Politics From Two Sides, Part 3

V.

I’ve never concerned myself much about things like demographics and target audiences, but in sending this out, I’d like to dedicate it to the cynical, the indifferent, those who are skeptical of whether any good can come out of political involvement—at least, through human design rather than chance, which, after all, operates equally well under all governments and leaders. Whether you are a disillusioned idealist or disenchanted with a system you are not yet qualified to participate in, whether you feel like you ought to care or just feel that you have better things to do, I think that there are good reasons to consider the matter from a new perspective.

Hang on, I think my soapbox is a little crooked. Give me a second—okay, that’s better. Where was I?

Perspectives are what I do here. It’s right in the title. Politics usually fall outside my purview, but this is something that affects all of us who are citizens of the United States. Life will go on after the election—life already has gone on. It always does. The initial disbelief, anger and panic have faded, and that’s for the best, but it would be a shame if people conclude from this that they don’t have to do anything now.

Doing nothing isn’t a position of neutrality:  it’s a form of acquiescence with the status quo. If we acquiesce in the way we live our lives, we lose our right to speak out against it. Life may always go on, but something important often gets lost in the process, even more so when an entire society has to start taking terrible things for granted to make life going on possible. We may not think of ourselves as political individuals, but if living authentic lives matters to us, then we cannot remain indifferent to politics.

Those who are already inclined to get involved should also consider this point. There are many forms of hypocrisy in the world, and in the political realm, the most common one is to excuse yourself for the same practices you berate your opponents for. Many people feel like they can’t be convincing advocates unless they make extravagant promises and sweeping generalizations and use every little slip-up on the other side to their own advantage—that if they don’t, they can’t compete with their opponents, and are hurting their cause. Or perhaps they believe that faith in a cause is incompatible with self-criticism—which is really the same issue at bottom. If you’re dealing with people who are certain, then you may feel like uncertainty on your part is likely to be taken for a sign of weakness rather than a recognition of ambiguity and the need for moving the discussion onto a deeper level.

These are reasons people may give when they do it themselves. But when their opponent does it, it’s because they’re liars, they’re sneaky and underhanded, they’re too stupid to know better, their followers are too stupid to apply even a tiny bit of scrutiny. But if their own were to start asking difficult questions, would they themselves start to wonder whether these people are really on their side?

The results of this are debates in which reality and the words being exchanged no longer bear any natural relation to each other—which is possibly why so many people choose not to say anything. To them, politics has become synonymous with hypocrisy. The extent to which “the media”—a much-used but rather odd collective designation—is guilty of this hypocrisy as well is probably the reason for much of the criticism it’s now receiving—usually from other bits of “the media,” oddly enough.

And as for those followers:  who knows how many of them are letting themselves get duped as a way of proving to the world what a great leader so-and-so is, thus earning more supporters on account of so-and-so being so popular? And the more polarized the dialogue becomes, the easier it becomes to take positions that, if you considered them candidly, you’d have admit weren’t chosen with much care. When the people on one side are obviously and demonstrably wrong, that makes the choice easier, right?

No, it doesn’t. And if you want proof of it, just watch them using the same logic over on their side. It will probably look a little different on the surface, and probably a lot more egregious. But as long as the people on one side can say “Why should I play fair when they’re not doing it over there?” then the people on the other side will be able to say it as well. And at that point, the question of who started it becomes irrelevant. The question you should be asking is “Who’s keeping it going?”

And it’s almost never a question that has only one answer.

But to be honest, I am not a purely neutral party regarding the current political situation. I believe that when considered dispassionately, one side of the scale dips significantly lower than the other. I’m willing to believe that “the media” is not wholly honest, that perhaps some sneaky things going on behind closed doors are not receiving the attention they deserve—but not when the accusations are coming from people whose dishonesty is apparent even on the surface, and who have thoroughly discredited themselves through their rejection of courtesy, responsibility and logic. Put less diplomatically:  I find Donald Trump an appalling human being. He is a narcissist, he is crazy—and not the good kind of crazy, let me add.

I don’t mean this as an expression of how appalling I find him, but as a statement of fact. I would not be discourteous enough to say it myself it if hadn’t become everyone’s business. Yes, he has been successful in the corporate world. Being insane doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re ineffective— if your society is insane in the same way you are, you might be very effective within certain limits. The trouble only becomes clear when you try to step outside them, and unfortunately, one of the consequences of crazy is that you are no longer capable of seeing where those limits are. Someday, at some critical juncture, Trump is going to have to choose between ego-bolstering and the good of the country. That’s what I’m afraid of. There are worse things that might happen, but this is the one that is going to happen just because of who he is and the position he holds.

We might wonder:  why do people like Trump?  Some of his supporters, I know, are glad to see him in office because they think he’ll make decisions that will increase their material well-being or because it upsets people they think of as enemies. But the main reason he’s got fanatics on his side, the people who will follow him no matter what he does or says, is simply because he isn’t a politician. He’s honest, they might say. He says things like they are. And that’s completely wrong:  he’s not honest. He’s even more of a showman than the rest of them. It’s just a different kind of show, and I’m betting that many of them know this, at least on some level.

But there is a kernel of truth to the claim:  people who try not to cause offense, who try to make themselves appealing to groups of people who find very different things appealing often end up appearing colorless, generic and lacking in integrity. And while that does keep them from being effective policy makers, it makes sincerity impossible—it makes hypocrisy habitual.

Trump isn’t being honest, but he is being himself. That’s what people like about him; that’s what people hate about him. That’s character. Bernie has it too, and he had integrity as well, which is why I would have liked to see him in office, even though I’d probably be a conservative if conservativism hadn’t developed into such a toxic culture by the time I reached voting age. But since Trump is what we have, all we can do at this point is try for a response that’s constructive rather than the next step on the downward spiral.

I’d like to see a more open, thoughtful atmosphere within parties and between parties; I’d like to see a political atmosphere where the word “personal” is not invariably followed by “attack,” where politicians can take it for granted that they and their opponents are both doing what they think is right for the whole, and that the disagreement is simply over what that might be. These are cultural problems and not political problems as such, which suggests that it will have to arise outside the system before the system itself becomes healthier. I’d personally like to see the arts help to foster such a culture, but that’s a story that will have to wait for another occasion.

And as far as practical measures go, I’d like to see basic logic made a standard part of school curricula—at least as early as high school, maybe even earlier. Faulty logic isn’t the cause of hypocrisy, but it’s invariably the way that hypocrisy expresses itself, and once recognized as such, it loses all its persuasiveness. For everyone, and not only those who are specialists, to be able to spot when people are using bad arguments and put a name to them that the people around them will understand would be no small improvement.

So what is the cause of hypocrisy, then? There are many ways one could answer that, and I don’t think it ultimately boils down to just one thing anyway, but a major aspect of it is failing to recognize that your own life and your own destiny are inextricably bound with those of others, mostly in ways that you will never know. Faulty logic is one expression of it, but most kinds of partisanship are expressions as well. The world is complicated enough without trying to arrange the order of things so that certain people are hurt and certain others receive a little extra benefit. This is exactly the kind of political wrangling that will turn out results due to chance—or whatever you’d like to call it. We have to keep the good of the whole in mind—that’s the only way that makes sense.

