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Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 6: Fables and Reflections” by Neil Gaiman

In his introduction to this volume, Gene Wolfe beautifully sums up why reading Gaiman is so important.

What is important and central is that, time after time, the stories themselves are true. I don’t mean simply that Neil Gaiman’s history is good history and that his myth is good myth – although they are. I mean that you will understand yourself and the world better for having read them, and that you will have been both ennobled and troubled by the experience; that this is not just art – all sorts of ugly and foolish things are art – but great art.

I completely agree. The stories and myths that Gaiman presents in this book convey truths that can only be expressed through symbols and metaphors. And because Gaiman is such a master of his craft, the stories come to life in a way that feels authentic and personal. While I probably connected with the tale of Haroun al Raschid the most, I also found his interpretations of the Orpheus myth and the Adam and Eve myth to be powerful and inspiring.

Not surprising, but the importance of dreams and the subconscious is a theme that runs through all the tales in this volume, so rather than look at the specific tales, I figured I would share some of the dream-related quotes that particularly stood out for me.

Value’s in what people think. Not in what’s real. Value’s in dreams, boy.

While this statement seems paradoxical, the more you think about it, the more truthful it appears. So often, people place value on tangible things and material possessions. But these things are ephemeral. Eventually, all our material stuff turns to dust, or we die and then our material things are useless to us. But our dreams are internal. They make up who we are on a spiritual level. This is what matters in the end, whether we lived our lives in accordance with our dreams. Additionally, it is from dreams that our creativity grows. Without dreams, there can be no imagination.

Ah. Many dreams come through the Gates of Ivory, Lycius, and they lie. A few dreams come through the Gates of Horn, and they speak to us truly.

Have you ever woken from a dream and had the feeling that some deep truth was conveyed to you through the dream? I have. Usually, I wake up and even if I have had a vivid dream, I know it is just my subconscious processing thoughts. But on those rare occasions, the dreams do seem to come through the “Gates of Horn.” It’s like, while in the dream state, your psyche connects with some divine intelligence. I cannot think of any other way to describe it.

Let’s go and find somewhere comfortable to wait until we wake. It’s so rare to realize that you’re dreaming when you are.

I’ve experienced this phenomenon, also, where I was dreaming and somehow knew I was dreaming. It is a very strange feeling. It is almost like the threshold between the dreaming state and the waking state dissolves, and you are essentially embodying both states of consciousness simultaneously. I recall feeling disoriented after waking from this type of dream.

Time at the edge of dreaming is softer than elsewhere, and here in the soft places it loops and whorls on itself. In the soft places where the border between dreams and reality is eroded, or has not yet formed… Time. It’s like throwing a stone into a pool. It casts ripples. Hoom. That’s where we are. Here. In the soft places, where the geographies of dream intrude upon the real.

I am fascinated by the space between the conscious and the subconscious, between ordinary and non-ordinary realities, the threshold between what we assume is real and what we assume is illusion. How can we really know what is real? Our reality is a construct. And time? I think somewhere, deep inside, we all feel that time is an illusion, that there is a deeper reality which exists beyond time and space. Sometimes I think that during states of deep meditation, during profound mystical experiences, or in this case, during certain dream states, we enter the “soft spaces” where the world we perceive dissolves and the ripples of hidden realities flutter across our consciousness.

I am only halfway through this series of books (there are 12 volumes of Sandman, not including the Overture, which I read in serialized form), and already I feel like my life has changed as a result of reading these works. There are some books that you cannot read without having them affect you on a deep level, and I think the Sandman series falls into this category. I highly recommend that you read these books, and be prepared to have your beliefs challenged.

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Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 5: A Game of You” by Neil Gaiman

This installment in the Sandman saga explores how consciousness creates reality, a topic that I personally find intriguing.

Past and future both cast their ripples into the dreaming, Matthew.

This one short line spoke volumes to me. The dreaming is symbolic of the collective consciousness, which manifests individually in the subconscious mind, which surfaces during the dream state. The collective consciousness is affected by events past and future, as well as by the potential of infinite possibility. The dreamscape is where human consciousness explores the myriad dimensions of reality and possibility. There is another symbol that Gaiman uses throughout this text—the skerry. Skerries are reefs or rocky islands, essentially solid matter jutting up out of the water. Gaiman uses skerries to symbolize individual realities in a vast ocean of consciousness. Each individual reality casts ripples throughout the entire sea of consciousness. All out realities, no matter how insignificant they may seem to us, affect all other realities: past, present, and future. Think butterfly effect.

