Thursday, December 8, 2022

The Dark Coil in contact with Gestalt Therapy - Fifth Entry

Rhapsody Oneiric

Many years ago I had a dream that is present with me whenever I am asked to write a paper or to speak ex cathedra as an "authority" on the theory and practice of Gestalt therapy.

The night before the dream I read a poem by John Crowe Ransom called "The Equilibrists." It closes with the line: "Let them lie perilous and beautiful."

In my dream I am walking along the beach where I meet Paul Goodman and his son Mathew. They are collecting shells and pebbles. I say:

Don't gather them: when they get dry

The shells will break, the pebbles grow gray

And dull.

Let them lie perilous and beautiful.

This is my existence: I am Paul and Mathew, the teacher and the student, the observer and the categorizer. I am the shells and pebbles, fragile and dull when stranded and at the mercy of the scientists and curio collectors. I am the beach, the ever-moving shoreline where the dry past is periodically revitalized and augmented or diminished by the waves of the present. I am also the sea, the continually self-renewing rhythmically moving vital force. And I am the poet who knows something that the scientists have forgotten.

What Laura Perls lays out here in the introduction to her paper Some Aspects of Gestalt Therapy (1972) is "a somewhat abridged example of dream work in Gestalt therapy".

Reading her account of her dream and what she feels reflected in it about her existence always moves me. It feels honest and tender, vulnerable and full of strength. And it also speaks to my own insecurities about talking as an authority on therapy and Gestalt therapy in my work and this very piece of writing. I feel grateful to Laura for writing it down and sharing it with the world and, thus, me.

In this entry, this is what I want to talk about: dreams and dreamers, the Gestalt way of working with dreams, and the place of gratitude I arrived at by following this line of thinking about the Coil.

All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream. - Antediluvian Terran heresy

‘We are all shadows grasping for substance in the long nightmare of the soul.’ – Icharos Malvoisin, Chaplain Castigant, Angels Penitent

These are the two quotes that Peter Fehervari chooses to open Requiem Infernal with. It's the novel he seems to be the most proud of, and it's probably his densest work when it comes to connecting and exploring the themes and story-threads of his scattered narrative web. That both quotes touch on the same theme is a testament to its importance for the Dark Coil's mythology, psychology and spirituality: dreams and nightmares.

In dreams, we actually do enter a world that works according to the inverted metaphysics of the Warhammer universe as the author of the Coil interprets them: the mind of the dreamer is the firmament from which an illusion of physical reality emerges. In our world, all it takes is waking up for the order of things to rearrange itself. In the Coil, the dream never ends.

Dreams have always been a staple of psychological analysis and theory. One of the most influential works of psychological science of all time is undeniably 'Die Traumdeutung' (1899), Sigmund Freud's seminal work about the interpretation of dreams and their relation to the Unconscious:

The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.

I've always been fascinated with the psychology of dreams and the question of whether one actually can and, if so, how one should analyse them. At university, I became quite sceptical of it; it all felt so antique, so un-scientific, so prone to bias and interpretational dogma to be of any use in modern psychotherapy. The emphasis of my university fed into this kind of derisive attitude, as it was was mostly focused on the empirical science and the cognitive-behavioural way of practising psychotherapy and only touched in passing upon the concepts of psychoanalysis and depth psychology, often just as historical anecdotes, with no real engagement with its modern developments and current relevance for psychotherapeutic practice.

Entering training as a Gestalt therapist turned out to be an opportunity for me to re-engage with my chosen field of profession from a new perspective, among other things opening me up to approach old certainties and discarded concepts with a fresh set of eyes. One of those was dream work and the - or rather, a - Gestalt-ist way of approaching it.

When I was talking to Peter Fehervari about the Dark Coil, I got reminded of this Gestalt-ist way of working with dreams. My thoughts and feelings on this further point of resonance between the Dark Coil and Gestalt therapy are the basis for this entry of the article series, but before I get into that I want to talk a bit more about the ways in which dreams are actually relevant to the narratives of the Dark Coil.

There's actually a variety of ways in which dreams and dream-logic inform the plot, the mechanics and the writing style of Fehervari's stories. In Fire Caste, his debut novel, one can already find examples for most of the tropes that he would continue to use and refine while expanding on his corner of the Warhammer universe:

Nightmares: It's no wonder that almost every protagonist from a Coil story suffers from nightmares. A past full of traumatizing experiences with terror and violence and living under extremely stressful and aversive conditions are the rule in a universe in which "there is only war". These nightmares often have the qualities of trauma-related nightmares, with their intense quality, strong accompanying body reactions and their intrusions into the waking moments of the dreamer. This is a source of great suffering and confusion for trauma survivors in general, and in the world of the Coil, these nightmares take on an additional layer, being able to touch upon physical reality in a way that is denied to our own fits of sleep.

