A Review of Erik Hoel’s The Revelations
Erik Hoel is largely an unknown figure in the fields of neuroscience, dream research, and in literary culture nowadays, much like consciousness itself. But that is changing, in both respects, and for good reason. Let me explain why.
First of all, Hoel—whom I first discovered indirectly by means of his intriguing ideas about dreams and on what he calls the Supersensorium, AKA the megastore of (mostly junk) movies and TV and other merely entertaining fictions we consume like pizza and pastries the world over—is a PhD graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he worked with Giulio Tononi on developing Integrated Information Theory. He moved on to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and now he is a research assistant professor at Tufts University (where, incidentally, the Goliath ghost of consciousness theory Daniel Dennett resides) — yada, yada, yada—you can read find more about him from him somewhere out there.
Anyways, as student of philosophy and psychology, I’ve always been skeptical of sci-fi storytelling as a vector for scientific insight, over and above a quality story’s capacity to throw fresh light on a dark shade of the human condition. But in The Revelations, the reader feels a piquant sense of mystery to it all. The reader is left to wonder, full stop. There are tantalizing speculations, poignant musings, questions left unanswered, Sherlock Holmes-like searching, witticisms and wise-cracks out the wazoo. The setting, the story, the subjects and objects are shot through with intrigue and ambiguity. It’s one big sci-fi existentialist mystery novel wrapped in philosophical clothing, with poetry and allusion tattooed all over it.
The narrator stands, strangely and sexily (is that a word?—if it’s not, it should be), outside the story’s pulse and rhythm, blending into the subjective, first-person world of its core characters. Again, much like consciousness itself, enveloping any experience or situation unfolding over time. In love scenes, the two worlds literally collide, one voice and “I” becoming another—two perspectives oscillating like an uncollapsed wavefunction dancing in some beautiful entanglement of minds. And the coherence of thought tapers off during dream sequences, to the point that readers almost finds themselves drawn into a waking dream they didn’t realize was happening.
It’s all a blooming, buzzing confusion—to use William James’ phrase—and it showcases the heart of the mind in a very direct and particular way. The whole book is like a case study of a world-situation, a mindworld, a blip of turbulence amid the chaotic goings-on “out there.” There’s one reason why I think consciousness and dream researchers must read The Revelations. Crucial, oft-neglected aspects of consciousness include—well, for one, perhaps that consciousness just is an aspect of the world, in at least an infinite number of ways—the embodied, self- and world-entangled nature of consciousness, as well as the importance of metaphor and dreams for the structure of thought.
Never have I come across such a refreshing mélange of art and philosophy, metaphor and deduction, theory and practice, story and science. The novel has the wonderful feature of having been written by a disruptor of sorts, an incisive thinker with the keen eye for attacking the hidden assumptions and the inadequate logic of contemporary theories of consciousness, dreams, and reality.
Erik Hoel’s theoretical work on the psychology of dreams is a testament to the nature of his sstern status in the field of psychology and neuroscience. His “Overfitting Brain Hypothesis”—simply put, that dreams are “noise injections” to mix up the experiential data, so that we are not left with the wrong phenomological theories, so to speak—gives testament to his fearless imagination, all with the critical spirit of a scientist. In short, his creative intellect and breadth of knowledge have grown up, but so has his aesthetic and philosophical imagination. The marriage of praxis and poeisis in a creative mind produced a remarkable work of science fiction, and the work carries that spirit hundredfold.
The established facts, the dogmas, the consensus, the paradigm—all the background furniture of facts are staged without pretense. But the mystery stands out like a black hole in the middle of the Milky Way, pervading the plight of its central anti-protagonists—Kierk, Carmen, and company. It’s a murder mystery, sure—but who’s been murdered? Someone, and consciousness itself, but in the end it’s the truth that has been murdered.
Kierk, the main character who could just as well have been dreamt up by a Camus or a Sartre—“Kierk Suren” is an all-too-clear doppelgänger of Soren Kierkegaard, “Carmen” his Regina Olsen—is the the elusive, chaotic, charming undercurrent of it all—just like the “real” main character, consciousness . But Kierk, Carmen, and the whole cast weave through each other’s minds as if it were one narrator emanating from within them. Buildings are alive, the entire city is breathing and shooting electricity like one ginormous megabrain. There’s top-down conscious modulation for you. And he wants to go all the way to the top. Why stop short? The dull, lifeless drudgery of standard status quo science does not hold a candle to the imagery and metaphors of a rigorously scientific novel.
The power of a story is in its potential, I’ve often been told. And it’s true: we read our own story into the novels and poems we read. We read our own narrative into it, fit our facts to it, cover it up with the theories we use to think about ourselves and our worlds. But with Hoel, our own facts are powerless against the narrative that entangles our own minds with each character’s rich tapestry of thoughts and situations. There is something for everyone: the emerging adult who’s got her mind split between two worlds (don’t we all?), the researcher who’s lost all heart in the dead-end pursuits of their field, the mother whose child has outgrown them in spirit and intellect, the youngster who’s just got caught up in the wrong business, the man whose best days are behind them, and so on. Life is just a series of phenomenological bifurcation essays, tensions and balancing acts, aspirations and desire magnets, feedback loops and recursions and metabolic services, and so forth. I can’t help but feel that Hoel’s novel was fine-tuned for the existence and primacy of consciousness—exquisitely designed and crafted by a psychedelic watchmaker who just so happened to wander his way out of Plato’s Cave—but maybe that’s my own biased thoughts seeing blood when there’s only wine.
The Revelations has a hypnotizing effect, but only if you do the work Hoel’s writing requires of you. Because the truth about fiction—especially when most of it is, strictly speaking, true—is that the reader has about as great a responsibility as the writer. The confluence of a skilled writer and a curious reader is magically beautiful, and the flow of creativity only streams and branches outward into realms unseen. But they leave their mark.
So to put it briefly, Erik Hoel has certainly captured my consciousness, and the swirling metaphors and dreamscapes and philosophical outtakes work their magic the way they ought to. The narration is brilliant, full of embedded life and existential meaning, reading it like you’re living inside other minds. The dream sequences, the love scenes, the confusion and mystery—the narration mirrors the mind-altering character of the world it describes. Sleep, dream, wake, passion, ambiguity, theory—it’s all there, not just in what is written, but in how it is written, and how it should be read. But who am I to judge?
These are just my ramblings and reflections on Erik Hoel’s The Revelations. I really do recommend the novel to anyone interested in quality storytelling mixed with quality science.