In Defense of Dreams

By Jin-yeong Yi

“I never ask a man what his business is, for it never interests me. What I ask him about are his thoughts and dreams.”

—H. P. Lovecraft

“Dreams are real while they last; can we say more of life?”

—Havelock Ellis

“Calm, lasting beauty comes only in a dream, and this solace the world had thrown away when in its worship of the real it threw away the secrets of childhood and innocence.”

—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Silver Key”

In his immensely thoughtful and insightful book, Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self, seasoned oneironaut Robert Waggoner delineates one of the obstacles that aspiring dreamers face:

To begin with, the current culture largely devalues dreams as either meaningless or imbued with personal angst, cloaked in indecipherable symbols. The thinking goes that even if you become aware within the dream state (which society deems basically absurd), what have you accomplished? In the face of cultural beliefs like these, challenging one’s self to achieve a dreaming skill can be a lonely affair with little external recognition or support.[1]

This was news to me because “dream,” as a word and a concept, figures so conspicuously in everyday language. People use the phrase “the man/woman of my dreams” to describe the ideal partner, “like a dream” to describe something truly wondrous, and “a dream come true” to describe a desire that seemed too beautiful to be realized.

But does seem to be true that reality is increasingly being emphasized over fantasy. It seems that more and more people favor what is “realistic” and “logical” in their stories. Perhaps this desire for fantasy to conform to reality is only natural, given the apparent triumph of science and the fact that the mundanity of waking life is decidedly far more prominent than the magic of dream life. Dreams simply aren’t a big part of everyday life. You don’t have to remember any of the adventures you have while you sleep, but you do have to be at the office by 8:00 AM each morning.

Oh, but what does it matter if dreams last for only an hour at the most! It is only within this fleeting moment in which one can briefly step outside of the prison of the real and taste the air of freedom. A visit to this strange and wonderful realm reminds one that the dull and dreary walls, the “gilded cages” that Aldous Huxley spoke of, are not absolute.

Many years ago, one of my brothers-in-law and I started a water gun fight out of the blue in his backyard. What began as a small provocation rapidly escalated into a two-man war with Super Soakers that left us completely drenched. We chased each other around the garden, laughing and enjoying ourselves. When it was over, my brother-in-law, who disapproved of my love for video games, had a moral for me. “Do you know why that was fun?” he asked. “Because it was real.”

In my final year of college, I tried my hand at writing fanfiction. One day, while I was on the freeway, en route to my university, I gazed at the rocky hills in the distance, shrouded by a peculiar, light magenta haze. Beholding this rather surreal landscape, something occurred to me: that what made fanfiction so great was the same thing that made lucid dreams so great. Surely many of us have read a book or watched a movie with great delight and anticipation, only to be disappointed by the ending. And surely most of us have felt, at least one time or another, that some chapters of our own lives could’ve been written better. That’s the beauty of both fanfiction and lucid dreams: they are means by which we can take matters into our own hands and write a better story.

As a counterpoint to the dim view of dreams held by modern society, I will mention the Pirahãs’ intriguing take on this phenomenon, which Daniel Everett explains in Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes:

To the Pirahãs, dreams are a continuation of real and immediate experience. … 

… I came eventually to understand that xaipípai [“what is in your head when you sleep”] is dreaming, but with a twist: it is classified as a real experience. You are an eyewitness to your dreams. Dreams are not fiction to the Pirahãs. You see one way awake and another way while asleep, but both ways of seeing are real experiences.[2]  

They certainly have a point. It’s a very sensible and healthy way of looking at it. I think I would go so far as to say that dream life is every bit as important as waking life, if not even more important.

Could one’s life in the dream world be superior to one’s life in the waking world? It may well be. If what we humans seek in life is experience, dreams, especially lucid dreams, are certainly more than capable of providing it. Furthermore, one can have experiences in the dream world that would be unattainable in the real world. We tend to blithely assume that we can and eventually will fulfill our heart’s desires in the real world, even if we are well aware that the cosmos is utterly indifferent to us and neither promises nor owes us anything. In reality, it is probable that most if not all of the dreams we wish to fulfill will always remain just that: dreams. Odds are that circumstances, other people, and our own limitations as individuals will prevent us from realizing them, no matter how much determination we have and how much time and effort we are willing to invest.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that we cannot translate our dreams into actual experiences. There is virtually nothing we cannot do in the dream world—our imagination is the limit. And it may be that the precious opportunities to attain the experiences we seek can only be found in this realm.

True freedom does not exist in the real world, because true freedom consists of being bound by nothing except one’s imagination.

