Feliks Mikhailov
The Riddle of the Self

4. Dreams of the Kurshskaya Sand Bar

So many things happen to us in dreams! Their capricious “logic” gets us into incredible situations, reunites us with half-forgotten childhood friends, with the dead, with members of our family in quite a different guise from what we are used to. We may think we are flying or, even without flying, land up in extraordinary places. But the most astonishing dreams I ever had – real full-length adventure films or brief but impressive short stories – were those I had on the Kurshskaya Sand Bar.

It's one of the most wonderful places in the world. From Kaliningrad to Klaipeda a narrow strip of sand (not more than half an hour's walk across) stretches for over a hundred kilometres with a ridge of dunes all the way along it, thickly wooded with short fluffy pine-trees. Only the high dunes beyond Nida are bare. The fine sand – one would think all the sand clocks in the world had been spilled out here – of this whitish yellow bar divides the water of the Kurshskaya Gulf and the Baltic Sea. The shore of the gulf is fringed with a mixed forest and along the sea coast much taller pines lean back slightly towards the dunes, as though tired of hearing the constant noisy sighs of the surf.

We have some good friends who live in Preili, a small fishing village that is now also a resort. How well we sleep when we stay there! We don't just go to sleep, we fall into nothingness. But then another life begins, a life quite different from the every day – far more dynamic, exciting.

One is always reading in popular literature on the subject about the “neurophysiological mechanisms” of dreams that the reason cannot control or correct, about “centres of wakefulness”, about the chaotic mosaic of “nodes of excitation” that switch on now one, now another image from past experience. This, so we are told, is what makes our dreams so fantastic and illogical. This is how events that have really been experienced are suddenly transferred to the illusory space and time of the dream world.

But the vivid and very logically developing dreams of the Kurshskaya Sand Bar could hardly be called spontaneous or chaotic. When I recall them I also start thinking about the logic of quite ordinary dreams. And that, of course, reminds me that I am not the first person to take notice of them. Take, for example, Sigmund Freud's General Introduction to Psychoanalysis and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Leaving aside his one-sidedly symbolic method of “interpreting” dreams and with it the whole pan-sexual conception, let us note only the fact that Freud regarded the development of events in a dream as being clearly motivated by their own content, even if their meaning was often not clear to the dreamer himself. In other words Freud categorically rejected the idea that the images and experiences arising in dreams were due to the dreamer's position, the state of his internal organs, and so on. Of course, physical factors (internal and external) affecting the sleeper may influence the images seen in dreams. But the logic of the development of the dream image is that of the meaning contained in this or that image, the meaning for the person who is dreaming. Freud rightly regarded the “physiological” theory of the causes of dreams as the dominant theory of his time, and it was this theory he opposed. He insisted that “dreams are not a somatic, but a mental, phenomenon”. In other words, “the external and internal stimuli operating upon the sleeper are merely the occasion of the dream and afford us no insight into its true nature. ...” [Sigmund Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis]

What led Freud to such categorical conclusions? The absence of semantic chaos in the mosaic of dream imagery. A dream is in its own way very consistent, as I can illustrate by telling you about the particularly clear and emotional dreams I had myself on the Kurshskaya Sand Bar.

One Kurshskaya dream made a special impression, so special that the following morning on the way to the sea, I related it in detail to my friends, pretending that it was a story I had read some time before.

“... But I've forgotten who it's by. Can't you tell me the author? The subject and general mood are very familiar.”

“Green. Yes, I'm sure, it's Alexander Green,” said one of my companions. “It's just like him. I think I remember one of his stories...”

But it was not a story by Green. I had experienced it all myself. This was certainly not a dream arising from a chaotic flow of memory images.

I dreamed that I was paying a visit to an old ane, very good friend. As I approached the house a wave of affection in me seemed to herald the joy of meeting. But the interesting point is that I was going to see a friend I had never known in “real” life. I had never seen him before for the simple reason that no such person exists. In my dream I had no notion of his face or figure. I did not even try to recall them. I didn't know why we had not met for so long. I couldn't remember what ties there had been between us in the past. It didn't matter. He was there, he was waiting for me. What more did I need?

