Tag Archives: dreams

Lies that Speak Truth to the Human Heart; Fiction, Imagination, and Empathy

If there is one thing I can count on the internet for, it’s that when a discussion of a video game, comicbook, television show, novel, movie, or whatever form of media floats your boat comes up, someone, somewhere, at some point will likely respond to criticism of it with some variation of, “It’s just fiction.”

At first blush that certainly seems like it has some validity to it, doesn’t it? After all, something that is fictional is by its nature not true. It likely even meets Kant’s definition for being an analytic statement; that is to say it is a statement which contains its own definition without needing supplement (bachelor being one of the more commonly used examples of an analytic statement; it contains in itself the meaning of “an unmarried adult male”). The word’s place in a Kantian schema isn’t terribly important, particularly since further elaboration would require me to listen to a Kantian without entering a catatonic state, and I fear I’m simply not up to so Herculean a task.

The important takeaway from the above is not the Kantian digression, but the fact that most adults upon hearing the word fiction will understand it to mean that we are speaking about something which is not true. Bertrand Russell would certainly agree with this sentiment; in his tendentious, torturous essay on why ordinary language is insufficient for  the doing of philosophy, Russell talked about if I say something like, “The current king of France is bald,” said statement is meaningless largely because there is not a current king of France. Which is why despite admitting it would render ordinary communication impossible, Russell insisted we needed to make a language specifically for the doing of philosophy, so that shenanigans could be avoided.  This particular point of view would underlie (and undermine) the ideas of logical positivism (the forerunner of analytic philosophy). (I will interrupt with a brief confession. Russell did do some good work, and I’ve always wondered if the essay I mention here wasn’t done as something of a joke; written in a deliberately obtuse and obstructive style in order to illustrate his point. Regardless, the moves in philosophy that Russell describes, and which became profoundly influential, were also moves that helped direct contemporary philosophy away from usefulness and toward academic circle jerking. Moving on.)

We, as a species, have something far more important than a language of logic or a factual king of France; we have the ability to think abstractly, and to imagine. There does not need to be a current king of France for me to conceive that there is, or could be, and that this nonexistent king is in fact bald. I would even go so far as to say it is easier for me to understand what the statement out a fictional king of France being bald is representing than it is for me to properly understand the distances involved in something like a light year; while the light year might be a “factual” unit, the scale of what it represents requires significantly more imagination, because most of us have no experiential referent to compare it to.

So on at least a literal level, fiction isn’t nonsensical or meaningless. Common sense would tend to tell us that, because if the nature of fiction were nonsensical we wouldn’t engage with fictional materials; not because we would be wasting time, but because we simply wouldn’t be able to comprehend them. In fact, the potential meanings carried in fiction have been a concern of philosophy going back to its “official” beginnings.

Plato, in his Republic, goes off on a digression about the hypothetical ideal city. He blathers about the various castes that will make up the city, and other details that have made the Republic the only book to ever put me to sleep twice in the same day. However, among his natterings there is one class of folks that Plato is quite clear will have no involvement with the ideal city: poets. Plato was not fond of poets and artists, because he was terrified by the possibilities of mimesis; those naughty, fictional doings, and reproductions of objects could very well lead us deeper into the cave so that we never saw the light of Plato’s imaginary forms. If fiction was incapable of conveying meaning, and meaning beyond that which it takes to simply be comprehensible, but rather the kind of meaning that informs and shapes our way of being in the world, why would Plato be so worried about? And if fiction is incapable of conveying deeper meanings, why did Plato choose to present his work as fictional dialogues?*

Clearly, fiction is not nonsensical, and is capable of conveying meanings on a level beyond a surface engagement of entertainment. Part of it is that we are beings of abstract thought and imagination, and we can be affected by things that are not “real,” an idea which I have talked about previously. If you didn’t believe me there, it turns out that neuroscience is (finally) catching on to what some philosophers have been saying for at least a few hundred years. Yet I don’t think that this capacity fully explains the ways in which we can, and often do engage with fiction. I suspect that it is not only our capacity for abstract thought and imagination, our ability to dream as it were, but also our capacity for empathy that allows us to immerse ourselves into fictions as we do. I don’t agree with everything in this video. I don’t think that our capacity for empathy comes from an understanding of mortality, particularly since some animals do seem to display empathy, or something similar, and as of yet we’ve no reason to presume that they understand/conceive of death in the same way that humans do. I also have a few other quibbles with the information presented, but again I digress.

When we willingly suspend our disbelief and engage with a work of fiction we connect with the worlds and characters we experience. Much as with dreams, visions, etc. they in way become real to us. Even without visual triggering of mirror neurons these fictional characters and events can make us laugh or cry; they share part of their lives with us, and in doing so evoke our emotions. While it’s by no means a good thing, it’s small wonder then that some people might come to confuse an actor for the character they portray; to those of us who experience the results of their work at home the actor him or herself is a cypher. We do not know this person. Yet the character they portray, or portrayed in the past, is someone with whom we have established a rapport. In activating our capacity for empathy these characters have become part of the narrative of our own lives, all without ever being “real.”

Fiction also has another great power; it can tell us unpleasant truths, while hiding from us that it is telling unpleasant truths. By moving things into the realm of fiction, we can deal with them a step or more removed. If I simply tell someone that religion is a lie, or that they are embedded in a racist society whether they consider themselves racist or behave in an overtly racist manner, there is a fairly good chance that this person is going to feel as if I am attacking them and respond defensively. While it is certainly not a foolproof method, and it is entirely possible this person (and others) would miss the point I was making, or would still feel as if I was attacking, by wrapping this issue in a fictional coating I can present to them the same argument, the same truths in such a manner that it is perhaps not such a bitter pill to swallow.

Trying to dismiss something as just being fiction is, at best, disingenuous. Fiction might well not have a single grain of fact in it, but that does not mean that it is “false.” Plato certainly knew this, and knew that the ideal city would have to ban poets for fear that the fictions they told might undermine the tyrannical party line. Like our dreams, fiction is capable of touching us in the same manner as the “real” world; it can be as much a part of the intersubjective web in which we are immersed as other people, or the physical objects we interact with on a daily basis.

The things I talk about in this blog and elsewhere are examples of that; artifacts of popular culture that are also artifacts that enable philosophical engagement. Perhaps it is time that more philosophers follow in the footsteps of Camus, Sartre, even Nietzsche, as well as such primarily “literary” personalities such as Hesse, and understand that we needn’t speak a convoluted language of dead white guys to speak philosophically about, and to, the world. There is no reason that we could not speak a language of lies that tells the truth.

*(I have heard some make a great deal of the fact that one of Plato’s statements in his Republic is that the philosopher ruler is “…a lover of truth and a hater of lies,” yet at several points the philosopher ruler lies to the people. Also, if Plato was so down on poets and tellers of tales, isn’t he contradicting himself by using fiction? The answer is no, because he clearly admits to the acceptability of fables; fictions that might not be true in fact, but that teach an important moral truth. The lies of the philosopher ruler, and the fictions of Plato, were not deceptions of malice or mimesis, they were the kind of moral instruction one might offer to a child. What that might say about Plato’s opinion of others is for you to decide, dear readers, but there is no contradiction in respect to this particular point.)


Posted by on November 7, 2011 in Comics, Geekery, Philosophy, Pop Culture


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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.


Posted by on October 19, 2011 in Comics, Philosophy


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