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84

Mr. Magoo as Public Dream

Milton J. Rosenberg

Milton J. Rosenberg is an assistant professor of psychology at Yale, where he is also an associate in the Yale Communications Research Project. He has held consultantships with various organizations including the Naval War College and the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Most of Mr. Rosenberg's previous publications have been in psychological journals.

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From The Time Of its introduction into America in the late thirties, the psychoanalytic approach to the study of mass entertainments has steadily won adherents and sometimes transformed them into partisans. Its root proposition is now very well known: the contents of popular entertainments may be symbolically reduced and translated so as to provide a picture of the unconscious needs and fears of their audiences. Production workers, critics, and social scientists have, in the main, been willing to accept this proposition; to grant that entertainments are public and saleable dreams. But, in recent years, they have come to suspect that the content-analysis techniques that flow from this proposition are sometimes methodologically deficient.

At least two such failings have become sharply evident. One of these objections is based upon the fact that all the members of the national public do not consume mass entertainments with equal frequency or equal pleasure. If, for example, the movie-going audience is drawn largely from the ranks of adolescents and unmarried adults, must not the major themes of our films, if they reflect anybody's unconscious needs and fears, be more diagnostic of the immature rather than the mature members of our society?

Once we are persuaded that the audience that watches and enjoys any particular type of entertainment is a "biased" rather than a random sample of our population, we must accordingly develop hypotheses concerned with the psychological attributes of the particular social group in question. Thus, popular entertainments can be used in estimating national


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character only by examining and relating to each other whatever clues these entertainments reveal about various "subnational" characters.

A second and still more imperative objection hounds the entertainment analyst. He has begun to face up to the unsettling realization that even in orthodox Freudian theory it is not assumed that the unconscious meaning of a particular symbol will be the same in every respect for some ten million persons, each of whom has separately experienced that symbol.

One is still chilled to recall some of the grandiose gaffes that lie only a few years behind us. An excellent and well-remembered example was provided by Robert Warshow with regard to the scene in The Best Years of Our Lives in which the sailor's flancee detaches his prosthetic arms. In insisting that this scene moved the audience because it gave externalization to the American male's wish for castration (and to the American female's desire to do the job), Warshow was, to say the least, applying psychoanalytic theory rather promiscuously.

I do not mean to suggest that, by way of remedy, we abandon the speculative search for unconscious symbolic meanings. Indeed, it seems to me a patent truth that without hypotheses about such unconscious meanings we cannot begin to conduct empirical investigations. However, there are more parsimonious ways of developing such hypotheses. By avoiding the concrete specification of fine shades of symbolic meaning—a pursuit appropriate only in the one-therapist, one-patient, one-couch situation— we may the more successfully highlight the shared meanings that exist in all or most of the consumers of the entertainment being analyzed.

It would be presumptuous to offer final rules for such an interpretive approach except that it can be pursued only by abandoning the intricate details of the psychoanalytic theory of dream symbolism. In its place may be employed interpretive categories limited to some small set of crucial human needs, anxiety arousers, and defense mechanisms.

The best way to make clear just what I have in mind is to offer, for illustrative purposes, a speculative analysis of a particular popular entertainment. For this purpose, let us examine the series of animated cartoons built around the adventures of that lovable, senescent daredevil-to-endall daredevils—the very near-sighted Mr. Magoo.

Too little work has been done on the analysis of the latent meanings of comic entertainments. For this reason, and also because of the (untested) impression that Magoo is highly popular with adult and mature people,


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his has seemed to me a public dream whose analysis might well offer some useful hypotheses about the psychological viscissitudes of the lives of at least some contemporary Americans. Whatever interpretations are here developed must, of course, be taken as hypothetical constructions, which can have scientific value only to the extent that they make possible the formulation of researchable questions. But the purpose of the remainder of this paper is not to state such questions in their empirically verifiable form; rather, it is to illustrate a style of interpretation that, in my belief, is appropriate to getting at the generalizable latent meanings of mass entertainments. A second purpose is to offer, as an earnest of gratefulness for pleasure received, a psychologist's approximation of a fan letter for Magoo.

In general, humor has a lot to do with fear. The dissociated expression of a deep fear in a context that reduces that fear is one of the mechanisms of humor. This mechanism certainly figures in the Magoo cartoons. Frequently, humor has a lot to do also with hope, which is, after all, the reverse of fear. Hope too figures very prominently in the Magoo cartoons.

