It was the image that got me first: Charlie Brown as suffering Van Gogh, sans ear. As Randy Kennedy observes in the NY Times piece out today (“You’re a Good Prop, Cruel Muse”), if we need to see even Charles Schulz as tortured for his art, what exactly is the expected ratio of angst to art in a given genius?
Reviewing the new Michaelis biography of the Charlie Brown creator, Kennedy provides some wry, Romantic comparisons: “Stacked up against the sundry misfortunes that were courted by or fell on the heads of history’s best-known tortured artists — prostitute mothers (Jean Genet); drug addictions (Coleridge); physical deformities (Toulouse-Lautrec) — those that Mr. Michaelis describes in Mr. Schulz’s youth sound tame and sometimes a little silly.”
In a fit of pique, I once declared that if it hadn’t been for my stepfather drinking himself to death, I really wouldn’t have any claim to suffering at all as an artist. This defensive gesture is, of course, complete horseshit. Really? Only the marginalized get to be artists? Isn’t there room for creation of something beautiful or even painfully true without the hairshirt?
It seems like those with the fiercest demons compulsively mine their earliest troubles again and again. But part of me is skeptical. We so fetishize suffering, especially suffering that is authentically one’s own, that aren’t we simply training artists (and critics and readers) to wallow in their muck? Write what you know, but if what you know is middle-class white amiability, there’s no heat. If, like Charles Schulz, you experience the kind of misfortunes we all do and feel a general sense of restless gloom, then it’s important for your biographer to imply you suffered more deeply than we know. Or else your life’s work is not worth taking seriously (and he created comics — get it? The irony? Get it?).
I used to compulsively read Peanuts as a kid on the floor in my stepfather’s house. He had several volumes in the bookshelf; while not much of a reader himself, Mel had the complete Peanuts archives from the very first comic strip to the late 1980s. Did Charlie Brown, as George Saunders claims, prepare me for Beckett, for recursive absurdity and melancholy struggle? Perhaps Peanuts simply let me coexist with a tricky, loving drunk, when Lucy yanked away the football and Charlie Brown fell flat on his back, and my stepfather and I laughed with familiarity. And we moved on.
Lately, I’ve been absurdly happy, and not particularly motivated to write anything anywhere. It’s not just that I feel lately like I have nothing insightful to say; it’s also that this feels like a healthy realization. I want to create things I can be proud of, but I also want to enjoy this period of love, and place, and purpose.
Art is a thin blanket indeed if all we ask is that it describes our suffering.