We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
—William Shakespeare,The Tempest
I once read about someone who had a mirror installed above his bed for use at night. He wanted to see himself while he slept.
The thought is not as absurd as might appear to be at first glance. There is probably not one of us who has not tried at some point or another to catch hold of that exact moment when we fall asleep or to observe ourselves while in the state of sleep. In any event, I myself have attempted both these things many times. More than once I experimented with how I might be able to track the exact process of falling asleep: to accompany myself, as it were, following from behind, watching my own self slowly growing sleepy as I left a state of wakefulness. To watch it slowly lose its contours and turn into something about which I have almost no knowledge. The one thing I can say about this entity is that it certainly cannot refer to itself as “I.” The rest is just a kind of obscure feeling, something that would have a kind of floating, trembling, spongy substance, protruding and then holding back on itself. There were many times when I wished to lie in wait for it.
To observe something in a state of alertness, the essence of which is the absence of alertness. To observe as I slip out of my own self, and I leave myself behind, something which more than anything else creates the impression of a shell or envelope, although it appears to be the most palpable proof of the existence of my state of watchfulness. What exactly is going on? When falling asleep, I begin perceptibly to feel one with my body to a degree that is quite rare during wakefulness. And yet I can hardly claim with a clear conscience that the body has become absolute. But I would not say that in leaving my diurnal self behind the soul has somehow made its way back to itself, even though there is much to support this. For when I am falling asleep, already in a kind of half slumber, I still can sense within myself a kind of impression, as if the soul were beginning to “arrive home”—presuming we are not restricting soul, whatever it may be, to the concept of consciousness. On the contrary, when we fall asleep, the significance of the soul seems to be dwarfed in relation to something else. But in relation to what?
As I fall asleep, I leave my body and my soul behind, all the while palpably returning back to my body and my soul. But what is actually going on here? It is not my body that has changed, or my soul, but rather my relation to both. By day, when I’m awake, I usually observe my body from without, and although I am only capable of imagining myself as a physical body, I don’t identify myself with it. In a similar way, I don’t fully identify with my soul either. If I’m awake, for the most part I think of it, as it were, as someone (or something), which cannot exist without me, and yet is not completely identical to me. I would almost speak of it in the third-person singular. This is Descartes’s final inheritance; not even I can avoid his influence. In the moment when I began to speak about the body or about the soul, I unwittingly behave as if it were possible to distinguish between them. And in doing so I imperceptibly differentiate myself from them. I create a differentiation between the soul and the body. And as I am the victim of an illusion, in the depths of my heart (my soul), I cannot either identify with what I refer to as body or as soul.
As I fall asleep, the force of this inheritance abates. Neither my body nor my soul undergoes any changes, but the misconception that there can be a body without a soul, and a soul without a body, becomes threadbare. And then I finally become identical with them: I will be fully one with my body and my soul. In falling asleep, instead of that diurnal illusion, the validity of that experience—that one cannot be pictured without the other; they cannot even be separated from one another—comes into force. I have become one with both my body and my soul to such a degree that I cannot even speak about either body or soul. For during sleep it is not possible to speak, nor is it possible to give an account of these experiences. This is one of the peculiar traps of the civilization of the modern age—I can only experience what is most natural with no pangs of remorse when I am unconscious of it.
From where do I draw the knowledge of the kinds of new experiences I have during sleep? For this, the mirror hung above the bed may be of use—namely, that state of half slumber, what I experience while falling asleep, when I am no longer capable of speaking or saying anything, or of carrying out any of my wishes, but I am still awake enough to perceive what is happening with me and within me.
Of course, during wakeful states, there are situations, periods, and states of being when this duality ceases as well. These states include joy, happiness, convulsions, catastrophes, ecstasy, repulsion, satisfaction, laughter—one could extend the list. At such times I will feel myself to be almost in an incommunicable state. Not due to the poverty of language, but because I have entered a condition beyond language. In such moments, I am not only unified with my body and my soul, but both of them have located each other. I find myself to be in a particular, dreamlike state. I am not the master of the situation. While asleep I am incapable of inciting myself to accomplish any deed; while within the state of joy, satisfaction, or repulsion, I cannot bring myself to be preoccupied with anything other than that state. I am at the mercy of the situation. But what grows above me and knocks me down does not destroy me. On the contrary: it is precisely this new state that grants contours to my existence. It designates boundaries I cannot reject. In such situations it emerges that my identity stems from an unknown strength. From something infinitely unknown to me. Within me there is a kind of cosmic distance. And yet it is hidden within my innermost being; it is concealed there. It is a part of my own identity, I know nothing about it, but it will never leave me.
