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Namenlos and the Philosophy of Dreams

namenlos and the philosophy of dreams


Estimated reading time — 15 minutes

Recently I perused a lengthy document that provoked much thought in me, as much about its author and context as about its actual substance, and as I no longer have access to it, the following will be an attempt to summarize its contents. First, though, a preamble:

I am a graduate student at a moderately-sized university in the central United States and have been researching Middle English texts for a thesis project for some months. Old pages of Chaucer with illustrations are relatively common as far as Renaissance reprints of Medieval literature go, and so were present in my school’s special library archive room. I ended up there regularly, and over the course of the project, I got on good terms with the library’s archivist.

He was a weedy man with little hair left despite being in his 30s, only a few years older than me. Skittish around most people, he could not exactly hide the fact that he lived in the worlds of his texts more than the real one; my project and demeanor probably indicated my similar sensibilities and thus drew him to me. Eventually he and I would engage in conversations before heading our separate ways home from the campus. He would often regale me with factoids about his specimens and their histories. To a degree, I did enjoy listening to him, but I also quickly beheld that his isolation affected him more deeply than even my own did me, and I saw him as both a friend and a strange object of study.

As our conversations lengthened and multiplied over time, that latter view of the archivist overwhelmed the former one in my mind. I recognized a pattern of oddities in his psychology that went beyond ‘standard dysfunction’ and I found myself speaking with him more and more out of sheer curiosity to see what his most fundamental guiding principles were. He told me he had begun pursuing asceticism with a vigor way beyond anything I could have achieved myself; he seemed to think people were beautiful for all their immutable qualities and ugly for all the ways they tried to exercise agency; his general prospectus for the future was built on an almost offhanded inevitability of horrible global violence that would result in the weak being herded like cattle by the powerful.

As the archivist chanced vulnerability with me ever more often, I noticed he alluded enigmatically to select artifacts and texts that belonged to him, not the university, which were more significant to him than anything he had discussed explicitly with me. It took him quite some time to begin making these references, suggesting he was not simply baiting me to ask with reverence about some holy grail of his archive. I began to suspect that whatever ideas these artifacts contained had become the foundation of the archivist’s belief system, as their contents were synonymous with the truth to him where all other artistic creations were merely (if enjoyably) fictional and documentary was propaganda.

I was unbearably curious to know for myself what these texts were exactly. The archivist seemed wracked with silent turmoil over the notion of talking openly about them, and whenever on the precipice of answering my probing questions, he backed away and shrewdly steered the conversation to other subjects. In such moments his delicate evasion and simultaneous preservation of cordiality almost led me to believe social charisma was indeed within his abilities and he simply forwent it for some unknowable reason. At this point I was prepared to play chess if it meant eventually seeing the tantalizing writings.

To make a long story short, under a different pretense I convinced the archivist to join me out for an evening, and with the aid of liquor, I persuaded him to show me what prized texts he kept at his apartment. Upon entering his studio, I found numerous shelves crammed with yellowed papers and a large climate-controlled glass case that protected the oldest texts and rarest items. There were legal records, plays, journals, transcriptions of orations, biographies, copies of community charters, and poems printed on old sheets and inked on various papyri. I wondered just how much money the archivist had to spend on such treasures; however, the archivist was unwavering in his intent to show me the crucial document by then, and he paid no attention to the artifacts on display. He instead made his way to a separate, smaller room.

Inside that room was nothing save for a filing cabinet in the far left corner and a small case containing an ancient-looking packet of pages in the far right one. The archivist was rather inebriated, so with as much deftness as he could muster, he approached the case, unlocked it, and gingerly laid the document in my arms. With a seemingly great effort to steady himself and his mind, he launched into some kind of slurred preface to what I was about to read, but I could not follow him at all, and he was asleep on his sofa within five minutes. That was just as well; I no longer wanted any background on the text now that I had it in my hands.