It's a testament to Fehervari’s writing that, despite our knowledge of the potential for the mind to directly shape reality in this universe, there's usually still a remnant of uncertainty about the degree in which reality has actually bent itself around the nightmare and in which it just vividly feels like it to the traumatised dreamer.

Haunted by the past: The ghosts of Commissar Iverson are a good example for this. On one hand, these 'unquiet dead' are memories of three actual persons that Iverson knew: his former mentor, a fellow commissar and the last soldier he had executed before travelling to Phaedra, all three killed by Iverson's action (or inaction, in his mentor's case). The three ghosts are also warped avatars of Iverson himself: of his guilt, his shame, his potential for violence, his anger and his hatred (more on that later on). We never get to see a perspective on his past that isn't filtered through his own psyche, so it's unclear how much projection, reframing and outright misremembering is going on with his versions of his incorporeal companions. Finally, there's a very real possibility that these are actual ghosts, the very souls of the dead that cling to their killer instead of dissolving back into the ocean of the Warp. The ending of the novel certainly gives much credence to such a supernatural reading of the troubled Commissar's spectres.

I think it's beautiful and more haunting for me as a reader that the lines between these three frameworks for the ghosts never completely solidify, that no possibility ever gets cancelled out entirely. Is Iverson just plain mad, a man suffering from an untreated case of trauma, unable or unwilling to let go of his past? Or is he a lynchpin for supernatural forces, an unwitting psychic collector that binds the souls of his victims to himself? Or is the former just the necessary ground for the figure of the latter to emerge from? Or is it the other way around? It begs the question of whether it really matters whether the ghosts are real or just imagined - they're real to Iverson and accordingly inform his actions.

It's the reality of the inner world of trauma written across the canvas of a fictional outside world.

Spectators in one's own nightmare: Another recurring trope of the Coil are dreamers vividly reliving significant or traumatising moments from their past, all the while being partly lucid to the memory and where it will lead, yet unable to stop the memory from running it's usual course. This is another horror trope picked from life, but enhanced with a supernatural twist. Especially in trauma patients, replaying terrible memories in their sleep as both participant and observer at the same time is a haunting reality.

In Fire Caste, several members of the Arkhan Confederates suffer from this, having recurring, sometimes intrusive, nightmares about Trinity, the final village they 'liberated' during the civil war on their home world, and the horror they encountered there.

That night, like most nights, Hardin Vendrake dreamt of murdering the town that was already dead. And yet again the nightmare began the same way.

In the Coil, though, something else can happen: sometimes, yelling at yourself to finally take the other way this time does change the past.

An example of this happens in Requiem Infernal with Toland Feizt, the Lieutenant of Darkstar Company, the company of void soldiers seeking healing on the 'Candleworld' Vytarn. Feizt is amongst the most badly wounded of the company which a meat grinder of a mission has reduced to a shadow of their former strength, both in men, health and spirit. In his nightmares, he keeps dreaming about the fateful mission.

The platoon advanced in an arrowhead formation, Feizt taking point with twenty-four troopers on either side. [...] The ship’s cogitators had estimated the sphere’s diameter at a little under six miles; in theory that wasn’t much ground to cover, but there was no telling how tricky things would become once they left the rim, especially if their path started corkscrewing up and down through the anomaly. Somehow Feizt doubted it was going to be easy.

'No, it’s going to be a bloody meat grinder!' The conviction hit him with such force that he faltered in his advance. It wasn’t a gut feeling. It was hard knowledge: most of the men who entered this labyrinth wouldn’t be coming out again.

'Got to turn them around before it happens… again', he thought. 'Again?'

In a later return of the dream, something significant happens: Feizt changes the course of the memory.

‘For the Emperor!’ the mutilated commissar yelled, firing as he fell to the ground. His plasma blast obliterated the Razor Light along with the shrieking trooper.

'That was Schroyder!' Feizt realised as the charred corpse toppled into the abyss. But Schroyder survived… last time.

Things were changing. Lemarché had lost a different leg and a man who’d lived before was now dead.

But can the dreamers really change the dream? Again, the stories usually lean heavily in one direction, but leave a rest of ambiguity. The characters affected by these occurences are usually distraught and confused, suffering from intrusive memories and struggling to hold onto their grip of reality, like Feizt who's feverish and on the brink of death, or the traumatised soldiers of the Arkhan Confederates.