One thing I did know was that my friend had some time ago suddenly become a very rich man. He must have been left a legacy or something – I don't know, but a great fortune had come to him all of a sudden. I also knew that the house I was approaching amid the bare fields under a grey lowering sky, a strange massive building with two round towers at the corners, had been built with this money. He had built himself a castle, where he wanted to live for the rest of his life in solitude.

The time and place, though apparently indeterminate, were nevertheless determinate in that it was not my country and not the present day. So according to the logic of events even the person whose life I was living in my dream was not quite me. Probably it was a character in some short story that had come back to me in dream form. However, it was I who was approaching the house and I who could clearly see this absurd edifice and the slightly stooped figure of my friend coming to meet me up the slope.

Before this my friend had lost someone who had been very dear to him. I knew who it was and how it had happened, and so well that there was no need to ask about it or even go over it in my own mind. My friend was in a very bad state. For a long time he had lived in the deepest despair, then had come this unexpected legacy. So he had decided to build himself this shell, this tomb, and withdraw from life behind its walls, abandoning everything that might remind him of the past. This was also part of the emotional feeling I had about what would happen. I knew all about it and there would be no need for him to tell me again.

We met in silence, although we had obviously both been waiting impatiently or this meeting. At last he spoke. Yes, he was in a bad way. Very bad.

“This damned house ... this tomb ... It's choking me. It was inevitable, you know. It'll drive me mad. I think I'm slightly mad already. I'm sure it'll affect you too. There's something about it that leads to madness. You'll see.”

Even now I clearly remember all the nooks and crannies of that strange mansion. Only two or three stories high, it looked low and sprawling from outside. But inside – br-r-rh! In each of the round towers a flight of broad steps led down into a deep crypt. Underground there were endless vaulted chambers, all of them dark and empty. I became forcibly aware that this house was my friend's morbid soul, suddenly embodied in spatial stone. And my head swam at the thought of approaching insanity.

Most of the time in the dream was spent touring the house. Then I advised my friend to go away for a day to collect my luggage from the station, if for no other reason. And immediately after that came the scene of his return. During his absence (and evidently thanks to my efforts, though they were not included in the dream) certain changes, imperceptible from outside, had taken place in the house.

Excitedly but holding myself in check, I led my friend down the broad staircase into the crypt. And what a scene of merriment confronted us there. The vaults of those once dark and deserted chambers were echoing with songs and the talk of young voices. There were flowers everywhere, a band was playing cheerfully, but not too loud. And I could hardly keep up with my friend. Astonished and joyfully confused, he was greeting the cheerful young guests at the tables.

As for me, I felt calm, light at heart and confident that everything would be all right and as it should be.

And now I come to the most difficult point – to convince the reader that nothing has been added or embellished in the story of my dream. On the contrary, the account I have just given is a very pale reflection of the feelings and sensations I experienced and to which I shall for a long time to come, perhaps all my life, return as though to perfectly real events of the past. The “past” that lives within us at any given moment of the present, that keeps absorbing new impressions and reacting sensitively to their meaning. Does the Self, the Ego ever really forget all the dreams that we find it impossible to remember when we wake up?

After all, we are not talking about an ordinary, daily awakening. If the whole “cosmic edifice of deduction”, that is, all our notions of the world, is built on individual perceptions and their illusory nature is demonstrated by the fact that our dreams are sometimes more vivid, consistent and significant than many of the ordinary events of waking life, the question of distinguishing dream from reality becomes fundamentally important. What is more, for those who go along with all empirical philosophy in regarding the psychological characteristics of the individual's immediate sensuous contact with the surrounding world as a necessary and sufficient description of the source of man's cognitive activity, this question raises a fundamental issue. And if we agree for even a minute with the empirical approach to man and to human consciousness, my account of the dreams I had on the Kurshskaya Sand Bar inevitably becomes a weighty argument in favour of Bertrand Russell's thesis. Who then will prove to us that our waking life, obedient to our intelligence, is more significant for our soul, our mind, our vision of the world, than the vivid and powerful experience of dream images freely moulded from the materials of the subconscious by the productive force of creative intuition. After all, it's a fact. In a state of wakefulness I would never have thought of anything resembling the adventure tale of the Kurshskaya dream, never arouse in myself the “Alexander Green” who made me one of the characters in the story I have recounted above.

