The Reality That Would Be Dreamed: George MacDonald’s “Lilith” as a Response to Solipsistic Illusion
In art there is beauty, and beauty itself is truth. It is of no surprise then, to those who see the world philosophically, that in great works of art there are metaphysical depths—arguments played out not as propositions but as living images and sounds. To this very day an old thought haunts philosophers, the thought of solipsism. What if the world is all my or someone else’s illusion? What if?! Indeed, what if? Many versions of this problem have been set forth, all beginning from the premise of my singular mind as the generator of illusions and dreams. Be it a computer matrix, a dream within a dream, or a Boltzmann brain floating lonelily in the middle of space, the question arises again and again: How can I know that my experienced reality is truly real?
Forms of Solipsistic Illusion
Many, particularly in the analytic tradition, seem to have simply laughed the question away as too ridiculous to bother, and simple naive realism is enough. Most in the varied continental tradition simply don’t see it as very meaningful and don’t bother with it. After all, is it not the thought of an alienated madman? What is there to say to a madman from within or outside their madness? What kind of disturbed individual considers this issue honestly and seriously? Forget the strange question, they think—look instead to the causes of this psychological derangement. Some, however, do take this question honestly and seriously and believe that some did answer it, even if those who offer answers themselves seemed to have had no particular interest to answer it directly. Here we find the various positions, many within the German Idealist and phenomenological camps, which offer counters to the possibility of solipsism with a robust and deep ground in intersubjectivity, a fundamental irreducible otherness of Being, or both.
However, there have been since the dawn of civilization—so it seems—the unthinkable positions, ones which are often imputed to mystics, the insane and crazy, the occult and esoteric, and the aesthetes. One affirms that indeed the world’s truth is solipsistic, and it also is an illusory dream. A second denies the solipsism of the world, yet affirms it is an illusory dream. A third affirms a contradiction: the Absolute is one, but not solipsistic because its unity is many, and the world is a dream or play, but this is no illusion or falsehood. George MacDonald, in his fantasy novel Lilith, offers the third.
While the ontological distinctions which imply and require difference are powerful rebuttals, they do not completely satisfy the question of the solipsist, for there is a phenomenological remainder in the question which cannot be expunged by the sheerly logical nature of the explication of the categories of solipsism. Something more must be offered, not outside logic, but from a different train of logic, to dispel the most pertinent and powerful worry of solipsism, a worry that is based on a very real possibility: a mind’s enclosure in delusions. The insane, because they are insane, do not in their insanity come to realize they are insane. The insane face many problems in navigating this, our so-called ‘real’ world, but many still manage to remain cognisant enough of the ‘external’ world to survive and even thrive despite the illusions. Could we be so certain that we too are not simply so wrapped up in delusion that we are incapable of recognizing it?
George MacDonald offers an immensely powerful logical and phenomenological argument against the fear of dream or illusion. How? He sets forth, in the form of seeming dialectical riddles, a key set of concepts: life and truth on one side, and death and illusion on the other. When the former is satisfied, illusion is not just improbable, but categorically impossible, i.e. when we are true we are alive just as truly, and in such life there can be no illusion or falsehood. For MacDonald it does not matter one bit whether this world of experience is a computer matrix, a dream machine, the dream of God, our dream, or the illusion placed on us by a powerful demon. Our experiences are real, are true, insofar as our own living is true. Even if my life turned out to be a completely planned and choreographed fiction à la The Truman Show, MacDonald’s argument is that certain parts of this falsehood cannot fail to be real on account that in those parts or moments of life I was true and so truly alive that what I partook in cannot be properly understood under the category of falsehood or illusion. The question of illusion arises only in the breakdown of life, when something occurs such that life’s activity cannot continue, or in other words: in the advent of death.
Truth and Life, Falsehood and Death
Mr. Vane: “Alas! When I but dream how am I to know it? The dream best dreamed is the likest to the waking truth!”
Mr. Raven: “When you are quite dead, you will dream no false dream. The soul that is true can generate nothing that is not true, neither can the false enter it.”
Mr. Vane: “But, sir,” I faltered, “how am I to distinguish betwixt the true and the false where both alike seem real?”
Mr. Raven: “Do you not understand?” he returned, with a smile that might have slain all the sorrows of all his children. “You CANNOT perfectly distinguish between the true and the false while you are not yet quite dead; neither indeed will you when you are quite dead—that is, quite alive, for then the false will never present itself.”
Life and Death
Mr. Raven: Verily, thou shalt die, but not as thou thinkest. Thou shalt die out of death into life. Now is the Life for, that never was against thee!
