowhere near the intensity of 1967. "Wham!" For the first time in a few years, Lucy leans over a prone Charlie Brown in the last panel. She tells him that what he has "learned here today . . . will be of immeasurable value to you for many years to come." Charlie Brown responds with a "Sigh!" He knows the game is not over. There are no high-growing flowers or rocking horse people here. It is a mistake to try to ground the kicking of the football in a world of love and innocence. Or is it?

15. September 28, 1969

In the most despairing and unrealistic opening panel yet, Charlie Brown stands in the shadow of a giant football at least three times his height. Panel two brings us back to the real world. Lucy holds a regular football and with a small grin simply calls out "Charlie Brown?"She doesn't sing or string out her pronunciation of his name. She makes the same proposition; Charlie Brown rejects her with the wave of a hand as he turns away. And then things really turn. Lucy turns her head toward the sky; her mouth becomes a gigantic black shape as she cries out "WAAH! YOU DON'T TRUST ME!"Charlie Brown stops abruptly and turns his head, seemingly in shock at Lucy's emotional reaction to his words. He kneels down next to here, arms out, and says "I'm sorry . . . Please don't cry." He begins to walk away, and stunningly, he says Lucy's words for her, with only a change in pronouns. "You hold the ball, and I'll come running up and kick it." In response, Lucy can only "Snif." The panel of Charlie Brown running toward the football is drawn smaller, as if from a further distance than usual. He says nothing as he runs. Lucy's smile returns as she pulls the football away. "WUMP!" Another pencil swirl floats above Charlie Brown's head, this time punctuated with a single star, he looks outward, confused, as Lucy leans in only slightly and says "Never listen to a woman's tears, Charlie Brown!" She offers him a variation on last year's point. The world is changing. Women and girls are neither innocent nor weak. The 1960s are over. The attempt to kick the football is not. And to jump ahead to the 1980s and 2010s for a moment, these 1960s strips show why putting Smith's lyrics into the voices of Peanuts characters is neither clever nor telling. I love the Smiths, but Charles Schulz had mastered maudlin irony long before Morrissey had ever found a job.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Lucy, Charlie Brown, and 43 Footballs Part 2: 1960-1964

1960-1964: From Epistemology to Legality

6. October 16, 1960

As Lucy promised just over a year ago, she sees Charlie Brown in the same place a year later. They both start coyly. Lucy holds the football and asks "Is that about right?" and Charlie Brown answers "Is that about right for what?," as if they both do not know what is about to unfold over the next few minutes. Charlie Brown resists and begins to walk away; Lucy pulls him back with a bit of statistical analysis. She tells him "The odds now are really in your favor!" Charlie Brown falls for it, even though you would think a baseball player would know what a small sample size is. He is about to make only his sixth attempt to kick the football. Odds account for chance occurrences. When Lucy says "One of these times I may not jerk the ball away!" This statement is true only in the sense that one of these times a bolt of lightning might strike her dead or a hole in the ground will open up and swallow Charlie Brown. Lucy has zero intention of not jerking the ball away. "WHAM!" Lucy has told a double truth. 1.) We are exactly back where we were a year ago when she promised to see him "next year". Charlie Brown lies prone looking up into Lucy's face while she holds the football in her left hand. 2.) She simply states "I'm sorry . . . this wasn't the time!" And it wasn't. They both know it never will be. And they both know they will be back next year.

