The Genius of Peanuts

In the NYRB of 1985, Umberto Eco explores Peanuts (and Krazy Kat, which I’ve never read).

I find that literary criticism is at its worst when it makes an argument from authority and deep knowledge: “I am right because I am important and by the way look at this list of books I’ve read!”

Brutal.

On the other hand I love literary criticism which argues out of a sense of intimacy. Umberto Eco wrote this essay because he really loves Peanuts and it’s important to him that you come to love Peanuts, and for the right reasons. This kind of enthusiasm is infectious, which is why Harold Bloom’s Anatomy of Influence inspired my new Shakespeare book club. All of which is to say I want to go read some Charlie Brown adventures.

You should read the whole review but here are some fun parts:

 

The poetry of these children arises from the fact that we find in them all the problems, all the sufferings of the adults, who remain offstage. These children affect us because in a certain sense they are monsters: they are the monstrous infantile reductions of all the neuroses of a modern citizen of industrial civilization…

Charlie Brown has been called the most sensitive child ever to appear in a comic strip, a figure capable of Shakespearean shifts of mood; and Schulz’s pencil succeeds in rendering these variations with an economy of means that has something miraculous about it…

Aware of his vocation for the abyss, Pig Pen turns his plight into a boast; he speaks of the dust of centuries, an irreversible process: the course of history…

Snoopy knows he is a dog: he was a dog yesterday, he is a dog today, tomorrow he will perhaps be a dog still. For him, in the optimism of the opulent society in which one moves upward from status to status, there is no hope of promotion…

In this encyclopedia of contemporary weakness, there are, as we have said, sudden luminous patches of light, free variations, allegros, and rondos, where all is resolved in a few bars. The monsters turn into children again, Schulz becomes only a poet of childhood. We know it isn’t true, and we pretend to believe him. In the next strip he will continue to show us, in the face of Charlie Brown, with two strokes of his pencil, his version of the human condition.

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