What is stated here is in abstraction a bit of nonsense, so some clarification is necessary. The death referred to here is what we normally call life, the living body and its world of sensuous appearances, of materiality, and their flux. Lilith is an unashamed Christian metaphysical allegory, and MacDonald is making bold claims concerning reality. The issue of life and death comes up as a contradiction. According to MacDonald, insofar as I live focused on my finite immediacy in selfishness I am to that extent in fact dead and not alive, for I am not engaging the true activities of human spiritual existence which would actualize and affirm my true nature. In order to engage life proper I must become dead to my own death, I must relinquish my finitude and let go of the finite things that chain me down the harder I try to keep them. For MacDonald this is the meaning of the second death as conceived in Christianity: the death of death itself.
“I gazed on the face of one who knew existence but not love—knew nor life, nor joy, nor good; with my eyes I saw the face of a live death! She [Lilith] knew life only to know that it was dead, and that, in her, death lived. It was not merely that life had ceased in her, but that she was consciously a dead thing. She had killed her life, and was dead—and knew it. She must DEATH IT for ever and ever! She had tried her hardest to unmake herself, and could not! she was a dead life! she could not cease! she must BE! In her face I saw and read beyond its misery—saw in its dismay that the dismay behind it was more than it could manifest. It sent out a livid gloom; the light that was in her was darkness, and after its kind it shone. She was what God could not have created. She had usurped beyond her share in self-creation, and her part had undone His! She saw now what she had made, and behold, it was not good! She was as a conscious corpse, whose coffin would never come to pieces, never set her free! Her bodily eyes stood wide open, as if gazing into the heart of horror essential—her own indestructible evil. Her right hand also was now clenched—upon existent Nothing—her inheritance!”
While this prior passage concerns the character of Lilith in the story, the elucidation of death is pertinent to Mr. Vane as well. He has everything: wealth, power, popularity, and he is desired by many beautiful specimens of the other sex, yet he is unhappy with it all—he is dead. In these worldly things and activities Mr. Vane does not find himself alive, for he not only does not feel alive in and with them, and is to that extent spiritually dead, a death worse than biological death—a death that must be lived and experienced as the absence of life. For MacDonald, death cannot be an escape from having to face existence as life, instead it is a state of being in which one is faced with a perpetual longing for life which cannot be satisfied. In Lilith MacDonald is exhorting us to something rarely considered. In the words of the great Le Sony’r Ra (Sun Ra): Why don’t you give up your death?
The Untrue Can Never Access Truth
MacDonald here offers something that is strangely obvious, yet is not actually obvious when one first begins engaging the question: How are we to even make sense of the question of the reality of our reality, and the reality of ourselves? If our so-called reality is false, how are we then to consider the truth or falsehood of ourselves in abstraction from this total falsehood of the world when we ourselves find and know ourselves as produced in that same world? René Descartes’, “I think, therefore I am” does not suffice here. Who am I in this world of falsehood? What am I? When we take the consequence of the falsehood of reality to its logical conclusion we ourselves are not free from the doubt of existence. If we are false, that is, if we are not real, how are we to then make sense of the very question? What would—what could—a false and unreal being know about Truth, let alone ever grasp as Truth? MacDonald is right: if the logic be held consistently, and we have entered and fallen into the the abyss of total doubt, we could neither know our reality nor unreality. We could not distinguish the true from the false precisely because we would fail to grasp the measure, the stable absolute point of reference which would give us a determination of our situation in the nexus of all other relative and shifting connections.
The True and the Living
What has life to do with truth? MacDonald in writing a novel cannot thereby take the time to explicate in the manner of a philosophical work, but he has put forth all the pieces necessary for us the readers to puzzle out the identity. The dead or the sleeping can never distinguish falsehood or illusion from truth or reality. The reason is that insofar as one is not true, to that extent one has no directional bearing to situate oneself in the morass of things and events which appear to us. If you are not true, you do not know truth, and if you do not know truth, you cannot judge what is and is not true. Life too is an appearance, but it is an appearance unlike any other in the external world. The vitality of being, the self-impulse and self-generation which is inherent and endemic to life, be it organic or spiritual, is a determinative part of what assures its truth.
Here the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel can help elucidate what MacDonald could only imply. Truth for Hegel is the self-adequate concept, the concept and object which correspond to each other because they are one and the same. This is not a typical correspondence theory of truth despite being generally presented as one. While in the commonly known correspondence theory it is concepts or propositions which accord with objects, in Hegel’s concept of such it is the object that corresponds to its concept. This is the case, however, only for concepts which already correspond to themselves when they become the object of their own process of intelligibility. The Truth as such is reasoning that in its process grasps itself as its own object of reasoning. When we behold reasoning as object, what we observe is nothing other than our own reasoning observance of this same object. The object thereby produces its own intelligibility, and the intellecting process itself produces the object. This is in abstract terms the general form of Truth, or what Hegel otherwise names as the Idea in conscious reference to the ancient concept of Plato and Aristotle.
