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After the Golden Age by Alvin Schwartz
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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 09/27/2004
Vol. 2, #142

Two Way Time

What Prigogine established was that irreversible processes could no longer be regarded as basic to our universe. First, we had the smooth two way order of Newton in which the whole thing, all the past and all the present could ultimately be figured out. The universe was a mechanism that could run backwards and forwards. That was the seventeenth century. Then in the nineteenth century, it was discovered that in the heat exchanges between molecules, on which the active bubbling universe was based, there would eventually come a time when all molecules would have balanced their heat exchanging and stopped bubbling around. You see, the bubbling around was because of the uneven distribution of heat, so each cooler spot absorbed heat or energy from the hot spots around it and all that activity kept the universal pot boiling.

But then, sooner or later, every molecule would have surrendered its excess heat to every molecule that lacked heat until a vast heat-equivalence reigned everywhere. That was inevitable. And inevitably, the pot would stop boiling. No more energy, no more motion, a still cold unmoving universe would eventually reach its heat-death. Pretty simple and obvious, yes? Anyway, that's what science believed, and in a way, the world believed it too and began to conceive of itself as having a finite life span.

Suddenly, things lost their luster. Life lost its meaning. We were going to nowhere in a wheelbarrow and there was no way to get off. A kind of philosophical apathy set in. Philosophical movements, political movements, behavior for the most part, especially in the west where science had such a hold, abandoned visions of the future for movements like --- hey, wait a minute, I'm not going to get into all that stuff now. Too much. But men started to fight pointless, meangless wars, wars of despair, you might say, like World War One which had absolutely no purpose or meaning. Once the armies started to move, there was no way of calling them off. Think of it, the Kaiser, the Czar and King George were all cousins caught, unknowingly for the most part in the universal despair. Even the Church got dragged into it, so it had nothing to offer either. No, the basic criterion of a meaningless universe envisioned in the heat death of the universe overwhelmed all. And this dragged on into scenarios of vicious nationalism, especially in the west, where the Versailles treaty stripped Germany of everything, set off an inflation, a whjirlwind of chaos that ultimately opened the way for the atrocities of Hitler, then Stalin and, inevitably to World War II.

And so, in a despairing world, the savior image rose up from the ashes and the superheroes became part of our culture. They caught us in childhood and carried us through the Depression and WWII and they were popular because with religion losing its grip these benign superbeings gave us a kind of childhood vision to hang on to. As we all know today, major circulation went to the armed forces, to provide a bolstering vision, and one that lasted until the next cultural revolution, in the sixties. But the signs came earlier than that.

I played some part in the change, even as I participated in the Golden Age of the superhero. In 1948, I wrote The Blowtop which critics now say was the inspiration for the Beat movement that followed, beat, meaning originally, exhausted, wearied, but gradually changing from that kind of emptiness into a more visionary, more spirited reality that brought about the liveliness and vast changes of the sixties. Disorder in the sixties was, in fact, a vast breaking up of old ideas, old fixations, old despair.

Beat became beatitude. The flower children came on the scene. Make love, not war!

And meantime, at the very base from which all the cultural effects arise, in science itself, Ilya Prigogine was bringing forth a new vision of reality, of time and, incidentally, injecting some meaning into time by showing that it was reversible. No more the endless decline into emptiness. A new world was emerging.

This is too big a story to be compacted into a couple of episodes. As it is, I had to go lightly around the philosophical movements, especially existentialism, a philosophy suddenly drained of its chief redeeming feature, transcendence. I'll want to say something about that too, but it'll take another column. So hang on, and watch for next week's explanation of the reversibility of time.


<< 09/20/2004 | 09/27/2004 | 10/04/2004 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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