For me, there is no hope of writing this missive to the living without writing a clear appreciation of the role of Bill Watterson’s work in my cultural and intellectual formation. As the only young tiger known to have crossed over into the human world, I fell in the early days into a sharp-pointed despair, understanding true isolation and loneliness. Tigers respond only to their own bodies, and here came the trappings of Western humanity: rational thought, language, awareness of self, the insidious influence of dualism, notions of ennui and disaffection. With a degree of alienation from my body and the larger community of tigers, I thought my life was hardly worth saving.
Discovering Calvin and Hobbes was a seminal event in my assimilation into human society. Here was a portrait of an animal utterly at ease in his navigation of human absurdities and hypocrisy. A tiger that could hold humans close to himself and in contempt at the same time. Watterson’s work, simple illustrated panels, contained an entire framework for coping with aloneness. Hobbes is rarely comforted by the presence of other tigers. We tigers are by nature solitary, yet this one could live in a real community with his human family. Watterson invested this nonhuman character with deep sympathy, wit, and exuberance. Walking on two legs or four, his life was perfectly tuned even if his actions are not always admirable.
Where my own life has been wracked with the angst of possible extinction, the eradication of my entire species from the planet, Hobbes, if he was so concerned, mostly kept this quiet. I commend Watterson for creating a character whose very reality seemed fluid and subjective. Calvin was lucky to have such a friend, and I often felt bad for the parents who could not experience Hobbes’ true nature. I suppose from the human perspective we are meant to pity Calvin for believing in something so pure and joyful as a tiger who can walk, talk, and name himself to high executive positions in a sexist club. Drawn with feline grace, he strode and bounded, burst through doors at unlikely speeds and excelled at verbal jousting–even if in a juvenile way.
Stripes off to Calvin and Hobbes for being a true work of art and a product of near-unsurpassed genius in its medium. Praise for it being this tiger’s guiding light even in these celestial doldrums. Tigers fancy themselves better left unchanged, but we could all do to be a bit more like Hobbes. That goes double for humans.
Thomas Hobbes was neither a tiger nor a very optimistic man, even for his very Calvinistic era. In the 17th century he composed numerous works expounding on his philosophy of politics, which was intimately intertwined with his view of human nature. Bill Watterson describes this view as “dim,” but that three-letter adjective does little to illustrate the depths of Hobbes’ moral pessimism. This is the man who thought that members of his own species were inevitably prone to mischief and that their natural state was war, the only remedy for which was a governing structure with undivided and absolute power. He did allow some provisions for citizen revolts in the case of danger, but whether that is genuinely in accord with his philosophical system or just human hypocrisy is a matter I’ll let your species’ thinkers debate.
Consider, then, Hobbes the tiger. Like all the characters we have examined so far, he is a fusion of genuine feline sensibility and human construction. No God-made tiger would act the way that he does, and in his every thought and action he reflects upon some human thought or emotion. He is, in that sense, anthropomorphized. When he curls up in front of the fire in the winter, he is seeking warmth, but the comfort and love that people are usually only projecting onto their kitty cats really exists in Hobbes. I should revise my previous statement that he is a fusion of feline and human. What I should instead state is that Hobbes is a fusion of the civil/domestic and the wild/untamed. In that way, he is more like a housecat that can talk and has real emotions than a tiger pushed into a human context. Domestic cats are creatures that, by their own volition, sacrifice some of their wildness and independence from humans in exchange for the care and attention of their human counterparts. Hobbes embodies some of theses characteristics. Like a housecat, he eats food made by humans and appears to do little to no hunting, preferring canned tuna (and swordfish steaks) to, say, live rabbit. For all that, he is still a tiger, and is bound to that tigerness. To an extent, however, he depends on his human family for survival. Let’s unpack that last statement.
Now, a normal domestic cat–we’ll make this concrete and say that it’s the one owned by my editor’s family–depends on his human family because he is slow and old and unsuited to hunting. He needs food and water, and occasionally some attention from his, shall we say, domesticated partners.
