“Bobby, you’ve been looking peculiar”

“Bobby, you’ve been looking peculiar” August 18, 2012

After the song above, Amy can’t decide whether to go through with her wedding, and decides to call it off (“I’m sorry, Paul.  I don’t love you enough“).  After her about-to-be-husband walks out of the room, she turns to Bobby for validation, asking, “What did I just do?”

Bobby, looking a little panicked, scrunched up against a wall replies,”You did what you had to do, I guess.  If it was right, you would have gone through with it.  That’s what I think.”

(So yes, we interrupt this Sondheim Symposium on marriage for a little discussion on epistemology).

Bobby’s position is a kind of Panglossian optimistism.  He seems to be claiming that every decision is the correct decision, even if the derivation of the decision isn’t clear.  Maybe his unexamined premise is that the human mind is pretty good at noticing and weighting the ‘intangibles’ subconsciously.  (Just before she tells Paul to go, Amy confesses she’s afraid, but not sure of what).  I thought Bobby’s approach was an interesting counterpoint to the emotions are data pitch I found persuasive at Rationalist Minicamp.  While my fellow and campers were told to use and evaluate our reactions, Bobby seems to take them as revelation.

A homunculus is a popular shorthand for our emotional instincts (so is ‘lizard brain’ but it doesn’t sustain a metaphor as well).  I have an unfortunate tendency to see my relationship with the homunculus as a fight, where I’ve got the best chance of preserving my agency and identity if I can pen it up somehow.  The minicamp lesson suggested that you could use its input in your decisionmaking process without losing your ‘self,’  basically putting it in a counselor role.  But Bobby seems to put the homunculus in the driver’s seat.

I don’t think Bobby is making a strong philosophical claim that his instinctive, system one self is the ‘real Bobby’ and deserves the reins.  Bobby probably still views his conscious, commenting self as him, but, he’s content to remain a spectator.  Identity doesn’t imply agency.  Bobby spends a lot of time taking himself out of the action in the musical, and his reassurance to Amy seems to show us how deadening that attitude feels like from the inside.  His detatchment makes it much harder to for him to notice if he’s confused or choose to change his life.


Points to anyone who does a Bobby-related cogsci relyricization of this verse of Joanne’s “Ladies who Lunch”   I was going to take a crack at it, but my parents are in town and the time got away from me.

And here’s to the girls who just watch–
Aren’t they the best?
When they get depressed,
It’s a bottle of Scotch,
Plus a little jest.
Another chance to disapprove,

Another brilliant zinger,
Another reason not to move,
Another vodka stinger.
I’ll drink to that.

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  • Surrendering to the homonculus is often an excuse for doing what you know you shouldn’t. Cf.:

    Bobby spends a lot of time taking himself out of the action

    If the conscious self is so helpless, it sure spends a lot of time in control.

  • James

    I have grown to have the tendency to mistrust my reactions and tend to reflect often to the point of not reacting in a timely manor not that I think this is what bobby is doing here I guess I leash my lizard brain and smother the homunculus .

    • Emily

      ha, I like your wording.

  • I don’t think Bobby would necessarily universalize this approach to other decisions. He could just be full of romantic ideas about true love being an all-conquering emotion. So if it doesn’t conquer pre-maritial panic it doesn’t count as real in the first place.

  • Emily

    I somehow think for that kind of major decision (not every decision in life, but big ones like calling off a wedding), by the time you manage to overcome all the resistance to acting on a scary decision and DO it, it feels inevitable because you already made the decision itself. I haven’t seen the musical but I think IRL, these decisions are not snap decisions, they’re ones that people steel themselves for, consciously at some level. Still, if something sits in your head for a long time, then changing reality through something as simple seeming as performative speech can seem shocking, I’m sure. Maybe it’s less of a homunculus-vs-identity issue and more of a question of how we persuade and manipulate our conscious selves, which I’m not even sure how to get into, as that presumes some kind of split consciousness (why would your self protect your self from something scary?).

    • Ted Seeber

      I’ve never quite understood why marriage is scary. Especially since historical experience, as opposed to dramas like Soundheim (and to reference the next post with a single comment, Shakespeare), teaches us that the most fulfilled people in the end, are those that are able to be monogamous over an entire adult lifetime.

      It seems to me to throw that away over anything short of physical spousal abuse, is short sighted and stupid.

