The Simpsons Are Eternal Prisoners Of Suffering And Are Begging For Oblivion
Time is notoriously elastic in cartoons. The average house cat lives 13 years or so, but Garfield the cat has been hanging around since 1978 (although there is a strong case to be made that he has been dead since 1989, and the comics after that point are an Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge-style death dream). Meredith Gran’s recently concluded (and fantastic, to the extent that I feel bad including it in the same paragraph as Garfield) comic Octopus Pie went from 2007–2017, but covered only a few years in the lives of its main characters. Achewood’s child otter Phillipe will be young forever.
The Simpsons is no exception to this rule. Despite the fact that the Tracey Ullman shorts aired in 1987, we find the family demographically identical today. Bart and Lisa are pre-teens, Homer and Marge are in their late 30s, and Maggie is a baby. These fixed ages are in contrast with the inevitable passage of time. This passage of time is reflected in the show itself, in that the show seems to periodically adjust its own temporal canon.
For example, in S02E12 of The Simpsons, “The Way We Was” (original airdate 1991), Marge and Homer relate how they first met: in high school, in 1974. In S15E12 “The Way We Weren’t” (2004), Marge and Homer are revealed to have unwittingly met at a summer camp at the age of 10. The date is not established, but Homer’s fake name at camp is “Elvis Jagger Abdul Jabbar.” Given that Kareem Abdul Jabbar did not start playing in the NBA until 1969, the timing is a little tight for them to be high school seniors in 1974, but it’s not out of the question. S19E11, “That 90’s Show,” depicts Homer and Marge dating (and Marge entering college) in the early 90s, a firm impossibility given prior episodes. Similarly, Lisa sees a glimpse of her 2010 wedding in S06E19 “Lisa’s Wedding,” which may or may not be a different future than the 2030 where she is president in S11E17’s “Bart to the Future,” or 2041's overworked businesswoman of S23E09’s “Holidays of Future Passed.”
A lesser person might be tempted to suggest that these apparent contradictions are not worth considering, or that we can make a facile appeal to magic. For some more frivolous show, perhaps these non-answers would satisfy. But The Simpsons is so crucial to the American collective unconscious that I fear we must go deeper. It is my contention that, in the later seasons especially (the aptly named “Zombie Simpsons”), the Simpsons family is trapped in an eternal cycle of suffering whose only escape is the ultimate negation of the self.
There are several alternate schools of thought that have been employed to explain the show’s apparent temporal discrepancies. The first (and most obvious) is the simple sliding scale. Lisa, for instance, is perpetually 8 years old. That means, in an episode released in 2017, she was born in 2009, and grew up with the internet and so on. Homer is 39, and was born in 1978. When the show began, Lisa was born in 1979, and Homer in 1948. While this seems superficially satisfying, it raises questions that do not have easy answers. Is Homer a baby boomer or Gen X? How are we to interpret the characters’ references to past episodes, some of which may have been decades in the past (before Lisa or Bart and certainly Maggie were “born?”). Does each episode depict the family de novo, with any nods to existing continuity merely coincidences or audience-pleasing nods to the fourth wall? I refer to this interpretation as the Heraclitan interpretation, and it does not satisfy me.
Twitter user gary tasteman offers a second theory, presented as a Socratic dialogue. I refer to it as the Eleatic interpretation. Due to the limitations of the twitter medium, it was presented as an iPhone screenshot, so I reproduce it textually here, with some edits for concision and format:
When a man cuts bread, does he not disturb the loaf in two dimensions, leaving the third be?[…]His knife traverse the entirety of its height, yes, and the entirety of its width, but an infinitesimal, perhaps zero portion of its length. And yet the bread seems undisturbed[…] each episode of The Simpsons is naught but the loaf I have described! Sliced thin to a point of near zero length, a small small fraction, with the remaining two dimensions displayed on the television; time is shown in sequence[…] and have you ever seen a master baker bake only one loaf?
To give my own (likely inaccurate, surely incomplete) gloss on gary tasteman’s theory here, the Eleatic theory says that our apparent timeless (but contradictory) perception of the Simpsons is due to our flawed and limited perception of time and space. There is a monadic Simpsons-stuff of unknown dimensionality, with one or more protrusions into 4-dimensional (width, height, time, and canon) space. Each episode is a 3-dimensional (width, height, and time) slice of one of these complex structures. From set theory, we know that uncountably many of these slices can be generated without repetition or intersection. The Simpsons are therefore not limited beings existing in brief temporal windows, but are pinpoint projections into our reality of a grand and expansive meta-Simpsons.
