Monthly Archives: February 2016

Dream Time

DreamingLike most people, I seldom remember my dreams. When I do, or when only the powerful feeling remains, I know that they are very emotional events. Something is always going on, and my attention is riveted. I recently read J. Allan Hobson’s Dreaming: An Introduction to the Science of Sleep. It must be intimidating, I have to note right away, for a neuroscientist to write a book. Our understanding is changing so rapidly that even academic treatments become a kind of ephemera. Published over a decade ago, it shows its age. Even I’m aware that changes in brain science have occurred and perceptions have changed somewhat since then. What struck me most, however, is Hobson’s absolute confidence that mind is a function of the brain, and that dreams are merely the madness we experience when we sleep. The madness I don’t mind so much. The materialism, however, I think is largely wrong.

Consciousness remains a great unknown. There is disagreement around whether it is emergent—coming from the brain, or receptive—perceived by the brain. Or perhaps something completely different. One of the greatest human foibles is to claim that we understand anything completely. I’ve always been amazed—knowing that the world involves much more than just sight, sound, scent, taste, and touch—that some scientists are so quick to write off complex experience as “merely” activity in the brain. Some animals, for example, seem to perceive magnetic fields. Others use navigation devices we simply don’t comprehend. They may experience senses we don’t even have. And yet, we happily claim that we’ve gotten this one nailed down. Dreams are only activities in the brain when we sleep.

Only? How can any dreamer say that this is only chemical reaction in our heads? The experience of dreaming is, implicitly, so much more than just random thoughts. Hobson does a good job describing how dreams are a form of madness, a psychosis when the reasoning part of our brains are inhibited. Fair enough, but who can experience madness and think it completely material? Our minds are more complex, it seems to me, than we give them credit for being. Hobson begins the book by noting that dreams used to be within the purview of religion. Since has now claimed them. We have an entire universe in our skulls, and yet we insist that although we don’t understand it, we can be certain that it is nothing but material. My dreams continue to suggest a different reality.

Used Bookends

There’s nothing like spending a Saturday in a bookstore. It is actually a rare treat these days with Borders gone and some of the smaller indies having trouble keeping up. I particularly like used bookstores. Unlike most durable goods, books—at least some of them—grow in character with renewed ownership. Like most academics, I have books that had previously been owned by big names in the field. Sometimes because I was a student of one of their students, at other times because their library went for sale and I found the tome in a second-hand shop. A few years back I had to go to Boston for work, and I stopped at the Boston Book Annex only to find it closed. It’s sad when even a used bookstore can’t keep up.

So when my wife told me she had to work on Saturday, and it was in Montclair, my thoughts turned to the Montclair Book Center. It isn’t the largest bookstore around, but it does have used books and it is a healthy walk from my wife’s office. I never go planning to spend much, but being in a bookstore, you see things you didn’t know existed. When the staff comes up to ask if they can help me find anything I just smile and say, “No thanks, I just want to browse.” Maybe it’s because I have no idea what I’m looking for. I’ll know it when I see it.

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I used to visit the Cranbury Bookworm. In a sprawling old house outside Princeton, I often found pleasant, used surprises there. Then the landlord evicted them. They sold off most of their stock and moved to a closet down the street. Even though it’s tiny, there are always others there. I’m never alone in a bookstore. Other patrons feel the draw. I wonder if everyone who reads doesn’t owe a debt of obligation to stop into their local bookstore and pitch in. I grew up in a town without any bookstores at all. The nearest one I knew of was thirty miles away. I know what it is to be book-deprived. It’s Saturday, and a little too cold to spend much time outdoors. It’s probably just an excuse, but you’ll find me in the bookstore nevertheless.

Camera Obscura

There’s a certain etiquette to being on the bus. There has to be, when you pack fifty strangers together for an hour and shake gently. The seats on New Jersey Transit are somewhat intimate and it’s rare to make it through the journey without somehow touching the person next to you—elbows, knees, hips, or general body mass—worlds collide. I’ve mentioned before that not many people read old-fashioned books on the bus, but one of those unspoken rules of etiquette is that you don’t look at a stranger’s book. I’ve benefitted from that any number of times myself. People think odd things about you when you’re reading a book about religion in a public space. Not odd enough thoughts to earn you a seat alone, but still.

