Permanent Saturday: What I guess’d when I loaf’d on the grass
With deepest apologies to Chris Stangl, Permanent Saturday is a semiregular critical exploration of Jim Davis’ comic strips Garfield and U.S. Acres/Orson’s Farm.
When we think of Garfield, we think of the mundane everyday. And when we think of the mundane everyday, we think of banal modern life. Indeed, this blog project’s forebear made a regular point of reading the strip as a brilliantly subversive example of effectively marketing ennui and despair: A savvy salesman hocking commiseration at the hopelessness of day-to-day punchclock life in late-stage capitalism with no visible way out. Nihilism sold with a smile. That and a buck-fifty will get you a cup of coffee.
There is probably some truth in that. Garfield is, as we have established, a strip about boredom and banality, and it likely would not be the marketing juggernaut it is (or perhaps was? While still obviously a beloved and ubiquitous franchise, it does not to me seem that it’s quite in the forefront to the degree it’s been at times in the past. Not, of course, that past, present and future distinctions mean all that much to us in our world here) if people didn’t find its characters and situations endlessly relatable. And part of that relatability is the revue of boredom the show puts on for our amusement every day. While we set off to go to work at our own 9-5 jobs, be it as insurance salespeople, secretaries at the branch offices of the local energy grid or self-published authors blogging about progressive media and cultural criticism, Garfield and Friends are doing their jobs too: Adorning themselves with masks and reflecting our lives back to us in pantomime so that we may laugh at ourselves as we laugh along. Like all the great social commentators, performers and spiritual mediators.
There are other strips we could look at that demonstrate this. Today’s is a Sunday strip, and Sunday is traditionally the day of rest. Even people who do nothing for a living need a day off sometimes, and Garfield loves Sundays (although other times he’s said he never gets a day off). But even when we have days off, we still exist in the present moment: No authority came down from On High and granted us agency for a limited time through grace and benevolence. We simply decided that now was the moment we would allow ourselves freedom from the responsibilities we chose to assume to focus on another aspect of our lives. The secret truth is, we always have that agency. So a day off is a day of reflection and contemplation that allows us to evaluate the now we built for us in a different light: A ritualized symbolic metaphor for the constant changes in perspective that our unfolding nows consist of. So for Garfield, and for us, this means reconceptualizing the mundane. Because the mundane is not just mindless grind, so long as we allow ourselves to feel and understand it that way.
Garfield used to joke about being an urbanite at heart a lot, but he’s still a cat, and no matter how much of that domesticus is in the Felis (an invalid taxonomic synonym these days anyway), cats have still never truly been tamed. They live in a commensal relationship with humans and, while they can benefit from them, they do not need them (think about that next time you see how Garfield treats Jon, and remember how much of Garfield’s personality comes from actual cat behaviour). As Garfield himself would probably tell you, unlike domestic dogs, cats are perfectly capable of living in the wild on their own. So Garfield has never truly left nature: This means that unlike Jon the ex-farm boy and Odie the domestic dog, Garfield is the main character who is actually most in-tune with nature and the best positioned to guide us on the path back to it. This is even in spite of the diegetic act he will sometimes put on if the narrative calls for him to play contrarian, and the paradoxical fact that he is the central and titular character in a strip ostensibly about banal modernity. For what is the central struggle of modernity then to balance high technology and complicated civilization with our innate natural birthright? Really, there’s no better observer and chronicler of this duality than the liminal housecat, who can exist easily in both worlds.
Garfield starts out here being more philosophical (really, pop philosophical) than spiritual, but who’s to say spirituality and philosophy are not connected at a certain level? Philosophy is the critical lens through which we understand our own spirituality and spiritual experience. And woe-betide anyone who disparages a philosophy for lacking in necessary complexity, for that way lies sanctimonious elitism. Take caution to never let yourself get to a place where Doc Boy’s accusations stick. Sometimes it’s the simplest truths that are the most profound, for they are often the hardest to articulate and overcomplicate. All Garfield needs to do to be happy is to lie in the grass, but it’s the entire act and the associated sensations that he treasures. One by one he takes stock of the physical experiences, being aware and in the moment, and then proceeds to interpret it all as a metaphor through his philosophical lens, because life itself is a series of nested metaphors: A perhaps unexpected idealism for this strip (though truthfully Garfield has always been far more heartfelt and sentimental then people like to give it credit for being) with a double meaning. When you’re lying flat on your back you really can only look up, but also, lying with nature puts the universe into perspective for you.
Above him, Garfield sees the sky. Perhaps he doesn’t view it this way, but in doing so he stares back into the eternal birthright of all things. The heavens watch over us even when we’re too busy with our own lives to look back. The universe does not abide by a human schedule or time scale, not unchanging, but timeless. It can wait forever, or for however long it takes for us to finally understand. Or rather, outside of time. Then again, Garfield does say “Let’s hear it for spiritual moments!”, and that’s what this is. Garfield has chosen his words very well, because the truly spiritual lies in moments, not in the grandiosely mythologized bombastic religious experiences we read and are taught about. The everyday is not just the banal, we just altogether too often decide it has to be, and because we have more power than we think we do, it becomes so. We see what we want to see, or what we train ourselves to expect to see. We often miss the sublime that is forever all around us because we’re looking for big, deceptively monolithic visions and answers, and, at least most of the time, that’s just not how the universe works.
But while such moments are oftentimes the most profoundly moving, they are also, like all moments, fleeting. Experiences will pass because we are all together in flux as we move through our nows. Just like the daily grind, such moments of sublime beauty will soon join all the other unremembered history that makes up so much of our lives. Such is the way of all things. And yet this is soothing and we take comfort in it, because we empathize. We see ourselves within it, because we are. Although it has additional connotations of its own, traditional Japanese aesthetic philosophy understands this within the aesthetic of shibui, deceptively simple things that hide a wealth of nuanced complexity and embody the beauty of transience, impermanence and the everyday. The lesson, perhaps, is to raise our collective awareness. Maybe take just a few more lazy Sundays to stop, lie back in the grass and be aware of ourselves and the compatriot souls who travel the world alongside us. The more often we acknowledge and love the beauty around us, the easier it will be for us to look back up and see our lineage in the sky.
Maybe Garfield understands after all.
Original Strip: April 25, 2004
John G. Wood
December 8, 2016 @ 10:22 am
I must say I wasn’t particularly excited by the thought of a series of essays on Garfield, but I’ve enjoyed them all so far. It boggles me how much you can get out of a short strip!
Can I ask what prompted you to start Permanent Saturday? I always thought your next target was going to be Scooby Doo…
December 12, 2016 @ 5:38 am
The biggest inspiration was actually Chris Stangl’s Permanent Monday blog, which I link to up there. I’ve always been a big fan of Garfield, and his blog showed me how to read it in an entirely new way. But Chris’ reading of the strip is (and he admits this), rather cynical. I wanted to tease out some more of the optimism in Garfield, hence the name Permanent Saturday instead of Monday.
Well, and also it’s a reference to Garfield and Friends.
Chris Stangl’s blog stooped updating many years ago, and I felt I could perhaps pick up where he left off. This was never supposed to be my “next big project” as it were: I thought this would just be a good chance for me to explain the way Garfield works, as I think it’s quite frequently badly misread, and I figured this would be a series I could bang out an entry for when I was short on time and I had nothing else for the week. It seems to have grown into something rather larger than that, however.
As for Scooby-Doo…That’s something I’ve found I seem to have significantly less to say about then I initially thought I did. I might still do something with it at some point down the line, but it won’t be an episode-by-episode serialized blog project.