For a freshman course on Introduction to Philosophy, I was assigned to write a paper on the old materialism vs. idealism question—i.e., whether ideas were rooted in the matter of the human brain or whether the human brain was an ephemeral construct that was adrift in a conceptual dream; whether the universe was based on a tangible reality, or only ideas and internal perceptions. Grappling with the problem, I was confounded by all of its associated paradoxes and contradictions which had led to endless debates over the course of centuries. I dismissed the question as simply being unanswerable. Rather than utilizing the analytical tools the course was intended to teach, I cut the question like the Gordian Knot. The thrust of my argument was a glib, wise-ass dismissal of the exercise. I compared the eternal question to a debate over who would win a fight between Frankenstein and the Wolf-man. The winner would be whoever the writer wanted it to be because it was fight between unreal characters. The question was not answerable, I argued, therefor irrelevant. At the time, the answer was entirely satisfying to me, because my goal in life was to become writer of science fiction and/or fantasy novels. Art was much more interesting because it wasn’t supposed to be real. Lon Chaney and Bela Lugosi (who had swapped his cape for bolts in his neck for the Universal film) seemed far more material and ideal than Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes. For many years afterward, I regretted the lack of seriousness I had brought to that particular exercise, and to much of my formal schooling, though my regrets were not enough to keep me from continuing to indulge my lack of seriousness, even now. The question had been dismissed. But it kept bothering me. The question bothered me the way I was bothered by a chance encounter with a stranger who supposedly could teach me the ways of magic.
THE SECRET FORMULA
I had a sweet tooth for the kind of art that was largely referential only to itself. Art that obeyed no rules. Art for its own sake, as the cliché goes. Art that was not unlike an ecstatic religious experience, a vision of the mysteries that lay beyond the senses, but which could be approached through the senses. I became that species of artist who had a clear vision from the very start, determined to make any sacrifice necessary to bring that vision to fruition, vowing to starve if necessary.
When I was 22, I wrote and attempted to sell a comic book script that involved a character who had deduced the secret formula—part equation and part spell—for reconciling magic and science. I envisioned a cross between Doc Savage and Dr. Strange, a series that would be both science fiction and fantasy. Understanding the formula made this character immensely powerful.
The editor who rejected this story asked me point-blank, what are you trying to accomplish?
And I responded, glibly, “I’m exploring the nature of reality. And I want to shock my readers into changing the way they see the world.”
He laughed. “That approach isn’t going to sell many comic books—especially since you have an oddball, uncommon, hard to follow view of the world. Most people think their own view of the world is correct, whether that view makes them happy or not. People don’t want their world view changed. I mean, you don’t want your world view changed, do you?”
“I don’t know. Some of my favorite books have done exactly that.”
“Yeah? Best sellers?”
“Most people want to be reassured about their world view. They’ll be quick to drop books that challenge it. They want adventures where their world view defeats all the other world views. They want a writer who can find words to superbly say what they want to, but can’t. They’ll settle for getting their emotions aroused, but they will stop listening if you go against their basic beliefs. And you know, we don’t even make most of our money selling comic books. Most of the money comes from merchandising, stuff like action figures, and lunch boxes and toys. My guess is that you’re the kind of person with strong convictions, your own set of artistic values, and you probably don’t care much about whether what you say will affect the merchandising.”
“You aren’t going to change your mind about your own beliefs on that score, no matter what I say. Right? You want fans, but not if it means selling out. Right?”
“If you want to make it in this business, you should stop trying to be F. Scott Fitzgerald.”
It wasn’t that I wanted to be Fitzgerald. But I identified with him when I was in college because I wanted to drop out of Princeton, and someone had once told me that I was the first person since Fitzgerald to serve as an editor of both Tiger Humor Magazine and Nassau Literary Review. I have no idea if this is true. It didn’t matter. And although I actually held the title of Editor for Tiger Humor Magazine, and put together a great issue that included a piece by future Hugo Award winning author, Lawrence Watt-Evans, that issue never actually made it to the presses, so the post was kind of an empty one, and that didn’t matter either. I was willing to latch onto a myth if it would enable me to latch onto Fitzgerald’s mythic status, at least in my own mind, if nowhere else, including the part about how Fitzgerald attained mythic status while all the evidence around him by the end of his life suggested he was a failure.
