Saturday, September 19, 2015

Reality check

I sometimes dream about colorful pasts that I have supposedly had, and often end up in analytical deliria concerning how to distinguish ”real” memories from memories ”incepted” by dream content. Recently, I revisited a place where I had supposedly been a regular, and I devised the clever method of asking two trusted friends whether the place was real or not. These two fulfil a function of ”certified friends”, people I trust I will keep seeing also without any specific bonds or shared projects, and therefore, the logic went, they were an external point of reference, not involved in ongoing processes, could not have their own agenda, and were absolutely trustworthy. One of them confirmed the reality of this particular dreamt past, and added the argument that I had been having very fanciful plans about the surrealist group taking over the place, and such a poor connection with reality implies that it must have been a reality to be poorly connected to in the first place.

But elsewhere, such a ”reality check” is often more complicated. Sometimes the question is posed as simplicistically as ”what is dream and what is real”. If we approach this question empirically, not borrowing from various physical and psychological theories which we were taught as gospel in school or in textbooks, instead recognising that things do phenomenologically feel sometimes more real and sometimes less real immediately and regardless of our later intellectual interpretation of them; then what? We would first need a definition of the two states, which would need to be empirically based in our available methods of objectively distinguishing between them, thus we’d need to devise methods and reach definitions only in conjunction with each other, and only then empirically evaluate whether they are actually mutually exclusive.

Actually, modern fiction seems to have made this somewhat easier. With fictional ”universes”, there is always a question of which stories are part of continuity and which are not. This is in fact the same question that some of us keep asking ourselves about our lives in general. Stories that are part of continuity (”real”) are the ones that has consequences for character development, relationships, and long-term plot. In stories outside continuity anything could happen, people can act ”out of character”, do things they will never have to answer for, go on uninhibited sex and violence rampages, they could die, over and over again, the whole logic of the story could collapse and the characters or the writer start speaking directly to the reader/viewer, etc.

Something real, phenomenologically speaking so as not to have to get involved in metaphysical questions which will have to be based outside the investigation, is something that is vivid and ”makes sense”, and especially in the sense of coherence and contingence, something that takes part in ongoing chains of causality and ongoing life processes.

A dream, in a similar framework, can perhaps be tentatively defined as any course of event or other vivid experience which seems to have an inner origin and is experienced with the body at rest.

And perhaps only then we can claim without being misunderstood that surrealism has always been about recognising reality in its entirety, thus being somewhat polemical against all the narrow instrumentalist conceptions of the real which are based on nervously invented restrictions and oppositions. The ”realism” that was professed by vociferous advocates is typically characterised by attempts to circumscribe the real as narrowly as possible. No, all such attempts to represent reality with only a small portion of it (rhetorically a synecdoche) usually fails to convey the experience of reality, which is not the least the experience of a type of fullness and inexhaustibility of reality.

And we see that dream and reality very often overlap. There are of course many dreams that we return from with relief or reluctance that not only feel no less real than anything else, but which also connects with several major ongoing processes in our lives, and do get practical consequences. And, even more strikingly, there is a large portion of our waking life which has no consequences whatsoever, which does nothing to forward our desires or respond to our curiosity, so much time spent at work, or with extensive entertainment, or with various uninteresting chores, or alone at home, or with the family… (Other arenas for social interactions might be just as conventional or dull, but it is typical for the family that any showdowns or any resolution are quickly forgotten and then repeated again and again, and outside the family even conventional social relationships do keep changing at least in terms of the relationships.) Clearly, Swedenborg, Blake and Nerval were pioneers in recognising the ontological status of their dreamlife as real, and instructively, they were also good at making things happen based on this more inclusive, more full, sense of reality.

Surrealism, it has been argued, can be translated with the watchword ”more reality!”


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