They walked past me, the living and the dead, and one by one they vanished into the darkness of his cloak. Then there were others walking past. Different wonderful characters — soldiers and courtiers, youngest sons and cats-in-boots: these weren’t the inhabitants of my land. These were someone else’s people — some earlier princess’s escape from reality…

As I read this, I thought about how what we consider to be reality is actually nothing more than shared fantasies and imagination. We project onto the canvas of reality our hopes and dreams and fears, and these become the fabric of our collective existence. I often wonder what would happen if we changes our beliefs and our fantasies. Could we recreate reality into something better? The more I consider it, the less flakey it sounds.

Okay. Here goes. Barbie’s idea. It’s like, that people… Well, that everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world — no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds… Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands maybe. Isn’t that a weird thought?

Our realities are as vast and myriad as our imaginations. To dream and to create worlds in our minds is human. It is this capacity that allows us to visualize a better world, to strive for new things, to explore and create. The only thing that holds us back is fear. If we could lose our fear, we’d be free to explore the hundreds and thousands of unimaginable worlds within each of us.

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Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 4: Season of Mists” by Neil Gaiman

My friend Miriam told me this was her favorite book in the series, and I can see why. The story is excellent. Essentially, Lucifer decides to vacate Hell and gives Morpheus, the Dream Lord, the key to Hell. What ensues is a pantheon of various deities all trying to convince the Dream Lord that they should be given dominion over Hell, and making their various cases to support their claims. The result is a highly creative view into the personalities of various gods and goddesses across diverse religions.

The book opens in the Garden of Destiny. The opening passage explores the labyrinthine paths which symbolize a human life, the choices we make, and how upon later reflection, the realization that many of the choices that we make in life are not really choices at all.

Walk any path in Destiny’s garden, and you will be forced to choose, not once but many times. The paths fork and divide. With each step you take through Destiny’s garden, you make a choice, and every choice determines future paths. However, at the end of a lifetime of walking you might look back, and see only one path stretching out behind you; or look ahead, and see only darkness. Sometimes you dream about the paths of Destiny, and speculate, to no purpose. Dream about the paths you took and the paths you didn’t take… The paths diverge and branch and reconnect; some say not even Destiny himself truly knows where any way will take you, where each twist and turn will lead. But even if Destiny could tell you, he will not. Destiny holds his secrets. The Garden of Destiny. You would know it if you saw it. After all, you will wander it until you die. Or beyond. For the paths are long, and even in death there is no ending to them.

When all the deities converge on the castle of Dream, Odin tasks Loki with observing and noting the activities of the other deities. Loki’s thoughts on the angels I found particularly interesting.

And above all, I watch the angels. They do not eat, or flirt, or converse. They observe. I watch them in awe, All-Father. They are so beautiful and distant. The feet of the angels never touch the base earth, not even in dreams. I can read nothing in their faces, much as I try. And what they are thinking, I cannot even imagine.

As I read this, it reminded me of the Wim Wenders film, “Wings of Desire.” If you’ve not seen it, it’s a classic and worth watching.

As many of you know, we are often burdened with things that we do not want, but letting go and getting rid of those burdens is not always easy. Art and literature abound with metaphors about people clinging to their unwanted baggage, dragging it painfully through life. Think of Sisyphus with his stone, or Jacob Marley dragging his chains. In this book, Dream echoes this sentiment.

They all want it, and I don’t. I never thought that disposing of the unwanted could be so hard.

Possibly my favorite passage in this book is where the angels tell the Dream Lord of God’s decree regarding the existence of Hell.

We… I will relay the message. It is from my Creator… There must be a Hell. There must be a place for the demons; a place for the damned. Hell is Heaven’s reflection. It is Heaven’s shadow. They define each other. Reward and punishment; hope and despair. There must be a Hell, for without Hell, Heaven has no meaning. And thus, Hell must be —

This is very Taoist, in my view. There must always be darkness to balance light, a yin to balance yang. It also makes me think of Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow:

Carl Jung stated the shadow to be the unknown dark side of the personality. According to Jung, the shadow, in being instinctive and irrational, is prone to psychological projection, in which a perceived personal inferiority is recognized as a perceived moral deficiency in someone else. Jung writes that if these projections remain hidden, “The projection-making factor (the Shadow archetype) then has a free hand and can realize its object—if it has one—or bring about some other situation characteristic of its power.”

(Source: Wikipedia)

The concept of Heaven and Hell, as Gaiman expresses it, then becomes a metaphor for the our human consciousness. Our divine consciousness cannot exist without the shadow. There must always be a balance between the light and dark within the psyche.

