Letting Go

Ever since I was little, I have occasionally been getting these visions when I am half asleep. It’s that semi-lucid state where you’re still awake on some level, but have let go of control over your body, and are waiting for the consciousness in your mind to settle down already and go to sleep as well. In this state, I sometime see — or feel–see — images that I know must be contradictions: a ‘hand’ with fingers that are long and thin, yet at the same time massively thick and bulky · sinking steps in quicksand that keeps pushing you to its own surface · feeling yourself grasping something that you couldn’t possibly reach.

I haven’t bothered looking up whether such visions are common in the twilight phases between waking and sleep, and frankly, it’s not that important — though if you want to tell me I’m weird, or that you get the same visions, feel free to do so. What matters is that, rationally, after the fact, I connect these visions to a broader mental–cultural motif: the transcendence that annuls itself. It’s been something of an obsession of mine for the past ten years or so, since I started noticing the pattern in works of art. The motif is far from universal, but it does turn up from time to time. Either that, or I subconsciously impose the pattern where it doesn’t belong. I’d be fine with that, too.

I first solidified my analysis of the phenomenon in a discussion of Henrik Ibsen’s last four plays. I was studying Scandinavian Languages and Cultures in Amsterdam at the time, and had not yet officially turned my back on literary studies by delving into linguistics, and wrote a final paper for a course that was entirely dedicated to Ibsen’s works — it was 2006, the year of the centennial of his death. In that paper, which I might translate/edit at some point, I argued that there was a powerful vertical symbolism in each of these last four plays, The Master Builder, John Gabriel Borkman, Little Eyolf, and When We Dead Awaken, but particularly in the first and the last of these. In the final acts of these plays, the protagonist — in each case an elderly man; cue autobiographical readings — makes a strong vertical ascent followed by a descent. What follows should be accompanied by a spoiler alert for fin de siècle Norwegian theatre, I suppose.

Solness, the titular master builder, ascends the tower he had built to impress his new young love Hilde; she wanted a castle in the sky, he wanted to add a firm foundation. At his moment of triumph, however, he falls (or leaps) off the tower to his death. Professor Rubek, the protagonist of When We Dead Awaken, in turn, ascends a snow-clad mountainside with his old new love Irene. At their moment of triumph, they are buried in an avalanche. In both cases, the scenes are intertwined with guilt and doubt — both men forsake their current wives for their ultimate loves in a climax of passion. An excerpt from the final scene of When We Dead Awaken will illustrate the levels of pathos involved here:

Professor Rubek. Ikke et hårsbred har alt det, som ligger imellem, forringet dig i mine øjne.
[…] (slår armene voldsomt om hende). Så lad os to døde leve livet en eneste gang til bunds — før vi går ned i vore grave igen!
Irene (med et skrig). Arnold!
Professor Rubek. Men ikke her inde i halvmørket! Ikke her, hvor det stygge, våde lin blafrer omkring os —
Irene (henreven i lidenskap). Nej, nej, — op i lyset og i al den glitrende herlighed. Op til forgættelsens tinde!

Professor Rubek. Not a whit has all this, what lies between us, diminished you in my eyes.
(throws his arms around her violently). So let us two dead ones live life to its fullest, just once — before we go down into our graves again!
Irene (with a shriek). Arnold!
Professor Rubek. But not here in the gloom! Not here, with this ugly, wet shroud flapping around us –
Irene (carried away by passion). No, no, — up into the light and all that glittering glory. Up to the summit of prophecy!
(my translation)

Moments later, they are swept back down again by the crashing snow — the play ends with Rubek’s wife Maja celebrating her newfound freedom down in the valley, for she too has found a new love, the earthly Ulfhejm. Over it all, a diakonisse (a type of Protestant nun) pronounces “Pax Vobiscum”. Peace be with you all.

There is something of a paradox in these final scenes. Solness and Rubek see their wishes fulfilled, but they die immediately after reaching this summit of bliss. They are allowed a taste of victory, but do not get to reap its rewards, at least not in this life. There is a grasping for something that cannot be grasped. On one level, one could argue that this is because their victories are stained by guilt: the guilt of a life not lived to the fullest, of suppressed desires, but also the accompanying guilt of unloved spouses suffering under the suppression of these desires. If only they had all been true to themselves from the start.

While that level of interpretation resonates with me a lot, there seems to be a more abstract, mystical layer to it as well. At the end of this piece, I’ll return to that layer.

