For over a decade, starting as early as I can remember and going on into the middle of adolescence, The Simpsons was the most important manifestation of culture in my life. This was also true for everyone I chose to have a relationship with. It stopped being true around the time I turned thirteen, when I had the first major friend turnover of my life, and when I stopped watching the show; I can’t remember which came first. Another thing that happened around this time is I decided—or maybe realized—I was going to give my life to Serious Art, to living—as David Lynch calls it—the Art Life.
It’s not that I thought the Art Life couldn’t involve something like The Simpsons. It’s more that I became suddenly overwhelmed with the sense that in order to make Serious Art, I had to reject everything I’d known so far. This included (maybe primarily) the community I grew up in on the South Side of Chicago, which is inextricably tangled with both my attraction to and my departure from the show. It’s only now, at 27, after I’ve long since left that community, and after the show has spent as much time out of my life as in it, that it seems possible to start to reckon with the forces that helped create all the selves I’ve been. Selves that have been diagnosed as being unable to take anything seriously. Selves that have used humor to deal with pain and, more consciously, have used pain to make humor.
Growing up—becoming yourself—involves points of departure. We leave histories, systems of belief, systems of organization: religion maybe, family, home. Some of my most formative departures were from things my mother was born to and hasn’t fully left: i) Irish-Catholicism, ii) the culture—especially the culture of masculinity—of West Morgan Park, the Chicago neighborhood where I was born. One of the most telling facts about WMP, to my mind, has to do with its name. Neighbors uniformly call it Beverly, the result of two particular forces central to Chicago’s history: a needy aspirationalism born of economic insecurity, and racism. See, Beverly has always been wealthier and more prestigious than Morgan Park at large. Also Beverly, like West Morgan Park, is overwhelmingly white, whereas the rest of MP has a much bigger and more visible black population, from whom many of my white neighbors were more than happy to distance themselves.
I left Catholicism at nine, and by all accounts the Confirmation Class of ’04 at St. Cajetan went much more smoothly without my budding iconoclasm(/pedantry). One of my last memories from Sunday school is of a less-than-annual Q&A we were granted with the parish’s priest, an opportunity to seek clarification on the minutiae that had been dogging our respective faiths for the last year. The teacher forbade me from asking the priest any more of the questions I’d covered my entire left arm with, both because we were running out of time and because most of them were designed to poke fun at some bit of absurdity or contradiction in the catechism. It would be almost another decade before I was able to leave WMP and its culture of masculinity, and the damage would be much more lasting.
A memory: my first year playing rec soccer, age six. (Photographs testify: vaporwave lime-green jerseys, and I smiled easily. The body was tight; I had that good young skin.) The soccer fields were in a wide clearing inside the Dan Ryan Woods, one of the only places in the city left mostly for nonhuman life. Aside from the clearing, anyway. Twice a week I’d get the experience of running on grass during magic hour, when the heat would break and the last bit of day would light up all the dandelion hands come free of their flowers, floating, night starting to happen, lightning bugs morsing horniness to each other. One such twilight I forgot about the soccer game and was inspired to start picking some of the dandelions. I didn’t notice the change in the crowd until I brought the bouquet I’d gathered over to my mother. There were two dozen red-faced dads screaming at me at the same time. I was immediately taken out of the game—punished in front of my community. The statute was explained after the sentencing: flowers are for fags.
This was a Krakatoan event in the development of what you might call my superego (trauma : self :: light : filmstock). Flowers were collateral damage—I was hardly aware they existed for the next twenty years. While playing in a different soccer game, a year later, I got in a fight with Tommy H., who had until then been a friend. The same number of fathers, instead of screaming at me, laughed approvingly. Started to cheer. The fighting became more technically earnest, more spiritually ironic, more theatrically ambitious—like the best professional wrestling—and the game completely stopped to allow this spectacle. I remember feeling disembodied, even though I was slapping, being slapped. People were laughing. Laughing. Holy shit it felt good. A fight everyone won. I walked off the field to
congratulations, embraces. My first fight, an initiation.
The following is a top-of-my-head list of things I was taught (usually after I followed some natural impulse and was punished by my best friends, my brothers, my teachers, my parents and their surrogates) I was not allowed to do, because they were not for boys or men but for fags: pick or think about flowers or plant life of any kind, wear costumes, wear interesting clothes, wear jewelry, try to make my hair look different from one of two basic architectures, write poems, play musical instruments other than those played in the nuclear rock band (playing the violin = incontrovertible evidence you were a fag, e.g., and you could be exiled for this, you could have friendship and social inclusion withheld from you), listen to music other than that made by a nuclear rock band, draw, sculpt (woodworking = okay if product useful), take photographs (= aesthetic regard/experience of beauty = as gay as it gets), cook, paint, touch a man in a non-sporting/non-violent context, touch a woman in a non-sexual context, be non-sexual friends with a woman, volunteer any emotional intimacy or vulnerability to anyone, watch black-and-white movies, watch movies without violence or comedy, go to a museum, purposely learn anything more than one category away from military science/history or sports, dance, admit to or experience any negative emotion besides anger, look at the moon or the stars or the sky on purpose. (I could go on—way on.)
