I told someone recently that when I listened to music, I sometimes experienced it as ecstatic and transcendent. I said that most other people might describe their experiences as pleasurable, fun, enjoyable, relaxing, but for only a small minority would it be – she finished my sentence – transcendent or ecstatic. Exactly, I said. So music gives you enormous joy, she said. You’re lucky.
I agreed at the time. In retrospect, however, I observe that she took the words “transcendent” and “ecstatic” and reduced them to a quantity (enormous) of something relatively commonplace, if iridescent (joy).
This is the telltale touch of the practical person, who stands in contrast to the dreamer.
Psychoanalysis, for instance, is an archetypal science of the practical person, despite its veil of obscurantism and mystery to the average person — and to the average psychoanalyst! Psychoanalysis seeks to make nearly every act of the psyche intelligible in terms of two basic motives: fear and desire. It is an act of reduction. To be fair, Freud did technically say that psychoanalysis stopped where creativity began and that his goal was not to drag the sublime into the mud. Of course he would be the first to admit that a denial is often an unconscious admission. His very need to disclaim his mud-dragging purpose might be by his own dint its proclamation.
Even though psychoanalysts and their ilk — to be clear, I respect them — are hardly crass materialists and empiricists of the variety that don’t recognize that thoughts cannot be quantified or make the crude equation of mind with brain, they are basically mechanistic theorists of the human soul.
Proust, an archetypal dreamer, may have paid lip service to the practical ideal when somewhere in his novels he says that one day the laws of the minds will be known as precisely as the laws of hydraulics. I think it was a stray thought, a mere possibility, out of sync with the rest of his oeuvre and mindset. Or perhaps it was an intentionally or unintentionally ironic comment about the state of the laws of hydraulics, which were far from known in his day and still face infinite gaps at present. At the molecular level of water, and maybe even at larger levels, chaos – in both scientific and non-scientific usage – reigns.
A dreamer is someone who sees magic in the world. A dreamer was the kind of person who probably saw the world as animated with living things, with every rock possessing invisible eyes. Dreamers were the inventors of polytheism, and at heart that is their religion still. Dreamers push towards variety whereas practical people push towards simplicity and uniformity.
The practical cannot grasp the import of the outrageous beauty of phantasmagoric imagery, and thus fail to catch the subtlest shades of emotion, which are proxied by those images.
The practical people have a much greater idea of what usually “works” — they are more attuned to “common sense.” A greater knowledge of standard emotion comes at the expense of a lesser quantity of the rarefied heights. Yet this of course does not prevent them from appreciating the lyric song of high philosophy, it being, in certain keys, a kind of practical theory.
They also possess a far greater feeling for factual detail, for the contours of history, culture, and geography, and for physiognomy. They have a greater sense for the cynical and regular motives that move the human animal most of the time and less for the accidental, coincidental, liminal, transcendental, twisting, and moebius-like motives that give the almost to human nature’s comprehensibility.
Practical people have much stronger wills and suffer less from indecision, procrastination, and self-doubt. They see less mystery in the world, or rather, the mystery is more structured, which comes to the same thing. They are therefore able to act with much more fluidity. They are more unified in themselves, resulting in or stemming from a greater simplicity. They are more like particular honest tools of action, and less like strange and spectacular but potentially useless new contraptions.
The absurd is a nota bene for the practical people; for the dreamers it is axiomatic. God as a feeling was from the dreamers; as a concept and a technology, from the practical people. As a superstition – once more from the dreamers.
Proust said that the people who enjoyed life were different from the people who fell in love. The former are the practical people.
Practical people want to reduce the inexplicable to the explicable. Dreamers want to show how even ordinary facts are mysterious. They want to treat the word as a kind of gong which when struck emits a mystic tone. They see it as a hieroglyphic, an image, whereas to practical people even images are only words.
In philosophy Plato, Deleuze, William James, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Kant are among the dreamers, whereas Aristotle, Hegel, St. Thomas Aquinas, Hume, Marx, and the average of modern-day analytic philosophers are practical people.
In literature Proust and Faulkner, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson, Joyce and Henry James, Shakespeare, Milton, and Keats and all the writers of mythology and scripture are dreamers. Hemingway and Herman Hesse, Tolstoy, and the average of MFA writing program graduates are practical people.
The great historians as a rule are practical people.
In images the awe-inspiring and the calming both stem from the practical people, while the mind-bending, the exalting, and the horrific belong to the dreamers.
Most of the greatest physicists were practical people. Most of the greatest mathematicians were dreamers.
Practical people describe things as they appear to be; dreamers describe them as they would like them to be.
The great musicians were usually dreamers.
It goes without saying that practical people run the world and always have. Dreamers discover new worlds entirely.
Practical people can be extraordinary, just to be clear. They can and very often do change the world.
Dreamers are concerned with other worlds.