The Real and Unreal World of Pretty Much Everything


Hey there. I hope those of you in Melbourne are enjoying the Fringe - fresh perspectives are good for creative juices.

Now, here’s a concept so central to understanding everything, that I'm devastated that I haven’t mentioned it to you before. Quick! Read everything herein!


Real stuff and unreal stuff, hopelessly entwined

The concept is that there are two worlds: the Apollonian and the Dionysian (to use the formal theatrical terms). The Apollonian world is the domain of the real, the concrete. No-one can seriously argue about the existence of Apollonian things. Are there hats? Yes. Yes, there are hats.

The Dionysian world contains all the imaginary things. It is just as real (more real) and just as important (more important) than the Apollonian world. The Apollonian world contains some wonderful things, like oceans, owls, windmills, and running shoes. The Dionysian world also contains wonderful things. Beauty. Obligation. Unexpectedness. Value. It is the world of meaning.

Imagine a chair. An Apollonian description of it would be that it’s made of wood, it’s 75cm tall, with straight legs and a curved back.

I should mention that this chair is one of the things that I bought when I first moved out of home. It’s sturdy and practical. The nicks and dents acquired over the last twenty years have only added to its character. It doesn't quite match any of the other chairs, but they don’t match each other, so that’s okay: our furniture is collaborative in its diversity. Come to think of it, the chair and I share a lot of qualities.

There. That’s a Dionysian description. You can see how objects sometimes carry echoes of our own identity, visible to people familiar with our inner quirks.

So what does it mean?

Okay, so this concept of the real world, which affects us deeply, and the imaginary world, which affects us deeply, is a pretty basic idea. You've thought about it before. But basic principles give rise to complex issues, and the interplay between real and unreal worlds is endlessly fascinating. Once you start looking, you see it everywhere. Take marketing, for example. The decision to buy a hammer is partially because you need a hammer, partially about the exact shape and weight and quality of this particular hammer, and oh so much more about how much you trust the person selling it. And how much you feel that they understand your hammering needs. Simon Sinek, an authority on leadership and teams, stresses that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” The why is intangible, even if the hammer is real.

What are the repercussions of this?

It’s possible to concentrate solely on the real world. It’s easy, too: the real world is black and white, there are facts, it’s a solvable equation. Research suggests that 80% of us are more comfortable dealing with the world of what is. After all, the unreal world of “what if?” is messy, emotional, and unpredictable…. it’s a bunch of hard work!

Within the medical profession, there has been a tendency to focus on the concrete, on outcomes rather than interactions. If your well-regarded hospital delivers high quality care, does it matter that the staff go home exhausted, or in tears from sheer stress? If you've cured a patient’s disease, does it matter that you've been rudely patronising while doing so?

Of course it does. We recognise the truth of that now - but it took us a while to get here.

It’s also possible to concentrate too much on the intangible, so that you never get anything done. Do you know anyone who habitually avoids conflict? Their quest for harmony may get in the way of producing results. Dionysian thinkers sometimes communicate indirectly (it’s all subtext and subtle hints) which can be infuriating or beautiful, depending on your tastes and in how much of a hurry you’re in.

If you see life as the physical world overlaid by the imaginary world, like a magical extra dimension, then suddenly you've got a much bigger ocean to swim in, and everything that happens to you can be reframed, recontexualised, understood more deeply. Which is a tremendous advantage to being human. Isn't that peculiar and great?

take care, sean.