Reflection 326: Dreamland

October 1, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin.

When we dream, we can neither act in the world nor receive sensory impressions from that world, so have no ability to engage beyond what we store in memory—lingering feelings, salient experience from the past, a general sense of frustration in being shut out from the world, together with an ability to construct recognizable situations associated with subtle movements of the muscles steering our eyes. And yet to recover our sense of engagement upon waking, all we need is a sufficient jolt of arousal to release our pent-up drive to action and hunger for sensory stimulation. We are the same situated dreamers, now up on two legs and looking about, ready to engage.

Our dreaming and waking self is much the same basic personality under different conditions of arousal. As I wrote in Consciousness: The Book, “To create consciousness, equip our dreamselves with loops of engagement so we become capable of acting and sensing—voila, we recognize our everyday selves” (page 207).

What does not change when we slip into dreamland is our ability to recognize a limited range of familiar situations such as frustration and sexual arousal. In the last paragraph of my book, I make a suggestion stemming from that fact:

I think it important to pay particular attention to your mental state every day upon first awakening, and to the remnants of receding dreams. This will expand your appreciation for the hidden depths of your mind, which are just as much yours as your open-eyed awareness (pages 270-271).

So it is no surprise that I took notice of an opposite view expressed in a short piece by Michael Chabon in the September 27 issue of The New York Review of Books: 

I hate dreams. . . . I hate them for their absurdities and deferrals, their endlessly broken promise to amount to something, by and by. I hate them for the way they ransack memory, jumbling treasure and trash. I hate them for their tedium, how they drag on, peter out, wander off (“Head or Tale,” page 54).

There, I thought, is a man who is uncomfortable with his own nature, his own hidden depths. I tried to imagine what it would be like to live with so strong a source of built-in discontent. It is not only his own dreams that bother him, but the recounting by  others of their dreams—including members of his own family:

At the breakfast table, in my house, an inflexible law compels all recounting of dreams to be compressed into a sentence or, better still, half a sentence, like the paraphrasings of epic films listed in TV Guide: “Rogue Samurai saves peasant village” (ibid.).

That attitude strikes me as so familiar because people generally hate in others what they cannot deal with in their own lives. Which leads religious and political leaders to take often extreme efforts to clamp down on the freedom of all people to be themselves. How does the refrain run? “If I hate abortions, you can’t have one under any circumstances. If I feel overtaxed, you can’t even mention taxation in my presence. If I am uneasy in the presence of foreigners, they should stay in their homelands and not hound me. Spare me your dreams, I’ll spare you mine.”

These are warped ways of engagement, imposing one’s own sensibilities on everyone else—claiming that one’s personal style should be made universal. The harder a man believes in his personal style of engagement, the more intolerant and unbearable he becomes, the more controlling and authoritarian, the more insistent on orthodoxy based on his egocentric life preferences. His engagements with unique others become geared like a bicycle chain entraining them to his will. The universe is not centered on Earth or the sun, it is centered on me, me, me, me! That is the cry of those who have a private fountain of youth in their depths that assures they stay infantile forever. What a sad story. Sad for all of humanity in thinking one can be conscious for everyone else.

“If art were more like dreams,” Chabon writes, “I might ban it from my breakfast table, too.” On that note, he ends his short piece. Is he trying to be funny or ironic? I am not familiar with his work, and don’t find any figurative clues in this short essay, so take him at face value.  [Wikipedia’s entry on Michael Chabon includes the sentence: His work is characterized by complex language, the frequent use of metaphor along with recurring themes, including nostalgia, divorce, abandonment, fatherhood, and most notably issues of Jewish identity.]  We cannot tolerate what we don’t understand because we have not lived it in childhood when our styles of engagement were set spinning. Not just a sad story, a tragic story, with consequences for us all. Such as the mayhem—the cacophony of cries shouted out and enacted on the world stage, human weakness and fallibility masquerading as world truth and god’s will.

