I am a fictional character you make up.
I am a fictional character I make up.
I was going to write about a dream that I recently had, and my analysis of the dream, which led to an understanding of something that I considered a useful principle. Something that I had realized as I jotted down and thought about my dream. I felt reluctant to post the details of the dream and analysis here because it contains things that felt “private”, and that led to further thoughts about privacy and identity. The principle is that, what I say to you, “the world,” will become attached to my identity. You assume that, because I am writing in the first person and describing something as if it happened to me, that it is truth, even if the “thing that happened to me” was a dream, vaguely recalled, and that what happened after that was my analysis of the dream. Idle thoughts. Idle visions. Dreams are just thinking. Interesting that absolutely nothing physical happened in the world (apart from particles moving around in my head, and fingers typing on a keyboard). But we become attached to thought. Why is that? “This person had this thought, therefore she is such and such a kind of person.” This is understandable, too, because thought can turn into action. What people say reflects what they think. What they think affects what they might do. A great deal of the way we feel about people is due to the ideas they express. We are overly attached to the creation and management of a self-image, perhaps because we over-value our selves. Yet, it’s hard to see how things could be different.
I thought about how authors of works of fiction were much more free of this particular constraint. If I were writing a novel, I could have my protagonist describe a dream he had had. I could have my fictional protagonist post a fictional dream (on a fictional worldwide network, on a fictional planet…) Or kill someone. Or do something embarrassing. Readers could think what they wanted about the character, but the character “himself” is completely free of concern. He has no future. He has no past. He is completely static and unchanging, embedded in an imaginary world.
What does that imaginary world represent? And how are we all that different? We may like the character, or we may not. He may be a hero or a villain. We imbue him with identity in our imaginations. We want this or that to happen to him. A good writer will “bring a character to life.” But the character himself is not alive. If he dies, we may feel disappointed, or even sad. But we can take a step back and recognize that the emotion is for something inanimate, not real. We have invested the character and the story with personal meaning, but we realize it’s a story, just like any story, which reflects varying amounts of reality. What reality is specifically reflected is not stated directly by the story. It’s up to the reader to find personal relevance, and to let the story advance meaningful thought through its alignment with aspects of reality.
A good fiction writer is drawing from life experience, from some real understanding of the shared reality we all inhabit, otherwise her stories would be uninteresting. Therefore the protagonist’s dreams, thoughts, actions may reflect real dreams, thoughts, actions experienced by the author. Or may simply be real dreams or episodes described accurately from the author’s life. We often say that a novel is “autobiographical” if it reflects a great deal of that reality. But even then, there is that freedom enjoyed by fiction authors, which is the intentional mystery within the writing, because the writing is meant to communicate truth, not to be truth. A story is therefore a space within which to explore ideas, whose consequences are not tightly bound to particular real people in the real world.
(One of my favorite books is Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates by Tom Robbins, which is said to be the author’s most autobiographical work. Clearly almost every aspect of the rollicking and fanciful story is fiction, but a certain personality is conveyed by the protagonist’s dreams, thoughts and actions: A fictional personality which is supposedly similar to Robbins’ own “fictional” personality.)
When we think further about this, there are many kinds of stories. Fables. Allegories. Allegories which characterize real people, and which have real effects. And all stories, we could say, are things that we learn at least small things from. So of course, the concept of “fiction” is not so simple.
But my points are these: (a) My own identity, in your mind, is a mental construct. That’s not too novel of an idea; it’s easy to realize it. You could probably conceive of the idea of “waking up” from this reality and realizing it was all a dream… (b) Likewise, my own identity in my own mind is also a construct, but a much “bigger” one, a realer one, to me than is anybody else’s identity. That this “I” I experience is a fiction is also not a new concept, even though it’s something I might talk about, at great length, some other time. (We have no reference points, like “waking up from a dream,” for understanding that “I” is the same thing– a construct of the mind. What if you woke up from a dream and your “I” wasn’t there? Or was somebody else’s “I”? Assuming you blinked your eyes all the memories in your head suddenly changed to someone else’s, how would you even know it? Interesting things to talk about, but why not try to experience them? My understanding thus far is that pursuing such experiences are one goal of Zen practice. I had a momentary experience in which my “I” disappeared. It was just for a few seconds, and it wasn’t particularly shocking. I was meditating by concentrating outwards and all of a sudden there was no “I”. Yet nothing else had changed.)
Finally: (c) We play with the concept of identity all the time. We drink to shrink it, to become less attached to it, to inhibit our worries about its preservation. We watch movies and plays and read books to conjure up different identities. We wear costumes or just different styles of clothing. We meditate to try and detach from identity, to become more (and ultimately completely) free of its constraints. Identity is of very great concern to ego; I would guess that the solid awareness of “I” is a “module” in the brain which is used by the ego in its modeling. And we dream. Dreams do funny things with identity.
Back to my dream. Let’s say I’m free of identity. I will say what I want, as if this “I” is the “I” in a novel; I am not attached to it. This is what I jotted down soon after waking up, so the grammar is not my best.
I’m on a bus. A number of us will be riding together, and we want to sit at a table. There are tables on this bus, and a few chairs. At first we spot a table on the ground floor, but then we move to the upstairs area. We find a table, but there are not going to be enough chairs, since one or two more people will be joining us. I go downstairs and ask some women if I can borrow a chair (it’s actually more like a cushion) from their area; I say that if someone comes and needs a chair, I’ll immediately bring it back. They seem a little skeptical and try to tease me a little or give me a hard time, but eventually just let me take the chair. I trip on something on my way out of their area, and bring the chair upstairs.
I’m drawing something with solid lines; a woman is watching along with some other people. I think we’re upstairs now. I take out a ball-point pen which has a thicker ball at its tip and go to make a drop of ink/paint (it’s a paint pen) inside an enclosed area lower down on the drawing, and because the paint in the pen touches the boundary of the surrounding ink, the surface tension of the paint bead breaks and becomes an ugly blob; I no longer have the thin white border of the paper around the paint bead I’d wanted. I shrug to the woman, saying oh well, look what I just did to my drawing… I guess that’s what’s expected when you try to use “paint pens” for something so delicate. I try to put a humorous spin on it to show that I know what I’m doing but that there are just some inherently hard materials, so that even though I’m confident in my abilities, it won’t always come out perfectly. For fun I continue to manipulate the paint bead, adding more paint, “messing up” my drawing because it’s ruined, but I’m just playing / experimenting. What starts happening is that I’m building up an object in three dimensions. The bead becomes larger and larger until it turns into a ball; it is semi-dry and gel-like; it feels like very soft rubber with a just-cured house-paint-like surface. I manipulate the bead and now I’m creating an abstract 3-D weird teddy-bear-like thing, maybe five inches tall. I show it to the woman and say something about the novelty of this. I’m impressed by what’s coming out: this giant “gummy bear,” but not exactly that. Earlier on, I’d commented that I’ve never don