Silent Third Panel

Wednesday, February 1st, 2017 Cartoons / Writing

As I look (again) at Peanuts—the entire 50-year-project, and its astonishing achievement—I’m noticing new things. I’ve learned, for example, about how everyone credits Schulz with inventing not just the classic four-panel gag strip but the crucial innovation of the “silent” third panel, which Garry Trudeau (whose style I appropriate here) and Bill Watterson (whom I discuss here) and Johnny Hart and so many others have mimicked. (Someone’s got a website just about silent third panels.)

I seized on the below strip because, this time through, I’ve been noticing the sheer force of the characterizations—for example, I’ve come to the conclusion that Lucy is maybe his greatest creation, in terms of depth and complexity (I think somebody else like Jules Feiffer said the same thing)—and I’m realizing anew that what I’ve always loved about Sally is how unabashedly stupid she is. Other characters have moments of slowness or confusion, as manifested (especially) by school problems—Schulz was actually an unusually sharp critic of the now-discredited “new math” teaching system, and, in general, sympathetic to the difficulty of receiving formalized instruction even for the sharpest amongst us—but Sally goes beyond this: she’s a beautiful expression of that sheer, belligerent opacity that only the truly dull-witted have…the refusal to even consider that they might learn or absorb something; the resignation or even contentment in the face of the certain knowledge that they will go through life fundamentally baffled. This strip (June 6th, 1967) seemed, now, like the best example of this I’ve seen:


But as I kept staring at it, I became puzzled and then fascinated—I realized that I’d been missing something, not just about this strip but about the characterizations and the ideas themselves. The more I focus on the “joke,” the more I realize there’s an entire second-level meaning; a “Fool on the Hill” zen clarity and brilliance to Linus’ question and, especially, Sally’s answer. I don’t just mean the cliché of profundity emerging through the pursuit of seemingly naïve or dumb inquiries (Einstein asking “What would I see if I ran along a beam of light?” which sounds like Rod McKuen but is actually the thread that, when pulled, leads to General Relativity) or Art Linkletter’s treacly “Kids Say the Darndest Things” vaudville (which is, of course, exactly the kind of Family Circus horror that Schulz spent fifty years forcibly eradicating). The contemplation Sally engages with in that third panel is not so much Existential as Phenomenological; there are echoes of Husserl in her probing of her own experiential lexicon and the dissatisfaction that results. But her final question goes further back through intellectual history: it’s not just zen, it’s Socratic. Linus’ Nietzschean desire for an Eternal Return, a triumphant rebirth as enlightened superman, is checkmated by the simplicity of her Classical inquiry (as Leon Kass remarked in my “Genesis” class at Chicago, “Nietzsche can’t escape the clutches of Aristotle”).

And where are Linus and Sally standing and why are they there? It’s a blank, Samuel Beckett landscape, complete with hapless, baffled interlocutors pinned eternally in place: Like Vladamir and Estragon, the Peanuts cast lives outside of time, never aging, with no beginning and no end—Linus can’t start over; his immortality traps him even more than our own (or Schulz’) finite lives. (As Jerry Seinfeld said of Pop-Tarts, “They can’t get stale because they were never fresh.”) The more I think about this strip, the deeper and heavier it gets: an avalanche of meaning in these four minimalist drawings and those 25 words. The towering genius of Charles M. Schulz endures—and the fact that it’s carried forward not in scholarly texts or museums but in newsprint, sweatshirts, beach-towels and mugs makes it all the more impressive and indelible.