Life is for Hegel the very first, the immediate, determinateness of Truth. This strikes one as strange, and Hegel is aware enough to admit it seems so. Life, we think, is a natural determination of corporeal spatio-temporal beings. Hegel responds that while life certainly exists in Nature, its essence or nature is first logical or metaphysical. A basic argument for why we should consider this, even if it cannot be strongly proven here, is something that is peculiar enough to not be missed once it comes up: thought is living, not dead. In the reality of thinking, of cognizing, thought is undeniably active, but it is not just active, it is productive. This production, Hegel believes he shows, is not parasitic of Nature, but is inherent to thought itself. It not only produces other thoughts, but in these others any thought which is true will come to produce itself necessarily as a conclusion of itself as premise. Thought therefore comes at the point of truth or Idea to recognize that the phenomenon of life is not a mere instantiation of pure concepts—categories—which is made intelligible through them, rather it is the case that life itself is a unique form of intelligibility, of sense making itself, and so it must be metaphysical or logical. In life we find a concrete universal being that exists as particular individuals necessarily. The in-forming, organizing, or idealizing power (to posit as a part of a whole) of the individual universal (the soul) posits its objective body, but thereby particularizes itself and the body as organs of the living totality, the organism. These particulars come together in reproduction to generate a concretely universal individual once more in the unity of life which is itself the organ of other life. Life thereby is a concept that confirms itself in its objectivity, its internal members which reproduce the singular life, the multiple lives which are themselves organs and ends of the species, as well as an object that confirms its conceptuality by being a self-organization which subsumes itself under a whole which exists in, through, and for all members, yet is not identical with any one member or moment. In a very limited and basic sense this is how life is true and truth itself.
Life as a Phenomenological Refutation of Illusion
Mr. Raven: Thou doubtest because thou lovest the truth. Some would willingly believe life but a phantasm, if only it might for ever afford them a world of pleasant dreams: thou art not of such! Be content for a while not to know surely. The hour will come, and that ere long, when, being true, thou shalt behold the very truth, and doubt will be for ever dead. Scarce, then, wilt thou be able to recall the features of the phantom. Thou wilt then know that which thou canst not now dream. Thou hast not yet looked the Truth in the face, hast as yet at best but seen him through a cloud. That which thou seest not, and never didst see save in a glass darkly—that which, indeed, never can be known save by its innate splendour shining straight into pure eyes—that thou canst not but doubt, and art blameless in doubting until thou seest it face to face, when thou wilt no longer be able to doubt it. But to him who has once seen even a shadow only of the truth, and, even but hoping he has seen it when it is present no longer, tries to obey it—to him the real vision, the Truth himself, will come, and depart no more, but abide with him for ever.
Mr. Raven presents Mr. Vane with a contradiction: it is impossible to distinguish the false from the true while one is dead in spirit, but one is also incapable of such a distinction when one is alive. While with the former the block to knowledge is the lack of truth and life, with the latter the block is the absolute presence of truth and life that obliterates falsehood such that it disappears completely and its very concept is no longer conceivable. But why is this so, and how could we understand that it must be so?
We have a common expression, ‘to feel alive,’ which is in no way tied to a bodily notion of aliveness. What we mean by it is spiritual aliveness, a feeling of positive energetic expression and confirmation of the self. When we feel alive we do not feel sleepy, weary, sad, or in any way lacking. Like the healthy living body which manifests its aliveness in the natural impulse towards activity—this being epitomized in play in conscious beings—the aliveness of spirit also manifests as a natural impulse towards activities of its own kind. We do not feel compelled by an external necessity, but rather it appears to us that this vitality springs and overflows from the depths of the self, a vitality which is joyful, playful, and at its best meaningful in a purposive sense. When alive we do not ask why, the how is solved in the frenzy of activity, and the what is an unquestionable positive reality. Aliveness does not question its reality because it is intuitive reality itself.
Take, for example, my own writing process. I generally write when I please, and I tend to write in frantic sporadic passionate spurts where most articles are brought almost to completion in four to five thousand word leaps. I am in those moments of inspiration pushed and pulled to write. Pushed by a sudden energy that in its moment seems boundlessly inexhaustible and a pleasure to express, and pulled by an end which is intuited as a good most desirable, one for whose effort no attempt should be spared. I do not in this activity question why, even as I strike walls I am not weighed down by the how, and the what is virtually self-evident even when it is vague. The energy, the desire, the life of the activity is without question valuable in the very activity even when the end is unknown. The productivity which creates a path in blind darkness is as much a joy as that which struggles to find a path in broad daylight of the goal. This life is an end in itself, its self-production is itself the end, and so it is playful at its highest expression where it seeks to simply take itself to whatever lengths its energy allows for no reason other than that it can and it is curious. All of this may be said of a child, of an animal, or of an artist. Even if the external world was an illusion placed on us by an evil demon, by an artificial intelligence computer matrix, or was the most vivid dream, these moments of life could not possibly be false—it is categorically incoherent, conceptually nonsensical, and therefore impossible for life to be false. So long as we are alive, falsehood can never appear to us in this very life. We may be deceived by a liar to fall in love with them, but the life of that love is true and real as we live it. We may be as deceived as Truman Burkman is in The Truman Show, but whatever else may be the case, insofar as we are alive what we do cannot be false.
