Permanent Saturday: Oracle Bone

(6 comments)

“There are many paths leading to the top of Mount Fuji, but there is only one summit-love.”
-Morihei Ueshiba
Simple pleasures for simple minds, so the saying goes. Many a joke over the years has been made at the expense of Odie's celebrated idiocy, surely to the delight of Garfield's Cat Person target demographic everywhere. And truth be known Odie is not a particularly complex being: Not so much irrational or prerational as nonrational, Odie is guided by mere existence. He doesn't stop to let his superego overanlyse his actions largely because it's not entirely clear he has a superego. Certainly Odie will never be in any danger of being paralyzed by an overactive mind. Within Garfield's Funny Animal satire of modernity, Odie offers the biggest challenge by being the biggest diegetic commentary on the strip's fundamental artifice: Odie is the one animal character who acts in accordance with stereotypical Western ideas about animal minds-Pure, unthinking, instinctual being.
 
Certain schools of Taoism and Advaita Vedanta Hinduism would probably find a lot of commonality with Odie. As the embodiment of pure “I Exist”, his character lends itself well to being read as a metaphor for the simple bliss of calm, unexamined presentness. We are all seeking happiness and peace and, such sages would tell us, we deprive ourselves of them both when we focus too much on our thoughts and our conscious mind. True enlightenment, they would argue, exists simply within the concept of existing itself: Being aware of consciousness and being at peace with that. Other disciplines encourage the pursuit of enlightenment through trance and meditative states of keeping one's mind similarly clear and empty. It is tempting then to leave the analysis here-After all, what's the point of clouding our being with thoughts when true bliss and enlightenment can only be found within the absence of such things?
 
Garfield, however, has always been about presentness, so the argument that Odie and Odie alone is the gatekeeper to that knowledge does not hold. This is the setup to today's joke, in which Garfield exclaims that “Odie has discovered the secret to happiness!”. The great tragedy of modernity is perhaps not a lack of presentness, but a lack of respect for presentness and its virtues, and this is what the constantly thinking cat satirizes. Happiness is something we all claim to be searching for (the United States even cites “the pursuit of happiness” as a central ideal upon which its nation was founded), yet so few of us are engaged in practice that actually allows us to manifest within a state of genuine bliss. And if anyone has found such a secret in the world of Garfield, it would certainly appear to be the dog: Odie is very rarely depressed or upset-His grin, while vacant, is indeed one of happiness. For a strip depicting a universe of unceasing boredom and banality, Odie's unwavering contentment with himself and his lot in life provides a tempting role model many may wish to emulate.
 
This is perhaps the reason for the specific gag structure Garfield chooses to invoke here. In recent years the strip has developed a hyper-localized formula subset wherein Garfield essentially interviews Odie, either introducing him in the manner of a TV presenter or fielding him questions himself, the most notable example of this being the “Ask a Dog” subseries, which takes the form of a “Dear Abby”-style newspaper advice column (albeit one that, interestingly enough, seems to use television logic despite Garfield itself also ostensibly being part of a newspaper). In this case, Garfield introduces Odie with the lead-in that he has discovered the aforementioned “secret to happiness”. After all, how many times has some late-night TV huckster claimed “Our Next Guest” has made some shocking discovery or come up with some incredible new breakthrough you'll just have to stay tuned through the commercial break to see? Or perhaps the proper modern day parlance would be “One Weird Trick”.
 
But the definite article in Garfield's first thought bubble is the key word, and the key to the ultimate punchline, as it implies that there is *only* one secret to happiness: Odie's. Said secret, as shown in panel 2, is apparently a bone...Or at least what a bone represents. The psychoanalytical reading is obvious, especially given the pooch's silly, toothy grin. But there are still a multiplicity of different ways to interpret even that core paired symbol-metaphor relationship, all of them intriguingly problematic (in the original. traditional, pre-Tumblr academic definition of the term) in their own ways, and all things modern society is arguably starved for. There is bliss and ecstasy to be found in those things for those of that inclination, and that's precisely the point. For Odie, the bone likely does not mean that. Dogs like bones because it's wise to cache leftover food for later, but also, a bone is a simple thing. Perhaps Odie is telling us to plan for the future (which would actually perhaps be somewhat uncharacteristic of him), or maybe he's just telling us to take pleasure in the simple things around us, which is a perfectly laudable and universal truth. But regardless of what the bone symbolizes it does stand for something, that something makes Odie happy, and that's important.
 
The bone does not, however, make Garfield happy. His shocked reaction in the second panel, and his snarky rejoinder in the third would convey this. Cats do not cache food in the same way as dogs and their wolf relatives, so the bone is likely not to Garfield's taste. Alternatively, Garfield has been depicted as a cat with very spoiled and finicky taste in the past: Although this is not unrealistic behaviour (or at least not unrealistic behaviour for an animal stereotype as cats are often said to be picky eaters), it's often been used, as many of Garfield's more stick feline mannerisms were (most notably his fascination with television), as a satirical commentary on modern urban society. Garfield plays a character who, like many urbanites to a rural eye, has been so spoiled and disconnected by life in the city they've forgotten the simple pleasures of a life lived more in touch with nature. However we should not be so rash to judge or condemn the cat here, as this sort of joke has fallen quite far out of favour with the strip in recent decades: Remember that Garfield has never truly left nature, and that Odie is a domestic dog...Emphasis on the domestic. He'll joke about it sometimes, but Garfield really could survive on his own without an owner. It's possible Odie couldn't.
 
