Blessay 46: Why Illusions Matter

Accepting reality for what it is, and not what we would like it to be, is not an easy business. I don’t necessarily mean the political and social reality we inhabit – though this has a profound effect on our lives and decision making. I’m thinking of our private thoughts, dreams, intimate wishes, and their idealization, in the face of cynicism and excessive criticism, which can colour our view of the world. Too much reality messes up our ability to dream. Too little reality brings fanciful dangers. This all gets very complicated in close relationships, especially during the early stages, or ‘honeymoon phase’ (do we need such a term of marital correlation?) that pushes you to a point where the impulse to say something negative rears up. Until then there had been the illusion that things were fine. (Not that we should idealise our relationships by slipping into being in love with the idea of love.) I think we should allow ourselves to work towards an ideal. That it’s a process stemming from an authentic aspiration bound up in a state of love and trust. Even though both parties are controlling their feelings (over-anxious to please) and desperately don’t want to risk being hurt.

I once dated an Asian woman who said, very seriously, that she wanted to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I wasn’t so much the charity work she did or her work as a lawyer but the expectation, rising up within her as she spoke; eyes glowing, with a very serious expression, that she would soon be the recipient. This wasn’t a pleasant delusion but a certainty. I didn’t dismiss her passionate belief. I simply asked her why she would think that she’d possibly be awarded such an award when her chances of doing so were very slim. She really took this to heart. I now realise that it was really nothing to do with the Nobel Prize but recognition of her energy, talent and ambition. Energy and talent are admirable. Personally I have a hard time with the idea of worldly ambition, preferring inner explorative ambition. I’d dismissed her in a cavalier manner. The remark probably damaged any potential romance but wasn’t enough to discourage a good friendship (of course my dismissal of the Nobel Prize probably had an element of projection about it. That it was part of my grandiose plan to be awarded it instead of her.) Anyway who am I to say to anybody get real, please? I’m a creative writer and a fantasist. The last person, in the world, to attack strongly held illusions.

I was pulled up sharply by that. My critical stance, or feet on the ground, no nonsense realism, can clash against illusions coming in all shapes and sizes. In her case the illusion might have been (to employ a song title) “an impossible dream”. Maybe we should discriminate between realistic and unrealistic dreams? Certainly I should have noted more carefully how she spoke, how she looked, facial expressions and body language. To put it bluntly I ought to have respected her illusion without making her feel disillusioned.

“The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without being disillusioned.”

Antonio Gramsci

Transpose Gramsci’s modernism idea into 21st century life where so many more ‘free’ and busy people want to aspire to so much and it leaves you with a conundrum for democratising our dreams. As the Rolling Stone’s song cries out “We can’t always get what we want!” And what we want may not be what we really want. Entitlement has to be earned. Plus there are a lot of well educated competitive people out there in the real world.

Perhaps what we aspire to, rather than what shapes us, gives us the motivation to carry on. We all have our mental repository of sweet identity, but that’s not enough, for we wish to act upon our desires. We must be permitted to dream a possible good for ourselves without harming others. Dreaming shapes our lives – see the theatre of Calderon or Pirandello. If life is a dream, dare we wake up the dreamers all of the time? Dissatisfaction with the world might just be a springboard to greater happiness and change.

“We live in a fantasy world: a world of illusion. The great task in life is to But given the state of the world is it wise?”

Iris Murdoch

Many years ago Anna was my partner .She was one of the most reasonable people I’d ever met: highly tolerant and wonderfully fair but not always rational. She often expressed a ‘romantic’ un-fulfilment (a need other than the ‘fulfilment’ of our relationship). At first I thought that this was a nebulous feeling. Some stage in all of the shared “sentimental education” of women and men. (Sentimental Education, Flaubert’s great novel still remains uncomfortable reading about the danger of excessive passivity). Yet in Anna’s case it was an issue of femininity. She was attempting to throw off the negative influence of her Jewish mother, with a psychological makeup that contained the horrid late -Victorian implants of a disciplinarian grandmother. The influence was a fiercely moralistic voice encouraging the most obvious stereotyped femininity – wearing make-up, high heels, dresses, being servile to a ‘nice’ Jewish man (and I wasn’t that guy). All stern commands, to her daughter, and then granddaughter were pushed towards a very controlling extreme. Anna rebelled and led her own very independent life. And because she couldn’t find within herself the means to love or even forgive her mother she repressed and guarded her emotions.

