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When the Mad God Wakes

by John B. Rosenman

“How do you know we’re not just illusions?” Ross asks.

I light a cigarette. “Give it a rest.”

“C’mon, don’t run away. Tell me: how can you be sure we’re not all part of some mad god’s dream?”

With twenty-inch biceps and a neck thicker than my thigh, Ross looks like a dumb, musclebound god himself. But sometimes, in an irritating way, he surprises me.

“That’s the trouble with you, Ross,” I finally say. “You always want to argue and ask questions that can’t be answered. Last week it was, ‘How do you know a computer programmed to play chess isn’t consciously aware of the moves it makes?’ And the week before that, it was whether or not people have free will. You’re always asking questions that can’t be answered one way or the other.”

“Gee, you’re a Philosophy major, Josh. I felt sure you’d know the answer.”

I snort, extinguish the butt, and slip under the covers. Ross isn’t a bad roommate, but if there’s a more argumentative cuss in the cosmos, I haven’t found him.

“Goodnight, Ross,” I say. “It’s been real.”

“But what ith reality, Josh?” he mock-lisps. “And how can you be sure you know what it is?”

I sigh, reminding myself that Ross has a 1.4 average and majors in Phys. Ed. As for me, I fully expect to graduate Summa Cum Laude.


“Good night!”

But even after he douses the lights and lies down, I can’t sleep. How do I know I’m not an illusion or, as Ross says, part of some mad god’s dream? The question keeps drumming around in my mind, and even though I know Ross only needles me to show how useless Philosophy is, it doesn’t go away.

I sort through what Descartes, Plato and others say about the nature of reality, but find no answers. Frustrated, I turn my head on the pillow and gaze out the window at the star-flung darkness of space.

If there is a god out there, some kind of incomprehensible being who is dreaming all this, how would any of us ever know? He? She? It? would exist on an entirely different plane of existence, one totally unreachable by us.

But we all dream, don’t we? my mind insists. Are we not all gods who create worlds and universes in our sleep, then destroy them when we open our eyes? Are not the people and beings who inhabit our dreams the most fragile of illusions?

If so, then why couldn’t we, in turn, be the illusory creations of some cosmic brain, of a stupendous subconsciousness? Why couldn’t our seemingly intense feelings, thoughts, and aspirations be even less substantial than shadows?

Nonsense, I tell myself, you’re letting Ross’s puerile badgering get to you. You’re real, alive. Blood circulates through your veins and when you breathe, air fills your lungs. You’re not merely something conjured up by a slumbering deity. You’re REAL.

Eventually I wade into sleep and start to dream one of those dreams where you not only know you’re dreaming but you know you know you know you know you’re dreaming. A mad god snores. We are such stuff as dreams are made on. Tell me your dreams and I’ll tell you mine.

Gradually the jocular flavor of my dream darkens, and I find my consciousness swallowed by another, a vast intelligence that dwarfs my own as the Earth does a pebble. Soon everything changes utterly, and I behold with infinite distaste two young men in a dormitory room, their tiny, finite, oh-so-fleeting lives sustained and nurtured by an infinitesimal part of my being. How puny and insignificant those creatures are, so unworthy of me!

I fade more and more into my new consciousness, become an endless terrain of infinitely rich awareness. Oh yes, so terribly and wonderfully intricate am I, and so divinely, divinely indescribable. Finally, as the universe unfolds, I gaze into its darkest depths. Every single facet, no matter how minute, lies naked and exposed in the shining light of my godhood.

Then I remember why I fell asleep, why I lay down amid the stars so long ago and permitted nebulae to brush my brow and novas to cool my belly. I willed myself to sleep because in all my Creation there was not one atom of life I could love. Indeed, a man could enter far more meaningfully into the life of a flea than I could into these contemptible and limited creatures. Eventually, over many eons, I came to realize that while I had created the universe and set it running, I myself was alone and always would be.

And so it was that tormented by the fullness of time, by endless, unrelenting consciousness, I permitted myself to sleep. A god may not die, but I could certainly choose how to spend eternity. Better sleep than the madness of this terrible, interminable loneliness; that is, assuming I was not mad already.

But, when I slept, I found I had created only more paltry creatures to mock my loneliness. I, who was omnipotent, had allowed their petty, soap-bubble existences to contaminate my dreams.

Ages have passed, and a new thought has arisen. Though I have failed once to create beings worthy of my splendor, perhaps I will succeed the next time. And though it takes a billion billion years, ultimately I will triumph. But I know that in order for me to give birth to a better universe, it will be necessary to wake up.

Very well.

Sleep falls from me, trailing remnants of despair. Soon I open my eyes and discover I am a twenty-year old Philosophy major lying in bed. I yawn and rise, glancing at Ross, who lies sleeping. Oddly, his divinely muscular body seems transparent in the moonlight and, as I watch, it seems to fade like a dream.

A dream? Did I have a dream? Yes, I did: a weird, bizarre one. It was something about...

A chill carves my spine and I rush to the window to look up at the stars. Surely there’s nothing to worry about. After all, it was just a dream!

One by one, as if an immense hand is erasing them, the stars start to go out.

Copyright © 2019 by John B. Rosenman

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