Umberto Eco Explains the Poetic Power of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts

eco loves peanuts

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons and Snoopy­’s YouTube Channel

Anthro­pol­o­gy, authen­tic­i­ty, medieval aes­thet­ics, the media, lit­er­ary the­o­ry, con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry, semi­otics, ugli­ness: the late Umber­to Eco, as any­one who’s read a piece of his bib­li­og­ra­phy (which includes such intel­lec­tu­al­ly seri­ous but thor­ough­ly enter­tain­ing nov­els as The Name of the RoseFou­cault’s Pen­du­lum, and the still-new Numero Zero) can attest, had the widest pos­si­ble range of inter­ests. That infi­nite-seem­ing list extend­ed even to com­ic strips, and espe­cial­ly Charles Schulz’s Peanuts (which did tend to fas­ci­nate literati, even those of very dif­fer­ent tra­di­tions).

Just over thir­ty years ago, the Ital­ian nov­el­ist-essay­ist-crit­ic-philoso­pher-semi­oti­cian wrote an essay in The New York Review of Books about what made that strip one of the most, if not the most com­pelling of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry.

“The cast of char­ac­ters is ele­men­tary,” writes Eco, rat­tling off the names and lat­er enu­mer­at­ing the res­o­nant qual­i­ties of Char­lie Brown, Lucy, Vio­let, Pat­ty, Frie­da, Linus, Schroed­er, Pig Pen, and “the dog Snoopy, who is involved in their games and their talk.” But from this sim­ple design aris­es a rich and com­plex read­er expe­ri­ence:

Over this basic scheme, there is a steady flow of vari­a­tions, fol­low­ing a rhythm found in cer­tain prim­i­tive epics. (Prim­i­tive, too, is the habit of refer­ring to the pro­tag­o­nist always by his full name—even his moth­er address­es Char­lie Brown in that fash­ion, like an epic hero.) Thus you could nev­er grasp the poet­ic pow­er of Schulz’s work by read­ing only one or two or ten episodes: you must thor­ough­ly under­stand the char­ac­ters and the sit­u­a­tions, for the grace, ten­der­ness, and laugh­ter are born only from the infi­nite­ly shift­ing rep­e­ti­tion of the pat­terns, and from fideli­ty to the fun­da­men­tal inspi­ra­tions. They demand from the read­er a con­tin­u­ous act of empa­thy, a par­tic­i­pa­tion in the inner warmth that per­vades the events.

In this sense, Peanuts suc­ceeds on the same lev­el as Krazy Kat, George Her­ri­man’s high­ly absurd, high­ly artis­tic, and enor­mous­ly respect­ed strip (though it some­times took up entire pages) that ran from 1913 to 1944. Thanks only to the ear­li­er work’s rig­or­ous adher­ence to themes and vari­a­tions, Eco writes, “the mouse’s arro­gance, the dog’s unre­ward­ed com­pas­sion, and the cat’s des­per­ate love could arrive at what many crit­ics felt was a gen­uine state of poet­ry, an unin­ter­rupt­ed ele­gy based on sor­row­ing inno­cence.” But Peanuts’ cast of chil­dren adds anoth­er dimen­sion entire­ly:

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.

They affect us because we real­ize that if they are mon­sters it is because we, the adults, have made them so. In them we find every­thing: Freud, mass cul­ture, digest cul­ture, frus­trat­ed strug­gle for suc­cess, crav­ing for affec­tion, lone­li­ness, pas­sive acqui­es­cence, and neu­rot­ic protest. But all these ele­ments do not blos­som direct­ly, as we know them, from the mouths of a group of chil­dren: they are con­ceived and spo­ken after pass­ing through the fil­ter of inno­cence. Schulz’s chil­dren are not a sly instru­ment to han­dle our adult prob­lems: they expe­ri­ence these prob­lems accord­ing to a child­ish psy­chol­o­gy, and for this very rea­son they seem to us touch­ing and hope­less, as if we were sud­den­ly aware that our ills have pol­lut­ed every­thing, at the root.

But the capa­cious mind of Eco finds even more than that in the out­ward­ly hum­ble Schulz’s work. If we read enough of it, “we real­ize that we have emerged from the banal round of con­sump­tion and escapism, and have almost reached the thresh­old of med­i­ta­tion.” And aston­ish­ing­ly, it works equal­ly well for all audi­ences: “Peanuts charms both sophis­ti­cat­ed adults and chil­dren with equal inten­si­ty, as if each read­er found there some­thing for him­self, and it is always the same thing, to be enjoyed in two dif­fer­ent keys.” And Schultz con­tin­ues, even six­teen years after his own death and the strip’s end, to show us, “in the face of Char­lie Brown, with two strokes of his pen­cil, his ver­sion of the human con­di­tion.”

You can read Eco’s com­plete essay, On ‘Krazy Kat’ and ‘Peanuts,’ over at The New York Review of Books.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Charles Schulz Draws Char­lie Brown in 45 Sec­onds and Exor­cis­es His Demons

Umber­to Eco Dies at 84; Leaves Behind Advice to Aspir­ing Writ­ers

Umber­to Eco’s How To Write a The­sis: A Wit­ty, Irrev­er­ent & High­ly Prac­ti­cal Guide Now Out in Eng­lish

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.