I was recently asked the following decidedly provocative question by the same dear, dear friend mentioned in the fifth column: “What if your Cosby Codex was, instead, the David Crosby Codex?” Oh, what ideas and theories came springing suddenly to mind from that question! I quickly imagined a strange twisted reality in which existed The David Crosby Show (which probably would have aired on Fox rather than NBC), a situation comedy structured around the aesthetic vision of David Crosby (of Crosby, Stills and Nash, aka CS&N, fame) instead of Dr. William Cosby. I imagined a show about a once famous folk-rock musician and his fucked up, bizarre hippy family, also known, for the sake of easy critical speculation, as the Huxtables. They would, of course, live in southern California instead of Brooklyn, New York. The gags virtually wrote themselves for this line of critical thought: “One special episode involved Rudy learning about liver transplants when Cliff nearly dies of liver poisoning,” “Theo’s discovery of rock cocaine in his father’s office sets him and Cockroach off on a journey of self-analysis,” “clearly the only good episodes are the ones in which Neil Young guest starred,” “David sat out two seasons while jailed in Georgia on multiple drug and fleeing and eluding counts, hence the reason Claire took a character played by Stephen Stills as a lover during seasons six and seven,” and so on. However, holding to my recent affirmation to ground the Cosby Codex, at least for now, in accordance with a structured, ordered and decidedly constructivist critical vision, I decided to abandon this particularly speculative critical avenue, however rich it might be. For the sake of brevity and textual sanity I won’t even begin to delve into my vision for the Bing Crosby Codex.
So I started fresh and returned to my constructivist critical roots. I decided to approach The Cosby Show from a relatively new and yet rather classical direction, one which would serve to unveil some of the deeper structures and meanings behind the Huxtable narrative, to read above and beyond the palimpsests, hauntings and traces that pervade the narrative, to explore instead the conscious structures and superstructures that guide the show. My critical model, for this approach, became readily apparent: the late, great Leslie Fielder.
In his seminal (ha!) book Love and Death in the American Novel, Fielder (amongst the only American literary critics to be discussed on The Sopranos) argued, quite provocatively, that the timeless and decidedly gothic themes of love and death, or sex and dying, had pervaded the American novel since the mid 19th century and have served, ultimately, as the primary thematic concerns of the American novel ever since. Fielder suggested that the American novel, especially in the 19th century, was obsessed with the themes of death and dying. The same basic principle can be applied, of course, to the Huxtable narrative. The Cosby Show, as any dedicated viewer should recognize, is grounded, heavily, in the Romantic gothic tradition, and also radically departs from such in terms of how these themes are negotiated and reconciled.
Love, of course, is a constant, unyielding theme throughout the Huxtable narrative. While the character of Claire is, clearly, something of a reworking of Shakespeare’s Lady MacBeth, she nevertheless possesses an enormous capacity for love and affection and a certain purity of emotional spirit. Cliff, himself an obvious reworking (or, for that matter, deconstruction) of Shakespeare’s King Lear (particularly during the final two seasons of the show), remains himself a man capable of extreme affection and love, more so than even his wife, despite his seemingly catholic (and that’s catholic with a lower case “c”) cynicism and distrust of his own children. And the love between Cliff and Claire is, most certainly, romantic and Romantic [sic], in so far as their love is abiding and true, sexual and intellectual, emotional and logical, neither modern nor classical, and steady and dynamic. At the same time, their love is practical and balanced; the manifestation, you might say, of a deep and abiding mutual respect. It is Cliff and Claire’s love that gives the Huxtable narrative real heart and soul. That’s not to suggest, though, that their love does not pervade the narrative and serve, always, to have the most positive psychic effect upon their family dynamic, not to mention the Huxtable children. The desperate attempts by all of the Huxtable children to engage in romantic relations serves as a reflection of—and, perhaps, pathological response to—the abiding, perhaps obsessive love—a love which is analogous, at times, the torturous love of Heathcliff and Catherine in Wuthering Heights—between Cliff and Claire. All five Huxtable children, from a relatively young age, hunger to engage in romantic relationships (how many times did Theo and Justine go back and forth? How desperate, at one point, was Vanessa to please and retain Robert? Why does Rudy attempt, with some measure of success, to consume Kenny “Bud” whole? How many men does Denise go through before settling, desperately, for Martin? Why does Sandra keep returning to Elvin in the early seasons despite her opposition to his own sexual and romantic mores?) and seem to be able to locate and ground themselves, solely, through such relationships (and heterosexual romantic relationships at that. Notice that none of the Huxtable children, despite being five in number, are depicted as being homosexual, bisexual or pansexual? Why is romantic love, in the Huxtable narrative, always defined as being heterosexual in nature?). The relationship between Cliff and Claire served as something of an unrealistic benchmark for the Huxtable children to never be able to meet, an impossible Romantic ideal for their offspring to meet, hence their countless aborted and failed romantic relationships.
