Thus, it may only be by experiencing something as absurd that we may know that we are awake. It is worthwhile investigating this claim to try and find out what Hobbes meant. After all, what if we were able to experience a dream as absurd - during the dream itself. Similarly, if we were oblivious to the very absurdities of our own waking lives, what would the implication of this be for the boundary between the dream-world and the world of waking life?
In the first cycle of this series, on the event and trauma, we saw the terrifying potential of events in terms of their immediacy, in the distance, and in the aftermath. In this, the second cycle of the series, we will another vital aspect of human life, the realm of dreams, relating it to fear following the same method.
This is not merely a question of nightmares, phantoms of the night, nor even of our highest aspirations and deepest fears. As we shall see, the realm of dreams in not merely a function of rapid eye movements. On the contrary, dreams are part of the way in which we live our conscious lives, an integral part of how we understand the world around us.
What I mean by the immediacy of dreams is something very simple. It is that in the immediacy of our dreams, they cause us terror, elation, fear, bliss or panic, precisely because we cannot distinguish them from reality. In the moment of the dream, they are real: ours is the reality of the dream. After all, who amongst us has never woken up, unsure what was real, and what was a dream?
This is hardly an original observation, though. A good example of a thinker who dedicated much time, space and thought to the contemplation to dreams is Thomas Hobbes. That he made a very similar observation to mine might seem unusual for an English political philosopher of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who is credited, along with such illustrious characters as Machiavelli, with being part of the foundation of the realist school of international relations theory. A materialist, a royalist, and a champion for the rights of the absolute sovereignty (what we might call dictatorship or simply absolutism today), at his most fundamental, he is hardly a likely candidate for the title of philosopher of dreams.
To his credit, though, in his magnum opus, Leviathan, he devoted an entire discussion to imagination. Therein, dreams took on a great importance for Hobbes. Fascinatingly, Hobbes seems to see dreams as an imaginative continuity of waking life, with motion beginning during waking life, and ending during sleep. This tendency to project images produced by bodily states, for Hobbes, is what gives rise to belief in apparitions and visions - the phantasms which disturb our peace during our dreams as during our waking hours.
"The privilege of absurdity; to which no living creature is subject, but man only."
The above quotation of Hobbes lies perhaps at the crux of his understanding of the difference between dreams and the waking life. This is because he held that in dreams nothing appears surprising or absurd. Thus, it may only be by experiencing something as absurd that we may know that we are awake. It is worthwhile investigating this claim to try and find out what Hobbes meant. After all, what if we were able to experience a dream as absurd - during the dream itself. Similarly, if we were oblivious to the very absurdities of our own waking lives, what would the implication of this be for the boundary between the dream-world and the world of waking life?
Hobbes maintained that dreams are characterized by lack of coherence, since no thought of an end or goal guides them, and likewise, they lack a clear sense of time. Is this not part of the fundamental character of fear? It could certainly be argued that, at times (mornings in particular - though that might just be me) the majority of our waking lives are characterized by a lack of coherence. The goals we have in our day to day lives could also be called arbitrary or instrumental, and since it is the everyday which constitutes the entirety of life, this could be extended over our lifetimes, too. Moreover, even within our lives, which are but an instant on a cosmic scale, we have a very limited sense of time, which we experience only as it slips away from us. Countless writers and philosophers have bemoaned the fallacy of human faculties in this regard.
To consult the text of Hobbes is instructive, particularly in relation to fear. Speaking about fear and dreams, he says that mistaking a dream for waking life, or confusing the two, comes most readily "when by some accident we observe not that we have slept: which is easy to happen to a man full of fearful thoughts; and whose conscience is much troubled". This, according to Hobbes, happens most often when we fall asleep without preparing or expecting to.
Hobbes gives us a wonderfully textual example of how this confusion between the sleeping and waking worlds can happen, and how a dream can be misinterpreted as a phantom of the waking world. Speaking of Marcus Brutus, he writes;
"We read of Marcus Brutus (one that had his life given him by Julius Caesar, and was also his favorite, and notwithstanding murdered him), how at Philippi, the night before he gave battle to Augustus Caesar, he saw a fearful apparition, which is commonly related by historians as a vision, but, considering the circumstances, one may easily judge to have been but a short dream. For sitting in his tent, pensive and troubled with the horror of his rash act, it was not hard for him, slumbering in the cold, to dream of that which most affrighted him; which fear, as by degrees it made him wake, so also it must needs make the apparition by degrees to vanish: and having no assurance that he slept, he could have no cause to think it a dream, or anything but a vision".