I sat down at his coffee table to read and immediately found that I could not. Only about half of the tiny inked characters on the front page were familiar to me; this not only was a language I could not read, it was one I could not even recognize. If I had to guess, it may have been some odd derivative of German, but I say that with little conviction. On a hunch, I returned to the adjacent room and opened the filing cabinet wherein I discovered a few additional packets and loose pages. I leafed through them carefully and saw many pencil scribblings in what looked to be the same language as the important document, but one of the packets was in English — Middle English, actually, which I was thankfully trained to read. I technically cannot confirm it, but after comparing the lengths of the respective texts and the appearances of certain words in both, I am nearly certain that the English was a translation of the original non-English, perhaps created by the archivist himself.

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What I next noticed while comparing the two documents was that the original listed no title, no author, and no date of publication. Given the abruptness of its beginning and the nonexistent referents of pronouns in its first sentences, I concluded that the document was incomplete — specifically that its introduction was missing. The lack of context gave me nothing to assume about the text going in (not to mention made interpretation very difficult at first). There was only one circumstance of its creation I could deduce, and it is still one of the only ones I have by this point: because the most direct English translation is into Middle English, the original text was likely written sometime between the mid-11th Century and the 16th Century.

***

The partial document drops the reader into an ongoing history of a civilization; its name is yet another omitted detail, never appearing once in the translated text, but for convenience I will refer to the place as “Namenlos” (“Nameless” in German). If the archivist has his own name for it, I never heard or saw it.

Namenlos is referred to as a kingdom, tellingly situated in lowlands surrounded by mountain ranges, and is divided into approximately four dozen parishes. This theocratic method of social organization was typical of Europe in the days of the Holy Roman Empire, but the religion of Namenlos does not seem entirely consistent with Catholicism, or Christianity at large, even in the earliest times recorded. According to the text, under the jurisdiction of the king, each congregation was to attend its church once a day for prayer, at which time members would kneel silently and attempt to clear their minds of all thought, in a practice similar to modern meditation. It was said, however, that when one’s mind became sufficiently unladen, God would speak directly to him. With very little guidance from the priest, the laity would pray for one hour at a time and divine what they could.

By way of this custom, it had become axiomatic in Namenlos that each person had an essential connection to God. Some connections were stronger and others weaker depending on how regularly one heard things during prayer. Those who led fruitful lives were said to be holy, and oddly, those who led consistently poor or even criminal lives were considered closer to God than those who drifted, confused and contradictory in life, for the roles assigned to them were comparatively clear and meaningful. There seem to have been occasional murders, rapes, and other heinous crimes committed under the justification of God’s will, but never to the extent that Namenlos was untenable as a civilization. The most heretical act possible was to receive a clear message from God and act in direct opposition to it, and very rarely did anyone admit to doing so.

What was much more common and responsible for unrest at the time was a simple inability to open oneself to contact from God during prayer. The unverifiable nature of communicating with God threw into doubt what counted as a holy message and what was a subconscious product of one’s own insufficient clearing of the mind. The usual solutions to insecurity about one’s relationship with God sprang up over the years: monetary donations to the church, external aids to prayer like incense and music, and sacrifices. The issue with such efforts always boiled down to their inherent worldliness — their addition of material to demonstrations of holiness rather than advancement in the journey beyond the world.

There came a watershed moment when the king predicted a pillaging of Namenlos by a savage army of outsiders; given his foresight of the event, he was able to properly prepare. When the enemies did arrive, a militia met them and was handily victorious in the ensuing battle. The outsiders’ iron armor, weapons, food, and other resources more than compensated the militia’s losses and even catalyzed a short period of plenty in Namenlos. The king’s prediction had turned out to be accurate right down to the direction from which the attackers came. He insisted that he had seen the attack in a dream.

