Wednesday 16 June 2021

Implications of the question: "Is Hobbes really alive?" (in Calvin and Hobbes)

Is Hobbes alive, or is the whole thing in Calvin's imagination - and therefore a delusion? Does it matter? Or, is there another alternative - another way of framing the problem? 

In the whole of Calvin and Hobbes strips (except for the episode when Calvin is tied-up and can't escape - above; that Calvin was tied-up is later confirmed by his mystified father) everything is explicable on the basis that Hobbes is just a stuffed tiger; and that Calvin is believing a falsehood when he assumes Hobbes is alive and sentient - that is to say Calvin is deluded. 

The pseudo-sophisticated modern says that it doesn't matter - that 'the important thing' is that Calvin believes. The claim is that if Calvin treats Hobbes 'as if' he is alive, then this amounts to the same thing as Hobbes 'really' being alive. 

But that is dishonest, because to the modern spirit, 'as if' belief is in practice regarded as a falsehood - more specifically a delusion. So, for decades, Liberal Christian theologians (and Jungians, for that matter - such as Joseph Campbell) asserted that the Feeding of the Five Thousand, Jesus having been resurrected, that he was the Son of God... all that stuff didn't really matter - we could keep the Christianity (believe the symbolism) on the basis that we simply treated this 'as if' it was true. 

Indeed, 'as if' was put forward as more intelligent, more spiritual, morally better than the 'literalism' of 'fundamentalists'. 

But that isn't what happened! 'As if' turned-out to be just a step onto a slippery slope leading to atheism and anti-Christianity. 

Thus, if we try to say that it does not matter whether Hobbes is really alive; and all that matters is whether Calvin treats him 'as if' he is alive - then this is psychologically a lie. It does matter! 

On this basis I think we either have to say that Hobbes is alive, and Calvin is therefore right to love (and hate) him; or else that all this is a just a 'projection' of Calvin's wishes - excusable in an immature child (whose brain is not fully developed), but not in itself admirable, and indeed a kind of psychopathology. Or we accept that Hobbes is alive: I mean really alive. 

This would mean that Hobbes is really alive, but alive in some way and form that is not generally recognized by the simple categories of modern thought. 

 And I think this is true - indeed I think it must be true; and to deny it involves denying very deep emotional intuitions - to violate which tends to make us inhuman and evil. 

I will give an example. Supposing that Calvin and Hobbes ended by Calvin 'realizing' that Hobbes was 'just' a stuffed toy - and decapitating and mutilating Hobbes! This is a really horrible idea - but if Calvin really was previously operating on the basis of a delusion and has now come to his senses, they why does it sicken us so much? 

We can then ask whether we are right to be sickened by this scenario - and I think the answer is clearly - yes

Therefore, in practice, and at a powerful gut-level, we regard it as more-Good for Calvin to regard Hobbes as really alive, and to treat him as really alive, than the alternative. 

Why then do we abandon this conviction for adults? Ah! - now that is the real question! 

The modern adult world has, for some reason, decided that it is best for us to violate our natural and healthy and wholesome knowledge about the genuine aliveness of our loved stuffed tigers. 

Is that reason a good one? Not that I can see - on the contrary, the modern adult world's insistence that Hobbes is 'nothing but' a stuffed tiger' does truly catastrophic damage to our souls - wounds us, makes us less human, alientates us and induces that unassuageable despair which shows itself in so many aspects of contemporary life (including much religious life). 

Unless we have a world view which recognizes that Hobbes really is alive, and alive in a way and with a meaning which it is vital that we recognize, then we are lost - I mean literally lost*. 