Anyway, this series is amazing. The writing is brilliant and the artwork if outstanding. I highly recommend this to all you readers out there. Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading cool stuff.

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Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 3: Dream Country” by Neil Gaiman

This volume is shorter than the previous two, but the quality makes up for the quantity. It contains four tales:

  • Calliope—A fable about a muse enslaved by a writer needing inspiration.
  • Dream of a Thousand Cats—A story about the power of collective dreaming told from a feline perspective.
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream—An exploration of Shakespeare’s classic work that blends the boundaries of imagination and reality, and how that affects the creative process.
  • Facade—A sad tale about the masks that we wear to hide our true selves from others.

The last section of this book includes something that, as a writer, I found very interesting. Gaiman pulls back the curtain to give us a glimpse at the magic of his creative process. The last section is a script of “Calliope,” complete with marginalia that provides wonderful insight into the process of creative a graphic story, essentially the nuts and bolts and schema of how the piece is constructed. It is a treat for all you writers and artists out there.

One of the themes explored in “Dream of a Thousand Cats” is the power of dreams to create and shape our reality. In the beginning was the word, or more appropriately put, the thought, the idea, the dream. We cannot manifest anything unless we can first see it within our mind’s eye.

Dream! Dreams shape the world. Dreams create the world anew, every night.
. . .
I do not know how many of us it will take. But we must dream it, and if enough of us dream it, then it will happen. Dreams shape the world.

In “Facade,” there is a very moving section where Urania has a conversation with Death about the masks that we wear, and how we stubbornly cling to these old images of ourselves, even when we know they are no longer true or healthy.

Urania: But it’s also my face. You see. Sometimes I have to look normal, and then I grow faces. But they dry up, and fall off, but I couldn’t throw them away. They’re part of me. So I hang on to them. I . . . I’m probably not making much sense.

Death: No. You’re making sense. You people always hold onto your old identities, old faces and masks, long after they’ve served their purpose. But you’ve got to learn to throw things away eventually.

I know so many people like this, who desperately hold on to some image of who they once were. But I suspect it may even run deeper than just nostalgia for the glory days. I suspect that some people don a mask or a face, and after a while, that face that they put on, becomes who they are. Our faces and masks can change us, for better or for worse. If we keep putting on the cheerful face in spite of adversity, we eventually become a positive person. Conversely, if we wear the mask of gloom in spite of the positive things around us, eventually we become that dark, sad person which was initially just our mask.

Over the year, I’ve shed many faces and grown new ones. As I write this, I cannot help but wonder what my mask will be in my later years: the wise old man, the nurturing grandparent, or the curmudgeon throwing shoes at neighborhood dogs. I suppose we cannot predict the masks we will grow. The faces we develop stem from the situations we have to “face.” Anyway, time to bring myself back out of this rabbit hole.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. I hope you have a blessed day.

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Folklore in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” by William Shakespeare

This was my first time reading this play, and I have to say, I really liked it. It is very funny and accessible. And while I have also never seen it performed, the language is so rich that I could easily picture the scenes in my mind’s eye as they would be acted out on stage. The play is full of sexual jokes and puns, which I’m sure went over really well with audiences during Shakespeare’s time. But what interests me the most about this play is the folklore woven in to the story.

When plotting revenge on Sir John Falstaff, Mistress Page presents a folk tale about Herne the Hunter

There is an old tale goes that Herne the Hunter,
Sometime a keeper here in Windsor forest,
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
And there he blasts the tree and takes the cattle
And makes milch-kine yield blood and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner:
You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know
The superstitious idle-headed eld
Received and did deliver to our age
This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.

(Act IV, scene iv)

While the archetype of horned deities that roam the wooded areas are myriad and ancient, what is fascinating about this myth is that Shakespeare’s reference to Herne is the earliest known reference in existence.

In English folklore, Herne the Hunter is a ghost associated with Windsor Forest and Great Park in the English county of Berkshire. He is said to wear antlers upon his head, ride a horse, torment cattle, and rattle chains. The earliest mention of Herne comes from William Shakespeare’s 1597 play The Merry Wives of Windsor, and it is impossible to know how accurately or to what degree Shakespeare may have incorporated a real local legend into his work, though there have been several later attempts to connect Herne to historical figures, pagan deities, or ancient archetypes.

