Feb 27 2022

What Dreams May Come After Awakening? Review of Colson Whitehead’s “The Nickel Boys” (2019)


The Elgonyi, natives of the Elgon forests, of central Africa, explained to me that there are two kinds of dreams: the ordinary dream of the little man, and the ‘big vision’ that only the great man has, e.g., the medicine-man or chief. Little dreams are of no account, but if a man has a ‘big dream’ he summons the whole tribe in order to tell it to everybody.

––Carl Jung, “Relations between Ego & Unconscious” (1928)[1]

I don’t know. But I don’t vote anymore. I’m now a radical nonvoter (I think). I feel utterly powerless, ever since the snow storm last year. It was like a revelation, an epiphany, an awakening.

Recently I started reading Colson Whitehead’s novel The Nickel Boys (2019) and, in a particular passage, recognized a shared sense of powerlessness:

It was hard to miss the smile that tugged at Jaimie’s mouth from time to time. Turner wasn’t angry that Jaimie lied to their faces. He admired liars who kept on lying even though their lies were obvious, but there was nothing anyone could do about it. Another proof of one’s powerlessness before other people.[2]

Yes, once upon a time I possessed the capacity to admire politicians who “kept on lying even though their lies were obvious”—James Traficant (1941–2014) for example, whom I gather, was sort of low-rent version of Huey Long (1893–1935).

But now I’m stuck in a bog of disenchantment. And when you’re stuck, you feel mediocre. The Roman historian Livy tells readers that “men of mediocre ability escape envy, it generally aims its shafts at the highest”[3]––after the ice storm of 2021, I feel I am the very measure of a mediocre man.

But even though one is stuck, one is going to have to suck it up. For no one envies a person in pain (especially the pain of powerlessness in politics), for “nothing makes itself more unpopular quite so quickly,” wrote the Roman stoic Seneca, “as a person’s grief.” [4]

In more modern times, Professor Wittgenstein has taught that: “you learned the concept ‘pain’ in learning language”[5]––such as the pain of feeling powerless when being lied to––as with the character of Elwood in The Nickel Boys, as in Texas politics etcetera….

All I know is, I will no longer sacrifice anything upon the altar of admiration for political leadership, particularly at the local level. Those who look to leadership for answers are no different than those who look at pornography for partnership.

But, whether in novels or the minds of mediocre book-bloggers have those who have become disenchanted from such dreams of realpolitik now awakened? Do they now rise and walk in a brand-new life?


One reads in The Nickel Boys that

[Thus said Dr. King]: Throw us in jail, and we will still love you…. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom.

The capacity to suffer. Elwood—all the Nickel boys—existed in the capacity…. Elwood shook his head. What a thing to ask. What an impossible thing…. No, he could not make that leap to love. He understood neither the impulse of the proposition nor the will to execute it.[6]

That passage dimly resembles the Revelation in the second partition of the first volume of Proust when:

… at the hour when there awakened in me that anguish which, later on in life, transfers itself to the passion of love, and may even become its inseparable companion…. since one has doubts of them at the moment when one believes in them.[7]

Then again, the passage by Whitehead reminds me also of one by Professor Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me (2015) when he explains that, “The question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.”[8]

But now emerges the question of whether or not waking life and dreaming (or nightmaring) are interchangeable, something that can be exchanged for something else, like at the back-counter at Wal-Mart. For all dreams are ideologies; all ideologies are dreams. As the Czech playwright-politician Václav Havel (1936–2011) says in his essay “The Power of the Powerless”(1978):

Ideology becomes at the same time an increasingly important component of power, a pillar providing it with both excusatory legitimacy and an inner coherence. As this aspect grows in importance, and as it gradually loses touch with reality, it acquires a peculiar but very real strength. It becomes reality itself, albeit a reality altogether self-contained, one that on certain levels (chiefly inside the power structure) may have even greater weight than reality as such. Increasingly, the virtuosity of the ritual becomes more important than the reality hidden behind it.[9]

There are times when I just can’t stop questioning. I find virtue in it as a ritual. Questions like:

  • Is The Nickel Boys more about doubting the possibility of loving one’s harm-makers rather than having become disenchanted by their capabilities?
  • Must readers interpret Whitehead’s character of Elwood to interpret King’s words literally?
  • Or must readers investigate the historical context of the speech to see if King was speaking literally, metaphorically, poetically, spiritually, subculturally, bureaucratically, democratically, and/or theologically?
  • Or does the character within the book possess no need for adjectives in order to possess disbelief in King’s admonition?

After all, who needs specifics when the generality is already within one’s grasp?

Is political dreaming just a form of quackery (just as philosophy is a form of medicine)?[10]

And if Jung was not a quack but someone who studied dreams––the way a political scientist studies various ideologies––can readers accept his realization-as-remedy? Would Carl Jung and Colson Whitehead agree that dreaming is primitive, and waking life (in political as well as physiological ways) a more evolved, more enlightened mode of consciousness? For Jung reminds readers that dreams cannot be unbound from the paleolithic past out of whence they came:

Fantasies always have a highly original and ‘creative’ character. They are like new creations; obviously they derive from the creative activity of the brain and not simply from its mnemonic activity….[11]

The symbol-producing function of our dreams is an attempt to bring our original mind back to consciousness, where it has never been before, and where it has never known it. We got rid of it before understanding it…. Dreams and old primitive things from which the mind freed itself in the course of its evolution: illusions, childish fantasies, archaic thought-forms, primitive instincts.[12]

More to come (maybe).



[1] Jung, “Relations between ego and unconscious” (1928) in The Jung Reader, ed. David Tacey, (New York: Routledge, 2012) 126.

[2] Whitehead, The Nickel Boys, (New York: Doubleday, 2019), 129.

[3] Livy, The History of Rome Vol. VI – books xl–xlv, trans. Canon Roberts (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1924) XLV, xxxv, 282.

[4] Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, trans. Robin Campbell, (New York: Penguin Classics, 1969), Letter LXIII, p. 116.

[5] Wittgenstein, “Notes for Lectures on ‘Private Experience’ and ‘Sense Data’,” Philosophical Review, 77 (July 1968): 275–320 at 295–96; Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1953, 1958, 2001), Revised Fourth Edition by Hacker and Schulte, (2009) (Revised Fourth Edition, 2009) I. no. 384.

[6] Whitehead, Nickel Boys, 172–73, 195–96.

[7] Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) – Vol. I Du côté de chez Swann (Swann’s Way) (1913), trans. C. K. Moncrieff, § “Combray.”

[8] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015)11–12.

[9] Havel, “Moc bezmocných” (“The Power of the Powerless,”) (1978), trans. Paul Wilson, The Power of the Powerless, ed. John Keane, (Armonk, NY: Palach Press, 1985) V, 32.

[10] Livy has some old Roman named Appius Claudius cry out: “Ye gods, they are like quack physicians looking for work, who always want the state to be suffering some affliction that you will call them in to cure. Are you tribunes the champions or the enemies of the plebs?” (The Rise of Rome, Books 1–5, trans. T. J. Luce, (New York: Oxford UP) (V, iii), p. 284).

Marcus Aurelius says that philosophy is supposed to be a medicine, not an entertainment (V, ix); for “philosophy is a modest profession, all simplicity and plain dealing. Never try to seduce me into solemn pretentiousness,” (IX, xxix). See Meditations, trans. Maxwell Staniforth, (New York: Penguin, 1962).

[11] Jung, “The role of the unconscious” (1918), The Jung Reader 66.

[12] Jung, “Healing the split” (1961), The Jung Reader 359.