For Michael “Uncle Mikey” Gonzales of the Daily Prada.
Allergy season has just got underway down here in Central Florida and I’ve taken to abusing Benadryl again. The recommended dosage is something like two tablets every four hours. Given the nature of my profession—pop culture critic and theorist—and my general psychic disposition, I have been doubling or tripling the recommended dosage and taking about six hits of Benadryl every two hours or so for the past two weeks. The regular surge of anti-histamine into my system has left me in a strange psychic state, to say the least. I have been quite woozy and tired and have been taking a nap every four hours or so, naps filled with bizarre, Benadryl-inspired dreams and visions of the Huxtables. My dreams, for all of their strangeness and psychedelic aesthetics, are rather akin to Cliff Huxtable’s opium dreams from two key episodes of The Cosby Show, “The Day the Spores Landed” (episode 6.8) and “Cliff’s Nightmare” (episode 6.14). In these episodes Cliff has twisted and deeply symbolic dreams—dreams usually owed, ostensibly, to acute exhaustion after spending two straight days delivering babies or from the over-consumption of hoagies and orange soda—that serve to reveal (to himself and, moreover, the viewers) some surprising and strange aspects of his subconscious, namely his confusion toward his family, his sense of emotional and intellectual distance from them, his inability to engage in meaningful discussion and relations with those around him, his ceaseless appetite for dangerous pleasures, his post-traumatic stress, his recognition of the intrinsic chaos behind reality, his innate sexism, his abiding love of food and narcotics, his apocalyptic awareness, his realization of the structural limitations of prescribed gender norms, his anxiety surrounding the imminence of his death, his meta-fictional awareness of Rudy’s supreme agency over the Huxtable narrative and, seemingly, his own position as a fictional being stuck within the confines of a fictional narrative. There is much to be said about Cliff’s hallucinatory dream visions, such all but demand a Freudian and Jungian interpretation. However, my critical abilities are rather lost, for now, to the brutal, numbing effects of Benadryl.
My own Cosby related dream visions over the past two weeks have been distinct and disparate: Cliff watching as his brother James dies in childhood; Cliff watching, with tears in his eyes, Old Yeller for the first time; Russell Huxtable—the proverbial man with a golden arm and golden horn – taking his first hit of heroin with Miles Davis and saying, “oohhh, that’s nice!”; Claire and Cliff meeting Lee Harvey Oswald on a bus to Mexico City; Claire objecting to the publications of Naked Lunch and An American Dream; Cliff and Claire readily accepting the verdict of the Warren Commission; Cliff refusing to burn his draft card; Cliff and Claire reacting without shock to the murders of MLK and RFK; Claire telling Cliff the Beatles “lost their minds” with Rubber Soul; Cliff claiming to not like marijuana and Claire being shocked that he ever even tried it; Cliff serving in an elite military unit in Cambodia with Sonny Crockett, Thomas Magnum, Rick Hunter, those two guys from Riptide, and the A-Team; Claire raising the possibility that the president of the United States is, as Nixon claimed, above the law; Claire admiring the foreign policies of Henry Kissinger; Cliff and Claire voting with enthusiasm for Gerald Ford; Claire taking a position as a district attorney rather than a public defender after law school; Claire refusing to even consider aborting Sandra despite her wish her not to be pregnant; Cliff casting his vote for Reagan and Bush in 1980; Cliff and Claire placing “Just Say No!” stickers on the bumpers of their cars; Theo befriending Alex Keaton through a weird series of events; Cliff mentoring a bright, melancholic young medical student named Gregory House; Rudy’s imaginary world from “Once Upon a Time” (episode 4.19) being, in fact, the “real world” and the rest of the Huxtable narrative being the fantasy; and Cliff and Claire, through some strange happening in the multiverse, stepping directly out of the Huxtable narrative in the series finale and three years ahead into the universe of the Lucas narrative of Cosby, a narrative which allowed them to live a radically different and decidedly middle-class life together in Queens without any connection to their previous lives as Cliff and Claire Huxtable.
