Tuesday, 28 February 2012


I received a new SIM card from my telephone company. Foreseeing that the data on the old one would be lost, I took some time entering all my contacts’ numbers into a separate document. In alphabetic but entirely random order, people and events rose up before me: those I knew from secondary school, from the trip to Russia, from my three years at Roosevelt Academy, from my one year at Leuven, from seminary… Some of the numbers I knew to be outdated. Others I had hardly ever used. Yet I kept them all, just so I would be able to stumble on them a few years hence and remember.

There was a time when I typed up the text messages I received, because I always had to delete them to make room for others. After more than one hundred messages, I stopped copying. Others I saved for a long time, like Anne’s offer to pick me up when I got stranded for a night at Roosendaal station. Then there were some that I never deleted: ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins.’

Anne making arrangements to meet me before I left for America. Phoebe’s wish on New Year 2009: ‘Be thou blessed.’ The trip to Rome, the first meeting with Dr. Desmond, graduation. Appointments with Carel, Mary, and others. My friend’s wedding at which I was a witness. Getting lost at World Youth Day in Madrid. The last message I got from Bodi.

In the end it does not amount to much, like all the school stuff I saved for years and years, only to throw most of it away without regret. But that, too, is a function of memory: it reminds us that most of our life is ash and stubble. Straw, as one saint would have it – a judgment which the Church carefully preserved and admired, though often without assent.

Already we are returning to dust.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012


What is the distinction between dream and reality? This question, which goes back to far before Descartes, is brought to our attention by the movie Inception. In this movie, the first ‘reality’ we see turns out to be the deepest level of a dream, and the whole story revolves around the question how we can tell which is which.

Dreams are private, so one theory goes, and reality is common to all; moreover, dreams are irrational and outside of our control, unlike reality. I have tried to find adherents of this theory to engage them in dialogue, but they were in Yusuf’s basement, busy constructing a shared dream. Their custodian asked me, ‘Who are you to tell them what is real?’ And Eames said, ‘It’s all the flow of information, darling, just like the real world.’

Perhaps there is a flaw in the idea that dreams and reality are like two different houses, so that you are either in one or in the other. On the contrary: when I am in a dream, I am still in reality, or I would have to go out of existence. Moreover, not only the dreamer but also the dream is real (it’s a real dream). In a dream we may see places, people or events which we have seen or will see when awake. And even the more whimsical dreams can express real desires or traumas.

In reverse: people can live in a dream world while being thoroughly awake and caffeinated. Like the dictator who believes the people love him – or the people who believe they love the dictator, while actually loving a shadow and a dream, an image and idol of their own making. This occurs not only in dictatorships. We may have wide-eyed dreams of being respected, skilled, right, or even of being a no-nonsense, down-to-earth kind of person.

Yet there is a distinction between dream and reality; we know this through the experience of waking up. In waking up, we discover that our dreaming imagination was unconscious of that which enabled it: human brains in a sleeping body with senses made for the outside world, and all sorts of previous impressions.

The ancient Greeks called reality en-ergeia, ‘in-working’, that which determines what a being is and does. Energeia admits of degrees: one being is capable of more than another precisely because it is more, because it has a deeper reality. Thus, a human has a deeper energeia than his shadow or dream, which are completely dependent on him. These are unreal when compared to humans, but yet have their own reality. Their existence indicates the presence and activity of a higher or deeper existence. Think of people running away from a shadow, not because they fear the shadow but the presence it points to. Similarly, dreams can move armies (Iliad), create royal stewards (Genesis), confirm marriage plans (Gospel of St. Matthew), or cause conversion (Le prix à payer). Dreams can be at the basis of therapies, poems, philosophies and stories. And movies.

In all these cases, a single person’s dream impacts the lives of many. In Inception, however, the dream is consciously constructed by a team of people. It very carefully distorts reality to make the dreamer see it differently. Is such shared dreaming possible?

Let us first ask another question: how real are the makers of the dream, busy with planning, escaping and realizing their desires? According to Mal, they themselves are dream images; real reality, the energeia forming the dream, would be a higher plane of existence. In that case, the dreamers themselves would be the dreamed. But who could be their dreamer? I have come across a number of theories, suggesting Dom Cobb, Mal, Saito, Ariadne…but the possibility that immediately seemed obvious to me is that Inception is a ‘dream’ of Christopher Nolan, the director. He is using a screen as his dream machine to suck us in.