The philosophy of dreams in Namenlos had been dormant for a time. While dreams were not seen exclusively as refractions of people’s waking experiences like they are today, citizens of Namenlos put less weight on them as divine messages because they precluded all effort on the dreamer’s part to bridge the gap between himself and God. Historically, the work put into the task of hearing God was significant, as it represented an ability not everyone possessed equally. However, the increasing disquiet around not hearing God during prayer at all made people keen on alternative methods of communication; the sensational story of the king’s dream simply opened floodgates that had already been about to burst, and in a few short decades(?), the new “democratized” means of establishing a connection to God took precedence over prayer. By and large, divining became receiving.

One of the first new developments was to record the contents of one’s dreams upon waking every morning. Anyone who could not read or write simply illustrated their dreams in a single summarized picture. Portions of prayer hours were dedicated to studying one’s recorded dreams and looking for patterns across them. Obviously, not everyone’s dreams were as prophetic as the king’s famous one, but citizens usually found an embedded truth in them — implicit and thematic advice for their lives. Dreams became determinants of difficult decisions about occupations, spouses, families, and more.

Inevitably, a methodology of dream interpretation arose so that priests did not need to assist dozens or hundreds of congregation members daily with the task. The kingdom’s bishops devised a hierarchy of dream meaning that included three levels: direct, manifest, and latent meaning.

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Direct meaning was simple enough to ascertain — spoken words and sounds that came from no definable source, as well as written words, were more or less verbatim messages from God that were to be obeyed in the same way that messages heard during prayer were. The theory behind this “highest” level, specifically as it concerned written words, was that dreams rarely made use of them and so they must have been crucial whenever they did appear.

Manifest meaning dealt with all things perceptible and material in one’s dream world, including emotions (i.e. the fright of a nightmare). If one dreamed about walking on the edge of a river, for example, such a place might have impacted him previously, or might still in the future. If a single manifest component of a dream repeated, it was recommended that the dreamer reacquaint himself with that person, place, or thing in waking life. Manifestations, though not considered unimportant by any measure, were initially seen as the most easily muddled layer of dream meaning, especially when one’s dreams were set in places or included material elements that did not exist in the real world.

Naturally, latent meaning concerned all abstractions — the metaphorical underpinnings of manifestations. It was by far most difficult to deduce this kind of meaning (especially because it was inherently the most abundant) but certain rules of thumb were established for discerning the abstract in dreams. If one had regularly dreamt of being in small, dark spaces, for instance, it was likely that he had dealt, was dealing, or would deal with feelings of constriction and ignorance. To determine God’s qualitative charge of such conditions, one was to immerse himself in them purposely and see if the dreams continued. If they did, God was condemning the conditions and the dreamer was to disrupt them immediately; if those particular dreams ceased, the dreamer should have felt obligated to incorporate the conditions into his life for the foreseeable future. Those circumstances made real were thought to be an integral part of his life, at least until additional dreams ordained their abandonment. Other sources of latent meaning were the juxtapositions of dreams whose scenarios inexplicably shifted, the perspective from which one observed his dream, how significantly one played a role in his dream, the extent of the supernatural in one’s dream, colors of manifestations, and what one remembered most vividly after waking. Formulas for deriving meaning from all of these elements and more were created.

It seems that by certain measures, quality of life improved in Namenlos in the early days of this ‘dream interpretation era’, as the document indicated a new, profound sense of purpose across the population. Unsurprisingly, several patterns of behavior emerged in the waking world as a result of theological and epistemological transformations. People attempted to induce sleep more often during times of doubt, calling out for God’s help. Society’s collective Circadian Rhythm became more flexible as sleep was valued not just as a formality but as an event. Bedtime rituals expanded: people spent more time preparing for sleep and placed religious symbols around their beds to invite God to be with them in the night. Sleep was regarded with new reverence, and sentiments surrounding it broadened to encompass far more than the mere enjoyment of relaxation. Some who felt God was disappointed with them began to fear sleep, forgoing it and driving themselves mad.