Later in life, I would actually discover the formula I had hypothesized. Over the course of a career in the contradictory and competing disciplines of law and medicine, and over the course of 42 years of writing and rewriting one of my earliest works of fiction, now titled Cannibals (partially because it is comprised of cannibalized failures), I found a way to fully understand how to reconcile science and magic. Or at least, I arrived at a conclusion that satisfied me, if no one else. I believed I understood it, and the mere believing would achieve a level of understanding commensurate with an actual understanding, a manifestation of what was real magic, as opposed to fantasy magic from fantasy fiction, which operates like science unfettered by materiality. But the understanding of the secret link failed to imbue me with any real powers, of the fantasy variety or otherwise. If anything, the understanding revealed unrelenting uncertainties that made me feel powerless. But it also served to make me appreciate that a kind of magic had actually been at work in my life.
I figured I was destined for a successful literary career, after getting praise and encouragement from the award-winning writers who had been my professors (though one of them had privately said that he thought Princeton would never produce any great writers— not taking F. Scott Fitzgerald into account, presumably because Fitzgerald had dropped out). Another professor had lavishly praised my work and then told me he was planning a horror novel about a creative writing professor who lavishly praised a student’s work when he privately despised it, and years later the student appeared at his doorstep with a ten-thousand-page manuscript, which he forced the Professor to read at gunpoint. “You’re not trying to give me a hidden message, are you?” I asked. “Nah,” he assured me.)
A different creative writing professor once stated his goal for the class was not to produce commercially successful writers, but rather to teach Creative Writing as a tool for promoting personal growth. My initial reaction was that he was misguided. It pissed me off, especially when I found I didn’t have the skills to achieve commercial success.
I ended up producing a fair-sized body of artistic work, but not many people have read my fiction. Still, my books meet the only irrefutable test for identifying literary masterpieces, in the sense that they absolutely and perfectly achieved their intended objective. That one irrefutable test is the test of one person’s opinion, for all other tests can be refuted, and the criteria for being a masterpiece is hardly what you’d call the product of an exact science.
Part of the writing process involves targeting an ideal reader, and the ideal reader of my fiction is fully satisfied. For the longest time, without my realizing it, my ideal reader was patterned after myself. That sounds awful, I know, something you’d expect from someone caught up in self-referential, self-reverential art, drowning in the pool of Narcissus. The standards I set were fairly high, ambitious far beyond my talents, I knew, but I kept striving for them anyway. My work continually tormented me with its lack of perfection. It was a compulsion. I was cocky and arrogant as hell when I was younger, confident that a great breakthrough was just around the next bend. But the road kept bending and bending, until it was nothing but bends. I tried the starving artist bit for a while. I found I wasn’t really suited to it after all. Could it be that the experience contributed to my view, echoing throughout these essays, that America has an excessive bias for measuring value, morality, and wisdom in ways that translate into money?
But I did achieve the goal I had so ambitiously set for myself—that of reshaping my ideal reader’s worldview. There’s a trick to actually reshaping the reader’s worldview, and that involves the same trickery that magicians use, sleight of hand, and misdirection. Make it seem like you’re talking about something else, talk about Frankenstein and the Wolfman, Materialism and Idealism, Law and Medicine, Science and Magic. Make it funny. Make it seem like you are only kidding. And I was only kidding myself. This, in the sense that I was the person most shaken in his world view by what I discovered while I was writing, simply through the process of challenging my perceptions, and raising countless questions and honing the final product that gave material form to my ephemeral dreams as they interacted with the material world. I understood my fictions well enough, but I’m not sure how many others came away with the message I intended. As I found myself a writer with fewer and fewer readers, I began to think, perhaps that’s all there is here. Writing as a tool for discovery and personal growth. It was kind of a joke, and the joke was about me.
