- Today in dripping-wet Regency heartthrobs: this is not a drill, people. Mr. Darcy’s soaked white shirt is bound for these shores. You know the one: it doesn’t exist in the pages of Pride and Prejudice, but Colin Firth made it famous in the 1995 BBC adaptation. And now: “The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington confirmed that it has secured a loan of the billowing white shirt worn by Mr. Firth in an indelible scene in the 1995 BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice … In the scene, Mr. Firth, playing the aloof Mr. Darcy, dives into a pond and emerges with the garment molded to his strapping physique … A half-serious proposal to keep the shirt wet and molded to its display dummy by using misters like those in the produce sections of grocery stores was deemed ‘curatorially unsound’ … But outside the protective glass case, the library is bracing for a humid reaction.”
- Has the rise of the M.F.A. left a mark on American literature? Not really, according to two professors who have, as is their professorial wont, crunched the numbers, using “computational text analysis” to compare novels by writers within and without M.F.A. programs. They found “no real distinctions at the level of language, themes, or even syntax. When we went further to test whether the way writers constructed their characters was any different, once again nothing significant showed up. It was extremely difficult to separate the M.F.A. and non-M.F.A. writing groups in any meaningful way … The M.F.A. promises to make the distinction of race come alive, take on literary heft, through learning how to write and the work of writing. But we have no evidence that M.F.A. authors are any better at this than their less educated non-M.F.A. peers. If there’s a quality that distinguishes a writer as Asian American or black, we could not find it.”
- The French writer Serge Brussolo has published more than 150 books—sometimes as many as three a year—zero of which are available in English. That will change with The Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome, a 1992 novel about “a gang of metaphysical burglars who enter a dreaming mind and pull daring heists to retrieve its treasures.” (Christopher Nolan’s Inception borrows liberally from the concept.) As Tim Martin writes, “The anarchic surrealism at work in Brussolo’s novel is such that it can never quite be reduced to a parable about the artist and society. Like Burroughs in his cut-up fictions, or Ballard in the mad Californian dreamscapes of his Vermilion Sands stories, he is coolly at home in the deranged landscape he creates, in which hypnotists whisper cryptically to security cameras, dead dreams lie frozen in special vaults lest they explode when they thaw and flowers sprout wildly in cityscapes of the mind as the dreamers’ bodies decay.”
- Christine Smallwood on The Paris Review’s anthology of new writing, The Unprofessionals: “There are more relationship problems here, treated in isolation; more people alone, talking to themselves, remembering. This is not an accident, but an aesthetic … We continue reading not to see what will happen, but to find out how the narrator will think about whatever happens to happen. Though characters wake up in beds, walk around city streets, or drive in trucks, they do not really live anywhere except their own minds. They sense place as one might sense a phantom limb … Dislocation is not synonymous with disembodiment. A strong attention to bodily experience runs through The Unprofessionals.”
- Today in facades: Jean Stein’s West of Eden: An American Place is an oral history of Hollywood and Los Angeles that deploys, as Andrew O’Hagan writes, “a wonderful grace in uncovering a monstrous reality.” He summarizes a story in the book about Jennifer Jones: “In later life Jones went to bed in full make-up and hair—it took four hours every day—just in case she was taken ill in the night and had to go to hospital. Stephen Sondheim remembers seeing her in Ravello during the shooting of John Huston’s madcap movie Beat the Devil. ‘I recall her sitting at an umbrella table in the square,’ Sondheim says, ‘rehearsing a scene with Edward Underdown, who played her husband. Above the surface of the table she was bantering blithely with him, but below it she was tearing her napkin into shreds. This was not in the script.’ ”
What’s Christopher Nolan’s new movie Inception about? As a piece of science fiction, Inception sets forth its own laws governing the nature of dreams, and dreams in the movie conform to the movie’s laws, not those uncovered by Sigmund Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams. (Spoilers ahead, of course.) There are touches where Nolan’s dreams correspond in nature to those described by Freud and experienced by all people nightly. When, for example, the dream-chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao) has one glass of champagne too many just before going under, the dream extractors who enter his dream find themselves rained upon, thanks to the pressure on the sleeping Yusuf’s bladder. (A dream “with a urinary stimulus may lead [the dreamer] to a foaming stream,” Freud comments, in what might be considered a parallel passage.) Similarly, when the van containing the dreaming Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) swerves, gravity in Arthur’s dream of a hotel shifts sideways. As “the guardians of sleep,” Freud writes, dreams often try to explain away sensations that manage to impinge on the dreamer’s consciousness.
In a number of important ways, however, Nolan’s dreams are unlike actual dreams. A real dream, of course, can’t be shared while it is being experienced, though that may be chalked up to the movie’s poetic license. More important, in a real dream, problem-solving is impossible; there are usually jump-cuts far more Godardian than anything attempted by Nolan; spacetime is much more fungible, if not irrelevant; and crucially, there is a wish, or rather, a congeries of wishes, governing the structure of the dream.
In Nolan’s movie, the arch dream-thief Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) warns Ariadne (Ellen Page), a young dream architect that he has recruited, never to construct her dreams from personal memories, lest she lose track of the distinction between dreams and reality. In Freud’s understanding, though, dreams are made of nothing but personal memories, and a dreamer always knows that he is dreaming, even though that awareness may not always be a part of the dream. (That sounds more mystifying than it is. Another way to explain it: it’s only because what’s going on in the mind is a dream that the managerial part of consciousness allows something so disorganized to happen at all.) Cobb further warns Ariadne that beneath all the layers of constructed dreams lies what he calls limbo—the raw unconscious—where a person could become lost and spend an eternity. Freud, too, thought of the unconscious as existing at the deepest layer of a person’s mind, and he, too, thought it had an eternal character (“In the unconscious nothing can be brought to an end, nothing is past or forgotten”), but Freud believed that every dreamer dropped into exactly such a limbo nightly. The intricacy of Nolan’s action sequences depends on his notion that dreams within dreams exist on separate physical levels and are structurally fragile ways to go deeper into a person’s mind. Freud, however, considered a dream within a dream to be no more than semantic shorthand. He thought a dream within a dream worked more or less the way a double negative does:
To include something in a “dream within a dream” is . . . equivalent to wishing that the thing described as a dream had never happened. In other words, if a particular event is inserted into a dream as a dream by the dream-work itself, this implies the most decided confirmation of the reality of the event—the strongest affirmation of it.