ANTIBES JUAN-LES-PINS, France. This city in the south of France is home to La Mediatheque Albert Camus, ground zero for existentialists around the world this week as they gather to examine, critique and honor the work of an unlikely philosopher: the cartoon character named “Popeye the Sailor Man.”
“Et ‘Wimpy’–qu’est ce-qu’est son ‘deal’?”
“Popeye was a forerunner of existentialism,” says Pierre Foucault, who has traveled from L’Ecole du Avant Garde Stuff in Marseilles to present a paper titled “Olive Oyl: Le Simone de Beauvoir de la Comiques?” “He made it clear that no one would define who he was except for his own bad self.”
To non-existentialists Popeye’s succinct summation of the sometimes vague philosophy–“I yam what I yam!” or “Je suis que je suis” in French–resonates in a way that Jean-Paul Sartre’s weighty tome “Etre et Neant” (Being and Nothingness) does not.
“I like existentialism, don’t get me wrong,” says Mindy Decatur, a student at De La Salle College in Ottumwa, Iowa who is struggling through a compulsory freshman philosophy course. “It’s just goes down a lot easier when presented in animated cartoon format.”
The plot of a typical Popeye cartoon is as formulaic and stylized as Greek tragedy: Popeye woos Olive Oyl who initially prefers his gruff and unlettered rival Bluto based on a cheap and meretricious blandishment such as a bottle of perfume or a cubic zirconium ring. Popeye and Bluto fight and Popeye is on the verge of defeat when he eats spinach, an edible flowering plant that enhances his strength. Popeye defeats Bluto, winning the heart of Olive Oyl. The cartoon then ends and is followed by a commercial for a sugary cereal with less nutritional value than spinach.
“It is in many ways like the myth of Sisyphus, which Camus wrote of,” says the Executive Director of the Mediatheque, Claude-Henri-Jacques Dufresne. “Olive Oyl soon forgets her troth of love to Popeye, who must begin each cartoon to win her heart again. You get a sense of the futility of life, which is a great lesson to teach toddlers struggling with phonics.”
Rourke: “Dude–wash your hair next year whether it needs it or not.”
Popeye is the latest in the string of American cultural phenomena that have been derided here as trivial or even tacky only to be worshipped by the French after a pretentious re-assessment which grossly inflates their significance. “You people in les Etats-Unis, you do not recognize greatness right under your noses,” notes Dufresne. “You look at Jerry Lewis and see a weepy Labor Day telethon-maitre, we see an auteur. We know Mickey Rourke is a genius, you think he’s just a guy with greasy hair.”