I am on the record as having raised my kids on The Simpsons. Was this a good thing? Probably. How bad can it be, to watch the funniest show in the history of the world? Plus, it provided quotes for almost every occasion overlooked by songs from the Sixties. But was it morally a good thing? Who knows? I have trouble believing any TV show has an influence over our moral lives. Between fits of laughter, my kids watched things on The Simpsons that made them ask intelligent questions. With kids, how often does that happen?
People went to church on The Simpsons, the only show I can think of in which churchgoing was a normal, boring part of life. People got married and divorced. Krusty the Clown is the guilt-ridden son of a rabbi (Homer: “A Jewish entertainer? Get out of here!”), Smithers is a closet gay with a passion for shrivelled Mr. Burns, Homer’s mother is a Sixties subversive, and his dad is one of the great old geezers of television. So, why is this funny?
Thus spake Homer Simpson: “It’s funny because it’s true.”
Now comes one Julian Baggini (whose name, if true, is funny), on the BBC site, claiming to be a philosopher who sees deeper depths (as the host of my favorite fishing show says) in the antics of the animated family. Like a good European, Baggini can mix condescension and pomposity in equal parts. Need a sample? “To speak truthfully and insightfully today you must have a sense of the absurdity of human life and endeavour. Past attempts to construct grand and noble theories about human history and destiny have collapsed.”
Somehow, I never got the collapse memo. All things grand and noble, down the drain?
Philosopher Baggini sounds like an inmate of Plato’s cave when it comes to The Simpsons. His cluelessness matches his conviction. Baggini pounces on the episode in which Homer starts his own religion, mainly so he, Homer, can lounge around the house on Sundays. Here, surely, is a postmodern, existentialist, secular-absurdist parable refuting the fanaticism that lies at the core of all religious faith: right?
Wrong. In fact, Homer returns to his conventionally Protestant church, having botched things up royally. The show contains the wisest words about religion ever uttered on TV, delivered by God himself: “Don’t worry, Homer. Nine out of ten religions fail in their first year.”
Baggini, the philosopher, has heavyweight thoughts — so heavy that they crush the readers’ metaphorical toes. Sample?
A rich philosophical worldview is in this sense like a pointillist picture – one of those pieces of art in which a big image is made up of thousands of tiny dots (see Seurat image, right). Its building blocks are no more than simple dots, but the overall picture which builds up from this is much more complicated.
Yet we need reminding that the dots are just dots, and that errors are made more often not by those who fail to examine the dots carefully enough, but those who become fixated by the brilliance or defects of one or two and who fail to see how they fit into the big picture.
And the Simpsons certainly plays out on a broad canvas.
Pointillist picture — Seurat at the park — broad canvas — connect the teeny dots. Of course! Nothing could better illustrate the American need for European philosophers, even when named Baggini, to instruct us in the art of carefully examining those dots. . .
Finally, Baggini the philosopher compares French existentialism with the Simpsonian (and, it turns out, Pythonian) kind. Behold, the mind of Baggini:
The Simpsons, like Monty Python, is an Anglo-Saxon comedic take on the existentialism which in France takes on a more tragic hue. Albert Camus’ absurd is defied not by will, but mocking laughter.
Here I must argue that, for once, Baggini has failed to examine his dots with the full intensity required of a true thinker. The Simpsons has a tragic dimension which the philosopher fails to acknowledge. Greek drama has a home in the show. Consider the life of Oedipus: what more truthful and insightful commentary on the sorrow and the pity of it, than the following?
Lisa: Oedipus is the one who killed his father and married his mother.
Homer: Argh! who paid for that wedding?