Saturday, 4 August 2012

Politics And Dream

From strange perspectives, Neil Gaiman's Sandman addresses the limits of political power.

Augustus hides from the gods by dressing as a beggar.
The fabulous Baghdad endures but only in dreams.
Robespierre bans myths but meets Orpheus.
A madman becomes Emperor of the United States.

Shakespeare translates Psalms for the King James Bible.
But he really works for the King of Dreams.
He speaks disrespectfully of James to his daughter.
And he hides his name in a Psalm.

A teenager becomes US President, then a myth.
A Parliament of Rooks sometimes kills the single rook who addresses it.
A Chinese Imperial adviser is exiled.
In other realms, Lucifer retires and Titania's Ambassador prevents a powerful alliance.

Only the Imperial adviser is invented by Gaiman. The characters from Augustus to Shakespeare are historical. The teen President was a fictitious character in DC Comics. Rooks, Lucifer and Titania are known from other sources.

Embittered against his great uncle and patron, Julius Caesar, Augustus, who has brought peace to the Roman Empire, plans not its expansion but its decline. His plan must be concealed from the divine Julius and the Olympian gods but will please Terminus, the god of boundaries, who had asked Morpheus to intervene in Augustus' dreams. If the historical Augustus had hidden in the market place to plot secretly against the gods, then we would say that the gods were in his imagination but, because Sandman is fantasy, we are invited to imagine that they are real.

Despite his apparently unlimited political power, Haroun Al Raschid can ensure the endurance of the Golden Age of Baghdad only by giving it to Morpheus. Thus, that Age passes from the waking realm of experience and memory to Morpheus' realm of dreams and imaginings. When the transaction is completed, Haroun sees a stranger, Morpheus, carrying an ingeniously devised but no longer for sale city in a bottle. He remembers living not in a fabulous city but in a mundane town where his former flying carpet lies abandoned in the market place. But the fabulous city lives in the mind of a crippled boy listening to a story teller among the bomb sites and rubble of modern Baghdad.

Robespierre and Orpheus represent reason and imagination in unnecessary conflict.

Because Joshua Norton was insane, his imperial rank existed only in his imagination. However, it also caught the popular imagination so that many restaurants accepted his currency and his funeral procession was over two miles long. Here, amazingly, Gaiman recounts not fiction but history. However, because Sandman is fantasy, we see the historical "Emperor" and the fictitious "Prez" (below) meeting personified Death. The common theme is imagination.

In exchange for the power to give men lasting dreams, Shakespeare writes A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest for Morpheus. Shakespeare's company performs the Dream for Oberon and Titania before they leave this world. Morpheus wanted a play about a man who turns his back on magic.

Gaiman makes the teen President a slightly less incredible figure. He is elected three months short of his twentieth birthday so is a teenage President for only three months. But then he becomes a legend. He averts the energy crisis and stops the arms race. After he has left the White House, he is known only through stories, not through facts. After his death, he walks between the worlds looking for Americas to fix. Like the fabulous Baghdad, Prez transcends the real world.

Why the rooks kill one of their number is a mystery but the Biblical Abel, now living in the Dreaming, reveals that the lone rook finds out whether the others liked its story.

The Imperial adviser crosses a desert where travellers see (or imagine) many things. Morpheus offers him an advisory role but he opts to obey his own Emperor and continue his journey into exile. His seditious son's magic did not protect the son from execution. A modern response would be that magic is imaginary. Another response is that the Emperor's magic was more powerful.

Lucifer's resignation is a case of things changing yet remaining the same. He retires because he tires of presiding over the pointless, self-inflicted anguish of the damned. In this hereafter, the deceased experience the conditions that they expect. Hell is how they had imagined it. Lucifer not only leaves Hell but, before leaving, empties it by expelling demons and damned. However, a higher authority decrees that they must return. But there is longer term change because Hell is now ruled by angels who ensure that the suffering is neither pointless nor punitive but purgative.

The story of Titania's Ambassador is told by the Ambassador himself and at least partly a product of his imagination.

We see Augustus, Haroun and Robespierre not only in different months but even in different calendars:

the Roman Imperial August;
the Muslim Ramadan;
the French Revolutionary Thermidor.

Sandman shows us prehistoric Africa, ancient Greece, magicians, writers, Asgard, the Inn of the Worlds' End, the Sea Serpent, the handsome cabin boy, retired deities and super heroines, dead school boys, a young pop singer, an immortal Englishman, the triple Goddess, a serial killers' convention, Clark Kent and the Gotham City vigilante meeting at Dream's Wake and a skerry of Dreams. It imaginatively addresses universal humanity and immanent divinity.

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