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Uncertainty persisted about the nature of dreams. It was never lost on anyone in the academic sphere that the king’s prophetic dream had been very different from an ordinary one — premonitory rather than prescriptive. Dreams that overtly predicted the future were exceedingly rare, but not unheard of even among commoners, and many wondered what qualified an event as significant enough that God would warn someone about it beforehand (not to mention what made someone worthy of receiving such an honor). Dreams that appeared rooted in the real world were always treated with special attention, on the off-chance they were indeed prophetic.

Yet the potential for supernatural events, nonexistent things, and irregular logic to occur begged more fundamental questions about dreams, like where they were taking place. It was known that one experienced them in his head, but a regular topic of debate was whether or not a dream made someone witness to things happening somewhere, sometime else. A non-negligible portion of the population believed, like we do now, that dreams only unfolded in the mind, though to imply that they were not shown by God was sacrilegious. Some who noted the king’s dream and others similar posited that all dreams were in fact visions of the future, however distant. Others insisted that dreams, as Godly messages, were set in God’s Kingdom and that they would become comprehensible once one died and arrived at a world that contained all the same places they saw while asleep.

As more time elapsed, that last viewpoint proved the most appealing to the most people, but it sparked another philosophical problem: how it could be that Heaven comprised seemingly infinite realities that regularly contradicted each other. Religious purists admonished theologians for taking the importance of dreams too far, rallying around a return to the prayer-based holy dialogue of many decades ago. Most continued to seek an answer to the riddle of the Kingdom of God and its chameleon-like properties. There were those who threw up their hands and claimed their incognizance of Heaven did not necessitate its simplification. God’s works were inhumanly perfect and therefore the ‘answer’ was that people could not understand the answer.

Yet something the document cannot quite make clear kept the population of Namenlos searching for a more satisfying explanation, and there eventually came a time when a person unknown first uttered the ontology of Heaven and dreams that permanently changed the course of existence.

Perhaps there was no such thing as a singular Heaven — instead, a unique Heaven awaited each individual at the end of his or her life. Suddenly, the discrepancies among people’s dreams made perfect sense; they all saw into their own respective afterlives each night. More than that, particular contradictions across one’s own, successive dreams suggested that the reality of one’s Heaven was still in flux during the day. Was it not elegant and harmonious that where we would awaken after the transition between life and afterlife was contingent on the actions we took during our waking lives, much like the principles of the most widely-practiced religions tell us? But in Namenlos, people had not merely the power to determine whether they went to Heaven or Hell, but, if they were able to harness it, the Godly architectural power to construct their afterlife from the ground. Or, at least, this was the epiphany.

Each day became a test of causes and effects between life and dream, for the project of creating one’s afterlife ran on the fairly rigid time limit of his lifespan. The day of passing marked the final opportunity to complete one’s world, and, wherever it took place, the last dream one had as he drifted on from waking life was the setting he had made for himself from then onward.

Continuous experiments began. Immediately, some attempted to force subjects for dreams on themselves by strictly maintaining a single experience while awake — for instance, talking to one’s wife in the same place for an entire day or staring at the same painting until sleep overwhelmed. Unfortunately, this approach proved largely unreliable, and in fact, with more repetitions of one act over multiple days, dreams became less and less controllable. It did not take long for people to realize that novelty was a more important criterion for a dream subject than familiarity, and so experiments exploded beyond almost all boundaries. Studying a different painting each day; contemplating a different folk story; speaking to a new person and hearing about his or her life; watching the shadows made by different objects against fire; writing a particular word or phrase over and over; eating a different food; hearing a different type of music; subjecting a new part of the body to intense pain for a short time and experiencing the longer-lasting relief of the gradual reduction of pain. Typically, people would amass a finite number of variables for their experiments and cycle through them over the course of weeks. Outcomes in dreams differed wildly, but enough people claimed increased control over their dreams that the practice only spread.

