For his first commentary for 2009, Andrew Kania presents a provocative commentary examining the "living hell" that the world of illusion and fantasy can create in our lives. What's the answer to getting rid of our illusions, delusions and fantasies? Andrew's title for this essay is "Living Hell".
Dreams and illusions…
The Spanish priest and dramatist, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, in his work, La vida es sueño (Trans. Life is a Dream), tells of a King, Basilios, who has had a dream of a son being born to him who one day shall usurp his throne. Eventually Basilios incarcerates an infant prince in order to prevent the dream from becoming a reality. When the prince, Segismund, becomes a young adult, the King, filled with remorse asks one of his servants to reduce the amount of the drug that has kept his son in a stupor for all these years. He then orders that the truth be told to Segismund, so as to gauge whether the character of the young Prince would in reality be that of a murderer and usurper, as his dream had foretold.
At first Segismund does not believe what he hears, but then as he begins to touch people and the furniture around him, he starts to separate reality from illusion. Anger takes over, and Segismund becomes violent. The King orders his son to once more be drugged and imprisoned, but a rebellion ensues, as the populace now armed with knowledge of the truth have also begun to separate reality from illusion. Segismund eventually leads an army, and becomes an outstanding monarch: merciful, temperate and judicious; inspired by the fear of reverting to the 'dream' of prison.
As Segismund reasons in a soliloquy:
"There has to be a kind of happiness that lasts forever. And who'd want to destroy that just for a moment's pleasure? Every past happiness is just a dream. Is there anyone here who hasn't thought back to some happy time and thought: 'It all feels like it was just a dream?' There's a thought that kills all illusion, there's a thought makes every pleasure seem like a candle flame easily blown out by the first breath of wind. I have to look for more than that I have to look for something that lasts forever, some living, ever-burning flame where happiness never ends and great things are not forgotten". (Calderón, 1998, pp. 91 – 92)
A fantasy sculptured in the mind…
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, offers us an insight into how illusions and fantasy can, like a creeping dusk, begin to blinker our vision of the Real. On March 18, 1958, in Louisville, Kentucky, Merton was running a simple errand, when at an intersection, he stopped to look at the people busily walking around him. At that moment – that simple moment, Merton began to realize that his perception of the monastic isolation from the outside world, an isolation that he had felt had marked him apart from the common man, was in fact a fantasy that he had sculptured in his mind. He was a person, with a heart beating in his chest, and lungs rising and falling with each breath; those who walked busily around — were members of his family, in a true, immediate sense.
Reflecting on this epiphany later, Merton would write:
"At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will … It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely … I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere". (Harmless, 2008, p. 31)
In both cases: Calderón's fable and Merton's recollection, we have a similar exploration of the human person trapped between reality and fantasy.
John Scotus Eriugena (815-877), offered his ninth century audience a polemic that exposed the relationship between 'phantasy' and 'hell'. As Donald Duclow in Masters of Learned Ignorance writes:
"Phantasy mediates between the human mind and all sensible and intelligible realities, and is therefore essential to knowledge. Nutritor defines 'phantasia' as 'a kind of image or apparition taken from visible or invisible firm and impressed upon the memory.' Phantasies derive from two sources. Sensible objects impress images upon exterior sense, and intelligible things upon the internal sense. These impressions then flow as 'two streams' into memory, which retains them as phantasies. Within memory, these phantasies or images nourish the human mind and will by giving them something to work on". (Duclow, 2006, pp. 129 – 130)
Preying on modern man and woman, phantasy certainly does. According to Duclow's analysis of Eriugena's concept of hell, "the damned will suffer no physical punishment, but will torment themselves in their obsessive wills and phantasies". (p. 138). Hell is therefore not the geographic place of internal fires and red-hot pokers, but a state of 'un-being' a place in which the human potential is eternally unfulfilled, caught up in a series of addictions to phantasies — a slave to what the individual has allowed to permeate their consciousness and to nurture in the recesses of their mind. Duclow concludes:
"For not only are obsessive desires and perverse, destructive wills still with us, but the last one hundred years have brought a vast expansion of phantasy's power. Film, radio, television, and computers have spawned new worlds of virtual reality. We all know the seductive power of these worlds, their ability to absorb us, distract us, and create needs we never knew existed before. Indeed, Eriugena's hell looks remarkably like our world". (p. 138)
Much food for thought...
