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 not 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.

 

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(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-

Politics From Two Sides

“No matter how thinly you slice a loaf of bread, each piece always has two sides.”

I.

It’s another Friday night down at the neighborhood bar, but there’s something that isn’t right about the atmosphere this time. There’s an undercurrent of fear and anger running through the conversations at the neighboring tables, and every single one of them is a political conversation.

It’s been like that all day. The lawyers at their conference couldn’t talk about anything else either. It wasn’t just a forecast of legal changes, the way you might expect in the weeks following a presidential election:  it was preparing for a storm. Even the traffic this morning seemed angrier than usual.

I am listening to the conversations—just listening, and thinking things over. I’ve been able to get by with ignoring politics up until now, but I wonder whether that’s still going to be possible. It isn’t that a piece of legislation has never affected me personally—the Affordable Care Act did, and especially the period of uncertainty in the months before its passage. If it had been passed a few months sooner, there’s no saying what kind of a life I’d now be living.

That would have been the time to take up advocacy, I suppose, but I was tired of having my future tossed around by forces outside my control. I surveyed the forces that for all I knew held my life in balance—it had taken many of them, working at cross-purposes, to get me into a mess that big—and thumbed my nose at them. I chose instead to focus on what I knew I could change—myself. If I only live fully, I thought, and pursue my ambitions wholeheartedly, and be happy in spite of everything, then I am the one in control—not the political system, not the health care system, not any system. That was a strange, chaotic time. It was as if I were standing aboard a sinking ship, casting things overboard, and political engagement was one of the things that went.

I hadn’t missed it, either. In the time that followed, there were entire months when I had to walk 10 Kilometers for an internet connection, when I only picked up newspapers in order to line birdcages with them—and when I finally did catch up with the world, I found that I hadn’t missed a thing. The same old arguments, exaggerations and misinformation were still being bandied about. And all of it just confirmed what my studies had already brought home to me. In music, when we shift around in a predictable way, repeat ourselves a few times and end up exactly where we began, we call it progress—and that seems to be the way it happens in history, too.

But I really should be focusing on my studies right now. The book is lying open in front of me on the table next to my glass of cider. It’s a book on the metaphysics of color, possibly the most pointless branch of philosophy there is. Actually, the author himself would agree—he’s writing in the tradition of Wittgenstein, he doesn’t even think it’s possible to practice metaphysics. The book is quite good for what it is, but right now it’s a little hard to care. Where else but philosophy do you find people writing books on subjects they don’t believe it’s possible to know anything about?

I think back to class a couple weeks ago. That afternoon, the professor had announced to us that we would get out early because he had a conference to attend. But, he added, color might be a sore spot today anyway. We knew what he meant. All of us had seen the solid wave of red sweeping the maps from east to west last night. Not our state, of course—it was never contentious the way we were going to go.

But even in a decidedly blue state, in our tiny, four-person class—I can’t imagine why so few people wanted to take a course on the metaphysics of color—there was dissent. I got into an argument after class with a fellow student. He seemed to think that since neither of us found either candidate appealing, we were mostly in agreement, but I didn’t see it that way at all. For him, Trump represented the lesser of two evils. As for me—well, perhaps you could find a candidate who represents the greater of two evils when set beside Donald Trump, but I’m not sure where you’d have to go to look. Maybe Innsmouth. All the rest are just politicians—nothing better, nothing worse—but he’s something far worse. The night before election day, I dreamed about Hitler. Hitler with a bullwhip*. I may not be a political person, but I am concerned with the way things are looking.

And my father was there, too—I had hoped that having his lifelong dream fulfilled would have halted his transformation into a reactionary, but that hasn’t been the case so far. Everybody who doesn’t hold conservative views is now an enemy, including me, even though I’m not actually a liberal either. I’m not anything. If there were an award for being the least political human being within a thousand miles of Washington, D.C., I would be a good candidate for it, and every time I see him he still tries to pick fights over politics. I saw real hatred there behind his words—which is why it’s so alarming to see so much anger here now, on the other side. Everywhere around me, people are trying to make themselves into strawmen.

“I wouldn’t wish the man on anybody,” I had said towards the end of our conversation, “but perhaps this will help us all figure out what’s important.” In every ordeal, there’s an opportunity to grow stronger, to remake ourselves. It’s something I learned myself, back when things were bad. I don’t see why it shouldn’t be applicable on a national level, too.

