If Sigmund Freud were sitting across from me, I'd ask him what he thinks meaningless dreams are about. Of course he would answer that a meaningless dream by definition is not about anything, that sometimes "a cigar is just a cigar." "Dr. Freud," I would press on, "I'm having dreams about things you might term 'cigars' because they don't represent other things. For instance, I dreamed of a door that was partially open, with a view to the street. And I dreamed I rubbed my fingertips over the smooth surface of a desk. Oddly, these dreams were vibrant in unearthly ways, but they were drained of extended meaning -the partially open door and the smooth desktop were...just those. Dr. Freud, am I having meaningless dreams because of what is happening in Afghanistan?"
Dr. Freud might wonder why his repose should be disturbed by my question, then he might remember that in life he posited a referential universe, where things are predicated on past events, almost Newtonian- where things cause other things- even Einsteinian- where things are relative to other things. A cigar is never just a cigar, especially for Freudians, I would argue to Freud.
I would stop arguing with Freud when I realized that the conversation itself was a meaningless dream.
When I taught elementary school, a music teacher showed me how to train kids to sing a round. The trick is that the two groups need to look in opposite directions while singing. Here's what I taught my second graders to sing in a round:
Row row row your boat
gently down the stream-
Merrily merrily merrily merrily
life is but a dream.
At the time, I wondered if I was teaching something radical, an explicit doctrine that life is a meaningless dream.
Full disclosure: The above encounter with Dr. Freud actually happened, in my head, and it turned out he was not so easy to dismiss, for he reappeared, seated beside me in my living room, reading my mind, to admonish me: "Harry, you are indulging in wishful thinking! You want life to be a meaningless dream so you can escape from the reality of Afghanistan's collapse, which weighs on you."
I stared at the self-induced simulacrum for a few moments. Freud regarded me back while puffing on a cigar (which, to my consternation, turned into a flaccid penis as he palpated it, the white silky smoke an obscene addendum).
"What wishful thinking?" I asked (defensively, as Freud might have noted).
Freud replied, "If the world is a meaningless chaos, then you are not responsible for things going wrong in it, and you are not responsible for things that are going wrong inside you, things that are thrusting about of their own accord, oblivious to human dictate. You get the picture? You're out of control."
I got the picture all right. Looking down at the dining room table I saw the headline of the morning paper: "'What was it all for?' ponders a town of Marines." They are wondering what America's involvement in Afghanistan was for. I wanted suddenly to have an out-of-body experience and return to my long ago second grade class, singing with them, "...life is but a dream."
Dr. Freud puffed at me, white plumes of suggestive smoke, then said: "America's post-war policies were not a dream. They have become meaningless, as far as meaning goes, but there is meaning in the meaninglessness."
I couldn't disagree with an idea stated so clearly, but before I could respond, Freud became transparent and faded away, leaving wisps of smoke to clarify his thought: American foreign policy has been real, and that is its only meaning. We did not conquer evil. We did not determine our own evil or goodness. We did not do anything except wage war.
I felt a familiar mental buzzing and knew that Robert the Telepathic Gila Monster was approaching my desert door.
"Robert," I thought in his direction (for new readers, I'm a telepath, retired to the desert), "I sense you. Have you been eavesdropping on my thoughts again?"
"I have," thought Robert.
I opened the door and Robert trudged in. I picked him up and set him on his favorite cushioned chair, recently vacated by the founder of psychoanalysis.
"Robert, what are your views on my conversation with Dr. Freud?"
Robert was dismissive: "Freud's motivation was to prove to his mother that he was a success; that's what I think."
"Ok, but...what about meaninglessness? Do gilas ever get upset by the thought that everything is meaningless? Like if a coyote eats one of you, does that make life seem meaningless?"
"No, we don't approach existence like that. The meaning of a thing is the thing itself. We don't complicate the picture with intellectual ornament."
"Ornament? Robert, I know you follow human news. Look what's happening in Afghanistan. The events do not stand in isolation. They have meaning, and that meaning is that the entire post-war foreign policy of the United States, in which it has tried to adumbrate an identity as the world's central super-power, has crumbled, and Americans now have to collectively acknowledge that we don't know how to rule ourselves, let alone the world."
Robert spat, his usual preface to impatient remarks: "Harry, gilas do not care what is happening in other parts of the world, because we are present in our part of the world. If humans could tolerate presence where they are, you would not need to project yourselves to places where you are not, like countries other than your own, or parts of your own country that are not where you are."
"I could retort that gilas are provincial," I ventured.
"Ha!" Robert telepathically barked, "At least we have a province. You humans live apart from the Earth in an artificial environment, your population so compressed that you must numb your claustrophobia with drugs. You might as well be on Mars already."
We became silent. After a moment, Dr. Freud returned, materializing in the middle of the room. He regarded Robert curled on the chair, picked him up, then sat on the chair, placing the telepathic lizard on his lap.
"Hi doc," said (thought) Robert.
"Hi Robert," said Freud, "Nothing surprises me anymore, not even you. In fact nothing in the afterlife is surprising because there is no expectation of particular outcomes. The real afterlife is more like the ancient Greek's Hades than current versions. It's like swimming in an ocean of Thorazine."
"That should ensure that your perceptions are impartial," I observed.
"I think it does," said Freud, "and that gives me confidence to share something with you: my belief that President Biden was set-up."
"Duh," said Robert.
"Dr. Freud, forgive my associate. He thinks the meaninglessness of the world gives him carte blanche to be rude. Please elaborate on your findings."
"No problem," Freud continued, "the President was assured by advisors that there was virtually no chance that the Taliban would take over Afghanistan after a U.S. withdrawal, but in the same week that Biden publicly repeated this view as his own, the Taliban took over, with no apparent resistance. Biden was blindsided, seeming incompetent and clueless. The desired outcome of this subtle coup is that Biden will take the fall for the loss of Afghanistan, its economic collapse and the catastrophe for women, if not for the entire lost cause of America's post-war years back to Vietnam. Whatever cadre comes to power after Biden can then pose as innocent, like pool contractors who skimp on the rebar, but when you try to sue them, they've gone bankrupt and are operating under a new name."
Dr. Freud stood up and placed Robert back on the chair. He gazed at the desert through my one large window and said mournfully, "Robert is right: The motivation for my career was to prove my worth to my mother (and of course overthrow my father). One time I read her a passage from Civilization and its Discontents that I'm fond of:
A civilization that leaves so large a portion of its participants unsatisfied and drives them into revolt neither has nor deserves the prospect of a lasting existence.
"My mother's comment was, 'Feh!,' (a term she reserved for the most useless ideas), 'Why would you write something like that?'"
Robert groaned, "You humans with your mothers! You really should try egg-laying. "
Robert finally left, and Freud's apparition followed. It had been a stimulating conversation, but I felt something was missing.
Could Freud have told me more? I went back to my frayed copy of Civilization, finally finding a line that relaxed me enough to take an afternoon nap:
Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me.