First, let’s move from theatre to videogames, as one does — at least, if you’re me. Those who have read my article “Isolation” in the fourth issue of Five out of Ten might already be sensing a tingle of recognition. In that piece, I argue that the same vertical symbolism is present in some games as well, albeit to different degrees. The best fit for the motif is Dear Esther, which ends with the protagonist climbing an aerial and then leaping off of it in an emotional climax. It seems almost too obvious to mention that he, too, shoulders a burden of guilt towards his wife. There is one other game, however, which I have not written about before, yet which feels connected somehow.

Last night, while I was having some of the visions described at the start of this piece, I was listening to the album Otoha by Tomoyoshi Date — appropriate music can draw out the waking–sleep transition. Both the music and the visions made me recall a game — or rather, a level — that I played a couple of times before, and which reasserts itself in my mind periodically. I played the level again this morning, and I still think it’s beautiful.

I’m talking about Knytt Stories by Swedish developer Nicklas Nygren (a.k.a. Nifflas), and specifically about the expansion level “Sky Flower”, which Nygren himself describes as “abstract and slightly pretentious”. Perhaps. Knytt Stories is a platform game in which you control a small figure called a Knytt, most likely derived at least in part from a character of the same name written and drawn by Moomin author Tove Jansson. In the game Knytt can gradually acquire climbing and jumping powers, as well as some other kinds. In most of the main story levels, these are used to traverse puzzling and hostile environments in other to solve a story. “Sky Flower”, however, is different. The level consists of a vertically stacked series of screens, and Knytt must work her way upward using a small selection of powers. She jumps from cloud to cloud, from flower bud to flower bud, and rides the rising winds using her umbrella.

Ascending, Knytt sees the sky darkening around her as she gets farther and farther from solid ground. There’s no way to go but up: the sides of the screen form a closed loop. The hard version of the level throws in a few challenges for Knytt to solve on her way, while the easy version allows for a more effortless ascent. At the very top, there awaits no grand climax as I may have led you to expect. There is no apotheosis at the summit of the Sky Flower. Instead, Knytt finds her final power there: the eye.

With nowhere else to go, Knytt must go down to the base of the flower again. She can jump, or drop gently, or float down using her umbrella. At the bottom, there is something new — it’s very subtle, but there is now an opening in the cloudmass the Sky Flower grows from.

Knytt drops down into the hole, and makes sure to float down gently, collecting the keys on her way down. Once she reaches the bottom, she uses the keys to open the passage to the heart of the level, entwined in the root of the Sky Flower. When she enters the light at the end of the spiral, the level is finished.

“Sky Flower”, too, contains a strong ascent that is annulled in its climax. We expect there to be some kind of closure for Knytt to reach at the very top of the flower, but instead, the only reason for her to travel upward is to gain access to what was hidden in the heart of the level all along. She merely needed to be able to see it.

There are differences between all these artistic and oneiric visions I have mentioned. If you’re feeling particularly stingy today, you might say I’m making connections that are too tentative to hold up to scrutiny. All the same, my mind makes them and finds the act meaningful. It reaches for the moments and places in between and tries to tie together the concepts that are separated. Sometimes these contradict each other, like up and down, freedom and guilt, life and death, yet we are drawn to grasp at them and pull them together.

It is a common theme in mysticism to occupy the mind with contradictions and paradoxes. Because the divine, the truly sublime divine, is thought to be beyond comprehension, we sometimes purposefully throw two simultaneous curveballs at our rational selves in order to confuse them. They flail wildly and try to catch both balls, but it is simply impossible to grasp both at the same time. At that point, there is nothing to do but let go.

After Solness falls down from his tower, most characters present on the scene stare down at his broken body. He wanted to prove himself by standing atop his creation, and this was the result: “he didn’t make it after all.” At the same time, Hilda kept looking up at the tower. She saw him succeed. It’s unclear whether Solness fell or jumped off his tower. To make it in the first place, he had to let go of his inhibitions. Rubek and Irene had to let go of theirs as well. They knew the mountainside was dangerous, but they let go of their fear. At the end of Dear Esther, the protagonist climbs the aerial only to jump off, so he can finally let go of all the memories. When Knytt reached the top of the Sky Flower, there was nothing there but an eye. To reach her ultimate end, she too had to let go of initial expectations.

Only now, at the very end of writing this piece, do I consciously realise what my answer is to the question of where these paradoxical waking–sleep images come from. They are the mystical curveballs our mind throws itself in order to break down its own inhibitions. In the moments between waking and sleep, we’ve left our body behind, and we wait for our mind to let go and carry us to our dreams.

Further reading:

This post was supported by the generous contributors to my Patreon.