And yet—what can I do? Self-conscious group affiliation of any kind is a concept that’s never made emotional sense to me, which is one reason I don’t have a political affiliation. I never felt like I belonged to something larger than myself until I became a Buddhist—which, being based on a shared sense of non-identity, doesn’t help me much there.

And in spite of having spent the years often referred to as formative here in the States*, very little of the culture rubbed off—or, rather, any of the cultures. None of the standard political positions makes sense—all the lines that I see others defend so vehemently seem to be drawn in strange and arbitrary places. And what’s good for one person is always bad for another—how are you supposed to choose? Self-interest? But no, that’s one thing I am sure of—the sum total of people’s self-interest will never add up to something that’s good for everyone.

And to top it all off, there’s nothing that annoys me more than having people try to convince me to adopt their views, unless it’s having them try to do it in sneaky, subliminal ways. Debates are okay in philosophy, where people are trained not to identify themselves with their arguments and nobody changes anyone else’s mind anyway. It’s all okay if there’s some actual state of affairs to be discovered that’s one way and not another. But goals, values, how others should live their lives—that’s another matter. I’d make a lousy advocate because I’d be doing it with a bad conscience.

Am I a fatalist? Probably. But it really seems like there’s nothing I can do here, and if that’s the case, then there’s no reason to feel bad about it. Maybe just trying to keep hold of a comprehensive, unaggressive perspective and living from it in the midst of a difficult time is the best I can manage.

It’s clear that I’ve done all the studying I’m going to do for the night. I pack up my book and notebook—the latest page of which has far more musings over politics than metaphysics— put the tip on the table and leave. Instead of heading straight for my car, I take a walk along the street—the poster child of revitalized downtown areas for miles around, although you don’t have to go far to find the streets it’s better not to walk down.

I recall another dream from the week after the election. In that one, I was in a classroom for some kind of math course, and sitting next to me was none other than the president-elect. I asked him a couple questions. He paused, trying to figure out whether I’d just insulted him. He determined—correctly—that I had, but he just laughed, brushed it off.

Then I’m in another room, with a couple classmates. They’re having a conversation in German about the election, and I join in. “Guess who was sitting next to me in class today?” I ask. “It was like a bad dream…”

 

*It makes him American, you see.

II.

In the dream, I’m part of a class taught by Mrs. P, who was my English teacher back in high school. We’re in a loose sort of line in a hallway outside a large room with a chapel-ish feel to it. We are singing:  the song is “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Different groups of us come into prominence throughout it. As I sing, I’m reminded anew of how banal and stiff the tune is, just as it always has been—but I still try to put some real expression in it and give as good a performance as I’m capable of.

When we’ve been singing for a while, two men run out of the room—it seems as if they’ve been hiding there, but we flooded them out somehow. One is dressed in what I recognize as a Russian military uniform; the other wears some kind of priest’s robe. It strikes me as quite a funny situation. (November, 2017)

 

Spotting a connection between the dream and something that had been on my mind the previous day—check. Sometimes it really is that easy. The next step is looking at some of the striking elements. What kind of a feeling do I get from them? Where did I get them from?—a question that often resolves into: who am I plagiarizing this time? In this case, it’s been years since I’ve read the book, but I find the passage easily.

… I call it Russian fatalism, that fatalism without revolt which is exemplified by a Russian soldier who, finding a campaign too strenuous, finally lies down in the snow. No longer to accept anything at all, no longer to take anything, no longer to absorb anything—to cease reacting altogether. (Friedrich Nietzsche, “Ecce Homo”)

The soldier in the dream is a representative figure—specifically, a representative of fatalism. And with that settled, I don’t need to look far for where the priest came from. Nietzsche had a good deal to say about priests, very little of it kind. The associations are mainly:  passivity, asceticism, unworldliness, “etherealized abstraction,” “negation of the world”. One can find passages concerning priests very similar to the one about the soldier above, enough to make you wonder why he went out of his way to introduce a new figure. Probably because he was explicitly writing about himself that time.

Anyway, the gist seems to be:  don’t give up. Take part. Kick fatalism out the door. But actually, it isn’t quite so straightforward.

