Alternate Realities

Alternate Realities

Dreams are often more gratifying than waking thoughts.

Dreams take us wandering through imagined mindscapes where we break free from inhibitions, projecting ourselves into uncharted places. We soar on wings of desire, compensate for our frustrations of the previous day, effortlessly make everything possible – changing the colour of life, squaring the circle, reversing injustices, suspending death long enough to converse once again with departed loved ones.

In dreams we experience the potential as something real. There is no question of experiencing the actual.

Our dream perceptions have a shimmering, fluid, tingling, shifting, evanescent quality, like a personal mythology full of meaning that is only threatened when the harsh glare of morning wakes us up.

In the alternate world of dreams, there is nothing necessary about reality.

My début novel Mind the Gap occasionally dips into the grey zone between the fantastic, the dreamed, the grotesque and what we take for reality.

The gap between dreams and waking thoughts can be unsettling, as the Bulgarian literary critic Tzvetan Todorov reminds us in Introduction à la littérature fantastique, which examines alternate realities developed by Jean Potocki, Gérard de Nerval, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allan Poe and others:

“La littérature fantastique implique … non seulement l’existence d’un événement étrange, qui provoque une hésitation chez le lecteur et le héros; mais aussi une manière de lire…. Nous sommes maintenant en état de préciser et de compléter notre définition du fantastique. Celui-ci exige que trois conditions soient remplies. D’abord, il faut que le texte oblige le lecteur à considérer le monde des personnages comme un monde de personnes vivantes et à hésiter entre une explication naturelle et une explication surnaturelle des événements évoqués. Ensuite, cette hésitation peut être ressentie également par un personnage; ainsi le rôle de lecteur est pour ainsi dire confié à des personnages et dans le même temps l’hésitation représentée, elle devient un des thèmes de l’oeuvre; dans le cas d’une lecture naïve, le lecteur réel s’identifie avec le personnage. Enfin il importe que le lecteur adopte une certaine attitude à l’egard du texte: il refusera aussi bien l’interprétation allégorique que l’interprétation poétique.” (pp. 37-8)

My translation: “Fantastic literature implies not only the existence of a strange event causing both reader and protagonist to hesitate a moment; it is also a way of reading the text…. We now reach our definition of the fantastic. Three conditions have to be met. First, the text has to make the reader see the world of fictional characters as a world of real living people, but the reader hesitates between a natural explanation and a supernatural explanation of the events described. This hesitation must in turn be experienced by a fictional character, so the role of the reader is to be wrapped up in the world of the characters and to see hesitation as one of the defining themes of the work; the unsophisticated reader may even identify with the main character. Finally, the reader needs to interpret the text neither as allegory nor as poetry.”

Is there always such a hard-and-fast either/or difference between dreams and waking thoughts? Why contrast one with the other? What if projecting a dream and pursuing a line of thought sometimes go hand-in-hand? What if stretching one’s mind becomes a way of compensating, of projecting, like an inventor determined to turn his or her dream into reality? In the case of invention, the dream seems silver-etched on the mind, before it is realized in broad daylight.

The discovery of exoplanets is a good example of observations going hand-in-hand with speculation about alternate realities. I don’t mean to belittle the work of astronomers. Far from it.

Artist’s impression of Proxima Centauri b, c/o European Southern Observatory

We can now observe exoplanets, whether imaging them directly or cataloguing their transits indirectly. The closest exoplanet to Earth is Proxima Centauri b, which is 4.75 light-years away from us – or 37.843 trillion kilometres – so we won’t be able to travel there any time soon.

More than 4000 exoplanets have so far been confirmed. In addition, about 3000 more candidates are currently being studied. The number of known exoplanets doubles every 27 months. If there are 400 billion stars just in the Milky Way, then we may in a manner of speaking be “surrounded” by exoplanets in our own galaxy.

Which of these are incredibly hot carbon planets, covered with an outer crust of diamonds? Which have volcanoes, atmospheres, water resources? Which could, in theory, be inhabited by humans? Which already host other life-forms? How will we ever know? And why is the existence of alternate worlds so important to us?

To wonder about what we don’t know and can’t possibly experience is, for many people, far more attractive an occupation than to think things out in an A+B+C fashion. From utopias to mythical places and mystical visions to ideologies, science fiction and sheer fantasy, we are constantly projecting ourselves into imagined, alternate realities.

Biographers run the risk of developing alternate selves, making themselves out to be actors – no, protagonists – in the story they are telling. Sometimes they vent their own frustrations on the subject they have chosen for the biography. Sometimes the story itself takes over, wreaking havoc on the author … and the public. Novelists often develop alternate selves, placing them in fictionalized settings. These fantasy self-portraits weave in and out of the shadows of the mind, like the haunting variations on a theme sung by a Doppelgänger. What rings true? What rings false? What is imagined? What is really experienced?

Portrait of Sir Francis Bacon by Raphael Moreno

A man once told me he had consulted his vast library of esoteric books, penetrating long-lost secrets, and had discovered I was in reality the reincarnation of the Renaissance man Sir Francis Bacon! Very flattering, when I consider Bacon as a writer and natural philosopher; much less so, given what I know of Bacon’s personal life!

Was this alternate reality? Or altered reality?

I suppose this man was tempted to clean the slate, changing identities, morphing into someone else, as he wandered dreamlike in an imagined mindscape, and awarded himself fanciful distinctions in some other dimension…. How bizarre!

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PS: The feature image at the top of this blog, showing ghostly grey-blue dunes under a burgundy-and-caramel sky, is an inverted-colour version, flipped horizontally right-to-left, of a photograph I took in the Sahara Desert of Morocco.

The Saint

December 18, 2019

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