I conclude with the opening paragraphs of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Silver Key”:

When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of the gate of dreams. Prior to that time he had made up for the prosiness of life by nightly excursions to strange and ancient cities beyond space, and lovely, unbelievable garden lands across ethereal seas; but as middle age hardened upon him he felt these liberties slipping away little by little, until at last he was cut off altogether. No more could his galleys sail up the river Oukranos past the gilded spires of Thran, or his elephant caravans tramp through perfumed jungles in Kled, where forgotten palaces with veined ivory columns sleep lovely and unbroken under the moon.

He had read much of things as they are, and talked with too many people. Well-meaning philosophers had taught him to look into the logical relations of things, and analyse the processes which shaped his thoughts and fancies. Wonder had gone away, and he had forgotten that all life is only a set of pictures in the brain, among which there is no difference betwixt those born of real things and those born of inward dreamings, and no cause to value the one above the other. Custom had dinned into his ears a superstitious reverence for that which tangibly and physically exists, and had made him secretly ashamed to dwell in visions. Wise men told him his simple fancies were inane and childish, and he believed it because he could see that they might easily be so. What he failed to recall was that the deeds of reality are just as inane and childish, and even more absurd because their actors persist in fancying them full of meaning and purpose as the blind cosmos grinds aimlessly on from nothing to something and from something back to nothing again, neither heeding nor knowing the wishes or existence of the minds that flicker for a second now and then in the darkness.

Notes

[1] Chapter 9: The Five Stages of Lucid Dreaming

[2] Chapter 7: Nature and the Immediacy of Experience. Elsewhere, Professor Everett notes, “The Pirahãs attach no mystical significance to their dreams. They are experiences like all others…”

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Of Reading and Experience

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Once you learn to read, you will forever be free.”

—Frederick Douglass

“I couldn’t live a week without a private library – indeed, I’d part with all my furniture and squat and sleep on the floor before I’d let go of the 1500 or so books I possess.”

—H. P. Lovecraft

In my sophomore year of college, I was taking a political science course. One day, I went to the TA’s office for a mandatory consultation about my essay. When I stepped into the room, I saw the TA hunched over a compilation of Benjamin Constant’s political writings, which was one of the texts we were studying in class. The sight struck me and remained with me ever since. He looks like he’s praying…in this modern age, to pray is to read. This was the wordless thought that entered my mind. The TA’s office was a monastic cell, and the TA was a monk pursuing enlightenment not through chants or supplications or fasting, but purely through the intensive study of the printed word. As an aspiring Eastern Orthodox Christian at the time, I naturally disapproved of this worship of knowledge (secular knowledge, no less).

My disapproval of the worship of the printed word has since been replaced by a simple recognition of its limitations.

They had chained him down to things that are, and had then explained the workings of those things till mystery had gone out of the world. When he complained, and longed to escape into twilight realms where magic moulded all the little vivid fragments and prized associations of his mind into vistas of breathless expectancy and unquenchable delight, they turned him instead toward the new-found prodigies of science, bidding him find wonder in the atom’s vortex and mystery in the sky’s dimensions. And when he had failed to find these boons in things whose laws are known and measurable, they told him he lacked imagination, and was immature because he preferred dream-illusions to the illusions of our physical creation. 

—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Silver Key”

In his A History of Philosophy series, Frederick Copleston notes how Immanuel Kant “astonished” people who had experience traveling to other countries with knowledge that he’d amassed exclusively through reading.[1] I have little doubt that Kant’s knowledge was impressive, but I think I would personally rather read an eyewitness account of a country written by a half-educated man than an armchair account written by a genius. In this respect I seem to have something in common with the Pirahã people of the Amazonian jungle,[2] in that I value the immediacy of experience.

When I was working part-time, there was a period in which I divided my time between reading and exercise. In the morning or the afternoon, I would take 3-5 mile walks through the suburbs. It was during these simple walks that I discovered the difference between reading and experience.

When walking, I noticed that the activity engaged most if not all of my senses; I was taking in sights, sounds, smells, and sensations: the bright sky, the rumbling of passing cars, the almost sickeningly sweet scent of pine, the sting of a cold wind.

Of course, reading is a type of experience: you feel the book (or e-book reader) in your hands and experience a range of emotions as the data feeds into your brain. This seems particularly true of imaginative literature.