In Fire Caste, the struggling dreamers can't change the memory of Trinity to a significant degree. Requiem Infernal, on the other hand, is a particularly egregious example of the forces of the beyond twisting and shaping the waking reality both in time and space. When Feizt later has a waking moment, he can't make out Schroyder from the faces staring at him, convinced that "Stefan Schroyder was gone now, erased from this future world like he had never existed." And indeed, Schroyder never shows up again in the novel from this point onwards. Reality has warped and swallowed him up. In the first chapter of the novel, Commissar Lemarché also already mentions Feizt's unusal "erratic conduct" on the fateful mission, hinting at the fact that Feizt' lucid dream self from his future nightmares was already affecting his behaviour in the past. On Vytarn, something or someone has broken reality so that the objective bends around the forces of the subjective.

Impossible geometries: There's an associative, dream-like logic to the worlds of the Coil and the hidden pathways between them. Characters are sometimes lured to the edge of the world and then vanish from the narrative completely, only to show up in a different story, far removed in space and time of their former life. Then there are literal places where reality becomes malleable and strange, like the Dolorosa Coil in Fire Caste (which originally inspired the term "the Dark Coil" among fans):

It was said that a man could cross the entire continent along the Qalaqexi, but Gurdjief doubted many men would complete such a journey, for deeper inland the river frayed into a tangle of tributaries that could lead a traveller in circles forever. They called that labyrinth the Dolorosa Coil. Gurdjief had once entered the Coil and returned, but he often wondered if he had ever truly escaped.

Sailing through the mist-shrouded dawn, his mind drifted back to that delirious voyage [...]

Time flowed strangely in that grey-green limbo. He recalled years of soul-grinding despair punctuated by fleeting moments of ecstasy. He had explored lost valleys haunted by colossal, primordial beasts and wandered the sunken ruins of pre-human civilisations that made the Shell seem a modern metropolis. Deep in the coral heart of the planet he had duelled and debated with daemons, never quite knowing whether they were real or delusions and not even sure there was a difference. [...]

Decades later, Gurdjief had returned from the Coil and found he’d been away less than a year.

The normal rules of time, space and even allegiance and loyalty are rewritten in these places. Gurdjief, a fanatic soldier of the xenophobic Imperium, encounters an alien T'au warrior on his voyage, but instead of fighting each other as their empires demand, they talk "like fellow pilgrims, sharing tales and striving to map the impossible geometries of the Coil" and depart "without incident". Gurdjief returns from the Dolorosa Coil to his commanders with "neither maps nor news of the enemy", instead bearing "the seeds of revelation". He has visited a place of mind and spirit, not one of flesh and ground, and returns not with evidence of the physical but with faith in a new Creed. Gurdjief would never fully regain the conviction of living in a stable reality, the question of whether he was still travelling the Coil being his constant companion.

'Do I still dream?'

Fehervarian archetypes: As a final point, I'd like to talk about the 'Incarnates' from Requiem Infernal. The sect of the Last Candle conceptualises these as incarnations of the "Virtues Illuminant", the primary virtues as they were laid out by the Torn Prophet, the sect's founder. There are seven: The Bleeding Angel. The Harrowed Artisan. The Blind Watchman. The Penitent Knight. The Burning Martyr. The Mute Witness. And the Torn Prophet themselves.

The seven Incarnates are symbols and artistic representations for the religious virtues of the Last Candle as well as mythical figures from Vytarn's literary tradition, anthropomorphic metaphors viewed and depicted by artists and scholars from various, sometimes contradictory, angles.

As the narrative of the book progresses and they become more present for both the characters and the reader, the Incarnates literally grow in substance: They are discovered to be in the process of being wrought into the flesh by an insane artisan who tries to capture and awaken their essence. This process of awakening reveals another layer to them, as they also appear to be creatures of the Warp, daemonic entities that are implied to appear and reappear at various times and in different places since even before humans colonised the planet - maybe even longer.

To quote Peter again

[...] when the Incarnates appear - who I suppose are my equivalent to Greater Demons - and they do talk, I really wanted them to be enigmatic and strange rather than out and out evil. I wanted them to be, again, very alien presences, but also things that are almost like aspects of the human psyche taken to a very inhuman level, but that the root is still there.

