Monday, September 21, 2015

In the dream fitting room, clues to parallel lives

It's happened again. There I was last night, strolling down Jermyn Street in London in a very smart double-breasted gray suit. I haven't worn clothes like these in decades. I haven't put on a tie since my daughter's wedding years ago, and my idea of dress-up is chinos with black sneakers. Yet in the dream, I am my present age, leading the life I might have lived if I had never moved to upstate New York, never started dreaming in the Mohawk language, never become a dream teacher - and remained a bestselling novelist.
    The other Robert's life ain't shabby. He has grown as a writer, specializing in literate spy novels set in the darkest years of the mid-20th century, somewhat akin to Alan Furst. He is a time traveler with a special agenda, using active imagination, along with good research, to enter the lives of people in the era of Hitler and Stalin.
    I have no wish to swap lives with him, but I'm glad to see he is thriving in his own way. If ever I feel a twinge of regret for a path not taken, I can console myself with the knowledge that in another reality the path was taken. 
    I've long been fascinated by dream experiences of parallel lives. These can take many forms. We find ourselves in the situation of a person living in a different time. We seem to be enjoying - or not enjoying - a continuous life in another reality. We slip into the perspective and apparently the bodies of other people (including even members of other species) who may be living in our present world, but are not ourselves.
    The parallel life experiences that intrigue me most are those in which we seem to find ourselves traveling - in an alternate reality - along paths we abandoned in this lifetime, because of choices we made. Contemporary science speculates about the existence of (possibly infinite) parallel universes. In our dreams, we have the ability to gain experiential knowledge of this fascinating field.
    In dreams like the one of the fancy suit, I quite frequently find myself living in a city or a country where I used to live, doing the things I might well be doing had I stayed in a former line of work and a certain life situation. In these dreams, I am my current age, but my life has followed a different track from the one I have taken in my waking reality. There is a "just-so" feeling about these dreams. I return from them thinking, "Well, that's how things might be if I had made a different choice." Sometimes I'm quite relieved that I made the choices I did; sometimes I feel a little tristesse for something or someone left on the "ghost trail" I've seen in my dream ; but most often my feelings are entirely non-judgmental.
    This theme is nicely explored in a novel titled The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver. Through alternating chapters, we follow alternate event tracks in the life of the heroine, depending on whether she did or did not kiss a man other than her partner on the night of his birthday. That night, her world split. We follow her double life, through those alternating chapters, and the dual narrative is beautifully wrought. At the end of the twin tellings, it's hard to make a value judgment between the alternate life paths. You can't really say that one is better or worse than the other; they are simply different.
    Through a chance encounter that was the product of a missed airline connection, I once met a woman who told me she was living a double life of this kind every night (or every day, depending on your perspective). Every night, she went home to her husband at their comfortable house on an island off the North Carolina coast. They might go to their favorite restaurant, or to the mall or the country club. In the morning, they went off on their separate ways to work. The shocker was this. The man she went to every night in her dreams was a different husband, in a different house in a different island. "Whenever I close my eyes," as she told it, "I'm in a different world. It's the same as this world, but everything is different."
Under the Many Worlds hypothesis now widely entertained by physicists, it's possible that every choice we make results in the creation of two or more new universes.
     In Parallel Universes theoretical physicist Michio Kaku suggests that another universe may be floating just a millimeter away on a "brane" (membrane) parallel to our own. He explains that we can't see inside it because it exists in hyperspace, beyond the four dimensions of our everyday reality. But in fact, we can and do go there - in dreaming and in the imagination.
    Synchronistic encounters and moments of déjà vu can help to awaken us to the reality of parallel worlds, as explained in my book Sidewalk Oracles. Imaginative fiction helps open our minds to what is possible. In Borges' 1941 novella "The Garden of Forking Paths" a sinologist discovers a manuscript by a Chinese writer where the same tale is recounted in several ways, often contradictory. Time is conceived here as a "garden of forking paths", where things happen in parallel in infinitely branching ways. Borges conveys how all possible outcomes of a given event may take place simultaneously, each one opening a new array of possibilities.
    It's fascinating to speculate on what may happen if parallel selves, and their parallel worlds, bump up against each other. Could we combine the gifts of different life experiences, or would we compete with each other? One approach to this theme is a creaky old Roger Moore movie titled "The Man Who Haunted Himself", hilarious to watch now because of its silly, jingly circa-1970 musical score. An arrogant, power-mad, womanizing s.o.b. finds enlightenment, and becomes softer and kinder to the point where his family, his office and his girlfriend can't figure him out. When his other self - the s.o.b. in the Savile Row pinstripes - turns up, everyone accepts him as the true Roger Moore character, and Mr. Softer and Kinder is shut out of his home and his office.
    Leading-edge physicists recently renamed the Many Worlds hypothesis. They now talk of Many Interactive Worlds, exerting mutual influence that usually escapes human perception. As I walk the streets that parallel Robert is walking, is it possible that our lives begin to converge? Is he dreaming more? Am I more drawn to the period and the themes that fascinate him, and to his genre?
    I take a sideways look at that smartly dressed fellow in London, through the window my dream opened. He's decided to buy a new dress shirt, and is stepping into Turnbull & Asser, no less, with this intention. Price tags are immaterial to him. I'll leave him to it, as I pack old jeans and polo shirts for my trip today, to places in Europe he also visits, on his own track. However, I pop Night Soldiers, a  beautifully written spy novel by Alan Furst, set in eastern Europe in 1934, into my carry-on bag.


caralulu said...

What do you think of the disembodied conversations/voices which can be heard at the crossover from waking to sleep? Always seem so normal and conversational but from a different life. I thought it was just me, but they are referred to in The Rainbow Connection, and Kermit the Frog can't be wrong!

Robert Moss said...

Caralulu, I am greatly in favor of paying close attention to all that becomes available in the liminal space on the borders of sleep, coming and going. This is a phase of heightened psychic receptivity, for starters. I write about this with many stories and suggestions in the chapter on the "Twilight Zone" in DREAMGATES and in my chapter on "The Place between Sleep and Awake" in THE BOY WHO DIED AND CAME BACK.