Saturday, March 26, 2011

Dreams on Awakening

Here I defend something people consider mildly wacky: the writing down and analysis of dreams.

A disclaimer: first of all, I don't attach any metaphysical importance to dreams. My best theory of them runs as follows: during the various cycles of sleep, the human (and more generally, chordate) nervous system undergoes a series of what I can metaphorically approach with words like "tune-ups", "reboots", "defragmentations". It's hard to speculate in this, because a satisfying theory of sleep is generally terra incognita for neuroscience. A few tantalizing hints are contained in the fact that sleep is essential for learning, and a few computer scientists have attempted to construct neural networks that learn in an unsupervised manner guided by the sleep metaphor. But that's only a start.

So what? Well, any process of "defragmentation" is going to stir a lot of shit up, essentially sending neurochemical discharges down pathways in the brain they weren't "meant" to go down. You can think of this stirring up process as essentially random. But what is decidedly not random is the way these low-level random discharges get taken up into the fragmentary state of consciousness that characterizes REM-stage sleep. The boiling cauldron of neural discharges gets taken up into awareness in a way that's framed by all sorts of ontogenetic, phylogenetic and idiosyncratic characteristics of the person undergoing this "defragmentation". You can think of it as massive sampling bias.

Now, I find it interesting that most of our self-construction projects in everyday life involve taking things up, filtered through our various layers of interest. So in conscious, waking life, we read a book, a poem, a movie, and discuss it, and think about it, only if it resonates with our particular preoccupations. But the problem in the project of self-construction comes, of course, from the mediacy of the materials. The book/poem/movie weren't made for your growth; they were made out of a matrix of personal, economic, social, and political circumstances. So any given material for self-construction that comes from others will have a large signal-to-noise ratio.

Same with your own dreams. A lot of what goes on is garbage, or easily traceable to some external influence in the near past. ("A dream is a low-budget play, put on with the props and costumes cribbed from the previous few days," said a very wise gentle giant biker once.) But the things that resonate with you from your dreams, though not some metaphysical bolt of salvation, are excellent self-construction materials precisely because they (generally) lack the mediacy of external media.

Now, there's still a question of interpretation, and in that way, even dreams, even one's own waking experience is mediate in some respect. But what did you expect? A reason to live to be handed to you effortlessly? You can run free association on your dream images--an epistemic technique which, in other contexts, really is bullshit--and can be reasonably sure that it indicates some personal preoccupation because it was generated by a filter that is you. In that way, you can act as the lens that sees its own biases, preoccupations, developments.

Thus ends my (half-baked) attempt to give naturalistic coherence to something that people either dismiss or take up as "magic". I hate magic with a passion. Mind you, not real magic--i.e. sleight of hand. I hate "real"--i.e. metaphysically interpreted--magic.

Consider: "If children's prayers were answered, there wouldn't be a single teacher alive."

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Line and Form of Black Bile

Depression is not
a black dog. It’s more like
a tuning-in
to (what seems like)
the awful truth:
that there is nothing new
under the sun. Really.
It’s a trembling
within constraints of rule and line,
an energy of recognition
with nowhere to go,
a homecoming to the disordered
order of the world.

It’s an openness
to not deceiving yourself—
your hollow self,
your empirical skin and bones
and dust and fluids.
It’s the tenderness
beyond tenderness,
tucking yourself in.

I can’t speak to it
because it’s moth-like
to its flame of (something like)
restfulness, a center-point
with a hole in it
where there’s no rest to be found.
Because that’s how I live my life:
transposing human bulk
from place to place,
rousing myself from the
inertial point
a hundred minor times per day
and at a couple of
key junctures of decision.

And each new day
comes with its own inertias,
and they’re all
superficially different,
but I know
that the heavenly bodies
move in their preordained patterns
every day and night,
and only the violence of a supernova
ever breaks the already-laid-out
boredom in the night sky.

Consider: "the universal acid of geological time."

Friday, March 18, 2011

A Story Told to the Darkness

Exordium: Who am I to tell a story to a lack? To belt out an unwritten song to an empty auditorium? To lift mood and change, the body and mind's fluids, hormones, expansions and contractions--the stuff of life--into the space of (what seems like) cosmic night? The unpregnant emptiness that does nothing but receive our waste, our entropy? I will justify myself by means of an overwrought metaphor.

