The Dream Called Reality: Some Scattered (and Unoriginal) Musings on Metaphysics and Hope

By Jin-yeong Yi

“I am not a human. This is only a dream, and soon I will awake. It was too cold and the blood froze all the time”

—Per Yngve Ohlin

“What were those deathly creatures that flew out of the golden box? They were the ills that beset mankind: the spites, disease in its thousand shapes, old age, famine, insanity, and all their foul kin. After they flew out of the box they scattered–flew into every home, and swung from the rafters–waiting. And when their time comes they fly and sting–and bring pain and sorrow and death.

“At that, things could have been much worse. For the creature that Pandora shut into the box was the most dangerous of all. It was foreboding, the final spite. If it had flown free, everyone in the world would have been told exactly what misfortune was to happen every day of his life. No hope would have been possible. And so there would have been an end to man. For, though he can bear endless trouble, he cannot live with no hope at all.”

—Evslin, Evslin, and Hoopes, The Greek Gods 

Some months ago, I had a rather interesting experience. It wasn’t supernatural, but it was rather surreal. Early in the morning, at around 5:15 AM or so, I started walking downstairs for breakfast before I heard a noise. It was the sound of someone walking into the kitchen and switching on the light. Figuring it was probably my sister or her husband, I thought of returning to my room, since I preferred to eat by myself (I generally don’t like to talk during meals unless the subject matter interests me). But I decided to wait just in case the person downstairs was just going for a quick refrigerator raid before heading back to their room.

So I stood there in the middle of the staircase, and waited. You might say that it felt as if my life had temporarily stopped. The whole thing felt mysterious somehow. A collocation of atoms that had coincidentally come into being, the collocation of atoms that was me, was standing still in the darkness at a particular time and place, waiting for another collocation of atoms to exit a particular location. And this collocation of atoms was asking itself whether meaning really existed in a meaningless universe! I felt strange as I observed what was otherwise a very ordinary and mundane event.

If memory serves, at this point my thought process went something like this: is my life and this universe truly meaningless? They appear to be meaningless, objectively, but what if that meaninglessness was actually part of a massive illusion? What if the world in front of my eyes, as well as the events that occur around me, were products of God’s dream, as the Advaitins claimed? Gazing at the walls around me and the ceiling above me, I wondered if I really was existing inside the mental emanation of a Grand Architect.

Depending on how you look at it, imagination is either a blessing or a curse, or both. Imagination enables us to peer beyond the world we have, but it also prevents us from being content with the world we have. Imagination is the reason why life is such a tease. With the mind’s eye, we can look at anything we desire, but rarely are our deepest desires granted. Immortality may not exist, but we can imagine being immortal. True freedom certainly does not exist, but we can imagine being free. We may not be Gods, but we can imagine ourselves as Gods.

The ability to dream, along with skepticism, is the reason why I am able to cling onto sanity and hope in the prison of the real. Reality may be absolute, but my perception of it isn’t, because there is no way for me to know for sure whether or not it’s accurate (as far as I can tell). It may look like this world is real and that my life in it is real, but I am basing that on my own empirical observations; if everything around me were an illusion being fed into my mind, my observations would be rendered moot.

The word “dream” not infrequently enters daily speech. “This is like a dream,” “This is a dream come true,” and “The man/woman of my dreams” are some of the most common examples. It is often used to describe a superlative experience, like a joyous marriage or winning a championship. It’s as if we instinctively know that things usually don’t go our way in the real world, and that it is almost like a miracle when a cherished wish comes true.

Which leads me to the following question: Which is more real, our lives in the waking world or our lives in the dream world? Are dreams a parody of waking life, or is it the other way around? I’m using the word “real” in two senses here: real as in being a part of reality, and real as in being the opposite of counterfeit.

Most of us have had nightmares. Many of us know what it’s like to fall off a cliff or to run away from a shadowy entity, only to end up rooted to the spot.

