For Jim Paxson.
This selection from the Cosby Codex is dedicated to my friend, teacher and fellow sitcom enthusiast Dr. James “Jim” Paxson of the English Department at the University of Florida. Sadly, Jim passed away a couple of weeks ago. I took a graduate seminar on forms of allegory with Jim in 2007, a course which proved to be an absolute delight as much for the insight into literary allegory that it offered as for the time I was able to spend discussing Thomas Pynchon, The Simpsons, Shakespeare and The Cosby Show with Jim in his office. On one very strange day—a day in which I drank at least three double espresso shots before heading in to see Jim—I laid out my “vision” of “a Codex of all things Huxtable” to Jim. I sat across from him in his office and ranted, rather madly, about Cliff Huxtable as being analogous to both Hamlet and King Lear, of the biographical parallels that can be located between Bill (William) Cosby and William (Bill) Shakespeare, of the opium visions of Cliff and Thomas Dequincy and of Rudy’s “post-textual mastery” of and “supreme agency over” the Huxtable narrative. Jim—who was among the most patient and good humored people I’ve ever known, not to mention one of the smarted and most acute critical readers I’ve ever encountered—took all of this in stride and into careful consideration and offered suggestions, corrections and such fine points as “Man, James Woods should play you in a movie version of your life!” along the way. Toward the end of our discussion, Jim exclaimed, “Oh, this should be made into something!” and insisted, quite boldly, that I keep up with the project. I did, obviously. In many ways, this Codex has been, at least in part, inspired by Jim, as it will continue to be. This entry, however, is entirely for and in the scholarly spirit of Jim Paxson.
The Cosby Show, in a manner, served as something of a Cold War allegory. The Huxtables lived under the subconscious threat of nuclear annihilation throughout the first five seasons of the show, though the “bomb,” per se, is never directly mentioned by any member of the Huxtable household. In fact, the Huxtables, despite living in Brooklyn—which, certainly, would have been all but evaporated in a nuclear war between the United States the Soviet Union in the 1980s—at the very height of the Cold War, never made any mention of the fact that death and apocalypse was, in both fact and theory, only a matter of moments away. Given their shared intelligence and acute awareness of the state of, and, to wax Foucaultian, “the order of things,” (i.e. the fact that doomsday was right around the proverbial corner, not to mention Claire’s biting cynicism and increasingly cold disposition and Cliff’s dark existentialism and tendency toward nihilism and decidedly hedonistic behavior ((consider his eating habits and obvious intake of psychedelic drugs and opiates))), the likelihood of sudden nuclear apocalypse must have occupied the conscious and subconscious minds of both of them. However, neither Cliff nor Claire acknowledged the imminence of apocalypse to themselves or, moreover, their offspring. The conflicts and threats that were acknowledged were internal in nature and decidedly non-apocalyptic: i.e. Theo’s lackluster grades, Vanessa’s overpowering sexuality, Denise’s lack of academic commitment, Sandra and Elvin’s strange romantic dynamic, and Rudy’s sometimes lacking honesty. In many ways Cliff and Claire act like Cold War era American and Soviet governmental authorities: distracting, in a manner, their subjects from the supreme, existential truth of their existence, the fact that doomsday was, possibly, only a moment away, a fact—a relative certainly—which they—both the authoritative agents and the subjects of them—are helpless to prevent. Cliff and Claire, then, maintained an illusion, for their offspring/subjects, of peace and harmony despite their own intrinsic awareness of the falsity of such. Cliff and Claire ensured their agency over their household—and the narrative itself—through the constant casting and rehashing of illusion. By the start of the sixth season of the show, however, the dynamic of the Huxtable hegemony drastically shifted. At this point in the narrative, the conflicts that persisted throughout the first five seasons of the show were largely resolved: Theo’s learning disability—which seemed so readily apparent to careful, discerning viewers of the show but not, indeed, to Cliff and Claire—was diagnosed and treated; Rudy blossomed into a woman, and a rather miserable and hapless one at that; Vanessa found some gumption and agency and moves beyond her blind love for Robert to embrace, however shortly, the working class Dabnis Brickley, only to abandon him and surrender to the marital vision of Cliff and Claire; Denise discovered some measure of stability through her marriage to Martin and mothering of the Satanic Olivia; and Sandra and Elvin transformed—under the auspice of Cliff and Claire—into Cliff and Claire. Cliff and Claire’s goals, indeed, were met; their war—their Cold War, you might say—was won. Interestingly, Cliff and Claire’s seeming ideological victory over their children occurred in historical parallel to the end of the Cold War and the United States’ Pyrrhic victory, in a sense, over the Soviet Union. And with this victory came a certain sort of defeat for Cliff and Claire. Over the remaining two seasons of the show—the Post-Cold War seasons, as those of us in Cosby circles refers to them as—Claire became something of a Dick Cheney figure, one who thought and behaved in terms of a war that has just passed without any higher awareness of such. Cliff, however, was transformed into a very particular sort of allegorical figure: an outmoded cold warrior of sorts, a man used to operating in a certain sort of Cold War environment who was at a loss for how to function in a Post-Soviet world, a world where the apocalypse was, suddenly, not now. Within the Huxtable narrative, after season five, a new conflict, however, was underway, one that Cliff (and Claire) was unable to properly confront and engage in. Cliff was left despondent and virtually suicidal by the end of the show, unable to function within the new world order which had been established within his home. He was a relic, then, of a war that has passed and an ideology which was by then outmoded and futile. Cliff, who possessed such a remarkably high-level of consciousness, was keenly aware of his lack of agency. It is this knowledge which pushed Cliff, by the end of the series, to a disposition that was Learian in terms of his existential and nihilistic despondency.
The Huxtable narrative, also, functioned as something of a contemporary American political allegory. Given the show’s temporal/chronological setting in the mid-1980s, at the very height of Reaganomics and the mounting conservative movement in American politics, and the particular balance of political and social power within that spectrum, The Cosby Show can be understood as an allegorical representation of the complicated political and social ideological war playing out within the America psyche between 1984 and 1992. Cliff and Claire, given their pronounced financial and social conservatism, as well as their mutual insistence on and adherence to traditional American values and the naïve possibilities of the supposed American Dream, maintained ideological supremacy and agency over their leftist offspring. They met resistance, of course, from their children, each of whom embodied, to some measure or another, a particularly leftist political, social and cultural sensibility. The Huxtable offspring (as well as their closest friends and acquaintances) offered a leftist—and in the case of Theo, at least in the early seasons of the show, a unique form of leftist Libertarianism—ideology which—in historical parallel to the rebirth of American leftist political agency in the early 90s and the rise of the Clintonian age in American politics—came to surpass and overcome the political ideology and agency of Cliff and Claire. If the show had continued for another two seasons or more, perhaps the American conservative renaissance of 1994 would have been reflected, perhaps through a transformation by Claire into a sort of Newt Gingrichesque New-Conservative powerhouse.
The allegorical richness of the show stretches even further than that. The show can be understood, also, as a pre- and post-Apartheid allegory; of the conflicts between the classical and the modern, as well as the modern and postmodern; of American expansionism; of the collapse of ancient Greece; as an allegory of 19th century British imperialism; of Byronism throughout the long 19th century; of the death of the author; of the coming of the post-human; of cosmic order and universal chaos; of the conflicts between Catholicism and Protestantism; of the Vietnam/American War; of the Soviet/Afghan Conflict; od Iran-Contra; of the American drug war; of the Dukakis/Bush presidential competition; and, perhaps above all else, of the near simultaneous rise and fall of New Coke and the New Monkees.