Saturday, June 22, 2013

Lucid dreaming

Of dreams, fairy tales, and religion.

Our brains are always going. Awake or asleep, something is always bubbling, until death do us in. Emptying the mind is a hopeless task, as meditators learn to their chagrin, though one can focus on smaller and smaller objects, and increase one's discipline of focus.

Most activity is fully unconscious, wheels turning to support our breathing, blood pressure, vision, etc. But the conscious parts are likewise going virtually all the time, apart from the deepest levels of sleep, and send up a constant stream of drama in the form of dreams, images, plans, regrets, and desires- waking and sleeping.

When we are not making up our own, we like nothing more than to experience in those of others- watching movies, gossipping, reading books. Why is that? Computers do some of the computation we do, (more or less!), but without all this drama. They are not motivated agents. That is the divide between our world and the one where robots take over- as of now, they don't have any motivation ... a drama motor running all the time, putting out dream images, desires, and ambition.

I've been reading fairy tales, and watching the illustrated dreaming of Henry Darger. Tales like Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and Cinderella are by turns cautionary morality plays and hopeful live-happily-ever-after dreamscapes. Pared down and packed with every archetype, kings come riding over every hill, stepmothers thwart every princess, and big things happen in threes. Fairy tales seem like lucid dreams, with no preamble, context. or excuses- just pure drama dredged right up from our emotional core.

While we all dream, some people are far more gifted (or cursed!) with the ability to experience and express dreams in the waking state. Of the brother Grimm's sources, none was as prolific or precise as Dorothea Viehmann, who contributed many of their stories. But her stories came from other folk sources. She had an extraordinary memory to collect and transmit them.

Henry Darger, on the other hand, was a reclusive product of early 20th century Illinois orphages and asylums who generated an enormous fantasy world, which he spent a lifetime recording in ream after ream of typescript and hundreds of paintings and collage. Probably, we all experience easily this much imagery and drama, in dreams. But very few experience it so clearly in waking, or are so compelled to tell the story, listener or no. Carl Jung was another example.

Art for art's sake, by Henry Darger.

Our cultural life, however, depends on people so gifted, who bind us together in shared fantasies, of movies, novels, ceremonies, and the like. Our humanity is expressed in intense desire and the drama of fulfilling it in world where it often runs directly athwart the desires of others. Thus the epic Glandelinian war of Darger's opus, with its heroes the Vivian girls. Or the latest Superman, Spiderman, Hobbit, Potter, etc.

Which brings, us, as usual, to the topic of religion, which falls squarely into this category of art: enacted fantasy with a head-spinning brew of every conceivable archetype, cosmic-level drama, and the can't-top-this promise of living-happily-ever-after. It is a story. One that has come so naturally to us through the ages in countless guises, rising from the same basic psychological truth and origin. One that has been refined into the crack-i-est of narrative crack cocaine. One that tops it all by not saying "once upon a time", but by claiming truth and demanding belief from its mystified and yearning votaries.

Is it really so hard to tell story from reality? Reality is, to our awareness, just another story, and sometimes a mightily depressing one that pierces our narcissim. One of the great accomplishments of the enlightenment was to begin a definitive separation between nonfiction and fiction across the culture, using immense intellectual discipline, in combination with intellectual accelerants such as printing. The development of science was only one facet of a deeper process. It is a long, long road- indeed never ending, since human nature itself remains unmoved.


  • Get the lead out of all ammunition. Not just for birds, but for hunters as well, of course.
  • Citigroup now writing our banking laws.
  • The Fed starts to realize that it isn't tracking the right numbers; money isn't all it's cracked up to be.
  • Krugman comments on rent: "Since profits are high while borrowing costs are low, why aren’t we seeing a boom in business investment? ... Well, there’s no puzzle here if rising profits reflect rents, not returns on investment."
  • Solar viability still in question- needs carbon tax to stabilize.
  • Shale oil and gas supplies look essentially unlimited. So we can't wait for supply constraints to save the climate.
  • How can some workers in the US be paid ¢22 an hour?
  • Dennett on closeted clergy.
  • A tempest in the atheist teapot- only for the intrepid!
  • Green tip: telecommute!
  • Economics quotes of the week (NYT editorial): "If a business really needed workers, it would pay up. That is not happening, which calls into question the existence of a skills gap as well as the urgency on the part of employers to fill their openings."
  • And, Simon Johnson on too big to fail: "Hank Paulson, then Secretary of the Treasury and former head of Goldman, felt strongly that the continued existence of his firm was essential to the well-functioning of the world economy."
  • And, market fundamentalists still at work (Bill Mitchell): "Mankiw’s example assumes at the outset that 'people earn the value of their marginal product'."
  • And, at the nexus of government, economics, and Afghanistan: 
More than 170 million pounds worth of vehicles and other military equipment have been shredded, cut, and crushed into scrap metal as the U.S. military prepares to withdraw all combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 (Post).  Because complicated rules govern equipment donations to other countries, and few would even be able to retrieve it from Afghanistan, military planners have destroyed equipment worth more than $7 billion, turning it into scrap metal the Afghans use in construction projects or as spare parts. 

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