Calvin and Clay, the Protective Manipulations of the Unconscious, and Friends of Ambiguous Ontological Status

March 29, 2016

Today’s post, “Calvin and Clay, the Protective Manipulations of the Unconscious, and Friends of Ambiguous Ontological Status” is the afterword that I wrote for Michael Scott Monje’s novel Imaginary Friends.

Imaginary Friends (complete with this afterword) was published this month under the new Autonomous Press imprint, NeuroQueer Books. My copy just arrived in the mail, along with the two other new titles from NeuroQueer Books, The Spoon Knife Anthology and Barking Sycamores: Year One

Imaginary Friends is the immediate sequel to Monje’s novel Nothing Is Right (though it stands on its own just fine), and part of the same series as Monje’s Defiant

“Calvin and Clay, the Protective Manipulations of the Unconscious, and Friends of Ambiguous Ontological Status” is one of my two favorite pieces that I’ve written so far in my life. The other is my short memoir piece “Kelly’s Blackbird,” which appears in The Spoon Knife Anthology

But be warned: since it was written as an afterword, “Calvin and Clay, the Protective Manipulations of the Unconscious, and Friends of Ambiguous Ontological Status” contains a couple of major spoilers for Imaginary Friends. If you’re planning to read Imaginary Friends (and you really should, because it’s great), and you’re averse to spoilers, you might want to hold off on reading this afterword, or at least stop reading after the ninth paragraph. 

Imaginary Friends, Defiant, Nothing Is Right, Barking Sycamores: Year One, and The Spoon Knife Anthology are available directly from Autonomous Press, or from online retailers like Amazon or Barnes & Noble (though it’s better for small publishers when you order from us directly), or perhaps from your coolest local bookstores if you let your coolest local bookstores know that these are titles they should carry.   

You can read my foreword to Defiant here, and the opening scene of “Kelly’s Blackbird,” my piece in The Spoon Knife Anthology, here

The vast majority of human beings go through their entire lives without seriously questioning or examining their assumptions about what is real, what is imaginary, and where the boundaries between the real and the imaginary lie. Most folks operate under the rather narcissistic assumption that their own judgments about the distinctions between the imaginary and the real represent clear perceptions of objective truth – and that everyone who perceives reality differently, or who has a different understanding of the boundaries between the real and the imaginary, must be ignorant or insane.

At the same time, we live in a culture that loves stories in which reality turns out to not be what it seems, or in which the protagonist’s sense of reality deviates interestingly from that of the audience. For most folks, I suspect, part of the pleasure of such stories is that they flirt with danger from a safe distance. Horror movies are fun because they provide the edge of fear without placing the viewer in real peril; essential to the pleasure of a good horror movie is that the hockey-masked fiend from the movie does not actually leap out of the shadows and disembowel you with a fire axe when you get up to fetch the popcorn. By the same token, most people enjoy A Beautiful Mind, A Scanner Darkly, Fight Club, or Calvin and Hobbes from a position of comfortable certainty that they themselves are in possession of a more solid grasp of reality than the protagonists of the stories in question – certainty that they themselves could never be mistaken as to which persons of their acquaintance are “real” and which ones are their own alternate personalities, hallucinations, or stuffed. Unreliable narrators (or unreliable viewpoint characters, even when they’re not first-person narrators) give us the warm thrill of confusion, the intellectual adventure of having our minds blown in a small and safely contained way, without the terrifying existential disorientation that most people experience when their sense of reality is truly exploded.

Unreliable narrators and unreliable viewpoint characters are fun, but we like to imagine that our own viewpoints are reliable. Most of us read Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes with an amusement at Calvin’s antics that includes a certain sense of superiority. Calvin seems unable to reliably distinguish the real from the imaginary within his world, whereas we imagine that we can distinguish the real from the imaginary not only in our own worlds, but in Calvin’s world as well. We imagine that our understanding of Calvin’s world is more accurate or “true” than Calvin’s. But how certain of this can we be?

Nearly every Calvin and Hobbes fan I know reads the comic with the assumption that Hobbes is a stuffed toy, and that Calvin imagines him to be real whenever no one else is around. That’s how River, my currently nine-year-old daughter, understands the comic these days. But when she was six and I first introduced her to Calvin and Hobbes, she saw it differently: Hobbes was a real tiger, who had the magic power to turn into a stuffed tiger at will. He turned into a stuffed tiger whenever anyone but Calvin was around – because, as River explained to me, “If grownups knew he was real they would totally freak out.” Where other readers laugh at the way Calvin’s wild perceptions conflict with the ostensibly more “realistic” perceptions of the comic’s other human characters, six-year-old River laughed at the way the clueless grownups kept failing to notice that their son was keeping a live magic tiger in their house. River’s interpretation of Calvin and Hobbes might have been different from most people’s, but it was perfectly valid; within the ten-year run of the comic, there’s not a single strip that contradicts it.

The possibility that Calvin is a more reliable viewpoint character than most readers give him credit for, in terms of the accuracy with which he perceives his world, also suggests a second possibility: what if Calvin is a less reliable viewpoint character than we give him credit for?