This post - and the Note, below - is reposted and edited from 2015

Note:  So, I have argued - as a test case - that we must regard Hobbes as really alive, and that there is a profound violation by asserting the alternative. Christians who deny the aliveness of other gods, or - say - an African Fetich (who assert that these are necessarily and certainly delusional) - are therefore stepping onto that slippery slope of alienation and despair which The West has descended over the past several generations. Anthropologists who explain-away the spiritual events and entities of their subjects are likewise wounding themselves. To regard other-people's spirits and gods as (necessarily and certainly) psychological (delusions, manipulations, wishful thinking and the like) is a self-inflicted wound. 

For example, those who state that 'there is no Father Christmas' are doing perceptible violence to themselves. When I look at any such person, I see someone who is at least to that extent in a bad way, spiritually. And I mean a bad way spiritually. And this applies even if the person is a devout Christian - to the extent that they can bring themselves to assert that Santa is just made-up, they are embracing an evil falsehood. They have revealed their souls as significantly-darkened - and they further darken their souls by their skeptical pronouncements; and by any attempts to argue or defend their denials. This means that Father Christmas/ Santa Claus is really-real - and therefore that the problem is to understand the sense in which FC/ Santa is objectively, actually, independently real. 

This sense in which Hobbes and Santa are really-real can be conceptualized in various ways - none completely satisfactory, but some of them going back to Socrates and Plato. Usually, the general idea is that earthly and mortal knowledge is necessarily partial, distorted and labile - and/but is more-or-less-closely linked to a complete, clear and permanent knowledge in some other place, realm, dimension or state of existence - or residing in gods or God. (Without which there would be no possibility of knowledge at all - it is this underpinning which saves us from the nonsensical paradoxes and despair of nihilism.) And that 'eternal' reality is real, but we cannot (cannot) fully understand it. 

 We know that this must be so, that reality must be real - but we cannot describe reality with precision or completeness. Thus, we must not - for our own sakes - reject any specific piece of knowledge merely because it is partial, distorted, labile or because we cannot explain its causality or how it fits in with other stuff that (we think) we know. Because that rejection leads to the nonsensical nihilism of rejecting all earthly and imperfect knowledge by an irresistible and unstoppable slide down into to alienation.

*Reference: A metaphysical argument for the fact that everything is alive (and in some sense conscious) can be found here


S.K. Orr said...

This is very interesting. I have speculated in a similar fashion (though not with anything approaching your depth or complexity) about childhood toys I once owned, and more recently, about certain icons and statues and crucifixes. While gazing at them during prayer, I "know" they are inanimate objects fashioned by artists and craftsmen for a specific purpose, but I wonder if the fact that I focus genuine love and affection and interest in the person represented doesn't make the Christ on the cross truly alive during that time. Same for an icon or statue of a favorite saint. Can it be that such "objects" become infused with the spiritual energy from my devotions that they are alive, at least while I am in their presence? Sometimes it seems to me that such objects are like dry cell batteries...that they absorb and hold a "charge" from me, and that while they might just be a lump of metal or ceramic or wood to someone else, for me they truly do hold some deep reality, some LIFE, for lack of a better way to express it.

And for the record, I've always believed Hobbes was alive.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

This made a big impact on me when you originally posted it, and impressed on me the importance of taking intuitive knowledge seriously.

Restitutor Orbis said...

This post really struck a chord with my family. My wife is disabled and homebound. She has a large collection of stuffed friends, similar to Hobbes, and her relationship to them is definitely that they are alive. I read her your article and she was delighted. Shortly thereafter, Benjamin the stuffed bunny did a happy dance about it, too. I think he was thrilled at the metaphysical confirmation of his realness. All of your posts provide hearty food for the soul, but this one was a banquet!

Avalon John said...

Fantastic post, thank you for it. I'm sharing this with my daughter who despite efforts is falling away. We are both huge fans of Calvin and Hobbes, and the topic is somewhat new-agey enough (or at least new-agey sounding) to appeal to her current tastes and hopefully will help in turning her back to the good/beautiful/true.

Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks to commenters. I reposted this because a couple of people had said that it made a significant positive impact on them, back in the day. Glad to find a couple more who liked it this time round!