But something seemed to be missing. As rewarding as I found reading to be, I couldn’t exactly tell a story about it: I could tell of a beginning, a progression, and an end, and the emotions I experienced during that time, but in the end I would only be speaking of what I saw, not what I did. There was much to gain from “going places in my head,” but all of it, it seemed to me, was ultimately a preparation for something more substantial–a real journey, an adventure, an experience that engaged every aspect of my being. In The Doctrine of Awakening, Julius Evola wrote something similar in regard to the difference between Buddhist theory and practice:

“Texts, dogmas, precepts are so many bonds or so many crutches, to be put aside that one may advance on one’s own. The Buddhist canonical literature itself is likened to a window, from which one contemplates the great scene of nature: but to live in this scene you must jump outside the window.”[3]

I feel that all of the reading I have been doing is something akin to studying maps. Is this preparation in vain, or will there be an actual, undiscovered country for me to explore? That is what I intend to find out.

Notes

[1] Chapter X: Kant (I): Life and Writings

[2] See Daniel Everett’s excellent book on the Pirahãs, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes.

[3] Chapter 18: Up to Zen

The Magic of Fiction

By Jin-yeong Yi

“A true story, or one taken as true, doesn’t need embellishment and it doesn’t need artistic interpretation. Its truth gives it an intrinsic interest, and that’s enough.
Fiction, on the other hand, is offered as an invention—a lie. The fiction writer’s task is not to tell the literal truth, but to lie artfully—to lie so well that the reader’s interest is engaged as if he were reading the truth.”

—Damon Knight, Creating Short Fiction

“Art is precisely the means by which man makes sense of, and transcends, his own limitations and flaws. Without art—or the arts—there is only flux.”

—Theodore Dalrymple, Our Culture, What’s Left Of It

“Science may set limits to knowledge, but should not set limits to imagination.”

—Bertrand Russell

“‘What is there?’ It can be answered, moreover, in a word—‘Everything’—and everyone will accept this answer as true.”

—W. V. Quine

The power of fiction continues to amaze me. While I’m aware of the brain’s propensity for misinterpreting data and generating illusions[1], I still can’t help but find it remarkable how one can have real emotions about imaginary people and events while being fully aware that they are not real. A fictional story is essentially one big lie from start to finish, and yet we often have no trouble swallowing one whole. Yes, there is a difference between facts and truths, and fiction can illustrate truths, but that’s beside the point. Again, what I find astonishing is that we treat imaginary people as if they are real, even when we know that they are not real. We can react to them in any number of ways. We can get angry with them. We can get annoyed by them. We can share their disappointments and elations, their joys and sorrows. We can fall in love with them. We can even envy them (yes, envy people who don’t exist!). And surely most of us can think of at least one fictional person that our world would be poorer without.

We treat the worlds of novels and movies as if they were parallel universes that actually exist. Of course, imaginary people can “exist” independently of novels and movies; they don’t need a world of their own in order for us to perceive them as “real.” (That’s why virtual pop singer Hatsune Miku has fans from around the world who go to her concerts when they get the chance.)

Also, I find that fiction makes the most sense when I view it as a dream. From this perspective, plotholes, as well as realism and plausibility in general, aren’t exactly of earth-shattering importance. It’s imaginative fiction. It’s a dream, not a documentary. Dreams are often logically inconsistent and are not infrequently downright absurd, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be enjoyable or edifying, or even enlightening and life-changing. Why must fantasy be brought down to the level of reality? Is not the fundamental goal of fiction to convey an experience, which is something that can be appreciated with or without the element of realism?

When it comes to objective reality, probabilities trump possibilities. But when it comes to subjective fantasy, possibilities far and away trump probabilities.

Notes

[1] See You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself by David McRaney and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Video Games

By Jin-yeong Yi

I started playing video games when I was about 6 years old. I was introduced to Donkey Kong Country when it first came out in 1994, and I had become an avid gamer ever since, pouring hours upon hours into the relatively small number of titles I owned, which included the Donkey Kong Country trilogy, The World is Not Enough, Perfect DarkMax PayneMax Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, and Heroes of Might and Magic III Complete, which were among my favorites.

Then at some point in 2010, I gave up gaming. I decided that video games were just a glorified waste of time, that my accomplishments in them translated to zilch in the real world.

Fast-forward to 2012, and I’m playing video games again. Not just the usual titles, but also ones I’ve never played before, like Deus Ex and Painkiller.

Why did I change my mind? Well, for the starters, because I agree with Bertrand Russell when he said, “The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” I enjoy video games. Not only that, video games are for me often more interesting than real life.

Real life has great moments. But I find that they are generally few and far in between. I suspect that most people would agree with me; if they didn’t, they would have no use for novels, television shows, movies, and other means humans invented to transcend the limits of daily existence, of reality itself.

Furthermore, in my view, life is not so much about “reality” as it is about experience. As anyone who has ever had a lucid dream would know, an experience doesn’t have to take place outside of one’s mind to be “real.” And if that’s the case, video games are well capable of delivering experience in spades.