So yes, I think that, in general, we should try to involve ourselves. But as a final note: I also think that there are also times in our lives when it’s better to step back from involvement with politics. These are the times where we take a step back from active involvement in many areas of life to figure out what kinds of lives we want to lead, to distinguish what matters to us from what we’re doing out of habit or a misplaced sense of duty. This is also necessary to leading an authentic life, and it’s hard to manage it when you’re constantly in the thick of it. There may also be people whose other commitments are so compelling that they genuinely can’t afford to spare the time and attention to politics, and even those who take such a wide view of things that they can accept whatever happens without falling into hypocrisy. But I don’t think there are many people like this, and they already know who they are. If you don’t, it’s not you.

There may be whole eras when most people can afford to avoid politics, but I feel confident in predicting that the one we’re entering will not be one of them. We will be challenged; we will have to make difficult choices. Hope is a nice game to play sometimes, but in the end, it doesn’t matter so much whether what we’re looking forward to actually becomes reality:  the important thing is to keep looking forward so that we can face the challenge that’s already facing us head-on.

VI.

“I had an interesting dream last night,” my mother says. We’re in the car together, on the way back from a visit to some relatives—for me, a visit-within-a-visit. “I was at a party, and Draco Malfoy was there. I was talking to him and thinking that he didn’t seem like such a bad person after all.”

My mother seems to spend a great many of her dreams attending parties, often in the company of the fictional and famous—or maybe those are just the most enjoyable ones to talk about. Once, she even met the grim reaper at one and had a nice round on the dance floor with him.

“Mine was interesting, too,” I say. “I was planning out a story.” We’re all the actors, script writers and directors of our dreams as well as the audience, but it probably says a lot about me that not even my dreams always make it to the production stage. “It was about a man who had once been the president of a country. Most people there felt that he had been a good leader, but years later, a radical group came to power, and they were stirring up bad feeling towards this man—so much that his life was in danger. I was thinking that I had to protect him—that you can’t judge the actions of people in the past by standards that didn’t even exist at the time.”

My mother, always the historian, agrees wholeheartedly. My father, who’s driving, doesn’t say anything. I wonder if he understands. Probably not—it’s a tricky one. I didn’t understand it myself until just now. But just maybe, something important will still make it across.

This is the last time I’ll be seeing either of them for a while.  I’ll be out of the country for the next few months—something I had planned long before the election, though not without an eye towards the future. So many times, I’ve come back to the States and found everything just the same as when I left it, but that’s something I no longer feel safe counting on. I’m not counting on anything at this point.

I’m glad I could come here first, but it did mean missing the lutherie’s first political meeting, and my trip will mean not being able to attend any of them for a while. The lutherie is an interesting place— part workshop, part concert venue, and now set to become a sort of community center as well. It’s technically not my community—where I’ve been living, there’s no community in the proper sense of the word unless you can speak Korean—but I’ve been spending more and more time around that town lately. It’s a place that lost its purpose when industry moved out and is currently trying its hardest to become like the neighborhood where I’m usually found on Friday nights—but not really like it, you understand.

“You may be aware that we lean towards the left,” the owner had said at intermission when he announced the upcoming meeting last week, “but we welcome all opinions.” The week after the election, he had come out at intermission to give a speech about smashing capitalism, so yes, I’d say they lean a little towards the left here. But I’m also sure he meant it when he said that all opinions were welcome. I wouldn’t expect anything less from a former philosophy student, and he and his son are among the most open, welcoming people I’ve known. If the typical philosophical debate is like a duel, and the typical political debate is like a street brawl, then there—well, maybe it will be a little like a dance. It would have been the perfect place to start, but maybe I’ll have something to contribute myself by the time I get back.

But maybe I’m selling myself short– a person who sees the world differently always has something to contribute. There’s a saying I once heard from a judge at a conference—a saying that she learned from her grandmother:  “No matter how thinly you slice a loaf of bread, each piece always has two sides.” Normally, I just write things down and forget them, but some things have a way of staying around.

Every question has two sides—but there are many ways of cutting them, and for me, even the political ones don’t have a right and a left, but an outside and an inside.

 

757902872-bread-knife-baguette-slice-slice-of-bread-sliced
(Image Source)

Politics From Two Sides, Part 2

III.

But that night, it became clear that simply being open wasn’t enough.

In the dream, I’m in a room like the living room of my old house in M—, lying on the floor. A man is outside the window—it’s a large one, taking up almost the entire wall— trying to get my attention. I pretend to be asleep, but he still seems to know I can hear him. He’s insulting me, challenging me to a duel with him, which has some connection with events in the past. Damn. If that’s the way it’s going to go, I don’t have a choice.

I get up to arrange things with him. Tomorrow morning, maybe, so it’ll be over before my class at 11:00. That works for him too, although I was sort of hoping it wouldn’t. I know this is a fight I’m unlikely to come out the better in, especially after having gone through the surgery. But this man isn’t an enemy—he seems to be a sympathetic person, although a little dangerous, too. He also seems familiar in a way I can’t place. When I think of him later, after waking up, I find that he reminds me a little of a couple people, but I can’t put my finger on why… (November, 2016)

The thing about arguing with yourself is that you always know which buttons to press.

In the past, I’ve thought that there’s no practical reason to be up on politics if you’re not directly involved with them. The only reasons to do so are because being well-informed is considered a social virtue nowadays and for the sake of winning arguments, and I don’t seek arguments out—but my opinion is out there now, and that’s something that does tend to invite them. And now I’ve got to do something.

I’m right to think I’m unlikely to make a difference by doing so—nobody can promise success to me or to any cause I choose to champion— but that’s not the point. You choose the side you think is right, not the one you think is going to win, even if it means standing alone. Yes, I’ve insulted him, but it’s an insult to all reasonable people for him to be sitting up there issuing executive orders. And I’m not going to take that lying down like some kind of goddamn consequentialist.

It’s hard to take up anew something that you thought you’d given up, I think as I look over my notes. It’s hard to pursue such an unappealing subject when you already have a lifetime’s work ahead of you waiting to be realized, and all you lack is time. It’s hard not to turn away in disgust after the first glance. But once I start, it shouldn’t be difficult. I have a good foundation to build on—and it’s precisely because I chose to ignore things like politics for so long.

And after all, my interest in philosophy was first sparked by a work of political philosophy—Plato’s Republic. I remember being fascinated by that metaphor of his—that a person is like a city-state on a smaller scale, with different drives like the various groups of citizens working together to create a harmonious whole—and that’s what justice is.

Republic
Politeia

And I know all that’s still in there somewhere. My dreams have used the metaphor many times since then. It seems to be common for people to use houses to represent themselves in dreams, but ironically, I seem to be more civically minded than most in that respect. There have been times when I was practically using political analysis to understand myself—and if it got me as far as it did, then maybe it’ll work in reverse, too. Maybe spending all that time in the smoky back-rooms of consciousness where the decisions get made will prove useful in ways I never imagined.

