Roving thoughts and provocations

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Dreams I’ve Had (and Some I Haven’t)

Detail from the February 2, 1913 installment of Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, by Winsor McCay

In my younger days, I rarely remembered my dreams and often assured friends that I didn’t have any. The reason may have been that I rarely went to bed until I was completely exhausted and would then fall into deep sleep from which I would wake as if from the dead. The dreams that I could remember were few and far between. Their poorly-lit, grainy quality and idiotic plots gave them the look of movies made by the Three Stooges; a few images from the day’s events interspersed with older memories, plus some scary stuff and a bit of porno thrown in now and then to enliven things.

It used to astonish me to hear that other people’s dreams went on and on like afternoon soaps. I once talked to a girl at a party in New York who told me that she dreamt that she met Ernest Hemingway at a party, and he asked her if she would come with him on a Safari to Africa. She agreed, and next day, still in a dream, he showed up at her house in a red Porsche and they drove to Africa. It wasn’t their driving over the ocean that got me, but that there was a next day in her dream, and, supposedly, other days after that. She could have been making it up, though looking like a young nun as she did, she had me convinced.

To make things even more embarrassing, I was a poet and one who was told repeatedly that his poems gave the impression of having been lifted directly from dreams. When I objected and explained that they were solely the product of my imagination, people were not convinced. Those were the years in this country when many poets were interested in surrealism, and incessantly argued about automatic writing and referred to the unconscious as a kind of image factory and the source of everything original and marvelous in the arts. I had a poet friend who tried to put these ideas into practice and in the process improve the quality of his own writing. He decided that for a couple of nights per week, he would eat an entire pepperoni pizza before going to bed at midnight and set his clock radio to a rock-and-roll station and have Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis rouse him out of deep sleep at four in the morning, make him rush to the writing desk and scribble down whatever he could recall of his dreams. He expected treasures untold, but what he got instead was his wife chasing him with a knife and other such immortal horror classics shown to anyone who overeats and goes to sleep on a full of stomach—and on a rare occasion some mystifying phrase like “Elephants are attacking the roof of my mouth” that would send him into ecstasies and make him repeat the experiment the following night.

As for me, in a lifetime of unexceptional and forgettable dreams, a few stand out. For example, many years ago I dreamt that I was on stage during the performance of the opera Aida about to sing the famous aria “Celeste Aida” in which Radames, the young Egyptian warrior, voices his hope for victory in a coming battle and proclaims his love for Aida, the Ethiopian slave. I wear some kind of helmet that is about to slide down and cover my eyes, hold a lance in my hand, and worry about what will happen next, because although I know the melody, I can remember only the opening words and figure that I’ll have to fake the rest by making up words that sound Italian. I do that, but I now have another fear, a high note that awaits me toward the end of the aria that I’m sure I won’t be able to hit—so to avoid it, I sing the opening over and over again like an old LP record that’s skipping. Thankfully, I awoke and in due course became aware that I was lying in bed in a motel just outside Buffalo, New York.

In another dream, one that remains vivid to me down to its every detail, I’m Stalin’s secretary, or more likely some kind of foot servant, who walks behind him in the Kremlin with adoring countenance as the dictator goes around meeting various officials, perfectly aware that he is a man who has already killed millions and striving with my every expression and gesture to avoid their fate. Even in the dream my slavish behavior appalled me. I woke up thoroughly ashamed of myself. Is this some kind of prophecy? I found myself worrying. As my fellow Serbs say, inside each one of us lurks a turd. Had I been reading a book about Stalin and Soviet Russia at the time? Not that I remember. What made the dream so odd that I even wrote down the date is that both its setting and my behavior didn’t seem to have an immediate cause.

The most interesting dreams to my mind have no obvious subject matter. They are like turning on the TV late at night and coming upon a scene from an old black and white film one has most likely never seen, though it seems vaguely familiar. That is to say, it’s not the plot itself (which usually remains unknown), but some scene or image detached from any context that has caught our eyes, because we found it both intriguing and aesthetically pleasing, and that then continues to haunt us for years. Who would have thought, we say to ourselves afterwards, that in that dark room we call our brain they are capable of producing something so moving and beautiful? Of course, as we all know, trying to describe these kinds of dreams to someone else is a hopeless undertaking, since we are better at recounting the action in them than the complicated emotions they give rise to and that, to be honest, we don’t even understand ourselves. When one gets old, one doesn’t even try. The world must be full of people going about their business carrying around in their heads memories of unknown masterpieces of dream cinema that will never to be seen in any theater, but that were destined to be shown only once, and to an audience of one.

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