How it hurts to write such words. To see the human world implode upon itself because of a set refusal on the part of those who seek power to grow into mature adults. What sane adult would want to have a position of such authority? The general level of maturity is inversely proportional to the square of the human population because more and more children are neglected every day, and so society lacks the depth it requires to teach everyone how to engage with those who are unlike themselves, and so make a shambles of life itself. Truly, it takes a village to raise a child so parents have back-ups when they’re too sick or tired to engage with their own children.

What does it take to want to be president or serve on the judiciary of the United States, Egypt, Serbia, Syria, Iran, North Korea, or anywhere else? It takes a lust for power based on deep felt personal need to control the world because it is such a scary place. To feel that in your bones is to plead the normalcy of your personal fears, needs, desires, and ideal engagements. What I want, every normally intelligent person should want. What’s good for me is good for you, by definition. My definition. Which is the point. Me substituting my will for yours, and calling it a virtue. Putting you in my place—my situation as I see it—and calling that reality.

As we engage, so do we play out our situations in the (supposedly) real world. Shopping, working, making things, fixing dinner, talking, joking, fighting, keeping abreast of the times—all are engagements centered on the situations we are in at the time. Which are very similar to the key situations we find (place) ourselves in in our dreams. Situations, remember, encapsulate the self, his or her outlook or perspective, and the scene or event revealed from that personal point-of-view all in one take on so-called reality. Situations one after another form the loop of engagement along which our daily lives are strung like so much laundry. Life is thus made up of our adventures as seen from the inside. Inside our waking hours; inside our dreams.

I woke up the other day still engaged in my dream, and went about my daily routine as if the dream were continuing, looking upon my intimate world as fantastic, fabulous, bizarre, and strangely wonderful. I had made soup the evening before, and piled bowls, pots, pans, and utensils in the drying rack next to my sink in a mad heap like the dump of discarded parts at a military airbase. I took it all in and accepted responsibility for creating that heap. In the bathroom, I hung my towel—not on the bar where a wet shirt was supposedly drying, but half on an overturned laundry basket, half on a chair while avoiding the pair of pants draped over the back, desperately fitting my need to what little space was available, seeing myself adapt to the chaos and ruin I had wrought by simply living my life the day before. I was partly awake, but my dream state seamlessly continued so that I could appreciate my own engagement as my doing fabricated from whatever situation I found myself in.

Which is where we “come from” all the time, from situations in which we picture ourselves in the act of striving to be glamorous, accomplished, famous, worthy, witty, eloquent, funny, powerful, strong, successful—whatever. We make ourselves happen to fit the situations we create for ourselves. Poor me. Lucky me. Happy me. Neurotic me. Sick me. Sad me. Saintly me. Devilish me. As go our dreams, so goes our day, scene by scene, act after act, one engagement following another. The land of our waking turns out to be an extension of the land of our dreaming, or vice versa. The two are similar because we—our fundamental selves—are one and the same. It’s just that in one state we can engage with the world around us to some degree, in the other we have only our innermost selves to fall back on, our own company to keep in insular privacy.

Landscape as dreamscape, that’s what I’m talking about because that’s what I find by reflection on my own life. Asleep or awake, I’m the same me in two different realms, one where I can engage a shifting world, the other where I have only salient features of my earlier experience, so in a sense am trapped into being who I truly am. If I hate my dreams, as many do—Michael Chabon is but their spokesman—I am in deep trouble, and apt to make it all right by imposing my trouble on those who are not me—which is what writers of “fiction” do for a living.

One afterthought: Horoscopes “work” because they are based on the assumption that the conditions of our beginnings determine our actions ever-after. Which, translated to the influence of the heavens, is a figurative depiction of what really happens. Only, it isn’t the heavens that are all powerful, but our earliest caregivers—parents, not planets, earthly surrogates for those looking down from above.

Enough, already. I’m still y’r brother and friend, enjoying myself immensely, –Steve from Planet Earth.

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