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Monday, November 01, 2004

Sometimes You Get Rocks

Assorted Children: I got a candy bar! I got some gum! I got marshmallows! I got three pieces of licorice!

Charlie Brown: I got a rock.

It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is, without doubt, my favorite holiday cartoon. I adore A Charlie Brown Christmas--it's a masterpiece, indisputably--but as profound and sweet as it may be, Great Pumpkin is just too plain funny and truthful to be bear. It's the unapologetic random injustice suffered by Charlie Brown while trick-or-treating that lifts the cartoon into genius. Why does he get rocks? Is it because his shoddy costume reveals him to be an incompetent, worthy of derision? Is it because he's recognized, and all of Lucy Van Pelt's friends and friends' parents join in treating him shabbily? No--it's just because Charlie Brown gets rocks, while other kids get treats. That's how it is. Some people--indeed all people, at one point or another--just get rocks.

It was a rocky Halloween this year. For some reason Megan, who had been so enthused and excited about her rather unique costume (since she has red hair she decided to be Ginny Weasley, whereas every other Harry Potter fangirl chooses Hermione), suddenly became self-conscious, and didn't want to wear the beautiful red and yellow Gryffindor scarf which her aunt had sewn for her, or indeed go out at all. The fact that Halloween fell on a Sunday in a city where a good many local Christians thought a Saturday celebration was more appropriate (and which actually took place in most of the smaller towns around us) made some things complicated. Plus it's been hot and overcast and rainy (which means our pumpkins rotted extra fast), and we've all been sick too boot. Overall, this particular holiday didn't work out anything at all like the way one imagines it should have: taking our costumed children out on a cool evening and marching them through crunchy orange and brown leaves and all that.

For someone who takes holidays as seriously as I do, this was a bummer. Holiday traditions are not just a lot of fun; they're a way of marking time, of moving oneself and one's children through life with other people and sense of history and all the rest. Not that any of us necessarily draw a lot of moral sustenance from Halloween, but the harvest imagery, the stories, the jack-o-lanterns, the costumes and parties and tricks and candy--they all add up, and add something to living through another October together. When that addition doesn't happen that way one wants it to--when indeed, on the contrary the holiday itself ends up being just big subtraction and distraction--it's easy to get upset with tradition itself, and all the expectations it carries with it. To hell with Halloween! By the time Saturday night rolled around and we got our girls asleep, I just wanted to wake up and have it be Monday. Forget about it this year.

There's a parallel between this way of thinking about tradition and a common way of thinking about communities in general. Christopher Lasch discussed it in several places, particularly in his book The True and Only Heaven, when he launched an attack on sociological communitarianism, which he thought to be simply drenched with a helpless nostalgia and longing, a Gemeinschaftsschmerz, for the long, precapitalist, traditional community. More than a few enemies of traditionalism have employed Lasch's critique for their own ends, painting socialists and communitarians as equally hung up on, or driven to distraction by, the problematic fact of modern "society," and ultimately falling into the trap of wanting to use the state to prop up some kind of idealized economic or cultural alternative (whether communal or hierarchical). This is not entirely fair of Lasch, and counterproductive to his case against progress as well--his populism was a lot more communitarian than otherwise, after all. But his distinction between popular "memory" and sociological "custom" is an important one nonetheless:

The distinction between memory and custom can be elaborated by addition a further distinction between action and behavior. Whereas every action is unique and idiosyncratic, behavior falls into patterns that repeat themselves in a predictable fashion. Action, where it is reckless and impulsive or deliberate and discriminating, is the product of judgment, choice, and free will, whereas behavior is automatic and reflexive....[L]iterary representations of small-town life often fall into a kind of sociological style of thought, concerning themselves with...repetitive cycle[s]....In other words, they concern themselves with behavior as opposed to action.

What does this have to do with holidays? Only this: that should our celebrations ever stop finding their significance in our memories through their "idiosyncrasies," they will have stopped having a significance with in any way respects human beings as agents, capable of recognizing, as Lasch put it, "the ironic disjunction between intentions and results." You invest a lot of effort into your daughter's Halloween costume, and two days before the holiday she becomes embarrassed by it. It happens; it's unpredictable and human. To feel that such a (small) debacle means Halloween, or any other holiday, or any traditional event for that matter, "failed"--didn't add anything to our lives, failed to mark the passage of time, screwed up some necessary ritual order, or just was no damn fun and hence worthless--is to feel a merely repetitive and "customary" attachment to said tradition: it's not working on your memory, it's just become part of the furniture of the world, something you don't think about. Of course, we all fall into repetition and custom with great frequency; probably most holidays, and most ordinary days too, would come to a complete cropper, without our predictable adherence to innumerable unthought behaviors. But when something that you're acting on--a costume, a dinner, a ritual, a conversation--just falls apart....well, Lasch reminds us that the problem with certain forms of nostalgia is that they fail to recognize that the falling apart itself is part of the whole lived event. Maybe you miss out on the sought-for feeling, but then again, maybe the seeking for the feeling was more important, in terms of honoring and being added to by the holiday, than that which was actually felt. Just because Charlie Brown got rocks doesn't mean he didn't go trick-or-treating. Sometimes you get rocks.

So, we got rocks this year. And now it's November, and tomorrow's Election Day. Another holiday, of a sort. Hope that one doesn't turn out to be rocky as well.


Anonymous said...

Maybe marriage is like that; when it doesn't last, when you get 'rocks', you think 'okay, it didn't turn out like it was supposed to turn out' but that doesn't mean the marriage wasn't a marriage any less. Or romance for that matter; you rush headlong into a relationship looking for that flash and fun of love and you end up with rocks sometimes instead. But the fact that you got rocks doesn't mean that it will always be rocks so you keep trying - or in other words, you keep trick-or-treating - because you know at some point it just might be you that gets the three pieces of licorice.  

Posted by julieann

Anonymous said...

Last week I watched the "Great Pumpkin" Charlie Brown for the first time in probably 25 years -- and I was shocked at how awful it was. Pure hostility and cruelty from the first scene to (almost) the last. What amazes me is that this is what I (and so many others of my generation [I'm 35]) was raised on -- and watching it now, I thought: a kid raised on this would think of the world as a nasty and vicious place in which your "friends" readily mock and humiliate you. Nice. Real nice. Or so it seemed to me and my wife. 

Posted by Damon Linker