One can recall many examples of real scientific and artistic creativity in dreams. After long efforts to classify the elements, Mendeleyev suddenly saw his famous table in a dream. Mayakovsky thought of an extraordinarily powerful simile while asleep. He had been searching for a way of expressing his feelings that would not sound hackneyed. How would he, a poet, care for his love? Not like the “apple of his eye” surely! So many things had been cared for like that – in words! So he went to sleep on it. And suddenly he heard the words, “As a war-hacked soldier, without help or home, cares for his only leg.” No machine flipping through all the possible variants could have produced that “bit of information”. Only the great and easily wounded heart of the poet could pour such ardent human feeling into a line of poetry. So, perhaps, Bertrand Russell is right at least in suggesting that even a dream is Life, Life with a capital letter, forgettable, disappearing just as inevitably as all individual life that is born and dies on our planet?

But life, whether in dream or in our waking hours, is permeated by the bright light of consciousness. The question of the distinction between the “perceptions” in dreams and the perceptions of the waking brain becomes a primary and fundamental problem only on one assumption – that man builds all his knowledge of the world and himself from a mosaic of mental experiences of direct external influences. “Life is like a dream,” says Russell in his book Human Knowledge using Calderon's phrase to discuss the fundamental theoretical impossibility of distinguishing dream from reality. A dream is like life is what anyone who had experienced the happy moments of creative inspiration in his dreams would say. Dreams are life, an inseparable part of it, determined by the same foundation as all man's conscious activity. Consequently, much depends on how that foundation is theoretically explained. This will form the subject of our last chapter.

But our discussion of dreams is bound up with what we have been saying throughout this chapter. The particular, taken as the beginning of a system of coordinates describing the whole conscious life-activity of the individual, automatically transforms the social into the environment of his activity. In both the logic of Russell and in the methodological assumptions of Delgado's and Wooldridge's researches the particular is understood unreflectionally, that is, as something directly and empirically given. The individual exists. Now let us see what his abilities are. And his abilities did not come with his genes. He became an individual long after he was born. The biography that shaped him as an individual lies not in the structure of DNA molecules or the “external social structure”. [4] His biography begins not from the moment of his birth. He can become an individual (become the subject of his own life-activity) only by absorbing mankind's experience of the “nodal points” of human history. No, not simply by learning or memorising why Caesar crossed the Rubicon or when and how Russia adopted Christianity. We are not talking about school learning or about the assimilation of any ready-made tools, knowledge or skills. We are concerned with his living and direct participation in the historically evolved modes of human intercourse that shape both his body (even in the brain the migration of cells stops at the age of about ten), his needs and abilities.

Understanding the real living, individual not as a point of departure but as the result of all world history up to the present means individualising the social and understanding individuality as a social phenomenon. Perhaps this is the only way we can more or less imagine the individual's consciousness as the ability not only to perceive but also to know the surrounding world, and not only to know but to create a new world that does not yet exist, and create it not only in his waking hours but, in dreams as well.

Any attempt to define consciousness in the narrow limits of the mind-body problem runs into the insoluble problem of creativity. The information reaching the brain and then floating to the surface in the images of memory, in the chaotic flashes of dreams – all this in some way or another fits into the spatial-structural explanation of the interaction of neurons, and so on. But no matter which of the two positions suggested by the logic of the mind-body problem you accept, whether you agree with the notion that the mental (consciousness) is the organism's experience of its own nerve processes, or whether you maintain that the mental is the external world itself imprinted in the brain in the form of “nerve copies”, you will have to declare man's creative abilities a “special gift of nature”, “the reflex of creativity that appeared in man in the process of his philogenesis”, or some other reflex with a wordy designation that explains nothing. Consciousness is not the processing, storing and emission of information. Consciousness is only real when a person sees in the world that which does not exist and will never exist there without strenuous human activity, but which can be created in the world and according to its laws (knowledge!).

