Sunday, February 07, 2016

living the dream

When I contemplate how my perspective changed—or didn't—as I gave up following insufficiently corroborated beliefs, I could compare it to living in a somewhat unreal "world" shaped by those beliefs. The typical illustrations of it from movie or television sci-fi are the Holodeck on Star Trek starships...and of course the Matrix. The flaw of these illustrations is that they're pictured as too, well, flawless. My principles of understanding metamorphosed into a Pragmatist-ish style years ago. On that basis, the breaking point of my former beliefs was precisely the noticeable flaws between the world I perceived and reckoned and the world that those beliefs should have implied. The seams were there all the time, but I didn't thoroughly realize that.

I consider the closer illustration to be the dream trap in the "Perchance to Dream" episode of Batman: The Animated Series, which I remembered after using Professor X as an illustration of something else recently (because my first exposure to X was also a '90s TV series). At the episode's very start, Batman is ambushed and hooked up to a device that forces him to vividly dream as if he were awake. The illusion is the setting of almost all scenes. It begins with him "waking up" at home. He goes through the day as a Bruce Wayne whose parents are alive and retired. He has imminent marriage plans with Selina Kyle. He's the formal owner though not the manager of his father's company. With his parents alive, he hasn't remade himself as Batman. There isn't a bat cave or any of his other standard equipment. His memories of reality are apparently as clouded to him as memories of a dream typically are.

As it proceeds, this episode includes four details that resonate with my experience. First, the figures around him collectively question Batman's (Bruce in their eyes) questioning. They tell him that these circumstances are totally normal; his frantic disorientedness is the curiosity. They're tenderly concerned about him and his mental state. They aren't callous or coercive or abusive. The dream is a jail, but they aren't acting like jailers. To some extent, their pressure eases Batman toward momentary enthusiasm for his replacement life. I can relate. The impulse to share the same beliefs as the people most important to me, as well as their complacency about the beliefs' accuracy, were partly why I was slow to explore my criticisms. I needed to grow comfortable with ignoring the impression that these criticisms had to be eccentric abnormalities of mine, because everybody else didn't seem as bothered. I was never mistreated or insulted whenever I hesitantly voiced these accumulating criticisms, but I was nudged, however tacitly, toward not disrupting my fellow believers too much with quibbles they didn't focus on.

Second, every time Batman reads something in the dream, the letters and words are jumbled. This is a repeated clue he must not be awake in the real world. In my case, I found that my beliefs were routinely jarring with knowledge obtained from other sources. I wasn't translating that knowledge into gibberish, but I felt like I was forced into viewing it with almost the same level of incomprehension. My beliefs and the outside knowledge were opposed. To continue following the beliefs, that knowledge needed to function to me like lies—or nonsense. And like in the episode, the telling factor was the consistent pattern. Though the issues might be demoted to trifles, the pervasiveness was troubling. It cropped up in multiple fields of independent study. I'd encounter the discontinuity by picking up a book, visiting a website, or turning the TV channel (e.g. I saw the NOVA coverage of Kitzmiller v. Dover prior to the time period I pronounced myself an atheist).

Third is probably the most thought-provoking element: Batman exists in the dream. More specifically, a mysterious "Batman-2", whose appearance is identical, keeps law and order on the streets. Batman—the dreaming protagonist Batman-1—is shaken and intrigued. The times when he says that he thinks that he's Batman, his hearers conclude that he's purely expressing a deeply confused envy of Batman-2. (On the assumption that the whole dream is formed from his wishes, the indication is that he would still wish for there to be a Batman if he weren't the same traumatized person.) Finally, the recurring sight of Batman-2's heroics—the stark reminder of his more ambitious self outside the dream—unnerves him so severely that he decides to instigate a meeting between the two rectangular-jawed men. For my past self, Batman-2 could have symbolized the form of inner reflection that was tightly restricted: adventurously pursuing the trail of signals wherever it led like a stoic, hard-bitten detective would. And it was similarly connected to a persistent, periodic undertone of awareness that my safer identity was predicated on suppressing that part of me. I had the somewhat guilty hunch that I could be someone else: someone who would absorb higher quality beliefs and be less conflicted overall. Just as acknowledgment of the second detail required honesty about the beliefs' contradictions with outside knowledge, acknowledgment of this third detail required honesty about the beliefs' contradictions with my personal best evaluations of accuracy/plausibility/logical consistency.

Fourth is Batman's unequivocal refusal near the end of the story to "live a lie". He's deduced, and received confirmation, that he's dreaming. He knows that he could possibly live a happier (but less interesting or challenging) existence...but he won't. Given his degree of fanatical, sacrificial commitment to his mission, he can hardly decide to give it up. To not be Batman would be unbearable. Pushed to this limit, he rather speedily opts for suicide as a potential escape. It works, obviously. He jolts awake and frees himself from the helmet device responsible. I'm not seriously about to state that I ever took an equally drastic risk. That said, turning away from specific beliefs and habits and in-groups represents killing the markers of earlier self-identity. Altering behavior to align with different beliefs, and bringing on the disagreeable ramifications, is distinct from solely pondering the beliefs.

I appreciate that my history or views aren't archetypal. My application of this episode certainly doesn't argue that its authors intended it to be used as such—not any more than the author of The Silver Chair would've intended the comparisons I extracted from that book. I'm not claiming that "Perchance to Dream" is a unique or ideal usage of the essentially uncomplicated story idea of tempting the hero with a fantasy. At least it's a highly distilled 22 minute example, broadcast widely, on a show regarded well enough to inspire a podcast to analyze it psychologically, for instance. And it's the one that captures the topsy-turvy transition of exposing the falseness of the standpoint passed down to me.

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