One thing males were allowed to do, though, was make each other laugh. Humor continues to be the foundation of all my inter-male friendships, even though I’m not as funny as when I was younger, when I felt more powerless and less happy. My mother was the primary inculcatrix: being funny, in her eyes, is the most important quality to possess, cultivate or display. It’s the second most desirable quality in other persons, second only because there’s nothing as endearing as when someone finds you funny. (She rarely describes people with more affection than when she says, “Oh [s/he] thinks I’m hilarious.”) Now, maybe “sense of humor” is a useful shorthand for a whole complex of winning qualities, but for my first quarter century of life, it did not occur to me to make or seek relationships on the basis of, e.g., open-mindedness, creativity, kindness, diversity or commonality of experience or interest or values or anything else. Friends were for laughs.
But those early humor-relationships were etched deep with WMP’s signature: little creativity, mucho homophobia. Mostly it consisted of causing each other survivable amounts of suffering (doinking—slapping or punching someone in the testicles—was very popular, though it didn’t always feel survivable), its violence a natural immunization against just how intimate it is to share laughter.
One of the ways I have long pictured life is as an ocean made of liquid boredom—traumatic, psychotic boredom, the boredom of death—interrupted by islands of vitality. In WMP, to my particular ocean, there were only certain kinds of islands available, namely the multiplex and the television. I would’ve lived at the movie theater if I could’ve, though nothing as far out there as even Lynch made it to the Crestwood Theater’s eighteen screens—it was strictly studio fare, most of it more ocean than island. Plus, going to the movies got more expensive all the time, and even if you had the scratch you needed someone to drive you. So I ended up, moth-to-bulb, spending almost every free minute in front of the television. It’d humble most weekend Netflix warriors to go back and see the kind of dawn-to-dawn couch time I was putting in in my prime TV days (the decline starting as soon as I moved out of that neighborhood).
TV was, and still is, mostly shit: it was hard to get any real kind of buzz off of, say, anything in the Law & Order family. But somehow, almost by accident, the odd broadcast thing would deliver what you might call the spirit in unadulterated form. The Simpsons was the most consistently inspired, broadly successful, and intensely important of these.
Loving The Simpsons was a—almost the—de facto criterion for social inclusion among my friends; it would’ve been aberrant not to love it, rather like announcing oneself an unbeliever among the devout. As you’d expect, we found ways to make it competitive, this being the only way we knew how to love: who could remember the joke perfectly (usually me); who could best mimic any of the show’s hundreds of distinct characters (usually me, save for the family Wiggum). Deciding one’s favorite episode took on a bizarre importance. It was less a study of which episode naturally compelled you the most than it was (or maybe this is no different) a decision about what relationship to the show you wanted to signify; in a culture where boys are more or less prohibited from expressing/displaying their non-aggressive, love-capable selves, this was one way do to it in open air. At gunpoint, in 2017, I’d probably go with “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer (The Mysterious Voyage of Homer)” (S08E09), in which marital discord and a psychedelically incendiary chili pepper send Homer on a vision quest to find his soul mate. He’s led on this journey by Space Coyote, voiced by Johnny Cash, naturally.
The Simpsons premiered less than two months after I was born, and my brain started to really come online just as Bartmania was taking over the country. It’s hard to appreciate how singular and vast a phenomenon Bartmania was. For several years—my first years—Bart seemed ubiquitous in American life, making his way onto not only millions of screens, but also millions of screen-printed t-shirts, toys, video games and the dockets of untold scores of elementary-school PTAs. Not everyone agreed on what Bart stood for, but everyone could tell that he stood for something. Of course, cartoons make natural icons. The image is easy to reproduce, and free of the fraught association with any actual, recognizable human. It’s less obvious in 2017, when so much prime-time television takes the form of the cartoon, but The Simpsons was the first really important and widely distributed animation made (sort of) for adults. This demo-bending had a lot to do with the breadth of the show’s appeal, and also made it an ideal platform for the nascent culture warriors of the early Nineties, whose corruption-of-America’s-youth/families line of attack found a perfect flash point in the family Simpson.