During the state of sleep, this unknown strength asserts itself. Indeed, what happens to us from one night to the next can be termed a miracle. And it is just as much of a miracle that that which occupies a full third of our lives retreats in daytime, as we wake up. At least during the past centuries of the development of the modern age, we have definitively eliminated any inquisitiveness about this miracle from the sphere of our interests. Not only are there no reassuring answers as to why we need sleep or why the state of wakefulness is not enough, there are also no answers as to why, while sleeping, amid the greatest tranquillity, we are laid siege to by dreams. And there are no answers about what is happening above our heads, precisely within our heads while we sleep, at the period when we are the least preoccupied with our heads.
While we sleep we are initiated into a kind of secret; we acquire a kind of enigmatic knowledge, of which, however, we can give no account because all the while we are asleep. And while we are awake, then we do nothing but forget about this secret—continuously, even when, mustering together all our knowledge, we try to reflect upon it. The question arises: Does this mean that wakefulness is the state of forgetting, of dispersion, and sleep is the state of knowledge, of collectedness?
I would not go that far, and yet I would still presume to state that during sleep some kind of harmony comes into being and the fatal legacy of Descartes—the bifurcation of body and soul—loses its validity. When I am awake, I am preoccupied with my body or my soul, although I could not care less about who exactly is “preoccupied” with them. When I become drowsy, this “preoccupation” slowly begins to diminish; my interest toward the body or the soul begins to die out. But this lessening does not mean that I have become voided. On the contrary—something is beginning to grow within me. The more sleepy I am, the more insistent it becomes. And by the time I have fallen asleep, this something has completely replenished me. What this unknown laying claim to me is, I don’t know. I don’t even know if it is something that arrives from the outside and then conquers me, or if it enters from within, from somewhere where it was hiding, and for as long as I was awake left me in peace. For this is just as much of a mystery today as it has been for millennia.
El sueño de la razón produce monstruos. The sleep of reason produces monsters. The title of Goya’s etching, from 1797–98, is more enigmatic than what is depicted in the etching itself. And what we see there is connected to the iconographic traditions with strong threads. A man has laid his head on his crossed arms on top of a table (or a stone bench), his legs crossed; it seems he is sleeping. Behind his back, many animals can be seen: a cat, owls, bats. We can almost hear their wings rustling. The theme is hardly new. In European visual arts, ever since the time of Giotto, there have been numerous renditions of sleeping persons with their dreams depicted behind (or above) them. Giotto painted the dreams of Pope Innocent III; El Greco painted the dreams of Philip II, and Jusepe de Ribera those of Jacob. In every case we see the dreamer and above him the projected dream, whose reality is given as that of the sleeping person. These narrative paintings are imbued with the spirit of Greek tradition, according to which one does not have a dream, one sees a dream. At the end of the eighteenth century, with the conquest by secularization, this trope became favored not only among painters but among caricaturists as well. Around the same time as Goya, in 1797 George Woodward of England prepared an engraving titled “A Monkish Vision,” which depicts a rotund priest in the middle of a nap, while in the background lounge lascivious women and floridly laid tables. This depiction—as in the case of Goya’s etching as well—presages the procedures of the twentieth-century comic strip, in which the reader is told what the figures are thinking by small insertions of text above their heads.
The theme of Goya’s etching is, accordingly, not new. What is new about it is its title—more precisely, the ambiguity of the title. For it can be interpreted in two ways: in one reading it gives us to understand that the monsters come forth when reason is asleep and no longer supervises its environs. Or it can be interpreted to mean that the monsters, which otherwise peacefully hide away in the darkness, come forth when reason has been made vertiginous by its own pride, considering that it can solve everything on its own. This is what William Blake might have been thinking when he wrote, nine years before Goya created his etching, “Thought alone can make monsters, but the affections cannot.” The monsters accordingly break out as reason’s compensation, or, contrarily, when reason itself falls asleep, it dreams them, or, to use a more modern term, it projects them.
The interpretation one accepts will depend on one’s own appraisal of the historical circumstances, and within those, the Enlightenment’s. During the nineteenth century, Goya’s etching was interpreted within an Enlightenment context (the expression of the triumph of reason); at the time of Freud’s study “Das Unheimliche” (“The Uncanny”), however, an opposing analysis began to emerge. Each interpretation accords a central significance to light: in the first case, it is the “luminescence” of reason; in the second, it is the act of “bringing something into the light.” Either reason unveils something or reason itself must be unveiled. Goya’s own stance toward these matters allows for both explanations. His strong connections to his contemporary Spanish thinkers of the Enlightenment are well known; but so, too, is his passionate interest in the “irrational.”