That evening, I receive a text message from my father—the first one this month. He wants to know how the Liberal contingent in the household is handling the election results. Following his inquiry are seven crying emoticons and a broken heart.

I understand that all cats are libertarians, I type, and so the majority of the household is presumably quite content. We’re celebrating by replacing every litterbox in the house.

IV.

Of course, any major endeavor will have to wait until the semester is over. But that won’t be long now. It’s already December, finals are just a couple weeks away.

On the third night, I had another dream which seemed relevant, though not as dramatic as the ones preceding it. I was taking a test, written in German. It was the second test I had to take that class period—everybody had done the first one, but I had to make this one up from some previous occasion when I had been gone. I was tired out and could hardly focus, but I had just one question left to answer—something to do with Hermann Hesse.

And certainly, the question I’m dealing with now is one that most of my peers have already dealt with long ago, with more or less satisfactory results. And it may not be a coincidence that the test concerns someone who was more interested in his inner life than in combatting the political abuses that characterized his time. He felt accomplishments in that realm were far more enduring than those in the ephemeral world of politics. And it’s true that his have proven enduring—but his silence has earned him criticism from later generations.

Is it fair to implicitly compare the current trends to the ones preceding the Nazi era like that? It would be nice if I could dismiss it as exaggeration, but if so, it hasn’t been earning me any subconscious criticism. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that it is fair. Maybe I’ve just spent so much time among philosophers that even the deep-down parts of me care more about being consistent than being correct. But my dreams are so consistent in discouraging me from taking an overly negative view of things that it would be odd for them to let it pass without comment now. This may be a case where the pessimistic forecast is the realistic one.

In any case, that seemed to be the end of that particular exchange. It has now been a week since it began:  it’s Friday night again, and I’ve just finished making a more successful attempt on the metaphysics of color.

But as I walk down the street, I don’t sense so much anger the way I did last time. Something else is in the air—something much harder to define.

Some teenage girls wave goodbye to one another, each heading off in a different direction. Two women are selling hot chocolate by the street corner next to the ice cream shop, which even on this cold December night has a line so long that some people have to stand outside. A group of children is comparing the Christmas ornaments they must have purchased in one of the shops that’s still open. I catch scraps of conversation as the people go by.

“You’re not allowed to step on the cracks, Mommy.”

“Someone farted in yoga today.”

“People realize, but, like—it’s just—it’s just—“

But I’m past before I get to hear what it is.

Two men are walking a few steps ahead, but one turns and walks back the other way. The other mutters to himself, makes gestures—he’s clearly under the influence of something. After a little while, he turns to me. “I try to hold myself back, like I used to, but it irritates me,” he explains. I nod as sympathetically as I can without committing myself to a social interaction. I stop at the street corner as the light turns red, but he keeps going and is soon out of sight.

On a porch, a homeless man is sleeping, a pizza box lying beside his head. Did someone buy him a pizza, I wonder?

I turn off onto the street where my car is parked. It is much quieter here—just two men walking in front of me and another man standing some distance off. When they reach him, they stop. But I don’t hear any conversation as I walk past—only the jingle of coins.

The rest of the street is deserted and silent. This is a residential street— the only place people have to park their cars is along the street in front of their houses, and the competition is fierce. I once saw a man here get out of his car and set an orange traffic cone in the spot where it had been parked before driving off. But I’ve found that there’s always space down at the other end, in front of the cemetery.

The line rises up out of memory: “You had such a vision of the street as the street hardly understands….” T.S. Eliot. A conservative in politics—which meant something rather different in his time—and a steadfast opponent of simplistic ideologies of every sort. And he understood better than anyone how it is that you can catch only fragments and end up feeling like you’ve grasped so much more—perhaps even the whole thing.

-To Be Continued-

Vestigia

I.

Two men stand by the cliff’s edge. Ahead of them and down, the most desolate of landscapes, a stark, dry wasteland continuing unbroken on either side as far as the eye can see. But on the other side—a few hundred meters away, perhaps—it ends abruptly in another cliff face, this one too tall and sheer to be believed. They are looking into a canyon.

It would be better not to have to do this—but there aren’t many options left at this point.

It has been decided. Something is precipitating, taking a more definite form—a boulder now stands beside the men. One is holding a large hammer. With a powerful swing, he sends the boulder tumbling down into the canyon below. It picks up speed as it barrels across and slams against the opposing wall with a blow that can be felt throughout the whole landscape.

The wall reverberates, dust falls—but something more is happening. A column of dust-filled air is separating itself from the cliff face, from the bottom all the way to the distant top. It is a long, thin tornado, but more than a tornado. It is a snake—a cobra with its hood spread, standing and watching. Waiting.

To challenge a god to a contest of skill, I know, is hubris; to challenge one to a game of chance is merely disreputable. Unless, of course, you happen to share monsieur Pascal’s opinion.

Below the serpent lies the boulder. It has become pocked and sharp-edged from its rough journey—practically cubical. It is, in fact, a six. That was its roll, and it means there’s about an even chance of doing better. The scene fades out—elsewhere, the world is in chaos, and I’m out there somewhere, fighting, gathering people together, trying to figure out what’s important. Things look bad—and yet there’s something I did back in the very beginning, before any of this started, that will soon prove very helpful.

I can’t remember what it is after I wake up, but the feeling is still there. Confidence—happiness, even. Deep down, I know something that keeps this drama from being as terrible as it appears. Maybe I was witnessing something that has already been played out to the end; maybe it’s just that I never had anything to lose. Maybe it’s because, one way or another, a chance is all anyone ever gets—or at least anyone who’s made an enemy of fate.  But one way or another, I know there’s nothing to be afraid of.

II.

Any comprehensive discussion of dreams will have to turn to their religious significance sooner or later—even if you’d rather it didn’t.

Religion is an awkward topic in today’s multicultural society. It isn’t just that it requires people to admit to someone’s face that the most fundamental thing in their life means nothing to you—or, perhaps, requires you to speak of the most fundamental thing in your life to an indifferent audience. The very words we have available to us practically guarantee misunderstandings. They all implicitly endorse one viewpoint or obscure others, and their inadequacy  is not often acknowledged, possibly because it requires admitting that some of the disagreements between viewpoints are not only real but incommensurate. It doesn’t mean we can’t all still get along—that’s a matter of good will and tolerance, not agreement—but it does mean that we need to be aware of the language we use and what it hides before we do anything important with it.

Consider:  if you look at the population of people who are interested in dream-interpretation, you’ll quickly discover that they are not representative of the population at large. If you wanted to put a name to the differences, you might say that they tend to be introverted, conscientious, sensitive, imaginative, emotionally-oriented, spiritual people. And the ‘spiritual’ does not seem to be an independent trait so much as an umbrella term implying the rest of them to some degree. It’s a nebulous sort of word that doesn’t respond well to conceptual poking and prodding. Even in context, it’s often difficult to tell whether it describes a person’s beliefs or their temperament.

This seems to suit most people fine—not making distinctions seems to be a big part of the spiritual attitude—but the dark side of that is that the temperament, the easier of the two to observe, often seems to be taken as shorthand for the rest. And if it’s absent, you are stuck with the antonyms of “spiritual,” which are without exception words that you would never choose yourself.

