I know some of you have had dreams where a historical figure or your long-dead grandmother has spoken to you, right? Or maybe you were just walking along minding your own business when all of a sudden you were sure that Great-Aunt Tillie was right there beside you—you could smell her lavender-verbena bath powder! How did you react? Did you just settle down for a nice chat, or did it freak you out?
[Note: this entry will make more sense if you've looked at Part I first.]
I think this phenomenon is probably pretty common. That may be why movies like “The Sixth Sense” and television shows like "Medium" and "Ghost Whisperer" are so popular. We just don’t talk about our experiences because there’s not much of a cultural framework to put them into. People who talk to people who "aren’t there" are nuts, right? Well, some of them are, but most of them, in my experience, are quite sane. If you’ve had such experiences and have never spoken about them, try telling one of your good friends. Chances are at least fifty-fifty that their response will be something like, "Wow! That happened to me one time, too!"
The Sufi mystics believed that the imaginal world, that separate but very real realm “in between” our waking world and the world of spirit and thought, was the location inhabited by the souls of those who have passed on. The Sufis, who were able to move easily between their embodied state and the imaginal realm, were able to speak at will with their spiritual guides and masters who had been dead for several centuries. Remember that in perfect agreement with the laws of quantum physics, time and space are not limiting factors in the imaginal world, so everything exists there at the same “time.” If this worldview is accurate, then it makes sense that we can interact with our dead ancestors as readily as we can with Brian Kinney or any other imaginal figure.
In my own conversations with the inhabitants of the imaginal world, I don’t hear their voices with my actual ears, nor do I actually see them. For the most part, I get a sense of the other person’s (or being’s) emotional state, or maybe a whiff of their cologne, and sometimes phrases or sentences appear in my mind, fully formed and seeming to come from somewhere other than my conscious mind.
At various times in my life I’ve had imaginal interactions with Brian Kinney, Merlin/Gandalf, a number of historical figures, and various departed relatives, among others. It always seemed to me that all these beings inhabited the same “space,” and I wasn’t able to detect any particular difference between them, although some were the souls of deceased relatives while others were fictional characters.
One of my friends from the imaginal world, Ellen E. Janney (1822-1887), was a Quaker from Pennsylvania and Ohio, a long-time friend of my great-great grandmother. I have one of her letters, and used the text in an art piece I did as part of my dissertation (see the artwork here).
The difference between “types” of imaginal persons became clear one day when Ellen got quite angry with me. I had been aware of her presence nearby but then forgot about her and drifted off into thinking about Brian. Ellen, miffed, said, “I am not real to thee!” She was right—at the time, Brian seemed more substantial, probably because I have a much clearer image of him because of the television program. Ellen continued, “Thee confines me to the realm of fantasy—yet thee has my letter! Do not equate us!” Clearly, Ellen wanted me to understand that there is a difference between Brian, whom she refers to as “fantasy,” and herself, the spirit of a woman who once lived.
Here’s what I think the situation is:
Ellen and Brian do indeed inhabit the same space (although they would prefer not to: Brian sneers and Ellen says Brian is “loathsome,” though there may be the tiniest hint of a smile). They exist in the same imaginal “reality,” but they appear to be entirely different classes or types of being.
The key may lie in their different origin: Brian is a being born and reared in the imaginal world as a fictional character; his existence isn’t in question, but he has no sticks-and-stones experience and no concrete ties to this waking world. Ellen, on the other hand, was born, lived, and died in the waking world. She and I share the experience of concrete reality; she was here, she breathed this air, she walked this earth, and I have the letter that proves it.
Now, operationally, one might wonder what difference this makes, and this part is harder to put into words. With Brian, as with other fictional characters, there seems to be a core of “Brian-ness” that takes on slightly different shadings depending on the lighting, so to speak. There is no “Brian” in a concrete sense, but rather as many different forms of Brian as there are people experiencing him. All are equally “true.”
Perhaps he is in essence like one of Plato’s Forms, and we each perceive his shadow differently because of where we’re sitting as we look at the wall of the cave. This explains why every fan of the show can have his or her own version; that’s why we can have Brian-the-slut, Brian-the-romantic-hero, Brian-the-pod-person, Brian-the-vampire, Brian-the-murderer (all of which exist in the fan-fiction domain). “My” Brian is slightly different from each of them, yet somehow is still Brian himself. He is indeed autonomous; he has his own life, but he is a shape-shifter, a diamond whose facets reflect many-colored lights.
Ellen Janney, on the other hand, is the personality of the living, breathing woman translated into the imaginal realm. Her personality is her own, and though she is as capable of psychological growth and change as she was when she was alive, as capable as any of us are, her essential self is as constant as my own. I could, if I wished, spin fantasies around her and about her, but she herself would not change as a result of them. She remains plainspoken, forthright, vibrant, and utterly her own person. No wonder she was incensed that I would somehow equate the two of them!
All of this is only my best guess, and I'd love to hear from others about your experiences or theories. What happens, for instance, when we fictionalize a historical character? What do you all think? What is your experience?
Brian! Is It Really You? Or Am I Making It All Up? (Part III)