Like many parents of small children, I have had cause to read the book THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR probably more times than I care to count. In this book, which is not very long, really, but extremely well illustrated, a little caterpillar is born in moonlight, and devours and devours and devours until the caterpillar curls into a cocoon and transforms into a butterfly. The butterfly’s wings contain a piece of all the colors of all the things the butterfly devoured, and they are majestic and beautiful. It is a dream that what we consume becomes the things that emerge resplendent upon our apotheosis, perhaps. When we emerge from the shell of us to the soul of the universe, all that we have devoured becomes the shape and color of our wings. And, when we overconsume, as the caterpillar does one fateful Saturday, with all sorts of sugary and fattening and tempting treats, we can purify our sins with monastic purity. In the case of the caterpillar, he feels better after eating a green leaf.
I am extending a metaphor in the book that may be too much for such a simple text to contain, but every text builds upon the early texts; every story builds into new stories. This is such an American story, to me. Consume and consume, and in consuming achieve apotheosis.
Hunger is a powerful thing. A modernist classic of American letters by Saul Bellow echoes with want – I want… I want… I want… Henderson, the titular Rain King, forges a path like Hemingway’s brave safari adventurers in the dangerous and foreign land of Africa to feed his internal hunger, and in so doing approaches a whole new landscape as a landscape and people to be taken in for his own eternal quest for satiation. This figure, so like Hemingway that even Saul Bellow would admit such inspiration, was a man of great excess, pushing himself and his own ideas upon a landscape that neither needed nor desired them. He solved the problems that he saw, but his solutions only made things worse and worse. Ultimately, he encountered a caged wild lion, and entered into a religious role in a cultural drama he was not even aware he was assuming. His bumbling efforts at helping, from his own eyes, when seen from another perspective, aren’t helping. It’s just a series of miscommunications leading to harm. And, it is done so because of the hunger for something that cannot be defined. Henderson keeps searching the world to fill this emptiness, devouring all that can be devoured, and seeking the love and affirmation that is denied to him in no small part because of his refusal to allow for it to exist on anyone else’s terms. His hunger and want does not lead to the beautiful butterfly wings. It transforms everything except him, the empty center that never cocoons, never changes, never fills that emptiness of want.
It is in these terms of art that I experienced the show BOJACK HORSEMAN on Netflix. Bojack is a ball of want, a needy, clingy creature caught between his past glory and his current despair. It is such a story of America that a man who has it all feels a void of want that cannot be filled. In his youth, he was taught a world of suffering and neglect, and in his quest for fame and glory and the affirmation of the world, he would devour everything. And, he devours, and devours, alcohol, drugs, sex, friendships, jobs, monuments, everything and everything. In his final season, he begins in rehab, and he is consuming this, as well. It is the next thing to be devoured, to try to fill him up and answer that want. Like Henderson before him, he wants to be the Rain King, and every time he solves a problem, the proverbial well explodes and the help he gives becomes a poison. Rehab, mentoring others, all his desire to improve himself and become a better horse, or man, or horseman, is the next thing that he devours and destroys. His therapist in rehab is left a screaming ruin. His attempts at making things better with others often seems to be the quest for the unanswered question of why anyone ever put up with him at his worst, when he simultaneously needed to test everyone around him with his worst so they could prove their love. The show creates this wild alternate reality where people and animals merge in interesting and fantastic ways, and the personification of everything seems to make everyone more alien from their own sense of self and nature. It paints a picture of a country in great anxiety, great despair, where everything is corrupting and fading, and the love that is possible is always at great price and is always hard to keep. It paints a picture of a country full of hungry, hungry animals and people, moving from one thing to another, eating and eating, and the void remains.
It is such an American story. It’s hard to watch, honestly, even as it is wildly entertaining and often hilarious. It’s hard to watch because it asks us to question that echo inside of us that is always hungry, hoping to eat enough things that we can curl into a cocoon and become something more beautiful and amazing than we are, made of all those things we consumed. Someday I will tell my son that butterflies become butterflies, and people don’t work like that. We can listen and hope and be kind and try to help others, but if there is an emptiness that we feel, we have to find a way to make peace with that emptiness. That is the thing Bojack tries so hard to do and fails and fails.
I look forward to the final season’s second half. I also know it will not be enough. The characters on the show will still want. They will want and want.