And consider the word “religion.” It’s not much better. It may look okay in the dictionary, but it too is an umbrella term, and it is often unclear how far the umbrella extends. A religious studies class will probably cover at least a few, but a religious bookshop will probably cover only one—the religion that, prior to the last 100-some years of Euro-American life, was synonymous with “religion.” When William James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience, nobody would have found it curious that a book promising variety should step outside a Judeo-Christian context so rarely.

But the real trouble is that “religion” often extends so much farther than the person using it knows that it ends up meaning “Christianity, those other monotheisms, and whatever it is you other people do.” If we can talk about them all using the same word, they can’t be too different, right? They’re all the same kind of thing—maybe even identical at some level (say the spiritual folks).

And actually, many rational, scientific folks seem to believe that, too. How else could you justify trying to disprove all of them in one swoop? But “I have an argument against religion” usually means “I have an argument against Christianity that also works pretty well against the other monotheisms, and all you other people can consider yourselves refuted as well.”

It is also problematic in that the people who are “spiritual but not religious” are so laissez-faire about definitions that nobody has figured out what the Venn diagram looks like. Does spirituality encompass religion, or overlap with it, or represent something distinct? I don’t think anyone who identified himself this way would, if asked, deny that religious people can be spiritual—but nevertheless, the word in its actual use often seems to imply a hard distinction.

Perhaps that is why people now like to talk about faiths instead of religions. “Faith” does not imply that one belongs to an established religion, but it clearly applies to those who do, and it also has a generally nice feel to it. But this one also has a downside:  faith isn’t actually a big part of some religions. And, surprise, the only ones for which faith is central, the only ones for which it makes sense to be used as a synonym for religion are—Christianity and those other monotheisms.

Okay, then. What about truths? Everybody has truths—some of them are religious, some of them are spiritual, some of them are neither. The word doesn’t imply whether you hold them from faith or experience or habit—it doesn’t imply that you hold them in common with anyone or that you don’t—it doesn’t even imply that you personally think they’re true when you attribute them to another. This is so clearly inconsistent with its customary usage that there’s no mistaking what is meant by it, even if the dictionaries haven’t quite caught on yet.

But this is also the problem. It implies a relativism that does, in fact, alienate those who belong to a religion of truth—which is another way of saying a religion of faith, which is—well, you know the drill by now. If you imply that the truths they put their faith in are relative, subjective truths, then you’re calling them lies, which is presumably something you went out of your way to avoid by using this particular term.

And for those of us for whom truth is relative, whether we’re religious or not, it’s a little strange to give it the centrality the expression implies. The word may pick something out, but not what it’s supposed to. For that matter, I’ve also heard the expression roundly criticized by a room full of philosophy students— possibly because for them, truth is something you search for rather than something you have.

Whatever you want to call it, we as a culture clearly don’t have a good way of talking about it yet. It’s only a small minority who actually try to offend people in a different camp (although the military connotations of the word may surreptitiously imply otherwise). But even mutual good will doesn’t stop every attempt to inquire about others’ religion from being as awkward as when Gretchen posed the question to Faust. Or maybe it’s just me.

In any case, there are real differences between viewpoints. This is something that’s especially clear when you come at the question from a Buddhist perspective—when you’re a practitioner rather than a believer, and when all the language in common currency was never meant to convey what you’d like to say with it. Of course, the most important things aren’t the ones you talk about most, but communication and compassion are too closely intertwined for you to simply give up and leave the misconceptions unchecked.

And because there are real differences, there are also real choices. This is something I’d especially like to stress to those coming from the “spiritual but not religious” camp. I’m really coming from somewhere different than you. Yes, it is possible. Sorry. If it’s any consolation, I’m going to be offending just about everybody by the time this is done.

But this is an essay about dreams—and here too, sooner or later, you have to make choices. You can only work with dreams for so long before you find yourself with a practical question that can only be resolved through adopting a definite metaphysical stance. Depending on your religious, spiritual and philosophical background, it may be the first time such a question presents itself to you this way—a practical question, a question of how to act rather than a “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” kind of question.

Our culture disposes us to view such questions as matters of truth. This implies that a satisfactory answer can be reached through the testimony of an appropriate authority, or faith, or rational inquiry. But your dreams are uncharted territory. The familiar landmarks aren’t there. The familiar logics don’t seem to apply. You are going to come up against situations—possibly important ones— where you don’t know but still have to make a choice.

But there are better ways to explain—ways that don’t rely on questionable concepts that were never meant to communicate what I have to say. Instead, I’m going to tell a story.

 

sidewinder
(Image Source)

 

To Be Continued (someday)

Making Connections, Part 5

VII.

Buddhism uses a similar image to describe the interconnectedness of all phenomena. It is called Indra’s Net. When Indra fashioned the world, he made it as a web, and at every knot in the web is tied a pearl. Everything that exists, or has ever existed, every idea that can be thought about, every datum that is true… is a pearl in Indra’s net. Not only is every pearl tied to every other pearl by virtue of the web on which they hang, but on the surface of every pearl is reflected every other jewel on the net. Everything that exists in Indra’s web implies all else that exists.

-Timothy Brook

The first thing I’d like to clarify in wrapping these posts up is that, in providing the background of my example dreams in a way that others will be able to follow, I’ve probably made the interpretation process appear more analytical than it is in practice. When you sit down to consider a dream of your own, you’ll already know all the background information, and so it will feel more like following hunches than reasoning. If you haven’t reached a point where it does, it probably means you’re still missing something important.

Association turns up all kinds of things:  facts, figures, hopes, fears, song lyrics, quotations, memories of the recent or distant past. Somewhere among the shifting contents of your mind are those that can help you understand your dream. In a way, all of it can because all of it is connected. If you know your own mind well, you’re already more than halfway there because you have the big picture in front of you, and you know that the dream fits into it somewhere—you’re the one who dreamed it, after all. It’s just a matter of figuring out where.

But association isn’t a skill that has to be learned:  it’s just what the mind does, if you let it. The only thing you can do wrong is second-guess yourself. The thought you dismiss as ridiculous the moment it occurs may very well be the one that would have led you where you want to go.

As useful as it is in some cases, though, there are others where association lets you down, and they tend to be the most fascinating ones—the ones that are farthest from everyday thoughts and everyday life. If this is the case, the failure will quickly become apparent. Instead, you might try treating it like a great work of art. Analysis often fails there, too; all you can do is appreciate. Let it work on you, rather than the other way around.

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“To paint is not to copy the object slavishly, it is to grasp a harmony among many relationships.”  –Paul Cezanne

So much for the practical side of the matter. However, I’ve left any number of theoretical questions hanging. For instance, when does association work? When it does work, why?

The most likely answer, given what we’ve seen, is that it works when the original dream was formed through association—i.e., the brain in neutral. This is because the process can also work backwards, and thus we can follow the same paths the dreaming mind took in the opposite direction. Like Freud posited, the process is not free of intentionality, although the intentions may be more diverse than he thought possible.