We assume that the “real” version of Hobbes is the stuffed version, because we only see the live, unstuffed version in those panels of the comic strip from which the adult characters are absent. But how often do we see Susie Derkins, or Moe the school bully, in the same panel as an adult? How do we know that Susie and Moe are any more “real” than the live version of Hobbes, in terms of having an existence outside of Calvin’s imagination? Surely an imagination as vivid and powerful as Calvin’s, which can turn a stuffed tiger into a wonderful friend and companion like Hobbes, is perfectly capable of also generating imaginary friends (or foes, in the case of Moe) who look like human kids.

So is Susie Calvin’s neighbor, or a manifestation of repressed and dissociated aspects of Calvin’s own psyche? Perhaps a manifestation of what Jungians might call his anima? Is Moe an emergent alter ego, Calvin’s equivalent of Tyler Durden?

On a bookshelf in my daughter’s room, alongside her treasured Calvin and Hobbes anthologies, is an anthology of the one other consistently funny newspaper comic strip of the 1980s, Bloom County. This anthology includes an introduction by Bloom County creator Berkeley Breathed – and in this introduction, in perhaps the only truly serious moment in his whole body of published work, Breathed writes: “It took me years to discover that the most important dynamic in a comic strip is not shock and satire, but character and truth: the truth of Charlie Brown’s anxiety, for example – a mirror of our own. The truth of Calvin’s protective manipulations of his world.”

Calvin’s protective manipulations of his world. That gave me pause, when I first read it. Not Calvin’s impulsive antics, or his escapes into fantasy, but his protective manipulations of his world. That phrase has stayed with me. It has the uncomfortable and unmistakable ring of truth. And it came back to my mind again and again as I was reading the manuscript of Imaginary Friends.

Clay Dillon, like Calvin, is an unreliable viewpoint character, a character whose own protective manipulations of his world significantly impact his perceptions of reality. Clay’s protective manipulations are desperate attempts at survival by a sensitive young psyche under constant siege. Some of these protective manipulations are more or less conscious and intentional manipulations of his external relationships, his own sensory experience, or his rich fantasy life. But it is the unconscious protective manipulations – the complex of psychological defense mechanisms that Clay’s psyche constructs instinctively, without his conscious awareness or volition – that impact his ability to distinguish the real from the imaginary.

Clay’s psyche is fragmenting. The labyrinthine complex of defenses he’s being forced to construct in order to preserve his psyche at all, in the face of constant assault from a psychologically toxic environment, also has the effect of dissociating various parts of his psyche from one another. This dissociation means that substantial parts of his psyche – facets of his personhood, essentially – are ending up split off from his sense of self. And because these facets of his psyche are dissociated from his sense of self and are thus no longer part of his experience of himself, he can only experience them and relate to them as if they were Others. As if they were external to himself.

Imaginary friends occupy a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum, there are those imaginary friends whom the imaginer intentionally imagines and recognizes as being imaginary. Perhaps we can describe these as willed imaginary friends; they are the product of the sort of conscious act of imagination to which the philosopher Gaston Bachelard was referring when he stated that “anyone who can imagine can will.”

At the other end of the spectrum are those imaginary friends whom the imaginer does not recognize as being imaginary and instead regards as being “real,” in the sense of having an objective external existence and agency. These imaginary friends are products purely of the imaginer’s unconscious processes, without the imaginer’s conscious intent; the imaginer is thus unaware of his or her role as imaginer, and mistakes the imaginary friends for external Others. We can describe these as delusionary imaginary friends.

Again, this is a spectrum: These two types of imaginary friends are located at opposite ends, and in between are various permutations that share qualities of both. As Clay argues, when he discusses imaginary friends with Grandpa Harry:

“But Hobbes is real. Calvin might be imagining all the personality stuff and talking to himself, but he really does have a stuffed tiger. He’s not just imagining the stuffed animal. He’s only imagining the part where the animal talks. That makes it okay.”

In other words, from Clay’s perspective, Hobbes isn’t a delusion (and Calvin isn’t delusional, or “stupid” as Clay uncharitably puts it) because the stuffed version of Hobbes does have an independent external existence. Of course, Clay is somewhat missing the point here: the important question, when it comes to understanding what’s really going on with Calvin, isn’t whether Hobbes has a physical existence; the important question is whether Calvin is consciously aware that he’s imagining Hobbes to be alive, or whether he genuinely and completely believes that Hobbes is alive and that the live version of Hobbes is an Other who has agency independent of Calvin’s mind. This is a question that Bill Watterson carefully avoids answering, but I’m inclined to think it’s the latter – and I suspect Clay’s creator Michael Monje sees it that way, too. Imaginary friends who are entirely willed and entirely understood by their imaginers to be imaginary just aren’t that interesting. It’s the delusionary ones, like Tyler Durden in Fight Club, that make for the best stories.

Clay hits closer to home in this exchange:

“I really didn’t mean it,” Patrick said. “I just couldn’t help thinking like your mom should be in Calvin and Hobbes.”

“I think that too, only I don’t think it’s funny,” Clay said. “I’m really worried that maybe Calvin and Hobbes is a warning. Like maybe Bill Watterson knows things, and he’s trying to let us know about them too.”

