Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Interregnum

Every semester ends with lessons learned. Thinking through what those bits of wisdom entail is part of the deep joy of being an instructor, a teacher, even a mentor.

The small discussion groups continue to be a success. Providing them with questions in advance, whether on the readings or about their lives, definitely is the way to go. Mixing up the groups periodically also encourages the formation of friendships as well as rivalries, both of which are important to the process of maturing as students.

I'm including more academically accepted philosophy in the intro class. I've dropped The Dispossessed and Looper and The Man Who Folded Himself, and I'm replacing them with three works: Slaughterhouse Five, The Lathe of Heaven, and Meditations on First Philosophy. I am still working out the precise structure of the readings, but it feels so very true to me that I have to link together Descartes, Vonnegut, and LeGuin as one set and Plato and Beagle in the other. Two halves of the class, so to speak.

The class last semester moved from the notion of paradise or utopia gradually into what both of those strongly signify: our fantasies. The class next semester will begin with all these illusions plaguing us and the small light held out to us by the hand of philosophy. My relationship to philosophy has always been difficult and problematic; the tension to trust it and distrust it is so very rich and so very grieving.

Dreams: why do we fear them? Why do we resist their incoherence, even to the extent of saying "Well, possibly, there are intricate symbols and meanings our unconscious brain throws together, so study your dreams, keep a log, and they'll start to make sense?" Why is it that when Descartes—or Zhuangzi, for that matter—seeks to question the immediacy with which we apprehend the world, it is the dream we appeal to? And I am so indebted to Pascal in how I now read Descartes. For example, Pascal, using an argument very similar to the butterfly story of Zhuangzi, undermines the Cartesian argument through the nature of dreams as only being 'dreams' or 'unreal' by virtue of how they compare to our memory of the everyday. Were the dreams the regular and the everyday the inconsistent and absurd, then we'd flip how we think of them. But consider what everyone knows about Descartes: the cogito. Is it really a stable foundation upon which and from which one can derive the most complex and useful philosophies? Descartes wished to build from the method he used to establish the cogito all the natural philosophies, such as optics, or other sciences, such as geometry. Having found something sure, that one exists is entailed by one's thinking, since even in being deluded one still thinks within one's delusions, we can proceed from there to further truths.

But then there's something like Slaughterhouse Five, where it is not enough to be alive, thinking, and persisting through the insanity of a consciousness unstuck in time and incapable of any expression of will towards time. Billy Pilgrim is living a chaotic, unstructured life, and as a narrative of non-sense it demands something more than just accepting one's thinking as somehow producing importance or stability in life. Similarly with Orr in Lathe of Heaven. Both are deeply disturbed individuals who find themselves powerless in front of the world, its evil, its incoherence, its instability. Both present us with strong moral lessons, lessons Descartes' methodology could not ever produce.

I suppose I have to say that 2013, for all that the year destroyed parts of me and paralyzed me and wounded me economically and physically and emotionally, has been a year of grappling with all the stories I have needed in my life to support me. The philosophical methods I have learned throughout my life have only prepared me to wrestle with the power of fictions and dreams—especially Plato knows the power of fictions to shape and mold people. The goal of studying and practicing and engaging philosophically is to learn how to tell better stories, better myths.

This takes such practice. But before practice, it takes the will to lose one's self in the doing.


  1. Why are dreams feared? I think remembering our dreams can give us a better understanding of ourselves. What our fears are, what is important to use, what we think about the most, what we enjoy, etc. If our bodies heal faster while we sleep then it would make sense that our minds would heal when we sleep as well. I think that includes emotional distress. Our dreams may act as kind of a mediator between what is causing us distress or confusion and what we should do or pinpointing what exactly is bothering us about that particular situation. I think dreams give us insight. That could be uncomfortable for some but people who can actually remember their dreams from days, weeks, months, and years ago, I think want to be insightful and more in touch with themselves. So, there wouldn't be anything to be afraid of. Anything can have symbolism, so a dream, text book isn't always going to dissect your dream accurately because only the individual knows what those symbols represent. I don't think anyone can answer questions like what dreams mean or what there importance is, dreams are a reflection of an individuals journey - what they take in and what they put out into the world and their lives.

  2. It's funny you're mentioning the interpretation of dreams and the intimacy of our own symbols within them.

    For a long time, I have had dreams of ghosts/undead—they haunt the homes, buildings, schools, mansions within my dreams when ghosts; they lurk on the periphery when undead. I associated the zombies/undead with dread, so something like unfinished business (old anxiety issues). The ghosts I associated with my own inwardness, the other selves within me who for whatever reasons did not like or want where my life was going.

    After having a long and engaging conversation with Mist, I see now what both things are: the things living even though dead, my feelings and my fearing towards those whom I still love and treasure, but cannot reach outward to "make alive" to me through conversation and intimacy. I am plagued by the constant paradox that I want so very much to share life and living with all those whom I have and do love, but I am so ashamed or so dismantled in who I am now that I cannot feel their touch in my life. And the small times when I do have that touch, I see more and more how I've lost them, because the times we do touch are so far apart. They live, but as ghosts, as undead. And I fear their intrusion into my life, not because they will wreck me, but because I am already wrecked.

    Once I understood this, those dreams have ceased. It's been a month and more, when these dreams of haunting dread had been happening nearly every night.