All three of the dreams I examined appeared heterogeneous and disconnected on the surface, with semi-familiar or totally unspecified locations, a mix of familiar and unfamiliar people, with an occasional animal thrown in. Some improbable things happened, but nothing that was physically impossible. Nothing numinous or violent or profound— on first inspection, at least— and not even anything striking. In short, they are average dreams, and we can assume for the moment that they can also pass for representative—not of all dreams, but for other average dreams that don’t fit a recognized type, which is the largest group of them. (Keeping in mind that averages and types are relative, and vary among cultures.)

All three dreams responded well to the method I used—convergent association—which was, of course, why I chose to use them as demonstrations. And a method for finding the unity behind multiplicity is clearly only useful when there’s multiplicity.

Associations to the first dream led to recent memories and a present concern of purely personal importance. The second dream led to what you might call a back-burner concern—something not pertinent to the immediate present, but of personal importance, and relevant at a cultural level as well. The third led to a mythic image—and, again, to a present concern, which in this case can only be described as a fundamental human concern.

It is interesting that the last dream did not seem significantly less aimless in form than the others when it led to content that is more ordinarily associated with big dreams. For one thing, it implies that content alone can’t decide the dream’s appearance.

Even more interesting:  the long detour of the last dream itself may be be pointing up the inadequacy of the expression, the failure of the surface to reflect the essence. The fact that the first one begins with aimless wandering may also reflect the kind of thought process that went into forming it.

All three dreams had something else in common:  they incorporated philosophical ideas—in all cases neither on the surface nor at the bottom, but somewhere in the middle. The dreams are not about these ideas, but they seem to be playing an organizational role – or maybe not quite organizational enough. One gets the feeling that the role they are playing here is one that something else could have played just as well—or perhaps they could have been bypassed altogether, resulting in a different type of dream whose significance was apparent on the surface.

We can easily imagine a situation where this is the case:  metaphors. In waking life, these often serve in place of abstract, conceptual material, and they get the point across much more quickly and directly. They can also illuminate areas of life that would otherwise elude language altogether; when we speak about our own mental processes, for instance, we can only speak in metaphors.

This suggests that knowing your own mind well might result in dreaming in an associative fashion less often, and so not having to use a method such as this one as much. Mind-wandering is only necessary if you don’t a map of where to go. Once you do have the lay of the land down, you could start thinking in terms of large, structural features, and drawing on similarities to where you’ve already been—which, again, suggests that metaphors might come into greater prominence. (Although, being more ubiquitous than you might think, they may have been there from the beginning without your being aware of it.)

In the end, we seem to have bridged the gap between Freud and Jung after all—or, rather, half-confirmed Freud while finding no fault with anything Jung said, which amounts to the same thing since Jung left his end of the bridge extended. When a dream was formed through association, it requires a kind of decoding to understand. And, as in code-breaking, the simplest way to understand it is to examine the “device” that was responsible for the encoding—your own mind.

But as Hume wrote, spotting a metaphorical resemblance is itself a variety of association— one doesn’t have to posit two distinct kinds of mental process at work.

And what about freedom? What sort of freedom is possible when everything in the mind is linked and interdependent? Is this a question it’s possible to answer through examining dreams? Or through dreaming?

These are questions too big to try to answer here. But there is at least one way in which examining dreams is of practical importance, even if the philosophical question remains unanswered. In a government, one of the safeguards of freedom is transparency. If freedom is possible in the metaphysical sense, it could only be for someone who is transparent to himself.

Making Connections, Part 4

V.

“Since everything then is cause and effect, dependent and supporting, mediate and immediate, and all is held together by a natural though imperceptible chain, which binds together things most distant and most different, I hold it equally impossible to know the parts without knowing the whole, and to know the whole without knowing the parts in detail.”

“If man made himself the first object of study, he would see how incapable he is of going further….”

–Blaise Pascal

Back in Part 3, I had left off partway through examining a dream. I started with the first half of it and looked for connections among the elements of the dream, among that dream and others from around the same time, and between the dream and my life. In the process, I turned up some rather interesting things, but I hadn’t yet considered the part after the sudden transition.

Here is the dream again:

I had a friend who had a huge, insect-like creature as a pet.  I went over one day to have him help me with something mechanical.  He didn’t end up helping, though.  It was around that time that the creature began to act strangely.  It soon died—there was a special term for how it happened that literally translated as ‘self-devouring’.  Then it was as if that friend was Katya, and we were communicating by mail—we were both concerned over what had happened. I was sitting at the kitchen table at my K— house, looking at a package I had received from her. It had gone far out of the way—a label on it showed it had been routed through Königsberg…. (March, 2010)

The first thing I might note about the second half is that my friend Katya appears there—the only familiar person in either part of the dream. The appearance of somebody familiar is always a reason to ask yourself the question:  does this dream have to do with that person, or is she standing in for something else? This could be some demographic or area of life they make a good representative of, or another person who’s like them in some way. It could also be some particular aspect of you—some character trait or area of interest or the like.

Although this may seem rather odd, it is something rather common in dreams.  In order to dramatize inner conflicts properly—it doesn’t have to be conflicts, but they’re what tend to get dramatized the most— you need a cast to act it out. More often than not, that cast is drawn from friends, family and other people in your life. Media figures, historical figures or fictional characters can also play this kind of role—often even more effectively, since you already know what they stand for.

The guideline interpreters generally use is that when people who are absent from your current life appear in your dreams, they are usually standing in for a part of you. Dreams are mostly centered around problems – this one definitely is – and dead or inactive relationships don’t tend to be problematic. And when they are, the dreamer is aware of it because they occupy their waking thoughts as well as their dreams.

When people who are present in your life show up in dreams, though, it could go either way, or even both at once, so interpreting is not so straightforward. And in the dream I’m considering, there’s an additional complication: Katya doesn’t fit either case exactly. She is a long-distance friend, both present and absent.

In retrospect, that ambiguous position probably made my long-distance friends natural stand-ins for aspects of myself I wasn’t close to but wanted to be, even more so than the people who were physically present. That Katya was a theater person makes her an even more natural choice for this ‘role’. The fact that she seems interchangeable with the friend from the first part of the dream might also suggest that her presence there isn’t the key element, but incidental.

But more to the point:  can I connect this dream to my friendship with her at this time?—especially unresolved problems and issues? Not really. With long-distance friendships, the distance is the biggest problem. (Whereas closeness without conflict is found only in a cemetery—to quote one of Katya’s favorite sayings.)

In the dream, though, the problem isn’t the distance—at least not explicitly. It’s the insect, and perhaps the out-of-the-way detour. If there was a connection between these dream-problems and my real-life friendship, I was unable to find it then, and still unable to find it now. But the main reason to suspect that Katya’s standing in for some part of me is because the associations the first part of the dream stirred up—that’s intrapsychic stuff, not interpersonal issues.

So if Katya’s standing in for a part of me, all I know so far is that it must be a part I don’t know too much about. I could possibly figure out more, but not with internal evidence, as I’ve been doing here. It might be interesting, but it wouldn’t be dream-interpretation, and so I’ll leave off.