“What kind of things?” Patrick asked. His voice was suddenly very quiet.

“I don’t know,” said Clay. “But I think they’re the same kinds of things that made C.S. Lewis think that the voices in his head were demons instead of imaginary friends. Only, you know, Calvin and Hobbes is for smart people.”

This is a crucial moment in Imaginary Friends: a moment where Monje hands us a great big hint as to what we should be watching for throughout the book. Because Clay, like Calvin or the narrator of Fight Club, is an unreliable viewpoint character – a character with a fragmented psyche whose dissociated fragments manifest as imaginary friends of the delusionary variety. And Monje herself, in the role of third-person omniscient narrator, is a “reliable” narrator only insofar as she reliably reports Clay’s unreliable subjective experience. Monje doesn’t tell us, at least not outright, which aspects of Clay’s perceptions of the reality are more or less objectively accurate and which aspects are misperceptions resulting from a fragmented psyche. Monje drops hints, of course. Leaves clever clues. But it’s up to us to figure it out for ourselves. Imaginary Friends is a puzzlebox of sorts, because the unconscious self-protective manipulations of Clay’s psyche have turned Clay himself into a human puzzlebox.

We easily recognize Van as imaginary. The rogue psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich made a vital contribution to our understanding of the human condition when he observed that the psychological defense mechanisms we instinctively construct, in response to the unsafe aspects of our developmental environments, manifest in the body as largely unconscious complexes of chronic physical tension. Reich called these complexes of tension character armor. Monje does a brilliant job of vividly depicting the construction and functioning of Clay’s character armor, and what it’s like in Clay’s own subjective experience. Van can be seen as a personification of Clay’s character armor: character armor conceived of and experienced as an actual character.

Van, and the companions Clay invents for Van, are the most obviously imaginary of Clay’s imaginary friends, because Clay himself experiences Van as manifesting within Clay’s mind and body. Clay experiences Van as having some degree of autonomy and agency, but not as a person whose existence is entirely external to and independent of Clay, like the existence of Clay’s parents or Clay’s friend Patrick. So we can recognize Van as imaginary even if we fail to pick up on Monje’s various hints about the unreliability of Clay’s perspective.

But if we do watch for those hints, if we look beyond the obvious and make the quite worthwhile effort of engaging with the puzzlebox nature of both this story and its protagonist, we begin to realize that Clay’s psyche is so fragmented that Clay himself can’t be trusted to keep track of all the fragments or to recognize them when he meets them. Which means that it’s up to us, the readers, to figure out which characters are “real” and which ones are dissociated fragments of Clay, pieces of the Clay Dillon puzzlebox, manifesting as imaginary friends whom Clay mistakes for external Others.

Is Hillary real? If we could visit Clay’s school, stroll out to the playground and observe Clay and Hillary with our own eyes, would we see a boy and a girl sitting and talking together, or a boy sitting alone and mumbling to himself?

And if Hillary is an imaginary friend, a fragment of Clay whom Clay mistakes for a classmate, is she the only one? What about this bit, near the book’s end, when the bullies in Clay’s catechism class are taunting him by questioning his gender:

The girls across the table looked embarrassed. At least one seemed like she wanted to talk, but none of them ever did. Not then, and not since Hillary had moved away.

It’s open to interpretation, and only Monje knows for sure, but I personally would bet money that if you and I could walk into that classroom and see it with our own eyes instead of through Clay’s eyes, we’d see fewer girls in the room than Clay sees.

The strange and terrible saga of Clay Dillon begins with the books Nothing Is Right and Imaginary Friends, continues in Gaslight Village and other books that follow, and also includes Defiant (which takes place when Clay is 30 years old). The whole saga should be required reading for anyone who works in any capacity with the sort of young people who are often described as gifted, disturbed, troubled, oppositional, defiant, or exceptional.

One of the most striking and tragic themes of the saga is just how utterly clueless and constantly wrong all the adults are about what’s actually going on in Clay’s mind. In a way, Clay himself is an “imaginary friend” to the adults in his life, insofar as when they look at him they don’t see him but instead see an imaginary child, a product of their own misconceptions and projections who has no resemblance (except in the external physical sense) to the real Clay Dillon. Every adult in his life is consistently one hundred percent wrong, all of the time, about Clay’s motivations, needs, feelings, thoughts, and perceptions. No adult ever even comes close to being able to conceive of what Clay is actually experiencing. They can imagine neither the extent and nature of his difficulties, nor the complexity and sophistication of his thinking.

In this respect, Imaginary Friends constitutes a warning to any adults – especially those in “helping” professions – who are so arrogant as to presume that they can truly understand the realities of their young charges. The one thing that I hope every reader learns from the story of Clay Dillon is an increased sense of humility. Humility especially when it comes to our understanding of others, and when it comes to our assumptions about the imaginary and the real.

Read Clay’s story with humility, and with an eye for subtle hints – for the twisty architecture of the puzzlebox, and for things that are not what they might seem. Michael Monje knows things, and she’s trying to let us know about them, too.






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