Calvin And Hobbes: The Anti-Romantic Childhood
Through the turbulent times and fractures of a busy modern world, the only refuge remains the pristine image of one’s own childhood. The childish adventures and fantasies occupy the easiest escape from the matured world. In the contemporary world, the phase of childhood comes to be believed as one which is known from time immemorial and considered natural. However, the serious debates in 60’s questioned this axiom. French social historians like Aries argued that the concept of childhood was unknown to a pre- modern world before 1600 and claimed as an artifact of modernity.
The modern “discovery of childhood” begins to grow significantly noticeable only by the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Although subsequent studies have altered some of Aries’s conclusions, his basic contention that childhood is as much a cultural construct as a biological construct still holds strong. The eighteenth century England witnessed what J.H. Plumb, the British historian calls an influx of a “new world of children” with kid’s accessories and leisure, at least among the middle and upper classes. The notion of the child as distinct and unique, qualitatively different from the adult becomes an imperative idea only with Rousseau’s philosophical novel/educational treatise. He asserted child as “incorrupt soul” as opposed to the ‘sinful child’ of Christian thoughts. In Emile, Rousseau argues, Nature wants children to be children before being men. If we want to pervert this order, we shall produce precocious fruits which will be immature and insipid and will not be long in rotting….. Childhood has its own ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling which are proper to it. Nothing is less sensible than to want to substitute ours for theirs, and I would like as little to insist that a ten-year-old be five feet tall as that he possess judgment.
These ideals permeated into the expedition of ‘the child’ in English history with romantic era setting the discourse on childhood and ‘the child’ captured the centre of narrative of desired ideals. Horace Elisha Scudder in 1885 declared that 19th century was an age of exploration with Wordsworth, the principal explorer through Romantics. They “discovered as no one had done before, childhood as distinct, individual element of human life”. He declared that, the discovery of this new continent of childhood by such explorers of the spiritual world marks the age as distinctly as the discovery of new lands and explorations in the earlier renaissance. It was indeed one of the great signs of the period ushered in by the French Revolution and the establishment of the American republic, that the bounds of the spiritual world were extended. The idea of childhood was supplanted through the works of Lake poets and progressed in the works of De Quincey and essays of Lamb. It is worth to codify the romantic vision of childhood from the writings of these Romantic writers. The Romantic discourse of Childhood invented “the Quintessential Child” with certain idyllic traits that produced and naturalized “The Child” as both the normative human being and also the fetishized “sublime object” that deploys multiple cultural fantasies. Also, the romantic discourse placed childhood as a state well distinct from adulthood. However, though adults are differentiated among themselves, childhood attains an ungendered, single representation which was indicated through the use of the definite article and privileged by capitalizations, “The Babe leaps up on his mother’s arm”, “Blest the infant Babe”, “behold the Child”. Hartley Coleridge supported the idea in his poem “To Dear Little Katy Hill”, “all babies are so much alike, ‘Twere easier far to single out a spike”. Childhood was marked distinct from adulthood unblemished from the darker traits of adult. Rousseau’s ‘the child of natural innocence and purity” was co-opted by English Romanticists and in European paintings children came to be depicted outdoors often close to animals and nature.
Later James Kincaid in his study of the images of children identified this singular child with “the breathing image of the life of Nature with the undifferentiated life force”. Equating childhood with the realm of nature essentializes child as a figure of nature rather than culture. For romantics, the nature presents the fountain of imagination and the source of life. Wilderness, ruggedness and virgin forests inspire the Romantics who value the immutable laws of nature than the social laws. It is evident in Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is a society, where no one intrudes,
By the deep sea and music in it’s roar
I love not the man the less, but nature more (Canto IV section 178).