(Source: Wikipedia)

So this begs the question: Was Shakespeare drawing on local folklore when writing this play, or did he just make up the tale of Herne to help drive the story? There is no way to know, but all mythology and folklore must begin by the telling of a story, and that’s what is really important here. It doesn’t really matter whether Shakespeare made this up, or if he heard it being told around a pub. What matters is that the tale was written down, and the myth was given birth, and it persisted. Herne may just be an artistic personification the archetypal forest god, but in the telling of the story and the acting of the play, Herne is given life and brought into existence within our collective consciousness.

The number three has been considered a mystical number for as long as humans have contemplated the magical nature of numbers, which is why Falstaff’s short passage regarding the number three caught my attention.

Prithee, no more prattling; go. I’ll hold. This is
the third time; I hope good luck lies in odd
numbers. Away I go. They say there is divinity in
odd numbers, either in nativity, chance, or death. Away!

(Act V, scene i)

This concept of the mystical power of 3 has become part of folk belief. The phrases are many: “Third one’s a charmer,” “Death comes in threes,” “Three strikes and you’re out.” Once a concept becomes planted in the collective consciousness, it manifests in folk sayings, as shown in the sayings concerning the number three.

Finally, no exploration of English folklore would be complete without mentioning the Fairy Folk, which Shakespeare also does in this play.

About, about;
Search Windsor Castle, elves, within and out:
Strew good luck, ouphes, on every sacred room:
That it may stand till the perpetual doom,
In state as wholesome as in state ’tis fit,
Worthy the owner, and the owner it.
The several chairs of order look you scour
With juice of balm and every precious flower:
Each fair installment, coat, and several crest,
With loyal blazon, evermore be blest!
And nightly, meadow-fairies, look you sing,
Like to the Garter’s compass, in a ring:
The expressure that it bears, green let it be,
More fertile-fresh than all the field to see;
And ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ write
In emerald tufts, flowers purple, blue and white;
Let sapphire, pearl and rich embroidery,
Buckled below fair knighthood’s bending knee:
Fairies use flowers for their charactery.
Away; disperse: but till ’tis one o’clock,
Our dance of custom round about the oak
Of Herne the Hunter, let us not forget.

(Act V, scene v)

While the fairies in this scene are just people pretending to be fairies in order to tease Falstaff, the imagery is consistent with the folklore surrounding fairies. And of particular interest is the custom of dancing around the oak tree. The idea of the oak as a sacred tree dates back to Greek mythology. It is mentioned in Celtic, Norse, Baltic, Slavic, Druid, and Wiccan mythology. It even has significance in the Bible as being the place where Jacob buries the foreign gods of his people and under which he erects a stone as the first covenant of the Lord. (Source: Wikipedia)

There is one more folk belief that is in this play that I want to mention, and it is a dark one: the “trial by fire.”

With trial-fire touch me his finger-end:
If he be chaste, the flame will back descend
And turn him to no pain; but if he start,
It is the flesh of a corrupted heart.

(Act V, scene v)

This conjures some very dark images for me. I cannot help but envision innocents accused of witchcraft or heresy tied to a stake and set a flame, as a way to test their guilt or innocence. This serves as a warning to us, that while there is much wisdom to be gleaned from folklore, we must also be vigilant and approach these tales with a critical mind.

In spite of the one dark spot, I still think this is a great and funny play. I hope to see it performed sometime in the near future.

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Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 2: The Doll’s House” by Neil Gaiman

It was well over five years ago that I read the first volume in Gaiman’s classic graphic series, so I actually went back and reread Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes before reading this. I was glad I did. I would have missed a lot of the nuances had the beginning of the saga not been fresh in my mind.

In his introduction to this volume, Clive Barker describes what he calls “fantastic fiction” and explains why the graphic novel/comic genre is ideal for exploring this type of narrative.

The second kind of fantastique is far more delirious. In these narratives, the whole world is haunted and mysterious. There is no solid status quo, only a series or relative realities, personal to each of the characters, any or all of which are frail, and subject to eruptions from other states and conditions. One of the finest writers in this second mode is Edgar Allan Poe, in whose fevered stories landscape, character – even architecture – become a function of the tormented, sexual anxious psyche of the author; in which anything is possible because the tales occur within the teller’s skull.

Is it perhaps freedom from critical and academic scrutiny that has made the medium of the comic book so rich an earth in which to nurture this second kind of fiction?

Essentially, this volume is a dark exploration of the possibilities of what might happen if the boundaries of dreams were somehow dissolved, where the collective subconscious minds accessed by all dreamers were connected, and the effect that this might have on our notion of reality.

She can feel them: across the city, a paradise of sleeping minds. Each mind creates and inhabits it own world, and each world is but a tiny part of the totality that is the dreaming… and she can touch them. Touch all of them. She begins to free them, loosening them into the flux. Across the city dreams begin to join and integrate and, in so doing, they change the dreamers forever.

