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After the Golden Age by Alvin Schwartz
Giving a glimpse into the formative years of comics and beyond.

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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 12/06/1999
Column 30

Last week, I was following a memory trail from an old Batman Daily showing the Caped Crusader breaking a stranglehold by the villain Pomade. Just a small warning, to start with. The breakhold I described works very well, but only if the would-be strangler isn't positioned too close to you. Remember, there has to be enough distance for you to get your arms up between the strangler's arms. If he's got you too close, you've got to force him to move back a little. Easy enough if you know how to use your knee. Now, to get on with my reminiscences.

Another interesting childhood recollection was the reaction of some friends or classmates to a specific form of insult. Specifically--it was dangerous to use the epithet "son-of-a-bitch" with certain individuals. Immediately, this special type of individual would rush over threateningly and announce, again with bulging eyes:-- "You can insult me all you want. But don't you ever insult my mother." And it didn't matter whether you'd insulted a shrimp half your size, or maybe someone with a broken and useless right arm. The reaction would always be the same, even if it were a case, as it often was, of a mouse trying to puff itself up into a dragon. Basically, all you had to do was to reassure the insulted one that you meant to insult him and not his mother, and likely as not, the whole thing would blow over. It seems funny now that I recall several such incidents from school days. Some of you surely have similar memories. And maybe some of you were yourselves inflated to heroic levels when the motherhood button was touched.

The question is-- why? With some, it was a stance picked up from other kids. You had to do it. You couldn't just let them insult your mother. But with some, it reflected a deeper, powerful psychological notion of motherhood as something sacred, something pure. And it brought on a state of knightly heroism. Complete with bulging eyes.

So what does "mother" mean in this context. I'd like to suggest that we're dealing once again with a disguised form of Marianism. The mother as holy, the ultimate feminine icon. Hey--. You can insult my father, but my mother is super-special. My mother is pure. My mother must always remain inviolate. It's profoundly cultural, and essentially religious. Think of religion in its original sense: Re leges, in Latin, that is, Things of the law. What law? The law behind the tradition of Marianism.

It's very strong in our culture. A heresy, maybe. But what a powerful psychological grip it maintains among us. Now this is a big subject. I don't in any way plan to cover it all. How it explains certain kinds of shynesses with women. How it can make some men impotent. I just want to get back to the photograph of the man who murdered the doctor, and all those other men recently involved in the murder or attempted murder of doctors.

I used to ask myself about how such an extreme act of violence, often repeated, can be justified by the so-called rationale:-- saving babies. Too many rationalizations involving the question of when a fetus becomes a human, too many efforts to treat and even publicly represent the fetus as though it were a fully developed child must be made for such a reason to be credible. Put simply, it defies Occam's law. The simplest explanation is the most likely. It's not really about babies. It's about the violation of that overpowering symbol-- the mother. That seems to explain the strange elated expression, the heroic, bulging-eyed physiognomy that falls like a mask upon the killer's face as he steps into his noble role. This is the kid, now grown, who never got over the thought that you can insult me but not my mother--or anybody's mother for that matter. Note too that if this were really about saving babies and not about Motherhood, why is it that we simply never hear of any woman attempting to murder an abortionist.

Once upon a time, when we were presumably primitive, there were cults that saw the Godhead as feminine. Earlier religions recognized the Earth Mother as primal. In losing that connection with our feminine roots, some men have distorted that loss in some profound psychological sense, into an ideal of motherhood. That's because nothing of the psyche is ever lost. It simply assumes other forms when it has to. In the aggressive and male-centered cultures of the west, the notion of motherhood has become distorted, emerging in one of its uglier forms as the knight-errant murderer who slays the dragon known as the abortion doctor.

As I said, this whole thing began as a kind of ratiocination on a scene from one of my Batman newspaper scripts. But I think I should also mention a few other details here: -- that nowhere in the Bible is there any explicit injunction against abortion. Indeed, according to my priceless and well-thumbed copy of Brittanica Eleven, ". . .in one of Plato's dialogues, Socrates is made to speak of artificial abortion as a practise not only common but allowable." Similarly, it was not the arrival of Christianity, "but only after the spread of Christianity among the Romans (that ) foeticide became equally criminal with the murder of an adult, and the barbarian hordes which afterwards overran the empire also treated the offense as a crime punishable by death. . . (but) with the gradual disuse of the old barbarous punishments so universal in medieval times came also a reversal of opinion as to the magnitude of the crime involved in killing a child not yet born." Let me accordingly point out that in English common law, abortion appears to have been treated as a misdemeanor, because the foetus is not yet "in rerum natura."

And then there are those to whom it is a violation of the natural order of things to so overpopulate the earth that neither food nor nurture is available for large portions of that overpopulation. It isn't that the Chinese government is wrong about its strictures on family size, but that its methods for achieving this are inhumane and abhorrent.

A personal note. Three times in my life, I was confronted with the question of aborting a child. In each case, it would have been inconvenient indeed not to terminate the pregnancy. But, somehow, out of entirely non-rational motives , I found myself unable to request such a termination. But at least I was able to make the choice. How much would have been lost if I had been deprived of the right to choose?

Alvin Schwartz

<< 11/29/1999 | 12/06/1999 | 12/13/1999 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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