Sunday, November 22, 2015


After reading about it, I decided to read Life is a Dream.

Apparently Calderón’s play is periodically rediscovered and declared a masterpiece equal to any by Shakespeare or Sophocles. Frederic Schlegel said Calderón was even better than Shakespeare. Others have not been as enthusiastic. Sismondi called him ‘the poet of the Inquisition’. He’s not quite that, but he’s no Shakespeare. 

Life is a Dream does contain characters and situations similar to those in Hamlet and Oedipus, the two plays to which I’ve seen it most often compared; but Shakespeare and Sophocles used them more skillfully, and to tell different stories.

The plays are also said to have the same theme. 

Scholars say illusion vs reality is a universal theme found in most if not all great art. They find it in Hamlet and Oedipus; and from the title, illusion vs reality would appear to be the theme of Life is a Dream as well. But its dream is not that of Hamlet or Oedipus, nor is its reality. 

We used to consider the common sense world an illusion. Only in altered mental states, such as dreams, do we catch glimpses of the real world. Even now, when few people believe in the supernatural, they trust in the truth of dreams because they believe the unconscious mind perceives what the conscious overlooks. But Calderón distrusted dreams. He has Clotaldo, a pivotal character in the play, compare dreams to madness, and say we should stifle the passions to which both give birth. 

Before the play begins, King Basilio had Segismundo, his newborn son, imprisoned in a tower because of a prophesy that he, like Oedipus, would grow up to kill his father and bring disaster to the kingdom. Now that Segismundo is a man, Basilio has him brought to the palace to see if he is as dangerous as the prophesy foretold. 

Instead of being grateful for his release, Segismundo is enraged that he was imprisoned so long for no apparent reason.

Clotaldo, his jailer, warns Segismundo to behave properly or he may find his newfound freedom is only a dream; but Segismundo goes on a rampage. After he tries to rape Rosaura and kill Clotaldo and Astolfo, Basilio has him drugged and returned to the tower. 

When Segismundo wakes, Clotaldo tells him his visit to the palace was indeed only a dream. But even in dreams, he says, we should behave properly.

After Clotaldo leaves, Segismundo speaks the soliloquy that Calderónistas claim marks the beginning of his moral awakening. It ends with him saying that life is a dream, and even dreams are dreams. I found it banal, especially when compared with Hamlet’s soliloquies.  

Then the people storm the tower and release Segismundo, who agrees to lead them in rebellion against his father.

Finding his prisoner is free again, Clotaldo fears Segismundo will kill him, as he tried to do earlier in the palace. Instead Segismundo asks Clotaldo to join him and the rebels. Clotaldo refuses, and says he is loyal to the king. 

As the king’s men prepare to fight the rebels, Rosaura asks Clotaldo, her father, to avenge her honor by killing Astolfo, who seduced and abandoned her. When Clotaldo refuses because Astolfo is now King Basilio’s heir, Rosaura leaves the palace and joins the rebels.

The rebels, led by Segismundo and Rosaura, defeat the king’s men in battle. Now it is Basilio who faces Segismundo, expecting to be killed. But again the prince demonstrates his nobility by showing Basilio mercy, just as he did Clotaldo. Father and son are reconciled, and Basilio declares Segismundo is now his heir. 

Rosaura and Astolfo are also reconciled. He had refused to marry her because she was not of noble birth, but changes his mind when he learns she is Clotaldo’s daughter.

The play ends with Segismundo sentencing the rebel who freed him to life imprisonment in the same tower in which Segismundo’s father had imprisoned him.

Because Calderón was a Jesuit priest, scholars claim Life is a Dream is a metaphysical play dramatizing the doctrines of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. They debate the meaning of the play’s ending, and how (or if) it relates to Segismundo’s moral awakening. I think they’d find the answer if they dispensed with the idea that Life is a Dream is a metaphysical play. 

They don’t seem to understand the role of Clotaldo, who is not only Segismundo’s jailer, but his tutor. Clotaldo teaches Segismundo, Rosaura and the audience, by his example and his advice, to submit to authority, however unjust.  

Basilio, the king to whom Clotaldo remains loyal when everyone else rebels against him, admits he's not a good king. Nevertheless he is a king, god’s representative on earth; and Clotaldo knows we can no more judge a king by the same standard we do ordinary men than we can judge god himself.

Priests can and often do preach the divine right of kings; but when they do they are courtiers serving an earthly king, not a heavenly one. Clotaldo, a courtier, is a pivotal character in Life is a Dream because it’s a political play, not a metaphysical one. 