Once, on holiday by the sea in Wales, Anna asked me rather timidly, almost not believing it of herself, about the need to be always in the moment and wanting to dream. And that urgent dream was a compulsive urge to travel. She and I did a great deal together, until I eventually slackened off, and she travelled alone to Borneo. Her ambition was to drift. “I want to be a beachcomber” she declared as seriously as my friend who desired the Nobel Prize. I challenged Anna with humour and then suffered a hard silence, through the rest of the day, for dismissing her illusion.

Writers are ‘wounded’ with the urge to discover some overriding truth, amongst competing truths, about a situation. This can mean being carefully analytical, in the company of friends, whilst in private stripping away people’s illusions. This isn’t done to be vindictive but a little more salvatory. Of course that can suggest intentions of hubris and control. For whom are you saving these people? Yet I really think it’s more a childlike need to be disarmingly honest. A kind of radical innocence. To seize the apparent ‘truth’ of the moment. Not so much expose it, but bear it. And that bearing it for the comfort of its presence, and at the same instant its transience, is the sadness of our condition. The moment that you apprehend the passing ‘reality’ you then wish it would stay longer or become something other: then the comfort of illusions return to console making you celebrate the un-real.

“It is the power of expectation rather than the power of conceptual knowledge that moulds what we see in life not less than in art.”

E.H. Gombrich- Art and Illusion.

As a writer I can chose to do something, or nothing at all with my daily material. You can bring the truth in from the factually cold and warm it up with fictional lies and pretence. This insight finds a home in a story, poem or novel. It’s not an answer to the mystery of the self. But a small clue to our actions. And why some of us, unconcerned with making art, or living more creatively, get anxiously hung-up on wanting to be happy all the time.

“In Freudian psychology and psychoanalysis the reality principle is the ability of the mind to assess the reality of the external world and act upon it accordingly as opposed to citing on the pleasure principle.”

Google definition of Freudianism.

Most of the time a writer is undertaking an intuitive leap with the information gained from a real person in order to use him or her as a piece in the puzzle to make up a complex fictional character. Always attempting to understand and grasp what is ultimately fluid and unknowable. To invent characters (playing their roles) without judgement, or prescription, and make decisions as to what’s best to be done with their fates inside the bigger ongoing narrative that may, or may not, be questioning that very reality.

Illusion. Reality. To hold sanely onto both: whether you’re an entity inside a book or film without much caring if you are believed or not. Or it’s yourself, a friend, relative or passing stranger who risks embarrassment, in real life, by giving expression to their dreams: knowing they are not deluded aspirations, but a desire to be respected for what they believe can one day be realised – illusion or not be hanged! It’s the strange process of dreaming of a more deeply fulfilling reality, perhaps an illusion itself, which matters, alongside the very mystery of being alive and having such concepts in the first place.

“You do yet taste some subtleties o’th’isle, that will not let you believe things certain.”

Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest

Simon Russell Beale playing a gruff, very human and vulnerable Prospero, said that last week in the RSC production of The Tempest at the Barbican. We all need an inner magician, so as to prosper, with as much finite time as possible, to perform humane conjuring tricks on the island consciousness we call home.

One thought on “Blessay 46: Why Illusions Matter

  1. Another really thought-provoking essay, Alan. The Tempest is fast becoming my favourite Shakespeare play – perhaps no coincidence that it’s also his last play, full of the wisdom of approaching old age!

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