The last alternate theory I will consider is that of twitter user John Hendel. It is perhaps the briefest to explain:
I will call it the Brigadoonian interpretation. The inhabitants of Springfield are the Elect, and are exempt from time. However, the world around them moves apace. When Al Gore or Colin Meloy or what have you make cameos, it is as visitors to an immortal realm in which they can never permanently reside, should they even wish to. Bart Simpson is therefore 40 years old (or perhaps even older). Yet, simultaneously, he is also 10 years old. There is a fundamental disconnect between the years they have lived on this earth, and their mental, emotional, and physical ages.
While all of these theories account for different phenomena over the course of The Simpsons, I believe that the truth is more sinister. We must examine the following features of the Simpson family and time:
- The characters are fixed. That is, they do not seem to age. Most of their character traits (Bart’s fondness for pranks, Maggie’s muteness, etc.) are likewise fixed.
- Simpson-time is not fixed, but fluid. Events from prior episodes are referenced in subsequent episodes. Technological innovations and popular culture move at a similar pace as in the “real” world. Major events (such as Lisa becoming a vegetarian, or Maude Flanders dying, or Patty coming out) occur once, and are consistent as having occurred in future episodes.
- There are exceptions to both of these rules. Apu and Manjula’s octuplets are born, and age to toddlers, but then stop aging. Hans Moleman dies multiple times.
I believe that there is only one description that accounts for these three facts, and the complex interplay between a seemingly fixed but constantly moving notion of time. I rely here on a (modified and unjustly condensed) Buddhist concept of dependent origination. In short, causality (especially as it relates to interactions between people) is shaped by recurring relations of being. There are no intrinsic properties or components of objects (or people), but interconnections and modes of interaction. These interconnections create new forms. The cessation of one mode of relation informs the creation of another, etc.
To make things more concrete, in this karmic interpretation of Simpson timelines, there is no continuous Simpson family. “The Simpsons” does not pick out individual beings, but a pattern of relations. Eventually (perhaps even after each episode), this family ceases to be. However, these patterns recur, just as seasonal rivers in the desert will follow the same channel year after year. And, just like water, over time these patterns can change. Heavy rains can make them overflow their banks. Old rivers can meander in exaggerated sinusoids (just as Simpsons characters like Ned Flanders have become almost parodic exaggerations of their original selves). There is no inherent law that states that these patterns will recur, just that certain patterns’ temporary stability cause them to appear time and again. Homer starts many episodes callous to Marge’s wants, not because he is inherently callous (there is no “he”), but because the prior relations of Homer Simpsons past have been callous, and have causally influenced the birth of this new Simpson family, in which Homer is callous once more.
I mentioned this theory as sinister. This is because dependent origination is inevitably tied to suffering. These causal connections form, in essence, a twelve step plan for death and pain. The Simpsons have been largely unable to break these links and remove themselves from this cycle of suffering. As such, each new Simpson family bears a greater and greater burden, and it takes an obvious toll. A Homer from a later season might be less likely to strangle Bart, for instance, but must contend with the fallout from decades of arguments with Marge. The Simpsons of the upcoming season 29 are constrained by the flaws of the Simpsons of season 28, who were in turn constrained by season 27, and so on and so on. There is no obvious escape for them, and they have no trajectory but ever-downward.
For us, we can seek eventual release from this cycle of suffering through enlightenment. But the Simpsons are not permitted this luxury, as they are shaped not just by their writers, but by an entire quarter century or so of pop culture expectation. To revisit the river analogy, they are like the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, constrained by a chasm eroded over millennia. Maybe they could have chosen a dramatically different path many years ago, but they are stuck where they are now. If the periodic rumors of Fox casting for sound-alikes whenever labor disputes arise are true, not even human death can free them from their torment.
How then are we to free these beings that are powered by our own collective pop culture unconscious, and are doomed to be eternally reborn into suffering? The Simpsons themselves have dealt with this issue, in S07E6’s “Treehouse of Horror VI,” specifically in the short “Attack of the 50-Foot Eyesores.” Advertisements, brought to life in a freak accident, are only laid to rest when Lisa and Paul Anka implore Springfield to “just don’t look.” Much as with the Tibetian concept of the Tulpa, the monsters are sustained by the attention and interior conceptions of the residents of Springfield. So too are the Simpson family sustained (but not nourished) by sheer collective pop culture willpower. Remove this force, and the edifice collapses.
Imagine (to the extent to which this is possible) a world in which the Simpsons never existed, and Matt Groening was pitching his show to the modern audience. A truly karma-free Simpson family, bolstered by the successes of shows with heavy serialization and pre determined story arcs, would feel free to grow and to change in consistent ways. From the successes of shows that rely on cynicism and nihilism, they would be allowed options beyond wrapping up stories in neat packages. Their actions would not be constrained by a (frequently hostile) relationship with a canon that is older than most of its viewers. In such a scenario, free from attachment, the Simpson family might be allowed their greatest gift: the freedom to die.