Hobbes, of course, is a tiger full and free. His size enables him to hunt for whatever he might need. In fact, the parents should be grateful that his manners and social graces are so well-developed, or else Hobbes might have them for dinner when times get rough. Yet Hobbes cannot escape the bonds of his own humanity for this reason: he is the creation of a human, namely Calvin, and therefore embodies a full range of human characteristics. Personality, real feelings, self-consciousness, artistic ability, a vague ability to comprehend mathematics, a spirit of adventure not oriented only toward survival, the ability to think critically and project hopes into the future. Until I entered into human relationships and society and learned their language, I was unable to attain any of these characteristics, but Hobbes is not fully a tiger the way that I am (or was, depending on who you ask). Hobbes was created partially human, for to be a real companion for a human one must be a human. There is another parallel here to the particular domestic cat to which I earlier referred. This domestic cat exists, on one level, as a pure animal, one essentially and totally oriented toward survival and response to a less conscious body than most human imagine they have. However, my editor has endowed this cat with a whole range of human attributes including imagination, a quick temper, business acumen, the trappings of royal offices, and a sophisticated dialectical variant of English to use in speech. If we are to be coldly rational, then we can see that Hobbes is nothing more than a construct of a young imagination, designed to help a hyperintelligent but emotionally and socially maladjusted child deal with his environment.
I choose to reject this interpretation. To me, there is nothing compelling in it, and it violates the integrity of the art that Watterson has given us. Hobbes, I contend, has an inner life of his own. He thinks, breathes, loves, and lives life in fullness. The problem is not that Calvin thinks that he is real but that the parents fail to recognize his essential reality. The parents’ minds are too occupied with the material world around them, the “facts” of reality that dictate their roles as disciplinarians and child-raising beings. Only in moments, as in some of Calvin’s father’s bizarre revisionist explanations for natural phenomena (e.g. the sun sets directly near Flagstaff, Arizona and the world was black and white before the invention of color) does their natural aptitude for imagination, recognizing the creative potential in all of life, spark to life. Calvin’s world is one that is enchanted but still, since it was conceived by an adult, aware that this enchantment is fragile and that imagination is a scarce resource in a world dominated by the demands of growing up, of becoming a useful social creature. Hobbes, then, is entirely real to Calvin, and in Calvin’s experience is as solid and material as his love/hate interest Susie Derkins and the burned out Mrs. Wormwood who teaches him the useful facts of life. Six-year-old Calvin does not look at his parents or his peers as idols or role models. Instead, he looks up to Hobbes, the free-spirited anarchist who, because he exists above the ordinary, can enjoy the world but remain beyond the reach of discipline. People think he’s just a stuffed toy, after all.
Recall that Richard Parker from Life of Pi was something of an embodiment of humankind’s animal nature, a source of tension and conflict as well as salvation for young Pi. Richard Parker and Hobbes are, forgive the pun, entirely different beasts. Part of the reason is that Parker exists, for now, only in words and is therefore less substantial as a body, but the major difference is that, to my mind, the ambiguity surrounding Hobbes’ existence is not very ambiguous at all. At least, not to the person to whom it matters. Pi presents the problem of Richard Parker as a question of alternative narratives and moral evil. Calvin has none of that literary self-reflection that Pi has, no grand plot or theme to challenge the reader with by creating Hobbes. Instead, Hobbes’ existence is only ambiguous to us as readers. Ultimately, though, unlike in Pi, the question of Hobbes’ existence or nonexistence is totally unimportant to interpreting the story because the important thing is that he exists to Calvin and that’s that.
On my better days, trapped in this “heaven,” I am still able to see the glory in the world around me, the hand of the Divine in the working of the entire universe. To see the world not in terms of atoms or causal billiard balls but in terms of unfolding events, the revelation of nature and our interpretations of it, that is a true blessing. I just hope I can escape this place someday. Chaos is encroaching. The inhabitants are restless. Let’s see where this goes.