Saturday, August 31, 2013

The elephant in the room: The deep, mind-blowing symbolism of Snuffleupagus

I've been working on a lot of projects this past month, and have seen some interesting films. However, I won't have time to talk about all that before the month is out, so instead I'm going to discuss something else that's been on my mind.

I don't know about you, but sometimes when I'm on YouTube I will just enter something in a search engine. You know, just to see what comes up. I might enter the name of a movie or TV show, just to see what the top result will be – a trailer, a popular scene, or a fan-made parody or music video.

One day I felt like doing a search for “Snuffleupagus” because that is a Sesame Street character I was always fond of as a kid. Looking back on that show as an adult, I find it funny that there was a character whose very existence caused the other characters to have a disagreement about the nature of reality.

Yet I also recall, as a kid, being frustrated that Big Bird couldn't convince the other adults that Snuffleupagus really existed. In hindsight, it seems slightly reckless for a kid's show to instill such an emotion in its impressionable viewers. According to Snuffy's Wikipedia page, the character was originally created to tap into kids' experience of having imaginary friends. Yet the larger mission of kids' shows – particularly educational ones – is usually to instill proper skills, values, and socialization into kids' growing brains. Sesame Street, for all its adult-friendly humor and irony, was psychologists carefully designed based on input from child psychologists. By contrast, the ontological dispute over the existence of Snuffleupagus seemed to encourage kids to regard adult authority as fallible, arbitrary, and unjust.

Notoriously, Snuffy's existence was finally made known to the other adult characters in 1985 because the show's writers were worried about the possible real-life parallels with children being afraid to report sex abuse for fear of being disbelieved. While that seems a valid concern, it seems to me to be a narrowly Freudian interpretation of what Snuffy represents. It treats Snuffy as a metaphor for buried sexual trauma. But I prefer a more Jungian analysis. To me, Snuffy is an archetype. He represents a form of universal wisdom that is not fully accessible to the civilized world.

As a logical-thinking adult, I find it impossible to avoid the question of why adults who inhabit a universe of talking monsters should find it difficult to believe in Snuffleupagus. When Gordon or whoever insists that Snuffy cannot exist, he is addressing a seven-foot-tall talking bird while saying it. In this innocent, unrealistic, cartoony universe, what line does Snuffleupagus cross by existing?

It seems to me that Snuffleupagus was intended to be some kind of prehistoric animal. He looks like a woolly mammoth, while his long tail and his polysyllabic, mock-Latin name also make him resemble a dinosaur. So maybe the idea is that adults dispute Snuffy's existence not because he is unbelievable, but that there shouldn't be any of his kind still alive.

The trouble with this theory, though, is that the adults don't seem to have any trouble believing in the Count. Vampires are mythical creatures, so why do they believe in a vampire but not a woolly mammoth? Perhaps this is because vampires are creatures from folklore and religion, embodying beliefs about the human soul. By contrast, mammoths are creatures from the secular world of science. They died out thousands of years ago – possibly as a result of early humans – in defiance of the creationist belief that the earth is only thousands of years old and that the environment could not possibly be altered by human activity. Perhaps Snuffy challenges traditional religious morality, and a sense of man's place in the universe, in a way that the Count does not.

Another thing I notice about Snuffleupagus is that he is the only one of the main Sesame Street characters to walk on all fours. This might be significant as well. It's common to anthropomorphize animals as humanoid characters who stand upright – from the bird-man of Lascaux to the Egyptian gods to all the famous Disney and Looney Tunes characters. Peanuts fans will notice that Snoopy gradually became bipedal as his role in the strip grew. These characters seem acceptable to the human world. And yet, a four-legged talking animal – whether it's Snuffy, or Mr. Ed, or Michigan J. Frog, or even the talking dog from that “do you think I should have said Joe DiMaggio” joke – tends to be a secret, known only to one person.

Could this be a subconscious acknowledgment of the possibility that our ape ancestors were able to develop intelligence, and civilization, only when their front limbs were free to build tools and make language gestures, and that an intelligent being who walks on all fours is therefore impossible? 

