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.

  • Andrei Filote

    I under­stand you com­pletely. Since I was a small boy I’ve had a recur­ring dream where I find myself in this black void. Now the void is not the point; it is some­thing I have to men­tion as a con­scious speaker, but my dream­ing self never both­ers with it. It is there, or rather it is not there. What I am really inter­ested in is a dis­tant white point, infin­ites­im­ally small. In this place I do not have a body, so when I close in on the point, I travel through snap­shots, as though switch­ing levels of mag­ni­fic­a­tion through a micro­scope. It must be my intel­lect clos­ing in. The point has a shape and a tex­ture: it is a tiny pil­low, smooth like ice or a blob of frozen fat. This shape is both soft and hard. It allows me a small degree of engage­ment, but it also rejects my touch, and my under­stand­ing. For some reason, the point ter­ri­fies me. There is some­thing about my encroach­ing it, at awe­some speeds, as though I were approach­ing its micro­scopic size. Then it becomes gigantic, fright­en­ingly so. What was too small and tough to pen­et­rate is now too large to com­pre­hend. I am afraid of being swal­lowed into it. 

    I’ve never been able to under­stand this dream. I’ve never been quite sure why it scares me so, what hap­pens, really, when I get close to the point. When I try to ima­gine this sequence, I just end up knock­ing myself like a met­ro­nome from one state to another, until I’ve had enough.

    For a long time, I for­got I’d ever exper­i­enced this, but this year the memory came to me again, I won­der why.

    • Thanks Andrei! I’m glad to hear I’m not alone in this.