Seek, Seek, Seek
AS A SKETCH-AND-WORD MAN, Jules (Sick, Sick, Sick) Feiffer trades heavily in the guilt-edged insecurities of modern America. Meaning well and putting their trust in Freud, Feiffer's cartoon characters are forever trying to find themselves and at the same time break through to others. "Do I really love her," Feiffer youths keep asking themselves, "or is she just a fertility symbol?" "Is it passion that makes me kiss him," their girls muse, "or am I just acting out an anti-male hostility aggression through my lips?"
What they all seek, of course, is love, love, love. Now, in a tragi-cosmic fable which is his first try at fiction, Feiffer tells them what life would be like if they really found it. Sheer hell.
"Why Am I Exciting?" Harry is a kind of body-by-Fisher King of Love. Most children, even in the U.S., do not get enough of it. Harry gets all that America can provide—at first without any of the customary complications. "Unlike other parents who found their children lovable enough to eat—and so did—Harry's . . . nibbled only lovingly and slightly." Entirely adored, he is entirely self-centered and entirely beautiful. He is an American ideal, a protected boy-man untroubled by thought, untwisted by complexes, unhaunted by feelings of insecurity. As a result, he is irresistible.
"Why am I exciting?" a girl whispers to Harry.
"You remind me a little of me," says Harry.
As a succession of fell females fall for Harry, it looks as if Feiffer is merely having a little fun at the expense of U.S. preoccupation with self-preoccupation. But Harry soon proves to be an innocent Candide ripe for torment on the low road to worldly wisdom. What blights Harry's cheerful narcissism is the warped love of a good woman. Her message: Harry must make a break through to other people. "Give, give, give," she chants.
Harry gives some flowers—not to her but to his wife, a beautiful woman whom Feiffer describes as "a free-lance castrater." Next morning Harry, who until then has been physically flawless, wakes with a pimple on his nose.
Seeing Is Becoming. Switching from taking to giving ruins Harry's love life. "Those who once moved silkily toward him began to jerk, stumble, twitch and fall." Sympathy and empathy for all his fellow creatures sets in. He becomes what he sees. He limps in the presence of the halt. His stomach bloats. His hair falls out. He becomes ugly. He dies—longing to be his old self-contained self once more, but unable to cure himself of his disease.
Feiffer's stylized fairy tale can be read, some of the time, as light summer fiction. It is studded with scenes of cheerfully skin-deep satire and divertingly chuckleheaded dialogue. But occasionally Feiffer's laughter comes close to a stifled cry of anguish—in a way that has not been matched since Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts took to heart the troubles reflected in his advice-to-the-lovelorn column, and was destroyed by acute compassion.
Nietzsche preached that Christianity was a plot by the weak to emasculate the strong. Feiffer suggests that the compulsion to "break through to others" is a disease spread by the insecure to corrupt the self-possessed. This kind of love does not stop with the individual—it seeks to embrace the world. Seeking love and finding oneself, says Feiffer, is an ultimate contradiction in terms.