Levels of reality

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In dealing with any narrative, and often in dealing with life itself, one can trip over levels of reality. One has to recognize that the following can be very different things:

  1. What happened.
  2. What someone believes happened.
  3. What someone pretends happened.
  4. What someone says happened.

Charles Schulz’s Peanuts is a fictional work, and as such is totally dwelling on level 4 and possible 3, but I’ve seen no reason to believe that Schulz was under a belief that he was producing a documentary, and that level 2 was in play (nor have I seen any reason to believe that the things in the comic strips actually happened, which would put level 1 in play.) But within the context of the story being told, we see other aspects at work. For example, I hope we can all agree that Snoopy was not actually a Flying Ace during World War I; either he’s delusional and believes that he is such a flying ace (level 2) or he is imaginative and pretending (level 3). There are actually cases to be made for both; while his ability to sometimes suddenly drop a persona when things go badly suggests 3, while the fact that in his interior battles he always loses to the Red Baron suggests 2, because he’s not consciously in control of the scenario. But if he is living on level 3, he’s doing it with a full improv commitment, always avoiding breaking the illusion he’s spinning. And he appears to have similarly committed improv cohorts, like the birds who are his mechanics (or perhaps those birds are figments of his mind also, no more real than the plumes of smoke and bullet holes on his shot-down doghouse.)

Now, Schulz occasionally made some curious choices about levels of reality. He eventually started having kids not only understanding Snoopy’s delusions (although he wisely generally kept them gaining understanding off-strip; Snoopy would start doing a character and only in a later strip would the kids recognize he was in that character and respond to it; we never see him reading their thoughts) but believing in them. And that tended to rub me the wrong way. Okay, let me correct that; it didn’t rub me the wrong way when Peppermint Patty bought into his characters, because the line for her between thinking a dog thinks he’s an attorney and thinking a dog is an attorney is a thin one; she has never been that well connected to reality to begin with. But when Schroeder (who may by nature be obsessed but is not delusional) expects Snoopy to fly him to music camp? That seemed awkward.

But with Schulz having established that, I have to accept that, both in the strip and in beyond-the-strip Peanuts works: sometimes the kids will buy in to Snoopy’s personae and the activities that are engaged in. But when someone doesn’t match what Schulz would’ve done, it knocks at me a bit.

Such an event happens in Woodstock’s First Flight!, which is an interesting volume. The story is built around the Flying Ace over to help Woodstock, who knows he’s supposed to fly south for the winter, but can’t do it on his own. This ends up reading less like a general story being told, and more like one of those stories that is intended to prepare a child for something they are about to encounter for the first time, like a story about a kid who was worried about the first day of school but everything ended up being okay, or the child who adapted to the fact that mom and dad are divorced. This one lets kids know some of what to expect on their first plane flight (you’ll have a safety belt! You’ll wear headphones!), and it works fine as that.

Where it bumps me a bit, though, is “Woodstock looks at Snoopy curiously and asks what type of plane this is. Use your imagination! Snoopy says.” Snoopy isn’t thinking he’s a pilot flying a real plain, nor is he doing full on improv of flying a plane, he is fairly straightforwardly indicating that he is pretending, and asking Woodstock to play along.  That’s not something that I recall Schulz doing, and it would have seemed out of place if he did. (And it also seemed quite unneeded; those two sentences can be removed without any damage to what surrounds them.)

But that’s the fiddly nitpicking of a well-out-of-his-teens year old who is clearly not the target audience of this tale. The book does come with a craft – and I mean that both in the sense of “something you do to make something” and “a vehicle”, as the last page is a perforated and pre-creased piece of cardstock that you fold into a paper (well, cardstock) plane. The folding directions will actually work just fine with a plane piece of paper; the pre-creased version just makes it easier for young hands to fold precisely.

Woodstock’s First Flight!, adapted by Jason Cooper with art by Scott Jeralds, is available for immediate order.


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