To me, one of the show’s greatest moments comes in 1992, in the third season. Bush 41, running a family-values-oriented reelection campaign, had famously made The Simpsons a public straw man on the stump, saying American families needed to be “less like the Simpsons and more like the Waltons,” the famously wholesome Depression-era family at the center of their own eponymous and decades-running television show. (Put another way: our commander-in-chief made a working-class cartoon family a national enemy in his attempt to convince Americans to give him four more years of world-historical power.) The next episode to air started with the Simpsons family watching Bush’s speech on television. After Bush says the thing about the Waltons, Bart says: “Hey, we’re just like the Waltons. We’re praying for an end to the Depression, too.”
While I loved every Simpson like they were a Koteff, Bart was my most immediate and natural cultural avatar. One of the most representative Bart moments comes in “Duffless,” S04E16. Outside the front door of Springfield Elementary, Lisa asks Bart to hold onto her science-fair project—a steroidally enhanced tomato that’s been inflated to the size of a large pumpkin. Bart agrees, but then sees Principal Skinner at the bottom of the staircase, bending over to tie one of his shoes and cheerfully droning to himself: “Over, under, in and out. That’s what tying’s all about!” This is a rare opportunity. Skinner’s ass—Bart’s archenemy’s ass—dances hypnotically, expressionistically, essentially begging Bart to throw the tomato at it. Bart has a brief moment of consideration; danger music plays. But the decision isn’t his to make. The tomato explodes all over Skinner and a host of students innocently standing by.
The thing I always found fascinating and relatable about this moment is the way Bart’s impelled by some higher—or baser—authority inside him. Bart feels some version of the ocean/island thing. And one thing he revealed to me was how, in certain environments, certain oceans, humor is the way you can build an island for yourself.
Bart was a very particular kind of modern protagonist: one whose antagonists are bureaucratically diffuse, whose kryptonite is boredom, whose prison is discipline and normalcy. His meteoric arrival on the pop-culture landscape demonstrates the extent to which he was performing an affect that had been accumulating like electrical charge under the surface of both American youth and the ambiently oppressed American population at large.
But Bart not only gave representation to these previously subterranean affects; he also modeled new ways of being and living. He was like us, only braver, and more innocent. No wonder his noble resistance was publicly disparaged, and even his more overtly graceful human qualities were seldom remarked upon. In truth, he was a model not (or not only) of delinquency but of emotional sensitivity, of openness to experience (e.g. “Homer vs. Patty and Selma,” S06E17, in which Bart is conscripted to a ballet class; despite his initial objections and humiliation, Bart comes to experience grace, joy and even a defiant transcendence in the act of dancing), of empathy and care (e.g. “Bart the Mother,” S10E03, in which Bart accidentally kills a mother bird—traumatizing himself and disappointing his mother in the process—and learns to care for the bird’s young), of familial love (e.g. “Lisa the Beauty Queen,” S04E04, in which Bart acts as pageant coach after Homer misguidedly enrolls Lisa in a beauty pageant to help assuage her fears of being ugly. One of Bart’s lessons involves rather flamboyantly modeling for Lisa how to walk in high heels. His climactic act as coach provides one of the show’s most tearjerky moments: “Lis, as your brother, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to say… you’re not ugly.”)
There are a couple things worth noting here. One is that despite becoming a scapegoat in the crucial family-values front of the culture wars, The Simpsons provided a realer model of family love than most anything in the popular culture at the time, the family’s dysfunction serving as a backdrop against which its members demonstrate the ability to love through adversity, pain and personal deficiency. The other thing is that the heels moment, like the ballet thing supra, is one of many examples of the prepubescent id-honorer being naturally, aesthetically, innocently drawn outside the lines of orthodox masculinity and into something much more fluid, androgynous and radical. The simple fact that Bart was voiced by a woman—Nancy Cartwright—was a seismic realization in my young life, one of those rare moments in which you can actually sense yourself reconsidering something fundamental about the world.
In his natural repulsion to orthodoxy, Bart ends up inviting deep existential crises, which provide opportunities to rise to new levels of courage. One of the most important Bart-centric episodes, to me, is S07E04, “Bart Sells His Soul,” which is worth examining as a kind of case study. The episode opens with the family at church (this is familiar; they are there most every Sunday, save most notably for Homer’s own experiment with a more personal religious practice in “Homer the Heretic,” S04E03). Charged with distributing the hymn sheets for the week, Bart (enlisting sidekick Milhouse’s help) replaces the week’s devotional with Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” Most people don’t realize anything’s amiss, and in fact are more into their worship than usual. Homer quietly asks Marge, “Remember when we used to make out to this hymn?” This is a telling scene. Bart compulsively resists church orthodoxy because resistance to orthodoxy is his spiritual practice, and here it influences the other churchgoers as well: by the time the seventeen-minute proto-metal hymn is over, half of them are holding candles aloft.