Neither does the play depict Segismundo’s moral awakening, as Calderónistas claim.

Hamlet and Oedipus, the two plays with which Life is a Dream  is most often compared, both depict a man who happens to be a prince, as he awakens to the tragic reality of what it is to be human. A hero who is only a prince, and not a man as well, can’t be tragic. It’s neither Hamlet nor Oedipus whom Segismundo resembles, but Hal.

As a prince and future king, Segismundo cannot reward rebellion; therefore he condemns to prison the man who freed him from his father’s prison. Hal similarly betrays his companions, most notably Falstaff, when he assumes his proper role as the king’s heir.  

Most of the fictions we call great depict this world as an illusion in which everyone plays a role, pretending to be what s/he is not. A man's moral awakening puts him in conflict with this world, and makes him a rebel. Life is a Dream  does the opposite. Segismundo awakens from the rebel’s dream of freedom (obviously an illusion, since the rebels can’t rebel against their king without a prince to lead them) to the real world in which everyone has learned to play his or her proper role.

Scholars also debate the meaning of Rosaura’s sublot, and its relation to the main plot of Segismundo’s moral awakening. It seems to me obvious that, just as Segismundo must give up the rebel’s dream of freedom and play his role as Basilio's heir, so too must Rosaura give up her rebellion against a woman’s role in a society ruled by men, as symbolized by her mannish clothes. 

The play holds out the hope that the injustice Segismundo suffered at his father’s hands will make him a better king than Basilio, with more compassion for his subjects; but it doesn't question a king's divine right to rule even when he's unjust.

Why am I wasting what little time I have left on this dreck? It’s worse than useless because it distracts me from things that matter. I know too much about the fictions we create to distract ourselves, and almost nothing about the real world. 

I had glimpses of it when I was young, just enough to know that knowledge without power is useless. 

Knowledge is not power. Only power is power. The goal is not to understand the world, but to change it.

It was hubris to think I could. 

This life is not a dream but a nightmare, a prison from which there is only one escape.

Friday, November 20, 2015


God is dead, said Nietzsche; and we killed him. But god has always been dead. 

God is the parent who dies to give us life, the totem animal we kill and eat to live; and because we know right from wrong, we ask his forgiveness.

Other animals kill and eat without asking their prey’s forgiveness. Life feeds on life. But we are not other animals. We know right from wrong.
How shall we comfort ourselves, asked Nietzsche; we most murderous of murderers? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not become gods ourselves to be worthy of it? 

It’s not that great a deed. We’ve brought many gods to life, and then killed them. The assumption that we can therefore become gods ourselves is hubris, which the Greeks knew is a form of madness. 

Every society has created a myth of a Golden Age when we humans lived in harmony with other animals, predators with their prey. Even now fascists are nostalgic for a Golden Age when masters and their slaves lived in harmony.  

That paradise was lost, and human history began, every myth agrees, with a crime. But few remember what that crime was.

The punishment for that crime, every myth agrees, was death. Not death as we knew it when we lived in paradise: part of a natural cycle in which nothing is ever lost, but only changes form - but death as we now know and fear it: an unnatural absence of life. Horror vacui. So if the punishment must fit the crime, that first crime must have been an unnatural death, a murder.  

But the first murder, according to Judeo-Christian myth, was committed only after Adam and Eve were exiled from paradise. The crime for which they were punished with exile – the original sin, according to religious fundamentalists (who do not understand the myth they claim to take literally) - was disobedience.

"From any tree of the garden you may eat freely”, god said to them. “But from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat; for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die."  

But the serpent told Adam and Eve their god was a liar. “Ye shall not surely die: For god doth know that, in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil”. 

So Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge, and immediately they knew they were naked; and they were ashamed.  

They were naked before they ate, but only after they ate did Adam and Eve know that being naked was wrong. 

They also knew their god had lied. 

Eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge did not kill Adam and Eve, as their god said it would. Instead it made them as gods, knowing good and evil, as the serpent said it would. And because they were as gods, they judged themselves, as gods would. But they did not judge their god. 

The people who made this myth depicted their god as a liar. Nevertheless they needed to believe in him (they needed faith to believe in him because reason shows he is a liar). They imagined a divine ruler because they didn't believe they were capable of ruling themselves. 

Seeing they had disobeyed him, god said "Behold, the man is become as one of us, knowing good and evil. Now he may put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”.

To whom did this 'one true god’ say that ‘the man is become as one of us’ if not to other gods? His fear, and theirs, was that if men became as gods, knowing good and evil, they would no longer need gods. To protect themselves, the gods banished Adam and Eve from paradise. 

