Prophecy And Propaganda As Compensatory Fantasy

In a footnote in his chapter on Herder in Three Critics of The Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2000, p. 231), Isaiah Berlin writes:

Like other passionate propagandists, Herder pleaded for that which he himself conspicuously lacked. As sometimes happens, what the prophet saw  before him was a great compensatory fantasy. The vision of the unity of the human personality and its integration into the social organism by ‘natural’ means was the polar opposite of Herder’s own character and conduct….It has frequently been remarked that it is tormented and unbalanced personalities–Rousseau, Nietzsche, D. H. Lawrence–who celebrate with particular passion physical beauty, strength, generosity, spontaneity, above all unbroken unity, harmony and serenity, qualities for which they had an insatiable craving.

Great artists (writers) are very often ‘passionate propagandists’ and ‘prophets,’ and Berlin is right to note that their creative urges often manifest themselves in their theorizing–by the creation of alternative worlds that are decked out in the colors they find lacking in the ones they currently inhabit.

The prophet in particular, sustains his vision of the world he has seen by underwriting it with his own desires and imaginings; the world he describes is the world he would like realized; it is visible to him because  his longings make it come alive. The more acutely sensed the absence of a particular quality in the present world, the more vividly is its presence articulated in the dreamed of world, the more unambiguous the revelation. Berlin does not mention Freud here, but he might well have by his invocation of a ‘compensatory fantasy.’ The prophet’s visions and revelations are wish fulfillments; they make concrete, in relatively unambiguous form, his hitherto unconscious (or not) fantasies and desires and longings.

The propagandist, similarly, finds his pen and prose animated by these as yet unrequited longings; they bring his polemics to life; they make them stir and summon others to action. The successful propagandist is able to enlist and recruit others to help realize his desired for vision; the success of this task depends on how successfully he is able to transmute the force of his need into the clarity and beauty of his depiction of the desired state. Through his claims he can create a need where none had existed before; he is able to convince his ‘followers’ that his needs are theirs now; the desired for world is one whose absence they sense in their own lives.

Our theoretical frameworks are not just autobiographies, as Nietzsche had suggested, they are also fantasies of the way we would like the world to be. What we find lacking in our lives, we find instead in the theoretical claims we make, in the arguments we adduce in their favor. When we defend our theories and our arguments, we are not engaging in idle academic speculation (or should not be); we are (or should be) engaged in attempting to bring to life a hoped-for world whose presence we can dimly sense in thought and dream and fantasy.

My First Nightmares

There are times when my almost-three-year-old daughter will wake up in the middle of the night, crying inconsolably. Calming her down and putting her back to sleep is a trying business at best. We have been reliably informed that this age sees the child experience her first nightmares; perhaps those nocturnal visitors are responsible for these startled and frightened reactions. I wonder what she makes of them: these strange phenomenal experiences that occur during a period of ostensible unconsciousness.

My daughter’s experiences remind me of my first nightmares (the ones I can remember.) I was then a little over five years, used to sleeping in a bedroom with my elder brother. The nightmares followed two templates; one was of being buried alive. The other is a little harder to describe–and yet, its bare details are still clearly visible to me after all these years.

As the dream began, I would find myself in a boat, moving slowly through a large expanse of, not water, but some other mysterious substance. Sometimes it looked liked pebbles, on other occasions, it might well have been little metallic spheres. I do not remember how I was propelled through this ‘sea’ but there were no oars to be seen. Some mysterious force moved me onwards; as it did so, I could see the furrows our path made, trailing out behind my mysterious vehicle. This by itself, would not have been overly frightening but the setting made it so. I was surrounded on all sides by an encroaching darkness; only the boat, and its immediate surroundings were lit up. Not from on high; there did not seem to be a spotlight shining down on me. There was just a mobile island of light that moved through this otherwise Stygian night. I could sense terrors lay in the darkness around me; I could feel them press in on me, but I could not discern their shape or form.

I found this recurring nightmare terrifying; so much so that I confessed to my parents I did not want to go to sleep for fear of traveling to that god-forsaken body of water. I sensed that one night whatever lay behind that surrounding veil of darkness would reach out and draw me in, never to return to the light.

My mother did what she could; she sat by me as she tucked me in for the night, whispering reassurances in my ear about the unreality of my visions. She assured me I could always wake myself up from a dream, that I could remind myself it was only a dream, that I could always call her if I needed. I do not remember if these words of comfort helped during the actual experience of the dreams that followed. They did make it easier to fall asleep. The nightmares, as might have been expected, ceased after a little while, and my still-developing mind found new preoccupations.

I have never attempted an analysis of this still-vivid experience; someday, perhaps on a couch with an attentive listener nearby, I will. (Or perhaps I’ll just take a crack at it here.) In the meantime, I can only hope that I will be as much of a comfort to my daughter as my mother was to me.

Lucid Dreaming: A Pleasant Side-Effect of Sleep Disruption

A disrupted night’s sleep is one of the unfortunate concomitants of parenthood; rumor has it that so terrible is the toll that it extracts that some are scared off procreation altogether. Rare is the parent of the infant or toddler who has not tendered a complaint about sleep deprivation to his bored, unsympathetic, childless friends and family. (The wise ones tell it to the ‘been there, done that’ crowd.)

But like most of life’s dispensations, this one is not unmixed in the blessings and curses it tenders. As but a trivial example, a disturbed morning’s sleep means that I can rise early to catch the opening session of the live telecast of a cricket game being played six time-zones away. But by far the most pleasurable side-effect of disrupted sleep are the lucid dreams that result when you do manage to fall asleep again. An amateur chemist scheming to produce a new best-selling psychotropic drug might do well in aiming to produce some of these effects in his  intended product.