I’ve followed up on pretty much all the connections now, but there’s still one detail too specific not to be important. Why Königsberg?

The more precise a dream-memory is on any particular point, the more urgent the question becomes:  why this, and not something else? If there’s such a thing as generic mental imagery, dreams surely provide our best chance of finding it. On many nights, we consort with anonymous people in unspecified places over subjects of which we only remember the gist after we awaken. Even if this is just a trick of memory and not a quality of the dream itself, it still provides a striking contrast to those elements we recall with precision. We can still ask ourselves:  why this, and not something else?

histcityresearch

The City of Königsberg

This example is interesting because there hasn’t been a city of Königsberg for 70 years. It is now known as Kaliningrad—and even though the two names pick out the same physical location, they don’t name the same city. The two have different associations. My dream named the city of the past—and that already tells me that it’s probably not the location that’s important, but something more abstract.

But, as you are probably well aware of by now, I study philosophy. I studied philosophy at the time of the dream, too. Does this, perhaps, have anything to do with Kant?

No, it couldn’t. I wasn’t familiar with his work at the time of the dream. Unless…

At which point, I had a conversation with myself that went something like this:

“The first part of this dream was concerned with time—the devourer of time devouring itself, and so on. That means it‘s likely that the second part has to do with time, too—and it just happens to name-drop the home city of somebody who had very influential ideas about the nature of time. There’s no way that “Königsberg” has nothing to do with Kant.”

“Well, there’s no question that back when I had the dream, he was one of the associations. For that matter, I also associated the city with Euler, and with amber deposits. It’s tempting to read him into it, but I can’t overlook the fact that I knew bugger-all about transcendental idealism back in 2010. And at the time, I settled on a satisfactory explanation without going into that at all. Modern-day Kaliningrad is in that little part of Russia that isn’t contiguous with the rest of it. Katya’s representing a part of myself that’s separated and out-of-the-way. It illustrates a problem in communicating with myself—that is, with understanding myself. Everything was still fragmentary.”

“But the package didn’t say ‘Kaliningrad’ on it—it said ‘Königsberg.’ Kaliningrad is a part of Russia, but Königsberg wasn’t. And doesn’t that seem like kind of redundant? You and Katya are already separated geographically. The fact that the dream was set in your house in K— makes that clear. The dream was very specific, yet you only got something general from it that you already knew. Is that a satisfactory explanation?”

“Still, the associations I’d need to make the connection wouldn’t have been there in 2010.”

“Didn’t you follow what’s-his-name’s blog?”

“Oh, wait, I guess I did. I’m sure he wrote some posts explaining Kant’s philosophy. I might have read those. But I guess what bothers me is that making the connection is natural now, but it wasn’t at the time of the dream.”

“If time is something your mind imposes on the world, and the first part of the dream is illustrating a breakdown of this process, why make the distinction? Maybe it was waiting for the future you who has the knowledge to understand it properly.”

“…hang on, let me think about that.”

“Do you think that the package being routed through Königsberg represents having to have a rational explanation for everything before you’re willing to accept it, thereby adding an arduous and unnecessary step to something that would otherwise be straightforward?”

“…goddamn it.”

VI.

But actually— experience with dreams can make possibilities real for you in a way even the best-formulated arguments never could. I’ve had dreams that seemed to go on for days on end, or longer; I’ve dreamed about being present at the end of the world—I’ve seen it happen a few times now, in a few different ways. Once, I stayed around afterwards and watched until all the stars had gone out.

And there have been dreams where time wasn’t even a dimension of my experience— some of the most extraordinary dreams I’ve ever had. But this also puts the experiences beyond the dimension of words, and so there isn’t anything more I can say about them. The best I can do is try to communicate from them and hope that others are listening closely enough to hear the echoes.

And to say that they’re dreams, that they’re all in the mind—they are, of course, but to say that they’re all in the mind does not give us the go-ahead to diminish or disregard them. Rather, it indicates that there’s more to the mind than we think, possibly a great deal more. And most of it runs orthogonal to reason. Refusing to rely on anything else to understand it means missing out on a great deal—or, in the best-case scenario, a longer and more arduous process than was necessary.

-to be continued-

Making Connections, Part 3

III.

“Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamored; if ever you wanted one thing twice, if ever you said, “You please me, happiness! Abide, moment!” then you wanted all back. All anew, all eternally, all entangled, ensnared, enamored….”

-Friedrich Nietzsche

Let’s examine another dream, using the same method:  looking at the elements that are present and seeing what holds them together. That last one was just a warm-up:  this time, we’re going to be going deeper—probably deeper than anybody wants to go, but it’s worth doing every now and then, if only for the reminder that it’s possible.

The dream:

I had a friend who had a huge, insect-like creature as a pet.  I went over one day to have him help me with something mechanical.  He didn’t end up helping, though.  It was around that time that the creature began to act strangely.  It soon died—there was a special term for how it happened that literally translated as ‘self-devouring’.  Then it was as if that friend was Katya, and we were communicating by mail—we were both concerned over what had happened. I was sitting at the kitchen table at my K— house, looking at a package I had received from her. It had gone far out of the way—a label on it showed it had been routed through Königsberg…. (March, 2010)

Looking at the dream broadly, it seems to have two distinct parts:  the first with the unidentified friend and the insect, and the second with Katya and the package. There isn’t much to connect the first with my waking life, but the second part comes fairly close:  my friend Katya and I did communicate mostly by mail or over the internet at that time, ever since I had moved away, and I really was living in the house that part of the dream is set in when the dream took place.

But I’ll start with the first part of the dream. Let’s see… a huge insect…something mechanical… devouring… hang on, I think I’ve got something.

chronophage-par-mlf

No, wait a second. Let me try again.

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Okay, that’s better. This, my friends, is the Chronophage. It sits atop the Corpus Clock in Cambridge—a special clock designed to be slightly irregular. Every so often, the grasshopper-like Chronophage–actually a grasshopper escapement, and so a functional part of the clock as well as something decorative—blinks, and the blue lights that count the seconds off spin all around the clock’s dial. This illustrates the relativity of time, in which every second is not exactly like the next.

So three separate elements in the dream—a big insect, a mechanically inclined friend, and devouring—all lead back to a single thing:  a giant, mechanical, time-devouring insect.

But the creature in the dream isn’t devouring time, is it? It’s devouring itself. And yes, there is actually a word for it:  autophagy. It’s a process of cellular destruction and renewal. As a former biology student, I may have known the word—but I certainly knew enough Greek to reconstruct it. Is it a coincidence that the word turned up in connection with a creature called a Chronophage, even though neither term appears in the dream-report itself? I doubt it.

So how does that fit in? A self-devouring creature that is also a time-devouring creature—does that remind you of anything? It sure reminds me of something.

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Time, destruction, renewal, reflexivity—we’re getting into some pretty deep stuff, now. Why on earth did my dream lead me to this? What has Ouroboros got to do with me and my life?

At the time, I would have probably been at least a little familiar with this guy and what he signifies—just how much, I can’t say. I was still a few months away from reading Jung, and though I had read books and articles with at least one foot in analytic psychology, they didn’t tend to emphasize the mythy side of his work. At any rate, I wasn’t primed to make this particular connection back then – that was another one of those things that became clear only in retrospect.