Garfield honours the elegance of nature too. He enjoys grass, fireflies, flowers and looking up at the sky in quietly profound moments. Even his affinity for eating and sleeping could be construed in this language. That Garfield doesn't like Odie's bone is not a referendum on simplicity, but rather merely the equally simple statement that he has different taste. Which is only natural. Everyone has different truths that resonate with them depending on their personality, calling and circumstance. “Utopia is a framework for utopias”, as Robert Nozick once said. Which brings us back to Odie's secret to happiness, the definite article in Garfield's opening statement, and his third-panel punchline. Fundamentally, the joke in this strip is about the futility of searching for peace and happiness in objectivity. Reality exists, but it is not objective: My truths are not yours, and Odie's happiness is not Garfield's. The cat's shock portrays the existential pain one feels upon learning about what is supposedly the One True Way, and then finding that it doesn't sit well with them: “I think I'll remain depressed”.
 
For what else can one do if you've heard the gospel and disagree? In our modern world, nothing. If you don't buy what capitalism and religion alike are trying to sell you, don't have a lot of options. You either resolve that the preachers are right and you're a bad person, or that everyone is equally wrong and there's nothing to hope and strive for beyond the mundane banality and grind of your 9-5 punchclock capitalist lifestyle. It's Garfield at its most on-point and cynical, cutting right to the heart of the foundational depressed malaise of modernity. We're depressed because we're made to feel that we should be, and that there's no other possible way to be. We're not taught to ask what's not on the menu, and many of us don't realise that itself is a powerful and valid choice. Malcontent and not seeing any options to our taste, we stick with our lack of contentment out of a sense we “might as well”, because at least that's a devil we're familiar with.
 
If there's only one true way to be happy, than only a select few people will ever be able to be happy. But in Garfield, like in our modern world, answers are waiting to be found by those who know enough to look at a problem from a different angle. If Odie is an expert being interviewed, then he is like an Old Master, whose level of accomplishment and skill makes him a role model whose advice is sought after. But the wisest of the Old Masters know that their way is not the only way, merely a way that worked for them. A Master's job is to live a life by example, showing how they were able to attain what they did while also guiding their students towards finding the path that calls for them. It's not the bone itself, and has never been the bone: It's how the bone makes Odie happy, and advice to look for something that means enough to you to make you just as happy as the bone makes him. And here Garfield adapts to the role of the foil, providing the corresponding negative role model to Odie's positive. His thoughts are not so much reflections of his own desires or truths, but verbalizations of doubts and anxieties the interlocutor is expected to have. The act is the thing; the ritual interplay whose lessons we discern ourselves through its enacting.
 

Comments

Przemek 2 months, 1 week ago

Thank you. That was fascinating. And quite possibly the most interesting essay on Garfield I have ever read.

It reminded me of Jacek Dukaj's novella "Line of Resistance" (unfortunately not available in English). It's about a near future where technology allows for the human psyche to be freely modified at will. You can deeply love organic hummus and Doctor Who one minute and pizza and Jersey Shore by the next one. You can induce deep religious experiences or ecstatic sexual pleasures whenever you want to. Human relationships become fluid: friendships, relationships and family bonds are created and dissolved on a whim.

From this fluidity, a new problem arises: nolensum, deathly apathy born from the excess of choice. When you can feel anything, how do you choose what to feel? How do you enjoy pleasures you know are artificially induced?
When you can enjoy every possible "game" in existence (adventure, relationship, internal experience), where do you find motivation to play any game at all?

The protagonist of the novella stuggles with nolensum himself. Two main approaches to solving the issue are presented. One consists of seeking "the real world", of trying to find something that's not a meaningless game but rock-solid reality. Nature, perhaps, with its unavoidable pain and death. Or maybe just a life of literal slavery, where too many choices are replaced with not having a choice at all. But this is all just self-harm and despair, not a true solution.

The other way is a strange inversion of the nihilistic worldview. Instead of desparing about artificial experiences and meaningless games, one needs to accept that there is no rock-solid reality, just our human world of social constructs and interactions. Yes, everything is "ultimately" meaningless, but you don't need one true objective meaning to feel happy about participating in a "game". One needs to become like a child: children are happy when they play even though they know perfectly well that it's all "just a social construct" that will come to an end eventually. Having to create your own meaning and find your own happiness is not a struggle or a chore: it's freedom. If Odie can be happy because of a bone - if there are millions of way to be happy - then surely everyone can find one such thing for themselves. Even Garfield.

(Sorry if this doesn't make much sense. It's hard to summarize a novella and convey its main ideas in a few paragraphs, especially when English is not your first language).

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John G. Wood 2 months ago

No, that made sense - and it sounds like a fascinating premise for a novella. How well it works in practice, of course, is down to the craft of the writer (and translator, if it ever gets an English edition), but nobody can convey that in summary anyway!

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Przemek 2 months ago

Well, it's one of my all-time favourite novellas (books, really) by one of my favourite writers and I think it works wonders in practice. Fingers crossed for a good translator somewhere along the line.

(If you're interested, you can check out Dukaj's "The Old Axolotl", available in English as ebook on Amazon - it's a good novella that should give you a taste of this writer's skill).

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Sean Dillon 2 months, 1 week ago

"And may God us keep from single vision and Newtons sleep" as someone on this site put it.

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John G. Wood 2 months ago

Can I just say, Josh, that Permanent Saturday continues to astound. It's probably my favourite regular feature on the site at the moment (the closest competition is Jack's Shabcast, but it's a lot harder to find a time when I've got the concentration to listen to those, so I never get to comment before the announcement posts fall away into history).

Long may you continue to surprise me!

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