At first I wrote these dreams off as being foolish, meaningless delusions without any measure of critical importance. However, upon further introspection—introspection that itself was born out of Benadryl induced delirium—I came to realize that my dream insights were, indeed, themselves quiet telling, just as Cliff’s own opium dreams allowed him—and, more so, the viewer—greater access into his subconscious. These dreams have, of course, raised far more questions than they have any sort of definitive answers. Below I will outline some of the main questions these dreams have raised and offer some measure of analysis of them in order to attempt to penetrate the Huxtable narrative at even deeper level than I have so far.
1. Why are Cliff and Claire at such a remove from the attitudes and radical philosophies of the 1960s? At what point did Cliff and Claire decide to abandon any semblance of their radical political sensibilities? This is one of the missing pieces in the Huxtable narrative. We know from details established in early seasons of the show that Cliff and Claire—as well as their parents—were quite active in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. However, that is the only trace of political radicalism—or strong leftist ideology—that we encounter throughout the Huxtable narrative. Cliff and Claire are, indeed, quite conservative in their apparent political and pronounced social positions. But what made them that way? The answer isn’t apparent in the Huxtable narrative proper. In many ways, they seem to have followed the path that many flower children of the 1960s did: they sold out. They abandoned their decidedly leftist beliefs and progressive poltical attitudes for ostensible financial and social security, perhaps coming to the cynical conclusion that leftist-idealism is doomed to fail, the cold Kurtzian realization that the brutes always win and that the only way to beat them is to join them and become a brute yourself only to become lost, yourself, in the process. A shift (however temporary it might have been) in political attitude occurs in “Once Upon a Time,” (episode 4.19) in which Cliff and Claire, after watching television footage of military weapons testing, wish for the idealistic and bright-eyed Rudy to become President of the United States sometime soon, a wish that suggests some measure of lingering leftist idealism within their psyches and realization of the dangers of the current right-wing governmental regime’s Cold War policies.
2. Is there a deep subtext behind the strange, Pollockesque designs on Cliff’s sweaters? I’ve wrestled with the sweater question for quite some time. In fact, my wife repeatedly asks me “when are you getting to the sweaters?” every time she reads a new entry of the Codex. There is something—more than something, really—to be said and argued about those sweaters. The designs are decidedly impressionistic and overtly modernistic, too, I suppose. At one point I supposed the sweater designs were themselves telling a subterranean or counter-narrative to the Huxtable narrative proper, a point I have yet to fully abandon. My sense, for now, is that the sweater patterns operate much like Rorschachian ink blots, but I can’t shake the sense that there’s even greater agency behind the designs, a conscious willing of symbolic textual representation. This is a point that demands further consideration.
3. Why have I been so insistent upon Cliff being an opium addict? I admit that there’s no smoking gun to be located within the narrative that proves this point; no definitive proof to point to, just a number of critical observations that, when interpreted carefully, suggest that Cliff spends much of the Huxtable narrative under the influence of opium. Cliff’s mutual good humor and concern at finding a joint in Theo’s schoolbook during the first season implies that he is not unfamiliar with the joys and horrors of narcotics. Cliff also shows an incredible, ceaseless appetite for food and various visceral stimulates throughout the narrative, as well as a decided lack of focus and Coleridgian inability to complete various projects. Furthermore, Cliff’s regular delusions, psychedelic dreams, frequent bouts paranoia, hyperactivity and listlessness, bouts of melancholia and arrogance, love of jazz and poetry, breaking of the fourth-wall at the end of the series finale (which, much like the final scene of Once Upon a Time in America, suggests that all that had transpired before was but a dream), ready access to narcotics and such all suggest that he suffers from some measure of opium addiction. Again, this is a matter that requires even deeper critical consideration than I am able to offer at present.
What these questions and speculative suggestions ultimately highlight, though, are the assorted missing pieces of the Huxtable narrative, the number of unanswered questions that remain after studying the Huxtable narrative closely. Of course these questions can hardly be answered, at least not in full, by standard critical interpretation. However, to answer every question a text raises serves only to impose a sort of logic and order upon it that is not intrinsic or innate to the text itself. A supreme text, a true work of narrative art, is always incomplete and fragmented and leaves some measure of understanding to the imagination of the reader. The question—perhaps the unanswerable question—is where critical thinking should stop and speculation should begin. Is there a point at which we, as critical readers, should surrender our critical perspective in favor of interpretation primarily through imagination? Or have I just been taking too much Benadryl to think clearly about any of this? Or am I only now thinking clearly about all of this for the first time?