Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Thought About A Dream Within A Dream

I'm up to my eyeballs in essays to grade, and yeah, there's that PKD Weekly Roundup I want to write. But today I'd like to riff on an idea that occurred to me while watching Cronenberg's eXistenZ (now on Netflix instant watch). The movie uses the Dickian notion of the "dream within a dream" (a phrase coined by Poe, so exactly how Dickian the notion really is can be debated). Anyhoo, in the movie the main characters awaken into a number of wholly new realities, and we as the audience learn that the previous, seemingly stable realities were in fact some sort of illusion. Dick's use of this motif generates quite a list:
Time Out of Joint
Maze of Death
Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
Feel free to name some more in the comments section.

Likewise, Hollywood has become enamored with this motif and films that use this style hard reverse are in no shortage:
Dark City
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The Thirteenth Floor
The Matrix
The list goes on....

One way to think about this motif's popularity is to relate it to the way our own reality is basically a bubble. I mean go someplace else, someplace totally different, go far enough away so that the beliefs and worldview you hold become alien to the people around you. If you encounter a group of people who see the world in a fundamentally different way from you, you'll soon realize how subjective everything is. You'll see the way people travel within their presuppositions like a fish in water that's invisible to them. And you'll see that you do it too. It can be a powerful experience. Think about Barney Mayerson and how the alien-ness of Mars re-calibrates his priorities and allows him to regain some semblance of human dignity and humility.

But the idea that got me more excited was how these hard reverses reconstruct what Heidegger called our 'thrown-ness.' Check this:

"Heidegger proclaimed that we are ‘thrown’ into the world and that our Being-in-the-world is a ‘thrownness’ [Geworfenheit]. To Heidegger this concept is a primordial banality which had long been overlooked by metaphysical conjecture. Humans beings are thrown with neither prior knowledge nor individual option into a world that was there before and will remain there after they are gone (Steiner 1978). Heidegger wrote;

“This characteristic of Dasein’s Being – this ‘that it is’ – is veiled in its ‘whence’ and ‘whither’, yet disclosed in itself all the more unveiledly; we call it the ‘thrownness’ of this entity into its ‘there’; indeed, it is thrown in such a way that, as Being-in-the-world, it is the ‘there’. The expression ‘thrownness’ is meant to suggest the facticity of its being delivered over.”

No biology of parentage can answer the question of whence we came into Being. Neither do we know toward what end our existence has been projected, apart from our position in relation to death. Yet for Heidegger, it is this twofold mystery that makes the ‘thrown’ state of human life the more absolute and tangible. Human kind is ‘delivered over’ to a total, all-encompassing ‘thereness’ and Dasein must occupy this presentness and take it up into its own existence. Heidegger wished to emphasize the unmistakable ‘thereness’ of the world into which we are thrown (Steiner 1978)"

So when these characters are thrown into utterly new realities, they replay for us, in abrupt drama, our own sense of alienation we all feel because we can't really know our ultimate origins. Why are we here? Who made us? What is our purpose? We can't ever really answer these questions.

The revealing of a new level of reality is both stabilizing and destabilizing for us. The possibility that we could be hoodwinked into thinking this is the real world undermines lots of traditional philosophy and it even creeps some people out. On the other hand, once reality is shown to be an illusion and the character remains relatively unchanged, that speaks to the strength of the individual, and the personality's independence from the world around it.

But let's not forget that in every one of these hard reverse narratives the artificial reality has been produced for profit or other material gain. This speaks to the way our own surroundings are a capitalist tapestry of advertisements and hard-sold lifestyles. We are surrounded by an illusion otherwise known as 'The American Dream.' But any reality that dream once had is dissolving and so our experience under late capitalism is but a dream within a dream.


FCBertrandJr said...

You might want to include this:
in your riff dream within a dream. Also, PKD refers to Ludwig Binswanger more than once (in particular his concept of the "tomb world"), and Dr. Binswanger got some of his ideas from Heidegger. But then PKD was rather conversant with German culture (philosophy, music, poetry, etc.)

Joshua Lind said...

Love the phrase "hard reverse narrative"! That's a concise and effective way to refer to this technique. I also agree with your linkage to the capitalist social and economic backdrop.

Nathaniel K. Miller said...

The conclusion reminds me of something chilling and revealing Alan Moore said in his "Mindscape" film:

"The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory is that conspiracy theorists actually believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is chaotic. The truth is, that it is not the Jewish banking conspiracy or the grey aliens or the 12 foot reptiloids from another dimension that are in control. The truth is more frightening, nobody is in control. The world is rudderless."

Of course, I'm not entirely sure I believe this; as a PKD reader, "what if they really ARE out to get you?" is a persistent possibility.

ct-scan said...

I'm watching the movie now, had to comment that I noticed the take out place they get food from is called "Perky Pat's"

ct-scan said...

To add to my previous comment...even the end of the movie even has a sort of "How come you keep calling me Leo?" feel; except for there being no Palmer Eldritch.

Thanks for making me aware of this movie, it's one of the better sci-fi movies I've seen in a while. Also loving the "throw-ness" concept, certainly something PDK uses often.

Matthew said...

This post gave me the itch to re-watch eXistenZ for the first time in several years. What do I find less than 20 minutes in? A PKD reference! The first meal the protagonists eat while on the run is from a fast food joint named..Perky Pat's! I love it when my obsessions dovetail so nicely...