The interpretation of this title is, therefore, open, and instead of offering a point of reference to the viewer, it forces one to make a choice. Goya was probably aware of this ambiguity. Considering his attraction to sensitive situations, including political ones, it can be presumed that he deliberately chose a title with which he could justify himself in either sense.
The openness of the title also allows for a third explanation. This, however, is “programmed” a priori into its indeterminacy. For no matter how we explain it, in either case the question of the unclear and troubled relation between reason and intellect—and the unknown that cannot be delimited by either reason or intellect—is raised. These are characteristic problems of the Enlightenment. A title like this would never have occurred to anyone before Goya. For Giotto, El Greco, or Ribera, dreams had an unequivocally transcendent dimension. Heraclitus maintained that for those who are awake there is a common world, whereas those who are asleep live in their own world with its own peculiar entrance; the sleeper, nonetheless, steps into a kind of world that offers trust along with all its unknowns. The precondition of this trust is the existence of a kind of power to which people can entrust themselves. Even the most nightmarish of dreams, which, according to surviving accounts, the great mystics suffered, can be viewed in the light of certain divine connections to which the sleeper can entrust himself upon awakening.
With Goya, this situation has radically changed. The ambiguity of the title of his etching signifies the shattering of this trust. That which earlier had been “external” (demons, monsters, devils, but equally angels, as well as helpful spirits), with secularization’s ascendance became “internal,” bereft of its transcendental connections, and thus transformed into inner thoughts. The place of holistic explications was taken over by those of psychology. And, of course, the enigma of torturous dreams remains as unsolved as it had been previously. The situation—as the soul became separated from its transcendental roots—became ever more problematic. If the soul and reason can rely only on their own selves, then one may be filled with pride and the consciousness of one’s omnipotence, just as, in the case of misfortune, one is filled with despair, or even torturous self-hatred. Instead of the “external” unknown, humanity now was confronted with an “internal” unknown—either appearing up ahead like a heavenly ladder, a replacement for the divine guarantee, or yawning open like an abyss.
Goya’s etching is not first and foremost about reason, nor is it about monsters; it is about that ambiguity with which European culture was faced at the end of the eighteenth century. When the young Hegel worked on his Phenomenology of Spirit, for a while he believed that he had gone insane. In writing about reason, his mode of thought had become unbridled. He must have felt like Goya’s sleeping figure, for he, too, was threatened by demons and monsters. He might have been frightened by the recognition that what creates the greatest uncertainty in a human being is also what grants him his greatest strength: the mind. It is, accordingly, a secondary concern as to whether the monsters are occurring within the confines of one’s mind or they appear externally to it. The decisive issue is that mind, while creating a sense of unboundedness, is itself hardly unbounded. If, however, it does have boundaries, these are not designated by mind but by something that is beyond its limitations. In the twentieth century, Georges Bataille designated the experience of the unknown beyond these boundaries the divine: “God isn’t humanity’s limit-point, though humanity’s limit-point is divine. Or put it this way—humanity is divine when experiencing limits.” I believe Goya was more cautious. As he became entangled in the question of boundaries of the mind, he did not trust himself to the “divine.” He was much too committed to the Enlightenment for that. He did not undertake to find a home for himself within “intoxication” or the “divine” while turning his back on reason.
With Goya, it is not the human and the divine that meet up on that border, but rather that which inspires trust—and dread. According to the visual evidence furnished by El sueño de la razón produce monstruos, it is during sleep that a human being locates himself on this boundary. This boundary is the inner unknown. The true enigma that must be faced during sleep is not the army of monsters, not even the omnipotence or, conversely, the limitations of the mind, but the inner unknown creating an impression of infinity and all the while doing nothing but delimiting man and forcing him to confront his own boundaries. The man in Goya’s etching, seated, his head resting on the stone bench, is not filled with the experience of the freedom of infinity—as is the case for the sleepers of Giotto, El Greco, or de Ribera—but rather with its confusion.
The man we see in Goya’s etching dreams of this confusion. If, in earlier decades, the dream prepared the awakener for great acts and decisive resolutions, then the figure in Goya’s etching is already subjugated to a completely different kind of inspiration. It is possible that upon awakening he would grab pen or brush in order do battle with these monsters. But it is just as likely that he would proceed like Gregor Samsa, who “woke one morning from troubled dreams, [and] found himself transformed in his bed into some sort of monstrous insect.
—Translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet
László F. Földényi is professor and chair in the theory of art at the University of Theatre, Film, and Television, Budapest, and a member of the German Academy. He has written numerous award-winning books and lives in Budapest, Hungary.
Ottilie Mulzet is an award-winning translator and literary critic.
From Dostoyevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts into Tears, by László F. Földényi, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet. Published by Yale University Press in February 2020 in the Margellos World Republic of Letters series. Reproduced by permission.