Showing posts with label Nuclear War. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nuclear War. Show all posts

Friday, 5 July 2019

THE NIGHTMARE


“Are you sure,' asked his companion, 'that this is the nineteen-eighties?'

The Doctor looked around. 'Which nineteen-eighties did you have in mind?'

Conversations that never happened.



“I began to dream absolutely unbearable dreams. 

My dream life, up to this point, had been relatively uneventful, as far as I can remember; furthermore, I have never had a particularly good visual imagination. Nonetheless, my dreams became so horrible and so emotionally gripping that I was often afraid to go to sleep. I dreamt dreams vivid as reality. I could not escape from them or ignore them. They centered, in general, around a single theme: that of nuclear war, and total devastation – around the worst evils that I, or something in me, could imagine:

My parents lived in a standard ranch style house, in a middle-class neighborhood, in a small town in northern Alberta. 




I was sitting in the darkened basement of this house, in the family room, watching TV, with my cousin Diane, who was in truth – in waking life – the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. A newscaster suddenly interrupted the program. The television picture and sound distorted, and static filled the screen. My cousin stood up and went behind the TV to check the electrical cord. She touched it, and started convulsing and frothing at the mouth, frozen upright by intense current.



A brilliant flash of light from a small window flooded the basement. I rushed upstairs. There was nothing left of the ground floor of the house. It had been completely and cleanly sheared away, leaving only the floor, which now served the basement as a roof. Red and orange flames filled the sky, from horizon to horizon. Nothing was left as far as I could see, except skeletal black ruins sticking up here and there: no houses, no trees, no signs of other human beings or of any life whatsoever. The entire town and everything that surrounded it on the flat prairie had been completely obliterated.



It started to rain mud, heavily. The mud blotted out everything, and left the earth brown, wet, flat and dull, and the sky leaden, even grey. A few distraught and shell-shocked people started to gather together. They were carrying unlabelled and dented cans of food, which contained nothing but mush and vegetables. They stood in the mud looking exhausted and disheveled. Some dogs emerged, out from under the basement stairs, where they had inexplicably taken residence. They were standing upright, on their hind legs. They were thin, like greyhounds, and had pointed noses. They looked like creatures of ritual – like Anubis, from the Egyptian tombs. They were carrying plates in front of them, which contained pieces of seared meat. They wanted to trade the meat for the cans. I took a plate. In the center of it was a circular slab of flesh four inches in diameter and one inch thick, foully cooked, oily, with a marrow bone in the center of it. Where did it come from?

I had a terrible thought. I rushed downstairs to my cousin. The dogs had butchered her, and were offering the meat to the survivors of the disaster. I woke up with my heart pounding.


I dreamed apocalyptic dreams of this intensity two or three times a week for a year or more, while I attended university classes and worked – as if nothing out of the ordinary was going on in my mind. 


Something I had no familiarity with was happening, however. I was being affected, simultaneously, by events on two “planes.” On the first plane were the normal, predictable, everyday occurrences that I shared with everybody else. On the second plane, however (unique to me, or so I thought) existed dreadful images and unbearably intense emotional states. This idiosyncratic, subjective world – which everyone normally treated as illusory – seemed to me at that time to lie somehow behind the world everyone knew and regarded as real. But what did real mean? The closer I looked, the less comprehensible things became. Where was The Real? What was at the bottom of it all? I did not feel I could live without knowing.

My interest in the cold war transformed itself into a true obsession. I thought about the suicidal and murderous preparation of that war every minute of every day, from the moment I woke up until the second I went to bed. How could such a state of affairs come about? Who was responsible?

I dreamed that I was running through a mall parking lot, trying to escape from something. I was running through the parked cars, opening one door, crawling across the front seat, opening the other, moving to the next. The doors on one car suddenly slammed shut. I was in the passenger seat. The car started to move by itself. A voice said harshly, “there is no way out of here.” I was on a journey, going somewhere I did not want to go. 

I was not the driver.
I became very depressed and anxious. I had vaguely suicidal thoughts, but mostly wished that everything would just go away. I wanted to lay down on my couch, and sink into it, literally, until only my nose was showing – like the snorkel of a diver above the surface of the water. I found my awareness of things unbearable.


I came home late one night from a college drinking party, self-disgusted and angry. I took a canvas board and some paints. I sketched a harsh, crude picture of a crucified Christ – glaring and demonic – with a cobra wrapped around his naked waist, like a belt. 


The picture disturbed me – struck me, despite my agnosticism, as sacrilegious. I did not know what it meant, however, or why I had painted it. Where in the world had it come from? I hadn’t paid any attention to religious ideas for years. I hid the painting under some old clothes in my closet and sat cross-legged on the floor. I put my head down. It became obvious to me at that moment that I had not developed any real understanding of myself or of others. 

Everything I had once believed about the nature of society and myself had proved false, the world had apparently gone insane, and something strange and frightening was happening in my head. James Joyce said, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” For me, history literally was a nightmare. I wanted above all else at that moment to wake up, and make my terrible dreams go away.

I have been trying ever since then to make sense of the human capacity, my capacity, for evil – particularly for those evils associated with belief. I started by trying to make sense of my dreams. I couldn’t ignore them, after all. Perhaps they were trying to tell me something? I had nothing to lose by admitting the possibility. I read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, and found it useful. Freud at least took the topic seriously – but I could not regard my nightmares as wish-fulfillments. Furthermore, they seemed more religious than sexual in nature. I knew, vaguely, that Jung had developed specialized knowledge of myth and religion, so I started through his writings. His thinking was granted little credence by the academics I knew – but they weren’t particularly concerned with dreams. I couldn’t help being concerned by mine.


