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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 06/24/2002
Volume 2, Number 38
Mr. Schwartz,

I recently discovered your column at www.wfcomics.com, and have been making my way through the archives. I happened to click on what turned out to be your final column (May 20, 2002), and I'm disappointed that I didn't find this sooner.

I still have quite a few columns to read through before I'm "caught up", but I wanted to take an opportunity to let you know that I am finding it utterly fascinating and inspiring material. I myself am also a writer, as yet unpublished, trying to break into comics, novels, short stories, radio... etcetera. I just want to write. But I've also been fascinated with what could be called the "mystical side of life," and it is because of this interest that I'm finding your columns so fascinating. It's kind of difficult for me to articulate, but I've always believed (if "belief" could be the right word) that there is a lot more to this world than we understand.

I'm not doing a very good job of expressing myself here... I'm trying very hard not to sound like either a nutcase or a fanboy... :)

I have recently made an effort to turn my life around, due to the growing frustrations of my day job (software development), and focus more on what I want to do, to write. Reading columns such as yours have provided me with the impetus to take charge of my own life -- reinforcing the belief that I am ultimately in control of what happens to me. I know this may seem far-fetched, but...

Well, I just wanted to let you know that I'm reading. And to thank you for your help, however inadvertent it was. Please let me know when your new website/column is ready. I'd be anxious to see it.

Thanks again,
-Chris
Dear Chris:

Thanks for the very moving letter. I say "moving" because you seem to have found in my column exactly what I'm trying to offer. I got to this place by a lot of years, a lot of inner turmoil and a lot of hard thinking, studying and reading, and a lot of taking seriously those frequently occurring events that we all experience but tend to forget or put aside as coincidence. Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher tells a wonderful story (which I may have referred to earlier--I can't remember that far back). He describes a beggar watching the emperor go by in the midst of a long cortege. Suddenly, the beggar sees the emperor raise his hand and bring the distinguished procession to a halt. Dismounting from his horse, the emperor proceeds directly to the lonely beggar standing on the street corner and says to him: "I want you to marry my daughter."

The beggar is overwhelmed. He cannot believe this possible. The emperor is making sport of him. It is against all reason and sense. Nevertheless, the emperor insists, and truly means what he says.

Now Kierkegaard is using this story to illustrate what is known in Christian theology as the "scandale"-- that is, the good offered by Christianity is beyond reason. No one deserves it. In fact, it is a "scandal", an "offense" to the reason. Yet it is freely offered. Christians are, according to Kierkegaard, being offered the hand of the emperor's daughter, even a lowly beggar, thoroughly unworthy as he may appear.

Now I'm not saying this is necessarily true of Christianity. But I am saying that what you found in my columns was some growing awareness of the state of grace in which we live, which is always present and we always dismiss for rational reasons, scientific reasons, logical reasons, our beliefs about reality in general. . . so that, for the most part, in the midst of grace, we live in a state of constant anxiety, worry, uncertainty and all too often depression.... most lives still being constrained by common sense and "reason" and all too often describable, as Hobbes described them, as "nasty, brutal and short." (I think it was Hobbes, but it's what he would have said, anyway.) Mostly what I propose through my writing, through the stories I do, my ways of examining the world is that we do live in a constant state of grace. I said it in many ways in my recent memoir, AN UNLIKELY PROPHET. (Get a copy from the Alvin Schwartz Store.)

All we have to do is open the door to it. Let it in. I don't know whether, in the end, if you stumble upon it, it will make you a better writer or whatever. But it will show you what joy is, and vastly expand your grasp of things you may once have thought impossible. With one caveat.

I tell, in Prophet, the story of a rabbi who gets up very early every morning and washes the dishes. His students ask him why he does this, reminding him that he had just washed the dishes the night before. To which the rabbi replies: "The dust gathers on the dishes every night." In short, you may by various means discover this state of grace I talk about. But it doesn't just hang around with you, no matter what. In short, you don't just sit around being "enlightened" because you happened to stumble on it after 20 years of effort.

You forget. You question. You slip away. You get discouraged. "The dust gathers on the dishes every night." It's necessary to stop and remind yourself that it's there. If you make that effort, then you will have arrived at the meeting between the beggar and the emperor.

