December 4, 2019

Over and Under the Bus with Susan Sontag, Mickey Mouse, and Scott Fitzgerald

By Stuart Mitchner

Call me Mickey Mouse … It was  fun when you called me Mickey Mouse.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, from The Crack-Up

First things first, I would never throw Mickey Mouse under the bus. Although I regret my failure to write about last year’s 90th anniversary of Mickey’s debut in the 1928 cartoon, Steamboat Willie, I’m using the occasion as an excuse for replaying the catchiest number at the top of the impeachment hearings hit parade. 

Anyway, since the person you “throw under the bus” apparently has to be a political crony or supporter you suddenly want nothing to do with, as in, “I hardly know the man,” I have colorful evidence of my lifelong acquaintance with Walt Disney’s ageless creation right here on the desk in a torn and tattered copy of Mickey Mouse in “The Mystery of the Double-Cross Ranch” from 1950, alongside another old friend, my falling-apart New Directions paperback of The Crack-Up, a collection of Fitzgerald’s writings edited by his friend and Princeton classmate Edmund Wilson.


Snacking on Sontag

I found the “It was fun when you called me Mickey Mouse” fragment on the rebound from weeks of casual browsing in Susan Sontag’s Journals & Notebooks 1964-1980 edited by her son David Rieff and published seven years ago under the weighty title, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh. Seeing such a sign hanging above the gate, about as inviting as Dante’s “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here,” you feel almost guilty for the fun you have sampling the feast of leftovers Sontag threw under the bus of her published work. If anything, the effect, at least on this reader, is the opposite of “harnessed” — it’s an explosion of consciousness. After all, Sontag first made her mark by breaking down the barriers between high-brow and popular culture. Now it’s as if the living person has become an implacable absolute that the writers of the jacket copy have to sell high, not low, as “an invaluable record of the inner life — emotional, spiritual, and intellectual — of one of the most inquisitive and analytical thinkers of the twentieth century at the height of her powers.”

When I dare to admit out loud that my favorite fragment of the unharnessed consciousness so far is “Buster Keaton: Candide with a frontal lobotomy,” I feel like a peasant eating a snack on the lawn of the vast Sontag estate, Villa Significance, as the intellectual police descend. On that page alone, from London 8/18/64, it’s like scarfing a bag of Lay’s Potato Chips in the spirit of Bert Lahr’s TV pitch in which the one-time Cowardly Lion says “Betcha can’t eat just one.” After a taste of the deliciously apt reference to the “psychology and physiology of ‘the instant,’” you have the close-your-eyes-and savor-it morsel, “Mary McCarthy can do anything with her smile; she can even smile with it.” For me, that remark evokes Lauren Bacall’s “You know how to whistle, don’t you?” moment with Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not. — an association that sets you up for next line’s “brain-damaged woman who — even after she’d mostly recovered — couldn’t follow a movie.”

In one page — along with passing mentions of Sir Christopher Wren, James Jones, ectoplasm as seminal fluid, “modern” female sexuality, and Henry James — Sontag has subconsciously channeled  D.H. Lawrence’s recipe for the novel as “the highest form of human expression so far attained” because “it is so incapable of the absolute,” since “in a novel there’s always a tom-cat, a black tom-cat that pounces on the white dove of the word,” plus “there is a banana skin to trip on, and you know there is a water-closet on the premises,” and every character has a “relatedness” to “snow, bed-bugs, sunshine, the phallus, trains, silk-hats, cats, sorrow, people, food, diptheria, fuchsias, stars, ideas, God, tooth-paste, lighting, and toilet paper.”

Peter Rabbit

One of my favorite expressions of the unharnessed relatedness of high-brow and popular, as in serious adultstuff and funny-animal kidstuff, is the inventory of the doomed Consul’s library in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, where the Mahabharata, Blake, Gogol, Tolstoy, the Upanishads, Bishop Berkeley, Duns Scotus, Spinoza, Shakespeare, All Quiet On the Western Front, and the Rig Veda share the shelves with “God knows, Peter Rabbit,” because, as the Consul liked to say, “Everything is to be found in Peter Rabbit.

Primal Mickey

The best thing about Mickey Mouse in “The Mystery of the Double-Cross Ranch” is the stark comicbook simplicity of the cover image. After 70 years in my version of the Consul’s library, the colors are still vibrant and clear, though a far cry from the way they would have looked to a child finding a brand-new comic under the Christmas tree or in some hiding place my father liked to use, under the rug, or under the sofa. Mickey commands the foreground, reaching for his golden pistol with one gloved hand, the other clutching the rein of his horse Tanglefoot, the hapless but ultimately heroic Trigger to his Roy Rogers. Against the background of a nocturnal landscape reminiscent of Dr. Seuss’ Lorax, the horse-stealing villain aims the beam of his flashlight at the all-important price.

Inside, Mickey’s the hero, Goofy’s the slapstick comic relief, and Minnie’s the damsel in distress, easy prey for the predatory charms of the double-crosser of the title, Pancho, the fat sombrero-wearing foreman of the ranch she’s running for her Uncle Marmaduke. When the dust clears, Goofy has been played for laughs, scorned even by Mickey at one point (“What a dope”), and there’s a made-for-kids version of a Hollywood ending, as Minnie kisses Mickey. The only memorable line belongs to the character who invariably gets thrown under the bus, when Goofy says he prefers riding his mule backwards because “I feel more comfortable lookin’ at where I’ve been than where I’m a-goin’.”   

Mickey’s western adventure is followed by “Ringside Ruckus,” in which a vitality-inducing potion Mickey concocts turns Goofy into a proto Trumpian monster (“Don’t call me Goofy, see! Or I’ll mop up the floor with ya!”) who calls himself “Slippery Sam the Wrestler Man.” A whole column could be centered on the prophetic sociopolitical implications of Disney comics, especially the more complex and brilliantly drawn Donald Duck issues like “Land of the Totem Poles,” which, thanks to the artistry of Carl Barks, seems downright Shakespearean compared to the loosely drawn, cliched “Mystery of the Double-Cross Ranch.” But it’s still here after all these years, and I’m glad I knew better than to throw it under the you-know-what.

Another Survivor

My battered copy of The Crack-Up has survived because it gave me my first glimpse of how a “real writer” goes about his business. When you read the vignettes and fragments and nuggets of insight and wit and style in Fitzgerald’s alphabet-lettered notebooks, it’s as if you’re looking into his workshop, in touch with the bits and pieces he’s gathered and saved for fitting into a future narrative. When I quoted the “Mickey Mouse” exchange in a previous column, I figured that Fitzgerald probably never used it in his fiction. In fact, he did, in “On Your Own,” a story I found online in the Dephi edition of the Complete Works. A couple have dined together, seen a play, and are in a taxi conversing about whether or not they would ever get married when the woman suddenly says, “Call me Mickey Mouse,” and when he asks why, she says “I don’t know — it was fun when you called me Mickey Mouse.”

It’s even more fun at this political moment to find that the exchange follows the woman’s response to something romantic and a bit overwrought the man had just said: “‘What nice words,’ she teased him. ‘If you keep on, I’m going to throw myself under the wheels of the cab.’”