Byron’s choice here of nature over man, solitude over society and experience and emotion over intellect and thought encapsulate the essence of English Romanticism. Wordsworth too, places his childhood images in the lap of the boundless nature, where wanderings transpired in them the intangible lessons of life and experiences. Thus Romantics places the ideal of childhood interlinked with that of nature. Childhood and nature were seen by the romantics to embody many of the characteristics they valorised in their reaction to enlightenment or ‘hegemony of reason’. The romantic preference for feeling, imagination, intuition, freedom, naturalness, uniqueness, spontaneity, excess, beauty and sublime, led them to focus on child as a force of nature. This association of child and nature renders a conflict with the institutionalized education system. Hartley maintains a nightmare vision of modern mechanized child rearing — “A single engine will put in motion as many cradles as spindles; and official nurses, appointed by the committee will sing ‘Songs of Reason’ to the grinding of a steam apollicon”. In Prelude Wordsworth fears the “monster” out of such an education system of reason. They preferred placing the child “removed and to a distance that was fit” to aid their own development. Wordsworth focuses on solitary children merged onto a landscape – Lucy, the idiot boy, Ruth, The Highland Boy, The Norman Boy, the boy of the Winander, the Danish Boy. Thus solitude becomes the landscape of Childhood and its silence becomes the God’s communication undisturbed which was not at all attained within the four walls of school. This ‘transcendental’ child is informed by a divine or quasi-divine nature which renders it superior to adults, figured as a prophet or angel. Thus “the child “was perceived as “Best Philospher” and according to Romanticists nature had the sole right to mould them as such where culture disseminated by education could offer nothing. The Child is imaginative to its core and thus creates a world for its own with animism, idealism, holism and vision. Thus romantic constructions of childhood as ‘father of man’ was sculpted through the prism of Romantic imaginations about nature and revolt against the educational system. Romantic visions of childhood dominated the discourse on childhood throughout the 20th century. Although other dimensions of society were keenly cleansed off its romantic lustre, childhood continued to be romanticised. In children’s literature, “poetics of innocence” held its sway which re- asserted the romantic notion of incorrupt nature of childhood and thus the narrative of modern literature also adopted the same assumptions.
A withdrawn child full of imaginations wandering among the rugged terrains of green and snow, and at times with his philosophical moorings pondering over the meaning of life and actions who resist the system of education, engages in dual worlds of realities( which others won’t believe in) and his creative sojourns among the art of snowmen and snowballs trying to bring to life his expressive thoughts, keeps on conflicting with the cruel established realities of other “normal ”societal participants. We can rephrase Calvin thus.
The similarities of above description strikes hard with the spirit of romantics and thus questions must be asked about the “the Romantic childhood” which the cartoon strip “Calvin and Hobbes” deals with. American childhood was all immersed in the romantic myths of childhood which was reflected in the “poetics of innocence” in the story telling for childhood also. However, postmodern world characterised by the invasion of commercials, mindless consumerism, celebratory violence and media opulence is bound to influence the narration of storytelling in the contemporary world. Thus Calvin and Hobbes the popular comic strip not only among children but also among the grown up, is a fit candidate to study the interactions of “a romantic childhood” in a postmodern world.
Romantic fixation of “innocent child” undergoes complete re-structuring in Calvin. It is worth noting that only once (strip1), does the term “little angel” is attributed on Calvin. It happens when his stuffed tiger “Hobbes” is lost in the woods and Calvin sleeps tired from crying. Elsewhere, Calvin sustains the image of “little devil”. Destruction and anarchy prevails dominant in his imaginations and machinations. It is rare he talks about beauty and values. His moral dilemmas are rather about how to cheat in exams and how to inflict maximum destruction”. Moreover during the moments of creativity in the art of snowman modelling, his not so innocent imaginations are expressed through headless snowmen, tortured and amputated snowmen. The descriptions of his lunch pack to irritate Susie are rather obnoxious. Obviously, it denotes the passing of innocence of American Childhood which is over indulged with popular violent cartoons and horror films. In one of the strips, Calvin describes “Happiness is being famous for your financial ability to indulge in every kind of excess. The Part one like the best is crushing people who get in my way”. Thus innocence is overturned and malevolence replaces it.
