Night Thoughts

Night: Night Life, Night Language, Sleep, and Dreams

by A. Alvarez
Norton, 312 pp., $23.00

More and more books are beginning to appear on the subject of dreaming, and yet it raises so many issues—psychological, philosophical, cultural—that as yet they are only the visible part of an iceberg. Alvarez, critic and writer and New Yorker contributor, has chosen to surround the central section on dreaming in Night with bits of autobiography, bits of reportage, bits of historical generalization on night in all its aspects. The English way of leaving open the boundaries between academia and journalism is, I think, very civilized, but it does mean in this case that a great deal is spread out very thin. There is a touch of the Reader’s Digest about being told that for cave dwellers fire meant light and comfort, or that research into brain physiology has not yet solved the mystery of mind.

It is worth being reminded, though, by Alvarez’s opening research roundup how astonishingly little light was available after sundown until very recently. In Victorian novels there are poignant scenes, crucial discussions, that take place by firelight. By firelight? Try it; to our eyes it is practically impenetrable. Or a writer of the period will say that the moon was behind cloud and there was only starlight to see by—starlight long lost to anyone in New York or London now. Alvarez quotes appositely from Boswell’s journal: Boswell by mistake snuffs out his candle at 2 AM, looks for the tinderbox but cannot find it in the dark, waits for the watchman who calls at 3 AM, gets his candle re-lighted by him, and writes on happily till morning.

The book skims literature and travel, from the Globe Theatre to Nevada: the centrality of light and dark in Shakespearean imagery (which might be more stressed in production), the nightly transformation of shoddy daytime Las Vegas into a city of light. He interposes a little autobiography—that he was once afraid of the dark is, he says, the rationale for the book—but is generally best in the vicinity of literature. The unsurpassable ghost stories of M.R. James, respectable Provost of Eton College! (“…a most horrible smell of mould…a cold kind of face pressed against my own…several—I don’t know how many—legs or arms or tentacles or something clinging to my body…”). It is being a “kind of” face that really troubles, that there are legs, or perhaps arms, or perhaps tentacles… Night creatures in horror films are too specific to compete. The nightmares of children that Alvarez quotes from clinical literature have the same horrid vagueness: that your pillow might eat you while you sleep, for instance.

By contrast, the concrete night dangers faced by the New York Police Department are manageable. “Whaddya want, drugs or whores?” the author is asked when he arranges his “ridealong” in the back of a patrol car. Both, he suggests; but it turned out to be a cold night, with minimal trouble. His policemen come across as a surprisingly sympathetic bunch that included a white-haired lieutenant who had just taken an external…

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