Roving thoughts and provocations

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Chasing the White Rabbit

An illustration by John Tenniel from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland

My seventh-grade teacher warned our class, “Never end a story with, ‘It was all a dream!’” She sounded thoroughly sick and tired of stories like that. I remember thinking that one of my favorite books ends with Alice waking from the long summer-afternoon dream that begins with her chasing the White Rabbit. Even so, my teacher’s advice sounded correct. Writing “It was all a dream” seemed crude and…immature.

Years later, another teacher read Delmore Schwartz’s classic short story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” aloud to our college class. As the story begins, its narrator is sitting in a theater, watching a film:

It is a silent picture, as if an old Biograph one, in which the actors are dressed in ridiculously old-fashioned clothes, and one flash succeeds another with sudden jumps, and the actors, too, seem to jump about, walking too fast. The shots are full of rays and dots, as if it had been raining when the picture was photographed. The light is bad.

It is Sunday afternoon, June 12th, 1909, and my father is walking down the quiet streets of Brooklyn on his way to visit my mother.

In the film, the narrator’s parents go on a date to Coney Island. They stroll on the boardwalk, look at the sea, have their portrait taken. Schwartz’s sentences are simple, cadenced, evocative, and graceful. Finally, the courting couple has a fierce argument outside and then inside a fortuneteller’s studio, and the narrator’s father stalks off.

Suddenly terrified—partly, we presume, by the possibility that, if this disagreement is not resolved, he may never be born—the narrator rises from his seat and begins to shout. What is the couple doing? “Why doesn’t my mother go after my father and beg him not to be angry?” Though it is all a dream, Schwartz’s story never fails to deliver a jolt of the mysterious, of melancholy, anxiety, and of admiration for what he has accomplished in this masterpiece of fewer than ten pages.

Literature is full of dreams that we remember more clearly than our own. Jacob’s ladder of angels. Joseph saving Egypt and himself by interpreting the Pharoah’s vision of the seven fat and lean cows. The dreams in Shakespeare’s plays range as widely as our own, and the evil are often punished in their sleep before they pay for their crimes in life. Kafka never tells us what Gregor Samsa was dreaming when he awakens as a giant insect, except that the dreams were “uneasy.” Likely they were not as uneasy as the morning he wakes into. By the end of the first paragraph of “The Metamorphosis,” Gregor has noticed his arched, dome-like brown belly, his numerous waving legs. “What has happened to me? he thought. It was no dream.”

If Schwartz’s story represents one of literature’s most blatant violations of my middle-school teacher’s advice, possibly the boldest use of dreams in fiction occurs in Anna Karenina. In the work of a lesser writer, we might pay only minimal attention to the nightmare Vronsky has, early in Part Four—a dream about a scruffy old peasant with a tattered beard: stooped over, doing something, muttering to himself in French. It occupies the few sentences that separate the obligations Vronksy has undertaken, showing a foreign prince around town, from his visit to see Anna. Extremely upset, she has begged him to come, despite the fact that she is still living with her husband, who knows that Vronsky is her lover and has forbidden her to receive him at home.

What makes Anna so distraught, and what makes Vronsky’s dream lodge in our own minds—what makes it so much more than a simple description of a character’s dream—is that she cannot stop thinking about a nightmare she has had, in which a bearded old peasant was bent over, rummaging in a sack, muttering to himself in French something about iron, the iron must be beaten. She dreamed she woke up and asked a servant what the dream signified and was told that it meant she was going to die in childbirth. Vronksy tells Anna it’s nonsense. But, unnerved by the fact that they have dreamed the same dream, he feels that his attempt to reassure her lacks conviction.

Readers will recall that by this point, Anna and Vronsky’s love affair is already clouded by tensions that will continue to grow as the book progresses. Anna is jealous of the life Vronsky leads without her, and though he still loves her, he notes that she has put on weight and no longer seems quite the same woman he fell in love with. A divide has opened between them, yet they are dreaming the same dream! Had something similar happened earlier—say, after the couple met and before they became lovers—it might have seemed “romantic” at the cost of depth and complex verisimilitude. And whatever dream they shared would probably have been about something other than the scary, bearded peasant, mumbling in French.