Sometimes we wake up in our dreams. We notice that something is off, and that leads to the realization that we’re not in reality. If only there was a way to wake up from reality! For reality is a nightmare, a nightmare with moments of calm and sweetness, but a nightmare nonetheless. Depending on who we are and where the currents of causality take us, the nightmare takes on different forms. For some, it may take the form of something overt, like domestic violence or war. For others, it might take the form of something subtle, like a soul-killing job or a decaying marriage.

Apocalypse, that is, an ascent into heaven or a descent into hell (metaphorical or literal), is, needless to say, a ubiquitous theme in not only religion, but also in philosophy and the arts. There is no shortage of dramatic structure that describes an absolute beginning, middle, and end.

On one side, this view is challenged by those who take a cyclical view of history, represented by the likes of Oswald Spengler and Arnold J. Toynbee, on one side, and those who take a Darwinian view of history, represented by the likes of Alexander Rosenberg.

Even if we are to assume that these thinkers are right about there being no straight narrative to history as a whole, it seems to me that the concept of there being such a “narrative” to individuals lives, remains unshaken. If there is no reincarnation, then birth, life, and death comprise not so much a cycle as a sequence. Each and every individual undergoes his or her own Apocalypse.

A possibility that possesses me is the possibility that life is an actual story, with a real plot. A story written by whom, you might ask? Maybe a cosmic playwright, or each individual’s “higher Self.” With this possibility in mind, I can continue to have hope in the face of the darkness I see–for the simple reason that the darkness is followed by dawn.

As far as I know, no one better represented this outlook than Per Yngve Ohlin, to the extent that he could be seen as a symbol for it. I suspect that he saw his whole life as a nightmare; that would explain why he surrounded himself with ugliness, decay, and pain, routinely mutilating and starving himself, using paint and soil to make himself look like a corpse. Perhaps he did such things so that he would never lapse into a dull acceptance of the nightmare as being all there is.  

Which leads me to the next question, which is a question that has probably been asked the day humankind discovered philosophy: What lies on the other side of life?

According to the worldview that I hold, the answer is quite simply–nothing. For if atheism is true, nihilism is true, evolution by natural selection is true, the mind is a function of the brain, etc., I have no reason to believe that my existence will somehow continue after the cessation of the electro-chemical activity in my brain.

The rub lies at the level of assumptions. As a skeptic, I recognize that all of the positions I hold are provisional and tentative. For all I know, I can be a brain in a vat–or, better yet, a spirit tricked into thinking he is a body, much in the same way that one might be fooled into thinking that one is a dog/cat/hamster/etc. during a particularly peculiar dream.

So that is the trillion dollar question: is this–all of this I see in front of me–real? I do not think this question can be brushed aside lightly, because the metaphysical question is the fundamental question, which must be answered accurately before proceeding any further. Unfortunately, I doubt that the means to do so are accessible to us. The metaphysical question is a complex and confusing mathematics problem with no answer key. As far as I can see, we are stuck with what seems and not what is. But that can be encouraging, because it is ignorance, not knowledge, in which room for hope lies.

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…”

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 Limits of Reality

By Jin-yeong Yi

The Matrix television

“You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”

—Morpheus, The Matrix

Less than 2 years ago, Richard Dawkins published a book titled The Magic of Reality. It’s a very nice book, with Dr. Dawkins’s trademark prose complemented by Dave McKean’s richly detailed illustrations. At the end of the first chapter, Dr. Dawkins writes:

“[T]he real world, as understood scientifically, has magic of its own – the kind I call poetic magic: an inspiring beauty which is all the more magical because it is real and because we can understand how it works. Next to the true beauty and magic of the real world, supernatural spells and stage tricks seem cheap and tawdry by comparison. The magic of reality is neither supernatural nor a trick, but – quite simply – wonderful. Wonderful, and real. Wonderful because real.”