What was going on at the time, then? Not much. I had ceased to be a student several months ago, I had recently been a volunteer in Greece for a while, and I was currently seeking out other opportunities, several of which had already fallen through. It was around that time that I decided I’d just go back to Greece in July and stay for a while longer this time—but I’d visit Katya in June. In the meantime, though, I was waiting—and there’s nothing quite like waiting to make you aware of the passage of time.

And if there were any doubt remaining, I could point to any number of dreams from around the same time that explicitly show a concern with time.

I was at the wildlife hospital, in bed, and there was something I was terribly upset about.  I didn’t want anyone else coming near me.  It seemed like a pattern on the blankets was like the face of a clock, repeated over and over.  The minute hands were spinning rapidly, but the hour hands were stuck on 3.00.  Suddenly, they stopped at 3.24. (January, 2010)

…I went out to the hallway, looking for my locker…. I couldn’t remember the combination—I had been away for a long time.  While searching in my bag for it, Saimi and Ona approached me.  We talked.  I didn’t want to let them know that I was there for the last time, so I had to lie about some things.  After they left, I found my combination and opened the locker.  There was more stuff in there than I thought I had left there, and an hourglass was hanging, attached to something.  After taking some of my stuff out, I noticed the hourglass was sitting broken on the bottom.  I thought it was pretty and would have taken a picture if I had my camera with me— but I also wondered how I was going to clean up the broken glass…. (February, 2010)

I was sitting on the floor of a bathroom—it was beautifully decorated in dark blue and patterned with stars and other celestial bodies— reading something of Pascal’s. I was very tired and was half-asleep, but hearing a noise woke me up.  At some point my father was there, asking me about my present life, whether I enjoyed it.  I said that I thought of it more as a transitional phase than anything.  He said that he could see the advantages, that it would be much easier.  I was annoyed since he had missed the whole point—freedom….  (February, 2010)

I was at an airport with a lot of time to spare.  I was going to visit Katya and Nina.  I was annoyed because I had forgotten some things that I had meant to bring with me, but looking through my bag, I saw that I had brought some of them after all…. (February, 2010)

And then, finally….

I was listening to the grandfather clock in Katya’s house as it struck twelve-o-clock. (June, 2010)

By then, though, I was already there. So yes, there are a number of dreams dealing  explicitly with time in some way—almost all before the date of the insect dream.

By now, I’ve connected many of the elements in the first part of the dream to one another and to my life—all except the mysterious friend himself, and what his helping or not helping me entails. In the process, I’ve also had to think about my friend Katya, who’s a character in the second part of the dream. That’s a good sign. It means I’m probably on the right tail – er, trail, that is.

But still—Ouroboros. He may not mean much to me in his own right—nothing like what a religious symbol means to someone practicing that religion— but when something like him shows up, even indirectly, as is the case here, it’s reason to take notice. I wasn’t practicing any religion at the time of this dream; someone in that situation can’t be too choosy about the language they speak to themselves with. It’s whatever gets the point across—and as a rule, once you get to the snake, you know you’re in pretty deep.

What does it mean for time to devour itself? Is it just as if it comes to a standstill—the minute hand moving while the hour hand stands still?— or does it lose its relevance in some deeper way? There are many ways to try to answer this question, most of them rather esoteric—but here, I’ll try to do it in practical terms.

In the first two of these dreams, the situation seems to be a matter for concern, perhaps connected with isolation or separation in some way:  in the first, I’m intentionally keeping others away from me, and in the second, I’m keeping secrets from them, a more subtle kind of isolation. The third dream doesn’t seem to have anything to do with isolation or secrecy on the surface—but a bathroom is a place associated with both, so there is some connection. And then there’s the airport dream, where I’m separated but on my way. And separation is also an element in the dream I started off considering—the geographic separation between Katya and I.

The situation seems to be a matter of some concern—but in the dream with the hourglass, and perhaps the one with the book, there’s also something beautiful about it. And in a couple, it just seems matter-of-fact. A whole range of reactions—which makes sense, as I didn’t know exactly what it meant for me. But the one with the book suggests that I did have some insight into my situation, and that I’m not letting the time weigh heavily on my hands. I may wonder why I picked Pascal to read—as I recall, I was reading one of his geometrical works at the time, but it wasn’t the only book I was reading, and so the choice still stands in need of explanation. But I’ll set the question aside for now.

But let’s consider that idea– separation. I really was separated from my friends, including Katya, by distance—but while it was a real concern, it was an external one. It’s hard to see how anyone could get from there to contemplating the nature of time unless there was at least a hint of it there already. Better look deeper.

Taking a cue from the hourglass dream:  at that time, I was also separated from just about everyone by secrets. That’s the price of developing an interest in dreaming if you don’t live in an environment where people are open to that sort of thing. Becoming interested in your inner life isolates you, and isolation brings you closer to your inner life—a circle. And whether it’s a vicious or a virtuous one is not an easy question to answer.

By then, I had been becoming steadily more interested in dreaming for the past three years—and many of the dreams from the preceding autumn left me with no doubt that something meaningful was happening. Many of these dreams were connected with leaving my university studies—the event that effectively ‘stopped time’ for me by disrupting what had been until that time a more-or-less typical progression from early schooling to higher education to work and all the rest of it. Time seems very straightforward when you think you know where you’re going. But when you don’t, then another picture starts to look more appropriate.

ouroboros-transparent

Not only that, but leaving my studies had left me with a secret. I couldn’t tell those close to me why I had left without admitting that it was the culmination of long-term problems and dissatisfactions rather than the sudden thing it probably seemed—an admission that, as far as I could tell, would only produce more unhappiness, both for them and for me. Yet another circle, and one I didn’t want any part of. It wasn’t that I thought that they were ill-intentioned, but that by then I had been the victim of too much well-intentioned bungling to trust anyone with my own problems but myself.

With that in mind, my behavior in the first dream—at the wildlife hospital—and in the second dream—at the lockers—resolve into same basic concern. I’m keeping others away to keep from hurting them. It sounds awful, I know—but looking back, I don’t see how I could have done any better, even knowing things I didn’t at the time. And now the whole thing is too closely bound up with so many wonderful, astonishing events that I can’t even say that things would have been better if they’d gone otherwise. If I did, everything I’m saying here about the interconnectedness of things would be pure hypocrisy.

And that about does it for the first part. I’ve got a good hold on the general tangle of concerns that are at play in this dream, and only a few generic, minor elements haven’t shown important connections to my waking life. It seems unlikely that the second part will bring any big surprises – but you never know.

-To be Continued-

Making Connections, Part 2

II.

“There is a secret tie or union among particular ideas, which causes the mind to conjoin them more frequently, and makes the one, upon its appearance, introduce the other.”

-David Hume

Nowadays, especially among literary folks, free association often seems to be treated as a sort of cognitive randomizer, a way to inject chaos into something that would otherwise be predictable. But this is a rather strange idea. In the psychotherapeutic context where it originated, free association is used because it isn’t random. That’s kind of the point. The confusion probably arises from the word ‘free,’ which is itself associated not only with the absence of restraints, but arbitrariness—or at least the license to be arbitrary, should you feel like it.