“Nostalgia” about childhood innocence was a regular theme in romantic poetry.
“But yet i know, where’er I go,
That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth”.
The urge to return to the childhood’s purity evoked the passion and hope. In Calvin’s life, he attaches no significance to this so called “Nostalgia”. It is evident wherever Calvin faces the school bully “Moe” who beats and thrashes Calvin for no reason at all.It prompts Calvin to deliver his opinion on childhood categorically “People who get nostalgic about childhood were never obviously children”. Probably no one remains a child in the cartoon, opposing the image of a distinct Childhood in Romantic conception. The child here dabbles in the adult world of TV, films, politics, intellectual discourses and remains a staunch male chauvinist.
The Romantic identification of The Child with the nature is incessantly discussed in a dialectic fashion through Calvin. Interestingly, it is only towards objects in nature does Calvin react soft heartedly. The violent ferocity he displays towards societal actors is almost absent in his relation with the nature. The snowy days are the most precious moments he would look forward to. He loses himself dangerously in snow on his slide. His soft side is displayed only when a raccoon dies or when he finds a portion of the woods cleared. He thinks about the homeless birds and rodents and However romantic The Child attaches itself with the nature, not its beauty alone but its awe also strikes him. Akin to Romantic child who is destined to observe and ponder over the beauty and awe in the learning ground of raw nature, Calvin also discovers the same which he renders out as a poem on a spider “Like delicate Lace, So the threads intertwine Oh, Gossamer web of wond’rous design Such beauty and grace Wild nature Produces” And next line he expresses his awe with a disgusting contorted face: “Ughh, Look at the spider suck out that bug’s juices “.
Here beauty-awe amalgamation in nature appreciated by the classic Romanticists is invoked almost as a parody. The same realization on nature is again depicted as a conversation between Calvin and Hobbes in snow-clad open woods on “why we lost our awe of the nature”. Hobbes being an animal close to nature replies to Calvin’s query on the purpose of life on earth “We are here to devour each other alive”. Next panel shows a perturbed Calvin turning frantic and running back to room to switch on all the domestic comforts of light and heat. Like Wordsworth, Calvin also realizes that the life and innocence of the nature are also the death and corruption- that the beauty and fear are inseparable. The realization however rather than leading him to enlightenment, it drives him back to the artificial comfort of civilization to unlearn that cruel lesson. These sparks of revelations on the truth about nature meets more comical end when Blakes’ poem of Tyger is interpreted. In Romantic poetry, that poem is the epitome of the ferocity which co exists with the innocence of “Lamb”. However, Calvin wonders “ Tiger tiger burning bright…..” and treating it literally, makes out “Apparently Tiger was on fire.,May be his tail got struck by lightning or something”.
Another example of romantic excitement with the nature, which is contextualised in a media frenzy world and thus deromanticizing the content is when Calvin shares his excitement of seeing the first Robin of the spring. “Call the newspaper Quick. ha ha a front page write up. A commemorative plaque. A civic ceremony All for me.” He dreams about getting a cash prize which can be spent away.
Thou best Philosopher, who yet dost keep
Thy heritage, thou Eye among the blind,
That, deaf and silent, read’st the eternal deep,
Haunted for ever by the eternal mind, –
Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!
On whom those truths do rest,
Which we are toiling all our lives to find,
In darkness lost, the darkness of the grave.
The “Best Philosopher” and the “mighty Prophet” are two images associated with the romantic vision of a sublime childhood, where the clarity of nature and heaven speaks forth with untainted wisdom. Interestingly, Calvin’s philosophical moorings are all original. The conclusions he arrived after long meditations after going through throes of pain because of death of raccoon is all crisp and pertinent “I did not even know he existed a few days ago. And now he is gone forever. It is like I found him for no reason. Good bye as soon as I say hello”. Topping the philosophical insights to it, he realizes “ What a stupid world”. Sharing romanticists intolerance with the rationalized system of education, Calvin also hates school for teaching what he does not want to know. In a satirical fashion, he like the Romantic child, learns on his own, drawing knowledge from the nature and experiences.
