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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 04/10/2000
Column 48

Last week, I left off with Dr Maranto knocking at my door in the middle of the night and complaining about lost boundaries. After I put away his coat and made some fresh coffee. we sat down in the kitchen and I filled a cup for him.

"No boundaries?" I said, taking up the wail of despair with which he had greeted me. "If you live in a world without boundaries, how did you get here?" I asked. "I don't live in cloud land."

He looked out through the kitchen window. It was black and stars laced the night. There were no houses and no lights anywhere. "I wouldn't be so sure," he said, trying to lighten up a bit. "How did you ever find this place?"

"It took a lot of looking. You like it?"

He made a negative movement with his head and took a sip of coffee. "It's like the way I feel. Drifting in nowhere. You like this isolation?"

"What isolation? I know everybody in town- all fourteen hundred of them."

"But where are they?"

"Actually, I'm just north of the town, but everything is just five minutes away. If I lived in the city, no one would know I'm here. In this place, everyone knows I'm here."

He set down his coffee cup and waved that discussion away. "A man without boundaries mostly has a feeling of non-existence." he began.

"That doesn't sound like a good feeling," I admitted.

"You remember when I told you that you can choose which dream of a life you want- that you can make it yourself?"

I nodded. "I remember."

"So that's where the trouble begins," he explained. "If you can choose anything, what's to choose from? What's your model? You see?"

"You create it, I suppose."

He shook his head vehemently. "For years I've been deceiving myself. Where do I get my preferences from so that I'd want to create any specific life? If I don't have desires except the ones I make up, why take any desire seriously? In fact, how can you have any desires?"

"Have you read Blake?" I said suddenly as a thought struck me.

He offered an almost imperceptible affirmative, a vague shaking of his chin. "A long time ago."

"Blake says that desire is the Holy Spirit."

"I remember that," he said disconsolately. "But desire has a shape, a purpose, a goal. It demands a pre-existing world. "

I got up and walked around the room, glancing occasionally at his bowed head which, from a rear view as I passed behind the back of his chair was glazed with baldness. "Why should something that doesn't exist bother you," I began tentatively.

"It does exist," he said. "There really is a world out there. I didn't say there wasn't. I'm here because I need to find out why I- we- created it. Why that particular consensus and not some other. Don't you find it hard to live with the idea that you create something arbitrarily and then get passionate about it. Fall in love with it, even. That's what bothers me- being a passionate man and essentially feeling that way about something self-created. About nothing, actually."

"What about the self that created it? Did it create itself?"

"You're talking about auto-poiesis. The hottest new idea in cognitive science these days. And yes- I've seen the computer models about how it happens. But it happens in an orderly fashion. So there has to be something behind it-some order."

And then it struck me as he sat there rubbing the flat of one palm across the top of his glaucous scalp- that we were circling around our own talk and getting nowhere because he had forgotten one thing. The one thing that was absolutely and inescapably given- something we both called the Now! I mentioned it to him, knowing that he knew all about it but needed a reminder.

"Now means," I said "taking off from where you are. From what's given in this moment. So you don't have to figure out how you got here or why- just that whatever it is, it's all happening at once. Right now." As I warmed to my subject, I had a sudden memory of a funeral I attended recently. A very elderly relative of mine had died. I remembered especially how his wife, Kay's oldest sister, had described it.

'He was very confused,' she said. 'He'd wake up in the morning and start getting dressed because he had to go to work. He thought he was thirty years old. Other times, he'd be a child again and even asked me to bring him his stuffed teddy. He thought I was his mother.'

Of course- except for certain structures set up in the brain, every moment of our lives is still with us. And when those brain structures start to break down, so does the temporal focus. Time is a focus of the mind. But at a late stage in life, that focus often dissipates, revealing what's really there. Every moment we've ever lived, packed into a single now. Maybe, I thought, you had to get to what the brain, or our idea of the brain, could no longer conceive of as a future. Because our present is already full. So everything we've ever lived comes back in the single now we're actually in. We slip into death and the eternal now at the same time. We find ourselves again. And other crises can set if off too. I remembered what happened to Kay many years ago. She was driving home with our young son, Eric. And suddenly, she was caught in a traffic squeeze. The pavement was wet and the car slipped out of control. She knew that a headon crash was imminent. That was when she had one of those experiences when her whole life flashed before her. All of it. In less than a second. One hears about these things, but when it happens so close to home- it's hard to forget. Kay believes the split second event restored something that enabled her to react with equal split-second precision. She managed to avoid the accident. But when she told me about it, we both understood that she had somehow slipped out of time. Into the Eternal Moment? I'm not sure. But for myself, I arrived at the conclusion that time is merely a garment we wrap ourselves in. Behind it is everything-all at once.

I sat down opposite Maranto and laid it all out to him as it came to me. He listened for some time and said nothing, just continued stroking his head. "So you see," I said, "there's nothing you have to do except deal with what's already given. In a way, you do make up your life as you go along. But you can't do that from scratch. You have to start from now. From something already formed, already there- always there and always malleable. Now is your fulcrum. Now is the place from which you lift your world. There's no other answer. And what a strength and a relief to realize that that's how it is. You've got boundaries after all, you see. You're not just spilling out meaninglessly in all directions. In fact, you can't escape those boundaries. Not any more than you can get out of the present."

He looked at me for a while, his eyes searching my face, but he had stopped stroking his head. "You know, from time to time, I thought about all that myself. But I'd get bogged down in all the contradictions. And just tonight, when you talked about your dying relative and then your wife, I think I finally got a glimmer of the truth. Something concrete I can work with."

"A boundary," I said.

"No, not a boundary as such. Everything has boundaries or it isn't anything. But the Now, as you put it,, connects all the boundaries into an order that's your life. I think I see that now." He smiled suddenly and got to his feet. "What a damn fool I've been-making such a fuss when the thing I'm looking for is-well- I've actually been standing right in the middle of it while I've been running around chasing after it."

I laughed, and knew that we had reached a conclusion. As I walked him to the door, I remembered that old story about the professor who went everywhere looking for his glasses. He couldn't remember where he had last put them until he happened to reach up and touch his forehead. He was wearing his glasses all the time. I remarked about it to Maranto as I helped him on with his coat. "And you know," I suddenly recalled. "That actually happened to me the other day. I must've spent fifteen minutes looking for my glasses before I realized I was wearing them."

Maranto smiled wanly. "There's going to be another psychic fair in mid-summer. Same place, same time. Come have a look in."

And then with a cheerful wave, he was out the door and I began to wonder why he'd come to see me after all. He must've known everything I told him. Was he just at a point where he was looking for reinforcement? Or was he trying to demonstrate something else to me. He'd taken the trouble to locate me through my licence plate. What did he want? Was there another chapter still to be worked out between us? I was suddenly rather confused.

I decided I'd go to that next fair. Maybe I'd have a chance to find out.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 03/20/2000 | 04/10/2000 | 04/24/2000 >>

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