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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 02/14/2000
Column 40
February 14, 2000

I found Dr Maranto easily. His tent was the very first in a line that was made up of two fortune tellers, plus a Swami standing in front of a portable shack decorated with occult glyphs. The others were too far down the line for me to notice. And the so-called Swami--he had a name plate on his shack, identifying him as Swami Opicando--was wearing a large turban, Sikh style, which real swamis being Hindi, never really wear, so I figured he must have been a fake. But he already had a line of several people waiting to talk to him.

Fortunately, Dr Maranto wasn't getting any business like most of the others. And he didn't seem to be trying very hard. At least he wasn't sitting outside working to entice clients his way. So I stepped into his tent, and found a rotund bearded man with a satyr face and a mystical-looking smile as he sat at a deal table, his hands clasped over his belly while he stared at me from beneath heavily lidded eyes.

"It'll cost you ten dollars to talk to me," he said before I'd quite gotten across the threshold. "And I don't guarantee you'll like what I have to tell you." He looked to be about sixty and didn't seem too anxious to have me as a customer.

"I suppose you want to be paid in advance too," I said, standing hesitantly just inside his tent.

He looked me over carefully, then pointed to the empty chair at the other side of his table. "No--I'll trust you. Have a chair. You don't have the usual anxious look. So what are you doing here?"

I sat down. "I just came from the comic book store in the mall. The owner said you'd know what I came to ask."

"You look old enough to know most of the answers already. But I hope he explained to you that I'm not a fortune teller. Fortune tellers are a dime a dozen. I'm a visionary. That's why I get ten dollars."

"So far, you're right about everything," I said, taking the proffered seat. "There are days when I do think I know most of the answers. But not today. Today I came to ask what you can tell me about the comic book business. Its future, I mean. My opinion is that it doesn't have much of a future."

"For that you're willing to pay ten dollars?" I nodded.

"You're in the business?"

"Used to be. And I'm still connected, in a way." "How's that?" He leaned forward, his eyelids lifting a bit with curiosity. "How are you connected?"

"Maybe you should give me ten dollars?" I said. His mystical smile slowly dissolved into a frown. "The truth is--there's no future at all."

"What do you mean by that? You make it sound like the world's coming to an end."

"No--no--that's the big misconception. There's no world." "No world? So what am I doing here?"

"What I meant to say is that there's no world out there as you think of it. You're a simple web of cognition. A web, understand, turns back on itself. It's self-referential. Like the Internet--to put it in the simplest terms. To make it clearer, you come here with the fixation that your thought-- all thinking, in fact, is a representation of an independently existing world out there. You assume that the world is pre-given and independent of the observer."

"Wait--wait--I know that we see the world through the screen of our senses. That it's not exactly the same for everyone, but-- there's something out there that we're looking at, no matter how we distort it."

"And when you dream--is there something out there? Or just you wandering through the web?"

"The Australian aborigines had a belief that long eons ago, man lived in what they call the dream time.' You're trying to tell me that we're still in it?"

"And why would that have changed?" he asked me. "What intervention and from where would dreaming have become what you think of as hard material reality? And what's the advantage? Also, what would have been the purpose?" Without waiting for my answer, he added: "No, there's nothing out there. Because there's no outside. We're all insiders. We're all in a conspiracy making it all up." He tittered suddenly and let his hands slide from his belly as he dropped them flat on the table and leaned closer to me. "That's why I don't do futures. There isn't any. Except what you make up. The comic book business? Sure--I can answer that. Maybe with a few simple metaphors. Everything is just perpetual flow. Only, the flow forms shapes, structures. Some scientists call them dissipative structures. They exist because everything is alive and flowing and feeding back to itself--always in a state of disequilibrium. Like runnels and small whirlpools in a brook. The feedback from the flow supports the little structures until they reach a bifurcation point. And suddenly, they collapse--or they take a different form. Nobody can predict it. Except--except--" he tapped his forehead. "You can choose which dream of a life you want. You can make it yourself. The scientists call it autopoiesis. These days a very fashionable idea. But it all starts with you.

"As for these scientists, they invented non-linear mathematics to describe the unpredictability. But it isn't necessary." He broke off, leaned back, resumed his smile and said: "Do you know what the hell I'm talking about?"

"Actually, I do. I've read Prigogine and I've read the new cognitive scientists. But they're talking about something you can't really talk about. You can only make it happen. That's what you have to conclude from their views. Life is all disequilibrium--right?"

"Not exactly," he said. "It's a struggle to return to equilibrium. Only, if you reach it, everything stops. There's no more life. The trick is to get closer and closer. Maybe back away if you get too close. Like a painter. He doesn't want a work in perfect equilibrium. It dies that way. So he has to keep shifting, back and forth, approaching equilibrium, but never quite making it."

"Like a vibration," I suddenly said, as I got the picture. "Aaah--now you're getting close."

I laughed. "But not too close."

He echoed my .laugh. "So--now you know." He waved his hands at me. "So--go make it happen. You want a comic book future? Make one. Every probability is yours. But better not to be too certain about it. Certainty is death. Do what you like. But don't overdo it."

"You expect us to live with that answer?" "We live with it all the time. If we didn't--we wouldn't be--" "Alive," I finished for him. I stood up. "That's it, then?" "What else?" he replied.

"What about the ten dollars?"

He shrugged. "What can I do with ten dollars? Go in peace." And he settled back in his chair with that dreamy expression.

I turned around and walked out and wondered. I understood a lot of what he'd said to me. But I didn't understand why he said it, what he was doing there, and why the comic store owner had sent me to him in the first place. What did that store owner understand that I didn't?

Then I remembered that he'd given me three names. Maybe after visiting all three I'd begin to realize something. Anyway, sooth-saying wasn't the way it used to be anymore, that seemed clear.

I set out to find the next name on my list--Madame Gorelli. I'll tell you more about that next week.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 02/07/2000 | 02/14/2000 | 02/17/2000 >>

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