Even the dreams we have are not memories, not deliberate combinations of past images. In dreams our consciousness, having escaped the control of rational judgement that checks our every step against the perceived world of things, has free play and creates people, characters, circumstances, moods, feelings and sometimes even new ideas, new music, new poetry. And the real riddle of the human Self lies here in the riddle of the creative abilities of the consciousness.

And now to close the chapter I will tell you about just one more of my “dreams”. Admittedly I sometimes have it in my waking hours, and not only on the Kurshskaya Sand Bar. But in any case I could have dreamed it. After all it is conceivable that in reply to my “attacks” and in accordance with the beliefs he expounded in several of his works, Bertrand Russell might have joined in the dialogue and offered some criticism of the basic ideas of the “Riddle”. So I often dream not of Lord Bertrand Russell, but of one of his pupils, who agrees with his views, taking up the argument with me, the Author.

Pupil. Your book didn't strike me as at all convincing.

Author. So you must have some objections. I should like to hear them.

Pupil. As far as I can judge, your conception of knowledge is the traditional utilitarian scheme of reflectivity illuminated by some striking ideas from the creative evolution of Bergsonism, plus a pretty good share of Hegelian mysticism. Quite an original mixture and, in my view, extremely amusing.

Author. So far I have heard only your appraisal. And the implied reproach of eclecticism, of mixing the unmixable. Well, I am not surprised to hear you speak of the utilitarianism of our school. Your teacher, Bertrand Russell, passed the same judgement on the philosophy of Marx. Remember the History of Western Philosophy (pp. 782-90), where he treats Marx practically as the founder of pragmatism and associates him with John Dewey. He is no less “amusing” in what he writes about Bergson. Let me remind you of a passage from the chapter on Bergson in the same book. “As intellect is connected with space, so instinct or intuition is connected with time. It is one of the noteworthy features of Bergson's philosophy that, unlike most writers, he regards time and space as profoundly dissimilar. Space, the characteristic of matter, arises from a dissection of the flux which is really illusory, useful, up to a certain point, in practice, but utterly misleading in theory. Time, on the contrary, is the essential characteristic of life or mind. . . .” [Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy]

I must also remind you in view of the large share of Hegelian mysticism you find in my conception that in the same book Russell himself reproached Hegel for mysticism, for disbelief in the reality of individual things. But Hegel, incidentally on the same grounds as Bergson, regarded the spatially formed thing as only a moment of reality, and a moment which outside the flux (in Hegel, “process”) was deprived of its own essence. As a Marxist philosopher, I feel flattered to be included in such company.

Hegel calls purely spatial “determinations” (definitions) outside the real process, outside time mechanisms. In this case, as Hegel wrote, “the distinct terms are complete and independent Objects, which consequently, when they are related, are related only as independent, and in every connection remain external to one another ...” [Hegel's Science of Logic, Vol. II, p. 350.] And further, these mechanistic “Objects are indifferent to this unity and preserve themselves against it”. [Hegel's Science of Logic, op. cit., p. 355] Not so in Time. Unity in the historical process is unity of the root, the unity of belonging to the whole, the unity of diverse forms of development of the one foundation. This is where the essence and dynamics that cause the transformation of objects, their development as self-development is revealed. Here is Bergson's “flux” for you! Here is the definition of life and reason as a process! Neither Hegel nor Bergson took this splendid idea of “Time” as far as conjunction with the “inner” determination of spatial bodies. For Hegel, nature remained the extensional corporeal embodiment and stopping of time-logic of the development of the Idea. For Bergson the gap between space and time is even more fatal and cosmic. Space and time do not even transmute into each other (as the Idea necessarily regresses into matter in Hegel), but simply clash and fight like two mutually exclusive principles.