One thing more I got from your letter. I have been trying to decide where to set up shop. I've been looking for a site more appropriate to the kind of writing I do since I left comics, something more literary, shall we say? Currently, I have four novels in the hands of my agent. But as I experimented around, I began more and more to realize that literature blooms in unexpected places. And some very dismal material can also be found on so-called "literary sites."

And amid all of it, plenty of dross everywhere, whether it tries to pass for literature or just entertainment.

Now ask yourself--Why should Charles Schultz not have been eligible for a Nobel Prize? Or Doonesbury for a Pulitzer?. So, your letter suggests to me-- why go anywhere? Here I am, having my say, clarifying my thoughts, meeting the occasional reader who seems to be discovering what I discovered. In a word, it was your letter, arriving when it did, that enabled me to make a decision to restart my old column: Exploring The Golden Age. With one slight change in the title. I've discussed this with our webmaster, Justin. We're going to call the column--"AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE --WITH ALVIN SCHWARTZ"

And so, as I intimated a few weeks back when I said I was leaving and not leaving (like Schroedinger's cat--Dead and Not dead--until a choice is made) --the cat is alive. Very much so. And your letter was the catalyst that enabled the choice.

Finally, I will be dealing with some very important changes that we need to take note of, especially concerning superheroes. They're not dead as a lot of people are beginning to suggest. But something major has happened to our culture which offers us an entirely new kind of superhero. And that's because of other very far-reaching changes in our world that relate to this. In fact I've already got a few new columns planned in advance On the subject.

In fact, the whole notion of something being "literary" or "pop" is something that evolved out of critical snobberies, since everything was once both literary and pop, (insofar as pop was enabled within societies where few could read, and so relied on the paintings and stained glass windows in their churches for their cultural fill which was variously designed according to the basic beliefs of the time.

From the tales of Boccaccio to Restoration drama, how much more or less literary are these works than a lot of formulaic HARLEQUIN romances. And I myself have come upon all this through comics, which has its own literary visions, and really very many of them. I started out as a "literary" writer. Poems, short stories, novels...and discovered comics that are just as much literature (and art) irrespective of the form and constraints and cultivated prejudices that define them. And I mean precisely "cultivated". They are cultivated, along with "science" according to certain norms established by the universities where what we call the "humanities" resides, and the universities, quite naturally, then acquire a vested interest in a certain staked-out body of humanities. And there are largely quiet scholarly disagreements, although at times actually getting rather noisy, as, looking to my experience and long memory, I found various modes of socialism were university nurtured.in the thirties and forties. (There was stuff happening in the twenties too, but I don't need to go into any of that right now except to say that women were profoundly involved.)

Anyway, World War II introduced all kinds of changes and new ideas including "existentialism", "modernism", "postmodernism.", "the permanent revolution" and kind of also dragged in the "beats'-concerning which I'm said to share some blame.

Well, there I was writing about Superman and Batman on the one hand, and on the other, slyly introducing the book that some say was to become the foundation of the "beat" movement To some extent what I wrote was part of the change in perception and value brought about by the Cold War.

Actually I'm just skimming the surface here because I just wanted to skip to the fact that post-modernism as it stands seems now engaged in breaking down the walls between pop culture and high culture. A fascinating example is the way Tolkien's work has been shifted from its literary pinnacle to share the limelight not only with Harry Potter but Star Wars in all its treacly mass-titillating candy-bar delirium. Reminds me of a line from a sonnet I once wrote years ago-
"I dream of Socrates and Cleopatra,
Coupling in a meadow in Sumatra..."
But the real deal is--they're letting us in-all us comic freaks rubbing shoulders with the literary cream. Remember my column on enantiodromia about a year ago? Well- that's it, folks. Things have reversed. Each has become the other.

But that's not all that's going on right under your noses. We now have a Third Culture that's rapidly taking over. And what's important about this Third Culture for which we're especially indebted to a Literary Agent named John Brockman, is that a new element has been added to the mix. So that instead of the superhero disappearing, he's on the verge of being revived again. In a somewhat different way.

I intend to discuss all of this with you in the coming weeks. So be prepared. You won't want to miss a bit of it. Not if you want to get with this post-modern jazz. I can now tell you one of my best kept secrets: I was post-modern as far back as 1958. That was when I first created Bizarro for the Superman Daily.. It wasn't understood at the time that in doing so, I was really deconstructing Superman.

--Alvin

<< 05/20/2002 | 06/24/2002 | 07/01/2002 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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