Arts & Culture

Garfield Minus Garfield Plus God

When Dubliner Dan Walsh removed Garfield from the classic Jim Davis cartoons, drawing attention to the peculiar life and mind of his owner Jon Arbuckle, he created an internet phenomenon which has drawn between 30,000 and 300,000 hits per day … Read More

By / February 1, 2010

When Dubliner Dan Walsh removed Garfield from the classic Jim Davis cartoons, drawing attention to the peculiar life and mind of his owner Jon Arbuckle, he created an internet phenomenon which has drawn between 30,000 and 300,000 hits per day since February. Without the fat, waggish, sarcastic, star of the cartoon, all we are left with is Jon Arbuckle, Garfield’s owner. Walsh would have us believe that this results in "an even better comic about schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and the empty desperation of modern life" of which Jim Davis, himself, is a fan.

In Walsh’s distilled version, Arbuckle still says and does all he did in the original cartoon, when his life was made tougher (and often funnier) because of Garfield. He wishes for love, struggles with maintaining the house, waxes philosophical, makes dumb domestic mistakes, and tries to find joy in the everyday. Garfield no longer wryly responds to any of this because he is no longer there. And it’s true, Arbuckle does seem off-kilter, lonely and unstable at times without the cat making any appearances. But for those who can’t shake the knowledge that Arbuckle is interacting with someone, his irrational behavior can actually appear profound and poetic. Another possible reading is not that he is mad and melodramatic (although I’ll admit, sometimes he does seems a bit mad….), but that Arbuckle is seeking a relationship with God. Like Arbuckle sans Garfield, religious people attempt to have relationships and interact with something that cannot be seen or heard. (One can already anticipate the catcalls, "All this suggests is that religious people are also schizophrenic, bipolar, depressives!) Pleading with this intangible thing, fearing it at times, religious people occasionally find a companion, albeit one with fierce independence. Like Arbuckle in this new version, religious people incorporate this seemingly absent thing into their lives, for better or for worse. Arbuckle’s life takes on a chaotic and meandering tone. He talks to himself constantly, cannot grasp the reins of his life, and acts just plain oddly at times. If by removing Garfield from the strip, Walsh is suggesting that the cat never existed, and was just a figment of Arbuckle’s imbalanced imagination, then this, too, parallels a modern notion that people manufactured God in order to have a pretext for social control (or a context for their madness). Why all the mumbling into books? Why the unscrewing of refrigerator light bulbs? But for those who have had experiences of or deeply sense the divine, the kind of conduct that Arbuckle exhibits makes a whole lot of sense: Despite the discombobulation that Arbuckle might feel from having this "absent-Garfield" in his life, he also seems to feel a whole lot more. His paradoxical relationship with "that which isn’t" expands the kinds of experiences he can have in the world and enlarges the map where he can take his extraordinary range of emotions. In Walsh’s revised strips, Arbuckle’s relationship with that-which-is-absent presents a window into the complex, challenging, and beautiful relationships modern religious people build with God. It also shows us a bit how these relationships can appear loony to others. Who knew such a rich meditation on relations with the divine could be achieved with photoshop and in pastel?  Here are eight religious readings of Garfield Minus Garfield. In this strip, Arbuckle is experiencing some kind of joy. It’s rare for him to be so pleased—perhaps he just booked a ticket to go back to the farm or was successful in landing that elusive comic date. But when encountering the Other wanting to share his joy, he is clearly rebuffed. This portrays the independence of the intangible God who cannot be summoned at will or manipulated into giving comfort at all times.  Arbuckle would like to universalize his experience, or influence something larger with it—if I am feeling good, then all must be good. But try as he might, he realizes that his emotions do not determine the state of the world.

By attempting to hear the dreams of the Other, Arbuckle is attempting to make a more selfless connection with the world. It is unclear whether he actually hears any response to his question, but he understands that relationships require listening—or at the very least a place for the Other to assert itself. To try to listen to the dreams, specifically, of the Other—if that Other is indeed God or if that Other is another being—is to try to be commanded towards a vision of the world not yet established. Arbuckle is opening his own existence to include the will of another.
One of the things that religion focuses on is an understanding of death. Some, full of hubris, might believe that it can be controlled or intimidated, but that can only lead to futility, as is portrayed here. Since he appears the next day, one can surmise that his disappearance only served to remind him of his mortality, something that perhaps encourages him to live and feel more fully, as he seems capable of doing.
For a modern person, all religious expressions and moments of relationship with God do not lead to disappointment or absurdity. Here, Arbuckle seems to have found a space for his contentment.  His suggestion that he and the invisible Other “think nice thoughts” is accepted. One can imagine God appreciating the sentiment. Jewish texts portray God as responsive to the suggestions of others, even allowing people to sway God’s emotions.
Truth be told, most people, even religious people, are not always satisfied by religious worship or ritual. And even though one might imagine that doing things in a special or different (read: religious) context would make things improve, it doesn’t always. A boring Shabbas morning shiur is still boring with or without a flashy kippah on one’s head. And sometimes one just needs to admit and accept that.
Sometimes religion entreats people to do seemingly irrational things—like walk to shul a mile in a snow storm, spend too much money on a citrus that one won’t eat, cut off one’s circulation with funny boxes on one’s arm and head, or take off one’s clothes in a marketplace if it turns out one’s garment contains a mixture wool or linen. The experience, although not always pleasurable, usually leads to a good amount of deliberation about why a religious person does what one does, or why one is required to do what one does……
When humans fail, people often turn to God for comfort or understanding. Given the free will that God allows, these moments of communion do not entail asking God to change things. Jon is not asking God to cut a hole for him.  Rather, the experience of the Other is a way to have companionship in these moments when other people disappoint us.
Arbuckle’s intense excitement about his three-weeks-from-now date would be cause for concern for his human friends. But here it comes across as reflective gratitude, especially given that no person is there to tell him otherwise. It almost feels like his next move is to say a bracha….. And I am sure I am mistaken, but doesn’t that look like payos tucked behind his ear?

This article first appeared on July 7, 2008 and has been republished as part of the series JEWCYEST WEEK EVER.