Overwrought metaphor: for centuries, speculative cosmology troubled itself with the question of why the sky is dark at night. For if the universe were truly infinite, every line of sight would eventually terminate in a star. Hence, the night sky should be as bright as day. Many suggestions were offered, but none were satisfactory. Perhaps the most plausible was that the light of extremely distant stars was absorbed by interstellar gas, or particles, or what have you. That's fine. But, if the universe had existed infinitely long, that interstellar gas would have achieved incandescence long ago, and so--again--the night sky should be bright as day.

Overwrought metaphor, paragraph 2: No explanation was forthcoming. Then general relativity came on the scene, but the original cosmological models posited by Einstein (1917) and De Sitter in (1918) didn't fully address the issue either. (Why they failed would take us into explaining why they thought the geometry of the universe was non-Euclidean, and I am lazy.) It was only with Hubble's publication in 1929 of the relation between the distance and red-shift of far-away galaxies (and the interpretation of this as a Doppler effect) that the idea that space itself was expanding. This allowed for a finite, but unbounded universe where not every line of sight in the night sky terminated in the surface of the star.

Conclusion of overwrought metaphor: so, the reason the sky is dark at night is because space itself is expanding.

Supplementary material: the analogy used to unpack what "space itself expanding" means is usually run in two dimensions. Imagine our universe had only two spatial dimensions. Universal expansion, in this case would require you to imagine those two dimensions curved in a third dimension which we are insensible of. So we live our lives on the surface of a balloon, for example, and the balloon itself is expanding. Now imagine our three spatial and fourth time dimension curved in an even higher-dimensional space (you can't, but it makes sense mathematically). So yeah.

Explanation of the digression: now if we conflate cosmological space with a more colloquial sense of space, we have a reason for the darkness. It is a consequence of the fact that the indefinite multiplicity of things will never fill us up. This is a conclusion I need right now.

Consider: "Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it."

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Simple Sad Serious Things (Part 9)

"Be astonished,"
she says. "Or at least
mildly curious."
But I say
that's wrong
for me here
because there's a point
with all these things--
sadness, joy, thisness--
where they all
go beyond you.
The sadness of a
miniature waterlogged scene
opens up, and as it opens
it replenishes
in gorgeous repose.
Because everything happens by itself.
That's what astonishes me.
And it's just
one thing after another,
and a point
from time to time
when it hits:
couldn't have been otherwise.
And another point:
there's nothing more here.
And another:
there's no here here.

I have a lingering image from a dream
in which I woke up, and meditated.
I fixated on green, green ivy
on a brown-grey brick wall.
And a light suffused all of it
and I woke up,
thought I learned something
about the nature of mind:
its hollowness,
the brittleness of its sense-making.
The whole dream of ivy on bricks
and no self but the watcher,
no desire but the ivy in itself.
"There's a crack in everything,
that's how the light gets in."

Consider: "There's a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in."

3-Day Novel 2010 (Part 5)

3. “And the Dawn and the Dusk were the Third Day”

Adnan Chalabi
33 Oxford Street
Toronto, ON


University of Toronto student seeking year-round part-time employment.


• 1999-2003: Lawrence Park Secondary School
• Honour roll and gifted program
• 2003-present: University of Toronto
• Undergraduate studies in psychology, philosophy and literature

Past Employment

• Renovation Worker, FF Home Service (summers of 2002, 2004 and 2005)
• Assisted with building decks, fences, installing hardwood and laminate flooring, drywalling, sanding, painting and demolition
• Was able to perform labour-intensive tasks for extended periods of time
• Gained a working knowledge of all major hand and power tools
• Volunteer Counselor, Distress Centres of Toronto (April 2005-ongoing)
• Provided suicide prevention, emotional support, social interaction, and stress reduction strategies to a diverse clientele including marginalized, addicted and mentally ill individuals
• Learned client-centered, non-confrontational and stress-defusing conversation skills, including patience with difficult, mistrustful or obstructive individuals
• Gained a working knowledge of Toronto’s social safety net
• Street Canvasser, Public Outreach (April-May 2006)
• Raised funding from passers-by for the Hospital for Sick Children
• Learned basic sales tactics and comfort in high-pressure sales situations
• Became a more articulate and effective speaker
• Pharmacy Clerk, Metro Medical Pharmacy (June-September 2003)
• Prepared monthly medication packages for seniors in a nursing home environment
• Performed a variety of administrative duties regarding prescriptions
• Gained a basic working knowledge of many common medications

Other Qualifications

• A quick learner of both facts and skills
• Both independent and a team player
• Fluent in two languages and currently working on my third

Studies in psychology, philosophy and literature.

