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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 05/01/2000
Column 51

HOW REAL IS THAT SELF YOU'RE ALWAYS LOOKING FOR? MAYBE AS REAL AS SUPERMAN.

One of the reasons for the attacks on the comics in the forties and fifties was not because they were violent, as many people believe. Actually, there was as much violence in the Saturday morning animated cartoon, but somehow, criticism against this animated medium, though present, was far more muted.

What disturbed parents and a lot of Freud-delusioned child psychologists, was the tendency of children to believe in the reality of those ultra-characters of the comics, the super-heroes like Batman and Superman and Captain Marvel, etc. At this time, with the rise of Freudian psychology in the US, even fairy-tales came under attack. In fact it was thought that anything extraordinary, or frightening would so shock young minds that they would never quite recover from these "devastating" early experiences.

All of it was based on the Freudian notion that once past the age of five, the brain, memory and the emotions were all, so to speak, finalized. Character was completely set and nothing that happened afterwards could change that. None of these brilliant Freudians realized, of course, that if this were really the case, you could throw all therapy out the window. Because once everything was set at five, how could it be changed after that age even by a therapist? Strange that no one ever thought of this until so many years later-actually as late as the nineties, when cognitive scientists discovered that the brain never stops growing and is always capable of renewing itself even in old age.

Certainly children did believe in the reality of fairy tale figures, and certainly those graphically appealing super-heroes. Was this harmful? Did it warp children's notions of reality so much that they grew up with distorted notions of what was real so that they couldn't deal effectively with the real world they had to live and work in? That, in fact, they wouldnn't know who they really were? And they'd spend a good part of their lives struggling with the problem of finding what all the different kinds of healers and New Age messiahs refer to as one's real self.

I"d like to offer a counter proposal to that old fear. I think children, and everybody else, should become acquainted with many different kinds of reality. I also think, if they worry about finding themselves, the best way to do it is to forget about the self. I'm quite serious about this.

Let's look in again on "reality" which I've often discussed in this column. Let's go back to that night about a year ago when listening to the radio just before I was to be a featured guest on the nationally syndicated Laura Lee show, the host for the previous show came on with his final comments for the night.

Here was a guy who normally complained about things like morality, or the political situation, or the sorry state of our schools. But this time, he had a new one, and he sounded terribly sincere and terribly worried. He was talking about reality!

It had suddenly struck him that there was something wrong with it. Wrong with reality? Well-listen to what he had to say.

"This table," he began, "-I hit it and it hurts my hand. It's hard. I bump into it and it hurts. But now they tell me I'm all wrong. This table is only a bunch of empty air made up of atoms and molecules and stuff-with hardly anything solid in it at all. These science guys have really proved that. So if it's nothing but air-how come it hurts when I bump into it? It doesn't make sense. There's something wrong with reality."

All right-this guy is a kluck and more than a little naive. But what he's pointing out is something much more important. Being made of "air" as he calls it, or molecules, or atoms separated by big spaces-well that's true if you're trying to figure out how to make better wood, how to make it stronger by changing its chemistry. The talk show host is describing a particular view of reality-the chemist's or the physicist's. But what about the guy who just needs a hard surface so he can chop up vegetables, or hammer a nail into something?

Well-for him or her, the table is hard and resistant. You bump it and it hurts.

There's nothing wrong with reality. Except that there really isn't such a thing as a general reality. Reality depends on what you're trying to do. For the chemist trying to do an experiment, the table is molecular. For the chef or the carpenter-it's hard.

There's simply no single made-for-everybody reality.

The kind of reality you get depends, in other words, on the questions you need to ask. Science has known this ever since Heisenberg and his uncertainty principle. The kind of question you ask decides the nature of the reality you're considering. The questioner shapes the answer. No more this old idea of a fixed reality out there and the objective mind looking at it from outside. You make your own reality by the kind of question you ask. So when strange things happen and upset your fixed notion of what reality is-maybe you're just asking the wrong question. And that's why I suggest that we all become acquainted with many different kinds of reality.