I was reading a book about an ancient Near Eastern religion the other day. For me it’s an occupational hazard. Those of us who have studied this stuff for a living keep on cranking out the books and somebody has to read them. Amid all the blue light from all the devices I often feel like I should be in a museum myself. It was with great surprise then, that my eye wandered onto the book next to me that day. I really couldn’t help it, you see. The woman who sat next to me and was using her cell phone to shed light on her book (the overhead lights don’t always work). She went to make a phone call but forgot to turn off the light so that it hit me right in the eye. Realizing her faux pas, she quickly turned it off, but my attention had been caught. In the book in front of her was a picture of the Narmer Palette. Narmer was the king who united ancient Egypt, according to the lore, and this stone ornament was the commemoration of his achievement. Anyone who’s studied ancient Near Eastern history would instantly recognize it. What were the chances? Two people sitting on a bus, reading actual books, both about the ancient Near East?

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Bus etiquette, as I understand it, doesn’t allow me to ask a stranger, “What’re you reading?” It’s kind of a personal question, really. I’ve been doing this commute for going on five years now. The number of books next to me has been negligible. But one related to the very topic I was reading about? Was this one of those “if you see something, say something” things? Instead I practiced custody of the eyes and went back to my own book. Then the other unthinkable: she talked to me. “Do you know where,” she began—“ancient Egypt!” I thought. But then she asked where a certain restaurant was. I apologized. I never pay attention to the businesses along the highway. I’ve always got a book to read. I thought about asking her about the book. She had, after all, breeched the dam of silence. Instead I turned back to my own book and didn’t notice when the bus reached a restaurant whose name I didn’t even know. That’s what etiquette demands.

Religious Monsters

Some colleagues and I are working to meet a deadline. I suppose I use the word “colleague” rather grandly, since they both have teaching positions, nevertheless, we have a common goal. We are fascinated by monsters and we’d like to see the American Academy of Religion dedicate a small section of its large annual meeting to them. We’d do all the work. At first glance, this might seem an odd topic for the serious study of religion. The fact is, however, that monsters are a part of human experience—at least in our imagination—and the conceptual space overlaps considerably with religion. Many monsters have their origins in religious thought. Some theorists go further than that and suggest the very concept of “monsters” comes to us, courtesy of religious beliefs. We can see it time and again in popular culture; the movie or television show, or novel that features monsters ventures into the territory of religion.

The reason for suggesting that this relationship be formalized is the fact that, although this connection exists, it has not be given adequate study. Monsters are the denizens of childhood imagination. When we grow up we leave our monsters behind. But not really. We just stop talking about them. With our mouths. The film industry knows that a horror film will generally draw in the lucre. Halloween has become a major commercial holiday. Stephen King is a household name. I’m not sure why all of this is so, but I think it might have something to do with repression. When we grow up we are taught there’s no such thing as monsters. Those who refuse to relinquish those beliefs are ridiculed. We have more important things to do. Things like making money. Deep down, however, we may still believe.

The fantastic and belief are intimate companions. In fact, belief is at the root of much of our experience. That’s not to say there are really monsters in the night, but at some level we believe there are. And we also believe that infinite deities control this infinite universe that may be only one of many multiverses. It just seems likely. Evidence may point in the other direction. Empirical proof is lacking. And yet, we believe. I’ve discovered a number of colleagues over the years who share this academic fascination with monsters and religion. I don’t know if we’ll be approved by the powers that be, but at least we will have begun to raise the question. What lurks behind it is a matter of belief.

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Under the Weather

A friend, knowing my penchant to watch the skies, sent me a story about the British and the weather. The story by Alastair Sooke on the BBC’s cultural page is discussing Alexandra Harris’s book Weatherland. I have to admit that I haven’t read the book (yet) but the report of it appeals to someone who’s written a book on the weather, but for a much older timeframe. According to Harris, according to Sooke, the British are rumored to be obsessed with the weather. While living in the United Kingdom, my wife and I observed this. It is not merely casual conversation when someone discusses the weather. It is a serious topic. For a nation so accustomed to rain and gloomy skies, the weather has a religious import. It rarely goes without comment. I suppose that’s the point I was trying to make in my book. The weather is important. Vital, in fact, to human survival.

What really caught my attention here, however, was Harris’s observation that weather is used to characterize mood. Sooke mentions ice and snow and melancholy. The image is vivid: early Anglo-Saxons turing a wary eye to a winter sky with its low clouds and preternatural chill. It is so universal, it seems, not to require comment. Yet at the same time, weather can be a great trickster. C. S. Lewis once wrote that the image of the Arctic north filled him with an inexplicable joy. Winter can be fickle that way. In the world of the Psalmists, rain was a blessing and a weapon. How you look at it depends, well, on your mood.

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The British may take their weather more seriously, on a day-to-day basis, than those of us across the Atlantic. We tend to treat the topic casually. In reality, it is just as serious here. Drought, which has gripped the western half of the country for about half a century now, is a serious concern. Winter storms, hurricanes, tornadoes. A lightning storm can still be a theophany. (One awoke me in the middle of the night, just hours ago.) Weather impacts our bodies as well as our moods. It is all-pervasive, but we generally don’t like to articulate it. I suspect our understanding of the weather says more about us than we’re willing to admit. Our British colleagues, however, are less squeamish about the topic than we tend to be. There’s more to the sky than it might appear.