“, Far, you’re not listening to what I’m saying. There’s definitely one way to interpret your dream, the one way that corresponds optimally to reality. It is unfortunate, though, that the interpreter (including yourself) doesn’t have access to the historical, the diachronic dimension in sufficient detail, because to know exactly why this random element, this aspect of brain sputtering as it is deprived of external stimulation, this aspect of endogenously generated harmonious activity, was interpreted, subjectified, inserted into the economy of your consciousness in that way, rather than the myriad other ways it could have presented itself. So you’re saying the bathtub in the field was made of porcelain, and we may ask several questions therefrom: why porcelain and not, say, granite? Why was the bathtub in the field, and not on it, under it, floating, tethered, untethered? And, of course, in what way did you know you knew it was porcelain, and not any of a number of other ceramic materials?”

“Well, it might not have been porcelain.”

“In that case, why did you say it was? I’ll have you know there are any number of materials that are preferable to porcelain in bathtub construction--even a cast iron bathtub, properly coated, could get better life than some varieties... but anyway, this isn’t where we disagree fundamentally. I don’t like your implication that just because we fragile human meat boxes can’t know all the facts, or contain them within one subjectivity, that there isn’t some way that things are, and accordingly, some way in which our interpretation can correspond to the truth of things.”

“Come on now. You know better than this. We both agreed that objectivity isn’t just growing up out of the ground, so to speak. It’s an achievement. It’s our achievement.”

“But we must think of the future. And this ideal future is all we have to give direction to our academic endeavors. And we are the keepers of that flame. Keepers of the great conversation that has bounced from Miletus, the Indus Valley, the Gangetic Plain, the mountains of China, from the Levant to Mesopotamia to Egypt to Archaic Greece to Classical Greece to Rome to the Arabs to the Europeans and now to us, to the cosmopolitans drowning in our tide of mud--but it’s always been like this. It’s actually a mystery how we’ve never been ground down, how the writings of Plato or Aristotle or Thales of Avicenna or Bacon or whoever aren’t lying in the dust...”

“Adnan, you’re getting really far off topic. I was asking what the bathtub might mean, and here we’re off on a historical survey of big names in philosophy. Can we keep this on a human scale, please?”

“Sorry. Please don’t get peevish with me. I’m just blowing off steam here. You know how this whole process of applications has been. Madness. Just sending shit into a consuming maw. You spend 15 minutes composing a targeted cover letter and nobody will even look at it; nobody will let you know of anything. And it’s fine, the first hundred times, but when your part-time job is futility--well, shit. What can I say on that point? There is no conversation there! All is silence and electrons shuffling along wires bumping each other, hop-skip-jumping from me to you and from me to them, mostly drowned in a thick soup of primate apathy because after we meet about three people we can’t really be bothered to process anything deeply any more because that’s how it was on the Serenghetti plain, back in the Olduvai Gorge, or in the trees, or earlier when we shuffled under the shadow of the saurians...”

“...dude, please. The tub?...”

“...walking the earth, shaking the trees. ... Oh? The tub is a healing image: cleansing you, receiving you in your entirety, therefore a symbol of the Self, the totality. It’s likely that you’ve had a lifting of tensions in a relatively close friendship, some kind of breakthrough after tension. Does that sound right?”

“Yeah. Me and my mom recently...”

