Tuesday, December 11, 2007

"So inly swete a sweven," or, A passel of dreams

{The Stuff that Dreams Are Made Of, John Anster Fitzgerald (1858)}

1 Saturday was my nephew's ninth birthday, and that night I dreamed about the party we'd attended for him that afternoon. The dream, however, featured two guests who hadn't attended the actual party: Marcel Proust and Eloise. The two of them seemed--not, I think, inaptly--to be great friends, spending the whole party sitting next to each other, sipping from the tiny teacups of a child's tea set and quietly sharing private jokes that caused them to break out in skeins of shared giggles. I'm sure you can imagine the smile I wore on waking.

Proust himself would have me doubt their identities--might they have been other people, real people from my life, in masquerade? He takes up the question in In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (1919, translated by James Grieve in 2002):
I knew that in many dreams one must disregard the appearance of people, who may be disguised or may have exchanged faces with one another, like those mutilated saints on the fronts of cathedrals which have been repaired by ignorant archaeologists in a jumble of mismatched heads and bodies, attributes and names. Those we give to characters in our dreams can be misleading. The one we love can be recognized only by the quality of the pain we feel.
But the underlying simplicity and gentleness of this dream belie Proust's natural suspicions: the dream seemed to have no hidden message, was transmuting no disguised anxiety. In this case, I find myself agreeing with what Iris Murdoch said in a 1983 interview with John Haffenden, collected in From a Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction: Conversations with Iris Murdoch (2003):
I think dreams have a great many sorts of explanation. Once the Freud virus has, as it were, got into you, you keep on looking at things in that way. But surely there's a lot of pure accident in dreams. One has kinds of obsessions and fears that can't be given a sexual meaning. I think the inventiveness and details of dreams are amazing.
I'm sure Eloise and Proust were simply Eloise and Proust, linked, I can only imagine, because while in New York in September I read a few pages of Mary Ann Caws's Proust while in view of the Plaza Hotel, where Eloise presumably still makes her home. And from now on I'll imagine her there taking catty, gleeful tea with her friend Marcel.

2 Murdoch was a master of employing believably obscure, layered, and organic dreams in her novels; at their best, their richness allowed her to obliquely suggest reams about her characters in remarkably compressed form. But she wasn't interested, at least on the day of the above interview, in sharing her own dreams. When asked to supply an example, Murdoch--usually a very accommodating and open interview subject--responded, "I don't think I will." And she didn't.

3 Though it's hard to imagine Samuel Johnson having much truck with Freud, perhaps Freud could have reassured Johnson on the place of sexual dreams, if the following anecdote, first recounted by one of Johnson's closest friends, Hester Thrale, in her Anecdotes (1765), is to be believed. Here's how Richard Holmes relates it in his Dr Johnson and Mr Savage (1993):
Johnson came fretfully back from seeing Hester's son to school, suddenly immersed in memories of his own adolescence. "'Make your boy tell you his dreams: the first corruption that entered my heart was communicated in a dream.' 'What was it, Sir?' said I. 'Do not ask me,' replied he, with much violence, and walked away in apparent agitation.
Again, this may just be the Freud virus speaking, but I think I have to disagree with the good Doctor: not every dream should be shared with one's mother.

4 A far more enigmatic dream turns up in Johnson's diary entry for January 23, 1759, the day of his mother's burial. The bulk of the entry is a prayer for his mother's soul and for the improvement, through meditation on her example, of his own. But Johnson closes with a brief, suggestive, unforgettable line:
The dream of my Brother I shall remember.
Donald Greene's note to that line in the Oxford World's Classics edition of The Major Works offers a partial explanation:
Nathanael Johnson died suddenly and mysteriously at the age of twenty-four, just at the time Samuel and David Garrick left for London; suicide has been suspected. His one surviving letter, written not long before his death, complains of his harsh treatment by his brother.
The dream itself, however, goes unannotated and unexplained. Boswell doesn't note it--and quite possibly didn't even know about it; Nathanael barely registers in the Life of Johnson, rating five mentions, the first of which flatly states that he "died in his twenty-fifth year."

Perhaps the dream was the travail of a single night, relatively unimportant. But just as Johnson resolved to remember the dream, by the troubling simplicity of that final line he has guaranteed that I will remember it, undreamt and unknown, as well.

5 I'll close with some lines from Geoffrey Chaucer's The Book of the Duchess (c. 1370) that are never far from my mind because on first reading them fifteen years ago, I fell for the Middle English word for dream, "sweven," and have never forgotten it. It seems an appropriate way to end this post, since my dreams, like my daily life, are shot through with words--the magical, intoxicating power of which forms the one sweven from which I expect I'll never have to wake.
I hadde unneth that word y-sayd
Right thus as I have told hit yow,
That sodeynly, I niste how,
Swich a lust anoon me took
To slepe, that right upon my book
I fil aslepe, and therwith even
Me mette so inly swete a sweven,
So wonderful, that never yit
I trowe no man hadde the wit
To conne wel my sweven rede.

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