Swedish artist, lives and work in Stockholm

The unavoidable logic of dawn

Written by: Per Johansson

At night all is silent. The mind can be at peace more easily. The peaceful mind becomes receptive, a receptivity that is not always pleasant. The functional willpower of daytime has receded. Other less functional thoughts can appear, as if out of nowhere. If the day is clear and logical, does that make the night illogical? No, not really. Logic has to do with consequentiality. Hence, the unsought, not seemingly functional perceptions of night can have their own consequentiality. Let us explore this idea.
Traditionally, and symbolically in particular, it is not night as such that harbours the sudden impulses or visions, but the borderland, the transition between day and night, at dusk and dawn, when daytime logic dissolves and the darkness of night is not total. Night itself is an impenetrable, unfathomable potentiality. At dusk and dawn, however, almost distinct, nearly possible shapes and figures can reveal themselves. But “almost” and “nearly” are deeply frustrating to daytime logic, which wants to be clear and unhesitating.
At dawn, when you are neither quite awake nor asleep, you sometimes have a special kind of dream – sharp, vivid, deeply moving. When, with some reluctance, you manage to wake up completely, the dream lingers with you for a while. It may even feel more real than the ordinary day you woke up to. For me, this has occasionally given rise to a singular kind of unease. It is as though I experience something in that kind of dream that – in a strangely fundamental sense – is more important than the daily undertakings that lie ahead. How can that be so?
In the world of day-conscious logic, the answer is simple. Basically, it is a case of purely subjective imagination, a kind of emotional exaggeration, certainly striking, but with no deeper implications for the real world. So, is my existential unease after such a dream unfounded? Or, does it actually say something about how the reality I take seriously comes into being? To answer this, we should perhaps pause for a brief look at history. There, we can discover that the origins of the clear, distinct, goal-oriented logic that governs the working life of most of us are not as clear and distinct as we are led to believe.
On 10 November, 1619, in a sultry room in the Bavarian city of Ulm, the French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes had a dream of that particular kind. First, he was thrown around by a whirlwind, frightened by ghosts. He experienced a sense of falling. Then, he dreamt that a mighty thunder storm caused sparks to fly around the room. And then all went calm and peaceful. Still in the dream, he fumbled for a book on his bedside table and happened to open it at a verse by the Roman poet Decimus Magnus Ausonius: “Quod vitae sectabor iter” (What path shall I take in life?). Meanwhile, a stranger appeared and said, “Est et non” (yes and no). Soon after, the dream faded.
Our friend Descartes woke up in turmoil and began to pray. He decided to seek the protection of the Holy Virgin and embark on a pilgrimage. The final thrust of the dream was interpreted by him as the key to all science, the right foundation for all knowledge: rational methodology. With this method, you only accept clear, distinct ideas, dividing complex problems into smaller and simpler components, arguing from the simple to the complex, and finally double-checking through observation and experiment, to ensure you have not strayed somewhere in the thought process. It is no coincidence if this sounds familiar. The approach of this method is what now governs everyday life for all of us. It is and will always be the pinnacle of rationality.
But wait a minute. Consider the origins. The pinnacle of rationality for the most rational of all philosophers, a man whose thoughts literally shaped the world we now live in, stems from a completely non-rational experience that morning in Ulm. Rationality was hardly new in itself, it is a given human ability. But to place it at the centre, to make it so rigorously the only basis of judgement for everything – that was novel. And this novelty sprang from Descartes’ experience and interpretation of his dream. From a dream!
Today, we are living in Descartes’ dream. This gives me food for thought. It tells me that the existential unease I occasionally feel is not unfounded. It undermines my confidence in functional daytime consciousness as a matter of course. And if I hold on to this insight, it ultimately challenges my perception of myself as a modern rational, progress-trusting Westerner.
What happened later to Descartes’ rationalism, to his dualism of body and soul, and to his analytical geometry (the coordinate system) is common knowledge. This philosophy constitutes the modern world view. It is embodied in practically everything we do to make a living, and to climb the career ladders of the organisations we have created. But back then, in the 17th century, during the Thirty Years’ War, it was a novelty. It was not yet established, and alternative ways of thinking were still manifesting themselves.
One such presented itself in person in Paris on 1 December, 1633, fourteen years after Descartes had his fateful dream, in the form of a Dominican brother, Tommaso Campanella from Calabria. For some thirty years, Campanella had been repeatedly imprisoned and cruelly tortured, because of his headstrong and stubborn insistence on doctrines that the orthodoxy and politics of the Church could not accept, the same doctrines that had led to his compatriot Giordano Bruno being burned at the stake in 1600. Campanella considered himself to be a prophet. He had seen what he interpreted as the beginning of the Messiah’s time of freer thinking, and particularly freer social patterns and relations. Barely had he escaped his tormentors in Italy, when he, in a manner of speaking, jumped out of the frying pan into the fire, not in a physical but in a mental state.