7. September 10, 1961

Lucy starts with some complacency, asking the same question she asked last year as she positioned the football. "Is that about right?" Charlie Brown finds himself absorbed into the repetition. He cannot even get angry. There's no wide open mouth, no leaning aggressively forward and shouting. He turns away from Lucy, his mouth a straight line, and just thinks to himself "She must think I'm a complete fool!" He cannot even say it aloud. He knows there is no point. He walks away from the football and turns with grim determination, his teeth showing in an angry grin as he declares that he will not "be fooled" this year. He runs toward the football. But he is early. We are only in the middle of the strip. He stops his run short, just out of kicking distance. Lucy does not flinch. She says "Well?" Charlie Brown can only respond with a nonverbal "?" and a look of surprise as he holds his arms up at his sides as if he might take the next step necessary to be close enough to kick the ball. Lucy stares at him . Charlie Brown turns his head away and looks directly out at his invisible audience. His mouth is a short, straight line. The strip comes to a stop while we all wonder what will happen next. What will Lucy say to make him try again? She shames him. She's insulted. He walks away from the football chastened, a frown on his face and his hands in his pockets. As he starts his run back, Lucy asks him "Has your mind become so darkened with mistrust that you've lost your ability to trust people?" The combination of shame and the accusation of Charlie's Brown's lost trust in people works. He comes running in. "WUMP!" But,  as Lucy asks "Isn't it better this way Charlie Brown? Isn't it better to trust people?," the final panel undergoes a radical change from every past year. Charlie Brown does not look up at Lucy. He turns his head outward, once again towards the reader. And what do we see? His one hair is disheveled. Double lines radiate out from each eye. His collar is slightly askew. Has Lucy shaken him up with her questions. Is it better to trust people and accept the hurt they will inflict on you? In his turn away from Lucy, Charlie Brown deflects these questions to the readers of Peanuts. It is better this way. We will see you here again next year Charlie Brown.

8. September 30, 1962

Lucy starts off enthusiastically this year, waving the football and asking Charlie Brown if he is interested in "a little 'kicking-off' practice?" His subtle eye roll tells us he is not buying this offer. But he agrees to the normal terms, and says "Okay . . . It's a deal" when Lucy makes the same "I'll hold the ball [. . . ] offer of previous years. As he walks back to get the space needed to run up, he tries to outthink Lucy. He thinks she "has a different idea" to trick him by not jerking the football away. He states what he thinks he knows. "She knows I know she knows that I know she knows I know what she's going to do . . ." As he begins his run he gleefully declares "I'm way ahead of her!" But he could not be on shakier epistemological ground. Of course Lucy knows everything he knows. "WUMP!" Charlie Brown lands harder than he ever has before, the ground shaking his body so much that he is almost unrecognizable. Lines of force darkly flow out from his impact points and three stars of pain shoot upward. All he can do is lie prone and look up at Lucy's face as she tells him that she had known, and will always know, what he knows. This whole routine is not a battle of knowledge. Everybody knows that knowledge will produce the same result, again and again. No football will be kicked. In the words of the late Leonard Cohen, from a song not released until 1988, "Everybody talking to their pockets / Everybody wants a box of chocolates." Desire--Charlie Brown's to kick the football; Lucy's to jerk it away--drives this story. Or maybe, their collective desire is  to play out the scenario forever, with only minor variations. "Everybody knows the fight was fixed." But everybody still wants a box of chocolates, except for the coconut ones.

9. September 1, 1963

Here we return to the complacency of 1961. As Lucy asks if the football is "about right," Charlie Brown cannot even be bothered to move, let alone say or even think something. He stands immobile for the first three panels. He rejects her promise not to pull the ball away with a "Ha!" Lucy raises the stakes of trust with a handshake that will prove her "sincerity." As Linus could tell us, "sincerity" is an almost sacred concept in the van Pelt household, as he carries out his yearly failed search for the most sincere pumpkin patch from which to greet the Great Pumpkin. Charlie Brown can only get ready to kick the football after the handshake; he trusts fully in it as a social convention. "If someone is willing to shake on something, you have to trust her." "WUMP!" Charlie Brown is especially shaken up in the last panel. He no longer lies rigid like in previous years. His head bends forward, his chin on his chest. His arm rests on the ground, his shoulder hunched up near his ear. A spiral of pencil line above him signifies his disorientation. He is not even looking in Lucy's eyes when she says "A woman's handshake is not legally binding!" Is he shocked by her invocation of the questionable legality of handshakes? Or is he taken aback by Lucy's assertion that her gender makes her handshake  proof of nothing? According to the Catholic writer Barbara A. O'Reilly, who has studied women's contributions to Catholicism, Lucy may not be wrong in her statement. According to O'Reilly, "Lucy's remark is rooted in fact. In Biblical times . . a woman was considered 'a perpetual minor child,' and as such, was incompetent to give evidence in court and could not defend herself." Has Lucy been talking to her theologian brother? Regardless, Lucy has brought their discourse about the football into two realms that it will often return to: ancient religious law, and jurisprudence. In other words, she has called, among others, Franz Kafka onto the playing field. Lucy has also begun a long feminist game.