Or, is a four-legged talking animal actually some kind of spirit animal, who speaks to us not in the spoken language of civilization, but on a more primal, spiritual, archetypal, subconscious level?

If the latter, it raises the potentially brain-melting question of why a giant bird would envision a woolly mammoth as his spirit animal. Well, remember, in the real world, birds and elephants have a symbiotic relationship. Birds perch on elephant's backs to get food, and in turn alert the elephant to predators by flying away.

Alternatively, remember that Big Bird is a large, flightless bird. Perhaps he, too, is an extinct animal who should not exist in our world. Perhaps he is a dodo or a moa or an elephant bird, and thus feels a kinship to a fellow living fossil. His loss of the ability to fly, and also the theory that birds are descended from dinosaurs, both tie him to a more ancient world that modern humans refuse to acknowledge. Perhaps that is why he alone possesses the wisdom to see, and hear, a four-legged animal.

But wait, I hear you say, what about Eeyore? He's a four-legged talking animal that other characters believe in. Well, that's a good point. The inhabitants of Hundred Acre Wood do acknowledge the existence of Eeyore. But he seems less inclined to acknowledge them. Eeyore regards the two-legged characters as lacking wisdom. Hmm.

Interestingly, a comparison of Sesame Street's Snuffleupagus and the Disney portrayal of Eeyore reveals one strong similarity – a droning, monotonous voice that stands in stark contrast to the chipper, extroverted tone adopted by all the other characters. Perhaps Snuffleupagus/Eeyore is not simply a spirit animal, but a counterculture guru, tapping into a calm inner wisdom that is denied by the more worldly and hypersocial characters around them. At least in his early days, Snuffy would answer questions with cryptic statements. In fact, some people go so far as to equate his slow speech and movements with drug use.

In any case, it's hard to avoid the sense that Snuffleupagus embodies all of the thoughts, beliefs, and realities that modern Western civilization attempts to keep hidden. Perhaps nothing emphasizes this more than 1992's legendary “lost” Sesame Street episode, “Snuffy's Parents Gets A Divorce” This was an episode that attempted to handle the difficult subject of parental divorce in a way that would be palatable to kids. But the episode disturbed and troubled test audiences, and so was shelved. Even before it was made, there was apparently resistance to making the episode: executive producer Dulcy Singer argued that divorce was a middle-class issue, while the urban underclass in Sesame Street's target demographic would be more likely to be in single-parent households.

Remember, this was the same show that, a decade earlier, had sensitively handled the death of Mr. Hooper following the real-life death of actor Will Lee. That episode aired, but not one about Snuffy's family. It's as if Snuffleupagus carries painful implications – not only about consensus reality and the trustworthiness of authority, but also about issues related to class, and to the integrity of the family unit – so troubling that even death is easier to face.

What does all of this tell us? Does it mean that even in an urban, multicultural, enlightened society, there are still limits on what terrible truths may be spoken of?

Look at the original Snuffleupagus from 1971. Look into those terrifying yellow eyes, before he was redesigned. (skip to 1:10) What does he know, that we dare not learn?

One final thought: I remember, as a child, seeing the episode in which the adults finally saw Snuffy and admitted he was real. But even this did not result in absolute consensus. As I recall, the adults saw Snuffy when he was sleepwalking, and wearing a white nightshirt. And so the argument between Big Bird and the adults changed from whether Snuffy existed, to whether he was brown or white.

Does this tell us that consensus reality is ultimately unattainable? Is it significant that the community could only accept Snuffy when he was white, but not when he was brown? Also, consider the fact that Snuffy's favorite foods are cabbage and spaghetti; does the reluctance of the Sesame Street community to acknowledge him represent the downtrodden status of Irish and Italian immigrants in turn-of-the-century New York?

Or, most horrifyingly of all, is it simply possible to read way too much into a puppet character in a kids' show in a strained attempt at comedy?

Perhaps these questions are ultimately unanswerable. Perhaps each of us can only glimpse a fragment of the whole truth, as shown by the parable of the blind men … and the elephant.

And if, after reading all this, your mind still dares to deny that the impossible is possible, here's a clip of Snuffleupagus ice-skating.

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