In Defense of the Illogical

By Jin-yeong Yi 

“Where is reality? Can you show it to me?”

—Heinz von Foerster

Early this year, I wrote in “The Magic of Fiction”

…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.

PZ Myers does a rather fine job of illustrating my point with his critical blog post on Man of Steel:

The falling woman trope. It’s everywhere. The poor woman is plummeting to her doom at the terminal velocity of 200 km/hr, and superhero swoops upwards at even greater speed and catches her. This doesn’t work. At that speed, invulnerable super-strong arms are like blunt blades and are going to messily trisect the victim.

Slugfests. In every case, bad guy meets good guy and you know that shortly they’ll start throwing roundhouse blows at each other. This is not how people interact with each other, except when they’re very drunk and stupid. These are supposed to be super-intelligent, powerful beings, and their standard response to any challenge is to punch someone in the nose.

There has to be a witness. This is a corollary to the absence of deaths. A couple of the secondary human characters face the most traumatic event ever — one of them is stuck under a pile of rebar and concrete (don’t worry, they pry her out and she’s completely uninjured!) so they can stand around and gawp as the superclowns rampage all over their city. Titanic forces are shattering whole buildings, but they stand there getting a little dust in their faces, and that’s it. (Emphasis mine) 

It’s understandable that someone so firmly grounded in the hard sciences as Professor Myers is would view fiction in this light. It’s not “right” or “wrong,” but I simply don’t think that the laws that govern the prison of the real need to encroach upon the free lands of the unreal. If the tyranny of logic is absent in the realm of the imagination by default, why must we go out of our way to voluntarily enforce it? I render unto reality the things which are reality’s, but when it comes to fantasy, I embrace the illogical–and the impossible.      

As James Cameron put it, “[T]he beauty of movies is that they don’t have to be logical. They just have to have plausibility.”

I would go a step further and say that the content of movies, and fantasy in general, doesn’t even need to be plausible–just imaginable. If something can be conceived, be imagined, that is enough. For what matters is the experience. 

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…”

Maetel: Divine Mother or Demigoddess?

By Jin-yeong Yi

Maetel (1)

“Mother is the name of God in the lips and hearts of children.”

—William Makepeace Thackeray

That one can be captivated by a person who does not exist—while being fully aware that that person does not exist—is a testament to the power of fiction. From the age of seven or eight or so, I found myself allured by Maetel, the mysterious and elegantly beautiful heroine of Galaxy Express 999.

Maetel, which appears to be a mistransliteration of mēteru, is the Japanized form of mater, which is simply Latin for “mother.” Here’s the million dollar question (or hundred million yen question, if you like) for today: does Maetel qualify for divine motherhood? Does she possess the credentials necessary to enter the august pantheon occupied by the likes of Mary, mother of Jesus; Maya, mother of Buddha; Devaki, mother of Krishna; and Isis, mother of Horus?

Maetel (2)

Maetel is, from the get-go, a curiosity. A woman with seemingly Indo-European features, who speaks only Japanese, but has a name that is neither Indo-European nor Japanese, and, as it turns out, wasn’t born on Earth?

She is not Tetsuro’s dead mother, but she is the spitting image of her. And we learn that this is no coincidence: physically speaking, she is Tetsuro’s mother. (She is essentially an ageless soul without a permanent physical form, switching bodies when one begins to grow old. She happened to be occupying a copy of the body of Tetsuro’s mother during the events of Galaxy Express 999.)

However, Tetsuro is, of course, not a god-man, but an ordinary human placed in extraordinary circumstances. Even if he were God incarnate, it wasn’t Maetel who gave birth to him, despite the fact that she inhabits the body of the woman who did.

Furthermore, her relationship with Tetsuro is ambiguous. While at first glance she seems to comfortably fit the role of surrogate mother, the fact that she kisses Tetsuro on the lips when they part ways for the last time cannot be overlooked. However, the kiss is ambiguous as well, in part because it is unknown what exactly the cultural connotations of kissing were on the planet she was raised on.

Finally, unlike the aforementioned Divine Mothers, Maetel cannot intercede for humankind. It is also unclear what kind of deity or deities she believes in, if any.

Maetel (3)

In the end, one is forced to admit that Maetel does not qualify as a Divine Mother, or a demigoddess, or even a Divine Lover. Though of royal lineage, she is, in the last analysis, very human. But perhaps that is why I adore her so. She is as much of a goddess as a woman can be without actually being one.

Odes to Maetel[1]

“Blue Earth”

by Jun Hashimoto

I shut my eyes and remember my mother’s vestiges
O distant blue earth, sleep in peace
Maetel – another star fades away
Burning red, red
As if it were flowing through the galaxy
As if it were flowing through the galaxy

Her lonesome smile resembles that of my mother
She is calling out to the stars scattered far across space
Maetel – someday you shall find happiness
As if your hotly, hotly burned
Life were shining
Life were shining

Maetel – you seem to be looking at my mother
Within your pallidly, pallidly clear eyes
Courage wells up
Courage wells up

“My Dear Maetel”

By Jun Hashimoto 

It is said that there is a sad star
That is as pale as ice
It is said that people looking for happiness
Are waiting for you
Maetel… my dear Maetel
My dear, sweet Maetel
Like an angel innocent of corruption
Comfort those who are lonely

It is said that the call of wanderers
Will become twinkling stars
You gaze gently at the light lacking in happiness
Maetel… my dear Maetel
My dear, sweet Maetel
Your cheeks are wet with tears
As if you were an angel stripped of her wings
Maetel… my dear Maetel
My dear, sweet Maetel
Resembling an angel traversing the galaxy
Your sleeping face is so beautiful

Notes

[1] Translations mine.