I agree, I think reality is wonderful–and I think reality is overrated. Shoot me. To the good professor I would say: have a lucid dream and then tell me it wasn’t wonderful. Tell me that meeting Charles Darwin in person and discussing evolution with him for two days straight was boring compared to reading The Origin of Species. Tell me that flying with invisible wings was a dull and uninspiring experience compared to flying on an airplane. Tell me that traveling to the center of the Sun was a cheap and tawdry experience compared to observing it through a filtered telescope. It’s your world we are talking about, not mine, not theirs, not ours–but yours. And it’s wonderful because it’s yours.

There are plenty of things I appreciate about reality. Reality made my standards, reality gives me contrast. If there were no reality, or at least the knowledge of reality, I’m not sure that it would be possible to appreciate fantasy.

H. L. Mencken had a point when he wrote:

“Alone among the animals, [man] is dowered with the capacity to invent imaginary worlds, and he is always making himself unhappy by trying to move into them. Thus he underrates the world in which he actually lives, and so misses most of the fun that is in it. That world, I am convinced, could be materially improved, but even as it stands it is good enough to keep any reasonable man entertained for a lifetime.”

I wish I could be like him, sometimes…sort of.

But to suggest that reality is superior to anything that we can imagine is practically Leibnizian. Reality is a one-size-fits-all world that wasn’t designed for us on even a collective level, let alone on an individual level. In my view, to be able to have dreams but not be able to realize them is not only a waste, but a perverse travesty. What makes for a richer experience, observing and studying the stars, or reaching out and touching them?

I am not content with the magic of reality. I want magic–real magic. As I’ve said before, I respect science and can appreciate the wonders of the natural world it has and continues to reveal, but I do have a longing for more. For all its beauty, the world seems too fixed, too solid, too predictable, too mechanical. I have a deep-seated longing to find a hole within the omnipresent tapestry of unalterable constants, of scientific theories and mathematical equations, a “glitch in the Matrix,” if you will.

One might ask, “Then why acknowledge reality at all? Why don’t you just ignore it and pretend that it isn’t there?” Easier said than done. As Ayn Rand pointed out, “You can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.”

In his critique of arch-materialist Joseph McCabe in Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton proves Rand’s point:

“Mr. McCabe thinks me a slave because I am not allowed to believe in determinism. I think Mr. McCabe a slave because he is not allowed to believe in fairies. But if we examine the two vetoes we shall see that his is really much more of a pure veto than mine. The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle. Poor Mr. McCabe is not allowed to retain even the tiniest imp, though it might be hiding in a pimpernel.”

To which a good materialist can only reply, as S. T. Joshi did: “To be sure, it is more ‘restrictive’ to believe that two plus two always equals four rather than that, at various times as my fancy dictates, it equals five or seven or a billion, but what is one to do?”[1] I am not unsympathetic to Chesterton’s wish to believe in fairies and imps and the supernatural in general, but alas, that does not seem to be the universe we live in.

I don’t believe that I hold a grudge against science. If the universe really is as “mathematical and regular” as it looks, science cannot be faulted for that. A person that jumps off the roof of a 100 floor building, convinced that he has wings, will very likely end up as a sorry mess of meat and bone on the ground, regardless of whether or not he acknowledged the law of gravity. Science didn’t invent the law of gravity or any other natural law; it merely discovered and codified them.

Science is all well and good, but when it comes down to it, I’m more concerned about the universe within than the universe without. In other words, the subjective world, as opposed to the objective world. The world where anything and everything is possible, the world where any and every fantasy can be realized.

Joseph McCabe once wrote, “A nation is most gifted with poetic imagery in its adolescence, when the imagination is far more developed than the intellect.”[2] No matter where science and reason take us, may we never lose our capacity to imagine and dream!

[1] God’s Defenders by S. T. Joshi, Chapter 2 (“The Bulldog and the Patrician: G. K. Chesterton and T. S. Eliot”)

[2] “The Truth about the Prophets” by Joseph McCabe

The Shawshank Redemption and the Prison of the Real

By Jin-yeong Yi

Park in France (photo by Georges Noblet)

“[A fundamental mistake of man is] to think that he is alive, when he has merely fallen asleep in life’s waiting room.”