10. October 4, 1964

Lucy makes her usual offer and holds the football out to Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown responds, "you must think I'm really stupid." But Lucy has learned from her handshake agreement of 1963 and has come prepared. A sheet of paper lies on the ground in the first three panels. Lucy tells Charlie Brown that she knows "you don't trust me." In the fourth panel, she picks up the piece of paper. It is, as viewers of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown will surely remember, "a signed document testifying that I promise not to" pull the football away. She offers the document to Charlie Brown who responds with a "?" Nonetheless, he begins walking away from the football, a sure sign that he intends to gain the space needed to run up and kick it, at the same time he reads the document. As he begins to run toward the football, the signed document in his left hand, he assures himself "if you have a signed document in your possession, you can't go wrong." "WUMP!" Lucy's right hand covers the pulled away football, and the signed document gently floats down to her outreached left hand. Lucy avoids lying to him with another legal technicality. "Peculiar thing about this document . . . It was never notarized!" The final panel is noticeably different. Instead of standing over a prone Charlie Brown, Lucy kneels near him, the football on the ground at her side, and reads the document. Charlie Brown, like in 1961, turns his head outward. He looks resigned more than shaken up this time. Only one line borders each eye; his hair looks less disheveled. Most importantly, we see him "sigh" in a slightly deflated thought balloon, with pencil marks on either side of the "sigh." He is resigned toward Lucy's turn toward legalistic tricks, but he knows that she knows such tricks are not necessary. Lucy is making the game more elaborate; she seems to not want to lie to Charlie Brown, only to withhold a small piece of key information until it is too late to act on it. Before the law, stands a gate keeper, who will have a lot more to say. Charles Schulz has brilliantly laid the groundwork for 35 more years of this event.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Lucy, Charlie Brown, and 43 Footballs: The 1950s

1950s: Introducing the Return

1. November 16, 1952
It's Charlie Brown's idea to kick the football. Toddler Lucy, wearing a helmet, pulls the football away with no malice. "Whoomp." Charlie Brown says "Don't ever do that again." He falls again in the same strip. In the last panel, you can see in Lucy's eyes and mouth that she has an idea. Charlie Brown is content to lie on the ground.

2. December 16, 1956
Four years and one month later, Lucy has a plan and Charlie Brown does not trust her. He stoically says "No!" twice. But, he says "I can't resist kicking footballs." He runs with grim determination. Lucy, intent, pulls the football away with a "HA!". "WHAM." She laughs with glee; she clearly knows that all this will happen again. Charlie Brown is content to lie on the ground in nearly the same position he was in four years ago.

3. September 22, 1957
Less than a year later Charlie Brown more emphatically shout "NO!." Lucy is nonplussed. She brings up trust for the first time; her transparently phony smile works. Charlie Brown is becoming resigned. "All right," he says, as he starts his run. When he "WUMP!"s onto the ground he looks more resigned than in pain; his face shows a small frown. Even as Charlie Brown lies prone in a profile view for the third time, Schulz introduces a new element. Three beads of sweat fly from Charlie Brown's face. Lucy, no longer satisfied to leave the scene while Charlie Brown lies in wait for the end of the day or for a snow storm, leans over the prone Charlie Brown and tells him that he has an unspoken epistemology; he believes that "human nature" is something in which to have faith. This realization makes Charlie Brown sweat. No longer driven by the pure desire to kick the football of 1956, Charlie Brown becomes aware that he has fallen into a trap. He now both believes he will one day kick the football even as his sweating head tells him something else.

4. September 21, 1958
Charlie Brown, wearing a helmet and football pants, practices punting. Lucy, with her hands behind her back as if she is disinterested in what Charlie Brown is doing, watches him retrieve one of his punts and suggests that he try some "Place-Kicks." While Charlie Brown holds the football for the first time, she makes a promise of her "bonded word" to get him to turn over the football. Charlie Brown, still stuck in his epistemological belief in the truthfulness of "human nature" begins his run toward the ball. For the first time, he runs left to right, toward the interior of the final panels and not toward the exterior edge of the final panel where he has ended up every year so far. "WUMP!," then barely a frown. Charlie Brown lies prone on the left side of the final panel. Lucy leans over him from the right, boxing him in. Even if he wanted to get up, he'd have no place to go. Lucy takes advantage of this new arrangement and offers only a phatic comment that Charlie Brown's trust in her "is an inspiration to all young people," as if they are both not eight years old. Charlie Brown can only lie there and look up at the closeness of Lucy's face.

