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.

Jun 13 2017

Rereading About Race: Returning to Tah-Nehisi Coates (III of III)

Rereading About Race: Returning to Tah-Nehisi Coates (III of III)


So the literal thesis of the book is Coates (who is six years older than me) warning his 15-year-old son to cherish his physical body. But who else does Coates address in his book besides his son and self-conscious? As a child of the 1990s I don’t feel he was addressing someone like me who:

  • Recalls in 1991 riding in the van with my family past Luby’s in Killeen the day of the massacre heading to the nearby mall to buy my brother a birthday present;
  • grew up in central Texas and one Saturday afternoon in 1993 turned on the TV to learn about the first shots fired in what became known as the Waco disaster at Mount Carmel;
  • heard and saw in 1995 the horror of the Oklahoma City bombing as a response to Waco;
  • amid all of these were things heard and read various school-shootings from the 90s, particularly the 1998 Westside Middle School shooting at Craighead County, Arkansas and the 1998 Thurston High School shooting at Springfield, Oregon so that:
  • when, by the time I was 15 and one day heard on television in its “media language” [1] about the Columbine shooting in Littleton, Colorado in 1999, such language and the incidents they described had become routine, jejune, unremarkable.

All of these episodes of violence were committed by Americans who were not labeled black by our country’s media, and I mention this only to show that someone from a very different background than Mr. Coates can grow up well-aware of irrational white violence. Coates also mentions an episode where, as a kid he had a pistol pointed at him by another kid, while I had a rifle pointed at me by a peer when I was college-age––an experience that still stings when recalled.

As a reader I cannot blame a writer older or younger than me for not being a part of my own generation, so when I point out that Coates mentions shootings of the innocent by police to his son,[2] but nothing of school shootings, I cannot fault him for the omission. But out of my own curiosity, I seek to understand his silence, for teaching occurs only in silence.[3] I am curious because this particular silence seems a little strange when in the twenty-first century U.S., a classmate can destroy her peer’s body just as quickly as a cop.

But perhaps I’m being too specific. Perhaps I need to zoom out and inspect the broader picture. Here I find Coates’ overall critique is against systems, bureaucracies, and institutions, not individuals, such as the person who threatened him with a firearm.[4] In this sense he reminds me of Václav Havel.[5] Yet a school shooting is a specific kind of shooting, and all shootings (whether by cops or by classmates) damage human flesh, which is the criterion Coates abides by to warn his son. So maybe it doesn’t matter much that he doesn’t mention school shootings.

And Coates does (quite rightly) ridicule grade schools for their institutionalizing.[6] This is where my reading and dreaming have led me to compare him to Thoreau:

It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields. What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new. Old people did not know enough once, perchance, to fetch fresh fuel to keep the fire a-going; new people put a little dry wood under a pot, and are whirled round the globe with the speed of birds, in a way to kill old people, as the phrase is. Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living. Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about.[7]

(go back to PART II of III)

(go back to PART I of III)


[1] Coates: “We live in a “goal-oriented” era. Our media vocabulary is full of hot takes, big ideas, and grand theories of everything,” (Between the World and Me 12).

[2] Coates, Between the World and Me 9.

[3] Quoting Gershom Scholem: “Teaching is transmitted in silence—not by silence…. Where teaching breaks silence, its relation to life becomes dialectical. The outward history of teaching is based upon this fact.” (Weidner, Daniel. “Reading Gershom Scholem.” The Jewish Quarterly Review. Vol. 96. No. 2. (Spring 2006) at 208–09.)

[4] Coates, Between the World and Me 18, 78.

[5] As Havel puts it: “Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them.” (“Moc bezmocných.” (“The Power of the Powerless”) October 1978. Translated by Paul Wilson. § IV.)

Compare also some passages from Don Delillo’s novel Libra. NY: Viking. 1988:

I’ll tell you what it means, these orbiting sensors that can hear us in our beds. It means the end of loyalty. The more complex the systems [in a novel], the less conviction in people [who read it]. Conviction will be drained out of us. Devices will drain us, make us vague and pliant…. (p. 77) The Agency is always willing to consider a man in a new light. This is the nature of the business. There are shadows, there are new lights. The deeper the ambiguity, the more we believe, the more we trust, the more we band together. (p. 259)

[6] Coates, Between the World and Me 34.

[7] Thoreau, Walden, “I. On Economy.”