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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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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 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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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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“Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

My friend and bandmate, Terry, loaned this book to me. She said that I would really enjoy it. She was right.

The book is a work of historical fiction, with some mysticism woven in. It is about the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, who gets stuck in the space between death and rebirth. Having recently read the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which goes into a lot of detail about the bardo state, I was able to relate to this book on a deeper level.

The book is a quick read. It is essentially constructed of short snippets of text, some from historical sources and others fictionalized to reflect the consciousness of the characters. Stylistically, it works very well, and the inclusion of the historical references definitely added a level of verisimilitude to the work.

One of the things that I got out of this book was the affirming of the fact that every single person, every life, has an impact on the world. We may feel that our existence is insignificant; but that is not so. Throughout our lives, we have an influence on every other living being with whom we come in contact.

What I mean to say is, we had been considerable. Had been loved. Not lonely, not lost, not freakish, but wise, each in his or her own way. Our departures caused pain. Those who had loved us sat upon their beds, heads in hand; lowered their faces to tabletops, making animal noises. We had been loved, I say, and remembering us, even many years later, people would smile, briefly gladdened at the memory.

(p. 71)

One scene in the story I found particularly interesting and creative features a military officer stuck in the bardo and attempting to communicate with his wife in the form of a letter. His words express the emotions associated with being trapped in a dismal space, desperately longing to move on.

O my dear I have a foreboding. And feel I must not linger. In this place of great sadness. He who preserves and Loves us scarecly present. Since we must endeavor always to walk beside Him, I feel I must not linger. But am Confin’d, in Mind & Body, and unable, as if manacled, to leave at this time, dear Wife.

I must seek & seek: What is it that keeps me in this abismal Sad place?

(pp. 137 – 8)

The last passage I want to share is an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s consciousness, where he is contemplating the transitive nature of life, how we emerge from non-being into being, and maintain a state of constant change through our short sojourn in this life.

I was in error when I saw him as fixed and stable and thought I would have him forever. He was never fixed, nor stable, but always just a passing, temporary energy-burst. I had reason to know this. Had he not looked this way at birth, that way at four, another way at seven, been made entirely anew at nine? He had never stayed the same, even instant to instant.

He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness.

(p. 244)

As I think about this passage, I think about all the changes I have gone through in my life—some major and others so subtle they were barely noticeable. And I think of the changes I have seen in the people around me, and in the world as a whole. It is the single constant, and the one thing for which we can be certain. We will experience change throughout our entire lives. And when we reach the end, it will be yet another change and transition as we cross the threshold into the bardo.

Thanks for stopping by, and have a blessed day.

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“The Sandman: Overture – 6” by Neil Gaiman

SandmanOverture_06

This is the final issue in this arc, and it is nothing short of amazing. Gaiman is such a gifted writer and the surreal artwork that accompanies his text draws you into a world of symbols that speaks directly to the subconscious.

In this final installment in the graphic novel, Dream struggles to save existence, entreating Hope to convince the souls on the mystic ship to use the creative power of their collective consciousness to recreate existence as it should be, as opposed to what it has become. At the end, the cycle is complete and everything begins again, renewed. This is only logical, since all existence is cyclical.

I feel that whatever I write about this will not do it justice. It would be like trying to describe and explain Mozart’s music to someone who was born deaf. All I can do is encourage you to experience this graphic novel for yourself.

I will finish with a quote, which really stood out for me. It expresses the power of art as a way to convey the ineffable through symbols and myth.

One day, perhaps, we will have become legends. We’ll pass this way outside of space and time, when what they’ll know of us will be just questions. They’ll carve our deeds in stone. Build us in rhyme. The things they’ll tell about us will be lies. But lies of such a kind as tell a truth perpetual. Our lives will be revised. Preserved, we’ll mouth the epics of our youth. Actors will play us, braver than we are, more funny, deeper, prettier by far. Their lines will be more resonant and wise than anything we said. Majestic lies. So wait. Some tales might be the truth one day. For now, alive, we huddle, ache and pray.

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