1) Dreams in Inception have been carefully constructed by one or multiple human minds.
2) People from outside the dream, who know the design, participate in it.
3) Dreams are not copies of reality, but neither are they detached from it.
4) Dreams can even cause actions in the real world, like splitting a business or suicide.
5) Dreams are not pure technology: even the most experienced dreamer cannot prevent his desires, doubts and guilt feelings from intruding, because his mind creates the dream.
1’) Inception has been carefully constructed by script writers, the makers of the set, etc.
2’) Actors who know the plot become characters in the movie.
3’) We can relate Inception to our own experience, despite the imaginary elements.
4’) Inception can cause blogposts. It really can.
5’) (I’ll leave this for Christopher Nolan.)

So the dreams within Inception tell us something about Inception itself as a work of art. The possibility of levels within a dream may alert us to the fact that characters like Arthur and Dom only sleep and wake within the dream Nolan has shared with us. Nolan is thus much more real than they are, for he is as real as all of us.

Which means what exactly?

If there are gradations in reality, who guarantees that the world in which Nolan lives and moves – our world – is not a dream world in comparison to a world on a higher plane of reality? Are we dreamed and dreaming, artists and artworks both? A pragmatist would consider this question unanswerable and irrelevant. Yet its irrelevance is not self-evident. As the discovery of various sources of energy has been highly conducive to human welfare, so the discovery of a higher energeia or reality at the basis of our world might be similarly beneficial. As for its unanswerability: well, here is an attempt to answer it reasonably.

Limbo City is dependent on Dom Cobb, yet Dom, in constructing it, depended on his own experiences and memories, things he had not invented; thus Dom cannot be the highest reality. Dom is dependent on Nolan, but Nolan himself depended on experiences, filming apparatus, actors, crewmen, things and people he had not thought up; thus Nolan is not the highest reality. Neither are we.

We have not invented the world, nor has the world invented us. Still we coexist in interaction with each other: let us say, on the same narrative level. Therefore, there must be a higher reality or energeia, a ‘greater realness’ which has invented our composite world as one story. The material components of our world could no more create the unity and coherence of our world than a DVD could produce a movie; matter, like a DVD, is a carrier of information. But who provides the information? Only a mind could do that. There must be a thinker more real than our world put together, because our whole world exists in his mind; that is to say, we are like a dream image of his. We may be real, but only with our own degree of reality, like the characters we invent.

The most real reality lies higher (or deeper). More could be said: Inception shows us that lower levels depend on higher levels for their content. Limbo City contains many elements from Dom’s normal surroundings; these in turn are derived from Nolan’s world. Since our reality is a composite whole, we deduced that it must depend on yet another. Yet this chain of dependence cannot stretch back indefinitely: if there is no first provider of information, nothing will ever be given form. But this means that the first ‘informer’ cannot live in a world with other things, previously formed, which could shape his mind. He does not live on the highest level – the highest level is simply who he is. He does not live in a world; the worlds live in him. The most real being is a master of dreams.

No doubt these are abstract speculations – ‘abstract’ meaning ‘drawn out’ and a ‘speculation’ something seen in a specula, a mirror: that is, a coloured shadow. Yet the highest reality cannot be so thin and tenuous. After all, all the inspiration for all things in all worlds comes from him: all beauty in our world, all height, depth, power, profundity and worth will have to be present in this form-giver, this super-energeia, though in a more real and vivid way than we encounter them. Which makes the highest form-giver simultaneously the top model, delightful and lovable. A certain Aurelius (not the Stoic emperor) sought to put this into words:

‘Not material beauty or beauty of a temporal order; not the brilliance of earthly light, so welcome to our eyes; not the sweet melody of harmony and song; not the fragrance of flowers, perfumes, and spices; not manna or honey; not limbs such as the body delights to embrace … And yet, when I love him, it is true that I love a light of a certain kind, a voice, a perfume, a food, an embrace: but they are of the kind that I love in my inner self, when my soul is bathed in light that is not bound by space; when it listens to sound that never dies away; when it breathes fragrance that is not borne away by the wind; when it tastes food that is never consumed by the eating; when it clings to an embrace from which it is not severed by fulfilment of desire. This is what I love…’

