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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 degree in English Literature, specializing in Chaucer and the Romantics. “Coleridge had a drug problem,” he most accurately remarked. “I guess he was the first famous addict.”

The way into the section on dreaming, the nub of Night, is through another piece of reportage—a session in the sleep laboratory of a London hospital. Everybody must know now about the discovery in the Fifties of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, demonstrating that we all without exception have several dreaming periods every night, and that nighttime is far from being a simple switch-off period for the brain. Visualizing the sleep lab makes it more real. Alvarez watches the admission and overnight testing session of a young man with a sleep problem (he rocks in his sleep, which is fine by him but disturbs his bed companions); then he himself undergoes the same procedures, is taped up to electrodes, has what he experiences as an unbroken and dreamless night, and is told, when his graph has been analyzed, that he woke up twenty-three times and had five dreaming periods. Which leads on to the towering problems of consciousness, subjective awareness, and relation of brain to mind. If he felt he had an unbroken night…. Did he? Or is the real truth the marks on the graph that said he had had a typically broken night of sleeping and waking? And, of course, of dreams, of dramas and images and surprises for which the only record was the fluttering of eyelids.

Everyone knows Chuang-tzu’s dreams of being a butterfly. (Was he a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang-tzu or Chuang-tzu dreaming he was a butterfly? he asked himself on waking. Few of us do.) The paradox of dreaming has challenged ontology at least since Homer commented shrewdly on “gates of horn” dreams and “gates of ivory” dreams around the ninth century BC. It has suggested that, varying from culture to culture, our whole sense of what we define as real is connected with a nightlife of thoughts that are strikingly different from day ones. Among the philosophers, Susanne Langer has based a theory of mind on the premise that symbolic imagination has developed from a primitive continuous dreaming state in prehistoric man. For the psychologists, Piaget’s neglected early work records through almost day-to-day observations how very young children come to distinguish between day thoughts and night thoughts, what is inside their heads and what has an outside existence—the prerequisite for knowing how to make believe, how to joke, and how to invent. Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty’s Dreams, Illusions and Other Realities takes on the cross-cultural side, and shows, through a stunning analysis of Indian myth, how much more subtly Hindu thought has addressed the puzzle of ontological “realness” than the West has.

The Western view of dream for the past three centuries or so (Shakespeare being at the exciting halfway point between old and modern attitudes to the visionary) has officially been rationalist and reductive, but with Romantic out-breaks such as the Surrealists in which dream was contrarily elevated to supreme status. Alvarez has a section on the nineteenth-century author of Dreams and How to Guide Them, the Marquis de St.-Denys. St.-Denys was certainly a dedicated oneironaut—he noted down every dream in detail and trained himself, he believed, to bring them completely under his control—but these researches were all, disappointingly, in the service of French rationalism and the ruling doctrine of associationism. Having dreamed, for instance, of a familiar-looking young blonde woman and woken up puzzled about who she was, he put himself back to sleep and asked her. “Don’t you remember? We went bathing together at Pornic,” she said. At Pornic, of course! Awake, he remembered it well. And this is a reminder that, though Alvarez himself is inclined to apostrophize dreams in Romantic rather than rationalist mode, they can stay boringly close to daytime preoccupations and deliver up much what the dreamer asks for. “Lucid” dreaming, where the dreamer, like St.-Denys, takes over control of the dream, has in fact been around as a popular subject since the 1960s; but it is hard to see why people should want to forgo the dream’s main attraction—its uncontrolled otherness.

St.-Denys also studied hypnagogia—the space between waking and dreaming. In his methodical way, he got a friend to sit by his bed and wake him up as soon as he appeared to be well asleep. He found that he was dreaming of a dog eating a wounded bird, then traced this, to his satisfaction, back through images of bushes, baskets, and arrows to where his thoughts had been just before he lost awareness. Some of the early Freudian fringe followers reported similar watchful experiments on the falling-asleep process: showing how a worry about an intellectual problem, for instance, would slide into a drowsy image of struggling with an awkward piece of carpentry—the very process of concretization that Freud characterized as essential to the dream, the symbolic process that has in fact always been the mode of poetry. Hypnagogic (falling-asleep) and hypnopompic (waking-up) moments can actually be full of far stranger imagery than dreams are. Some people will recognize this at once, others deny ever having had exotic landscapes and bizarre faces streaming through the halfawake state. The imagery is often so odd and so jamais vu that it presents a problem for those who would argue that everything in the dream and half-dream states is actually drawn from the memory bank. This hypnagogic underworld has only fairly recently emerged for academic scrutiny, though Coleridge, great pioneer investigator of his dreams, wrote: “Those Whispers just as you have fallen or are falling asleep—what are they and whence?”