In the years that followed, my literary and artistic efforts crashed into failure after failure. The lack of commercial success and critical recognition humbled me. That was fortunate, I think. Without a doubt, even a moderate level of success, either commercial or critical, would have derailed my legal career.
LAW AND MEDICINE
I fell in love, married, and started a family. What is love if not the greatest form of magic of all?
Instead of financially struggling while trying to sell my eccentric visions, I earned a comfortable living by going to work in a hospital two blocks away from my childhood home. It provided a measure of stability, so that I could continue to write in what passed for my spare time.
I had not spent long hours studying the rules of grammar and composition and rhetoric because I had aspired to greatness when writing consent forms, hospital policies and procedures, privacy notices and contracts, though the writing skills I picked up aided these tasks. In truth, the material I wrote for what I had thought would be a temporary job ended up being my most widely read creations. Consent forms, policies and procedures, notices, medical staff by-laws, contracts, memos. Countless people have read my writing, when the product fell into these categories.
I ended up with a long career that forcibly demonstrated the relevance of the old philosophical problem I had so glibly dismissed. Working as an attorney for a hospital, I was placed directly on the interface of two competing and contradictory disciplines— law and medicine.
The American legal system has its own methodology for addressing the clash between the material and the ideal. It works off the general principle that in order to reach a result, the process applies the law to a particular set of facts. In simple terms, that exercise determines which side will win a lawsuit.
The funny thing is, facts, which should represent the material world—fixed, quantifiable, tangible things— facts become ephemeral when considered by the courts. Facts are malleable while they are being litigated because they derive from a variety of assailable sources, like witnesses, notoriously leaky vessels, whose memories might fail, selectively or not. Witnesses might lie, intentionally or not, and convincingly or not. They might be completely honest, but not persuasive. Any savvy purveyor of fiction knows, just because something actually happened doesn’t mean people will believe it. There might be physical evidence to consider, like an artificial hip implant in a product liability case, but conclusions about whether or not the implant is defective will be based on expert testimony, and experts offer differing opinions. Even science has its whores.
The second element in a legal exercise involves applying the Law, which operates as an immutable force upon the ephemeral facts conjured through the process. The Law is unbounded by physical laws, or even logic. The Law can defy reality. A man who may be “legally” dead”, and his heirs may be able to inherit his goods, his wife might be considered a widow and able to cash in his life insurance policy and remarry without a divorce, though the man might still be alive somewhere and enjoying himself, unburdened of his past. The Law doesn’t have to make sense in order to be enforceable. Many laws don’t. In Western culture, the law operates much like the pronouncements of European monarchs who derived absolute authority by virtue of appointment by God.
In some sense, the Law exists as an unquestionable Truth— like the old adage, “there is one thing not even the Lord above can alter: Four aces beats four kings.” This rule from the game of Poker works in such a limited self-contained context, it can’t be changed because the change would either violate the rule or destroy the context.
Medicine uses a process that is close to the inverse of Law. It is driven by principles of science, where the conclusions have to be based on directly observable, verifiable, repeatable results, tested in the material world of the human body. Instead of the unquestionable rules that are the essence of Law, Medicine proceeds from the premise that all ideas about the condition being considered should be considered unreliable until confirmed by solid material evidence.
Medicine manifests its effects in tangible results upon too too solid flesh. The law is bound to realm of ideas, and its effects are as malleable as language.
Medicine is science. The Law is magic.
Yeah, Law vs Medicine is like Frankenstein vs the Wolfman.
Through a career watching the interactions of Law and Medicine, in the course of balancing that career with the aspirations of my art, I found a satisfying solution to what I had thought was an unanswerable and irrelevant problem, though the solution might be as much a fiction as the battle between Frankenstein and the Wolf-man.
