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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 01/03/2000
Column 34

As most of you should know by now, a lot of strange things happen to me. The reason they don't happen to most of the rest of mankind is because too many keep their doors so tightly closed. Especially the fundamentalists and the harsh accusing self-annointed proclaimers of truth for the rest of us.

Would you believe that these folks are among what really hip scientists like to refer to as "reductionists"-- that is, you reduce all searching to the building blocks of reality. Whatever is hard and testable and can be analyzed down to its smallest parts-- that's the way you find reality. Of course, that's exactly the way you don't find it. Because all you find that way are what you already know, cut into pieces, burned, flogged, twisted until all the secrets of reality are somehow squeezed out of the so-called concrete world. That's what these folks do with the bible, in case you haven't noticed. They reduce it to literal chunks of meaning, overlooking the fact that the bible never says anything definite that cannot be attributed to extra biblical influences, bad translations, power biases of the various priesthoods so that half the biblical texts that didn't fit the asserted canons got thrown out. Notice how much they have in common with the raw materialists who also scrunge around to seek answers from the ultimate building blocks of matter? Isn;t it strange how much these "spiritual people" share with the naive materialists of the beginning of the twentieth century?

Now, let me assert what we all know, that if you write comics, you don't think that way. You deal with and create realities that are anything but concretely in front of you. You even make things up that you've never seen before, except in imagination. That's how Superman and Batman and Spiderman, and Plastic Man and Applesauce Man (there ought to be some women in all this, like Wonderwoman, and I understand that there are, but my generation hadn't kicked down the gender bars the way you newbies have.) But the point I'm making is you don't open doors to all the unknown things that lie beyond the dissected realities you already know. In chaos theory, now become complexity theory and starting to turn into cognitive theory, you learn that with each stage of complexity, something gets created which is not to be found in the parts. Complexity creates emerging properties. You look at cells, then at brain cells, and until these become far more complex than the stem cells from which they've developed, things like imagination and memory don't come into view. So you see, it's not all just hiding in the stem cell or the seed, waiting to break into flower as it passes through time and gets hammered by natural forces. You're not considering that the seed, the tree and the fruit are developments of one another; they're really just one thing-- a perpetual circle. Tree--seed--fruit, broken up into temporal bits, they're just one thing that never changes. Like the chicken and the egg. One thing, going through a time cycle, over and over again.

So how does novelty come in? Some scientists claim that change comes about as the result of a chance mutation. So really, everything we see and are came about by nature simply blundering. Do you really believe that? That such emergent properties as mind and imagination are developmental blunders? That kind of makes us machines, doesn't it? We're not really involved. Consciousness is a bystander, and an accidental one at that. And it gives those angry fundamentalists a foothold, even though they treat biblical matters the same way. (That includes all fundamentalists, including those who cite the Koran, the Vedas, Buddhist Sutras, and the like.

All right----that's the stuff I don't believe. What I do believe is that every thought, every crazy idea that rushes through our unendingly active minds, breaks off to form an independent reality of its own.

Let's take any of your favorite comic book characters. Once they're out there and they've got a few fans, do they stay the same? Don't they go through changes that the writers and artists never actua.lly planned? Because they're products of imagination, the active form of consciousness, they have that freedom. To make it simple, try this one out. Think of a time in your life when you had to make an important decision-- to marry or not to marry. Try to imagine how your life might have been different if you had followed the path not chosen. Maybe it was a job you accepted or turned down. Any bifurcating path will do. Try to go back to that moment of choice. Put yourself right there, and then try to follow the alternate path in your imagination. Pursue it. Feel it. Can you sense that the unexplored probable path has, in fact, a reality of its own? Try it a few times and you're likely to meet some of your own probable selves. They're not you but close enough for them to influence you in some way. Ever wonder where all the thoughts that come racing into our minds whether we're awake or dreaming, (and not only thoughts but feelings, memories we never experienced) come from? Every probability, every probable self gets lived out and branches into other probabilities all the time. That's why consciousness is so rich and the spontaneous clues that help us resolve our problems (or maybe worsen them) pass along the vast skein of consciousness and fill our lives to the brim. And we sit in a rocking chair or maunder along drearily in a traffic jam and think that nothing is happening.

One distinguished British biologist, Rupert Murdoch, calls that whole miasma of influences and probabilites a kind of field-- a morphogenetic field. It contains the influences of all the probable selves we have and all the things we do over and over again so that they become habit. So that even crystals which are difficult to form at first, once they get formed somewhere else by someone else, suddenly start forming easily in a place where no direct influence can be traced. A small female ape on some distant Carribean shore learns to dip fruit in sea water to clean the mud off, others start to imitate her, and soon after, oceans away, without any direct contact, the same kind of apes start washing fruit in the same way. No-- not trelepathy. A field-- essentially a field of influence like gravity or electro-magnetism.

Now think of that field formed by all the paths we never took, how they continue to move away from us but influence us at the same time. You want a good explanation of clairvoyance-- when someone can pick up an object, say a ring or a brooch and give a clear picture of the person who once owned it? Now you know how. The clairvoyant contacts the magnetic field, quite consciously. We always do the same thing, and get influenced, without ever realizing where it's coming from. This should also explain why the most fanatical of believers tend to act so irrationally and hatefully in the name of some indistinctly understood cause, because it is powerfully felt through the morphogenetic field.

We're all subject to the influence of morphic fields. How come we don't get taken over by these agglomerations of probable realities in the same way? Because we consciously distribute our consciousness over many different kinds of realities. One of those that came to full flower in this century was comics. Strange as it seems, this violent, irrational and hate filled century really needed a more creative distraction of the imagination, a warmer more personal kind of distraction. In no other century in fact has fiction as an art in which so many participate so flowered and in so many directions. Comics is one of the more popular elements of that saving grace of the imagination called fiction. It's an especiually strong one that seizes us in childhood and tends to .hold us long after we've passed our middle years. Look around among comics aficionados and see how few of them share the fanaticism of the fundamentalists and the violence-driven conspiracy theorists. How beautifully it all gets dissipated into works of the imagination far richer and mind-titillating with its incredible roster of characters and worlds and ways of seeing and doing. The twentieth century's gift to sanity? To a degree, I would say so. Certainly the gyroscope by which consciousness always acts to keep us on an even keel. Anyway, as I said, because I think this way, strange things seem to happen to me. I'll tell you more about them next week.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 12/27/1999 | 01/03/2000 | 01/10/2000 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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