As above, so below, as within, so without: I read the Incarnates as something like Fehervari's take on Jungian archetypes, adapted for the world of the Dark Coil. To illustrate what I mean, here's a quote by Carl Gustav Jung:

For years I have been observing and investigating the products of the unconscious in the widest sense of the word, namely dreams, fantasies, visions, and delusions of the insane. I have not been able to avoid recognizing certain regularities, that is, types. There are types of situations and types of figures that repeat themselves frequently and have a corresponding meaning. I therefore employ the term “motif” to designate these repetitions. Thus there are not only typical dreams but typical motifs in dreams…

[These] can be arranged under a series of archetypes, the chief of them being…the shadow, the wise old man, the child (including the child hero), the mother (“Primordial Mother” and “Earth Mother”) as a supraordinate personality (“daemonic” because supraordinate), and her counterpart the maiden, and lastly the anima in man and the animus in woman. (from "The Psychological Aspects of the Kore", 1951)

Like the archetypes that Jung condensed from his observations and investigations of dreams, the Incarnates are repetitive patterns across the narrative, coming laden with meaning and yet being open to personal interpretation, being built around a repeating motif and yet malleable in their ultimate form and content.

This is exemplified by the variety of the artistic depictions of the same Incarnate; for example the Incarnate of Caritas, the Bleeding Angel, who appears in distinctly different versions across statues, paintings, the artisan's flesh-work and Sister Azenath's imagination as anything between a soothing figure of healing, a harrowing creature of misery or a merging of both at the same time. The Incarnates appear as figures emerging from the ground of the collective unconscious, the overarching dreamscape, of the Coil.

And the Incarnates are not content with being confined to the pages of Requiem Infernal. Stories published afterwards, like The Reverie, contain references and allusions to the avatars of the Virtues Illuminant. And even in older stories - even before their author actually conceived of them as a delineated concept - traces of the Incarnates can already be found…like shadows still grasping for substance.

There're more aspects, tropes and narrative twists of the Dark Coil that relate to dreams and nightmares, but for now I want to leave it at that. I think I've made my point about the intrinsic interweaving of Fehervari's literary work with the nature of dreams and want to take this opportunity to move over to explaining the way of working with dreams that was inspired by Fritz Perls.

Let's return to the opening quote of Laura Perls giving a personal example of dream work in Gestalt therapy. It is, indeed, abridged, but the core idea is still visible. She does, in sequence, three things. First she lays out a bit of context for the dream she is about to tell ("The night before the dream…"). Secondly she recounts the dream from her own perspective in the first person and the present tense ("In my dream I am walking…"). Third and last, she identifies with the persons, objects and even the landscape of her dream and relates those to her own existence ("I am Paul and Matthew, the teacher and the student…").

To give you a better understanding of the philosophy and the psychological logic behind this pattern of dream work, here's Fritz Perls explaining it in his typically straightforward manner in his Four Lectures from 1966 (transcribed and printed in Fagan & Shepherd's Gestalt Therapy Now, 1970):

[...] My third theme is the importance of dreams. The dream is an existential message. It is more than an unfinished situation; it is more than an unfulfilled wish; it is more than a prophecy. It is a message of yourself to yourself, to whatever part of you is listening. The dream is possibly the most spontaneous expression of the human being, a piece of art that we chisel out of our lives. And every part, every situation in the dream is a creation of the dreamer himself. Of course, some of the pieces come from memory or reality, but the important question is what makes the dreamer pick out this specific piece? No choice in the dream is coincidental. As in paranoia, the person who is projecting looks for a peg on which to hang his hat. Every aspect of it is a part of the dreamer, but a part that to some extent is disowned and projected onto other objects. […]

In working with a dream, I avoid any interpretation. I leave this to the patient since I believe he knows more about himself than I can possibly know. I used to go through the whole dream and work through every part; but many patients have difficulty in reidentification, and the difficulty is absolutely identical with the amount of self-alienation. Lately I take more of a short cut. I look mainly for the holes, the emptiness, the avoidances. […]

It is also important to let patients play at being the objects in the dream as well as the persons. Two of my favorite examples of this are from the same man. In one dream, he leaves my office, crosses the streets into Central Park, and walks over the bridle path. I ask him to play the bridle path, and he answers, “What! And let everybody tramp and shit on me?” In another dream, he left his attache case on the stairs. I asked him to be the attache case. He said, “Well, I’ve got a thick hide, in a thick skin. I’ve got secrets and nobody is supposed to get to my secrets. I keep them absolutely safe.” See how much he tells us about himself by playing, identifying with the objects in his dreams? Also, you will learn a lot by paying attention to the locale, where the dream is staged. If a person dreams that he is in court, you know he is concerned with guilt, being accused, etc. If the dream takes place in a motel, you can guess what his existence is like.