It is like the problem I have every time I sit down outside to draw a landscape from observation. At first, I get overwhelmed by the visuals, the sweep of scenery with so many details. I want to render all the trees and all the leaves and all the blades of grass exactly as they appear, as if I were a camera. I want to capture all the nuances of the interplay between light and shadow, texture and form, all the way to the horizon, but I can’t do it all, and have to settle for a general compromise if I want to touch on a combination of some of these values. But even if I focus on simply one tree, there is still enough detail to keep me endlessly occupied, and given enough choices so that I could create an infinite variety of paintings based on the observation of a single subject. Even in a single branch, there is infinite variety and detail. Even in a single leaf. The same problem exists even now, as I’m writing about my life. There’s too much to show. Too much to tell. Too many ways to tell it. The amount of information is infinite. Something has to left out. And yet–all that was left out is still out there.
Every truth contains the weaknesses of its omitted elements, an embedded contradiction, a shadow opposite, that is equally true. That which is not real is as important to the human experience as that which is. Every truth contradicts itself, a paradox that includes this statement.
The physicist John Archibald Wheeler put forth the notion that the universe, at its most basic level, whether manifesting in material or ideal form, is composed of opposing bits—- subatomic particles so utterly minuscule, so utterly lacking in identifiable nature, they can be said to have only one defining property—that of either being there or being absent– ones and zeroes, things that either are or are not, being or nothingness. At the most basic sub-atomic level, all of physical reality is built with the same binary code as other forms of information, whether presenting in material or ideal form. A yin-yang symbol, something that either is or isn’t interacting with a contradictory counterpart to create something that both is and isn’t and is. A herd of Schrodinger cats.
Erwin Schrodinger’s famous thought-experiment was originally intended as a satire of quantum theory. It was a joke. But it has become an icon of a universe complicated by paradox.
I wrote a series called The Twilight Patrol, a fake pulp magazine from the Depression era, and billed it as a mythology about the nature of truth. The series is animated by the spirit of a legendary paper titled “Information Theory, Photosynthesis, and Religion.” The Twilight Patrol has the kind of range and ambition suggested by the title of the legendary paper about information theory, an all-encompassing methodology for understanding and explaining the universe—all the big important philosophical questions. All and Everything. But the legendary paper, Information Theory, Photosynthesis, and Religion did not actually exist, and it appeared only as a reference in an entirely different article. The title was intended to deride these kinds of ambitions. It was intended to satirize the appropriation of information theory by other disciplines that misunderstood and misapplied them.
Information Theory, Photosynthesis, and Religion was another joke, in the same way that Schrodinger’s cat was a joke, and in the same way that the grand pretensions of the non-existent Twilight Patrol are a joke, even as it misappropriates information theory in the way satirized by the title of the non-existent, now legendary article.
Notions of truth are always in a state of flux. The truth is elusive because reality is rigged for uncertainty, riddled with paradox, and balanced in a way that continually creates imbalance. Every truth is infused with fictions, throwing reality’s deep structures into a constant state of turbulence, so that nothing remains constant, except contradictory paradoxes that are stable in their instability. Every strength becomes a weakness. Every solution becomes a problem. You could view these deep structures as a grand scheme, ensuring supreme uncertainty as irrefutable proof of intelligent design. Or if you view reality through the ultimate measure of scientific value—that of predictability—you will see a universe that is ultimately meaningless.
The answer to the old materialism vs idealism question actually does lie in its unanswerability. That old philosophy paper drew upon a cultural artifact I have since recognized as part of an American mythos, an embedded folklore consisting of, among other things, genre fiction, old horror films, pulp magazines, and comic books. The battle between Frankenstein and the Wolf-man is itself an iconic representation of the conflicting methods of reasoning that make the question unanswerable—the conflict between science and magic.
So, who won the battle between Frankenstein and the Wolfman? In the context of the 1943 Universal film, there was no winner. The locals first tried to storm Castle Frankenstein as a torch wielding mob, but they gave up on that approach, probably because it was becoming cliché. Instead, someone blew up the dam, and both monsters were swept away in the ensuring flood. Curt Siodmak, who wrote the screenplay (and also for Donovan’s Brain, the high point of Nancy Reagan’s career in cinema) dismissed the problem in much the same way I did when I was a college freshman.
“Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers at night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms, and the moon is full and bright.”