Nevertheless, the Reverend is incensed, and threatens the children with real, if it-wasn’t-funny-it’d-be-horrifying eternal damnation. Milhouse, fearing for his soul, confesses. Bart thinks Milhouse foolish and tells him there’s no such thing as a soul, an assertion he backs up by selling his soul (written on paper like an IOU) to Milhouse for five dollars. Lisa—characteristically more concerned with Bart’s well-being than he is—fails to convince Bart that there’s something innately noble in him worth protecting (Lisa: “The soul is the symbol of everything fine inside us. The only part of you that lasts forever.”) But Bart is soon confronted with a series of events that suggest he may have actually lost something he should have kept. He is unrecognized by dogs and automatic doors; his breath fails to fog the glass of the ice-cream freezer in the Kwik-E-Mart. He’s suddenly unable to laugh at his favorite cartoon. He even has a beautifully rendered nightmare of a world populated by all of his friends, all of them newly happy in the company of their souls, who in the metaphysics of the dream become disembodied companions. Except Bart’s soul is serving Milhouse, and so Bart is alone. He finds himself stranded on a lake, attempting to follow all of his friends to a gleaming paradise city on the other side, but unable to row the two-oared boat in anything but a circle.
The rest of the episode follows Bart’s attempts to regain his soul, which proves ever elusive once sold, changing hands, disappearing into the marketplace, its value fluctuating like any commodity. In the end, after a desperate, all-night search (think Ulysses, Nighttown), it’s sister Lisa who finds Bart’s soul and buys it back for him, using change from one of the few piggy banks she’s managed to keep hidden from him. Her real gift, though, is wisdom. She tells Bart, “Some philosophers believe that nobody is born with a soul. But you have to earn one through suffering and thought and prayer. Like you did last night.” That night, Bart falls asleep in peace, his dog next to him, and dreams of the same world of disembodied souls. Rowing the same dingy to the same city across the water, Bart and his soul, a team again, ram their boat into the class nerd Martin Prince’s boat, knocking soul-Martin into the water.
Let’s say Lisa and her philosophers are right, that the soul must be earned, grown, cultivated. Now, for many of us who grew up after the Age of Miracles, the myths of the grandfather faiths have never felt sufficient, do not seem to have had anything directly positive to do with our souls beyond their role in history. A bummer, maybe, but true. In this world, then, we are ever in need of updating our reservoir of parable, as (the possibility of) the soul is ever subject to assault. But the flip side is that every time something soul-like does grow, it’s a miracle—an extrapolation writ human of the original mystery, of life growing out of a dead world. For many of us, art is not just the legacy of the insights the Age of Miracles gave us; it is also the space in/through which it obtains.
I still find “Bart Sells His Soul” to be a near-perfect representation of the way a child’s mind struggles to understand the vocabulary his culture has handed down to him for conveying our highest and most nebulous truths. The loving fidelity to the child’s conflation of the literal and the symbolic—Bart’s soul becoming a bill of sale, rendered in a ten-year-old’s script—enables the show to represent existential conflict in the form of a story a child can actually follow. I remember all my theological education leaving me with the same difficulty understanding just what in the hell a soul was. Here as elsewhere, The Simpsons seemed to give an arena to my most deeply felt questions and struggles, managing to challenge and comfort, but never to condescend.
In adolescence, The Simpsons became another thing I departed from. I so associated the show with all the elements of my life it helped me (want to) escape, that—baby, bathwater—I ended up leaving the show itself. But this was also a result of the show’s leading me to so many other kinds of cultural deliverance, like a gateway drug for the spirit. The opening of this kingdom of art was itself such a profound and intoxicating development in my life that I’m still getting my bearings. Starting in my late teens, about the first time I willingly read a book, or purposely looked at a painting, I’ve gone looking for inspiration everywhere, all the time, seeking more, different, and higher highs: reading Gogol alone at night, forgetting to blink in front of Kurosawa in 70mm, spending psilocybic afternoons crying in the Guggenheim. Even flowers have re-entered my life as a source of inspiration. Now, at 27, and trying to hold up my end of the conversation as a writer, I can see that The Simpsons is the main and most obvious bridge to my past.
Of course, my most thoroughly Simpsons-inflected memory from my youth involves Bart. You often got the sense that if Bart couldn’t joke around, couldn’t make himself laugh, he would die. Like how, when I think back to my (boys-only) Catholic high school, the most perfectly asphyxiating set of circumstances of my life (suffice to say, these were flowerless times), and wonder what it is that kept me alive through senior year, one of the first things that comes to mind is the feeling I got, sprinting down the hallway every day before seventh period peer-ministry class, racing Brother Ickes, one of the school’s Catholic monks, to the theology center so that I could fill his whiteboard with hundreds—hundreds—of penises. That feeling: an island. Every penis: an island.