In all of his adventures, Mr. Magoo has been in a desperate situation. He is virtually blind, pitifully weak, and very small. He is handicapped also by a majestic inability to understand the dynamics of the world through which he stumbles. Yet every time we encounter him, he is facetoface with malignant and inimical forces of both the animate and inanimate orders. Shysters, confidence men, and bandits try to do him in or to bleed him dry. His near-blindness inevitably carries him to a point just short of irredeemable destruction. He has teetered on girders, fallen down elevator shafts, had a wild leopard for a pet, played golf with a bear and tennis with a bull walrus. No man so ill-equipped and so endangered can possibly survive—except in the dream world of the animated cartoon.

By now we have seen enough Magoo cartoons to know the basic plot line; but we have not yet tired of his incredible good luck, and I do not think we will. The joke of Magoo's improbable survival will continue to amuse us because, behind the joke, there lies a reassurance that we all need. As we watch him we all become Magoo. He is a personification of a part, though only a part, of every man's inner image of himself. Our own feebleness, our own ineptitude, our own confusion are drawn out of unconsciousness and externalized for us in the dream image of Mr. Magoo. The dangers he faces symbolize the less dramatic dangers to which we all


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are sensitive in our own lives. Perhaps all ages have been ages of anxiety, but certainly ours is as full of fright as any other. The fear of war, the fear of loss of identity, the fear of boredom, the fear of isolation, the fear of our own impulses—all these are rearoused in us as Magoo faces his more concrete horrors.

But dreams, whether private or public, are wish-fulfilling; and it is Magoo's function to still our fears. This he does splendidly. If this monument to bumbling ineptitude and incapacity always comes through—not only having saved his skin, but with some gain to show for the experience— why then, we too may rest easy. The dangers we face are surmountable; nothing can touch us any more than it does Magoo. With him, we are inviolate.

This comic device for the arousal and reduction of anxiety through the evasion of physical threat is, of course, as old as slapstick comedy itself. Disney has used it effectively, as did such great comic heroes as Chaplin, Charlie Chase, Harold Lloyd, and W. C. Fields. But all of these heroes were at least partially responsible for their own escape from physical threat. To some degree, they earned their salvation. Fields had a certain low, illegitimate cunning. Harold Lloyd had inexhaustible reserves of energy. And even Chaplin the tramp had his wonderful physical grace, which was really a kind of athletic prowess.

On the other hand, Mr. Magoo's survival in the face of danger is inexplicable. It seems to us a sheer gratuity, totally unrelated to any source of power in the man himself. But is this true? Is Magoo just plain lucky? Or is there perhaps some secret power that he does possess, some obscure but trustworthy magic of his own devising? Is his survival a gift of inscrutable fate, or does he earn it?

Running through all the Magoo cartoons there is, I believe, a secret intimation that it is not fate that has saved Magoo but rather, that he has saved himself. How has he done this? Here the artists of UPA unconsciously voice a hope that lies deep and not fully known within each of us. Magoo has saved himself—and we may save ourselves—by complete allegiance to a set of social values and moral conceptions.

The values Magoo lives by are those of yesterday's self-made man. In comic guise, he is a personification of the verities of a social era contiguous with our own. He is American individualism in its purest moral form. With a directness that verges on quixotism, he wants what he wants when


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he wants it—but only because he is convinced that the rules of society justify his wants and have put him clearly "in the right." He speaks his mind always and expects as much from other men. He plays fair and expects to be treated fairly. His personality is compounded in equal parts of eccentric individuality, square shooting, get-up-and-go vigor, and classic persistence. Furthermore, he never questions the tenets of his existence; the honest word, strongly spoken, will always do the trick. A respect for tradition, exemplified in the Victorian clutter of his home or in the firm bond of the old school tie, supports him in his unquestioning belief in himself. And, ultimately, this belief in himself, rooted in his internal loyalty to a moral view of existence, keeps him whole and secure in the face of dangers that, because of his faith rather than his myopia, are not visibly real.

So the underlying serious and unconscious message of these cartoons is, as I see it, simply this: to stand securely in an insecure world, a man must stand for something. I do not believe that the artists behind Mr. Magoo are suggesting that we should stand, as he does, for primitive rugged individualism. For Magoo is, after all, treated by them with ridicule as well as love. What they are saying to us, and with us, is that individual man finds his fulfillment in commitment to purposes and truths that encompass more than himself.

For those who may be numbered among Mr. Magoo's loyal following (it would be interesting to know precisely who and how many they are), the appeal of these cartoons must be based in large part on the fact that they give expression to the hunger for a moral meaning in existence. Their unconscious recognition of the connection between Magoo's moral dedication and the near-miracle of his survival must certainly serve the members of his audience by reassuring them that the hunger for moral meaning is neither futile nor aberrant. Indeed, I am tempted to borrow some terms from David Riesman's lexicon and to suggest that Magoo may have his greatest appeal in the eyes of lonely "inner-directed" persons caught up in an increasingly "other-directed" round of existence.


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