Super Reality

Super NaturalReality is not often, if ever, what it appears to be. As creatures that evolved to survive in this particular environment, we have passed along and received the skills that make this possible. One of those skills is filtering. We filter out most of the stimuli that surround us daily (and nightly), and that with only five senses. We don’t experience reality as it is. It is with this in mind that I read The Super Natural by Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey Kripal. Perhaps unlike many who will read this book, my attraction was based on Jeffrey Kripal’s involvement. In anticipation, late last year I read Whitley Strieber’s Communion, but I have great respect for Jeffrey Kripal’s work, and consider anything he writes well worth the reading. This book, then, is a strange hybrid between the experiencer and the open-minded analyst who brings the toolbox of religious studies to what most academics dismiss as “the paranormal.”

This is one of those books that will distort perceptions of reality. That’s not because Strieber and Kripal simply accept each other’s versions of events or conclusions. They don’t. Both are free to disagree with one another. Kripal, as a recognized academic, brings something rare to the table. He is willing to listen to people who have experienced what standard approaches wipe away as “merely anecdotal.” Ask yourself: what do we have to say that isn’t anecdotal? We don’t experience all of reality, and the filters we use go both ways—what we perceive is filtered, and what we share with others is filtered. As much as a materialist may hate to admit it, she or he still has feelings. And our senses, keep in mind, can be fooled. We’ve all seen mirages or thought we heard something that nobody said. Our brains evolved with lots of false positives. Who are we to judge that someone else’s anecdote is impossible? That’s what super nature can do to you.

It is also refreshing to see that, although the day when a physicist’s name as a household word may have passed (excluding Sheldon Cooper, of course), those who remain recognizable from the past—Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Erwin Schrödinger—were not strict materialists. As The Super Natural points out, these foundational figures of quantum physics all turned to mysticism of some sort or another to help them come to grips with what the empirical evidence was showing. I do wonder how we’ve come, since then, to have so many brilliant people who have lost a sense of wonder about the anomalies that exist in everyday experience. Who hasn’t felt a shiver of pleasure at a particularly poignant coincidence or glitch in the matrix? Maybe most of us will never have as many uncanny experiences as Whitley Strieber, but we might be losing something valuable if we don’t at least listen to what he, and others like him, have to say.

Presidential Race

RooseveltsMy wife and I have been working our way through Ken Burns’ documentary, The Roosevelts. At first, it took a little persuading on my wife’s part. Of course I thought Teddy Roosevelt was an interesting character, and FDR may have been the last true Democrat to inhabit the Oval Office, but they were a rich family. American aristocrats. I’m glad she convinced me. Subtitled “An Intimate Portrait,” the fourteen-hour mini-series doesn’t idealize the three most famous Roosevelts (Eleanor is included too); they have their faults and foibles. One thing, however, has won me over time and again—these three genuinely cared for other people. Sure, there was ambition and fame involved, but their personal writings reveal that they believed it was the obligation of the wealthy to give back to society. Industry bosses hated them.

More than once I’ve found tears in my eyes as the narrative unfolds that includes people writing personal letters of praise, petition, and always hope, to a president whose New Deal was intended to ensure that as many people could be helped were. I keep thinking to myself—when is the last time we had a president who really cared about the people? I voted for Carter, Clinton, and Obama. I think they did, and are doing, okay. Of the three I saw Carter building houses for the homeless after his administration. I have seen Obama fighting back emotion at the senseless shooting of black youths by police. I think they care about people. Franklin Roosevelt, even after an assassination attempt, however, rode in open-topped cars. He drove on his own to talk to people and ask them how they were. He was a president who cared. Our presidents are now behind bulletproof glass.

Politics has a disenchantment in its wings. It has become a game the wealthy play. Even the most well-meaning Democrat has no hope against the wealthiest one-tenth of one-percent who hold all the power in their hands. Watching The Roosevelts it’s clear that it has been so since industrialization. Seeing the J. P. Morgans and even the less enlightened Roosevelts declaring politics had no business stopping their astronomical earnings is down-heartening. I almost cut up my Chase card in protest. The wealthy despise the poor against whom only they can be declared extraordinary. Today our presidents, well-meaning or not, are behind bulletproof glass. They are in the shadow of big money. And some of the hopefuls have even convinced many of their fellow citizens that the only way forward is to follow their cash all the way to the banks they own. It’s not a presidential race, it’s a game where diamonds are trump.