On Nightmares

A gentleman I know once told me of a recurrent nightmare he had. He dreamed of falling asleep, and dreaming that within that dream he fell asleep again, and then again, and so on until an evil eternity of these concentric layers of unconsciousness lay between him and waking life. He said it was a horrible experience, and then added something that I had not expected to hear from someone who is not a Christian and altogether likes the East more than he likes Europe. He said that the only thing in these dreams that appeared to keep his mind from total despair and dissolution was a faith in reality — a lingering spark of will that insisted that the real world was still there and the whole universe of bad dreams was just that, a thing of nothing. It was this, he felt, that made possible the final awakening — not the waking from one dream into another, but the ultimate upward thrust towards reality that pierced the webs of illusion like a spear.

I find this a very powerful image. Not only does it illustrate a very practical need for faith (or first principles, if that is more agreeable), it also shows that faith is a point, not merely a direction. The man who is drowned three feet below the surface of the water is not much better off than the one drowned three hundred feet below it. The sick man does not want another, less virulent, disease — he wants health. Compromise is humbug.

But apart from showing the need for a definite point, a piton hammered into the cliff of the universe, this vision of successive nightmares is a good parable of a human soul that, in a series of successive steps, has gone a long way away from sanity. And just as it seems impossible to wake up from the hundredth nightmare and not merely pass into the ninety-ninth, so it appears that there are degrees of estrangement from truth and common sense for which no direct cure is possible, from which no single mental leap will lead back to normality. Layer upon layer of error, misunderstanding, fancy, ignorance and passion can create a whole world of their own. There are more and more people whose views are the result of a partial misunderstanding of a false idea based on an abuse of something that is mistakenly considered a consequence of something else that should never have been there in the first place. The right questions are never even remotely imagined, let alone answered. This works as an effective armour, making recovery — at least a quick recovery — virtually impossible. You cannot pierce all the layers with a single thrust. Truth cannot be shown directly, because it would look like a monster from another planet, funny or scary or offensive, but always irrelevant. You find that you cannot give a definition of what is right because all the terms you use, and all attempts to explain these terms, are sure to be misunderstood.

Here is a good mental exercise. Sit down and try to think of a really good argument against female suffrage. Assuming that political elections are a working and necessary institution, can you suggest a single good reason why women should not have the vote? Unless you have thought or read of this before, I bet it won't be easy. Most likely the very idea struck you as a monstrosity. Yet I assure you that there are perfectly good reasons that are not in the least offensive to anybody and that have nothing to do with "oppression" or "domination" or other familiar bogeys. They are hard to think of because they are a long mental distance away. You have to turn a lot of mental corners and find yourself in a very different atmosphere before such things start coming naturally. Similarly, a man of the seventeenth century would have been hard put to it to suggest a single good reason why it could be permissible to kill unborn babies.

This mental distance is a main reason why, for example, G. K. Chesterton is not widely read today (with the possible exception of his Father Brown stories). He makes, especially in his early work, a set of assumptions about his reader that are no longer true. He expects the reader to be more educated, more actively intelligent and more, as it were, sensitive to the workings of the universe than most reading public is today. He expects a lot of things to ring a bell. He expects the reader to handle more or less effortlessly complicated chains of reasoning as well as complicated strings of images, to be comfortable with the endless intertwined strands of meaning that are the stuff of thought. After all, the reader is supposed to have been to school and to University. What is more, he assumes a common moral ground. "Democracy in its human sense is not arbitrament by the majority; it is not even arbitrament by everybody. It can be more nearly defined as arbitrament by anybody. I mean that it rests on that club habit of taking a total stranger for granted, of assuming certain things to be inevitably common to yourself and him. Only the things that anybody may be presumed to hold have the full authority of democracy." This is from a work written in 1910. Now we have moved a long way from this cheerful faith in common sense and the ultimate spiritual brotherhood of all men. There are no things that I can assume to be inevitably common to myself and a total stranger. The stranger may be a cannibal for all I know.

C. S. Lewis, who wrote a few decades later, is much nearer to us mentally because the assumptions he makes about his readers are totally different. Chesterton expects us to join in the fray as equals, and enjoy it as much as he does; Lewis expects no more than that we should sit quiet and let him talk while he patiently and carefully explains simple things in the simplest possible terms. Lewis is better known today because he had to write for an audience that was, generally speaking, both more stupid and more wicked than Chesterton's.

The leading edge of this centrifugal movement away from sanity and common sense is, of course, the young people. They represent the current spirit most clearly. In them it is not contaminated by thought, knowledge, doubt, indifference, mental fatigue or make-belief. They most faithfully represent the world as they found it — or rather, as it found them. They are stamped with the world's latest stamp, and we can study the impression before the outlines begin to blur.

That is why it is instructive to listen to what intelligent young people say. Unfortunately, almost everything they say these days has this depressing quality about it, of not merely being rooted in error, but in layer upon hopeless layer of error and ignorance, of being light years away from a world in which a real discussion of the real problems is at all possible. And since their views are not intellectual but instinctive, they are all but impossible to argue with.

I will take as an example an article I recently came across on the internet, written by a teenage girl, in which she very articulately talks of why she is a feminist. The article is somewhat exceptional in that the writer, although she does not actually begin thinking, at least honestly tries to analyze her own emotions and attempts to feel about things in a consistent way. (I hope this does not sound like a contradiction in terms: what I mean is that logic is a hard thing to eradicate completely, even in the mind where it is not a deep-rooted habit.)