Duclow's interpretation of hell, provides much food for thought. Bombarded, confronted, and sensually assaulted, the modern individual in the Western world must in some way find personal fulfilment within a jungle of advertisements on radio and television, that tells them, how they should look, what they should wear, and how they should feel — what they need to be truly happy. The media, driven by profit, is not as remorseful as fabled Basilios was for his son. Not only do we have 'reality' television, but in watching someone else's 'scripted reality', we simultaneously turn our lives into fantasy. Like Segismund, our lives become more and more absurd by all that rants and churns around us. Within this precarious jungle, we cling on to some semblance of sanity, seeking that one thought that will shatter all these illusions; that will give meaning to life, that will prevent living from becoming a mere existence. We wait for that singular thought that will redound as the Easter bell in Goethe's Faust, to snap us from a stupor that leads to Eriugena's Hell. For Eriugena's hell is that place where one knows not who they are — for never having sought to take a step along the inward journey, to discover the potential that lies within, 'that point of pure truth', that Merton spoke about.
The second century theologian Clement of Alexandria, in a prophetic passage, speaks to the modern in a fashion that seeks to rouse the spirit from stupor of fantasy:
"We humans have the faculty of reason. Therefore, we should not be carried away by mere appearances. Rather, we should look beyond them. The powers of evil hold out beautiful sights to humans, such as worldly honors, adulteries, fleshly pleasures, and similar alluring fantasies. They try to lure men the way a herdsman leads cattle with food. They deceive those who can't tell the difference between true and false pleasure. Or between fading beauty and that which is holy. Having deceived such people, they lead them into slavery. Each false allurement leaves its imprint on the spirit by constantly pressing against it. By our falling for the bait, our soul unwittingly carries about the imprint of our fleshly desires". (Clement of Alexandria, 1990, p. 57)
The first step to winning our freedom and our lives back, lies in that singular, critical moment in which, as Augusto in Unamuno's Niebla, we realize that we are in fact, all of us, breathing and pulsating mysteries who have a reality created in us by that which is most Real. By acknowledging this, illusion and fantasy lose their allure, and we begin to live. Life becomes precious for we, each one of us, is an icon of a Reality greater than ourselves. What Iris Murdoch wrote in an essay in Existentialists and Mystics, is applicable to the striving of the modern man or woman:
"It is in the capacity to love, that is to see, that the liberation of the soul from fantasy consists. The freedom which is a proper human goal is the freedom from fantasy, the proliferation of blinding self-centered aims and images, is itself a powerful system of energy, and most of what is often called 'will' or 'willing' belongs to this system. What counteracts the system is attention to reality inspired by, consisting of, love." (Murdoch, 1997, p. 354)
Love demands the good of the other, and as such cannot tolerate fantasy; love is real, and for love to grow it must continue to be real.
Living — and dying — for illusions…
The history of humanity reveals how we live and die for illusions. One man leaves a loving wife and blue-eyed son and drowns in a trench full of mud for an Archduke who would never have given him time of day; another leaves his studies so as to die for a nation that will less than a generation later be on the best of terms with that of his enemy; another who has told his mother he is out to visit friends, seeks to take the lives of people sitting in a restaurant, their crime being that they practice a different creed or are of a different race, and yet decades later, through the bars of his cell, he will gaze at his grandchild, a product of an interracial marriage.
We live in illusions; we cling, and anchor ourselves on to rocks that in time crumble for want of reality. We bypass the gates of heaven — for being distracted by ephemeral neon signs that hearken us, hither and tither — to there and nowhere; to rooms that leave us alone and empty, fretting at the sound of our beating hearts; left as Segismund not knowing who we are, or what is the meaning behind the drawing of breath. Such a state of un-being amounts but to a living hell!
©2009 Dr Andrew Thomas Kania