Death, which Fielder implicitly positions as being thematically counter to love in the history of the American novel, is something of a non-event in the Huxtable narrative, such a non-event that it serves, itself, as pronounced event itself.1 While death stood at the center of the Tanner narrative on Full House, and occurred with relative regularity on Family Ties (where it seems someone close to the Keatons went belly up every year), death rarely rears its ugly—and, as Derrida tells us, sometimes beautiful— head before the Huxtables. Grandparents seem to live forever, deathly illness is never mentioned or suffered, and death has no agency. The sole exception, of course, is Theo’s discovery of the body of a dead gangster while fishing in the fourth season masterpiece “Gone Fishin’” (4.19) (directed by the great American auter Tony Singletary). What is amazing is how barely the Huxtables were affected by this sudden intrusion of violence and death into their world. One would expect, given the relatively sheltered existences of the Huxtable offspring, that such a finding and Blanchotian encounter with the imminence of death would inspire some anxieties about morality within at least the three youngest Huxtable children (Rudy: “Daddy, what does ‘gangland-style execution’ mean?” Vanessa: “Daddy, is Costra Nostra going to put a hit on me or Robert? Don’t let them cap Robert, Daddy! Let them take me instead!” Theo: “Dad, Cockroach and I are going to make our bones and pop our cherries by offing a corrupt police officer so we can get made! Isn’t that awesome?!?” Cockroach: “Triple-tap all the way, Dr. Huxtable! Two in the back, one in the skull! All right!”). Cliff’s existential disposition can be traced not only to his likely service as a combat surgeon in the Vietnam/American War but, more likely, the death of his brother James during his early childhood, a landmark event in his life, as well as his own medical training. The dark—and perhaps quasi-Satantic—existentialism and relative Godlessness of the Huxtables stands revealed for all of its starkness. Cliff and Claire recognize death, here, not as a tragic event, or even as an intrinsic part of life, but, rather, as an instructional opportunity. The Huxtables, clearly, are people who take death in stride, who can encounter the imminence of such with grace and ease, who realize, in rather Derridian terms, that death, itself, can serve a gift. For the Huxtables, death is not simply a non-event, but something, also, which can serve to reward. The discovery of the body of a dead organized crime figure, then, served as something of an opportunity for the Huxtables to help teach a lesson to Theo about being consumed by sudden fame and recognition and the fleeting nature of such. Death for the Huxtables, then, serves not as a profound reminder of existential truth, but, instead as something of a teaching moment. Death is converted, then, by the Huxtables from a curse to a gift.
1 — Even as a child I asked myself (as did much of America, I’m sure) the following question: what world do the Huxtables live in? What struck me early on was how safe the Huxtables were within the confines of their world. They lived in Brooklyn in the 1980s and early 1990s, before “Giuliani time” came to fruition, yet they rarely locked their front or back doors, didn’t have any bars over their downstairs windows, and parked their cars on the street. Crime or any sort of illegality—save for Theo having a joint “planted” on him and Vanessa getting drunk one night in high school—tends not to intrude into the Huxtable family or, to switch ontological perspective a bit, the Huxtable narrative either.