Friday, 3 February 2012

A Brilliant Process

Late in following their Protestant counterparts, Catholic biblical scholars have now generally accepted the theory that the Pentateuch originates from four main sources, compiled centuries after Moses. Even those who are skeptical of the theory do not often argue for the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, probably because it would be very difficult to do; it’s a bit like defending a young earth. Sure, you can punch holes in your opponents’ theories and answer their objections, but in the end, you accept a young earth or Mosaic authorship mostly because of an old tradition which you consider weightier than the complicated new theories. However, the reigning idea is that convictions should grow out of reason’s investigation, not float on the pool of Why Not.

I have to admit, Mosaic authorship appeals a lot more to my sensibility than the JEDP theory. The Christian story revolves around persons, individuals with a particular brilliance (in the sense of splendour and significance). Adam, for instance, as the first man. People have tried to make Adam disappear into a cloud of human ancestors, but as Pope Pius XII pointed out in Humani Generis, it is ‘in no way apparent’ how that could ever be reconciled with original sin. David, as the great king who unified Israel and was also a great poet – but of course his authorship of the Psalms is questioned. Solomon, traditionally considered the wisest person between Adam and Christ and also a great author of Wisdom literature – now frequently ascribed to anonymous court poets. Jesus himself, whose face people have sought to obscure by reducing him to a narrative created by the early Christian Church, of multiplex authorship and dubious credibility. At least Christian scholars have put up a successful defence against the last claim.

The tendency of recent centuries is clear: greatness is examined with a liberal dose of skepticism; an ancient genius is an aggregate of some noteworthy qualities and lots of borrowed clothes. As he has come down to us, he is more of a narrative than a person; he has absorbed others’ lesser glory into himself.

In a way this conflicts with the expectations of a Christian imagination. After all, our whole faith rests on a man in whom the fullness of divinity dwelt bodily. The cloud of witnesses does not obscure his historical reality, but rather illumines the greatness that shone in his life on earth, far beyond anything our minds can conceive. From there, it is natural to imagine that the first man was not simply something new, an animal creature endowed with reason and innocence, but that his newness was excessive. The first rational being among brutes, he did not have to use reason for laborious decisions and knowledge-gathering; no, he was free from irregular desire, from death, from suffering, from ignorance. In the creation of man, as in the conception of the Saviour, God brilliantly manifested himself by doing what is impossible for nature to unfold. Such things cannot be found by a reconstruction of the plausible. That makes it plausible that more implausible things have occurred. Formerly we looked to Scripture and Tradition to discover which these were. Now we usually can’t tell.

To the imagination that has been shaped by an evolutionary view (in a broad sense), Adam’s depiction above is an aesthetic affront. It is not illogical; it just clashes, in an unpleasant fashion, with our expectation of reality. It is like a painting of a modern-day park in which one random ambler exudes rainbow-coloured light: beauty in the wrong place, ugliness. Similarly, to suppose that a brute anthropoid creature (a now-common reading of ‘dust’) brought forth a man gifted with complete integrity, immortality and treasures of knowledge – that sounds too mythical to be true. Christ can still be made acceptable by being presented as the inevitable culmination of the history of Israel. And man as the simple searching rational animal, at the end of a chain of beings of growing complexity – having that picture hanging on one’s creedal wall exhibits a certain sophistication too. But the ‘old Adam’ of the Schoolmen? Quaint, but ultimately preposterous.

Well, we live in an age of committees, in which great things are done by systematic processes involving many small men. We find our brilliance there, in small men doing great things by using each other as leverage and inspiration. The development of Christian doctrine has doubtlessly owed much to the Spirit’s hidden work in forgotten people and communities, all very gradual and acceptable.

(Yet Augustine and Aquinas, the two pillars and powerhouses of Western theology, have both done and written more than any human being could plausibly do and write in his lifetime. So why not Moses and Solomon?)