Of course, the examples given are situations of falsehood wherein we may nonetheless be true and remain true so long as the false condition has not appeared to destroy life. If the illusion is so complete that its unreality never appears, what reason has one to consider that it is not reality if one is alive? If the illusion begins to unravel, however, our spiritual life finds itself broken into by the outside, infected, and diseased by the breakdown of the vital process which cuts itself short in the moment of doubt and awakening. Death strikes us, the unity of the world and of the self begins to unravel as the organs of reality loosen and come apart as no longer unified in the living whole. Despair, depression, and disillusionment abound—and yet life remains. The spirit of truth which is the same as the true spirit and life seeks after its own life, forsaking the previous appearance as a dead falsehood which now only can be said to have appeared without having the essence of life or truth. We feel a new surge of life, the surge to seek after the ‘real’ world, to find our real selves in that new constellation of existence. So long as life has not been extinguished, so long is there truth in the world.
When we are enlivened we find that conscious life is like an engine which creates its own momentum and carries itself forward with the ease of simply being. We move from activity to activity, each serving as a living organ which grows and produces other aspects of our life, each serving to vivify and revivify the circle of conscious activities effortlessly. I live, I act, I internalize and integrate the moments of life as they come and go, each moment growing my psychological and intellectual life and providing the impetus of the next living desire. In this way life appears and confirms itself as true to us, for it forms a systematic enlivening of itself.
The Life of Real Dreams
Man dreams and desires; God broods and wills and quickens.
When a man dreams his own dream, he is the sport of his dream; when Another gives it him, that Other is able to fulfil it. . . . It may be, notwithstanding, that, when most awake, I am only dreaming the more! But when I wake at last into that life which, as a mother her child, carries this life in its bosom, I shall know that I wake, and shall doubt no more.
I wait; asleep or awake, I wait.
Novalis says, “Our life is no dream, but it should and will perhaps become one.”
It is in a certain way most strange that a Christian allegory should end with a peculiarly romantic yet secular meditation on the nature of reality and the seeming illusion of dreams, and yet it is most fitting. MacDonald’s final points on the reality/truth and illusion/falsehood dichotomy are that it is ultimately not a matter of, well, matter, of something objective outside of consciousness and cognition to be grasped by anyone such that, then and there, we can be sure that we are anchored to, and in, reality. It does not matter what the world is constituted of, be it imaginations, information, or material bodies. The question of reality or dream is entirely a question of perspective, and the objective perspective of subjectivity is that of life. MacDonald’s final meditation, which expresses explicitly something already stated and intimated in prior passages, is that in the highest perspective reality and dream are not a matter of ‘either/or’, but of ‘and.’ The most real will be a dream, and a dream must of necessity be the highest reality. How can this be?
In common parlance there are two senses of ‘dream:’ that which is a passing and often nonsensical illusion, and that which we imagine in and with our deepest held and aspired to ends. The world is a dream in both senses. Much of what happens in the world is contingent and without meaning, a vanishing illusion which we often fall for and take too seriously considering its ultimately unimportant consequences in our long term life. The most important things and events in the world are also dreams in the higher sense: we have imagined in our dreams an end which we attempt to realize in the world, and much effort is expended in realizing these dreams and thereby not only realizing them, but also making reality align itself with these dreams and thereby itself become that dream. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously stated, “I have a dream…” This was not a statement about his belief in a falsehood, but in the opposite, a truth. The beautiful dreams of humanity are truths by which the world is measured, and it is these dreams which are also the germinating seed of spiritual life itself, for without dreams the inner fount of vitality would be dry and without power to move.
In this sense Novalis is right, our lives should and will perhaps become a dream. They shall become a dream because we shall pass over into the infinite and realize the illusion of our immediate finitude, and more importantly they shall become a dream because the dream will have entered reality via our life. Only when we have attained the fullness of life shall we dream true dreams, “The dream best dreamed is the likest to the waking truth!” Those dreams which enliven us, which give us the power and energy to act, and this dream-empowered life, shall strive for nothing less than the realization of that very dream. In the accomplishment of this task life shall have made not only a world of dreams, but a world in which we can all have and share true dreams within this reality, a reality which itself is then a dream.