While out walking, Garfield comes across a hill. There’s a sign planted next to the hill, indicating that Paradise can be found at the top.
This hill is different from the ones we normally see in Garfield; rounded moguls upon which the cat will lay back and look up at the clouds on a warm summer day. The prominence appears quite challenging even for a seasoned climber, which is probably part of the reason Garfield has the reaction he does upon seeing it. The general design indicates less a typical Garfield hill and more a location that showed up in the strip a few times in the earlier part of the decade: A jagged, rocky mountain whose summit we cannot see from the vantage point of the strip, but upon which dwells a Wise Man whom Jon tells us “has a long beard” and “says grand things about life”. To further the continuity link, one Wise Man strip features a sign that literally says “Wise Man” partway up the mountain, a kind of spiritual road sign or mile marker, with an arrow helpfully pointing to the summit, much as the sign for “Paradise” does here.
We can read the prominence in this strip as the same as the Wise Man’s mountain, albeit within Garfield‘s established framework of negative continuity, because the strip’s nonverbal associative iconography makes us recognise the shapes and symbols of things, if not the details. It’s also thus not a problem that the mountain seems to be small enough to be covered in grass here, where in all its previous appearances it was a craggy peak, because although it had always been rocky before it had always been drawn differently in each of its previous appearances. Perhaps this also goes a way to making Garfield‘s setting feel more generic, and thus more relatable, as unless you happen to live somewhere near the American Cordillera, Alps, Himalaya or some other major mountain range, it’s likely there aren’t any mountains like that near your house. Perhaps though we’re just at the very base of the mountain this time (worthy of note is that this is the first Wise Man-style strip to open on a typical Garfield backdrop; all the others to date have been set in unique and quite atypical locales), which would tie neatly into the strip’s central joke.
We stand at outset, faced with the prospect of beginning a long and potentially arduous journey towards enlightenment. Indeed, nothing less than Paradise. And Garfield rejects the call, or rather, he rejects this call.
Mountain veneration and asceticism is common throughout Eastern spiritual philosophies, from the famous Tibetan Buddhism to the Five Mountains of Taoism to the Yamabushi of Japan. Although it’s from Eastern beliefs that the pop culture notion of the “wise mountain hermit” is probably derived today, mountain veneration is certainly not a practice limited to them, with parallels being found in belief systems the world over. Perhaps due to their height and structure or just because of their awe, mountains are seen as places that bring us closer to the gods, and to spiritual enlightenment. Esoteric Taoism speaks of the Holy High Queen Mother of the West and her mythical kingdom of immortals on the legendary Mount Kunlun, while some sects of Korean shamanism speak of Sungmo, the ur-shamaness goddess, who was first encountered atop a mountain. The legendary Buddhist utopian land of Shambhala is supposed to be somewhere out in the vast expanse of Himalaya, while Yuma Sammang, the omnipotent creatrix of the Limbu people, is said to have one of her dwellings atop the sacred mountain of Kachenjunga. Celtic, Norse, Germanic and Japanese traditions all speak of the ancestral and land spirits residing within mountains, else mountains are a place where one can commune and connect with divinity directly.
The goal of all these practices, explicitly stated or not, is to find some kind of Paradise. Whether you conceive of it as a physical place you can travel to or build (or conjure up), a state of mind, a way of thinking, being and existing, the goal of ascetic practice of any kind is to cultivate a more blissful and pure life for ourselves. It’s not too far-fetched than to imagine that our Wise Man did indeed find Paradise on the top of that mountain, and there is some fun to be had in picking out what that sign is doing there: The cynical reading is that it’s an advertisement for a tourist trap, a sad fate befitting many sacred mountains in our ultramodern, hyper-commodified world (Everest alone is an incredibly sorry state). A spiritual journey cheapened, truncated and turned into a road sign on a highway. But let’s try something else. It’s surely not some kind of recruitment poster-Ascetics tend to not go around advertising themselves as they tend to be seen as a bit odd by most people. Prospective students and kindred spirits tend to go to them, and perhaps that’s what the sign is for: A quiet informational bulletin indicating that anyone interested should inquire at the summit of the mountain.
Garfield, however, is not interested. “No way”, he says. “I’m pretty sure that Paradise would be downhill”. The superficial reading of the joke is, of course, that Garfield is lazy and does not want to walk up a mountain, even if it means doing so would bring him to a utopian pure land. But while someone more versed in anatomy and physical anthropology would have to correct me, I don’t believe it’s true that walking uphill is necessarily more work for all animals: Different animals have different leg and foot structures that are better optimized for uphill and downhill locomotion depending, and I’m not sure how it is for cats. But of course, part of Garfield‘s central joke is that the title character is a cat who behaves like a human, so this point could be ultimately moot. Perhaps the cat’s reaction is not one of laziness, but of apathy, a minor but important distinction. This is a comic strip about the crushing ennui of day-to-day life in the modern world, the kind where, even if we do find answers to our greatest spiritual and philosophical questions, we decline to pursue them because we’re tired and uninspired and just plain don’t feel like it. And in such cases, more often than not, it isn’t even a matter of being too physically or even mentally exhausted, but unwilling to entertain the possibility of making serious changes in our lives. Perhaps it wouldn’t be too much work for Garfield to climb that mountain…Perhaps, like so many of us, he’s trying to come up with an excuse not to.
Or maybe it’s another matter entirely. We talk of things like “Paradise” and “Utopia” as these big vague, abstract conceptual things. Things we are told exist in an intangible heavenly realm far above and beyond the mundane, materialistic world down below we’re forced to inhabit day to day. Things we are told to speak of only in such abstractions, because they cannot exist as part of our lived experiences. It may not be an impossible feat for Garfield to climb a mountain to seek enlightenment there (and Garfield is far from one to sever his connection to nature), but in this instance there’s a sign telling him that’s where to go. The Great American Divide is built on the revulsion the country’s people have to being told where to go, what to do and how to live their lives. A utopia is, and always will be, a framework for utopias. By necessity, it cannot be anything else. Paradise may indeed be found on top of that mountain, but it’s not the Paradise Garfield wants or imagines. He tells us as much. And so, he turns and walks back the other way.
The original sin of anyone trying to build Paradise is the fundamental assumption that it can be built in the first place, because it cannot be. Or rather, it can be, but you can’t make other people follow your building code. You can’t force other people to follow your path to Paradise. At that point, it ceases to be a Paradise, because Paradise is a state where everyone is happy and fulfilled in a way which is meaningful and appropriate for them. There are as many Paradises as there are people to imagine them, and while you can invite people to share your perspective and personal Paradise if they’re so inclined, you can’t force them to. That denies them the act of creation and birthing they themselves must uncover on their own. And this is the job of a real teacher, a real Wise Man: To lead by example, to give advice and guidance on what worked for them, but with the tacit acknowledgment that the student must then go and make something new themselves with that guidance, adopting their methods and techniques to better fit their own circumstances and views.
The Wise Man may have found Paradise, but the fault lies with whoever put that sign up implying that Paradise could only be found that way (Garfield has seemed perfectly willing to go visit the Wise Man for counsel in the past). Advertise the path, not the destination. And so Garfield turns around, and walks backward instead of forward because of a failure to communicate. Or…does he? Recall time moves in an arrow from left to right in Garfield, from the past to the future.
In that last panel, Garfield is walking right.