The dream is drawing from a source that, for me, belongs to the past. This suggests that the source is significant in its own right rather than just something that got caught up in a web of associations and dragged along. There was a time when I read a lot of Nietzsche— I’m sure that, even now, the traces of his thought here would be unmistakable to anyone familiar with his works. A chapel is a place set aside for worship, often for a minority sect; even though this philosophy is something that lies firmly in the past for me, the past always leaves traces. I know from reading imagery that this is also the case with Christianity, which lies even further in the past—and which the imagery here testifies to as well, while adding a heavy layer of irony to the whole thing.

The dream is a sort of correction, but a confirmation as well—the best approach is one that does not conflict with a past attitude, but is continuous with what was good in it.

Something else to consider is that these anti-fatalist figures were the creations of a professed fatalist. He just thought that there was a right way and a wrong way to go about it. The two figures show the wrong way to be fatalists—but my decision to sing shows the right way. I did not choose the song, but I still chose to sing it well. That’s what it means to be a fatalist—that’s the attitude the dream is encouraging.

Dreams do not always point us towards certain attitudes or courses of action—sometimes they only seem to reflect our own confused emotions. But this one is offering pretty clear advice, I think to myself as I look over my notes. And yet, I don’t feel any more certain. I won’t try to shut myself off from politics, but I still can’t see myself taking any kind of an active role. Most of my objections still seem compelling. Perhaps simply staying open to it and letting it be a dimension of my life is enough—for now, anyway.

-To Be Continued-

Three Questions for Daniel Love’s “Are You Dreaming?”

I.

By the time I return home, it’s already dark out. I flip on the lights as I enter my suite of rooms—a generous name for what is in every respect an attic, and a rather rough one at that. But someone is here to greet me, and as usual, she’s very happy to see me:  Emmie, the little black cat.

I walk over to the desk, set my mug of freshly-brewed Sumatra coffee down and turn on the computer. Emmie jumps up onto the windowsill, above a row of books, and instantly becomes indistinguishable from the dark window behind her—all but the yellow eyes. The books are mostly philosophy texts I was using for reference last semester, but also a couple volumes of poetry, a couple Buddhist texts, and some miscellaneous notebooks. Someone’s homemade desk organizer, picked up at a garage sale, doubles as a bookend—although it’s a little odd to call it an organizer when all it seems to be doing is reorienting the clutter vertically. In front are a stack of notebooks, an hourglass, an incense burner, a jade bracelet, a bottle of ink, a light bulb full of paper clips, all presided over by a lamp colored an ugly eraser-pink. I generally prefer to keep things neat, but right now it’s just a couple skulls short of a still-life.

Directly to my left are the shelves. Several months ago, I cleared them off so that a wall could be built behind them, but as usual, construction has been delayed indefinitely. Since then, they’ve become the spot for everything that doesn’t have a better place to be. Library books, green coffee beans, some newly-sprouted cat grass, a 10-pound box of dates. Beside the shelves, Christoph, my air purifier, is humming away.

The computer is fully awake now. I open Word. But before I can begin, I hear the garage door opening—manually, of course, since the garage door opener is another of those indefinitely delayed projects. Before long, I hear voices, one of them very loud and very peevish. I reach over and change Christoph to his ‘turbo’ setting. Whoosh! No more voices. What I could really use is a more figurative way of clearing the air around here—but right now, this is the best I can do.

Could it be that all this is a dream? It doesn’t feel the way a dream does—an imprecise way of putting it, but the feeling itself is distinct once you’ve experienced it enough times. Everything around me is normal, everything is in order—or, rather, in its usual disorder. It’s all very detailed—but so is a dream, when you pay close enough attention to it. In the time I’ve lived in this house, I’ve only actually had one dream that was set in it—so it’s not likely. But that one dream was a lucid dream—so definitely worth a check.

My computer’s clock states that it’s 8:47. I look away, look back— still 8:47. Emmie’s eyes are still looking down at me from the darkness, the steam is still rising from the dark coffee. Okay, then. Time to write.

II.

Daniel Love’s book, Are You Dreaming, is a guidebook for learning how to lucid dream—that is, how to recognize that one is dreaming while the dream is still going on. It was published in 2013, and so it wasn’t around during the time when I was learning how to induce a lucid dream myself. I say this because, having not actually used the book for its intended purpose, I’ll be focusing on parts of it other than the ones that people are going to be reading it for. This is neither a review nor a critique—okay, it sort of will be a critique— but I’ll mostly be considering a few of the interesting questions it raises but does not dwell on.

