Walking up the road, I hear a soft tapping sound & wonder if something has come loose on my coat, or even inside my skull. Of course not! It’s just a downy woodpecker working over a punky snag. Stopped thus in my tracks, I take out my pocket notebook & jot down a few notes about a dream I’d just remembered from the night before. Writing this now, a week later, I think about the rusty nail heads I found clustered in the bark of the big birch, how I had so quickly rejected the first explanation that popped into my head – witchcraft – in favor of something considerably more humdrum. But nailing up a sign that says No Trespassing, Keep Out or, more reflexively as the fashion is these days, Posted – can you think of a better example of apotropaic word magic, a formal curse?
What makes dreams dreamlike is the way we inhabit them, half abstracted from our foolish bodies, which can never run or fly fast enough but which somehow always escape destruction. This morning I was walking quickly through Roman-style ruins of a city on a wild coast, past decapitated colonnades and rooms without walls or roofs, everything lit up strangely from within. Tourist hotels on a once-popular beach, devastated by some new Vesuvius. Then there were people in a classroom on the hill & I became a sudden imposter. We were somewhere waiting to be bombed, & I convinced everyone to hide under their desks so the pilots wouldn’t spot any soft targets.
That’s all I remember clearly enough to arrange in any kind of consecutive order. I wish I could remember how & why at one point I came to be kissing a beautiful woman who, I sensed, was working actively toward my destruction. I can recall everything about how that kiss felt & tasted. What I don’t remember is whether I had introduced myself as “Bond. James Bond.”
This time of year, with the nights so long, the line between dream and waking seems especially thin. On Christmas night we sat in the darkened living room of my parents’ house for an hour and a half looking at the tree full of lights & mysteries. It was a smallish tree, a Douglas fir, but the shadows of its branches on the green walls were enormous & made us imagine a spirit forest right there in the living room, as we talked in soft voices. Then around 9:30 I went for a long walk down the hollow and back along Greenbriar Trail in the light of the almost-full moon. Although there was no snow on the ground, a heavy frost sparkled in the moonlight as I walked along. This was my second walk of the day: such silence as one gets on Christmas doesn’t come but once a year. Even the trains weren’t running, and only a very occasional jet marred the stillness.
Out in the field, the moon’s reflection glimmered in every weed & blade of grass. I stood still for a while, looking at the familiar landscape turned strange & entrancing, a place I could never tire of, I thought. Perhaps this is what it’s like to be in love, to feel that one will never really get to the bottom of someone or something – but to have perfect assurance that the deeper one goes, the more beautiful she or he or it will become.
If I moved my head ever so slightly, the moon would dance from one set of crystalline mirrors into another. This prompted a brief chain of abstract, Nagarjuna-esque reasoning ending in the totally underwhelming realization that the moon’s reflection – & in some sense, the moon itself – was not actually in the field but in my eyes, in my mind. Or perhaps I could make it live a kind of half-life in a poem that I didn’t propose to write. (Because, let’s face it, the world doesn’t need another goddamn poem about the full moon!)
Yesterday, the day after Christmas, was anything but magical: a dull white sky above a brown and frozen earth. I sat inside moping & thought that, if my dad weren’t sick, we might as well have joined the throngs crowding the stores to return gifts & buy replacements at half price. The superficial excitement of all that noise & bustle seemed suddenly attractive. Instead, I spent hours inside surfing the Internet.
Dream and illusion are often treated as synonyms, but sometimes I wonder if they have anything in common at all. Say what you will about their use in psychoanalysis, the fact is that in dreams we relive or rehearse contacts made with real beings and real landscapes – that is to say, with things experienced as possessing their own will or logic apart from our own. Illusions, by contrast, arise from daydream, from the sunlit world of the conscious imagination. They are essential attributes of all games, & if we believe in them too strongly, we might come to think that the whole universe is nothing more than a vast game, a cunning contraption, the result not of time & chance (as the Bible so eloquently phrases it) but of some Intelligent Design.*
Dreams connect & reveal; illusions distract & obscure. I can think of no better illustration of the difference between the two than to quote the Biblical passage I just alluded to – preceded by George Orwell’s brilliant rendering of it into the language of the modern bureaucrat. This is language at its most ensorcelled, designed not merely to obscure but to intimidate. See if it doesn’t fill your head with a blank grayness:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
(“Politics and the English Language,” 1946)
It may not be immediately obvious that this is a translation of Ecclesiastes 9:11:
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Orwell says he chose this phrase because of its familiarity & admirable concreteness. But I doubt he could have been insensitive to the fact that it expresses a common truth – common in the sense of easily available to anyone, whether through the analysis of dreams or through fully awake contact with greater-than-human realities – that architects of grand illusions everywhere have regarded as anathema.
*Before you inundate me with comments suggesting that the Bible does, in fact, postulate such Design, let me remind you that, in Genesis 1:1, the universe was already in existence, and time and chance were already in operation in the primordial tohu-bohu. “In the beginning” is a mistranslation; what it really says is, “When God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth…” And as Stephen Jay Gould noted in one of his last essays, the subsequent Biblical creation is largely a process in which fundamental order is discovered or revealed. Yahweh, in other words, creates as an artist or a craftsman might; he is no engineer.