The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Part 2, Chapter 6: Get Rid of Slimy Girls

Only three children inhabit the world of Calvin and Hobbes. Obviously, there is Calvin. There is also another boy, Mo, the schoolyard bully. (We'll be talking about Mo in a future chapter.) And then there is the girl in the strip.

Susie Derkins.

Rivaling Calvin's parents, Susie is the most dominant ensemble character in Calvin and Hobbes. She is Calvin's neighbor and classmate. Calvin and Susie could be friends, good friends it seems. But Susie has a fatal flaw.

Susie's a girl.

As a girl, Susie becomes Calvin's nemesis and target. Probably the best example of this is Calvin's club G.R.O.S.S., which stands for Get Rid Of Slimy girlS. Given that Susie is the only girl in the strip, G.R.O.S.S. seems to be excluding one particular person:

All this might make Calvin seem cold and heartless in his treatment of Susie if it weren't for the fact that Calvin's harsh treatment of Susie appears to be covering over his romantic feelings for her. This note was struck in the very first Susie strip on December 5, 1986:

As Watterson has written, "I suspect Calvin has a mild crush on [Susie]." (1) Early on in Calvin and Hobbes Watterson claims he tended to overplay the Calvin and Susie love/hate dynamic. (2) For example, here are strips dealing with Valentine's Day from 1986:

In the later years of Calvin and Hobbes Watterson began to downplay the love theme, settling for allowing the "two personalities [to] bounce off each other." (2) Regardless, a romantic tension remained in the Susie and Calvin relationship. But the romantic commentary was no longer offered by Calvin. Rather, Hobbes began to make the psychoanalytic comments:

Regarding the Calvin and Susie relationship Watterson has written that "neither of them quite understands what's going on, which is probably true of most relationships." (1) Here in Part 2 of The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes we have been thinking about the view of human volition found in Watterson's strip. In Chapter 4 we noted how Calvin and Hobbes, via the wagon ride visual metaphor, overtly worries about the scope of human volition. Further, in Chapter 5 we noted how, in the personality of Calvin, we find an implicit argument concerning volitional constraints and investments. That is, our will comes to us configured in certain ways, ways we don't consciously choose: Why do I hate tomatoes? I have no idea. I just do. Now here in Chapter 6, in the love/hate story between Calvin and Susie, we find a further complication for human volition: Sometimes we have no clue about our true desires or identity. As Watterson notes, we often don't know "what's going on" with ourselves. It's one thing to argue for human volitional freedom. But it's another thing altogether to say we know, at root, what we really want. That is, even if we had "free will" we probably would be clueless as to its use.

This is, interestingly, the view of the mind being advocated by modern psychological research. Specifically, introspection might be a fool's errand. It might not be possible to fully know your own mind. Too much is inaccessible to us. Or, if it is accessible, super-sensitive to our spin doctoring. Surveys routinely find that the vast majority of us report being "above average" across a host of positive traits. A statistical impossibility. Yet who doesn't think they have an above average sense of humor? Or intelligence? Conversely, how many bigots do we know who honestly don't think they are bigots? How many narcissists think they are really humble? In short, as psychologist Timothy D. Wilson has written in his book Strangers to Ourselves, when it comes to our internal lives "much of what we want to see is unseeable." (3) But this doesn't stop us from trying and, ultimately, making choices based upon faulty self-assessments. As Wilson notes, "...introspection about feelings can cause people to make unwise decisions and to become more confused about how they feel." (4)

In Part 1 of The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes we noted the dim view of human nature presented in the strip. This Augustinian vision of human nature has been echoed in the volitional meditations in Part 2. Specifically, not only are humans intrinsically "bend inward" upon themselves (Augustine's incurvatus in se) but it also seems, given the view of volition in Calvin and Hobbes, that change is hard for us. Our will is too anemic to dramatically reshape our destinies. We seem condemned to ride the wagon.