First, though, I should at least say a word about the book in its intended capacity. Are You Dreaming? presents a number of techniques for inducing lucid dreams, all with in-depth explanations, and with a strong focus on the rationale behind them. I think this is a good thing –it gives a beginner choice, but it also leaves them with less of an opportunity to sabotage their efforts by jumping from technique to technique without addressing the reasons they’re experiencing a lack of success. A beginning lucid dreamer could perhaps wish for more, but the fault is with the lack of research in the field rather than with Daniel Love’s generous selection.

I do think he could have placed more emphasis on motivation, which is the sine qua non of attaining lucidity rather than one factor among many, as the book seems to imply. You have to be motivated to keep a dream journal. You have to be motivated to spend time awake that you would rather be sleeping, and, depending on the methods you use, to sleep during hours that you’d normally be awake. For a while, you essentially have to plan both your day and night around attaining lucidity.

Yes,there’s always the odd person who, the night after learning that lucid dreaming is possible, immediately recognizes that they’re dreaming and blasts off into the ether. But they’re the exception, and they wouldn’t have much use for a guidebook, anyway. For the rest of us, it requires not only heaps of motivation, but no serious competing motivations from other areas of life. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the time in my life when my own breakthrough in lucid dreaming happened was one of the most boring ones.

So yes, the book is practical, it does what it claims to do, and in some areas, it goes above and beyond. But I was mainly interested in where it could have gone farther.

III.

Is that what it’s like for you?

We dream our own dreams, not other people’s. Even if dreams are not the purely subjective events that most Westerners, including Daniel Love, believe them to be, they are certainly no more accessible to others than the private experiences of our waking lives.

This is why it is never safe to generalize from our own dream experience, lucid or otherwise. The features that characterize our own lucid dreams may simply be absent from those of other people’s. At this stage, we don’t even have statistics to tell us which one, if any, is the outlier.

In one of the lucid-induction techniques Love describes—the anchoring technique—he describes how, when listening to music as you fall asleep, the music seems to become more distant as the dream begins. This isn’t a technique I’ve ever intentionally experimented with, but I have practiced it accidentally a couple times. On one of those occasions, I fell back asleep while listening to a recording of The Well-Tempered Clavier in bed. Rather than fading away, the music completely pervaded the dream—which was indeed a lucid one— and I could hear it loudly and clearly the entire time. If someone had had me hooked up to a machine, I’m sure I could have signaled whether I was listening to a prelude or a fugue.

Before reading Are You Dreaming?, I had no idea people practiced this intentionally – at least, outside of shamanic contexts. If, after this experience, I had tried it intentionally, I would have fully expected to still be able to hear whatever I fell asleep listening to in the dream that followed. Maybe if I had tried again, it would have been a different experience—but maybe not if I had brought that expectation along. Who knows?

Another instance of this happens in an aside on the behavior of dream characters. Daniel Love writes that dream characters often discourage the dreamer from realizing that he is dreaming. Since my own lucid dreams are often completely devoid of characters, I haven’t had many opportunities to observe this. But on the occasions when I have asked a character if I was dreaming, they’ve always confirmed it for me. Not once have I had one try to convince me that I wasn’t.

And then there are ‘dream guides.’ I don’t have any personal experience with them, but I’ve read a number of accounts of lucid dreamers calling up a character specifically to help them become lucid or to change the dream in certain ways, sometimes with stunning success. And then there are people who have had dream characters cooperate with them, as mine have, or even had characters spontaneously clue the dreamer into the fact that they’re dreaming.

And, of course, the big, unanswerable question here is “why?” Why do such enormous individual differences among dreamers exist? Why is each individual’s experience so consistent over time? It’s as if you’re reading travel guides for a hundred different cities rather than one big city called ‘dreaming’. “Oh, the service here is terrible.” “No, the locals here are famous for their hospitality.” “What, you didn’t sign up for the tour when you arrived?” “What tour?”

This is one reason why I’m interested in Daniel Love’s newest project, The Lucid Dreamer’s Guide to the Cosmos. Each book of the series will consider lucid dreams in relation to various areas of science and culture, and I’m hoping it will provide an impetus towards answering questions like these, and put an end to futile arguments over what’s typical for lucid dreams and what isn’t.