It’s a risky and daring plot turn, one with which Tolstoy tests our belief in the apparently paranormal bonds that passion and intimacy can forge. Despite their disagreements, the lovers are more closely entwined and know more about one another than either one understands or might knowingly choose. By the end of the novel, the dreams will turn out to have been premonitory, as Anna fears, but they are warnings about a death quite different from the one she has imagined.

David Levine
Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov devotes several pages of his Lectures on Russian Literature to what he calls The Double Nightmare in Tolstoy’s novel, tracking the dreams’ antecedents in the couple’s shared experience—most notably, an accident in which a man is crushed on the tracks near the train in which Anna and Vronsky first meet. Predictably, Nabokov has no patience for Freud. “I am politely but firmly opposed to the Freudian interpretation of dreams with its stress on symbols which may have some reality in the Viennese Doctor’s rather drab and pedantic mind but do not necessarily have any in the minds of individuals unconditioned by modern psychoanalytics.” And yet the enthusiasm and the conviction with which he and others have parsed the twin dreams in Anna Karenina are not so very unlike the dogged way in which Freud delves into his patients’ dreams.

Tolstoy showed it was possible to give a character a dream that strikes the reader as plausible, convincing, important enough to pay attention to, without being heavy-handedly symbolic or portentous. Or boring. What’s harder to recreate on the page is anything remotely resembling the experience of actually dreaming, with all the structural and narrative complexities involved, the leaps, contradictions, and improbable elements. Maybe that was my seventh-grade teacher’s problem: She’d read too many middle-school accounts of dreams that were nothing like dreams.

The most sustained and artful literary recreations of the dream state I know occur in Bruno Schulz’s stories, especially in “Sanitorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, ” which, in Celina Wienewska’s elegant translation, unfolds in the present tense and in the straightforward tone of someone describing a dream on the psychoanalyst’s couch or at the breakfast table. Consider this summary of the story’s opening sections: Joseph, the narrator, sets out on a long, halting, and peculiar train journey, then arrives in a desolate landscape and finally at the sanitorium, where he has booked a room. He is eyeing the cakes in the restaurant when he is called to see the doctor. It turns out that Joseph has come to see his father. But there is some uncertainty, as there so often is in dreams, about whether his father is living or dead. Joseph’s father is dead, the doctor says, but not to worry, all of the sanitorium patients are also dead, and none of them know it.

Joseph crawls into bed with his father and falls asleep. When he wakes, Father, “wearing a black suit of English cloth, which he had made only the previous summer,” announces his plan to open a shop. And now the narrator is wandering through a city with an unsettling resemblance to the city in which he lives. Somehow he finds his father’s shop, where he is given a package containing a pornographic book he has ordered. But the book is out of stock, and instead he has been sent an expanding telescope: “Like a large black caterpillar, the telescope crept into the lighted shop—an enormous paper arthropod with two imitation headlights on the front.”

Time moves strangely. Joseph encounters his father in unexpected places: a restaurant, back in bed, surrounded by a large crowd. Returning to the sanitorium, he is frightened by a chained watchdog that turns out to be a chained man, whom he releases. Transported back to the station, Joseph boards a train. “Farewell, Father. Farewell, town that I shall never see again.”

He begins to travel continuously, and the story ends:

My suit becomes torn and ragged. I have been given the shabby uniform of a railwayman. My face is bandaged with a dirty rag, because one of my cheeks is swollen…I stand in the corridor outside a second-class compartment and sing. People throw small coins into my hat: a black railwayman’s hat, its visor half torn away.

Schulz never frames the story as having been “all a dream.” We know it and we don’t, just as we know it and we don’t when we ourselves are dreaming.

A few days after writing the sentence above, I decided to delete a dream sequence from the novel on which I’ve been working. It took me another day or so to make the connection between the blog post and my decision to cut a passage that had survived for four years and through, let’s say, forty drafts. Having reread Schwartz and Schulz, I’d realized that the dream in my novel didn’t sound like a dream but rather like a novelist’s attempt to signal that a character knows more about the present—and the future—than he realizes. After reading Tolstoy’s double dream, my character’s nightmare seemed timid and conventional. I’d grown fond of the passage, and I missed it. Briefly.


Part of a continuing NYRblog series on dreams.

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