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

The Perfect Dream

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Who lives longer: the man who takes heroin for two years and dies, or the man who lives on roast beef, water, and potatoes till ninety-five? One passes his twenty-four months in eternity. All the years of the beef eater are lived only in time.”

—Aldous Huxley

On the night before New Year’s Eve, before going to bed, I watched Galaxy Express 999 for what was probably the sixth time. I’d planned to do this before the arrival of the new year, and how wonderful it was to see this movie again and be reminded why exactly I cherished it. This viewing, however, was especially different. This time I understood what the movie actually meant to me.

Summarizing a 113-episode anime series clocking in over 37 hours in a 2 hour feature film naturally entails a great deal of simplification, and no doubt this makes the movie “inferior” to the original series in many ways. But it was precisely that brevity which helped me to realize a few things about the movie as well as fiction itself. What occurred to me for the first time that night was that Galaxy Express 999 was the perfect dream, the kind of dream that I had always wanted to have. I think the movie describes something that many of us have longed for at some point in our lives: an epic poem that is not read but lived, with oneself as the hero.

The narrative of Galaxy Express 999 is an epic poem lived within a dream. It would be impossible for me to make sense of the movie by looking at it in any other way. It would be impossible for me to get around the tremendous implausibility of it all: a homeless teenager accompanied by an immortal princess from another planet, traveling to different worlds on a space train, meeting space pirates, infiltrating a castle (complete with human skulls decorating the stairs) and killing the cyborg who murdered his mother and kept her body as a trophy, and almost single-handedly annihilating an entire planet and surviving to tell the tale with nothing but a few bruises at most. It’s a dream that has a sense of completeness, containing heroes and villains,  joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, glory and dishonor, love and hatred, beauty and ugliness.

Needless to say, plausibility doesn’t matter in the dream world. After all, what makes the dream world great is precisely what makes it different from the real world–not being bound by rules. The moment you step into the universe of your mind, the laws of nature no longer apply. This strange world needs no apology for absurdities. Things happen, and you don’t question any of it. You just go with it. Because it’s all about experience. It’s about living life without limitations. Living life to the full.

The Catholic Atheist? (or, Life as a Church-Going Infidel)

By Jin-yeong Yi

“The statue on the altar is mere wood and gold leaf, but our need to be reverent is real.”

—Deng Ming-Dao, 365 Tao: Daily Meditations

Although I am a staunch atheist as well as a nihilist, I have been attending Mass at my parents’ small church every Sunday morning for more than half a year now. As my devout parents never really got over my deconversion, which occurred in my late teens, I figured that it would give them some consolation to know that their son is in church on the Lord’s Day.

About 2 years ago, I was against going to church because I thought doing so would be to go against my integrity, and because I thought the Bible and Christian teaching were full of evil and superstition. In short, I was basically a Christopher Hitchens-style atheist. That was back when I still believed in morality and had a narrow view of religion. What happened was that my belief in moral truths did not survive the scrutiny I applied to all of my assumptions, and, through continued study of religion, I eventually arrived at a more positive, broadminded view of it.

Generally speaking, a religion, in my view, is fundamentally a collection of symbols, myths, art, rituals, literature, and music that lends itself to a wide range of interpretations, which can be “positive” or “negative,” and based on fiction or fact. The sects derived from a religion are not the religion itself, but interpretations of that religion. We don’t have to be slaves to religion; we can instead use it as a vehicle for culture, as a tool for imbuing life with meaning and poetry.

And that is what I try to do on Sunday mornings. After listening to death metal or black metal on the drive to church, I sit quietly in my pew and use the meditative surroundings to my advantage. Knowing that I am not bound by any of it, I allow my mind to freely go where it will. I might contemplate the meaning of religion. If the priest is saying something interesting or thought-provoking, I listen. Sometimes, I might gaze upon the large crucifix behind the altar and ruminate on the death and resurrection of Christ as a metaphor for the spring-summer-autumn-winter cycle. Other times, I put my hands together and pray. I don’t pray to anyone; I just pray. For me, prayer is about celebration, not supplication. I celebrate the good things I have in life, reminding myself how fortunate I am to have them. As someone who is always taking things for granted, I find it to be a healthy exercise.

Although I believe that atheistic nihilism is one of the best things that has ever happened to me, I do feel that I understand why so many people are committed to supernatural religion. This is because I understand the power of imaginative fiction. The characters and events in imaginative fiction may not be real, but the emotions they engender in us are, as anyone who has ever been affected by a novel or a movie would know. The narrative that a religion provides is like this, but far more powerful because you are one of the characters in that narrative, rather than a mere observer. And who doesn’t want to be part of a good story, especially one that is of cosmic proportions?