The Screwballs

on October 1, 2009

The collapse of the reason-and-science partnership around 1915 permanently undercut faith in reason and for a time also weakened belief in scientific materialism. As described in the previous entry, this provided a window of opportunity for the emergence of a successor to the reason vision — what might be called the chaos vision, since it conceived of existence as endlessly in flux and without fixed form or laws.

The period of maximum openness to new ideas lasted until about 1934, when the science-and-democracy partnership began to crystallize. At that point, faith in science was restored and bizarre or dreamlike expressions of chaos fell out of favor.

Betty Boop and the Marx Brothers were cleaned up and made less nihilistic. Supernatural horror waned in popularity, while the far more science-friendly genre of science fiction flourished. Cartoons and comics increasingly pursued realistic artwork and straightforward narratives.

By the late 30’s, Walt Disney had set new standards for visual realism with his first full-length feature, Snow White (1937). Around the same time, a trend towards pulp-style adventure in comic strips and in the new medium of the comic book climaxed with the introduction of Superman in 1938.

Superman himself can be seen as a precise representation of the science-and-democracy partnership. His alien origins provide him with potentially dangerous scientific superpowers, but these are tempered by the small-town populism of his upbringing. The result is that he grows up as a protector of society and not a would-be overlord, exactly matching the new American self-image.

As the science-and-democracy partnership established its dominance, expression of the chaos vision was sharply circumscribed. The limits of what was considered acceptable can be seen in the genre of screwball comedy, which was at its peak of popularity from 1934 to 1942.

In screwball comedy, the stability of ordinary reality is never in doubt. It is only the characters who may appear crazy — and even they generally turn out to be lovable eccentrics, seeking only to provide an oasis of color and spontaneity in a drab and predictable world.

With the onset of World War II, however, reality became a much more dubious proposition. The light-hearted wackiness of screwball comedy was set aside in favor of a related but darker strain — one which can be seen as marking the resurgence of the chaos vision.

Stories began to openly invoke dream, hallucination, and Freudian concepts of the subconscious. Surreal dream sequences became a particular fad, ranging from the nightmarish “Pink Elephants on Parade” in Disney’s Dumbo (1941) to more refined musical numbers in Broadway plays like Lady in the Dark (1941) and Oklahoma! (1943).

A particularly thought-provoking treatment of hallucination was offered in Harvey (1944), in which Elwood P. Dowd’s belief in his six-foot-tall invisible rabbit companion is ultimately accepted as making him a far more decent human being than if he were “perfectly normal.”

A story like Harvey can be understood in two very different ways. In conventional terms, it might be seen as reaffirming the conclusion of scientific materialism that the world is a bleak and hostile place and that anyone who attempts to deny this has taken leave of his senses, no matter how benign the result.

Or it might be interpreted, far more subversively, as implying that madmen and brilliant eccentrics have the gift of insight into the true nature of reality and that this enables them to accomplish things that are impossible for the more literal-minded.

This second position was presented explicitly in a number of science fiction stories from the early 40’s. In Fredric Brown’s “Paradox Lost” (1943), for example, a would-be inventor — who says he was driven mad by dwelling on time travel paradoxes — explains that after he went crazy he found he could use his imaginary time machine to travel through time at will. And to prove the point, he takes the sane but bewildered protagonist on a jaunt to the Mesozoic to hunt dinosaurs with slingshots.

If Harvey was on the diffident side when it came to presenting the emerging chaos vision, and “Paradox Lost” on the extreme side, then the perfect balance may have been achieved in the cartoon figure of Bugs Bunny.

The earliest proto-version of Bugs was a nameless, over-the-top screwball, who appeared in a 1939 cartoon laughing maniacally and singing, “Am I the screwball, woo woo! Throw me the eight-ball, woo woo!”

When the actual Bugs came onto the stage in 1940-41, however, he was a much savvier customer. That Bugs was not at all crazy, but was able to run rings around Elmer Fudd thanks to his adaptability, anarchic disposition, and wildly improvisational nature.

In all those ways, Bugs was a perfect reflection of ultimate reality as perceived by the chaos vision.

The appearance of Bugs can be taken to mark the point at which the basic themes of the chaos vision had been established. After that, it would not fundamentally alter but would grow in breadth, depth, and social impact.


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

Read the Previous Entry: The Death of Reason
Read the Next Entry: The Democratization of Higher Knowledge

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