Can We Direct People's Waking Dreams?
Yes, it's called Philosophy and Theology. Comic Books do it, too.
Neil Gaiman is an English author of short fiction, novels, comic books, graphic novels, audio theatre and films. His notable works include the comic book series The Sandman and novels Stardust, American Gods, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book. He has won numerous awards, including the Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker awards, as well as theNewbery and Carnegie medals. He is the first author to win both the Newbery and the Carnegie medals for the same work, The Graveyard Book(2008.
Is it persuasion or coercion? I'm not sure. But I do know that I was trained in a discipline that seeks to direct people's waking dreams. It was called philosophy.
Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Whitehead: they were all trying to direct people's waking dreams, mine included. They were writing graphic novels, except they forgot the pictures.
I also took courses in physics, chemistry, sociology, anthropology, psychology, history, and poetry. The books I read in those courses were trying to direct my dreams, too. And so were the teachers who lectured from the books. They said that they were presenting information, and maybe they were.
But they wanted that information to be inside my head and shape my motivations, so that I would be more informed and maybe even thoughtful. They wanted to direct my dreams.
I loved it! The whole idea of directing another person's dreams can sound manipulative, and in some ways it is. But if we substitute the word manipulative with the word influential, it seems obvious that they were trying to influence me, and many of them had kind intentions. They wanted to help me become a creative, thoughtful, empathetic problem-solver. Yes, they were trying to influence me.
Neil Gaiman puts it in perspective. Here's an excerpt from the NPR interview.
On directing people's dreams, like Morpheus does
Note that Neil Gaiman speaks of directing our dreams as giving us waking dreams. I prefer the word "giving" to "directing" because giving sounds a bit more persuasive than coercive. It sounds like the writer wants to honor the integrity and independence of the reader, even as the writer also wants to influence the reader.
This, to my mind, is the difference between persuasion and coercion. Coercion is like brainwashing. It is propaganda pure and simple. By contrast, persuasion is powerful but also respectful. It is an offering, a gift that can be received in creative ways, including ways that can criticize, modify, amend, or reject what is given.
Imagine a friend sharing an idea with you. She offers the idea and, in the very offering, she is seeking to influence you in some way, to change your consciousness just a bit. But if she is a friend, she offers the idea as a gift, not a command. She wants you to respond from your own point of view, not hers. Another name for this is dialogue. Persuasion is dialogical; coercion is monological.
It would be nice if persuasion and coercion would be sharply separated, but I doubt that they can. Coercion and persuasion probably lie on a spectrum. There is an element of coercion in persuasion and an element of persuasion in coercion. When people argue with you and really try to convince you on the basis of their logic, I think they are trying to coerce you in a way. That is why philosophy as exploration and invitation is so often superior to philosophy as argumentation. When it becomes too argumentative, it become violent in a certain way.
Images and Stories: Gifts for Dreaming
The more I think about it, the more it seems that all forms of human communication are trying to direct our waking dreams one way or another. Art and music, poetry and sculpture, philosophy and theology, recipes and to-do lists, slogans and advertisements. Some of them are forms of self-communication, such as the lists we make for ourselves. But most are given from the world around us.
Consider the images on the left, by the artists D. Ellis Phelps. They are invitations to a certain kind of dreaming, a certain way of imagining ourselves in the world and the world in ourselves. She names this image Shaman's Breath.
We live in a time when images have as pronounced effect on our consciousness as words. That's why students of philosophy understandably wish there were graphic novels illustrating philosophy. That's why, in a certain way, images communicate more effectively than words. Consider the role of photography in the world today. I like the photography of Maxine Payne, featured on the left. She offers photographs of real people in real settings, amid which you can taste something of their life stories in their faces and in the landscapes that surround them. As a photographer, she is also a storyteller.
We also live in a time when more people are coming to understand that stories are often more effective at communicating ideas than dry-as-dust prose. Of course many people have known this all along. Ask the rabbis, listen to the storytellers, talk to filmmakers, talk to poets: they understand. That's why students in philosophy understandably wish for graphic novels. They want images and stories.