5. October 4, 1959
In panel two, Charlie Brown seems to be thinking about walking away, as Lucy stares at the back of his round head and formulates a plan. She chooses to start a wordy argument about trust, full of finger pointing and gesticulations on both their parts. She convinces him to try to kick the football with a bit of convoluted language. "I'm giving you a chance to learn to trust someone who is not trustworthy!" She convinces him that being more trusting, even of one unworthy of trust, will restore his faith in "human nature." And "WHAM!" it does; both Charlie Brown and Lucy know that human nature compels their repetitions: Charlie Brown runs toward the football; Lucy pulls it away; Charlie Brown falls prone on his back. As if to reinforce the now determined eternal return of these events, Lucy asks rhetorically, "See you here again next year?" Their bodily postures revert to their positions of 1959: Charlie Brown lying prone and resigned; Lucy, leaning forward so her face is directly above Charlie Brown's, looks into his eyes and becomes a Deleuzian Nietzsche. In essence, she tells him that they will find joy in beating back the chaos of the world with this yearly ritual. The look on Charlie Brown's face (the lines near his eyes and his absent mouth), paired with the rigidnesss of his body (his arm held out straight parallel to the ground, his feet perpendicular to the ground) show he has no choice but to agree to meet in the same place next year.

NEXT UP: The 1960s--Singing, the vastness of the world, feminism

Friday, November 10, 2017

Jeff VanderMeer's Radical Unknowing

Here is my Conference Paper from SLSA 2017
(it will be getting a lot of revision)

art copyright Theo Ellsworth

Jeff VanderMeer’s recent fiction, from the Southern Reach trilogy to Borne and The Strange Bird, breaks our current understanding of how to respond to ecological crises and rebuilds a speculative, immanent ecological politics, that is similar to those described by object-oriented and compositionist philosophers Timothy Morton and Bruno Latour, but unique in that it grows out of fiction.

Things become other things in Jeff VanderMeer’s fiction. Or it might be better to say that things are other things in Jeff VanderMeer’s books. I’ll start with four examples. A ghostbird. A strange bird. A bird watcher. A squid-like shape-shifting creature.

In Annihilation, the biologist thinks about the nickname bestowed on her by her husband: “Ghost Bird.” Inside Area X, “a ghost bird might be a hawk in one place, a crow in another, depending on the context. The sparrow that shot up into the blue sky one morning might transform mid-flight into an osprey the next. That was the way of things here” (Annihilation 110-111). Things are not themselves. A hawk is also a crow. Things do not stay the same. A sparrow becomes an osprey. Everything in Area X cannot be measured or pinned down.

In The Strange Bird, the titular animal flees a laboratory. Meeting a “flock of tiny birds,” (58) she quickly realizes that she is not just a bird. The flock “did not recognize her as kin. There was too much else inside her” (68). Three “living satellites” (78) that look like turkey vultures define the Strange Birds composition: “avian, overlaid with Homo Sapiens, other terrestrial life-forms. Unstable mélange” (109). She looks like a peregrine falcon. She dive bombs foxes. “Her feet ended in talons meant to rend, to slice, to tear. . . Her beak was sharp and curved” (109). Later, she becomes an invisibility cloak. Still later, she becomes four sparrow-sized birds, and then three die, leaving one small bird. 

In Borne, Mord is a giant flying bear who can drink toxic water. He is so large that humans scavenge through his fur while he sleeps. He has multiple names: “Seether. Theeber. Mord” (5). He has become “the de facto ruler” of the city (4). But he was not always a giant bear. Once, according to Wick, who knew Mord when they were much younger, “he liked bird-watching and we ate lunches together and he read so many books. He was curious about so many things” (Borne 249). Had he been human? Perhaps.

Rachel, the human narrator of Borne, finds Borne on one of her scavenging missions over Mord’s body. Borne might be the thing that is other things more than any other thing in VanderMeer’s fiction. He is a shape-shifting creature who looks like a sea anemone or a vase. He pulses, changing color and shape. He eats and grows. He resembles a plant (18). He mimics humans. He might be animal, vegetable, or biotechnology.

