My daughter Kathy will be coming home from college in about a week. Last night I got a frantic phone call from her telling me of an upcoming history exam in which she was to answer the following question: "Explain why, between 1300 and 1700, in terms of social, political, economic, and scientific developments, the hope of establishing a harmonious kingdom of the spirit in Europe was replace by a more diversified and secular vision." She has the exam this coming Saturday.I wish her luck.
Meanwhile, my 11-year-old son Matthew has taken up pencil drawing with a kind of da Vinci vengeance. What he does is robots and mechanical monsters reported by his friends to be appearing regularly on Channel 25 which we don't get. His idea of drawing is to create an unbeatable intergalactic gladiator, with all kinds of laser beams, force fields, concussion shields, and the like. The more equipment the better. I try to tell him about muscles, anatomy, but he is for armor and strange metal boxes. He's already gone through hundreds of sheets of paper in his quest to produce the ultimate in space swat. I think it's a high-technology spinoff from Dungeons and Dragons, another of his interests.
In any event, the connection between these two budding researchers I found oddly latent in some of the implications of Marvel Comics,m copies of which I found in Matthew's room, where Shogun Warriors (huge robots manned by young humans) fight the "dark agents of eternal evil" so that "the followers of the light" may help earth people survive. I first turned my attention, with great consternation, to these comics ostensibly defining our future intent on tracking down what I imagined would be the sounds of ultimate defeat (ARRGHH? GLEECH?* KWADOOM?) whereby creatures were shown to utterly confounded, brought to oppressive finality, returned to their elements. My idea was that such sounds, in contrast to the quiet voice Socrates listened for, would be another evidence of a society gone off the rails.
But I soon discovered there is no such sound, at least on the comics Matthew had, PTANG, PTING, SPLANG are obviously glancing blows. CHOOM: VOOSH, VOOSH, VOOSH, VOOSH is the sound of proton missiles being launched. BLAM: wup, wup, wup, wup, is just a flat tire on a Mazda 240 zx. WHUNK, ERK, KRUMPH, ZAP are all sounds from which one can recover. No, there is no sound for ultimate defeat - and that's because the forces in most futuristic comic books continually rise to fight again. These great creatures of the dark are merely discomfited, like tigers in the jungle after a mismatch, and go among the stars to regroup, collect themselves, and try again.
So I found that easy answers were discouraged both on college history exams and in the comics. Investigations ocurring at the leading edge of comic possibility were not, as I had naively imagined, primarily auditory breakthroughs into the sounds of total physical and psychological defeat, but a kind of hopeful weaponry of the mind, where every new invention invited the possibility of spreading good and dispersing evil, with ultimate triumph naggingly elusive for both sides.
I will grant that the definitions of these great abstractions are not rigorously pursued in the books I have been considering, but if one imagines that such comics are unduly simple in their moral philosophy consider the following blurb: "Today a warrior spawned in the dim past, created by a science of the far future, shall fight his first battle, finding triumph in failure, failure in triumph." "Triumph in failure"? Such paradox sounds remarkably like John Milton, where two great forces are pitted against each other in invicible hostility, one determined to "bring forth good out of evil," the other equally determined "out of good still to find means of evil."
I had imagined bad things of these comics, the destruction of young minds in the interests of pure mayhem. But I find hightech comic heroes rarely act expediently or with cautious contrivance, nor do they join sinister coalitions in the prospect of eventualm beneficence. The writers of these odysseys must have found out early it's tough to fool the young, and that early idealism is hard to stamp out. Consequently high-tech heroes act boldly and loyally, as though they knew precisely why they existed and that the ground rules of that existence were perfectly air. So, while the explosion of knowledged casts multitudes into spiritless despondency, the hopes of 11-year-olds survive.
It seems only the young fully understand that scientific developments, new discoveries, electronic refinements can immediately be harnessed in support of something worthwhile. They are not downcast at inventions; the new does not fill them with doubt. It is all necessary knowledge for "the followers of the light."
Thus, to return to that college examination question, the hope of establishing a harmonious kingdom of the spirit on earth still endures in the minds of the young, intent on knowing as much as they can of the physical world and its wonders in order, again and again, to wrest temporary triumph from those dark agents of evil. They would understand and applaud those epic words at the close of Milton's Paradise Lost:m with good Still overcoming evil, and by small Accompli shing great things.