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In der Nacht haben wir geträumt

People that know me know I’m prone to having exceptionally bizarre dreams. This doesn’t happen all the time, which is probably a plus (at least as far as the tattered remnants of my sanity is concerned), and as far as that goes I don’t usually recall my dreams, or am even aware of having experienced dreams. It’s just that when I do dream, I sometimes dream up some… interesting stuff. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at some of the more memorable nocturnal visitors from the last couple years.

In one particular dream I was hired to write a prequel comic to Killer Clowns from Outer Space. Admittedly not really all that bizarre when compared to what is on the way, but it stood out.

In another notable incident I dreamed I was part of a group of people who staged an intervention for Santa Claus. Yes, I said Santa Claus. Turns out that Santa has a cheerily red nose because he’s a bit of a booze hound. When confronted over his drunken ways, Santa tearfully confessed that he wouldn’t stop drinking. Santa has a dark secret; alcohol is the fuel that allows Santa to defy spacetime and deliver presents to all the children of the world in just one night. So no boozed up Santa means no Christmas.

Moving on, we come to a rather more recent entry in which a Holiday park sort of place had become infested with mysterious, people eating horrors, most of which took the form of faceless, shadowy entities. I, of course, had to get rid of these things. In a bid to help me do that, the Ultraterrestrials of Grant Morrison’s Invisibles manifested to help me… though rather than manifesting in some sort of psychedalic, shamanic initiation they showed up on a television in the form of Samuel L. Jackson. According to them, my mind wasn’t at a stage where it could comprehend a more direct manifestation of their presence.

Which brings up to the latest entrant. I spent a bit over two hours snapping in and out of iterations of this dream, and I still can’t really tell you what it was about, dear readers. It was about Wonderland, or the idea of Wonderland, but not really. There were dark doings in Wonderland, or should I say by Wonderland as it appeared to be a conscious entity, involving a plot to raise families of inbred, pedophilic families of nobility, while at the same time Wonderland was a trap to murder pedophiles. I don’t know if it’s because the dream was constantly interrupted, or if it was something else, but there wasn’t a narrative as such. Even the visual experience of the dream often broke down into a bizarre, fractal landscape accompanied by the experience of narration that was felt/thought more than heard.

Of course I say the dream was frequently interrupted, but that isn’t entirely true, as the dream didn’t really stop just because I was awake. In the half-awake periods before I would slip back under the dream made sense. My mind would go over each of the elements point by point, fitting them into a complex, yet comprehensible structure. My understanding would suddenly fray, leaving me with a powerful sense of dislocation, made more intense by feelings of physical discomfort my body was sending me. The only way I can explain it is as the experience of going mad, and of being painfully aware of my own descent into insanity. It was not a pleasant couple of hours.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had a dream continue after waking, though it is the first to have this much of an effect on me. Hypnogogic and hypnopompic hallucinations aren’t particularly uncommon, and (when accompanied by sleep paralysis) quite likely account for a number of alien abduction experiences (among other things). Yet when you get right down to it these are just dreams and hallucinations, aren’t they? None of this is meaningfully real, right? Right?

Sadly, the answer isn’t quite as simple as that. Which in other ways is good for me, because it means I can talk about these sort of things without it being simply a trip through the fractured landscape of my psyche; this is made even better since I won’t be talking about the nonsense that is Freudian psychoanalysis (or the even bigger nonsense that is Lacanian psychoanalysis – both of which are only useful for discovering what Freud and Lacan’s personal hangups were, and if you’re not familiar with their work I’ll spoil it for you; Freud was obsessed with mothers and dicks, Lacan was even more dick obsessed than Freud).

If we jump back in time and overcome our distaste that we might plumb the work of Descartes, we find he had a bit of an issue with dreams. I’ll trim off a good deal of fat and say that the problem, as far as Descartes was concerned, was that we experience sensory and emotional content in dreams. We also experience sensory and emotional content in what we regard as the “real,” waking world. How then, could he be sure of what was in fact real; to put it in philosophical terms, how could Descartes, and by extension the rest of us, distinguish reality acting in and of itself as distinct from sensory experience acting as reality?

In a similar vein, there’s a scene in The Matrix that occurs shortly after Neo has been made of the artificial nature of his life up to that point. I don’t remember the exact dialogue, but the essence of the scene is that our intrepid heroes are driving down the street, and Neo is reminiscing about how he ate at this place, or went to such and such, but none of it was “real.”

The kicker is that what happens when we sleep, or all those places Neo went while his mind was a prisoner in the Matrix, are all real in the meaningful sense of reality. Neo remembered going to those places, he remembers his experiences. Descartes felt emotions and experienced sensory input in his dreams, just like he did in waking life. For example, say I have a dream of going into a fine restaurant, and eating a steak of unimaginable perfection. I have sensory impressions of this steak, and of the experience as a whole, that persist upon waking. It is true that this experience would not, for example, keep from dying of starvation, yet the same is true if I were instead to “relive” a memory of a steak I had eaten in the waking world. That memory can no more keep me from starvation that could the experience of the dreamed steak, yet we draw ontological boxes around the two experiences and define one as real, and the other as false.