Theologically, then, here at the end of Parts 1 and 2, we can say that Calvin and Hobbes sits most comfortably in the Augustinian and Reformed theological traditions, anthropologically speaking. This may be a depressing location. But we should be quick to revisit the conversation from Chapter 2. Specifically, the Augustinian spectacle found in Calvin and Hobbes is saturated in humor and comic exposure. This comedic context, I think, radically recasts the Augustinian formulation. It holds up humanity less as "totally depraved" than as myopic and silly. It suggests that humans are more funny than sinful. True, when pushed too far this perspective breaks down. There are times of serious moment and moral atrocity. But much of our workaday lives is saturated with folly than with evil. We are, as a species, pitifully funny. And this laughter goes a fair distance in dispelling the Augustinian gloom and moral seriousness infusing much of Christian discourse. In short, the Augustinian verdict need not imply a Calvinistic sternness and seriousness. It could also, if Calvin and Hobbes is to be believed, imply the joy of Qoheleth. For it was Qoheleth who, upon looking at human folly, recommended the joys of the moment and the very un-Puritanical recommendation to avoid being "too righteous."

To that recommendation I think Calvin would say "Amen."

(1) p. 24 The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book
(2) p. 70 Ibid
(3) p. 15 Strangers to Ourselves
(4) p. 16 Ibid

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3 thoughts on “The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes, Part 2, Chapter 6: Get Rid of Slimy Girls

  1. "Our will is too anemic to dramatically reshape our destinies."

    Hi Richard,

    I know you're speaking for the Calvins with that remark, but your previous musings on free will as flourishing suggests a different story.

    A metaphor inspired by your previous musings on free will as flourishing: The trees in my back yard form a canopy. The canopy's really cool to look at--the pattern is entirely determined, in that you can see how each branching happened to capture a place in the sun. And yet each tree "expressed" its own drive to flourish by doing so.

    Isn't consciousness equally obviously a way of CREATING new means of flourishing? As someone who needs to get busy and file for a couple new patents, I can tell you that I am very conscious of the need to beat the competition to get my "place in the sun." This type of free will is anything but anemic--it's the stuff of life itself. And humanity has covered the world as a result of it--just like the trees branching out through the canopy.

    And isn't Calvin's "girls suck" attitude explained by his finding a new-found area where he would like to flourish but has no clue about how to do so yet, creating sour grapes out of over-reaching desire? (BTW: that would also explain why young gay men often get on so well with the girls to the near infinite dismay of the majority of young men... I may have just tilted in the direction of thinking sexual orientation is biological.)

    I should end here and put on exhibit my extraordinary self-control in pruning my branching thoughts. But it would be exciting to see how far you could take your free-will as flourishing idea beyond metaphor...

    Oops, I can't control the branching. It seems that the question for Christian musings on free will is "If my faith determines what it means to flourish, do I have to be radically free with respect to my faith--that is, are we stuck with Calvin theologically--or is there a special dispensation with regard to that?

    Interestingly, the origins mythos says we are gardeners, but the Kingdom parables say we are plants... And since I don't have a meta-metaphor to branch out to, I'll have to leave it at that.


  2. I love your take on this post. Now I see why I love this strip so much. Even before my present journey began four years ago, I loved "Calvin and Hobbes". Now I know why! Our Source was even then preparing me for what was to come. And, at some deeper level, I could, at that point in my life, appreciate the finer points of Watterson's and Calvin's worldview, without even realizing it. Thanks for this series!

  3. Thanks Don.

    Hi Tracy,
    I am trying to sketch the view of volition from "inside" the strip (if the strip even has a view). But my thoughts do parallel the world of the stip (as I paint it here). To clarify a bit...

    By "anemic" I mean to say that I sometimes wonder if "will" or "willpower" is as strong as we think it is. A lot of change is effortful and time-consuming. And we fail a great deal.

    But I do think consciousness provides us with a motive force. It is what moves us forward in time and makes us invested in the goings on of life. Consciousness moves us into flourishing, it makes us crave it and seek it out. Spinoza called this impulse conatus. I tried to sketch out my view of how consciousness, will, and flourishing work together in that Omega Point series.

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