The writer seems to be a nice, kind sort of girl. This is her feminist creed: "Why can't I be treated with respect? Why can't everyone? All I am asking for is a world where people of every race, sexual orientation, class, gender and so on, can come together to dance, talk and be merry. To me, that's what it means to be a feminist." The old and soiled label of feminism is rather unexpectedly attached to the much older ideal of universal peace and prosperity. What is worse is that the girl obviously has no idea what feminism, properly and historically considered, is about. Should one want to discuss it with her, the very word would need to be eliminated from the discussion, because to her it simply stands for everything that is good, for equality and common justice. (Other words that have been used in this way, in the sense of "all that is good and holy," include "communism," "progress" and, more recently, "democracy.")

Here is another passage:

"At my junior class's car wash, some of my classmates jumped around on the corner in bikini tops to lure in passing cars. Guys were driving by honking, revving the motors of their 4Runners. My heart sank. Why would my classmates allow themselves to be degraded like that? Couldn't they see that their actions affect all women? Did they want men to rule over women? The girls were saying – I'm eye candy; I'm here to please you. The guys were saying – I own you. I felt so mad and frustrated. 

"I didn't tell my classmates to put their shirts on, but I told them they shouldn't have taken them off, and that was the best I could do. I didn't have time to stand there and explain to them how their taking off their shirts was oppressive and could lead to women being abused and raped. 

"I know some people might say there's no connection between a teenager in a bikini and the abuse of women, but it's all about domination. Men are constantly bombarded with messages telling them that women are there for their pleasure. Women are bombarded with messages that they should do everything they can to please a man, and a teenager on the corner in a bikini is reinforcing that. We all breathe in this stuff every day and we don't even know it. That's what makes it so hard for people to see why we need feminism."

Now something like this makes one feel completely helpless. There is nothing you can say, nothing the best and wisest man in the world can say or do that will dispel this fog and make the light suddenly shine through. This girl has, in her innocent way, managed to place herself as far from what was considered mere common sense in the West only a century ago, as any Buddhist monk in Tibet. There is no direct way to make her realize that what she so desperately wants — respect, dignity, true equality — did once exist, but had been achieved and maintained in ways that are totally outside her frame of reference. One feels that what is lacking is not this or that idea or even set of ideas, but a complete education. What she says is harmless enough if taken simply as a wish for everyone to feel good — although one is left with the impression that the only person around that car wash who did not feel good already was herself. But in so far as it is an attempt at some kind of analysis, it misunderstands or ignores every single issue that is involved. It has no consistent philosophy of what a man is for and what a woman is for (except that apparently they should not behave as if they were made for each other). It has no understanding of the nature of their eternal conflict and eternal union (except the discovery that men abuse women because women are attractive, therefore women should probably stop being attractive). It knows nothing of purity or courtesy or why such things ever existed. It does not understand the "sexual revolution" of the twentieth century and what it did and continues to do to men and women. It does not understand how sexual passion works and why and how it should be directed and controlled. The girl who wrote this has no idea why her great-grandmother who was not a feminist and never wore a bikini top was probably respected a hundred times more than she is ever likely to be. She has no clue as to what really degrades a woman, and does not seem to understand even her own classmates when they enjoy their health and beauty without inhibition, as all young animals should. Her mind is already cast into the mold that may make her forever unfit for ordinary human happiness.

Imagine someone criticizing Nazi death camps on the grounds that the children of the personnel who operated the gas chambers were neglected and went truant because their parents did not have a trade union and were forced to work extra hours, and were also constantly stressed up by the sight of so much human suffering. This is exactly the kind of mental process that gave us "men ruling over women." It has the same unmistakable quality of not merely missing the point, but making an insane and bizarre jumble out of everything it touches.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, modern people act as if they had made the world. They have a splendid disregard not only for the facts of the past, but even for those of the present. They not only set what rules they like, but they get to change them as often as they like. They may perceive this as freedom, but it is at best the freedom of a man in the middle of a desert to walk in whatever direction he pleases not caring where the wells are. We did not make the real rules, and we ignore them at our own peril. Incidentally, one of the real rules seems to be that slavery is a universal and even natural institution, which was pushed back on a really big scale only once in history — within the pale of Christendom. As we move away from the old ideals, it seems that even the least philosophically inclined among us will have a fair chance to apply this simple and practical test.

It is a sad thought to those of us who still to some extent hold the old ideals that most of our battles, if fought at all, are fought deep inside our own territory. Not only does the enemy treat our former fastnesses as his lawful possessions, but we ourselves don't seem to mind. We discuss tax cuts rather than the tyranny under which our whole lives are conducted. We oppose indecency by being scandalized at the sight of Janet Jackson's breast while we take for granted the varying degrees of public nakedness that every modern woman displays daily. We try to reform state education instead of abolishing it or at least pulling out of it. We are content to praise a religion not because it is true but because it promotes interdenominational dialogue. The rare attempt to "speak to the question" usually fails because nobody remembers the question.

There is probably very little we can do about this. Time and tide wait for no man, and this is true of spiritual tides as well. But let us remember that our free will can still take our individual souls in the right direction — as long as we don't feel at home in nightmares.

May 9, 2005