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The Reality of Dreams

Updated: Apr 9, 2019

One thing I have been thinking about recently is the relationship of imagination to reality. Is what we imagine – in fantasies, dreams, or notions about ourselves and the world – more or less important than the things we call objectively true, the things we share as realities with others?

There is a passage in the preface to Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1871 book, The Birth of Tragedy, which reads as follows (in Ian Johnston's translation):

Even the philosophical man has the presentiment that this reality in which we live and have our being is an illusion, that under it lies hidden a second quite different reality. And Schopenhauer specifically designates as the trademark of philosophical talent the ability to recognize at certain times that human beings and all things are mere phantoms or dream pictures.

Most interesting to me in this is Nietzsche’s observation that philosophic wisdom might consist to a large extent in seeing the external world as, in a sense, valid only on the same level as any mental image or “dream picture”. Could it be that philosophic wisdom involves subjectifying the apparently objective world and thus assimilating it into purely internal experience? Nietzsche immediately goes on to discuss what he (only somewhat paradoxically) calls “the reality of dreams,” on the other hand:

Now, just as the philosopher behaves in relation to the reality of existence, so the artistically excitable man behaves in relation to the reality of dreams. He looks at them precisely and with pleasure, for from these pictures he fashions his interpretation of life; from these events he rehearses his life. […] And perhaps several people remember, like me, amid the dangers and terrors of a dream, successfully cheering themselves up by shouting: “It is a dream! I want to dream it some more!” I have also heard accounts of some people who had the ability to set out the causal connection of one and the same dream over three or more consecutive nights. These facts are clear evidence showing that our innermost beings, the secret underground in all of us, experiences its dreams with deep enjoyment, as a delightful necessity.

He urges us towards a greater interest and involvement with our entire dream-life – as revealing to us something vital and fundamental to human life, namely, that any experience we have, whether enjoyable or tragic, is in some deeper way a source of incredible pleasure to us, and secondly, that our own creative involvement in generating said experiences is itself part of the fun.

Along these lines, I have also been thinking of a personal story told by Anthony Ray Hinton recently, at a talk at Yale Hillel Society in NYC. Hinton is an African-American who spent 25 years on death row, before being acquitted on account of the paucity (not to say, ludicrousness) of the evidence that had convicted him: he had merely matched the description of being African-American. In this talk, Hinton talked about his inner transformation while being in prison. The biggest part of this inner transformation was that he decided he could no longer psychologically afford to hate his situation and those who had unjustly brought it about. He decided to just start loving those around him, and became very close friends in particular with a former member of the Ku Klux Klan (who was also on death row). But Hinton’s transformation went farther than this: it was also a central component that he decided he could start imagining himself as living the life that he would like to be living. For instance, he told us that he imagined that Halle Berry was his wife, and that he would wish her goodnight every night before going to sleep. He would imagine seeing things outdoors (e.g. the moon) that were blocked from his vision. This and more is talked about in the book he wrote after his release, The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom On Death Row.

Is Hinton an example of the kind of sage Nietzsche would have us emulate? Would spiritual fulfillment consist in taking ownership of the experiences we are having – and realizing that we can choose both our emotions about them, and the images themselves? Should life strive to be art?

Also interesting is that Nietzsche presents the entire (aforementioned) book as being directed to Richard Wagner as part of an imaginary conversation with him. Thus, in his Preface to Richard Wagner, he writes:

I am imagining the look with which you, my esteemed friend, will receive this work—how you, perhaps after an evening stroll in the winter snow, look at the unbound Prometheus on the title page, read my name, and are immediately convinced that, no matter what this text consists of, the writer has something serious and urgent to say, and that, in addition, in everything which he composed, he was conversing with you as with someone present and could only write down what was appropriate to such a presence.

Nietzsche’s book, in other words, could not have been written in the way that it was if he had not been imagining a certain person whose perspective he esteemed as present and paying attention to the things that he wrote. Imagination seems to be a crucial enabling device, at least, if not also serving as an end in itself.

Which raises the question for those of us who find this idea compelling: where is the line drawn between the healthy use of one’s imagination, and pure madness? To what extent is it important to hang on to a clear sense of what is real and what is not? How real are the things we imagine?

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