The more you refrain from interfering and telling the patient what he is like of what he feels like, the more chance you give him to discover himself and not be misled by your concepts and projections.

This idea of relating the content of a dream to the person of a dreamer was something that I was reminded of when talking to Peter Fehervari and his process of writing the Dark Coil. It was palpable how much passion he has for this stories of his and that, indeed, parts of himself find their way into the Coil:

Peter: [...] The character of Tarsem…it's very interesting. A friend of mine - who is not a Warhammer person - who had read the Reverie, recognized me in most of the characters in the novel. You know, all the key characters as different facets of myself. Tarsem, for example, was meant to be a side of me when I was young and thought I could change the world and make sense of things and reorder things.

And he was very much kind of an idealist, but also very naive. And I wanted to explore where that went. Satori is someone on the very other side of the spectrum, who has lost their passion, lost their belief, that anything can change in any way really, and is just following a cause without even really having conviction in it.

In an interview with the blog HachiSnax from 2015 about the writing of Fire Caste, Peter answered the question of "how much of his own blood he left on the pages he wrote":

Honestly… a lot of blood. ‘Fire Caste’ was written during a very challenging period of my life and I’m sure that shows through on every page, which is probably why some readers found it hard going. Getting it finished was my ‘Thunderground’ (one reason why I passionately wanted to retain that title) and Commissar Iverson and I became very close during that struggle. I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s how I know the journey we made was true, if not necessarily real. And why I’ll have to continue it someday, somehow. There’s unfinished business between Iverson and myself.

Earlier in the interview, he commented on his own anxiety of coming across as pretentious:

[...] I’d suggest that the dividing line between pretension and depth is drawn by sincerity. If a writer’s exploration of ‘the deep’ is driven by a genuine desire to make sense of things then it’s a valid journey, even if it ultimately fails. However, if it’s only a veneer of pseudo-intellectual sparkle then it’s just bullshit and deserves only contempt. Of course I don’t have many – any! – real answers to the Darkness, but ‘Fire Caste’ was a journey I made in good faith. The criticism that hit me hardest wasn’t from the Amazon reader who was outraged by my use of civil war imagery (apparently he was waiting for Lincoln to pop-up in a stovepipe hat…), but from a very measured reader who felt the book was ultimately ‘409 pages of misery and suffering without a real point.’ I’m still thinking about that because if he’s right then I failed utterly.

I want to make it very clear that I do not intend to psychoanalyse Peter Fehervari in this article. That would both be intrusive and assumptive. I have read his work, I have had online communications with him and I have met him twice on a video call - that does not put me in a position to have special insight into his life or the workings of his mind.

What I feel that I do have insight in - not in a special way, but just by reading his fiction and his interviews as well as listening to him in person - is the sincerity and the passion that flows into his work. It's one of the things that makes the Coil so vivid and vibrant, in my opinion: that it's not just a particularly eloquent and philosophical take on the established IP of Warhammer 40,000, but that these stories are written by an author who is willing to let so much of himself become present in his stories.

Every act of putting oneself out in the open, even if it's in the abstracted form of art that one has created, especially if it's close to one's heart, is in my opinion an act of bravery. When you dare to put a piece of yourself into your work like this, you're making yourself vulnerable by presenting it to the world. It takes courage to do so anyway.

And maybe that's something that is true for all artists - that's not for me to say. What I can and want to say is just that I feel it strongly to be true for this artist and this work of art by the way it resonates with me, by the way it feels sincere in its attempt to make "a journey in good faith" and reach out to me as a reader to come along.

I have learned respect before the work with dreams. It can often be unexpectedly revealing and surprising in its intensity. Dreams, in all their mystery, opaqueness and confusion, can leave one ultimately naked if they are honestly told and willingly identified with. This is not something to be taken lightly. An important feeling beside respect that I consider appropriate to have in the face of such a wilful display of vulnerability is gratefulness. I'm trying to be grateful to the clients that let me partake in their inner worlds, that trust me enough to show something of their inner landscape to me. Thinking about my experiences with the Dark Coil, about my resonance with these stories and their author, brings me to that same place of gratefulness.

I'm grateful to Peter Fehervari for taking on the journey of diving into the Dark Coil again and again to dredge up further of its windings. I'm grateful that he makes the effort of bleeding some of his own blood into his ink, for his willingness to weave his own passions, thoughts and struggles into his words.

As Neil Gaiman said: "A book is a dream that you hold in your hands."

I'm grateful to Peter for sharing his with us.

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