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Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 9: The Kindly Ones” by Neil Gaiman

So I finished this book a couple days ago, and have been digesting it and trying to decide how I will approach writing about it without spoiling the ending (Note – do NOT read the introduction to this book unless you want to know how it ends). And also, how do I write about something that contains so many layers of complexity? After stepping away, then going back and reviewing my notes, I decided I will focus on the theme of responsibility, and how that is tied to an individual’s nature.

The first scene I want to examine is when Delirium visits Dream and tries to convince him to join her on a search for her lost dog. The Dream Lord tries to explain to her why he cannot leave the dream realm at the present time.

Delirium: So can you come with me? And look?

Dream: Sister, I have responsibilities. I cannot leave the Dreaming at this time.

Delirium: You use that word so much. Responsibilities. Don’t you ever think about what it means? I mean, what does it mean to you? In your head?

Dream: Well, I use it to refer to that area of existence over which I exert a certain amount of control and influence. In my case, the realm and action of dreaming.

Delirium: Hump. It’s more than that. The things we do make echoes. S’pose, f’rinstance, you stop on a street corner and admire a brilliant fork of lightning — ZAP! Well for ages after people and things will stop on that very same corner, and stare up at the sky. They wouldn’t even know what they were looking for. Some of them might see a ghost bolt of lightning in the street. Some of them might even be killed by it. Our existence deforms the universe. THAT’S responsibility.

This is profound. Not only do our individual actions affect the universe, no matter how small (think the butterfly effect), but our consciousness molds reality and existence on a cosmic level. Nothing we do, nothing we say, and nothing we think is trivial. Everything we do has consequence. Every individual is responsible for the direction that reality takes. Our thoughts and actions ripple across the universe, forming and “deforming” the very fabric of being. The fact that I am writing this, and the fact that you are reading these words, will have an impact on the unfolding of future events. We must, as sentient beings, never take anything for granted.

In the realm of Faerie, the Lady Nuala asks the trickster Puck why he is the way he is.

Nuala: Why do you take such joy in confusion, Robin Goodfellow?

Puck: Because I am true to my nature, Lady Nuala.

This echoes the words of Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true.” Puck knows he is an incarnation of the trickster archetype, and it is his responsibility to accept his true nature. We are all responsible for acknowledging our nature and adhering to it. It is when we deviate from who we are, when we pretend to be something we are not, that we create disharmony in the universe. Honest self-evaluation is requisite for living a genuine life. Do not deny your essence—embrace it, as Puck does.

And this leads us to the final passage I want to share, in which Dream accepts his true responsibilities, understanding that he must make sacrifices in order to fulfill his responsibilities and embody his true nature.

Dream: Rules and responsibilities: these are the ties that bind us. We do what we do, because of who we are. If we did otherwise, we would not be ourselves. I will do what I have to do. And I will do what I must.

We are bound by our natures, by our responsibilities, and by our thoughts and actions. We are intrinsically tied to existence, and all we can do is do what we have to do. So once again, I will repeat the words of Shakespeare:

To thine own self be true.

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Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 8: World’s End” by Neil Gaiman

In his introduction to this book, Stephen King praises the complexity of Gaiman’s work and ranks him among some noteworthy writers.

This is challenging stuff. I’m not saying it’s so challenging that my old be-bop buddies wouldn’t have dug it, reading our comics up in a sweltering storage space above Chrissie Essigian’s garage on a rainy summer afternoon, but it’s challenging – sophisticated storytelling on a level practiced by Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, or (and perhaps this is closer to the mark) John Fowles.

I concur. This is very deep reading, with layers and layers of symbolism woven in, but it is also wonderful storytelling, which makes it enjoyable without having to understand the levels of complexity.

This book is structured like Chaucer’s The Canturbury Tales, where an unusual cast of characters find themselves riding out a reality storm at the World’s End inn. They pass the time telling stories, which often have nested stories within the stories.

In one of the tales, the storyteller shares an account of a meeting he had in an alternate reality. The old man who he met and talked with shared some interesting ideas regarding the possibility of places having consciousness.

“Perhaps a city is a living thing. Each city has its own personality, after all. Los Angeles is not Vienna. London is not Moscow. Chicago is not Paris. Each city is a collection of lives and buildings and it has its own personality.”

“So?”

“So, if a city has a personality, maybe it also has a soul. Maybe it dreams. That is where I believe we have come. We are in the dreams of the city. That’s why certain places hover on the brink of recognition; why we almost know where we are.”

This is a concept I have often pondered, whether consciousness exists in all matter, not just higher forms of animated species. I look at trees and wonder if they have consciousness. I have thought about whether stones or mountains or water have a form of consciousness that we are not able to perceive. If the answer to any of these possibilities is “maybe,” then maybe cities also have consciousness.

In another of the tales, a story is shared about a person’s apprenticeship in a necropolis. The speaker recounts a lesson regarding the purpose of the ceremonies for the deceased.

She was a wise woman. She told us that what we do is not for the dead. Death is not about the disposal of the client.

“What do the dead care about what happens to them? Eh? They’re dead. All the trappings of death are for the living. It is the final reconciliation. The last farewell.”

As I get older and seem to be attending more funerals and memorials, I recognize the truth in this. I remember my mom’s service. I was still fairly young and it was extremely painful. But it was important. I had to see her one last time, touch her once more, before I could start the long healing process. Ceremony is important. It reminds us of what it is to be human.