Rumors of complete, instantaneous dominion over dreams disseminated throughout the kingdom as well, first whispered about in darker circles that most considered occult. It was said that if a person, during a dream, attained awareness of the fact that he was dreaming, he could immediately bend the circumstances of his afterlife to his will, at least to whatever extent he could manage in one night. For a long while, this possibility was a bridge too far for most citizens, who maintained that one could not so crudely become the God of his own afterlife. Yet stories of conscious dreaming peristantly tempted those who struggled to manipulate their dreams conventionally to perform rituals to obtain that power, especially because, it was said, the ability became progressively easier to use after the first time. There is less information about the waking methods of unlocking “conscious” (lucid) dreaming, but a common one seems to have been rudimentary sensory deprivation, where a person lies on a soft surface in true darkness and silence for a full day until sleep.

In the last years described by the document, the people of Namenlos became rather more receptive to the pursuit of conscious dreaming. There was no mention of educational narrowing, agricultural and industrial collapse, or famine, but I suspect that these factors contributed to the broadening scope of escapism. A group of benevolent executioners was borne out of the ideology of the dream — a group of people that, upon hire, would kill someone who felt confident he had secured the afterlife of his choosing. The governors of the kingdom seemed to support the group, and not just for political control. In fact, the king of that time (the grandson of the prophetic king) ordered his own execution at the hands of this group after years of taking calculated amounts of hallucinogen in calculated places.

The document concluded with a note that some remaining citizens of Namenlos had begun wondering if it was possible that the king’s original dream had been coincidental, or a fabrication.

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***

I finished reading, unsettled and fascinated. The archivist remained fast asleep on his sofa. I was sorely tempted to take the pages of Namenlos back to my own apartment and continue to study them, but knowing how important that document was to the archivist, I suspected it would be a bad idea to take it without his knowledge — and something definitely told me he would not allow me to borrow it if I asked, even though we had become something resembling friends.

I settled on taking a clandestine photo of every page using my phone and leaving quickly. My head buzzed on the cold walk back home and for the entire remainder of the night until I fell into a deep but fitful sleep. When I awoke, it was to find my apartment in complete disarray, furniture upturned, all doors ajar, and most notably, my electronic devices all either stolen or bricked. He had clearly taken a magnet to my desktop tower and my spare laptop, and my phone was completely gone. I asked my neighbors if they heard or saw anything suspicious over that night, to which they all answered in the negative, but it is only too obvious what happened.

This all happened last week and I have not gone back to my university since, let alone the campus library. I really have no clue what I would do if I saw the archivist again, and I would rather not have to find out. Luckily, I have reached a point where I can conclude my thesis project remotely — not that I feel in exactly the right mindset to be doing so.

As you can imagine (and confirm for yourself), there is no information about Namenlos available on the Internet or at any library you can visit. For all intents and purposes, it never existed. While I cannot technically say it with certainty, I am forced to believe that, for all his infatuation with old texts created by others, the incomplete history of Namenlos is a fiction devised by the archivist himself. And that leaves me to endlessly ponder what he did it for.

Does he use the document’s ideology of dreams as a set of guidelines for his own life? The history did omit the likely myriad ways that fixation on dreams would (or did) destroy a society, but it would be wrong to claim that it glorified Namenlos instead; for the most part, the document offered a neutral depiction. Or perhaps that was its own underhanded version of glorification — validation. If Namenlos is the archivist’s means of one day planting a sinister seed that roundly exalts or condemns anything, especially something relating to religion, I am very hesitant to broadcast this story to anyone. As I write these words, I still have not decided if I will post this to the Internet.

***

I tried sleeping on this conundrum for a few days, but my nights were ironically dreamless, and restless awakenings by daytime kept me from the renewed energy necessary for resolution. Eventually, I stared out my window and regarded the gray cityscape outside my apartment for a while. For minutes on end, the scene remained remarkably static, but finally, a bird alighted on a stop sign in the street below, gazing over pedestrians’ heads while I overlooked his. He watched for a while, then took off again. Something indescribable about that moment helped me to reach my decision.

Credit: Christian P.

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