Saturday, February 10, 2007

On dreams

From The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Volume 1: Inferno (1308), translated by Robert M. Durling:
In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to
myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost
Ah, how hard a thing it is to say what that wood
was, so savage and harsh and strong that the
thought of it renews my fear!

It is so bitter that death is little more so! But to
treat of the good that I found there, I will tell of
the other things I saw.
I cannot really say how I entered there, so full of
sleep was I at the point when I abandoned the true

As I've said before, coincidences sometimes become connections, and with dreams on the brain after reading Robert Herrick's "The Vine," dreams were what I seemed to keep stumbling across (better than into, I suppose) this week.

First, in reading a review of Haruki Murakami's Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (2006) by Christian Caryl in the March 1, 2007 issue of the New York Review of Books, I was struck by the following passage from a lecture Murakami delivered at a Cambridge, Massachusetts church in 2005:
In some ways a narrative is like a dream. You don't analyze a dream--you just pass through it. A dream is sometimes healing and sometimes makes you anxious. A narrative is just the same--you are just in it. A novelist is not an analyst. He just transforms one scene into another. A novelist is one who dreams wide awake. He decides to write and he sits down and dreams away, then wraps it into a package caleld fiction which allows other people to dream. Fiction warms the hearts and minds of the readers. So I believe that there is something deep and enduring in fiction, and I have learned to trust the power of narrative.

This seems to jibe with my assessment of Murakami's writing from back in the summer. I opened that post by recounting a dreamstory from Akira Kurosawa's film Dreams, and I followed it by arguing in favor of letting things sometimes just be what they are in Murakami's work, letting the inexplicable remain unexplained. The meaning is there--and for each book I could give some guesses at it--but it isn't to be extracted; it's of a piece with the presentation, hewing to an internal, organic logic that bears more resemblance to dream than to reality. It blunts our usual attempts to understand and only delivers up sense once we've begun to succumb to Murakami's own patterns of thought and causality.

I then was reading Anne Carson's wonderfully strange book, Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera (2005). Opening an essay called "Every Exit is an Entrance (A Praise of Sleep)," which travels from Homer, Socrates, and Aristotle to Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bishop, and Tom Stoppard, is the following:
My earliest memory is of a dream. It was in the house where we lived when I was three or four years of age. I dreamed I was asleep in the house in an upper room.

Then I awoke and came downstairs and stood in the living room. The lights were on in the living room, although it was hushed and empty. The usual dark green sofa and chairs stood along the usual pale green walls. It was the same old living room as ever, I knew it well, nothing was out of place. And yet it was utterly, certainly, different. Inside its usual appearance the living room was as changed as if it had gone mad.

Later in life, when I was learning to reckon with my father, who was afflicted with and eventually died of dementia, this dream recovered itself to me, I think because it seemed to bespeak the situation of looking at a well-known face, whose appearance is exactly as it should be in every feature and detail, except that it is somehow, deeply and glowingly, strange.

The dream of the green living room was my first experience of such strangeness, and I find it as uncanny today as I did when I was three. But there was no concept of madness or dementia available to me at that time. So, as far as I can remember, I explained the dream to myself by saying that I had caught the living room sleeping. I had entered it from the sleep side. And it took me years to recognize, or even to frame a question about, why I found this entrance into strangeness so supremely consoling. For despite the spookiness, inexplicability, and later tragic reference of the green living room, it was and remains for me a consolation to think of it lying there, sunk in its greenness, breathing its own order, answerable to no one, apparently penetrable anywhere and yet so perfectly disguised in the propaganda of its own as to become in a true sense something incognito at the heart of our sleeping house.

Despite very different surface tones and effects, the works of Murakami and Anne Carson (who won me as a fan ten years ago by describing in a poem the taste of a metal screen door as "medieval") share an organic strangeness, an underlying sense that one thing follows another not because anyone expects or asks it to but simply because that's what it does.

Lewis Carroll refined that sort of logic, running it through his memories of the operations of a child's mind, in creating Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Things happen in Wonderland for reasons that are not immediately obvious, but when Alice challenges the creatures she finds there they can always explain their actions--and their logic, though frequently frustrating, is very hard to refute. I may be forgetting something, but I don't remember Alice ever winning an argument in Wonderland--do you?

Says D. J. Enright, who is the one who got me thinking about Alice, in his Interplay: A Kind of Commonplace Book (1995):
What is essential to children's books--as distinct from some others--is good sense. . . . Without a basis of logic, or at least a strong presence, fantasy is mere whimsy.
That, I would argue, goes the same for dreams: no matter how impenetrable their underlying rules and assumptions may be once we're awake, while we're within the dream we can feel the press of them, the lines of causality that keep us from being all that troubled by what would otherwise be inexplicable.

Enright returns to Alice:
"The reader looks in vain for any immediate reason why Alice should have dreamt such a dream or for any very edifying result deriving from it": Illustrated Times, 16 December 1865, reviewing Alice in Wonderland. But easy to see why the author chatted fluently to children and started to stammer as soon as grown-ups came on the scene.

Finally, because it's fun to end with a scare, I'll leave you with a dream a friend of mine had many years ago. I'll call her Mona, rather than her real name, since I've not ever asked her if I may write about this dream:
After sitting up late into the night reading in bed in her little room at the top of the stairs, Mona drifted off to a troubled sleep. At about the midpoint of the night, she was abruptly awakened by a scraping, creaking sound; the window by her bed was being slowly pushed up. She turned her head, but then her muscles froze completely.

An arm slipped through the narrow opening, and, feeling its way with its fingers across the sill and onto the bedcovers, like a blind elephant searching out food with its trunk, it began plucking at the tousled covers, looking for Mona. After a few seemingly endless moments of being frozen in terror, Mona let loose with a blood-curdling scream; jerking upright, she woke up. The window was closed. It had all been a dream.

Breathing hard, heart pounding, Mona attempted to collect herself. As she reached to turn on her lamp, her window scraped open, and an arm pushed through, reaching out for her. She screamed again . . . and she woke up again.

This time, Mona left her bedroom and sat on the staircase for a while, lights blazing, and smoked some cigarettes. She slept the rest of the night on the couch.
Sleep well.

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