Saturday, January 21, 2017

Reading Machiavelli on another plane

Keeping a journal, every day, is a dreamer's version of "chop wood, carry water", essential in troubled times. Then there are the research assignments that dreams give us. This one leads to a time of deceit, treachery and fear in politics that may hold up a Renaissance mirror to our current discontents - and may hint at a way to gain some more perspective.
I'm often on airplanes in my dreams. I fly a lot in ordinary reality, and notice that some of these dreams are rehearsals for coming trips. But at least as often, it becomes clear that the plane involved is another plane of reality or consciousness. It was like that last night. The cabin of the airplane was vast and I could walk through it into other spaces - to a workshop locale, to pleasant wooden outhouses in a garden setting resembling the ones behind the Big Yurt at Esalen, to a study where I curled up with a translation of Machiavelli's History of Florence. In the dream, I found unexpected guidance in Machiavelli's history on how to get some perspective on events. Go back to a certain time, he advised, and picture yourself sliding out from that time and rising up to look at everything from a higher vantage point. The translation used the word "train" to describe this process, or the vehicle of consciousness required to do it. I puzzled over this as I turned the page in my dream. Surely there were no trains in the Medici era. Perhaps the original word used by Machiavelli was carro, which could mean a vehicle of various kinds. Still pondering the word "train", I receive the vivid image of Magritte's painting "Time Transfixed", in which a train engine emerges from a fireplace and hangs in midair, blowing smoke. Still in the dream, my questioning mind comes into play. Am I looking at The History of Florence, or at the same author's Discourses on Livy?
I wake and do my everyday practice, recording my dream. In troubled times, it is especially important to cleave to a practice that keeps us grounded yet also connected to soul. Writing in my journal - starting with what is with me from the night - is my essential practice, a dreamer's version of the old Zen precept Chop wood, carry water. Why Machiavelli? It's hard not to see the relevance of his reflections on power. Notoriously, Machiavelli penned a kind of Cliff's Notes for tyrants, titled The Prince. This explains with serpentine clarity how to gain and maintain power through deceit, treachery and fear. In an era of fake news and disinformation, Machiavelli has a very contemporary ring: "The prince who would accomplish great things must have learned how to deceive.” (Discourses II, 13). Forget the pursuit of the good. To this mind, "All men are bad, and will always, when they have free field,give loose to their evil inclinations." (Discourses I,3). In politics, successful tyrants recruit friends and allies according to the following calculations: "as a ladder to climb, a door to pass through, or a tool to maintain their grasp." (Discourses II,1). By giving us insight into the mind of those who live for power and money, Machiavelli is a useful study in any age. He also offers some essential cautions. After I woke, I found this in the book my dream led me to reopen: Wars begin when you will, but they do not end when you please. (History of Florence, III, 2) This deserves to be etched over the door of anyone who has power to put soldiers in harm's way. When I went to bed last night, I set the general intention: Show me what I need to see. It doesn't take much thought to notice that Machiavelli's take on politics might be something we need to see in the context of current events: a Renaissance mirror for our discontents. His major books were part of my syllabus in an honors course in Renaissance history eons ago. But there is that mystery piece, about a way to step into history and then step outside it, to understand things in a different way. Is there a passage that is anything like that in Machiavelli's writings? What I read in my dream could be an instance of cryptomnesia, which is what goes on when a forgotten memory surfaces that you initially think is new and original. Research will tell. Dreams set us research assignments, and I am forever ready to undertake them. I read a few chapters in the trade paperback edition of the History of Florence I've had since my undergrad days. I am soon bored with the narrative of endless wars and intrigues between princelings, mercenaries and crooked churchmen. I dip into the Discourses. More promising; I'll spend more time here. I'll be curious to see whether I was picking up, in a thought bubble in my dream, some of Machiavelli's private reflections and practice. It's a good guess that he did not really approve of the cold-blooded, utterly amoral views of the getting and keeping of power he expressed in The Prince; that while trying to curry favor with Lorenzo de' Medici he was snickering behind his gloved hand. He had been tortured and exiled from Florence by the Medici faction. Now trying to please his way back to a paid job in the city he loved, he could not speak truth to power but he could speak truth about power. Certainly there is a disjunction between the author of The Prince and the man who - as he told it in a letter to a friend - would return to his study after a morning in the woods and an afternoon hobnobbing with common folk, drop his clothes at the door, and put on special obes to enter a space where he could commune with ancient philosophers. The next part of my action plan is easy. I'll go back to watching a pretty good Netflix series on The Medicis, Machiavelli's on-again, of-again patrons. Because I know we are all time travelers in dreams, I'll experiment with that method for going back to a certain time and slipping out of it sideways, and then rising up to get a better view and maybe a platform for action to produce a better history.


James Wilson said...

Go back to a certain time, he advised, and picture yourself sliding out from that time and rising up to look at everything from a higher vantage point. The translation used the word "train" to describe this process, or the vehicle of consciousness required to do it
Because you puzzled over the word train in your dream, and the word train seems out of place regarding Machiavelli’s era, I had to think about the Underground Railroad of Harriet Tubman after reading your article. You wrote about her in your Secret History of Dreaming.

sliding out ......... and rising up to look at everything from a higher vantage point.
The process Machiavelli describes in your dream has great similarity with the story of Harriet Tubman. She fell asleep while she was guiding people on their escaperoute, and saw in her dream from a great height the terrain on which they were located, and how they could continue their traveling along dangerous obstacles.

Peggy Bartlett said...

The ultimate history professor! One who experiences it contemporaneously, brilliant!