Issue 223, Winter 2017
One morning, almost fifteen years ago, I woke up from a dream that was so vivid and powerful that I knew it must be true. I still remember both what happened in the dream and the feelings it left me with.
Now the fact is that listening to someone else’s dreams is nearly always tiresome; usually, if it goes on for more than a few seconds, unbearable. Dreams in literature are monstrosities: whenever I come across one, it takes a lot for me not to flip past it or shut the book altogether. It tells me that the writer has failed to understand his responsibility to reality, or else has not understood the role of the imagination in real life.
Why is that? Everyone dreams—it is one of the basic phenomena of being human, something we all share. Not only that: for every one of us dreams are significant, meaningful, relevant to our lives. Then why is sitting across the breakfast table from someone and listening to them tell you about a dream so unbearable? Let’s say the dream is about how the dreamer was going downstairs in a house she had never been in before, dressed in a silvery, sparkling dress. Waiting down below is a group of people she has never seen before, but it seems, she realizes as she walks down the stairs, that they know her; they look at her, some greet her by name.
If I read a novel or saw a movie that started with a scene like this, say by Arthur Schnitzler or David Lynch, I would be hooked. The mix of strangeness and normality would be irresistible, the mysterious atmosphere beautiful and compelling. What will happen next? Will she pretend she knows them, remembers the house, and understands the situation—will she play herself, as it were—until something comes along that she can place, something she can use as a thread to find her way back to explicable reality? Or will the strangeness intensify, the unknown but familiar faces coming closer and closer, will they confront her with something, so that she runs away, out into the moonlit garden, alone, out of breath, in her shimmering silver dress? But told as a dream, the morning after, across the kitchen table, I squirm and hope it will be over soon. Please, no more details!
The reason, of course, is the dream’s first premise: what happened in the dream did not happen in reality. If it had—if the woman across the table said, Yesterday something strange happened, I was standing on a staircase in a silvery dress in a house I had never been in before, and I didn’t know where I was or how I had gotten there, but everyone clearly knew me, there were lots of people all dressed up, staring at me . . . —in that case my eyes would have opened wide, my heart started pounding, and maybe I would go to that house with her (if she remembered where it was), to try to find out what had happened. Would it be empty, abandoned, with curtains drawn? Would she look at me with desperate eyes, and say, You have to believe me! It was right here, it was!
Yet the first premise of the dream—that it didn’t really happen—is also the first premise of a novel, a movie. The opening sentence of a novel sets up a pact with the reader: it says that what is about to be described didn’t happen in reality but starting now we will act as if it had. This “as if” is the decisive premise of fiction. The author’s job—no matter what genre he or she is writing in, whether realistic epistolary novel or science fiction—is to make it credible, make the “as if” as invisible as possible. Maybe the reason other people’s dreams are felt to be irrelevant is simply that no such “as if” exists: right from the start, we already put dreams into the category of the not-real, something that did not happen, and even the most mesmerizing or brutal event cannot cross the abyss. It didn’t happen, we can’t ever pretend it did, so I don’t care about it. Would you like a little more coffee, or a roll? Should we go outside and sit in the sun?
When it’s a dream you’ve had yourself, though, its nonreality doesn’t come into play. The as-if abyss doesn’t exist while the dream is happening: we experience dream images as real, we are in them exactly as much as we are in reality, no matter how illogical or impossible they are, and when we wake up, after the first seconds of confusion when our inner life doesn’t match the outer one—like when we are looking through a window and for a moment can’t match the spots in the window with the walls of the houses outside the window, when it is as if two irreconcilable dimensions are being forced together into one, something isn’t right, until the brain solves it, locating the spots on the window and on the houses thirty feet past the window and the world falls into place and makes sense again—after the dream is referred to our interior world in this way and we get up out of bed in the external world, and thus the dream’s as-if status is established and the system of reality restored, what happened in the dream is still interesting, if only for the dreamer him- or herself: Because what caused just these images, just this mood, what was it inside me that created just this, and why? The dreamer knows that the inner dream images correspond to outer reality, that the dream is relevant to his or her life, but never, or in any case very rarely, knows exactly how.
Dreams and literature are similar in this way. That is why we so readily accept the “as if” of literature, because when we read, the words and our images of the words enter into us and, in some cases, take over. We abandon ourselves to another will. Our “I”—that is to say, our self—is nothing but an entity that holds the various different parts of our inner reality together, connecting sense impressions and feelings, memories and thoughts. When we dream, these connections are broken, and it is as if the different parts are separated and scattered, a small detail can become grotesquely large, something that just appears on its own, seemingly unmotivated, and the same is true for feelings: they can be so powerful in a dream that they overshadow everything else, there is only the one feeling—for example, fear. And what does this remind us of? The feelings we had as children, when the self was weak in a similar way; when we were unable to tell the difference between inner feelings and outer impressions; when everything flowed through us and took over. To read is to let go of one’s self, to give up control of one’s thoughts, feelings, memories, and impressions, to a greater or lesser extent of course, but the extent is the same as the quality of the book. When I read Dostoyevsky, my self is completely extinguished; when I read a potboiler it isn’t, maybe simply because the distance between my inner world and what is written, or what I experience as what is written, is so visible, so conspicuous, that any coming together is impossible.
Intimacy is the essential thing in literature: reading is something we do alone, and reading has this in common with dreaming. But the differences between the two activities are even more decisive, one might argue. For one thing, a novel has been created by a writer, to whom communication is central; for another thing, a novel is always a completed whole, an object in the culture that anyone has access to and can enter. Not so with dreams, which are neither addressed to nor accessible to anyone else. That is why it is possible to talk about a novel you’ve read without it being unbearable, even though what you are describing is not fixed in reality but exists only in the imagination. The relevance lies in the communication, the address to an always implicit “you” and the sense of community in that relationship—for if you think of a literature without address, without a you-community, it would be incomprehensible to everyone except the writer, full of secret meanings, private codes, cryptic emphases, radical idiosyncrasy. We find such you-less language among schizophrenics or psychotics, and it is meaningless to us because its underlying premises are hidden from us, for the simple reason that “we”—or you—do not exist in it. There is no communication. And it’s interesting because what happens with schizophrenics or psychotics is that the self is not whole: there is no “place” in consciousness over and above its separate currents. If this is so, and I believe it is, then the natural conclusion to draw is that the self, the “I,” is actually nothing but the implicit presence of a “you”—the self is the embodiment of a reaching out to someone else.