“Then those people are right who say that Heaven and Hell are only states of mind?”
“Hush,” said he sternly, “Do not blaspheme. Hell is a state of mind-ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind-is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly.” – C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
G. K. Chesterton once observed that paganism was the attempt to reach God through the imagination. What Dreams May Come (Polygram Films) is a sharp reminder of the truth of this statement. It is a film like a pagan myth, filled with sharp insights quickly blurred by the filmmakers’ lack of a coherent theology, with beautiful hints of truth confounded by wrongheaded philosophical beliefs, with mythic images of great power unconnected to the God toward whom those images strain for fulfillment.
What Dreams May Come concerns the afterlife of Dr. Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) who is killed four years after his two children died, leaving his grieving widow, Annie (Annabella Sciorra) in suicidal desperation. Chris awakens from his deathbed to meet a “guide” named Albert (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) whose mission is to help Chris get acclimated to Paradise.
Chris is not eager to go to Heaven. He spends a while hovering about Annie unseen, attempting to communicate with her and, when he nearly succeeds, driving her even closer to the brink of despair and insanity. When he finally sees (in a perfectly Catholic insight, by the way) that it is not for us to attempt to bridge the gulf between life and death by our own force of will. He acquiesces to his guide and departs for Heaven.
Paradise, as it turns out, is whatever you imagine it to be (in Chris’ case, his wife’s spectacular oil paintings). Chris awakens in a vast mountain meadow like the Alps where he and Annie met. The flowers are literally made of oils and his clothes are stained with paint by a stroll through the landscape. As Albert, his “guide” explains, Heaven is entirely a product of our own consciousness. Our bodies are “meat” and they rot. Only our minds go on. As he says, “Thought is real. Physical is illusion.”
This notion, which makes for splendid cinematography, makes for both catastrophically bad theology and for the major incoherence in the plot of What Dreams May Come. Theologically, it is catastrophic because it is the old heresy of gnosticism in (pardon the pun) new paint. Gnosticism believes there is an eternal opposition between spirit and matter. If one emphasizes matter as the important thing, one can declare a la Carl Sagan that “The Cosmos is all there is or ever was or ever will be.” If one seizes on the “spiritual” side of the ledger (like the New Age spirituality informing What Dreams May Come) one tends to talk as though reality is totally subjective and to speak of “creating” reality just as Chris is told he “creates” Paradise. This is, of course, in flat contradiction to Catholic faith for two reasons. First, it is God, not we, who creates from nothing. We, at best, make things derivatively, using the materials and concepts God provides us with. (If you don’t believe it, try imagining a new primary color.) Second, the whole notion of the supposed opposition of spirit and matter completely overlooks the reality of the Incarnation in which God who is Spirit became matter. What Dreams May Come makes a perfunctory tip of the hat to God (“He’s up there somewhere” says Albert). But the real god of Paradise in this film is the Self so inwardly focused that even the body is an “illusion.”
Such bad theology inevitably begets incoherent drama. For shortly after we are told that Paradise is whatever Chris imagines, we are also informed that Annie has committed suicide. Given all that we have been told so far, it would seem that Chris has only to imagine her with him and she will be there. But, in fact, Chris is not permitted this. Apparently, not everything can be fadged up by Chris’ mind. For Annie is real. And when she is not with him in Paradise, but is locked into Hell by her own despair, he cannot wish her into being with him. He is not able to “create” her. This is where the film remains more human than its own philosophy. For human beings know that love necessarily involves real encounter with another and is not simply an internal “state of mind.”
The film, from this point on, largely forgets the New Age subjectivism it has preached up to this point. Chris (who is-significantly-called “Christy”) by his wife, becomes a sort of Christ figure who chooses to descend into Hell to rescue his Bride and call her to his side. The images of Hell are straight out of Hieronymus Bosch: drowned bodies, idiots wandering aimlessly through a burnt-out urban landscape, war scenes, thousands of faces sticking up out of a vast plain of sand. Here again, the filmmakers, like many an ancient myth, have flashes of insight. The damned are not “spectacular” but unutterably petty. “I never took more than 30 percent,” mutters one lost cipher.
And here, especially, the filmmakers instinctively turn toward Christian images of self-emptying death and sacrifice and baptism in order to resolve the problem set before them by Annie’s predicament. Platitudes about envisioning a happy self don’t fly in hell. It is herself that she is lost in. She needs to look not inward, but outward, toward love. When Chris finds her in the bottom of Hell, he cannot talk her out, he can only choose to join her in her Pit and not return without her. In that moment, she finally sees him and in that moment (a dreamlike image of baptism and death), Chris finds himself falling into water, rising to the surface and awakening in Paradise with Annie. None of this is comprehensible within the film’s own stated philosophy of “heaven as a state of mind.” But since a Christian image of death and redemption is, quite simply, vastly more powerful than the effortless, costless fluff of New Age wishful spirituality, the filmmakers sensibly (though illogically) abandon the philosophy and, by a sort of gut instinct, draw on Christian images to bring the story to its consummation.
There are still a lot of holes even then. We are, for instance, told that since bodies don’t matter you can choose whatever body you want. Chris’ daughter appears to him in the form of an Asian woman. His son appears as a black man. His old friend (who was black on earth) is white (and has a Swedish accent). Yet this cavalier disregard for the body vanishes when Chris and Annie meet. They are only themselves and the unity of body and soul (so essential to lovers) is emphasized without any attention paid to the gnostic notions which have been bandied about throughout the film. Yet instead of recognizing the contradiction, the filmmakers pass on from the reunion of Annie and Chris to a final scene in which they choose to “do it all again” and return to earth for reincarnation as two children (who will, of course, grow up and marry). The glory of the body is forgotten almost the moment it was asserted.
C.S. Lewis once referred to pagan mythology as “good dreams.” That is, he believed that pagan mythology captured, in a confused and incoherent way, something of the truths of God, but that it took revelation to sort the wheat from the chaff. What Dreams May Come has exactly the quality of pagan myth Lewis spoke of. As a theology, it is profoundly confused and is a series of images, rather than a story clearly informed by a train of thought. As an indicator of the sorts of jumbled questions, hopes and fears which dominate the post-Christian, neo-pagan mind at the end of the 20th Century, it is an excellent portrait. A Catholic would do well to see it, not to learn theology or philosophy, but most definitely to “read the signs of the times.”