My Invisible Sea

Fort Mahon France.jpg

Harry Gruyaert/Magnum Photos

Fort Mahon, France, 1991

In 2006, despairing of doctors and official medicine, I went to see a shiatsu practitioner. I was suffering from an impressive array of chronic abdominal pains and bladder problems. The urologists had imagined an enlarged prostate but found no evidence of any pathology, despite having done batteries of invasive and unpleasant medical exams. The shiatsu man heard my story, invited me to lie down on a futon, took my right foot in his hands, contemplated it for some time, then having chosen his spot, pushed a thumb in hard. Immediately a line of tingling pain lit up between foot and bladder. It was extraordinary. The line was sharp and continuous—oddly electric—but faded away the instant he removed his thumb. The “water meridian,” he commented, as an ordinary doctor might say, Your appendix, your kidneys. Then he said, “I suppose you dream a great deal about water.”

I was completely taken aback. All my life I have been dreaming of water in all its manifestations; indeed I had just completed a rather wayward and troubling novel entitled Dreams of Rivers and Seas, in which a son receives from his father, almost simultaneously with the man’s death, a letter that includes an account of a number of dreams, puzzlingly interconnected: the dreamer discovers a stone staircase under his house, descends many hundreds of steps and eventually finds, in the pitch dark, a strong river flowing underground; the dreamer, with friends at the beach, shows off by rushing to throw himself in to the sea, but the beach stretches away to the horizon and the sea is nowhere visible, at which point he falls into a hole filled with smelly, stagnant water; the dreamer is driving towards an important appointment when he finds the road interrupted by a stream that has broken its banks; the dreamer dives into a lake only to find it so full of weeds that his body remains on the surface. These dreams were in fact all mine.

It is impossible not to wish to interpret or somehow understand intense dreams, especially when they are repeated, or come in series and with infinite variations. The potent combination of urgency and enigma gives you the impression that there is something you need to know, something crucial and at the same time elusive. One checks out one’s Freud and Jung, one tests the theory of archetypes against the narrative of one’s life. In periods of dilemma one is tempted to look for guidance. Is this dream telling me I should plunge into life, or defend myself from it? If nothing else, waking in the morning, having dreamed of a team of bulldozers seeking to shift a river bed, or again of standing beside a girl leaning over a bridge and together holding onto a ladder which is being drawn away under the brickwork by a powerful current, I am invited into a state of rapt, perhaps amused contemplation: the mind is so extraordinarily resourceful in finding images and situations that capture or confirm life’s mood in a somber aesthetic aura.

Should we use dreams in novels? In his book on death, Nothing to be Afraid Of, Julian Barnes is disparaging of writers who put dreams in their stories. He feels it is too easy a way of setting a tone, creating melodrama. Then he proceeds to tell some dreams of his own which have to do with burial and entrapment, in a box or “in some narrowing pipe or tube.” At first glance these dreams simply have to do with the fear of death, which is the subject of his book; but when Barnes tells us about his buttoned-up family, his having grown up in an atmosphere of propriety and reserve, at once admirable and suffocating, we begin to wonder if the dreams might not indicate a more general desire for escape and free expression; this insight in turn brings the author’s love of France and the expansive territories of literature into a particular relationship with his upbringing and his feelings for his parents. In the end, though taking up only a few lines, the dreams he relates offer a mood that colors and intensifies many other aspects of the book, and indeed other works by Barnes. One remembers, for example, that in The World in 10 ½ Chapters Barnes argues that Jonah really could have been trapped in the whale’s belly.

The challenge, then, when including dreams in novels is to use ones that really do convey the mood and mystery of a certain character and mental state. And it’s terribly hard to invent a convincing dream; they come across as contrived, schematic, merely explanatory or sensational, for the truth is we do not really know the principles, if there are any, according to which dreams are structured. Even when we are convinced we have “understood” a dream, nevertheless there is always a surplus of tone and information that goes beyond our interpretation and remains enigmatic, but somehow appropriate. It is terribly hard to invent this effect. As a rule I never use in a novel a dream that is not my own, or that was not told to me by someone else.


Ruggero, my shiatsu practitioner, was not interested in my interpretations of my dreams or in how I related them to life events. What mattered, he said, was not the presence of water, or even less the “meaning” of water, but the balance between the water and the element containing it. So much Eastern thinking is about balance. He would hear my most recent dream and work on the meridians of water and of earth in relation to this “message,” as he saw it, of how things stood in my body, and mind, since for a practitioner of shiatsu any sharp distinction between the two is nonsense. I neither believed nor disbelieved him. Let’s say I suspended disbelief. The sessions, with eyes closed, were dream-like in themselves, and never less than wonderful.

The word “dream,” of course, is frequently used metaphorically to indicate the great ambition, or goal, of one’s life; I find this odd, as if dreams were usually positive and wish-fulfilling. Such happy dreams are extremely rare for me, but there is one I shall never forget. I was about to set out from the small village near Verona, Italy, where I lived, to visit my mother in London. I was twenty-nine at the time and had been trying for some years to “become a writer.” In all I had written seven novels and collected literally hundreds of rejections. That night before the journey I dreamed that a book of mine had been accepted for publication. In the dream I was wildly happy. Needless to say, on waking, I was bitterly disappointed, and I remember reflecting that very soon I would have to set this foolish ambition aside and dedicate myself seriously to some other career. On arrival at my mother’s house, still feeling extremely dispirited, for this was one of those dreams that colors a whole day, I was handed a package. My novel Tongues of Flame was on the shortlist for a prize for unpublished manuscripts and had consequently been accepted for publication. The publisher was returning it to the old address on the cover with some editing suggestions.

It is at moments like this—but there are so few of them!—that one is tempted to imagine all kinds of things about dreams and premonitions and to put aside the rationalist epistemology most of us try to live in. But as time goes by I realize that it is quite pointless to reflect on such matters. It is far better simply to take your dreams and coincidences as they come, to acknowledge that they are part of the scenery. The best quotation I know about dreams, from Conrad’s Lord Jim, is one that invites us not to understand them: “A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavor to do, he drowns.”

Last night, for example, I dreamed I was with my son, whom I rarely see these days since he lives in Birmingham and I in Milan. We were walking down a steep bank of pebbles, beneath which, I was suddenly aware, water was flowing. It was bright, transparent, fast-flowing water and it made the stones chuckle and hiss. What to do with a dream like this but enjoy its fabulous mystery?

Part of a continuing NYRblog series on dreams. Previous posts include Nicholson Baker’s “On the Stovetop of Sleep,” Michael Chabon’s “Why I Hate Dreams,” Georges Perec’s “Fifty Kilos of Quality Meat,” and Charles Simic’s “Dreams I’ve Had (and Some I Haven’t).”

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