Again, this is remarkably clear and direct, for Hobbes, or any philosopher of his era. After all, who amongst us has not woken, startled by only our own imagination from the depths of out dream-world, sure of being awake, but yet still feeling something of the dream. And this sensation of the dream in the waking world feels just as real as anything else at that time. For Hobbes, this accounts for the belief in all manner of fantastic beings. It is the "ignorance of how to distinguish dreams, and other strong fancies, from vision and sense" that gave rise to religious and mystical belief. Likewise, this fallacy enabled belief in "satyrs, fauns, nymphs, and the like; and nowadays the opinion that rude people have of fairies, ghosts, and goblins, and of the power of witches".
Well, perhaps we can only say that after more than 350 years, there is still a lot of truth to be found in Hobbes' Leviathan - perhaps just not when he is talking about politics. This understanding of the immediate confusion between dreams and waking life has been, and remains, a touchstone of many cultural representations about dreams. Immediately, the phantasmic dagger of Shakespeare's Macbeth jumps to mind, but I think a more contemporary example from popular culture could be both relevant and interesting. As much as I love Will Shakespeare, it would be nice to get out of the seventeenth century for a while, anyway.
That we should not find anything in our dreams absurd, as Hobbes said, is something I found particularly evident in the film the Matrix. You can see this very clearly when Morpheus says to Neo "You have the look of someone who accepts what he sees, because he expects to wake up". The flexible relationship between the boundary between dreams and reality is used to great effect in this film; especially so when Neo does 'wake up' into the 'real world' of the earth as ruled by the machines. This is a world of immense horrific intensity, which, for all that, is somewhat absurd. A world where Machines grow humans to harvest their power, and the humans live in a hidden underground city named Zion, conducting a covert war of electronic insurgency against the Machines from their hover craft. None of the characters in the 'real world' seem aware of this absurdity, though, even if they are acutely aware of the horror.
Perhaps, then, the use of the matrix itself - the computer-generated artificial reality - is an essential tool for the appreciation of the absurdity of the worlds of the matrix. This is realised mainly through the special effects and the Messianic character of Neo, whose powers are primarily manifested in the dream-world of the matrix. These powers, such as the ability to dodge bullets, and later, to fly, are like many of the characters we meet in the matrix, progressively absurd with each new Matrix film. Oracles, Vampires, Key-Masters and ultimately the great architect himself are to be found populating the matrix. The matrix, the computer generated dream-world is an absurd place, but one in which the characters are certainly aware of its absurdity. It is in the matrix itself, the artificial reality, that the characters can appreciate this absurdity, and take advantage of it in their war against the machines. If we admit that, then we can easily understand the desire of the character Cypher to betray his human comrades, and return to the 'sane' world of the Matrix, where there is a clearly defined line between the banal and the absurd, since this is apparently absent from the 'real' world of Zion, where machines grow humans as batteries. And, as Cypher fully appreciates, there is steak in the matrix.
If we extend this to our world, then we must, as many have done before, admit that waking life is no less absurd, and no less terrifying, than that of the dream-world. After all, we could readily analyze our world in the same manner as I have done the dream world of the Matrix - not least because it is based on our world. This, the tempting haven of the dream-world, has been and continues to be a popular theme for writers and dramatists, from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, to the recent hollywood blockbuster, Inception. Both share this vital ambiguity between the experience of waking life and that of the dream-world.
"Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream"
(English nursery rhyme)
Slavoj Zizek, Philosopher, Sociologist and Slovenia's main cultural export also examined the film the Matrix in his documentary film, the Pervert's guide to Cinema. So doing, Zizek said that whilst the Matrix was certainly a machine for generating fictions, this is not what we should think about when we think about the Matrix. As Zizek points out, it is not possible to escape directly from these fictions. Rather, these are fictions which already consecutively structure our social reality. Without them, social and cultural reality has no meaning. For Zizek, the choice between the red pill and the blue pill in the Matrix is a false choice, since either reality is anyway governed by these same structural fictions. What Zizek would prefer is a "third pill", one which would allow us not to see the "truth" behind the fiction, but rather the truth in the fiction. We may consider the world of dreams in the same way.
As with the above nursery rhyme, we could say that life is part of a dream, or vice versa. That is, whilst in the somatic sense dreams are structured to be life-like, that they are stimulated by and feel like waking life, they are not waking life. Life is not always constitutively dreamlike, in that it has moments which are more or less lucid and moments which are more or less dreamlike. Perhaps, though, it might be more true to say that waking life is co-extensive with the dream-world it this somatic sense, since - in life - we have dreams which are more or less lucid and more or less life-like.
The potential of the absurd, and the the potential of horror go hand in hand with this. When we are confronted with something absurd in waking life, we may realise it, whereas, as Hobbes pointed out, we do not realise the absurdity of our dreams until we are awake. When we are confronted by something horrific in our dreams, we instinctively flee to waking life. What then, is the relationship between horror in waking life and dreams?
Soon, we shall see.