They were so intense I thought they might derange me. (What was the alternative? To believe that the terrors and pains they caused me were not real? Nothing is more real than terror and pain.)
Much of the time I could not understand what Jung was getting at. He was making a point I could not grasp; speaking a language I did not comprehend. Now and then, however, his statements struck home. He offered this observation, for example:


“It must be admitted that the archetypal contents of the collective unconscious can often assume grotesque and horrible forms in dreams and fantasies, so that even the most hard-boiled rationalist is not immune from shattering nightmares and haunting fears.”


The second part of that statement certainly seemed applicable to me, although the first (‘the archetypal contents of the collective unconscious”) remained mysterious and obscure. Still, this was promising. Jung at least recognized that the things that were happening to me could happen. Furthermore, he offered some hints as to their cause. So I kept reading. I soon came across the following hypothesis. Here was a potential solution to the problems I was facing – or at least the description of a place to look for such a solution:


“The psychological elucidation of... [dream and fantasy] images, which cannot be passed over in silence or blindly ignored, leads logically into the depths of religious phenomenology. The history of religion in its widest sense (including therefore mythology, folklore, and primitive psychology) is a treasure-house of archetypal forms from which the doctor can draw helpful parallels and enlightening comparisons for the purpose of calming and clarifying a consciousness that is all at sea. It is absolutely necessary to supply these fantastic images that rise up so strange and threatening before the mind’s eye with some kind of context so as to make them more intelligible. Experience has shown that the best way to do this is by means of comparative mythological material.”



It has in fact been the study of “comparative mythological material” that made my horrible dreams disappear. The “cure” wrought by this study, however, was purchased at the price of complete and often painful transformation: what I believe about the world, now – and how I act, in consequence – is so much at variance with what I believed when I was younger that I might as well be a completely different person.


I discovered that beliefs make the world, in a very real way – that beliefs are the world, in a more than metaphysical sense. This “discovery” has not turned me into a moral relativist, however: quite the contrary. I have become convinced that the world-that-is-belief is orderly: that there are universal moral absolutes (although these are structured such that a diverse range of human opinion remains both possible and beneficial). I believe that individuals and societies who flout these absolutes – in ignorance or in willful opposition – are doomed to misery and eventual dissolution.
I learned that the meanings of the most profound substrata of belief systems can be rendered explicitly comprehensible, even to the skeptical rational thinker – and that, so rendered, can be experienced as fascinating, profound and necessary. I learned why people wage war – why the desire to maintain, protect and expand the domain of belief motivates even the most incomprehensible acts of group-fostered oppression and cruelty – and what might be done to ameliorate this tendency, despite its universality. I learned, finally, that the terrible aspect of life might actually be a necessary precondition for the existence of life – and that it is possible to regard that precondition, in consequence, as comprehensible and acceptable. I hope that I can bring those who read this book to the same conclusions, without demanding any unreasonable “suspension of critical judgment” – excepting that necessary to initially encounter and consider the arguments I present. These can be summarized as follows:


The world can be validly construed as a forum for action, as well as a place of things. We describe the world as a place of things, using the formal methods of science. The techniques of narrative, however – myth, literature, and drama – portray the world as a forum for action. The two forms of representation have been unnecessarily set at odds, because we have not yet formed a clear picture of their respective domains. The domain of the former is the “objective world” – what is, from the perspective of intersubjective perception. The domain of the latter is “the world of value” – what is and what should be, from the perspective of emotion and action.

The world as forum for action is “composed,” essentially, of three constituent elements, which tend to manifest themselves in typical patterns of metaphoric representation. First is unexplored territory – the Great Mother, nature, creative and destructive, source and final resting place of all determinate things. Second is explored territory – the Great Father, culture, protective and tyrannical, cumulative ancestral wisdom. Third is the process that mediates between unexplored and explored territory – the Divine Son, the archetypal individual, creative exploratory “Word” and vengeful adversary. We are adapted to this “world of divine characters,” much as the “objective world.” The fact of this adaptation implies that the environment is in “reality” a forum for action, as well as a place of things.


Unprotected exposure to unexplored territory produces fear. The individual is protected from such fear as a consequence of “ritual imitation of the Great Father” – as a consequence of the adoption of group identity, which restricts the meaning of things, and confers predictability on social interactions. When identification with the group is made absolute, however – when everything has to be controlled, when the unknown is no longer allowed to exist – the creative exploratory process that updates the group can no longer manifest itself. This “restriction of adaptive capacity” dramatically increases the probability of social aggression and chaos.


Rejection of the unknown is tantamount to “identification with the devil,” the mythological counterpart and eternal adversary of the world-creating exploratory hero. Such rejection and identification is a consequence of Luciferian pride, which states: all that I know is all that is necessary to know. This pride is totalitarian assumption of omniscience – is adoption of “God’s place” by “reason” – is something that inevitably generates a state of personal and social being indistinguishable from hell. This hell develops because creative exploration – impossible, without (humble) acknowledgment of the unknown – constitutes the process that constructs and maintains the protective adaptive structure that gives life much of its acceptable meaning.
“Identification with the devil” amplifies the dangers inherent in group identification, which tends of its own accord towards pathological stultification. Loyalty to personal interest – subjective meaning – can serve as an antidote to the overwhelming temptation constantly posed by the possibility of denying anomaly. Personal interest – subjective meaning – reveals itself at the juncture of explored and unexplored territory, and is indicative of participation in the process that ensures continued healthy individual and societal adaptation.


Loyalty to personal interest is equivalent to identification with the archetypal hero – the “savior” – who upholds his association with the creative “Word” in the face of death, and in spite of group pressure to conform. Identification with the hero serves to decrease the unbearable motivational valence of the unknown; furthermore, provides the individual with a standpoint that simultaneously transcends and maintains the group.