It's only after Adam and Eve leave paradise that their sons quarrel, which leads to the first murder (in Judeo-Christian mythology, murder is always fratricide - Cain vs Abel, Jacob vs Esau. The Jews dared not imagine killing god the father precisely because they knew they had imagined him).

Now we, the children of murderous Cain, wander the earth as homeless exiles. But we have always wandered the earth, because the earth is our home. 

Older myths say paradise is not lost. It lies all around us, but we cannot or will not see it. 

We became as gods when we learned the difference between good and evil; and we judged ourselves and each other as our gods judged us. But good and evil, like the gods who embody them, are human inventions. We can return to paradise if and when we stop judging ourselves and each other, and forgive ourselves and each other.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


I no longer live. I exist.

Existentialism is a symptom, not the cure for our disease. I can’t create a purpose for myself. I’m not a monopole. 

We used to know that we must live for something or someone outside ourselves. We used to know that subject and object arise together, because of each other. We’re devolving now, forgetting everything we used to know.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


The words Life is a Dream, and Chuang Tzu’s dream in particular, have been on my mind lately because I’m coming across references to Calderón’s play of that name in my reading. 

Whitehead said all of western philosophy is a footnote to Plato. It’s equally true of western religion, because what westerners call religion is merely a cruder form of what they used to call philosophy. 

Educated Easterners have known for some time that what we call reality is an illusion. Westerners are relatively new to the game of philosophy; therefore, like Chuang Tzu, they haven't yet figured out which is which.  

Whether they call themselves secular or religious, educated westerners have followed Plato in believing this world of change, which to the uneducated seems real, is an illusion. Educated westerners agree that the real world is changeless and eternal. 

Plato’s world of ideal forms became western science’s world of numbers and western religion’s heaven. His prime mover unmoved was given a name and face and became a god. 

Gods, for educated Hindus, are names of the unnameable, faces of the faceless void. The Buddha, being educated, was agnostic. Only ignorant Easterners, and Westerners, reify ideas.         

Monday, November 9, 2015


I tell myself that I’m still alive because I still want to understand, but that’s not true. Understanding is not enough. Philosophers have always tried to understand the world, when the goal is to change it.

Knowledge is not power. Only power is power.

Knowledge I can’t put to use is worse than useless. It’s a constant reminder that I’m powerless.

We used to think the real self was the soul, then the mind, and now the will, der Wille zur Macht. Someone without will power is not real.

I'm still alive because I lack the will power to organize another suicide attempt. Why bother, when I’m not real?

Wednesday, November 4, 2015


The election is a year away, but already the media are filled with the petty squabbles of politicians.  

Not because people are interested in what the media call politics, but because they’re not. They know elections don’t decide how we’re governed, because we’re not governed. We’re ruled.

People read gossip about politicians for the same reason they read gossip about actors and athletes. It enables them to feel superior to these overpaid buskers, which consoles them for their own powerlessness.

It also enables them to avoid thinking about the important things they’re powerless to change.

The flight from the war-ravaged ME gets less media attention than the election, even though most people think it’s more important, perhaps the most important event of our time. But the most important event of our time is and always has been, throughout our time on this planet, our destruction of the planet.

We used to be travellers, wandering the earth. When we started feeding on the planet as a parasite feeds on its host, gorging itself until it kills its host and itself, we stopped being travellers and became fugitives, fleeing the consequences of our actions. The current flight from the ME is the latest consequence of the monotonous rise and fall of empires which we call history. It will be followed by others until we finish killing the earth and ourselves.

Sunday, November 1, 2015


Days go by during which I see no one, speak to no one. I don’t open my mouth except to eat or drink, and sometimes not even for that. 

I prefer to be alone because even when I’m with others physically, I’m alone mentally. Most people can’t tell me what they think because they don’t know; and those who do know are afraid to tell themselves, much less others. 

I know the thoughts of others only through the magazines I read. Of late they all contain articles about the Nazi camps. Ostensibly it’s because this year is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. But fascism is never far from our thoughts, and needs only an occasion such as this to become conscious.

When I read how the camp commanders got the inmates to fight each other, betray each other, so that they despised themselves and each other too much to unite against their masters, I can see modern society being born. The fascists lost the war, but won the peace. The whole world is a prison camp now; but as long as we confine our worst brutality to the provinces, following the example of the Nazis who built Auschwitz in Poland, we in the Empire’s heartland can pretend we’re free.