Transcendental Child “removed and to a distance that was fit” as a motif repeats throughout in romantic conception of childhood. In American childhood myth, Huckleberry Finn attains self-realization listening to his own self during his flight from the civilization. Calvin is a loner who chooses estrangement from group when he is on a Boy Scout hike or when he is in class. The reason Calvin tells for quitting baseball is “There is too much team spirit”. It is more relevant to see that Calvin has no neighbours other than Susie depicted in any of the strips. However, though aloof from his immediate neighbourhood, he is fully plugged into the outer world of media through horror movies, commercials, opinion polls and on. This is an irony placed at the heart of Romantic childhood.
Spontaneity of emotions is the essence of romantic world. Calvin resorts to spontaneity at every instance. “Spontaneity” becomes the legitimacy for his esoteric actions and decisions.He stresses on experience as the only route to learning. In a cartoon strip, Calvin accuses his parents of not taking him to deserts for picnics and get this as excuse for not writing assignment on Desert. When Hobbes suggest referring books, Calvin replies he can’t have time for books. Hobbes surmises thus “Yes. Why waste time learning, when ignorance is instantaneous”. The virility of spontaneity which Romantics believed as superior to cold logical conclusions, begets a comical situation here. Emotions rule Calvin but most of the time it will be the darker emotions. However, when his mother gets sick, Calvin shows his rare caring emotion probably the first time ever to a human being. His mother, overflown with emotions hugs him. Calvin shouts with fear “Whoa Hey are you contagious?”.
Calvin starts off any bright vacation day exclaiming “a perfect day”, Romantic belonging to the nature and its fullness very often quickly phases over to a boredom- “If something doesn’t happen here soon, I’m gonna wack out” or rushing back to TV. Romantic idealists also feel boredom, but that was when they were in the mundane everyday affair especially in Urban settings. For them, nature with its repertoire of beauty and awe was the source of vitality. Also, boredom as a mental state was not all associated with any Romantic childhood construction. There, childhood was all full of life and energy. It was from the childhood, Romanticism tried to draw the inspiration for creation and meaning. Thus, the boredom as mental state restricted only to adults assumes all importance in Calvin’s life. He is prone to boredom very easily. All great acts of life except for snow slide, brings in boredom as the companion. His life itself is a struggle against this enemy called boredom. His imaginary adventures were all flights from this state of boredom. Here also, Calvin’s struggle with boredom is an incursion of adulthood into the “Romantic innocence” and vitality of childhood. This is another instance where Child is no longer “the Child” of Romanticism but acquiring the traits of an adult.
It is worth noting that Calvin does not resort to any magic (except the Magic carpet) to reach his alternate universes. Instead of magic which was the preoccupation of childhood of romantic era, Calvin uses Technology to transmigrate to his alternate realities. It is always a “transmogrifier” machine, or a cloning machine or a spaceship or Laser Guns doing the magic. Thus, technology performs the function of magic as readymade key to alternate realities. Here Calvin performs the priesthood of the modern religion of technology. However, it is worth noting that he does not resort to any method of science, but only through fetishizing technology, the by-product of science, he finds meaning in reality. Here, romantic ideals of imagination and empathy are continuously resorted to, but when Technology becomes the architecture of this new world, notions about Romantic concepts undergoes an inversion.
On thick broadlines, Calvin follows the trajectory of a Romantic childhood, but many of the romantic notions sinks into opposite realms through inversion. Serious and important romantic concepts adopt comical costumes and celebrate riotously. In a postmodern world, Romantic constructions lingers a little more, but in weird disguises. Childhood constructions which emerged as a discourse from the Romantic world still plod further in a rather postmodern world of hypertext and simulacra.
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