The fact that dream-thinking seems to be in images rather than ideas (though there can be metaphysical dreams) brings up the question of whether, beneath waking consciousness, we may be “dreaming” a stream of images all our waking time. Jung argued for this, and it has been given some scientific underpinning. It would fit in with the fact that whenever minute-to-minute preoccupations quieten down, images and feelings that seem somehow deeper swim to the surface. Such theorizing leads on to speculative regions where angels fear to tread. What is consciousness? It may be (Alvarez quotes the neuroscientist Allan Hobson writing in rather poetical vein)

the continuous subjective awareness of the activity of billions of cells firing at many times a second, communicating instantaneously with tens of thousands of their neighbors. And the organization of this symphony of activity is such that it is sometimes externally oriented (during waking), sometimes oblivious to the outside world (during sleep), and sometimes so remarkably aware of itself (during dreams) that it recreates the external world in its own image.

And do we really think verbally, in ideas, or in the intuitive dream mode? Alvarez quotes a letter of Einstein’s: “The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements of [my] thought are certain signs and more or less clear images…. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a second stage.”

Another great line of speculation, skimmed by Alvarez, that branches off from dream study, is the relation of dream to art, or at any rate to literature (whether composers dream themes and harmonies has not been investigated). Novels, to dramatic effect, incorporate dreams—Proust and Dostoevsky come to mind first. In Wuthering Heights, the dream of the child lost on the moor who is trying to be let in through the window is so deeply chilling because the image of a desperate child somehow permeates the book, but is only crystallized there. There are numerous writers who have talked about the influence of their dreams on their work; Alvarez picks out Stevenson, a particularly odd case. In a well-known chapter “On Dreams” Stevenson declared that he turned over the writing of his fiction to a race of “Brownies” (elves, not chocolate cakes) who did it all for him in his sleep. Such an insistence on dissociation must have been something of an exaggeration, perhaps to distance his creative side from his pleasure-hating Scottish upbringing. Then there is another category of writer—Kafka, Borges, and of course Lewis Carroll—whose whole imaginative world is dreamlike. This is not just a sophistication of the moderns. Alvarez analyzes that strange poem “They flee from me, that sometime did me seek,” written by Thomas Wyatt around 1535: a tangle of tantalizing memories expressed in transformations and elisions as a dream is. He has, of course, a chapter on Coleridge, who had terrible laudanum-induced nightmares, and whose poetry only works when it is piped directly through from his dream world (though there has been a recent suggestion that Kubla Khan was sparked off by experiments with nitrous oxide). The drug nightmares described by Coleridge and De Quincey are more frightening about morphia-based addiction than any well-intentioned health campaign.

Among the other subjects Alvarez draws in is the fashionable (though to most people incomprehensible) one of chaos theory. We may have heard of chaos theory’s “strange attractors” and even felt strangely attracted to them, but for the layman a lot more interpretation needs to be forthcoming. They certainly sound as though they belong in the dream world. Then, of course, Alvarez can hardly avoid taking on Freud. Just as when we dream of the dead they sometimes appear oddly damaged and derelict, so Freud dogs this text rather limply—Alvarez’s revisionist attitude being that though of course most of what he wrote has been superseded, he was…well, Freud.

Many, many puzzles about dreams remain to be solved. Why should they be so particularly hard to remember? Do men and women have different styles of dream imagery? Could individuals in fact have a style of dreaming, like a style of talking or writing—Le rêve, c’est l’homme? The switches of time, place, and identity typical of dreams—could they be drawing on our earliest memories of before these categories are formed? Then there is the influence of the dream’s audience: it is accepted that patients often bring their analysts the kind of dreams the analysts want to hear, and evidence from anthropologists suggests that when the culture expects a certain kind of dream, it will be dreamt. Expectation can also mold content in so-called problem-solving dreams, though I suspect these are really rather rare; many a person who has been advised to sleep on a problem has slept away and woken up none the wiser. There are dreams that ponder the nature of dreaming, serial dreams that develop from night to night, dream jokes and dream puns, dreams about sex which have been interpreted as being about God or politics. There are very, very boring dreams, and there are dreams about being bored—Evelyn Waugh dreamt of “being told endless, pointless jokes.” A thought to chill the blood.

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