Tag Archives: existence

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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“The Witch’s Boy” by Kelly Barnhill: The Mystical Power of Words

WitchsBoy

This book was suggested by a close friend of mine who is a science fiction writer and someone whose taste in books I respect. I have to say that this is one of the best young-adult novels I have ever read. The writing and storyline are fairly basic and accessible to readers of all levels, and the tale itself is engaging, but the really amazing aspect of this book is the wealth of mystical, spiritual, and psychological symbolism that is woven into this rich tale. For the sake of brevity, I will focus this post on how words are presented as objects of mystical power.

Early in the book, Barnhill clearly states that words are objects of power that are the essence of creation.

A word, after all, is a kind of magic. It locks the substance of a thing in sound or symbol, and affixes it to the ear, or paper, or stone. Words call the world into being. That’s power indeed.

(p. 29)

One of the main characters in the book is Ned, who is the witch’s boy. Ned’s mother is tasked with protecting the last bit of magic that remains in the world. While attempting to protect the magic in his mother’s absence, the magic enters into Ned and becomes a part of him. At this point, the magic appears as words which flow across his skin, almost as if the boy has become a living book.

His sleeve hiked over his elbow and Ned stared at his skin in amazement. His hands were covered with words. And his arms. And his shoulders and belly and legs and chest. His back and face too, by the feel of it. Moving words. Words that scribbled and looped, crossed one another out, and scripted furiously forward. The words encircled each finger, blotched on his knuckles, tore across his wrists, and swirled over his arms.

(p. 94)

As I read this, I thought a lot about how the things we read and the stories we hear become a part of who we are. I have always believed that I am the culmination of my life’s experiences, and reading has been an integral part of my life and my personal development. So as I pictured the words swirling over Ned’s skin, I thought of all the stories and poems I have read, swirling through my own being and affecting who I am.

Something that has always fascinated me is the mystical power of words in the act of creation. That is why I have felt a connection to writers like Coleridge. I found definite allusions to this idea in this book, particularly regarding the importance of words for harnessing and directing the creative energy that surrounds us all.

Without words, the magic was uncontained. Without words, it was deadly.

(p. 149)

Finally, in one of my favorite passages in this book, Barnhill expresses what I consider a universal truth in a brilliantly clear and simple manner: the idea that words are mystical symbols that express the archetypal essence of everything that exists.

Ned stood and stepped away from the wolf. He removed his remaining glove and looked at the magic on his skin. Its strange letters. Its otherness. Each symbol was a word—though no more familiar to him than the words of his own language.

And yet.

A word is a magic thing. It holds the essence of an object or an idea and pins it to the world. A word can set a universe in motion. And Ned had.

(pp. 254 – 255)

There are many other symbols and ideas incorporated into this impressive book: the triple goddess; the sea as a symbol for the soul and consciousness; the forest representing the primal and dangerous aspect of the human psyche; the corrupting influence of power (in a Faustian manner); and myriad others. As I said, the sheer amount of allusion woven into the easy-to-read story is nothing short of amazing.

I highly recommend this book to everyone. Feel free to share your thoughts here after reading it. Cheers!

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Parody in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams

HitchhikersGuide

It’s hard to believe that I had never read this book before, but I have finally gotten around to it. It was a popular book when I was a teenager, but for whatever reason, I just never read it. The book is very funny and full of witty parodies. I blew through it in no time at all and was thoroughly entertained from cover to cover.

I figure rather than writing a summary of the book, I would instead look at some of the parodies that stood out for me.

One of the first parodies that struck me was the Guide’s detailed explanation of the importance of a towel.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has a few things to say on the subject of towels.

A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapor; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it around your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you—daft as a brush, but very very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

(pp. 27 – 28)

Reading this reminded me of Rabelais, who also used long lists as a form of parody. What comes to mind are the pages in Gargantua and Pantagruel where he describes all the various things that one can use to wipe one’s behind.

Another scene which I found hysterical was when Ford and Arthur are captured by the Vogons and as a form a torture, they are forced to listen to Vogon poetry, which is considered to be the second worst in the universe. So not only does Adams parody bad poetry, but he pokes fun at pompous scholars who write criticism. He does this by having the captives try to come up with a critique of the offensive poetry to make it appear to be some form of high art.

“Oh yes,” said Arthur, “I thought that some of the metaphysical imagery was really particularly effective.”

Ford continued to stare at him, slowly organizing his thoughts around this totally new concept. Were they really going to be able to bareface their way out of this?

“Yes, do continue…” invited the Vogon.

“Oh… and, er… interesting rhythmic devices too,” continued Arthur, “which seemed to counterpoint the… er… er…” he floundered.

Ford leaped to the rescue, hazarding “… counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor of the… er…” He floundered too, but Arthur was ready again.

“… humanity of the…”

Vogonity,” Ford hissed at him.

“Ah yes, Vogonity—sorry—of the poet’s compassionate soul”—Arthur felt he was on a homestretch now—“which contrives through the medium of the verse structure to sublimate this, transcend that, and come to terms with the fundamental dichotomies of the other”—he was reaching a triumphant crescendo—“and one is left with a profound and vivid insight into… into… er…” (which suddenly gave out on him). Ford leaped in with the coup de grace:

“Into whatever it was the poem was about!” he yelled. Out of the corner of his mouth: “Well done, Arthur, that was very good.”

(pp. 66 – 67)

The last parody I will discuss is a brilliant bit of satire that lampoons philosophers and workers at the same time. The philosophers are depicted as individuals who feel they have a monopoly on the truth. They are also extremely self-righteous and just like workers are ready to go on strike at a moment’s notice if things do not go the way they want. So in this section, the philosophers are incensed because a computer is being tasked with discovering the answer to the ultimate question of existence, which the philosophers feel is their domain and if the answer is discovered will jeopardize their jobs.

“I’ll tell you what the problem is, mate,” said Majikthise, “demarcation, that’s the problem.”

“We demand,” yelled Vroomfondel, “that demarcation may or may not be the problem!”

“You just let the machines get on with the adding up,” warned Majikthise, “and we’ll take care of the eternal verities, thank you very much. You want to check your legal position, you do, mate. Under law the Quest for Ultimate Truth is quite clearly the inalienable prerogative of your working thinkers. Any bloody machine goes and actually finds it and we’re straight out of a job, aren’t we? I mean, what’s the use of our sitting up half the night arguing that there may or may not be a God if this machine only goes and gives you his bleeding phone number the next morning?”

“That’s right,” shouted Vroomfondel, “we demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!”

Suddenly a stentorian voice boomed across the room.

“Might I make an observation at this point?” inquired Deep Thought.

“We’ll go on strike!” yelled Vroomfondel.

“That’s right!” agreed Majikthise. “You’ll have a national Philosophers’ strike on your hands!”

(p. 172)

So as you read the craziness in the news and start to worry that the end of the world is nigh, just keep in mind the profound words of advice from this sage book: DON’T PANIC.

So long and thanks for all the fish.

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