Winning with Wile E.
I dissolve into spasms of can’t-catch-my-breath, tears-in-my-eyes laughter every time I watch one of the Roadrunner cartoons. Family and friends who have once watched with me invariably request, upon their return visits, that I pull out the DVDs, more to watch me make a palsied spectacle of myself than to watch the cartoons. I am equally entertaining, it seems; a cartoon viewing a cartoon.
The point of hilarity for me is that empyrean summit of put-upon sad sackery, that permanently happening disaster, that afflicted Job of the animal world, that Charlie Brown of the canis latrans species, Wile E. Coyote. His every scheme for capturing the speedy Roadrunner–whether it be leg vitamins or dehydrated boulders or a giant mousetrap or a sling-shotting rubber band, or rocket-powered skates, bike, pogo stick, skis – ends not just in frustration, but painful frustration. The stricken look on his face, a compound of dismay, rue, incomprehension, and dread; that look of knowing he is about to be clouted, concussed, origamied, flattened, or pulped as the fuse burns down on a stick of dynamite, as the shadow of a plummeting boulder covers him, as he realizes he has overshot a cliff and is treading air above a canyon, undoes me completely, sweeps me into gales of giggles and guffaws.
I’ve never understood why Wile E. is cast as the villain, as his ridiculing pseudo-Latin names–grotesques appetitus, hungri flea-bagius, carnivorus vulgaris, carnivorous slobbius, dogius ignorami–clearly indicate. He is a predator, after all. But he is humanized as well; so, rather than simply following his instincts, which may or may not enable him to hunt down his faster prey, he exhibits the presence of mind to formulate plans and use technology for its intended purpose: to extend the scope and power of the body and the senses. Yes, the technology fails, but the fault almost always lies in the unforced error of a design flaw or an unforeseen consequence, rarely in Wile E.’s ineptitude.
And in the working out of this remorseless and unremitting failure that underlies the surface hilarity, we can glimpse the existential tragedy. Wile E. is fated to fail, fated to experience what W. H. Auden calls “the nightmare of hostile objects,” fated to be the Salieri to the Roadrunner’s Mozart, fated to suffer the obdurate thingness of things, fated to be heaped with the cruel impudence of the Roadrunner’s stuck-out tongue. He is predestined, with a ruthless rigor that would trouble the sleep of even the staunchest Calvinist, to be swindled by circumstance, mugged by inadvertentcy, feloniously assaulted by a world that refuses to be deferential. In the abstracted setting of the desert southwest, a raw and barren primordial world of natural encounter, a primal scene of outside the specificities of time and place, a thoroughly material world filled with things that obstruct and frustrate intentions, Wile E. is preordained to have his fondest wish derailed, his cherished expectation contravened; foreordained to chase certainty and find only contingency. He is doomed to aspire and desire, and be thwarted.
It would be easy to say that Wile E. subverts himself through expectation too grandly conceived, that he fails to acknowledge the odds mustered against him, that he is an obsessed Ahab who cannot recognize the tipping point where persistence becomes monomaniacal obstinance. It would be easy to say Wile E. is a fated Sisyphus who dares, unrealistically, to hope.
But he nonetheless hopes; nonetheless demands that the order of things yield to his longing even if it shatters against the world’s indifference; nonetheless persists even if his longing will always long, his desire always desire; even if he seeks a satisfaction always out of reach, a purpose always beyond his grasp. He hopes, stubbornly, tenaciously, even if he is run over by a real train at a fake railroad crossing; even if a lightning bolt boomerangs back and crisps him; even if creates a Burmese tiger trap that, when he tumbles into it, contains a Burmese tiger; even if a rocket drills him through the earth and lands him in China. He hopes, even if he courts only collapsed possibility, even if his every experience is shaped by fulfillment’s absence.
I am a fan of Wile E. Coyote. He may be a pilgrim who makes no progress, but he nonetheless has a lesson to teach. The world can often offer nothing but sneering resistance to our fondest wishes. The gap between desire felt and desire fulfilled can be wide, possibly impossible to close; so wide, that, as poet Wallace Stevens says, “one’s desire / Is too difficult to tell from despair.” Yet Wile E. grimly endures; he practices continuance. He hurls a maybe irrational hope against a reality perhaps predisposed to bankrupt all hope. It must be heart-paining, heartbreaking, and sometimes hearts can break so completely that deliverance can appear a wisp of smoke from a snuffed candle. But he goes on going indomitably on, renewing his covenant with hope. Wile E. never wins, but he also never quite loses.