Are they wrong to wish for this? Only if we think that ideas are only communicated through dry-as-dust prose. But who would ever think that?
Dreams as Subjective Aims
So what are waking dreams, anyway? From the perspective of process theology they are our subjective aims and motivations: the lures for feeling that guide our lives. These lures consist of two things at once: (1) possibilities for thought, feeling, and action and (2) imagined states of affairs in which they are or can be actualized. Whitehead calls them propositions. We might also call them proposals.
In Whitehead's philosophy proposals can be communicated through written and spoken words, but also by many other means, including images and sounds, gestures, and smells. As I write this a dog is lying at my side. She experiences lures for feeling through smells. The smells of a nice walk in the afternoon are, for her, lures for feeling. The odors help direct her waking dreams. They are her liturgy.
I say liturgy in honor of a writer for JJB -- the Reverend Teri Daily -- who reminds us that liturgy and ritual consist of propositions, too. For her the power of worship is by no means reducible to the words uttered by a priest or by a congregation. The power lies in what is felt and communicated through sound and touch, movement and image, collectively felt. An important feature of liturgy is indeed that it is a whole-body experience and that it is experienced by a group of people together.
This does not mean that the group experiences the propositions in the same way. Each person brings his or her life experience to the liturgical act. This is good. The meaning of a proposition -- say the proposition that God loves you -- will be felt differently by each you who feels it. The value of a liturgy is that gathers people into a single fold of persuasive power that makes space for differences. In this sense a liturgy is like a graphic novel; or perhaps better a theatrical act, except the participants are the actors in the play and they aren't just acting.
Graphic Novels as Theology
Liturgies are often nourished by sacred texts. This is true of Christian liturgies, Jewish liturgies, Muslim liturgies, Buddhist liturgies, and Hindu liturgies. For those who enjoy the nourishment, there is much to gain.
But perhaps the sacred texts are not quite enough for some people, both within and outside of these folds. They need to turn to other sources of imaginative enrichment, other ways of finding openings in the land of possibility. If the Lord of Dreams works in human life through dreams, it is important to look for other places in which the Lord may be at work.
Are graphic novels a form of theology, too? I am sure that they function that way. They function as invitations to imagine the world in different ways, to reflect on big questions, to enter into the adventure of the universe as one. They consist of stories and images, many of which tap into profoundly archetypal dimensions of the personal and collective unconscious.
Are they always healthy for human consumption? It depends on their content and also on the state of mind of the recipient. According to Wikipedia there are many genres of graphic novel: adventure graphic novels, crime graphic novels, erotic graphic novels, fantasy graphic novels, horror graphic novels, humor graphic novels, science fiction graphic novels, superhero graphic novels, and non-fiction graphic novels. There is no need for blanket generalizations on any front. The bottom line is this: In combination with other factors do they help people become creative, empathetic, thoughtful problem-solvers? Do they help people waltz into wider horizons of world loyalty so that they contribute to the well-being of the world? Do they help them become fat souls?
I borrow the idea of a fat soul from a character in one of Patricia Adams Farmer's novels: Fat Soul Fridays. Her name is Madeline, ahd she is a philosopher who seeks to influence her young friends using language they can understand, just like graphic novels do. She says:
“A beautiful soul is a large soul, one that can overcome the smallness and pettiness of our human condition. A really fat soul can welcome diverse people, ideas, and ways of being in the world without feeling threatened. A fat soul experiences the intensity of life in its fullness, even the painful side of life, and knows there is something still bigger . . .”
It seems to me that graphic novels can indeed be good theology if, in fact, they help people become fat souls of the kind Madeline describes. And it seems to me that Madeline, fictional as she might be, offers good theology for us all. It is theology that can and should be enriched by liturgy and acts of loving-kindness. The width of a fat soul is measured, not only by the content of her character but by the quality of her actions, and so often these actions are best undertaken as inspired by others who help guide our dreams, and they ours, in worshipful dances of one sort or another. Surely the Lord of Stories is a Lord of Dance, too.