Not only do we not have statistics on almost any aspect of lucid dreaming you can name, but we don’t even have case studies. As far as I know, nobody has even made any serious efforts to collect and organize anecdotes. If enough lucid dreamers come together, perhaps we can come to learn more about these differences and why they exist—and once we know, we can put the knowledge to use.

To be continued…

The Ship has Arrived

I.

I’m not from around here. In fact, this is my first time in this neighborhood. But I can tell a good neighborhood from a bad one, and this has the look of a good one. Rows of small, neatly kept houses; flowers in pots; a shrine to the Virgin Mary nearby. A historic firehouse with a painted bench in front. And importantly, all the cars look intact, so I won’t worry about leaving mine here and walking a few blocks through the dark.

It isn’t a dream—this is still waking life I’m writing about—but there is something dreamlike about it, about the whole night. All unfamiliar places are a little dreamlike—which is odd when so many of the places in my dreams seem indefinably familiar. But that’s a riddle I haven’t yet worked out.

It’s been a long and unusually boring day of work, but I feel energized anyway. Disjointed phrases still echo in my thoughts. The 1 to 4 family’s enhanced homeowner’s rescinded super lien jacket should be deposited into the seller’s septic system in compliance with Title V; article 209A of the mailbox rule says that a closing foreclosure must be disclosed within 10 business days in order to secure visitation rights for your three-legged dog. Which isn’t to say, per se, that legal education isn’t a serious matter. I just write things down for the people who are getting one, and then I don’t have to think about what I’ve written ever again. What a luxury! It almost makes up for the pay.

It begins to drizzle lightly as I turn the corner onto another quiet street of inconspicuous homes and businesses. A little ways on, I find the bar I’m looking for, and a few minutes later, I’m seated at a table with a glass of cider and a book.

The room isn’t large, but there’s enough space to where it doesn’t feel crowded. It’s plain to the point of austerity—clearly a deliberate aesthetic choice—and so it is the people who draw one’s attention, who provide the ornamentation. A human environment. Their sophisticated and down-to-earth air marks them out as locals of a city that prides itself on its unpretentiousness. They mostly seem to be groups of friends, talking, laughing, having a great time.

I’m having a great time, too. It’s impossible not to take in the atmosphere, to be a part of it, even though I’m reading rather than socializing. (And the book is Schopenhauer, no less. Could you have underscored your separateness more emphatically?) It’s not that I prefer reading to talking with people, but that I prefer studying in places where people are happy. It’s what makes this so much nicer than a classroom or library. It’s one reason I came here instead of going home.

And it’s fascinating stuff I’m reading. It’s about optics, about the way the world is constructed through the senses and by the mind, how the raw material we receive could never take shape without its cooperation; how the lines of vision reach out like hands to touch the surfaces of things.

During the couple hours I’m there, the room becomes fuller, the tide of voices grows. It is a Friday night, I recall. And since I have a ways to go, it’s time to go back.

I walk back to my car, but instead of driving off right away, I take my phone out to check the ongoing conversations on Telegram. All the people I’m closest to are far away, but with technology it doesn’t seem so far. These past few weeks I’ve been too busy to keep up with them, but I resolve to get up to date as soon as I can. I’ve missed them. I read a quotation that’s been posted: “No effort is required to define or even attain happiness, but enormous concentration is needed to abandon everything else.” Quentin Crisp.

It resonates. Today was a good day, and it didn’t require anything extraordinary to make it good. Happiness really doesn’t require much.

I put my phone away and turn the key in the ignition. The engine shudders a few times, but doesn’t catch. I turn it again. Still nothing.

Damn.

The third time I succeed in starting the car, but the engine light is on, and it’s not handling as it should. Every time I stop, there’s a moment where I’m afraid it won’t start again. And from time to time I hear the shuddering, but it keeps going. Unfortunately, It’s a long way back.

It’s a relief to finally pull into my street. But there’s still a problem: the driveway. It’s a long, narrow, hilly path running through a forest, and while I’m fairly sure I can get my car down it, getting it back out again is another question. The obvious solution: leave the car at the end and walk the rest of the way. I take my flashlight out of my purse, click it on—but the battery is dead. It looks like I’ll be taking another walk through the dark tonight.

It is very dark. The street from earlier tonight was nothing compared to this. It’s so dark the road is like a chalky smear on a curtain in front of my eyes, so dark that I can only trust that I’m moving forward and not in some other direction, so dark time and space bend out of shape. It’s a little unearthly. I recall what I was reading about optics not so long ago. World, I think to myself, did I ask you for a practical demonstration?

