“The real world we think we inhabit”

Hilary Plum
June 30, 2012
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We need a dream-world in order to discover the features of the real world we think we inhabit” is the old line by Feyerabend, discovered sometime in college, that often insistently returns to me. In the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Michael Chabon writes about Finnegans Wake (behind the pay-wall, sorry: but you can peek; or go ahead & buy it). He spent a year immersed in the novel and resurfaces with this beautiful meditation, in which he considers the idea that Finnegans Wake is about “this guy who’s dreaming” (as someone once told him in college), and the many things it might mean for a novel, for this novel, to be about dreams, about the dream world:

In Ulysses, like Proust conducting his researches into lost time, Joyce showed that the clear eye and steady hand of the realist were adequate to the task of portraying states of consciousness, however fleeting or fragmentary, however stretched or shivered or distorted by the passage of time. In Finnegans Wake, with characteristic chutzpah, Joyce trained that modernist instrumentation on the stream of unconsciousness, and thereby, perhaps without meaning to do so, found realism’s limit.

…. If modernism in literature may be defined as a realism of the unrepresentable, then the Wake turns out to be a proof of realism’s impossibility, of the insufficiency of the instruments of mimesis to capture, convey, or even accurately suggest the measureless surreality of dreams.

*

I am in the midst of writing a novel that began in a dream: I awoke one morning, narrated a particularly vividly (and near-cogently) plotted dream to my husband (narrating one’s dreams is a terrible habit, as Chabon too discusses, but who among us is above it?), who then said, “That’s not a dream, it’s a novel, and you should write it.” I had recently finished a novel and so this seemed like a good enough idea. A year and a half later, as I approached the end of that project, my husband told me about a dream of his own, saying, this sounds like something from that novel, if you’d like to use it. And so I did, shaped the novel’s beginning around my dream and its end around his.

We’ll see.

*

I had never thought one could write well of dreams, figured this was a dangerous path to go down and likely to result in the worst kind of symbolism, cheap psychology, ham-handed clutching toward meaning. But then I read Sebald’s The Emigrants, and was astonished by his use of dreams.

Even so, it seems a much simpler (though not at all simple) thing to write from a dream, and monstrously harder to write a dream. For who can make up something that convinces as dream without succumbing to the stupid, inevitable danger of dream logic: the superficiality or pure illegibility of their symbolism, the promise of meaning that they then betray. As Chabon describes it: “Dreams are the Sea-Monkeys of consciousness: in the back pages of sleep they promise us teeming submarine palaces but leave us, on waking, with a hermetic residue of freeze-dried dust.”

*

I have always dreamed vividly, and recently this vividness has worsened into something almost unbearable, in which my last few hours of sleeping are spent in dreams so grotesque and violent that one wants nothing more than to awake from them and I would never describe them to anyone, wouldn’t want to confess that my own mind could give life to such monstrosities. I have been trying to figure out what to do about this. One can’t really go to a doctor solely to complain about bad dreams; I go to many doctors and can imagine the disappointing course this conversation would take. Bad dreams are not, after all, any kind of threat or even meaningful symptom. Or so it seems when one is not living in them.

I often consider the possible usefulness of these nightmares—but isn’t this just that same tired promise: that dreams present themselves as sources of some kind of profound wisdom, but can’t be mined, that wisdom slips from us again and again until we come to doubt that it was ever worth grasping, we are in the thrall of some false god, a mirage, a fool’s pursuit. Yet it’s hard to shake off the feeling that they must mean something, if this is our mind exploring the world in ways we can’t while waking, freed from the constrictions of consciousness, that must… come to something, say something.

As I think about this I think I am overly influenced by a childhood memory (and what is more like a dream than a childhood memory? perhaps: a childhood memory of watching television) of watching “Night Terrors,” the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which the crew begins to go insane from lack of REM sleep. If REM sleep is necessary to maintain our sanity, our selves, and REM sleep offers us our most vivid dreams, then shouldn’t it follow that something in those dreams is the key to our selves, to the basic foundations of our mind and its ability to know?

*

After all, throughout myths and religious stories worldwide, prophecies are revealed in dreams, it is in dreams that the voices of gods or angels may come to us.

Recently I have been listening to the audiobook of Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families. In his interviews with them, several survivors of the 1994 Rwanda genocide recount that just before the genocide began they had a sense of “eerie premonition”; including, in one woman’s case, a prophetic dream:

Toward the end of March of 1994, Odette had a dream: “We were fleeing, people shooting left and right, airplanes strafing, everything burning.” She described these images to a friend of hers named Jean, and a few days later Jean called her and said, “I’ve been traumatized since you described that dream. I want you to go with my wife to Nairobi because I feel we’re all going to die this week.”

*

Robert Fisk’s epic history of the Middle East, The Great War for Civilisation, also offers unexpected meditations on dreaming. In one of Fisk’s interviews with Osama bin Laden in the ’90s, bin Laden tells him about a dream:

“Mr. Robert,” [bin Laden] began, and he looked around at the other men in combat jackets and soft brown hats who had crowded into the tent. “Mr. Robert, one of your brothers had a dream. He dreamed that you came to us one day on a horse, that you had a beard and that you were a spiritual person. You wore a robe like us. This means you are a true Muslim.”

This was terrifying. It was one of the most fearful moments of my life. … The other men in the tent were all nodding and looking at me, some smiling, others silently staring at the Englishman who had appeared in the dream of the ‘brother.’ I was appalled. It was both a trap and an invitation, and the most dangerous moment to be among the most dangerous men in the world. I could not reject the ‘dream’ lest I suggest bin Laden was lying. Yet I could not accept its meaning without myself lying…

Much later, bin Laden discusses dreams again, in a tape “allegedly found by a British intelligence agent in a house in Jalalabad after the fall of the Taliban” (Fisk’s description), a tape in which “bin Laden appears to admit his responsibility for the attacks of 11 September 2001.” Bin Laden says (ellipses & brackets are Fisk’s):

We were at a camp of one of the brother’s guards in Kandahar. This brother belonged to the majority of the group. He came close and told me that he saw, in a dream, a tall building in America… At that point I was worried that maybe the secret [of the proposed 11 September assault] would be revealed if everyone starts seeing it in their dream… So I closed the subject. I told him if he sees another dream, not to tell anybody…

Fisk goes on to say “Dreams occur in the words of other bin Laden followers, and their influence on al-Qaeda is probably far greater than we imagine.” A thought that makes one shudder. What could it mean?

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