—Idries Shah

“What if you slept, and what if in your sleep you dreamed, and what if in your dream you went to heaven and there you plucked a strange and beautiful flower, and what if you when you awoke you had the flower in your hand? Ah, what then?”

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Why is The Shawshank Redemption the #1 film on IMDb? People regularly question the wisdom of the multitudes on this count, as can be seen from posts on the movie’s forum.

Having watched it for the third time last weekend, I can say with confidence that The Shawshank Redemption is the film for our age–for all ages, past and present.

Freedom, or at least the idea of freedom, is tremendously important to most people. Did Patrick Henry not say 238 years ago,

“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, Give me Liberty, or give me Death!”

The thought of freedom is constantly on our minds, and the word is constantly on our lips. In this light, it’s no mystery that The Shawshank Redemption would strike a chord with so many people. We don’t need freedom to survive, but we need freedom to feel that survival is worth the trouble in the first place.

Once during a visit to a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine (I can’t remember which) in Japan, I was conversing with a fellow exchange student who was an atheist and an individualist anarchist. At one point he asked me, “How do you define freedom?” As an aspiring Orthodox Christian at the time, who was inspired by the lives of the saints, I could only think of one answer: “Freedom is freedom from vice.” My interlocutor conceded that there was some merit to my definition, but he was obviously dissatisfied. We drifted away from this subject shortly after. (Interestingly, we watched The Shawshank Redemption together with some other people during a short sojourn in Kyoto.)

Years later, after having accepted atheism and nihilism, my definition of freedom changed radically. Now I define freedom as having no restrictions on the will, having no barrier between fantasy and reality. In other words, to be free is to be able to do anything one can imagine doing. My definition of prison expanded to the same degree. Now I define prison as a state in which freedom is restricted in any way whatsoever. Prison is not merely political–it is metaphysical. It is the boundaries of time and space, the laws of nature.

In his review of the film, Roger Ebert mentions the theory that life is a prison. Life is not a prison; life is what is being trapped and suffocated in prison, its potential stultified by its walls.

Some might argue that prison is nothing more than a matter of perspective. The unhappy fate of Brooks could be adduced for this view. However, if the message was that prison is completely internal, that prison is in the mind and nowhere else, then the film would not have been about Andy escaping Shawshank, but instead accepting it and finding peace within its walls. Prison is very real, as real as anything–and only part of it comes from within. The question is: is freedom real?

Despite the fact that the chief villain in The Shawshank Redemption is a piously Christian man without an atom of compassion or empathy, I do not view the movie as being antireligious or anti-Christian. I do, however, see it as being heavily naturalistic. There is no God who cares, no liberty, no justice, no miracles. Andy Dufresne is innocent of the crime he is charged with, but Lady Justice is not omniscient and there’s no God to rectify human errors…and “justice” is a human construct to begin with. There is no Lady Justice. There is only Lady Luck, and she’s blind as she is indifferent.

Furthermore, Andy is a man of science rather than a man of faith. His weapons of choice are not scripture and prayer, but the practical tools of logic, mathematics, physics, and geology. He is well-versed in the rules of reality. And it is with this knowledge that he is eventually able to win freedom.

But this film is not about science. It’s about something that is innate in humanity, something that existed long before science did.

Fyodor Dostoevsky once said, “Beauty will save the world.” Beauty is one of the things that keeps Andy going, whether it is the sublime beauty of a Mozart record, the sensuous beauty of a Rita Hayworth poster, the noble beauty of a genuine friendship, or the transcendental beauty of a cherished dream.

One day, Andy fortuitously receives a recording of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro given as a library donation. Understanding the power that music has to sustain and revitalize the human spirit, Andy risks severe punishment to play the record on the public address system. Why exactly he decides to do this is not completely clear, but my guess is that he wanted to remind everyone in Shawshank State Penitentiary that their tiny world is not the entirety of the universe, that life and its possibilities extend far beyond what their eyes can see.

Mozart’s music flows out of the speakers like cool, pure, crystal-clear water in a hot desert. Red describes the moment thus:

“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you those voices soared, higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away. And for the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.”

