Humans are good at altering reality. It’s one of our special talents. When faced with an unsatisfactory or unpleasant situation, we can bend our considerable mental abilities towards inventing a new situation in which the unpleasantness is done away with. My six-year-old niece has become rather expert at this. When she encounters something that she doesn’t like—if we’re playing a card game, for instance, and she’s not happy with the card she’s drawn—she will say firmly: “No, that doesn’t count!” and turn the card over, as if to negate its existence.
This is a normal behavior for a six-year-old. But this kind of magical thinking can have rather more significant consequences in the adult world—both on an individual level and on a social scale. Religious fundamentalists can insist their child is possessed rather than face facts that contradict their worldviews. The president of a powerful democratic country can decry vast swathes of the media as “fake news.” Sigmund Freud would probably have described these as examples of defense mechanisms. He spent much of his career cataloguing of all the various ways humans can deny, distort, or evade the unpleasant aspects of reality.
Defense mechanisms are important psychological tools. Each one of us relies on them when we feel threatened. But when the impulse to substitute an invented reality for actual reality becomes too powerful—when a person “loses touch” as we say—the situation can tip into a kind of mania.
One of the problems with magical thinking is that our invented realities lack the weight—the sheer immovable alterity—of actual existing reality. Nothing of any substance can be built in this invented world except further layers of magical construction. As paradoxical as it may sound, the encounter with actual existing reality—and the radical otherness that is found there—is fundamental for the creation of genuine self-experience. We must necessarily grapple with what is “not-me” in order to become an authentic self and to develop genuine interpersonal relations.
As you might imagine from my title, I would like to make a case for one very special kind of losing touching with reality, namely reverie. What I mean by this word is exactly what you might imagine: the experience of getting lost in thought, daydreams, fantasies, or even bodily sensations; letting mind wander freely; attending to the atmosphere of your inner world. It is perhaps important to distinguish this unique form of thought from the kind of distraction that is all-too familiar in today’s technologically saturated world. Distraction is a state of mind produced by external forces that deliberately seek to manage our attention. Reverie, in contrast, is a mental state in which the mind wanders freely, following it’s own logic of desire.
Reverie is similar to, but also distinct from the more maniac forms of defense. This special form of thought allows us to engage our lived experience from multiple vantage points and enables a rich nonlinear conversation with oneself. There are various species of reverie: dreaming, for instance, is a form of reverie that occurs under the cover of sleep, a special form of mental wandering that is protected from the intrusions of waking life. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud actually defines dreaming as “nothing more than a particular form of thought” made possible by the state of sleep.
We can also link reverie to the creative work produced by artists. Plato famously worried that poets were mad, in the sense that their invented realities constituted a sort of rejection of actually existing reality. But Freud went to pains to distinguish creative work from other forms of delusion. In an essay called “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming,” he describes the work of the artist as constituting a special kind of turning away from reality. The artist “creates a world of phantasy which he takes very seriously—that is, which he invests with large amounts of emotion—while separating it sharply from reality.”
What distinguishes this work from other forms of defenses is the way it’s linked to the actual world. Artists are generally aware that their works stand adjacent to reality, just as most spectators understand that they are temporarily leaving the demands of existing reality when they attend a film, a musical performance, or an art exhibit. Indeed, this is the point really—these cultural experiences provide welcome occasions to let one’s mind wander more freely than usual.
When all goes well, these occasions for reverie will allow spectators to return to actual existing reality having been transformed. This is the tricky part. The artist doesn’t have the capacity to actually transform an unpleasant reality, but they can help us develop our own imaginative capacity and emotional range, effectively enriching our inner world, which in turn, can allow us to respond more creatively to the demands of external reality. Artistic work creates new orders of experience and meaning, new types of feeling, and even new senses of embodiment and forms of relating.
Let me offer an example. Consider Joel Thompson’s 2017 multi-movement choral work, Seven Last Words of the Unarmed. The composer took inspiration from Iranian-American artist Shirin Barghi’s #lastwords project. Barghi produced more than a dozen illustrations based on the final words of African-American men killed by police in recent years (figs. 1-3). In his choral work, Thompson gives these statements a musical setting. The formal structure of this work is reminiscent of Joseph Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ, but in Thompson’s composition each of the movements represents one of the murdered men:
I “Why do you have your guns out?” – Kenneth Chamberlain, 66 II “What are you following me for?” – Trayvon Martin, 16 III “Mom, I’m going to college.” – Amadou Diallo, 23 IV “I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting.” – Michael Brown, 18 V “You shot me! You shot me!” – Oscar Grant, 22 VI “It’s not real.” – John Crawford, 22 VII “I can’t breathe.” – Eric Garner, 43
In one sense the creative work constitutes a disavowal of existing reality. The composer has ignored the larger context of the murders and infused them with a sense of martyrdom. The aim of the musical treatment, however, is to provide the opportunity for an emotional transformation. The composer uses the language of melody, harmony, timbre, pitch, and rhythm to express and process his emotions about being a young black man in a racially tense time—and also “to do something about it.”
In a word, the composition allows audiences to share in Thompson’s reverie. Listening to—or indeed watching—a performance of Seven Last Words of the Unarmed allows audiences to step away from reality and enter into the composer’s fantasy world. The creative project does not alter the fact of the murders, but by inviting audiences into the sonic environment, Thompson provides the opportunity for a collective transformation.
This is no small matter. By making his reverie available to others, Thompson has provided an opportunity for new meanings and new forms of relating to these terrible events, which in turn creates space for a new version of our collective selves. This is the political potential of this special form of defense. Reverie provides the seeds of social transformation: traumatic events that initially invoked confusion, pain, fear, and rage are re-presented in a form which can elicit sadness, grief, benevolent surrender, a sense of beauty, and indeed, something we might even call grace—a new sense of aliveness that was otherwise unimaginable. This is the power of reverie: it can transform an awful reality into a new experience of life.
Some of these ideas where developed in dialogue with Karyn Sandlos and presented at the School of Art and Art History at the University of Illinois at Chicago on March 7, 2018. My thinking was also enriched by my participation in the Roaming Assembly #20, organized by Ruth Noack and the Dutch Art Institute, which took place in Arnhem, the Netherlands, on March 17-18, 2018.