Your Teacher singles out some of the profound thoughts of these philosophers, such as the idea that reason (consciousness) is congenial precisely to the wholeness of the process developing in time. That was a very acute summing up and it showed Russell's profound philosophical intuition. Marx, too, whose point of view I have been trying to popularise in this book, saw the world not as an unencompassable sea, not as a conglomerate of things that remained indifferent to each other in all forms of their mechanical, spatial interactions. He envisaged our world as a flux, a process of self-development bringing to life the organs that are lacking.

Pupil. I didn't mean just the idea of Time as a meaningful definition of the process of self-development. Taking for your point of departure the naive dogmatic scheme of reflection, which requires a strict delimitation of images and things, you then proceed in the spirit of Bergson to identify the act of cognition with the cognised object, thus smothering the contradiction thus caused with the Hegelian logic of predetermination. The result of this symbiosis is a very weird conception of the world and thought. When we are told that thought is simply a means of action, simply an impulse to avoid obstacles we are inclined to think of a cavalry officer rather than a philosopher, who should be engaged in calm and thorough thought.

Author. I find that difficult to understand. What did you see as the starting-point of the conception presented in this book? The strict delimitation of images and things? But open your Teacher's book. All the obstacles to cognition arise from the demand for a strict distinction between images and things. One should not confuse the problem with the attempt to describe its final solution. When your teacher writes that the vast cosmic edifice of inference relies on immediate sensory images of perception (“the initial perceptual datum”), he simultaneously expresses doubt in the correspondence between these images and real objects. And in general, he says, life is perhaps only a dream. He thus distinguishes images and things in a way that no advocate of the naive dogmatic scheme of reflection ever did.

The question of cognition is primarily a question of the correspondence between our knowledge, our notions and the images of things. In the naive dogmatic scheme of reflection (my name for it is the empirical scheme of knowledge) the whole task boils down, first, to finding these images somewhere in the brain, and then checking to see whether they exactly resemble the things. This proves to be impossible, if only because no images have yet been found in the brain, and if they were found, they would have to be compared again with images; according to this conception, when I look at a sheet of paper, my reason records its image in the consciousness, and I can compare the image only with what I see. And then we are told there is no way of distinguishing the image of perception from the things themselves. It was your Teacher who wrote that, not me. And it is this point of view that I call the result of the naive dogmatic notion of cognition.

I have already spoken of Bergsonism, and its “spirit” does not strike me as in any way contradictory to calm and thorough thought. The fact that the “substance” of a thing, when perceived, does not move into the body of the knower was known to the ancients. Both Democritus and Aristotle (at a different level) believed that it is the form of things that is reproduced in the knower. Spinoza and Bergson, each in his own way, developed this idea; the form of things is developed in motion, in the process of man's life-activity. It does not move into the body of the knower and is not imprinted on it; man by the motion of his body (and intellect, according to Bergson) “flows” over the form of the thing and thus registers the thing itself outside himself, and not some “image” inside him. All this demands strict distinction between the subjective motion of the vital organs over the object and the object itself, which exists outside and independently of the individual. The whole point is how deeply and comprehensively we reproduce in our life-activity, in our active relations with each other, the objective properties of objects.

Yes, we – you, me, Russell, everyone – do have to “circumvent obstacles,” and if only for this purpose we must be able to determine their actual nature in the process of calm and thorough thought. And since the obstacles are not only of the kind that the cavalry officer usually has to deal with, but also of the kind, for example, that prevent peace from being finally and firmly established on earth, and against which your late teacher took his stand, we have to learn theoretically, by thought, to distinguish words from deeds, conceptions from propaganda, and again in the process of the most calm and thorough thought we have to reconstruct in the motion of subjective thought the objective causes that are leading the world to the brink of suicidal war.

Yes, thought is a means of action, if only because it produces the goals. A person cannot live without goals, any more than he can live without a future. And without goals he certainly cannot calmly contemplate the world.

