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After the Golden Age by Alvin Schwartz
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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 01/06/2003
Volume 2, #61

Just a Little Tiny Thing That Happened in the 20th Century

The laws of consciousness, the rules of science, the certainties of mathematics-these always seem to be the standard stuff that make our world function. Or so it is generally believed. In fact, the world doesn't function at all unless we also include all the things that overthrow or bring into question the smooth functioning of these intellectual structures. Scientists question almost everything we take for granted about the world. Some even question mathematics itself, even asking what it really is. Religion is always in question. That's why we have so many of them.

In fact we have never been able to allow our laws or guiding principles, our sciences and certainties to be totally unassailable. No matter how firm these grounds on which our civilizations stand, men have always somehow needed to invent ways of counteracting the unassailables we live by.

To clarify this with a few examples, we can go all the way back to Homer and the ancient Greek heroes. There was Achilles, for example. What an unassailable man. He could overcome everyone and everything. But he came with an Achilles heel. This was not an accident either, but the result of intervention by one of the Olympians who simply wasn't a Greek fan, and didn't want the Greeks to succeed against the Trojans. Why, even in the Garden of Eden, a kind of settled perfection was marred by a serpent. And the serpent was stuck there by the Creator himself.

I don't intend to go encyclopedic on this idea. But I wanted to introduce just enough of it to show why, even in our day, you simply can't have a working superhero without a flaw or a weak spot. Every unassailability, you might say, has its Kryptonite. And it really has to be this way.

The weak points are, in fact, the fulcrum that keeps the world alive and vibrant and changing. Look at it this way-suppose there were no weak spots. All heroes were indestructible. The rules and the laws would never change. Nothing would ever change. Everything would run with such mechanical smoothness that it wouldn't really matter very much if we were alive or dead. This would really be entropy.

Putting it another way, if the world or the universe were really a closed system, it would balance itself off. All hot spots would be absorbed by colder spots, all turbulence would eventually grow calm and finally, everything would be about the same, neither hot not cold. Nothing happening anymore. It's all over. There was a time when science believed that, and figured some day the universe would simply run down. But since then, we've discovered that no system is perfect, so by means of those imperfections, new warmth comes rushing in. The turbulence never really stops. It shifts and changes and creates in ways unpredictible. That's what Kryptonite really does. It keeps things going.

Interestingly enough, the twentieth century delivered an art form that establishes all this in a new and powerful way. It also gave us the hell of the atom bomb and the evils of weapons of mass destruction. But no more than ever was the case back in the time of Achilles. Remember, populations were smaller then. Small armies attacking other small armies had a tendency to wipe out or enslave one another and destroy the small cities they were attacking. Which were then sewn with salt to make sure they couldn't come back to life again. And then, there were the plagues.

Today we've got George Bush and Saddam Hussein and Kim Il Jong and the killing field is bigger. How much has changed? And then, we have that fascinating art form that recreated the superhero-right out of Homer you might say. Plus ša change....

Well not exactly. The superheroes brought a new idea to the killing field, starting with Superman. He didn't kill anybody. He had his Achilles heel all right, but he was without vengeance, without hatred, yet he had anger. But his anger never drove him to kill. He was something really new on the block.

When I look around these days and feel that things are really going from bad to worse, I notice that tiny new speck-that minute change from the way things used to be-an element of transcendence that's really new in the world. Maybe Superman will go, but will the non-vengeful image he personified remain? Of course it had happened before. Through someone who also cryptically added: "I bring not peace but a sword." One more version of the ancient myth of the god who sacrificed himself. Not quite the same thing. Nor do I mean to challenge believers. In an early column, I pointed out that all systems of belief are in one way or another, paths or vessels-temporary contrivances-- to lead us to the point where we can encounter the ineffable. After that-no more talking.

As for that tiny new speck, which like all great things, appeared silently and almost unnoticed among us-without a message, just a blaze of color and impermeability (regardless of that editorial slipup that once tried to get rid of him) but was overriden in the denouement, and overwhelming in the way it seized the world's imagination for almost a century. Another of those small steps for mankind-? Just a comic strip. An art form. Probably the most important human activity for keeping all systems open and new energy continually flowing. Is it conceivable that there won't be more of the same? What do you think?

Alvin

<< 12/30/2002 | 01/06/2003 | 01/13/2003 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.


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