When I cross the river, it’s startling to hear it sounding so hard and clear through the obscurity— so much like it always does. A little farther, and I begin to see the pinpricks of light marking out the final stretch. I’m home.

It seems as if I’m the only one here. I get food and water for cats, I do miscellaneous chores. They could easily wait until morning, but I’m in one of those moods that gets things done. I’ve had to be unusually alert for the last couple hours, and it’s going to be hard falling asleep tonight. But when I do, I know, it’s quite possible that I’ll have some interesting dreams.

II.

I‘m at a harbor, looking out to sea while I wait for a ship to arrive. It’s a modern, open structure, partly enclosed in panes of blue glass. A canal separates me from a glass-enclosed waiting area on a small island, and an escalator is running somewhere behind me inside another glassy building. There are also piers further out.

A woman I know will be on the ship: I am here to pick her up. Where will it disembark, I wonder? It departed from one of the piers, but last time I was here, it entered the canal and disembarked close to the exit, close to where I am now. Last time, I had also come to meet the woman. She had been zonked out on painkillers then. What will the meeting be like this time? I listen to some people nearby as they talk. They, too, are waiting for someone to arrive.

I wake up. But before long….

I am in a room, talking with a woman who is sitting in a chair. The ship from the previous dream is still on my mind. She has just said something about it, something having to do with e=mc2. I puzzle over it, talking aloud. C is the speed of light. Could it have to do with the time between seeing the ship and its arrival? But then I stop. I have just realized—the woman I’m talking to is me. Matter is energy. I am you. The ship has arrived. And suddenly, the ingenious back-tracing, reasoning and interpretation seems flimsy and insubstantial now that I’m talking with someone who knows.

We walk. Looking back, I can’t be sure whether I knew I was dreaming or not, but she seems to have complete insight into the situation, and complete control over it. We have a conversation, which completely faded from memory after awakening but before recording. It is odd how, even though she is definitely relying on me for support, she also seems to be pulling me along so fast it’s hard to keep up….

III.

Traditionally, you’re supposed to die after seeing a Doppelgänger. But if that were the case, I ought to have been dead long ago and many times over—seen them in dreams, I should add, although I do have people regularly approach me thinking I’m someone they’ve seen me somewhere else, which can be disconcerting.

Yes, many times—and even more if I count instances that aren’t mirror-images. Aristotle once wrote that “a friend is another self”—and when I see an old friend in a dream who isn’t currently part of my life, they’re almost certain playing the role of an alter ego. “What? You’re making your friends stand in for pieces of you when you dream? How self-absorbed.” Maybe, but most of us are self-absorbed in our sleep. It sort of goes with the territory. And there are many worse things you can do in dreams than make friends with yourself.

And since there’s a good chance that you’re at least half of the problem in your relationships, self-observations made in an introverted state may actually be a good way to improve situations that would normally be classed as external conflicts.

“In any case, it’s nonsense and superstition, even if you aren’t taking it as some kind of omen.” If I were to attempt a definition of superstition, I would call it “the dependence on cause-effect relationships one has no understanding of.” I think it is a good definition. It captures the blindness and ignorance that critics of superstition want to implicate when they condemn it, and at the same time it makes it clear that it is not a phenomenon exclusive to religion or to supernatural speculation. It’s something that tends to creep up on us in any decisive realm of life where reasoning lets us down—perhaps because of our own limitations, perhaps because it was out of its depth in a more profound sense. You can be superstitious and correct, but you can’t be superstitious and open.

As I’ve said, I’ve been dealing with Doppelgängers for a while now. It was one particular instance of this early on in my explorations of dreams that suddenly made many possibilities real to me that had only been empty words before. There is a part of you that watches and remembers, even if you don’t know it; the self is as simple as most of us assume. That I was now sure of, but everything else was a hypothesis to be investigated rather than a Truth.

I was excited rather than fearful, and more for the theoretical insight it offered me than any deep personal significance. I wonder now whether there wasn’t an error that took root at the same time, but it wasn’t one that experiments could confirm or deny.

“Perhaps that the self is something that can be divided without inviting negative consequences?” Well, basically. But the trouble is more that it can be, and that I never fully considered what that meant on a personal level. Perhaps it is divisible—but is that desirable?

But who am I talking to, anyway?