Friday, December 10, 2010

The Necessary “Over Against”

Sometimes, when I wake from a dream, the thought occurs: “Lord, I sure hope that life after death isn’t like dreaming.” The maddening aspect of dreaming is that there is no genuine “over against.” Everything appears to issue from the dreaming self—the scenery, the characters, the action. I do not consciously feel the process whereby this generation actually takes place; but what I sometimes become aware of is that I can modify the situation, never much but, yes, just a little, and always in my favor. Objects sometimes appear just when I need them; in my falling dreams I always manage to slow down and land smoothly, and so on. But these more or less conscious interventions are infrequent; and most of the time they wake me up.

Most characteristically of all, in dreams—where the environment is clearly unstable and unreal, however awesome, beautiful, confusing, or threatening—consciousness of the kind I call hard (thus a distanced, separated, observing, judging self-consciousness) is also entirely absent. That mental “over against” is also conspicuously lacking. And when it does awaken, as it tends to when things get really hoary, the dream is doomed to end like the descent of a lead curtain.

The substance of dreams is clearly thought, associative thought. It can be quite complex thought, thus for instance a memory of some situation which also holds within it the conscious reaction to it that I had when I first lived it. The judgments I made about the situation, e.g., “That’s awful,” do not display as an abstract judgment, however, but are mirrored back in the arrangements which I see in the dream, awful, ugly arrangements. A great power of image-forming thus seems to reside at a level below that of consciousness. Not surprisingly, therefore, the mediaeval view was that the imagination is part of the sensory apparatus. Notions like Henry Corbin’s that imagination is a higher, spiritual power are not thereby denied; his thought may be rendered by saying that imagination also has a higher form of which the dreaming brain’s uncanny skills are a lower manifestation.

The substance of dreams is unreal because they’re memories—but dynamically manipulated. The dream self is also just a memory of our self as an experiencer—and equally dynamically reactive. Memory must be functioning or else the dream would not be remembered; the emotions arise because the body dumbly reacts to what it sees with hormonal responses. These responses are quite the same as (although stronger) those we get reading a novel or watching a show. The core self, in such situations, withdraws but does not entirely go away—hence if some jarring element intrudes, we protest; if not, we feel the sudden withdrawal of the semi-dream state when the credits begin to roll. And we’ll move our bodies just a little by way of marking a kind of awakening.

All this of course makes a very strong case for the materialistic view of consciousness—as I’ve noted here before. I reject that explanation because it is incomplete and does not comprehensively explain the entirety of our experience. But the materialistic view is well-founded in partial observation. The frontal lobes are sleeping, and the primitive brain plays; or, watching a show, the frontal lobes at least relax to let us enjoy the drama.

But if I’m right the question then arises: Where is that core self when we undergo our convoluted and often quite bizarre dream-experiences? It might have to be absent so that the body can recover from the stress of real awareness. It might be absent because it too needs to be refreshed in an environment where the stresses of materiality are gone and it can then breathe freely, as it were. What I don’t buy is that self-consciousness is merely a brain function. But if it is, I certainly don’t have to worry about spending my after-life in the tohu va-bohu of the dream tale that never ends, never stops, and my stupid self can never trust the ground on which it treads.

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