Where this starts to get interesting, at least within the purview of this particular blog, is in the context of the work of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. Both of these men lay claim to the title of magician, and have written comicbooks that were themselves magical acts (Morrison with the hypersigil of Invisibles and Moore with Promethea). Admittedly they go about it different ways, and have sniped at each other about their respective views on magic (and nearly everything else), though a close look at what they are saying reveals that they are in truth saying remarkable similar things.

I wish I could go into a proper overview of ideas of “magic,” but I simply don’t have the space here. To put that in context I’ve spent 40 pages talking about magic and existential theories in the context of Moore’s Promethea, and that 40 pages still isn’t sufficient to cover things as well as they should be covered. However, if you come up to me claiming you can make someone fall in love with you solely by means of magic spell or by wishing it hard enough, or that you have psychic powers, I will raise the devestating eyebrow of skepticism at you, and point out that there’s a man willing to give you a million dollars if you can prove that. What we usually mean when we think of magic isn’t exactly what Moore and Morrison are talking about (mostly).

I’ll start with a quote from Aleister Crowley:

(Illustration: It is my Will to inform the World of certain facts within my knowledge. I     therefore take “magickal weapons”, pen, ink, and paper; I write “incantations”—these sentences—in the “magickal language” ie, that which is understood by the people I wish to instruct; I call forth “spirits”, such as printers, publishers, booksellers and so forth and constrain them to convey my message to those people. The composition and distribution     of this book is thus an act of Magick by which I cause Changes to take place in conformity with my Will.)
In one sense Magick may be defined as the name given to Science by the vulgar.

Here’s a rough paraphrase of some comments by Moore during an interview:

Magic is not capable of changing the physical rules of the universe; it creates changes in consciousness that can then affect change in the physical world. / Magic is the science of the world inside the mind.

While I don’t have any quotes by Morrison  handy, he mostly says things in line with the above ideas (about both magic and his “Katmandu experience”). Magic would then seem to be less about “spells” that alter the paradigm of metaphysical realism (the rules by which experienced reality operates, such as gravity, things continuing to happen whether or not we’re witnessing them or want them to continue happening etc.), and more about a paradigm shift in the way we perceive reality, which then alters reality, as the meaningful existence of reality exists only as our perception of it.

Yes, experienced reality has those rules on which it operates, but those rules are not what make experienced reality; they simply provide the backdrop. Think, just for a moment, about how you are able to read these words. You can read these words, because we have a concept we call language. Yet there is no metaphysical referent for these words; if there was there would be little to no ambiguity. Rather, language, any language, is a series of arbitrary symbols, yet for its arbitrariness we all, consciously or not, agree to abide by the concepts these symbols are assigned to represent. If we didn’t, we couldn’t communicate with each other. That’s because language, and reality as a whole, is, as I have mentioned before, an intersubjective phenomenon (and one that apparently requires the use of several commas to express).

We do not experience, or construct, reality in isolation, but as part of a complex web involving the people and things around us, including those things of an ephemeral nature. Even if we never share a word of what goes on behind our closed eyes with the rest of the world, we still carry with us the experiences of our dreams. They are a part of who we are, and are something we carry with us in our lives. Dreams are not only “real” in the sense that we do experience and remember them, but they are part of what shapes us, and our interactions, and as such are a part of what shapes reality. Dreams are much like mystical experience in this respect in that it doesn’t matter if the source the experience comes from is real as such, as we have undeniably experienced it (for the record, I have had a mystical experience, seen two ghosts, and encountered in the waking world one of the shadowy, faceless figures that the Ultraterrestrials were helping me to fight; for all that, I still do not believe in the transcendent reality of the Buddhists, life after death, or think that the aforementioned figure was real in a physical sense).

What does any of this have to do with the price of tea in China? Am I a man dreaming he is a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he is a man? In truth I have no idea. Right now I’m simply an entity who is 1,000 words over the normal limit he sets on these posts, and is badly in need of a nap.

 
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Posted by on October 19, 2011 in Comics, Philosophy

 

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Adrian Veidt: Üntermensch?

As this blog creeps forward I’m likely to spend a fair amount of time talking about the work of Alan Moore. I’ve read a significant portion of Moore’s body of work, as well as having engaged in academic study of same. There is also the fact that portions of Moore’s work are obviously influenced by the work of certain philosophers. V for Vendetta and From Hell being two that instantly spring to mind. As the title of this post hints, however, I will not be talking about either of those worthy works, but am currently focusing on a small element of Watchmen.

Watchmen is considered to be a cornerstone upon which the modern comics genre rests. Many words have been spent discussing the sociological, political and philosophical content embedded in the work. There is even a “Pop Culture and Philosophy” volume devoted to it in the form of Watchmen and Philosophy: A Rorschach Test. As with the other volumes in this series WaP is made up of various articles which attempt to introduce non-philosopher readers to philosophical concepts through media they are already familiar with. A worthy task, indeed the selfsame task as I hope to achieve through this blog and elsewhere. One of the articles in WaP sets out to analyze the characters of the comics in light of Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch.

