You know what the Monty Python boys say . . . And now for something completely different . . .
Comic books were never a fascination for me as a child mainly because my parents refused to purchase them. “Waste of money” they would say, so for pulp entertainment, I was left to rummage through copies of Mad belonging to my much older brother. Out of pity for my growing sense of unsupervised irony, a cousin slipped me a stack of Avengers comics so I at least had enough childhood knowledge about Iron Man not to look culturally deficient when Robert Downy, Jr. brought his story to film.
Beyond the Avengers and a few Haunted Tank issues, I had no further interest in comics until I stumbled upon the magnetic duality of Calvin and Hobbes during my late teenage years. I never took the time to discover the one comic superhero who was endowed not with superhuman abilities but with a gifted mind. That comic hero was Dr. Stephen Strange, a neurosurgeon turned mystic defender of the universe. I probably would have ignored Dr. Stephen Strange anyway because who cares about a neurosurgeon, comic book version or otherwise, when you are a teenager? Little did I know what lay in the future.
After my involuntary induction into the Parkinsonian Society a decade ago (my description of being diagnosed with young onset Parkinson’s at age 39), I did what every American does upon receiving life changing medical news: I searched the Internet and scared myself silly. Then I began a decade long sporadic study of Parkinson’s and the fascinating field of neuroscience. A little knowledge of Dr. Stephen Strange might have been beneficial then.
Having ignored previous biology classes, I learned what most people already knew – that our brain and nerves are our electrical system. Instead of wires, we have cells that carry electrically charged command signals from brain to body part. When certain cells mutate and disrupt the electrical flow, we have movement disorders develop such as Parkinson’s along with a host of much more debilitating diseases that I remain grateful for not having.
To further mentally align my newfound knowledge with something that I did understand, I began comparing living with Parkinson’s to driving an old English sports car, more specifically one that relies upon a Lucas electrical system, which for some reason (I blame the inefficiencies of socialism) was used by all English manufacturers. These systems were so famously unreliable, a fame rising like smoke from a burned out engine compartment, that Lucas was called the Prince of Darkness. Years ago, I owned an old Triumph whose headlights flickered when I pressed the accelerator and whose horn sounded when I turned left. Maybe Lucas was giving me an early political warning.
All joking aside, current Parkinson’s DNA research into the cause of specific gene mutations gives us hope. These mutations cause proteins to be tagged incorrectly in the brain thereby disrupting the proper flow of neurons. Based on this research, treatments may soon be approved to finally halt the progression of the disease and maybe cure it outright. Most Parkinson’s patients still rely on a drug developed in the 1960’s for optimum treatment though this drug does not stop the disease’s progression.
Beyond gaining a basic understanding of how the brain and nervous system function on the biological level, my limited looksee into neuroscience exposed me to the philosophical conflict between the notions of the “brain” versus the “mind.” An excellent introduction to this debate is Thomas Nagel’s Mind & Cosmos: Why The Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception Of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.
Thomas Nagel, University Professor of Philosophy and Law Emeritus at New York University, uses the term “psychophysical reductionism” to describe the claim that the physical/biological sciences can provide a theory of everything. He uses “antireductionism” to describe those features that cannot be explained by a biological process such as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought and value.
Unlike other atheistic doubters of the non-material such as Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and former University of Oxford Professor for Public Understanding of Science, Nagel opens his mind to the questions posed by biologists and philosophers who promote intelligent design theory. Though he does not believe in a theistic deity, Nagel asserts that there are unknown and unseen nonphysical forces at work that interact with our physical brain to create the mind. He believes a great age of discovery lies ahead as humans figure out how these nonphysical interactions work.
I have a choice at this juncture. I could continue muddling the complex arguments presented in Nagel’s book and risk losing even the most dedicated reader. Or I can greatly simplify the main conflict to a point that even I can understand it by briefly reviewing the latest Marvel film Dr. Strange. Don’t faint. I fully admit that I am drawing inspiration from Marvel Comics instead of Oxford University Press.
Before you think me unhinged and click on over to the Wall Street Journal Online, take a moment to consider the story of Dr. Stephen Strange, a gifted neurosurgeon who after an automobile accident, loses the use of his hands and sets out to heal himself. Played by the talented English actor Benedict Cumberbatch, Dr. Strange rises above the typical comic hero who relies upon some superhuman strength or gizmo to be heroic. Dr. Strange just uses his mind.
Cumberbatch brings a humor and intelligence to the main character that has been lacking in other Marvel films. Captain America was so stilted that by the end of the film, I wished I had been frozen in a block of ice. Cumberbatch’s performance should come as no surprise as he has been busy this year playing the Monster along side fellow Englishman Jonny Lee Miller as Dr. Frankenstein in an excellent stage version of Mary Shelly’s book. Cumberbatch also recently portrayed the hunchback king Richard III in The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, a BBC adaptation of several Shakespearean historical plays. Talent does tell and Dr. Strange is the better for it.
Dr. Strange begins the film as an arrogant and gifted surgeon who loses himself when he loses his physical ability to operate. (Believe me, when your muscles won’t do what they are told, it can be disconcerting.) When given the opportunity to learn about a spiritual path towards healing, he scoffs, “No, I reject it because I do not believe in fairy tales about chakras or energy or the power of belief. There is no such thing as spirit! We are made of matter and nothing more. We’re just another tiny, momentary speck in an indifferent universe.” That quote could have come straight from Dawkins. In his helplessness, Dr. Strange finally opens his mind to the metaphysical.
After a few hard lessons Dr. Strange discovers that there are, indeed, other worlds than these and entities that we can see only through a glass darkly. He discovers that his gifts reside in his mind and not in his hands. At the moment of his greatest challenge as he struggles with his ego, his teacher says to him what we all need to be reminded of, “It’s not about you.” He ends his lessons as a humble and gifted surgeon who faces the choice to heal himself physically and return to his old life or continue his spiritual growth for the protection of all humanity. He chooses to protect the world and finds the forces of evil arrayed against him.
Some may object to my positive review of a story that has more occult about it than Christian doctrine. The talk of magic, spells and ancient mystical artifacts may bother some even though we hear these words in the stories of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. I give credit to the creators of Dr. Strange for opening his mind to the spiritual world and siding him with good against evil. The film reminds us that good can come from the most unexpected places – a fact that I hope proved in the political realm over the next four years.
I’ll leave you with the best quote of the film. Exasperated over his early arrogance, Dr. Strange’s teacher observed, “You think you know how the world works? You think that this material universe is all there is? What is real? What mysteries lie beyond the reach of your senses? At the root of existence, mind and matter meet. Thoughts form reality.”
Or as John the Beloved wrote in the first verse of his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word.”
Thomas Nagel, C. S. Lewis or J. R. R. Tolkien could not have said it better.