Pupil. But when you criticised Russell's doubt as to whether it is possible to prove the distinction between a dream and the sensation of the real object, you had evidently accepted the picturesque myth that in our behaviour we are condemned to be the slaves of instinct, while the life force drives us constantly and incessantly forward, and had decided that this myth offers a far more convincing picture of the world than a healthy and reasonable scepticism. Your conception has no room for the moments of contemplative insight into the essence, of things, when we rise above animality and begin to comprehend the more important goals that free man from animality.

Author. A picturesque myth, you say? But surely that assessment is already an example of scepticism. Healthy scepticism? Perhaps. Reasonable? No, more likely, emotional. Your reproach is emotional, you are bitter about the way people are doomed to be the slaves of instinct, of the incessant urge to move forward. “Stop!” you want to shout. “Look around you! There is something eternal in this world, there are the stars that have been shining above the earth for millions of years. Here is the true scale of human thought!” And your feeling stirs and worries me, as it does any thinking person. But surely your healthy and reasonable scepticism is an assertion of that very same myth and a convenient choice of position for contemplation. If the world is an endless steeplechase, the place for the sceptical philosopher is in the stands. But perhaps it is time to take a broader view of the whole scene and look at it not from the stands or from the horse's back, not with the eyes of the sceptical onlooker or cavalry officer intent on winning the prize? Perhaps it is time we understood that in simply contrasting their one-sided views we lost both the capacity for truly wise contemplation and the capacity to avoid obstacles and reach our goals?

Pupil. Now, of course, you will start quoting Marx. Philosophers have only explained the world, but the point is to change it. But one can change the world only according to the highest goals, whose cognition and discovery demands ...

Author ... calm and thorough thought. That's true, very true indeed. But what is thought? If it is only a process of inference from in dividual sensuous images, then we really have no other means but the passive contemplation of these images. I'm afraid that in this case no other goal may appear.

Pupil . Do you know what thought is?

Author. Thought is not contemplation but creativity. And to give ourselves a better idea of what that means let us try to imagine a substance capable of generating thought.

4. One of my opponents, namely D. I. Dubrovsky, has twice acknowledged in his writings that “the conception defended by F. T. Mikhailov has a good many supporters and some rather impressive philosophical arguments have been marshalled to substantiate it”. (D. I. Dubrosky, Mental Phenomena and the Brain, 1971; see also his The Brain and Mentality, Problems of Philosophy 1968, No. 8. But Dubrovsky himself understands these arguments in his own peculiar way. in the conception he criticises he sees an example of very primitive Lamarckian mechanicism. One would readily agree with him if one argued only according to the logic of generalising the facts of the spatial interaction of brain and environment: either the individual's brain, processing the external influence of the natural and social environment, is responsible for mental phenomena or the social environment wholly determines all mental phodomena, in which case the brain is only a passive instrument for transmitting and storing the images of the external world.

But the point is that for the human organism the social ways and means of human life-activity are not factors of the external environment, but the internal needs and abilities of the organism itself. So it works out that without deducing any philosophical arguments or, to put it another way, logico-theoretical definitions of the real time of the social history of natural man, by the purely spatial opposition of the human body to the “body” of the environment (let it be three times as social as it is) one cannot in principle see the strange fact (strange for Lamarckism and its neurodynamic opposition, to which the critic restricts himself) that this social “environment”, that is, seriously speaking, the historical ways and means of human intercourse, took shape and will go on taking shape only together with all the organic attributes of the human being and therefore never was and never will be the environment that shapes him. That is why for Marx the essence of man is not an abstract inherent in the individual (for example, a special ability to adapt to the social environment or the ability of the brain to “codify” and decode information), but the real sum total of social relations. Marx warned: “Above all we must avoid postulating 'society' again as an abstraction vis-à-vis the individual.” (Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx, Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 3, p. 299). But Dubrovsky simply ignores the historical opposition between “illusory collectivity” – political organisation of class society – and the individual (and the dependence of the “partial” person on this objective abstraction of man's social essence). Consequently, lie is left with the purely verbal abstractions: “social environment”, and so on.

Contents | 5. The Substance of History