To provide a bit of background, Nietzsche was a 19th century German philosopher who is perhaps best known for his scathing critique of Western culture and thought, a critique which included philosophy. He is the man who originated the oft repeated, and frequently misunderstood phrase, “God is dead.” This isn’t meant as an actual pronouncement of death. Nietzsche didn’t believe that there was a god to which could have died. Instead, what Nietzsche was pronouncing was the failure of Western ways of being, particularly in the very ways we define the world. For Nietzsche, one of our biggest failures was dividing the world in two, and telling a story that kept us focused on living our lives for something other than the here and now (philosophers generally refer to this as a teleological narrative, which is more or less a fancy way of saying goal-oriented story). Perhaps the most familiar form of this comes in the Abrahamic idea of a physical, lower realm separated from the realm of Heaven, though in truth this is a rather old idea that can be traced all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Nietzsche also did not limit this particular critique to religion, but leveled this charge against Marxist socialism and other belief systems.

I could spend a great deal of words simply talking about this particular element of Nietzsche’s philosophy, but the thrust of it is that when we are confronted with the failure of Western thought we fall into a state of nihilism, a state in which because we are forced to face the fact that there is no transcendent value, everything must therefore be valueless. This is another area where those who haven’t really paid attention to Nietzsche get Nietzsche wrong. Nietzsche was not a nihilist. He did not want us to sit around being emo; the tearing of hair, gnashing of teeth and wailing for lost hope is not the desired end result, it is just a necessary first step. This is where the Übermensch, the “overman,” comes in.  Now, I’ll be the first to tell you that we navel-gazing philosophy types can’t quite agree on what the overman is supposed to be. For that matter most people will probably tell you to look for clues in Thus Spoke Zarthustra. Like many Continentalists I seem to be rather contrary by nature, and I say that one should turn toward The Gay Science not only to learn about the overman, but for Nietzsche’s most robust work.

Philosophical bickering aside, the one thing that is generally agreed on is that the overman is one who overcomes this state of nihilism, and rather than becoming a servant to the failed values that have come before him, instead becomes a creator of new values. From here we can go back to both Watchmen as well as Watchmen and Philosophy. Is Adrian Veidt an Übermensch? He gave up an inherited fortune to recreate himself (and earn gobs more money in the process). When the world is on the brink of annihilation he takes it upon himself to “transcend” traditional morality and save humanity from itself. Then again, maybe note. More than one article in Watchmen and Philosophy accuses Veidt of consequentialist thinking. As the name implies, consequentialism is an ethical stance in which one measures one’s actions in light of their consequences. In the case of Veidt he decides that it is ethically better to kill a few million people now, then to let humanity turn the world into an irradiated cinder. The ethics of his actions are debatable, and we could ponder all day over whether or not one can be the overman and engage in consequentialist thinking. At the moment I’m not particularly concerned with that, because there are more telling reasons why Veidt fails as an overman.

Adrian Veidt, Ozymandias, never actually creates himself. Veidt’s early life, those years in which, like Batman he journeyed the world, were dominated by an obsessive focus to recreate himself as a modern Ramesses II. Recreating one’s self in the image of a dead guy, particularly a dead guy from the elite caste of a culture obsessed with the afterlife is not exactly a great start for a candidate to the title of overman. While I would argue that this alone is enough to disqualify Veidt, there is a more telling failure. In section 353 of The Gay Science Nietzsche talks about Paul and the formation of Christianity. Nietzsche charges Paul with having come upon individuals who were already living a certain kind of life, and even though that life was not a virtuous one in a Nietzschean sense, Paul praised that life, endowing it with virtue. In particular he endowed it with that wicked teleological narrative that gave it “higher” virtues than could be found in the physical world. While it is not an exact match, I see Veidt as doing exactly this. It doesn’t matter what ethical mathematics his decision was based on. Veidt “saved” the world not by overcoming the nihilistic virtures of the world, but by strengthening them. He hatched a plot that simply rechanneled the world’s violence and xenophobia, he creates peace through paranoia.

Adrian Veidt did look into the abyss, and he flinched. Worse yet, in his own weakness he put a bandaid on an amputated limb and told himself he was saving the world. Adrian Veidt is not the Übermensch. Rather, I would say he is an Üntermensch, an underman. Whatever charges Nietzsche lays against the teleological narratives that have trapped humanity, what Veidt does in the course of Watchmen‘s narrative is as bad or worse.

At this point I have spent nearly 1200 words, and have yet to mention how this is actually important to you, the reader. As I mentioned in my introductory post it is Nietzsche who I feel best articulates what philosophy should be, and what it means to live philosophically. Life is life, and life is to be lived. I will not tell you that one must give up faith, and discard all teleological narratives to do so, though I suspect Nietzsche would applaud that decision. However, it does mean that we should not live our lives for tomorrow’s paradise, be it Heaven or the the mythical destruction of private property. We should strive every day to make a paradise of this world, because it is in this world that each and every one of us must live. I’ll admit that isn’t going to be an easy task, because so far we’ve a shit track record at doing the job, and at this point I’m not sure it’s a job we’re up to doing.  Now get out there and prove me wrong.

 
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Posted by on December 23, 2010 in Comics, Philosophy

 

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