What we deem as reality is actually a shared perception, and the key word here is perception. How real is reality? We spend a third of our lives in a dream state, and how do we know that what we perceive while in this state is not as real or more real than what we accept as reality in the world around us? This is what one of the main characters, Rose, contemplates toward the end of the book.

If my dream was true, then everything we know, everything we think we know is a lie. It means the world’s about as solid and as reliable as a layer of scum on the top of a well of black water which goes down forever, and there are things in the depths that I don’t even want to think about. It means more than that. It means that we’re just dolls. We don’t have a clue what’s really going down, we just kid ourselves that we’re in control of our lives while a paper’s thickness away things that would drive us mad if we thought about them for too long play with us, and move us from room to room, and put us away at night when they’re tired, or bored.

This is an idea that I have always found unsettling. I have known people who for various reasons suffered a break with reality and ended up institutionalized. I could not help but wonder: Was it mental illness, schizophrenia, or a glimpse of something that mortals were not meant to know? When Dante is about to cross the threshold in the Inferno, he is warned: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Some things are too intense for the fragile human psyche.

I plan on continuing with this series (I already have the next volume ready to read). Expect to hear my thoughts on Volume 3: Dream Country in the near future.

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Thoughts on “The Hosting of the Sidhe” by William Butler Yeats

Image Source: Wikipedia

The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-Bare;
Caoilte tossing his burning hair
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving, our eyes are agleam,
Our arms are waving, our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.

The host is rushing ’twixt night and day,
And where is there hope or deed as fair?
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away.

Before we can begin to understand the symbolism in this poem, we have to know the names and places mentioned by Yeats.

  • Sidhe—The Faeries, but with a more general implication of supernatural beings.
  • Knocknarea—Mountain in Sligo.
  • Clooth-na-Bare—A faery who sought death in the deepest lake in the world, which she found in Sligo; hence, also a place name.
  • Caoilte—Legendary Irish hero (companion of Oisin).
  • Niamh—Beloved of Oisin, whom she lures into the adventure described in Yeats’s long early narrative poem “The Wanderings of Oisin.” Her name means “brightness and beauty.”

(Definitions source: M.L. Rosenthal)

Rosenthal provides further information regarding the Sidhe and what they meant to Yeats in particular.

Thus the Sidhe are more than mere faeries in the ordinary sense; they are supernatural beings of a more exalted character. Yeats sometimes thinks of them as including all mythical heroes, and at other times makes them quite sinister. To be touched by them is to be set apart from other mortals, an ambivalent condition common to all who succumb to enchantment.

Clearly, this is a complex poem which contains layers of symbolism. I’ll do my best to bring some of these symbols to the surface.

The Sidhe appear to embody the mythology of Ireland, a combination of the mystical and the heroic. They are the Druids, the poets, the heroes, the supernatural beings, all combined into one host. Essentially, they are the source of inspiration for Yeats.

Knocknarea and Clooth-na-Bare are both in Sligo, so we have the lofty peak and the deepest lake, respectively, in the same location. Yeats seems to be implying that the mystical inspiration for his poetry is drawn both from searching the heavens, or the realm of the divine, as well as in exploring the depths of the waters, which symbolizes the deep wellspring of the subconscious mind. This places Ireland at a sort of crossroads, a place where the divine and the human meet, where god consciousness blends with the magical power of human consciousness.

Niamh is a little more complicated. I see three possible representations here. First, she could represent Ireland as the mother country. Second, she could symbolize the embodiment of the divine creative force, or the muse which inspires the poet to craft verse. And thirdly, I suspect there is a correlation between Niamh and Maud Gonne, Yeats’s beloved and personal inspiration. Considering that there are three possible representations embodied in Niamh, it is also possible that Yeats intended her to symbolize the triple goddess (maiden, mother, crone).

I suspect that Yeats sees himself reflected in the character of Caoilte. He is an Irish hero, heeding the call of the Sidhe, lured into the adventure of creating poetry by the mythical being of Niamh. As I envision him “tossing his burning hair,” I see a symbol of the mystical poet, whose mind and thoughts are aflame with the divine fire of inspiration, burning with a passion to rekindle the creative flame that was once Ireland.

As with so many of Yeats’s poems, I suspect this one is open to other interpretations. This one is just my personal view. If you have other thoughts or ideas regarding this poem, please feel free to share them in the comments section.

Thanks for stopping by, and happy St. Patrick’s Day.

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