    I think what you have, Files, is a very cheerful notion that what people want is insight into themselves, or "better understanding" of themselves. The thing I have noticed in my life is that people say very much they want to understand themselves, and they love my classes for thinking that what I have enabled them to do is open up more of themselves to themselves, but what people really want is some way to change who they are without having to acknowledge what that is. I mean, set aside the usual fears a philosopher has about dreams—you know, the stuff about illusions, the undermining of reality, the chaos, the irrationality, the lack of any control when it comes to epistemological certitude if dreams are 'real'—and just think about why ordinary folk have nightmares.

    In meatspace, if there's a violent threat, you try and flee from it. If cornered, you try and fight it. Emotional trauma results from the inability to flee from or fight against those threats. Think of the difference between a random mugging and bullying/state-approved torture. Bullies are able to terrorize one another and their victims because the children, and then adults, are incapable of fleeing or fighting back. They are mandated, all of them, to stay in one place and be "educated." Adults bullying one another is usually due to the economic circumstances, and I have been in workplaces where bullying was only possible because livelihoods were at stake. State-sanctioned torture breaks a soul because the soul cannot flee, as our contemporary sadists use neurological techniques rather than simple application of pain to permanently alter how those souls work.

  3. An ordinary person's nightmares are a form of self-inflicted torture, largely for reasons unknown—but since we are all led to think the unconscious, despite all its random firings and chaotic patterns, nevertheless produces a narrative in the form of a dream, we think the dreams "tell us something" about what's going on in our lives. Look what you wrote: "Our dreams may act as kind of a mediator between what is causing us distress or confusion and what we should do or pinpointing what exactly is bothering us about that particular situation. I think dreams give us insight." So, we think that even though the underlying nature of the unconscious is chaotic and random fragmentation, what's available to us in the form of a dream is the mind's attempt to create something sensible out of the chaos. It reads a pattern into the disorder.

    This leads the ordinary person to give the nightmare a bit more reality to it, but it is also for the ordinary person a nightmare, an infliction of fear upon one's self in a way that you cannot escape from, nor can you fight it, since these are all things happening inside the mind. There isn't a man with a gun. There isn't a loose tiger. There isn't some threat one can preempt. It's your own self doing this to you; we do it to ourselves.

    And, since the nightmare has a logic to it—since the nightmare has its reasons to solicit fear—then what a person must face is that they have somewhere inside themselves a reason to think they deserve to be afraid, somewhere inside them is a voice who wants to "teach you a lesson." And since it is a non-consensual encounter for many people—so few of us choose to have nightmares or consent to the encounter, I guess—the fear is that it is a terror one cannot escape from.

    I'm speculating, of course.

  4. I'm not sure if it's the students, you, or the material you're not giving enough credit to. If anyone really wants to change who they are they have to acknowledge what they are first. That's what signals to them the idea of change, the absence of that something they want to be. It depends on where they are in their life when they enter your class room too. Maybe I have no idea what I'm talking about and I only have my own experience to base this off of, but I know for me the first Philosophy class I took acted as a companion to where I was headed at the time. The material and the way it was presented forced me to acknowledge the things I detest about myself. That only happened because I was ready for the change, I was already searching for a way to make it happen. I agree people want to change without being honest with themselves about the person they are but I'm not convinced that's true of the students in your class, particularly the ones in the Great Questions class. That's a mind fuck of a class sometimes, I don't see how anyone could get away with running from themselves with some of the ideas we cover in that class, unless they're completely apathetic or stubborn to the point of stupidity. Maybe that's a delusion I'm indulging in, that people want to change for the right reasons and want to do it the right way even if it sucks. Most of the effects of that class don't happen until afterwards.

    And because you will wreck them? No matter how wrecked someone is, if they still have the capability to love without bitterness they bring goodness into other people's lives, not destruction. Keeping people who we love and that love us at arms (or football field) lengths away isn't giving them the chance they deserve to choose if they want to touch the raw parts of ourselves that need healing. And we aren't giving ourselves the chance we deserve to be healed. Broken people don't infect.

    To be honest, I don't know how to respond to your meatspace paragraph. I do, but I don't.

    That makes a lot of sense. We're afraid of ourselves? We're all masochist. I'm being a bit facetious but I think it's true to some degree. Maybe masochist isn't the right word though. We are all capable of becoming really bad people, so maybe that's another reason why nightmares are scary. We know we are the cause of that fear. I wonder if there is a correlation between people who enjoy and watch an abundance of scary films or things of the like and certain anxieties or behaviors that cause people to be remorseful over. It would be cool to see if close friends have similar nightmares.

  5. Felicia, I didn't mean I'd wreck others. I meant I was ashamed I am so broken.

    I think close friends have similar nightmares, but some have altogether different ones. Do they like the same movies, the people who have different nightmares? I think also about lovers, and our nightmaring together.

    My ex-wife had a night terror of her doctor shortly after I had had many night terrors of the Nothing. Sometimes Colleen starts mumbling and whimpering in the night shortly after I wake up from avoiding people in unfinished dorms, stone castles, cement stadiums, or futuristic underground train stations. I don't know if she infected me or I infected her, but I suspect people who love very deeply and take on each others characteristics end up having shared roots in their collective unconscious.

    And as they say, so Below, as Above.


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