      • It’s the, “what if I am choosing the wrong person?!” that is scary. Especially for those of us to take the idea of marriage being LIFE-LONG as serious. 60 years is a long time to be married to someone you don’t really like much, or someone who doesn’t really like you much.

  • deiseach

    Looking at Amy, she seems to be putting too much emphasis on the importance of her marriage; she realises it’s a big decision that is really life-changing, but all the pressure and expectations heaped on (as symbolised by the guests and the list of wedding presents, and the chorister singing about the “pinnacle of life” and her fiancé who needs her to find his shoes for him and then cheerfully declares he is going to dedicate the rest of his life to her) – it’s too much.

    Which is why she’s probably right to call off the wedding now (I don’t know about permanently), but it’s also why I don’t believe in this One True Love business. Amy is crumbling under the weight of trying to live up to all the expectations, which she knows (because we’ve all, or most of us, come from families where our parents were married so we know what marriages and family life look like frm the inside) is not the dream of bliss and unity that it is presented as, and she knows that she can’t be that person, but what she doesn’t understand is that she doesn’t have to be – she does not have to be The Perfect Wife, she does not have to be the Soulmate, the One True Love – and neither does Paul. I don’t believe in the One True Love because I think there are plenty of people out there anyone can love if one relationship breaks down; as the saying has it, there’s plenty more fish in the sea.

    There isn’t any such thing as “loving you enough”, if we’re talking of a notional romantic measurement of absolute devotion and romantic dedication. If she loves him as much as she’s able, that may be enough for a marriage and a life together. What Bobby is doing – I’m not sure what he’s thinking. He sounds, on the face of it, to be giving his opinion but he’s really shoving the decision back to her – if it doesn’t feel right, you’re the one who would know. That way, he can’t be blamed by their friends whatever happens: “Why on earth did you encourage her to break off/go ahead with the wedding?”

    They’re both reacting on the basis of fear: Amy is panicked and anxious and fearful of being so intimately involved in another person’s life when she can’t run her own, and Bobby is afraid of being roped in to give a definite answer one way or the other which will leave him open to blame if it’s perceived to have given Amy the wrong advice. So he’s going with the “Only you can decide what’s right for you” nostrum.

    There’s a lot of emotion stewing in that scene, and a corresponding lack of any evaluation and stepping back to look at it calmly.

    • Kristen inDallas

      Yeah there are always more fish in the sea… but the thing is either none of them will satisfy you, or most any of them could. It all has to do with appetites. I think there is such a thing as not loving someone “enough.” It’s anytime you love someone else less than your own ego. It generally has nothing to do with the other person and more to do with the person making the judgement. If she doesn’t “love him enough” she’s probably right, but I’d see it more as a reflection on her own readiness for marriage than on whether or not he’s the right guy. And that’s how I take Bobby’s comment here.

  • “Bobby probably still views his conscious, commenting self as him, but, he’s content to remain a spectator…His detatchment makes it much harder to for him to notice if he’s confused or choose to change his life.” – I think that pretty perfectly sums up the character of Bobby throughout most of Company.

    And on a semi-related note, I think this theme of detachment versus connection is also present in “Lesson #8” from Sunday in the Park with George.

    • leahlibresco

      And in “Finishing the Hat” from the same show, where George can only connect with representations of people that he can alter.

  • It seems like an overstatement to argue that Bobby is “claiming that every decision is the correct decision, even if the derivation of the decision isn’t clear. ” What he seems to be (tentatively) validating is a model that privileges emotional reservations about a particular decision: “If it was right, you would have gone through with it.” Which is to say, if it had *felt* right you would have gone ahead and done it. However, it might be too quick of a jump to move from an assertion that you shouldn’t do things that you don’t feel “right” about to a much larger assertion that you should always follow your emotions. I don’t see Bobby arguing that you should do something merely because it feels right. In fact, it might be this more limited validation of emotional data that causes the uncertainty (and even paralysis) that plagues Bobby through much of the musical.

  • Scott Gay

    As for Bobby or the ladies who lunch and their spectatorship, it seems they are stuck in a loop- it most reminds me of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, Chapter II, where he takes the circle as the symbol of madness and reason, and the cross as the symbol at once of mystery and health.

  • When I was about 20 my father told me the most important decision I’d make was whom I’d marry. He was almost right: it was #2. Good on Amy for being careful.