I first noticed the intense imagery and quasi-hallucinatory sensations present in the dreaming during a sleep session following disruption in the most unfortunate of ways: during painful, hungover mornings. On those occasions, I would awake early in the morning, my head pounding, my mouth cotton-dry, and stumble out to the kitchen to partake of painkillers and water, and then stumble back into bed to sleep it off. Then, I noticed that as I would fall asleep, I would be entertained by all manners of colorful, vivid dreams; their most startling feature was, almost invariably, the sensation of flight.

Somehow, magically, I would have acquired the powers of airborne locomotion; I could swoop, plummet, hover, soar, dive; I would acquire aerial perspectives on familiar landscapes; so realistic were some of these episodes that I would also experience the sickening vertigo that I unfortunately suffer from when confronted with heights. But the lucidity of these dreams quickly conquered the vertigo, for I was able to reassure myself that no harm could come to me during the dream.

The lucidity of these dreams very quickly enhanced their pleasures; as the dream begins, I feel a rush of pleasurable anticipation; I know a familiar, and yet endlessly varied, pleasure lies ahead. The pleasure at the dream-borne flights that soon follow is considerably enhanced by my knowledge that it is only in these dreams that I will be able to enjoy the pleasures that the considerably more intrepid than me enjoy during activities like hang-gliding or para-sailing.  Because the dreams are lucid, I enjoy greater control over my flight, and often, even over the visual effects I seem able to produce in my dreamscapes.

So pleasurable are these dreams that I am able to comfort myself, as I cast about, hoping to fall asleep after I have been awakened by a few wails that even if I will have been denied my rightful allotment of hours of sleep, the few that will come my way will be pleasurably entertaining and continuously edificatory about the mysteries of human phenomenal experience.


Copy-Editing and Proofing Nightmares With a Twist

Dreams are revealing and so, I have never talked about my dreams on this blog. And perhaps that struck me as too self-indulgent. But that is a decidedly strange decision because, from time to time, I have indulged in many autobiographical ramblings here. Today, I’m going to recount one from last night, most certainly one of the most singular I have ever experienced, one worth recapitulating because it is about books, writing and anxiety, and so it should resonate with those who write. And those who are anxious. (The intersection of those two sets is huge.)

So, the dream. I cannot quite place the location or time, but the setting is quite clear: I am in a large room with windows and a large desk in front of me. I am working on a manuscript, a book of mine, brought to me for copy-editing and proof correction by, get this, a human messenger. That’s right; this manuscript has not been emailed to me by a publisher for correction. Rather, a large burly man, I think only partially clothed, and I think, glistening with sweat, a cross between a palace guard and a championship wrestler, has personally carried over it to me. I do not remember his features too well, but he is definitely muscular and bare-chested. He resembles more than anything else, an executioner of sorts, someone, who if provoked, might easily turn to violent reprisal or correction. I am to correct it, make all the necessary changes, and then hand it back to ‘Ol Hermes here to carry to back to the publisher. So I get to work; I feel compelled to.

As I work through the book, I make corrections with a pencil. Suddenly, I stop and look at my corrections; they strike me as illegible. Yes, even I, their writer, cannot quite make out what my corrections, strikeouts, and amendments amount to. They need decipherment, and I will have to do so quickly. In an effort to seek reassurance, to assuage a suddenly manifest anxiety, I call over the messenger, and point him to the scribbles, saying ‘I seem to have marked up the book quite badly. What do I do?’ My man merely grunts, and says, ‘Finish it up, and then we’ll go through it together.’ At first, this strikes me as impractical but then I reason to myself that it will not be too bad. Surely, it can’t take more than a day. Reassured, I return to work.

But things get worse. I notice there is new, strange, unfamiliar text in the book. Not just simple typos or text manglings. Rather, there are illustrations I have never seen before, and even worse, entire passages of text that seem to have appeared by magic, inserted by an anonymous hand. Finally as crowning insult or injury, there is an entire new section written in first person describing experiences that I have never had. I stop, unable to continue to any more. Who has done this? I realize that I am not just perplexed or irritated or angry. I am scared. In part, it is because I am anxious. How can I make the required corrections? I don’t have the source file; this is a typeset file; I will have to strike out, replace; it all seems to be bubbling up into a chaotic, irredeemable mess. But even more fundamentally, I feel the fear of the violated. Someone has taken a hammer to my  Pietà; someone has reached out, cuffed me on the ears, slapped me across the face, and told me, bluntly, that they can get change my work, modify its meaning, become its author, without asking me for permission; who, why?

At this point, the dream starts to fade as my fear and anxiety build. This is a normal turn of events in dreams of mine where the anxiety levels become unbearable. I think I call Hermes to show him the mess, to ask him if he knows anything about how this mutilation might have taken place. But—and I cannot remember clearly now—it is not as if he has anything useful to offer. Why would he know? His is not to reason why; it is only to transport the text back and forth. And the dream comes to an end.

I started writing this blog post shortly after waking up in the morning so the details as I can remember them are as clear as they can be.  I’m still perplexed by it. I wonder if the messenger symbolizes the tyranny of the deadline, the fear of contract cancellation, or the implacable inflexibility of the publisher. And copy-editing is hard, tedious work, of course, leaving behind many a scar worn in by memories of endless, iterative checks. But the most interesting emotional response of mine, I think, was the fear that someone had the power to change what I wanted to say before I could say it, to modify my written word before it saw its way into print.