Just to change the subjects (at the moment, mainly Brexit, the Middle East, Donald Trump, terrorism and last year’s tally of dead celebrities), I’ve decided to point out that three of the greatest geniuses of modern times have been American cartoonists .
In no particular order, because you can’t rank geniuses, they are: Charles M Schulz, whose Peanuts strip explored childhood, houndhood and Charlie Brown, the most complex one-dimensional, black-and white character ever invented; and secondly Dr Seuss, who, using very few words, planted phrases and images in our minds which will outlive our likely dementia – Sam I Am, The Cat in the Hat, the Grinch who stole Christmas and, introducing little ones to very big issues, the Lorax who speaks for the trees.
Thirdly, there’s Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, the perfect vehicle for explaining, satirising and sometimes undermining the lives of provincial Americans… and the great strength of Schulz, Seuss and Groening is that they comment, despite their flashes of surrealism - like a fantasist beagle, super-powered cats or three-eyed fish - on recognisable, ordinary lives.
They’re democratic. If serial cartoons can be as much an art as opera, drama or literature (which they can be because they’re all just different ways of telling stories), then cartoons are the people’s art – and think what fun The Simpsons might have made of that portentous, Blairite-sounding phrase.
I might have added to my ‘ greatest American geniuses’ list Walt Disney and Jim Henson, creator of The Muppets, but I didn’t on the grounds that Disney was more a great entrepreneur and impresario than a great cartoonist and Henson was a primarily a puppeteer.
Still, beneath their fizz, their enormous energy and sky-high talent, all five seemed to be fuelled by an enjoyment of people (and sometimes, because cartoonists can do anything they want, people as transformed into animals).
They don’t, in the style of the old Soviets or the new populists, worship the people – they just like them; their quirks and struggles and small victories. The Simpsons and the Peanuts gang are full of faults and failures; it’s what makes them funny, but they are not grotesquely funny, they’re funny like us. For all their wild adventures, Homer is a working man trying to get by and Bart is an amiable brat we can’t help laughing at. We would not like him to be our son, but he would make a very enjoyable nephew.
Lucy van Pelt of Peanuts is scarier but we admire her as a perfectly realised boss-girl of a familiar type – and perhaps Schulz gave her quite a complicated name for a comic-strip character (Lucy is apparently short for Lucille) because he thought of her, like Linus and the rest, as a person rather than a comic device.
Disney, unlike the other American geniuses, reached for high art by combining classical music and inventive animation in Fantasia, but I think that when he just tried to move people by telling plain, humane stories in a gloriously inventive way, as in Bambi or Dumbo, he did better.
The film The Muppets Christmas Carol, which, to round things up, was made by Jim Henson Productions and released by Walt Disney Pictures, might not appeal to Dickens purists but it’s both very Dickensian and, in the best way, very American because, like the 1946 Frank Capra Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s about a triumph of decency and goodwill.
It’s an exercise in optimism, like Dr Seuss’s great hymn to human potential Oh the Places You’ll Go!, which you should read if you want a jump-lead to reverse your post-seasonal slump. (You might also like, if you haven’t encountered it already, the good Doctor’s book Horton Hears a Who, not because it’s got much relevance to this blog, but because you’ll probably enjoy it greatly and it doesn’t – important during the slump period - take much time or effort read).
So I continue to believe, even under lying, petulant, phoney, big-headed show-off Donald Trump, that America doesn’t need to be made great again. The heart of it always has been.