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Sartre & Peanuts

Nathan Radke claims that Charlie Brown is an existentialist.

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.

Poor Charlie Brown. He waits 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 stomach ache.

When we are exposed to something every day we can eventually lose sight of its brilliance. 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. Is there any philosophical insight that can be gleamed from such a mainstream and common source?

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. 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 don’t 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.

This mixture of Biblical teaching and existential thought is not uncommon. The Danish Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was one of the first existentialists, and his religious beliefs impelled his philosophy, rather than limiting it. 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.

It should also be noted that while 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.

In order to identify examples of Schulz’s philosophy, a bumper-sticker version of existentialism should prove helpful. In his seminal 1946 work L’Existentialisme 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).

An ideal example of abandonment is the relationship between Linus and The Great Pumpkin. Every Halloween, Linus faithfully waits by a pumpkin patch, in the hopes that he will be blessed with the holy experience of a visitation by The Great Pumpkin. Of course, The Great Pumpkin never shows up, and He never answers Linus’ letters. Despite this, Linus remains steadfast, even going door to door to spread the word of his absent deity. Does The Great Pumpkin exist? We can never know. But from an existential point of view, it doesn’t matter if he exists or not. The important thing is that Linus is abandoned and alone in his pumpkin patch.

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. 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, Lucy’s 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. Good questions.

Another key aspect comes from this monstrous freedom that abandonment allows, and this aspect is despair. In a nutshell, 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? To answer this, Sartre examines the characteristics of cowardice and bravery. When Sartre describes the position that opposes his own, we can see how it may be comforting to not be responsible for one’s creation:

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.
(Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism 1957)

It is this very possibility that causes despair. Why does Charlie Brown tear himself into knots over 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 school yard, Charlie Brown’s despair threatens to leap right off the comic page. He isn’t suffering because he can’t help her, but because he could help her, but won’t: “Why can’t I rush over there and save her? Because I’d get slaughtered, that’s why...” When Linus helps her out instead, thereby illustrating his freedom of action, Charlie Brown only becomes more melancholic.

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 ...” It is only by falsely denying his freedom that Charlie Brown can overcome his despair. But by hiding behind bad faith, he does himself no favours. Another lunch hour is spent alone on a bench with a peanut butter sandwich.

Existence is problematic and disturbing. In one weekend strip, Schulz succinctly describes the horror of discovering one’s own existence in the world:

Linus: I’m aware of my tongue ... It’s an awful feeling! Every now and then I become aware that I have a tongue inside my mouth, and then it starts to feel lumped up ... I can’t help it ... I can’t put it out of my mind. ... I keep thinking about where my tongue would be if I weren’t thinking about it, and then I can feel it sort of pressing against my teeth ...

Sartre devoted an entire book to this experience – his 1938 novel Nausea in which his character Roquentin is alarmed to discover his own actuality. But Linus sums the point up very well in a few frames.

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 pitcher’s 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.

Schulz should be considered part of the generation of authors who saw active duty during World War II; he is in the company of writers such as Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, and of course Sartre himself. 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.

While it is difficult to say what Sartre would have thought of Peanuts, we do know what Schulz thought of Sartre: “I read about him in the New York Times, where he said it was very difficult to be a human being, and the only way to fight against it is to lead an active life – that’s very true.” If any character has shown us the difficulties in existence, it is Charlie Brown

© NATHAN RADKE 2004

Nathan Radke teaches workshops and tutorials in philosophy at Trent University in Peterborough, Canada.

All quotations in this article come from the following books:
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.

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