The last passage I want to share is the innkeeper’s explanation of what a reality storm is.

“Well, sometimes big things happen, and they echo. These echoes crash across the worlds. They are ripples in the fabrics of things. Often they manifest as storms. Reality is a very fragile thing, after all.”

We all want to believe in the stability of the reality we inhabit. But the fragility of the construct which we call reality is something we should consider. How certain are we that what we perceive as reality is really that? Just because our senses make us think it is that way? Our senses can deceive us. In fact, some of these very questions are being explored in the realm of physics right now.

I will close by saying that I found the end of this book to be somewhat, unsettling. It stirred a lot of internal questions for me, which I cannot divulge without spoiling the ending (something I hate to do). I encourage you to read this book, to grapple with the ideas, and contemplate. It would be a worthwhile exercise.

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“The Moods” by William Butler Yeats

Time drops in decay,
Like a candle burnt out,
And the mountains and woods
Have their day, have their day;
What one in the rout
Of the fire-born moods
Has fallen away?

Moods by nature are ephemeral. They tend to last only a short time and are generally caused by some event or thought. But Yeats compares moods to things more lasting, specifically mountains and woods, which are also temporary but endure for a long time. So what are the moods that Yeats is writing about?

Since the word “moods” is plural, it is clear he is experiencing more than one mood at the same time. Also, we are told that these moods are born from fire. An obvious mood would be love or passion, a mood clearly associated with fire. But I would also venture to say that one of the moods is associated with creative inspiration, the spark of the creative flame which, if not nurtured, quickly burns out like the candle. And I suspect there is a third mood, relating to divine inspiration or illumination. Again, this “mood” is fleeting, and usually once you realize that you are having a moment of divine connection, it immediately dissipates.

My final thought on this poem may be a bit of a stretch, but as I read it a few times, I could not help but wonder if there is also an allusion to “modes.” When read aloud with an accent, it is possible. If this is the case, then Yeats may also have been asserting that there are various modes of artistic and spiritual expression, and that each mode is also ephemeral and dependent upon the artist and the audience. At some points poetry and literature may be the dominant mode, other times painting, other times music, or film. As such, moods and modes are always changing.

Anyway, these are just my thoughts. Yeats is always challenging, and it seems the more pared down his poems are, the more you have to work to understand them. Feel free to share your thoughts on this one. Cheers!

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Thoughts on “The Sandman, Volume 7: Brief Lives” by Neil Gaiman

In this installment in the Sandman saga, Neil Gaiman explores the brevity and impermanence of existence, both human and divine. We all accept the ephemeral nature of human existence, but do not want to believe that gods and the universe are also transitory. But if we accept that we are a reflection of the divine, and our lives are temporary, then it stands to reason that divine existence is also temporary, with a beginning and an end, as part of a cycle that is beyond our ability to understand.

Early in the book, Death comes to claim a man who lived an unusually long life. He asks Death whether he had a long life, and Death responds:

“You lived what anybody gets, Bernie. You got a lifetime. No more. No less. You got a lifetime.”

Death’s answer is sobering. We are prone to compare our lifespan with others, but time is really just an illusion. We all have exactly the same amount of time on this plane—one lifetime. Even if you believe in the doctrine of reincarnation, the fact remains that for this incarnation, you only have a lifetime.

Later in the book, Dream has an encounter with Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of fertility, love, war, and sex. Ishtar is working as an exotic dancer, and after meeting with Dream and Delirium, she decides to perform her sacred dance at the club. But before she begins, she shares with the club manager the secret of the birth and death of gods, knowing that he will not survive the dance to pass the secret on to others.

“I know how gods begin, Roger. We start as dreams. Then we walk out of dreams into the land. We are worshipped and loved, and take power to ourselves. And then one day there’s no one left to worship us. And in the end, each little god and goddess takes its last journey back into dreams… and what comes after, not even we know.”

What Gaiman is asserting here is that gods manifest from the collective unconscious, that the realm which the human psyche can only vaguely glimpse through myth and symbol is the birthplace of all things divine. And as long as these gods are nourished by our spiritual and psychic energy, they thrive; but once humans cease to feed a god or goddess the requisite energy, they wither and pass, returning again to the formless source.

Throughout the book, Dream and Delirium are on a quest to find their brother, Destruction. After they find him, there is a great scene where Destruction takes his brother and sister out under the stars, and uses the stars as a metaphor for the ephemeral existence of all things, divine and temporal.

“I like the stars. It’s the illusion of permanence, I think. I mean, they’re always flaring up and caving in and going out. But from here, I can pretend… I can pretend that things last. I can pretend that lives last longer than moments. Gods come, and gods go. Mortals flicker and flash and fade. Worlds won’t last, and stars and galaxies are transient, fleeting things that twinkle like fireflies and vanish into cold and dust. But I can pretend.”

This speaks volumes about the human condition. We move along the paths of our brief lives, pretending that we are a part of some grand, eternal thing. But it is an illusion, just like time. All lives, all existence, everything that is, is in reality just a fleeting twinkle, a flash that will ultimately fade and be forgotten. Knowing this does not make me feel disillusioned with life, but grateful for every moment that I am blessed with. Knowing that my life is but a flicker makes me want to cherish and make the most out of it. For me, this concept is not crippling, but empowering. I hope it has the same effect on you.

Cheers and blessings.

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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 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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