Free association is only supposed to be free in the first sense. For that matter, it’s an open question whether human beings actually can be free in the second—whether we are capable of truly random behavior. We all do things for reasons, after all. And when we call others irrational, it’s not because we think they have no reasons for what they do, but that the ones they have are wrong.

But perhaps that’s just the conscious mind, you might say; the unconscious mind is irrational, and that is, after all, where free association is supposed to lead you. If this is so, then the people worthy of being called arbitrary would be those who are being strong-armed by their unconscious. In this case, arbitrariness would be possible, but it would be about as far from freedom as you can get.

The driving assumption here is that the mind is by nature chaotic, and order must always be imposed on it, whether by ourselves or from without. A human being, if given complete freedom and unlimited power, would be completely unpredictable—whereas there are other schools of thought, including that of Sigmund Freud, which posit that a human being would become more predictable under those conditions. And since Freud was the one who developed free association, we ought to at least consider what he thought of it.

It was a truly revolutionary idea at the time, and we still haven’t quite caught up with it. Our passing thoughts—the most fleeting phenomenon of our mental life, continually arising and fading, seemingly without pattern or logic—can reveal to us the depths of our minds. Not only are they not random, Freud thought—they are determined. Even more:  they are over-determined, through forces as exact in their operation as the physical forces that determine when an object falls or comes to rest.

What this means is that if we can set our tendency to hide things from ourselves to one side for a little while, the combined force of all our deepest concerns is free to produce the result—the only part of the process we are consciously aware of. Thus, those with a knowledge of how the psyche operates can deduce the original causes and gain an insight into the deeper workings of the mind—or so Freud claimed.

This is relevant to the present discussion because he also claimed that dreams—generally considered to be as insubstantial and arbitrary as our passing thoughts, if not more so—work on the same principle. That’s why free association is supposed to be a useful interpretive tool:  it leads us back to the thoughts that resulted in us having the particular dream that we did. And for Freud, the origin of a dream was its interpretation.

Of course, what I did in Part 1 wasn’t free association as a psychoanalyst would practice it. If I were to give it a name, I’d call it convergent association. Free association involves considering one image and following the train of thought wherever it leads, no matter how trivial or taboo it might appear. The psychoanalyst listens and stops you if it sounds like something has been skipped, or requires additional elaboration, or seems a bit fishy.

You can’t actually practice free association properly when you’re working alone:  if there’s no analyst keeping a watch on you, and you’re not supposed to be keeping a watch on yourself, then who will? You can write things down and analyze them later—or, I suppose, make a recording and then listen to it—but even then, you probably wouldn’t notice what a third party would. You can, however, try very hard to be honest with yourself and just associate to whatever draws your attention—or just experiment and try to find an approach that leaves less room for self-deception.

That’s actually what happened when I started exploring dream interpretation in earnest:  I experimented. I applied the processes of analysis I found natural and saw if they turned up any interesting results.

Sometimes, as I considered a dream, it would occur to me that there was a common link between two images. I’d follow it back from there until I hit something interesting—or, if that didn’t work, follow them through other dreams that seemed to show the same concerns or imagery, and then try to find the common link again. I tried to find the unity behind the dream’s multiplicity, which is the opposite of what Freud would have done.

Freud thought one of the basic processes by which a dream is formed involves multiple thoughts being combined into one dream-image—condensation, he called it. Thus, when you’re moving in the opposite direction, from the dream-images to the thoughts behind the dream, you turn up a great deal of material for every image you start with.

What I did was much more Jungian in spirit, and not just in treating the dream as an internally coherent entity rather than a piecemeal disguise. The basic method—beginning with many things and finding the unity in them—is something one sees a lot in Jung’s work. What is an archetype, if not the inevitable destination of this kind of thinking?

But in either case, the question may be raised:  does where you end up have more to do with the method you use than with the material you’re working with? Is it possible that both methods are valid? Even if they lead you to different places, do the results actually conflict? Freud certainly thought they did, but Jung seems to have considered them complimentary in some sense. Maybe an impartial investigation would back him up.

I don’t plan on taking up that challenge personally. I’ll stick to claims I can test myself—and that also means sticking to my own dreams.

The dreamer doesn’t have to work alone, but he does have to be a part of the interpretation process—something they both would have agreed on. Many of the connections you need to make sense of dreams are ones that only the dreamer can make. Many of the connections in the dreams that follow are ones that only I know to make. But I hope that, once revealed, they will be clear enough to clue others into what they need to look for when they try to understand their own dreams, no matter how they choose to do so.

The dream:

I was attending a school… I met Saimi, who was there with some others.  We were part of a group that was critical of the school.… A school official wanted us to pay for food we had eaten, which we’d been told was free.  We had to pay six Euros each.  Saimi handed him some coins, I got out my purse and handed him a five and a one-Euro coin.  Also, something about an owl? (August, 2010)

There’s nothing really special about this dream, in form or content. At first glance, it seems to be expressing dissatisfaction with educational institutions—a common theme for me, as a glance around this blog will reveal. But then there’s the owl at the end. Where did that come from?

Actually, it was already there.

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This is one reason why the dreamer is usually the best interpreter of their own dreams.  Not only do they know their own concerns—which are likely to make their way into the dream in some form—but they also know all the little facts that allow us to make connections between the dream elements. They may be purely personal associations—such as Leibniz and muffins—or they may be grounded in cultural facts, as this one is, in which case they will be transparent to some people but obscure to others.

In August of 2010, when this dream took place, I was living in Greece, and so Euros with owls on them were a part of life. For that matter, owls were also part of life, since I was a volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation center specializing in birds. I hadn’t been a student for almost a year—despite what the dream might seem to suggest— and was not expecting to become one again anytime soon. But education was still a concern for me—in some ways, even more of a concern, since it was now completely in my own hands.

So the owl and the Euro are connected—the fact that the dream goes directly from one to the other isn’t actually all that strange. But actually, it’s just as natural to connect the owl to the earlier part of the dream. Why is it that there’s an owl is on the Greek Euro, anyway? Because the owl is associated with Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. That certainly ought to have something to do with education. If not, you would have good grounds to be critical.

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And at this point, you’re well on your way to an interpretation:  maybe a free education isn’t so free after all? Maybe this was something that only became clear in retrospect. Or could it be that I should be thinking of a different kind of freedom? And come to think of it….

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Once again, because what one person takes for granted may be an esoteric fact to another, these connections are likely to appear arbitrary to everyone but the dreamer—and even to the dreamer, if they aren’t sure what to look for.

Not so long ago, I wrote that the sudden transitions in dreams weren’t as arbitrary as they seemed, either because the transition is between elements that carry similar meanings or because the transition itself is meaningful. But I couldn’t say that that was always the case because this is also a possibility. You might call it mind-wandering, keeping in mind that the mind seldom wanders with no purpose. It’s trying to find its way to something— and by finding the hidden connections, you might just figure out what it is.

-To Be Continued-