Here’s what I knew earlier today. On a piece of paper my father kept folded up in his wallet was a cartoon depicting an unhappy man sitting in a box. Hermit? Homeless? Definitely dour and dyspeptic. Cloaked and eternal. A monk who’s focused effort has led to total en-darken-ment. A Bodhisatva sitting on the bottom line. Underneath the sketch was inscribed “People are no damn good.” I don’t remember the first time my father showed it to me. I was very young. It always tickled me. My father, I seem to remember, was not forthcoming with details, saying simply that he kept it because he found the image amusing. Someone had given it to him. Memory is unreliable, of course, but I think I carried away a feeling that he found the inscribed sentiment brutally true. I remember him referring to the figure as “some Chinaman living in a box.” (Not really a racist comment, I realize, as I now examine the sketch and note it is really easy to mistake the extreme frown lines on the face for a stereotypical “Fu Manchu mustache.”) My father would have been characterized by most who met him as a genial and pleasant guy, but this cartoon somehow resonated for him. That, at least, was the conclusion formulated by my younger self. I saw it as his secret truth.
I decided to take a few minutes and go online to find out more about the cartoon, to investigate, finally, a profoundly significant paternal signifier. Was this, perhaps, the very “Name of the Father” itself? In my perpetually inflated view, I was convinced I was going to start some journey of psychoanalytic investigation, work my rusty Lacanian chops, and end up with a charming, but nonetheless challenging, bit of literary autobiography. This little cartoon, with its corrosive brief assessment, had always functioned for me as a tiny banner of identity. I jokingly refer to it as my “birthright.” And most people would probably characterize me as a genial and pleasant guy.
I tempered my anticipation, however, with the thought that it all may be for nothing. Along with seeing a profound amusing clarity in the sketch, I was also tempted to convince myself it was just bathroom banality, of the kind I imagined exchanged by young chuckling GI’s from my father’s war years (WWII). Nothing more than that. An arbitrary item, collected for no other reason than the enjoyment of seeing “damn” in print.
So, warily, I began to investigate. First I discovered that the artist was William Steig. Yes, of Shrek fame (the creator of), but also famed as one of The New Yorker’s premiere cartoonists and illustrators through the second half of the twentieth century. I am exultant to think of my father carrying around a Steig cartoon. It flatters my ego. But I also realize he may not have known who Steig was. The cartoon first appeared on a best-selling “studio card” from around 1940. So it was ubiquitous. The Shrek of the moment. The refined had been tempered, or brought back to earth, by the everyday. Was bathroom banality winning out? I begin to work up to a theme. I noted, also, that my knowledge of Steig was, until I began exploring today, superficial. I did not know that I should have been “in the know” about Steig before I began looking into him. That, too, fit with the self-portrait I was seeking and would fit nicely with the themes that began to simmer. Banality, deficit, pretense. Then, in search of more appearances of the cartoon on the web, I googled a link…
This is where it gets bizarre. And to fully appreciate how bizarre, I have to make some confessions. I have a few quirky interests. We all do, I realize. Nothing seriously off the map, I can assure you. No doubt we all have a collection of topics or themes which inevitably trigger our curiosity should we see them referenced in a book title or in a magazine or online. Some of mine, many of mine, were all linked together in a network of associations in the article above, all reflecting my desire to peep into the lives of those who have made mad efforts to pierce the veil–creatively, sexually, politically, egoically. Wilhelm Reich, Kate Bush, Patti Smith and all of her poète maudit forbearers ( I had been reading some article about Smith’s album Horses just the day before), Makavejev and his films, including WR: Mysteries of the Organism, Aleister Crowley, Jack Parsons, and L. Ron Hubbard–all linked in this particular link, all of them names in my own secret pantheon of enthusiasms. And in the midst of it all was a photo of a button with the Steig cartoon. It appears as the article makes reference to one of Reich’s dubious achievements: the Orgone Box. I did some more digging.
Turns out Steig credits Reich with “saving his life” through encounters with the emigre analyst in New York in the 1940s. Steig evidently owned an Orgone box and sat in it every day of his life. The angry “chinaman” is, in fact, an image in which Steig is exploring symbolically some aspect of his Reichean experience. Much of his work did.
I’m not a Reichian, but, because of my background in psychoanalysis and my study at the University of West Georgia’s Psychology Department (where I perpetually had to temper the temptations to take piercing the veil seriously–the hallways vibrating with it…), I’m intrigued by Reich, and I’m intrigued by others who have been intrigued by Reich, and an image of a large portion of that world of interest was contained in the cartoon in a way that now feels like a marker of destiny. Even here the clash of the material and the non-. This was not the exercise in autobiography I was expecting.
Further oddness. I clicked on another link…
Kind of funny. A collection of “black velvet” work by a Tahitian artist, including a version of the cartoon. Go down to the comments. Someone asks who the original artist was for the cartoon. Kevin Slaughter, whose blog it is, thinks it’s Donald Hardman. But he is corrected by someone named “Marc,” who identifies the artist as Steig. It was not me. It was some other Marc with a “c.”
So I wound up discovering that the cartoon in my father’s wallet did, in fact, lead to a very accurate portrait of who I am. It’s amazing to me that so many of my interests, and my identity to a certain extent, was, through the cartoon, thrown up onto a screen in an instant. Did someone say “synchronicity?” Why not? I didn’t get to the root of myself as a misanthrope stuck in a box, however. I’ll have to work more on my own to put that story together.