A lot of people have asked me, after reading my memoir, An Unlikely Prophet, what kind of reality I'm dealing with when I describe a number of cases of visiting other consciousnesses, bird consciousness, animal consciousness, even the consciousness of an old bag lady sitting on a bench next to me. The way I answer that is to point out that we engage in a form of consciousness visiting all the time. Only we call it identification. We identify with characters in comics, or movies, or novels.

This was one of the worries of the child psychologists- that identification with characters like Superman would lead to kids jumping off buildings as they tried to fly. In fact, there were kids who actual\y did such things. Of course, kids were doing that long before Superman came along. The kids got the idea from birds. Maybe we should have had a movement to banish birds.

And then they went after the comic book, Zorro. Did they completely forget that Zorro was a movie serial long before the comic strip appeared? Played by Douglas Fairbanks, the greatest of all silent film stars. Maybe because the child psychologists figured movies were for adults, and comic books were for kids.

Hah! Adults read Superman as much as kids. Maybe more. I know more adults read MY Superman stories, especially in the newspaper strip. And then, there's that complaint about reality again- children shouldn't be exposed to unrealities like that. It would stunt their growth. But maybe then they should have started with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. How come those children's myths didn't stunt anybody's growth? Or did they?

But let's get back to identifying. . . which we all do with other people, characters in books, and even our friends and relatives. So when I describe the process of consciousness visiting in An Unlikely Prophet, it's really not so strange. I'm only carrying a degree further, thanks to some exercises in yoga breathing. something that all of us do effortlessly all the time. In fact, we do it too often, and get ourselves into all sorts of emotional difficulties. Our real problem is not how to do consciousness visiting, but how to avoid overdoing it. But that's a subject for another column.

But because I wrote about consciousness visiting in An Unlikely Prophet, I often get asked about the risk of possibly losing your real self in such undertakings. Usually, it takes the following form:

You describe the experience of transferring your consciousness into other living things-animals, birds, people. With such a possibility, where is the real you?

The real you is something that's very much in question among philosophers, and many followers of Oriental beliefs. Some interpret various Buddhist statements as meaning that there is no such thing as a self. As one famed story will have it-a pupil approached his master and confessed to being in difficulty.

"And what is your difficulty?" the master inquired.

"I can't find myself," said the student.

"Good-good. Then you have no problem."

That the self is a composite that dissolves upon analysis is believed by many Buddhists, including the Tibetans.

I do not share this belief. It is true that we are only spasmodically aware of our selves. There are times when we function without any awareness at all of who is functioning. Which only tells me that consciousness of self is something quite different from the reality of self. Consciousness to my mind means separation. The moment we are conscious of something, we lose it. It becomes an object for us.

This is what Hegel meant by the "unhappy consciousness." The myth of the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve became conscious of their nakedness and were expelled from Paradise, expresses the same idea. To be conscious of anything is to objectify it. To see it like a spectator rather than simply to be it.

Without attempting here to make this too complex an argument, I would suggest that in the uniqueness of every being in the universe, the self is to be found. That uniqueness is not always what we call self-aware. Consider how the Zen archer learns to hit his target. He learns above all not to interfere with his perfect relation between the target and the arrow by becoming aware of himself. There's a paradox here.

To become aware of oneself is to divide oneself. On the other hand, by directing one's consciousness to other living things-birds, animals, people-far from losing oneself, one has, in effect, more of oneself. In the complex feedback of consciousness involving other selves, one has a greater sense of one's own self. The paradoxical truth is indeed that the less self-awareness one has in being aware of others, the more one's own self is enriched and expanded.

I would also like to refer everyone again to the work of the psychiatrist Stanislav Grof who taught his subjects to enter into the consciousness of other lives, animal as well as human. He was very successful in doing this, although he originally used psychedelic drugs to manage his experiments. Later, however, he was able to dispense with these props and achieve transfers of consciousness without them. Rather than this resulting in his patients becoming confused about who they really were, these experiences gave them a strengthened sense of self and vastly enriched their spiritual lives.

And try a little consciousness visiting, simple stuff, really. No need for yoga breathing tricks. Try identifying more with the poor, the dispossessed, the hungry. the lonely. You might be amazed at how much richer your self and your reality can become.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 04/24/2000 | 05/01/2000 | 05/08/2000 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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