When Borne learns (or maybe he already knew how) to write, he writes about himself. “My name is Borne . . . My name is not Borne . . . I came here on Mord’s body . . . I did not come here on Mord’s body . . . I am human . . . I am not human . . . I was made by someone . . . I am not actually alive . . . I am a robot . . . I am a person . . . I am a weapon . . . I am not/intelligent . . . What if I cannot die? . . . What if no one made me?” (190). In VanderMeer’s fiction, all of these things are true about Borne. Or they could all be true. We can never really know. There is always a new context, a new transformation, a new perspective, a new thing. Things can change. Things are futural. Things are indeterminate, except when they are determinate.

When asked how he “describe[s] the indescribable,” (2) VanderMeer talks about the Southern Reach trilogy as “compositional” (2). Certain elements, such as backgrounds and mundane details must be “clear, crisp, well-defined” (2) “Precise detail” (2) must be used in developing character and perception, so that, eventually “the uncanny can lurch out across the landscape and contaminate the brain in the right way” (2). This “compositional” element applies to Borne and The Strange Bird. VanderMeer’s narrators “smell the pressed-flower twist of the salt” (Borne 3) of a tidal pool. His readers see “the rats in the walls, who were in the process of rewiring everything” (279). These details underlie the appearance of many-eyed sea creatures and giant flying bears.

These notions of composition and contamination are clearly central to VanderMeer’s fiction. They are also central to Bruno Latour’s re-definition of political ecology. For Latour, modernist notions of environmentalism must be abandoned because they rely on a human separation from nature. “The dominant, peculiar story of modernity is of humankind’s emancipation from Nature” (50). This emancipation is often characterized as progress, as a frontier spirit that seeks dominion over the environment. According to this logic, science will eventually explain the natural world. “A modernist, in this great narrative, is the one who expects from Science the revelation that Nature will finally be visible through the veils of subjectivity — and subjection — that hid it from our ancestors” (51). Thus, humankind will finally be able to emancipate itself from both nature and our own subjective perspective. Science will one day take the measure of all things.

Latour argues that such a viewpoint has always had a fatal flaw, namely “that we can never separate ourselves from the nonhuman world” (39) in any meaningful way. Such entanglements are both conceptual—“science, morality, religion, law, technology, finance, and politics”—and real—“the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in the space shuttle, and in the Fukushima nuclear power plant” (41). A strong political ecology would embrace attachment; it would not seek to “return to our narrow human confines, leaving the nonhumans alone in as pristine a Nature as possible, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa” (43). For Latour, pristine nature has always been a myth; human has always been entangled with non-human in a way that requires not separation, but close attention. The future of political ecology lies in paying more and more attention to these connections “at a greater and greater scale and at an ever-tinier level of intimacy requiring even more detailed care” (41).  Latour calls this attention a “compositionist” ethics, a means of “becoming ever-more attached to, and intimate with, a panoply of nonhuman natures” (48). Latour says that we should “love our monsters” unlike Dr. Frankenstein, whose “real sin” was precisely the abandonment of his “monster,” and not the “combination of hubris and high technology” he used to create him (45). Dr. Frankenstein failed when he thought he could run from his creation, when he could call it unnatural and separate from himself.

VanderMeer’s characters do not run from monsters. They embrace the natural and the unnatural, or maybe they do not make that distinction. Rachel, in Borne, notes that things had been different once. “Cities existed within countries and those countries had leaders” (37). But, in her present, she notes “how a slip could become a freefall and a freefall could become a hell where we lived on as ghosts in a haunted world” (37). There is nowhere to run. The biologist, known as Ghostbird, in Annihilation decides to stay in Area X.

