James Thurber claimed that he first gained a sense of the surreal from hearing the cliches of his neighbors and family in Columbus, Ohio. In the world of his childish mind, men left town under actual clouds, and women existed who were literally all ears. Hearing about Mrs. Huston, who was all cut up when her daughter died, threw him into a panic: “I could see the doctors too vividly, as they set upon Mrs. Huston with their knives, and I could hear them. ‘Now, Mrs. Huston, are we going to get up on the table like a good girl, or will we have to be put there?’”
Well, for better or worse, I grew up in a world where nobody knew his neighbors; my relatives lived too far away for me to hear very regularly. But that didn’t mean that my imagination went undernourished, because I did have cartoons. They promised a world very different from the visible one, but not completely out of sync with the world of religion. One Walter Lantz Productions short borrows heavily from Genesis (and a little from Dante): Andy Panda, advised by the devil, steals some apples and dreams he is in hell, being force-fed the things until he bursts. Nobody who has seen a coyote recover from the impact for a falling anvil can disbelieve in the Resurrection totally.
This priming should explain my initial understanding of the Crucifixion, about which I learned from my father when I was six. Being Jewish, he was possibly the less reliable parent to consult on the subject of Jesus, but it wasn’t Jesus I was asking about. We were driving — he had the wheel — along the Garden State Parkway one Sunday afternoon, past one of those cemeteries that looked to have more permanent residents than Newark. I asked why so many of the headstones were shaped like crosses; he answered, “Because Jesus Christ died on the Cross.” I demanded details, and he delivered.
The story as I constructed it went something like this: Jesus, apparently something of an underdog, got in deep with a pilot named Pontius, who I pictured as a Lindberghian figure in goggles, jodhpurs and flowing scarf. Pontius the Pilot chased Jesus all over Judea — I could imagine the dust trails billowing behind them. Finding a cross growing in the middle of the desert, Jesus clambered up in hope of escape. Exactly what happened next I couldn’t quite make out. I guessed Pilot got Him down — and did Him in — with an axe or a armful of red sticks marked TNT.
Fortunately, cartoons and the cartoonish imagination are elastic, capable of absorbing any data and making it serviceable by the smallest of distortions. If you ever meet my mother, she will show you a drawing I made for Easter when I was seven. Since it shows Jesus expiring on the Cross, nailed on properly, his side gouged in the right spot, it looks like the result of proper catechesis — in artistic conventions, as well as in religion. Well, look again: coming from Jesus’ mouth is a speech balloon enclosing the words “OH, BROTHER.” I’m pretty sure this Jesus wasn’t addressing St. John the Beloved; instead, he was using the words in the sense of “Oy, vey!” or “Ma, che palle!” – that is, in the same way Boo-Boo Bear or Fred Flintstone would have used them.
I am quite sure Chesterton was on board. He preferred his art as bizarre and fanciful as he could make it — especially where animals were the subjects. In “A Piece of Chalk,” he writes of tramping out to the down with a sheet of brown paper and a handful of colored chalks. Rather than record nature, he improves on it:
When a cow came slouching by me in the field, a mere artist might have drawn it; but I always went wrong in the hind legs of quadrupeds. So I drew the soul of the cow; which I saw there plainly walking before me in the sunlight; and the soul was all purple and silver and had seven horns and the mystery that belongs to all the beasts.
Chesterton died in 1936. A year later, Daffy Duck debuted onscreen. A year after that, audiences first laid eyes on Happy Rabbit, Bugs Bunny’s immediate forebear. From here, the timing looks as tragic as Voltaire’s death before the Revolution.
From the very beginning, Chesterton showed signs of geeky fanboydom. At school, he seemed to wander about in a daze, tripping over his own huge feet — when none of his classmates was sticking out a foot to trip him. Sometimes in adulthood, mesmerized by the lights in train stations, he would forget where he was and where he was supposed to be going. At times, he seems to appreciate Christianity because it favors the outsized and grotesque over the mundane and conventional.
This is especially apparent in his life of St. Francis of Assisi. In words, he sketches a cartoon, a religious Robin Hood — a figure too inspired, too charitable, too chivalrous and brave for anyone to keep up with. If Chesterton took his Francis a little more seriously, he might have turned him into a superhero in the early DC Comics mold; but Chesterton can’t help dwelling — and fondly — on the absurdities in Francis’ life. He calls the episode where Francis returns from the Sultan’s camp with neither converts nor the martyr’s palm “a tragedy comedy called The Man Who Could Not Get Killed.” Am I the only one who remembers when Popeye and Bluto tried to top each other in harming themselves, hoping to serve sculptress Olive Oyl as a mode for a statue called “Pooped”?
Neil Postman would have no patience for any of this. In Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Entertainment, the NYU professor warned that television, which could not sustain truly rational discourse, was turning Americans into a nation of highly entertained but unthinking slobs. By his lights, Tom and Jerry, Bugs and Woody, had corrupted me early, wrecking my worth to the Republic long before I’d reached voting age.
Speaking generally on politics, Postman might have been overstating his case. Did rational discourse sway the nation in favor of Andrew Jackson? But on my cognition and my experience of Christianity, he might have a point. In the Catholic intellectual tradition, I’m told, faith and reason reinforce one another — swell. If those two have such a mutually supportive relationship, I’m happy for them and wish them the best. But when I brag on the reason part, I must sound like a man bragging on some local team he follows only through the box scores. When I thought I might be called to join the Dominicans, I found a copy of Summa Theologica online and started reading — the better, I figured, to get hip to the jive. After dragging my eyes through two summae, tops, I loaded Skype and called the Friars Minor.
The phone rang 14 times before the assistant to the vocations director picked up the phone. I’ll bet anything he’d been watching Fritz the Cat.