Free from worry, free from fear, free from the confines of language, free from the world and its petty rules. All the walls and shackles vanish, leaving only a glorious moment, however transient, in which fantasy and reality unite.

The message of The Shawshank Redemption does not seem to be that only the Andy Dufresnes of the world can find redemption. If it was, the film would be relevant to only a small segment of humankind. Not everyone is blessed with Andy’s ambition and determination, to say nothing of his level of intelligence and education. The key to redemption is, if nothing else, something that just about anyone can find within themself: hope.

Returning from two weeks in solitary confinement, Andy joins his friends in the mess hall, and the following dialogue takes place:

Y-y-you couldn’t play somethin’ good, huh? Hank Williams or somethin’?

They broke the door down before I could take requests.

Was it worth it? Two weeks in the hole?

Easiest time I ever did.

Bullshit. No such thing as easy time in the hole.

That’s right, a week in the hole is like a year.

Damn straight.

I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company.

So they let you tote that record player down there, huh?

[Taps head, chest] It was in here…and in here. That’s the beauty of music; they can’t…get that from you. …Haven’t you ever felt that way about music?

I played a mean harmonica as a younger man. Lost interest in it though. Didn’t make much sense in here.

Here’s where it makes the most sense. You need it so you don’t forget.

Forget?

Forget that…there are…places…in the world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s a…there’s something…inside…that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch. That’s yours.

What’re you talking about?

Hope.

Hope. …Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. It’s got no use on the inside. You better get used to that idea.

Like Brooks did?

Pace Red, it can be argued that the “inside” is where hope has the most use. Hope is not necessarily false expectation; it can be the feeling that maybe, just maybe, things will turn out better than expected. Hope is not a belief in the inevitability that one’s dreams will come true; hope is a belief in the possibility that one’s dreams will come true. Hope is the inner flame that give one the strength to persist, to endure in the face of all odds. As Andy later tells Red:

[H]ope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies. 

If one wants a basic guide to life in the prison of the real, one need not look any further than The Shawshank Redemption. Its advice is simple and sound: educate yourself and keep your wits about you. Be good to others. Retain your integrity and self-worth. Fill your life with beauty. Persist. Above all, never, ever accept prison as an absolute. Keep hoping and dreaming…until the bitter end.

Beauty and hope are intertwined. Like hope, beauty may, in the last analysis, be nothing but an emotional reaction, but in any case it gives me the feeling that maybe, just maybe, true freedom is not only possible, but that it is also waiting on the other side.

Ring of dark matter (Hubble Space Telescope)

All these landscapes are timeless,
And this is all just a part of cosmos,
But all is mine and past and future is yet to discover…
Much have been discovered, but tomorrow
I will realise I existed before myself.

I will be reborn
Before I die.

I will realise planets ages old,
Created by a ruler with a crown of dragon claws,
Arrived with a stargate…
A king among the wolves in the night…
An observer of the stars.

—Emperor, “Cosmic Keys to My Creations and Times”

The Greatest Journeys are Taken While Asleep

By Jin-yeong Yi

“For life is a dream, only slightly less inconstant.”

—Blaise Pascal

“Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.”

—Henry David Thoreau

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

—Havelock Ellis

Even the most sedentary of us travel regularly. Every night, when we go to bed, we travel to another world–our own world. Many of us don’t recognize our own world when we see it, but those of us who do see a “world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries; a world where anything is possible.”[1] A world where we can fly. A world where we can play with the stars. A world where we can touch the sun. A world where we are God. In a word, a world where we are free.

So whenever you’re having a particularly rough day, or just whenever you are having a bad case of weltschmerz, you can perhaps take some consolation in the thought that, when it’s finally time to switch off the light and let night surround you, you’ll soon be off in your very own world, away from the troubled world into which you were thrown, away from the prison of the real, if only for a short while. All you need to do is to recognize your world, and remember your experiences within it.

Good night, and sweet dreams.

Notes

[1] The Matrix