These ghosts become an entry point for defining the subtle political ecology of VanderMeer’s work, especially as VanderMeer has talked about his own understanding of hyperobjects. In a published conversation with Timothy Morton, VanderMeer says, “after I wrote Annihilation, I started seeing reviews that mentioned your work in connection with it; that’s why I picked up Hyperobjects. . . the very term “hyperobject” kind of encapsulated what was going on organically in Annihilation” (interview). VanderMeer goes on to note that hyperobjects are “both concrete and abstract at the same time” and “Even as you define hyperobject, it oddly begins to slip away” (interview). In response, Morton says “it’s really to do with a sort of futural orientation. Something’s coming, but I can’t quite point to it, and I don’t know what it is. That’s why the word “hyperobject” is so interesting, because it’s like finally we’ve all got this word. It happened to me first, right? The word popped in my head before I actually knew fully what it was” (interview). At the risk of being glib, this conversation between VanderMeer and Morton suggests to me that the word “hyperobject” is itself a hyperobject. It resists definition but it changes the way one thinks. It is a human created concept but it only makes sense if one takes the nonhuman seriously. Hyperobjects are slippery in meaning, as VanderMeer says, but also in time and space, as Morton notes that something unknown is approaching. The word itself is infectious, it “popped” in Morton’s head and now “we’ve all got this word.” So what should we do with it?

We should run with it. Compositional hyperobjects are everywhere in VanderMeer’s fiction—the ever-expanding Area X, the city of Borne and The Strange Bird. Put simply, the setting of VanderMeer’s recent fiction is all compositional hyperobjects. Most of his characters, too, are compositional hyperobjects. Hyperobjects populated by hyperobjects. Futural. Present. Concrete. Abstract. Slipping away. Precise. Setting. Character.

Borne, the character, comes to exemplify what Isabelle Stengers calls “the art of paying attention.” As he learns to write, as he roams his poisoned world, as he mirrors Mord the giant bear, Borne pays careful attention to his world as he finds what Stengers calls “connections between what we are in the habit of keeping separate.” Borne becomes everything in Borne and then he nearly becomes nothing. Reading Borne calls for a reading after the end of the world that embraces what Borne writes in his journal as non-contradiction. “I am human. . . . I am not human.”

Reality is broken in VanderMeer’s fiction. The mysterious “Company” created the “dysfunction” that has ruined the world. The Company itself exists only as an abandoned compound of buildings at the end of Borne. The Southern Reach of the trilogy cannot contain the expansion of Area X. The world as a whole no longer makes sense. And here is VanderMeer’s ecological ethics. The world of his fiction does not make sense in precisely the way that the world we live in does not make sense. While writing The Southern Reach Trilogy, VanderMeer remarked “the entire time I’m writing this the hyperobject of global warming looms over me and shines through me and is all places and in all ways is shining out and looming over. How can it not be in the subtext
of much of what we write?” Likewise, he writes of how the Gulf of Mexico oil spill infected his dreams and then his fiction.

In a world of hyperobjects, VanderMeer’s fiction is realistic. Or, in worlds of hyperobjects, reality and VanderMeer’s fiction touch each other. There is a world of oil-spills and global warming. There is a world of Area X, and the destroyed city of Borne. They infect each other, contaminate each other, damage each other. They haunt each other with the indeterminant futural specificity of hyperobjects.  Morton, in trying to articulate the finitude of capitalism in order to think a different future, writes “it’s like figuring out that one is also a specter in a haunted house of illusions and specters.” If Ghostbird is a ghost, so am I when I read Annihilation. If Borne is alive and human and not human and a robot, so am I when I read Borne.

The last chapter of Borne is called, “How I Live Now.” In it, after contemplating the destruction wrought by Mord and Borne, Wick asks, “What now, Rachel?  . . . What do we do now?” She replies, “Whatever we want to do.” Borne is damaged: “weak, tiny,” unable to move or speak, now “a kind of plant, taking sustenance from the sun.” At the end of The Strange Bird, the narrative asks “For what are bodies? Where do they end and where do they begin? And why must they be constant? Why must they be strong?” The Strange Bird sings with joy to another bird, even as she had been winnowed, had “suffered” and “been reduced” (1152). Both books end not with devastation, but with cooperation. And cooperation is not an arbitrary endpoint. Morton writes,

“cooperation is the zero-degree, cheapest coexistence mode, something you rely on when all else fails. Mutual aid is not teleological.” (2869). Cooperation comes after capitalism, especially in its neoliberalist form. Morton argues that “the violence of neoliberalism is necessary to break through mutual aid to the extent that mutual aid is intrinsic to humankind” (2869).  Mutualism outlives survival of the fittest. Borne, unmoving and nonspeaking, and the Strange Bird, weak and broken, both exist to break their worlds.

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