Campanella’s thinking was rational, albeit not founded on clear and distinct (mathematical) ideas, but on sympathies, harmonies, magic correspondences and astrological signs. His was a sensual, experience-based thinking and not solely abstract and analytical. He made no fundamental distinction between body and soul, or between God and nature. Everything lived and breathed, imbued with the same eternally life-giving Spirit. Before his arrival in Paris, he had long been one of Europe’s seminal intellectuals, despite spending most of his time in prison. Among others, he had inspired the mystical Rosicrucians, a diffuse but powerful movement that even set Descartes’ mind on fire. The movement allegedly strove for a total revision of knowledge and society, not unlike that which many people are calling for in our days of looming environmental disaster.
There is only one reason why Campanella is forgotten today: Descartes won, since he and his supporters held ideas that yielded rapid and visible financial and military benefits – in addition to being actually less theologically controversial, or at least perceived as less of a threat to the established power hierarchies. So Campanella’s last years in Paris were a failure, not just for him, but – back then – also for an organic, sensual world view.
When asked directly, Descartes replied that he had not found much substance in the writings of the celebrated Calabrian. One of the foremost proponents of the new Rationalist philosophy, Marin Mersenne, met Campanella shortly after his arrival in Paris, but found him old-fashioned and already sidelined by the emerging establishment represented by Mersenne himself. The qualitative, animistic world of the Renaissance magus evoked little sympathy in the sophisticated philosophic salons of Paris, where the premises of the new world were being consolidated. Rational thinking – elucidated substance. Sensually experiencing living relationships did not.
This particular part of the world – historical process illustrates what takes place on the secular arena when we, each and every one of us, start to feel unsure about what is truly most real and most important. Is it what we so strongly sensed in a dream, or in some other altered state of consciousness, or in a state of genuine concern for our relationships – or is it what “everybody” tells us is true and right? Is it experience, our sensual relations to everything around us, that conveys reality, or is it what we think, when we think “in the right way”?
In contemporary society, there is only one category of people who are institutionally exempt from thinking in the right way. Artists. And an artist who clearly and intentionally, but intuitively, works in and out of the liminal state of night – or more specifically of dawn, dusk, dream – will occasionally express and realise something that goes beyond mere “creativity”. The premises for what is thereby created are ultimately a radical challenge aimed at the structures that place artists in a reservation, ostensibly separated from what is “real” (taxes, insurance, property market, parliament, NATO). An artist such as that will, perhaps without realising it entirely, be in contact with a latent reality that we in the West have long found it hard to recognise as actually real.
What does real mean? It is related to reality and realization. Reality comes into being all the time and is then maintained, to a greater or lesser extent, for a short or long while. How does it come into being? Where does it come from? How is it maintained? The most profound artists carry the answers to those questions in their very work, in the form of the various spiritual, mental and active states they experience in their actual creative process – from intuition, or dream, to physical manifestation. If we consider art and artistic practices in this way, we are acknowledging something that seems to be exceedingly hard to accept within the institutions of modern society. Namely, to quote my friend Navid Modiri: “everything is made up”.
Such a statement may appear remarkably flippant. If what we perceive and treat as real is “made up”, it sort of loses substance, which can be hard to accept. Above all, life becomes hard to live, if we don’t have access to the deep strata of existence where this making up takes place, strata that are systematically obscured and, at least passively, unintentionally, are opposed by all institutions based on Cartesian premises. On the premise that soul and body, thought and emotion, are entirely different things, that reality is something objective and independent of us, that objects are the only real thing, not relationships.
In some respects, the art world is itself one such obscuring institution. And yet, it is also, under the prevailing conditions, a literally life-saving sanctuary. Where else could such contrasting creativity exist and florish with enough independence? Sure, it could get self-indulgent, but this is neither necessary nor unavoidable. Yet we all need to realise more fully, that the liberating artistic ability and power does not only belong in what is conventionally defined and framed as (a work of) art. As Descartes’ dream and its repercussions demonstrate so clearly, an artwork is what we are actually living in. So, the question is: what kind of artwork do we want to live in?
Campanella and his followers lost in the 17th century. Descartes and his supporters won. Where did the living sympathies, harmonies, the magic correspondences go after that? They never vanished from art. And from art they can return. The logic of dusk and dawn, of night itself, never disappeared; it can never disappear, only be disdained, forced out, temporarily. For that logic is the logic of reality itself. That is not made up. That is nature itself. Magnificent, unique, ruthless, moving, beautiful verging on the unbearable. We notice it now, when we are globally beginning to find that our made-up civilisation-constructs are fundamentally threatened by climate crisis and mass extinction. Is it possible to find an alternative? In the non-institutional realities of art, the answer is definitely: yes.