“...wonderful! The delicate mother-daughter bond sprouts renewed. Renewed! It makes me very happy! It makes my eyes wander in the noosphere like those googly springy fake glasses. Do you know the ones? You can get them at Dollarama for cheap. Dirt cheap. Never mind they turn to dust and in dustiness sit collecting it in some forgotten drawer, just waiting to spring upon us during a particularly vociferous bout of personal psycho-archaeology, wherein one uproots the childhood stuffed toys, lost birthday cards, family pictures, well-meant but mainstream and like a stab into the heart, a way of bypassing every conventional personal defense, a way of getting into the back door of the ego through the past when we weren’t so well outfitted, like goalies in their fortress of pads. I’m glad I could help you, glad I could offer some insight, thereby justifying all these years, these six years spent as an undergrad, these six years spent getting two degrees, two accelerated degrees, working all the time, heading the desk so many times as to leave a faceprint at my place in the library, headdesking so many times I don’t remember what it was like to not be a student, to not be institutionalized, to not be domesticated. do you remember, Far? I don’t. I don’t remember the endless summers of childhood that I’m told felt that way, felt golden, felt eternal, you know? I don’t remember them...”

“Um. Adnan. You’re kind of scaring me.”

“...but we can’t fear the abyss now, can we? The failure of all our striving, all that education, all that savings we forked over, we children of immigrants, while our parents turned lathes or whatever the fuck they did, we were cooped up studying as if it meant something, meant employment, meant prestige. You know what it fucking means? A method of social control. A fucking goddamn fucking method of social control. A way of keeping those who should be running shit, running shit ethically in a kind of crystal cage that they grow so attached to that they won’t leave, won’t descend from that tower of elephant tusks, won’t descend, won’t deign to dignify the two-thirds grey majority, the high school diplomas and the Humber College communication diplomas, the professional diorama makers, the people who make piecemeal improvements to Cheez-Whiz and other assorted mostly-plastic shit, while the systems thinkers, the people who need to clean up the phytoplankton mess, who need to make highways stop effacing city neighbourhoods, who need to find more efficient catalytic converters through biomimicry, for example, or simply come up with new, better, psychologically sound day care practices, or counseling practices, or whatever--those people have to languish in obscurity for the better part of a decade. It’s criminal, Far; fucking criminal. And then, have you heard this new thing? I just saw it today: the federal government is pushing the city to engage in a massive project of highway building “to stimulate the economy with shovel-ready projects”. Do you know what this means for the cultural capital of the city? They would cut downtown apart in four ways, like a fucking pizza. Goodbye every neighbourhood that’s ever been an incubator for anything decent in this world--(I mean urban decency; I don’t mean to impugn the decency that small towns can breed). I hope they kill it with fire, burn that beast then dunk the ashes in acid then burn the acid ashes then irradiate them with both gamma rays and microwaves, then bury it, cement the hatch and surround the opening with a minefield and a no-fly zone. Kill it dead, burn the highways, topple their supports, coat them with oil and watch the carnage, right Far?..... Far?......Hello?....”

Consider: "whether your cats are old enough to learn about Jesus."

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Simple Sad Serious Things (Part 8)

"And if they were waking an image in us,
the endlessly dead,
look: they'd be pointing
to catkins handing from empty hazels
or the rain
down-falling a dark soil bed
in early spring..."

Rilke. Remembered.
And let's also remember
the water-logged earth,
the city parks marshy.
Hinting at renewal--
the rains of life,
the wet, black boughs
and steam. Inside,
we feel utterly empty--
and in that exhaustion
we are made the perfect vessel.
Don't forget the etiolated grass,
my beholding! Don't forget
the wordlessness of Will.
For it is by accident,
mute accident that we have lived.
For it is by surrender and grace
that each blade lives. And rises
spring after spring.

There is a tower rising out of the ivy,
rising like a chorus,
rising beyond us into the low-lying clouds.
There are angel statues with downcast eyes.
There are coats walking around down here,
long beaten, long comfortable in
defeated repose. Somber statues
in uniform coats. Statues of
hollow-eyed World War 1 aviators,
degraded lions guarding the Taoist temple,
dragon statues with peeling red paint.
Metal sculptures of firefighters
carrying children--but walled off
with yellow police tape. And beyond:
the stratus cloud, and the anemic sun.

Rilke is a poet of spring,
and I am a writer of winter,
of hanging up the plough.
But remember, temperament:
remember, beholding.
The thaw is the start
of pestilential changes.

Consider: "Honesty is the best poetry."