“it is astonishing that each morning we wake up sane – that is, relatively sane -after having passed through that zone of shades, those labyrinths of dreams”

Lately I’ve been rereading psychology books, and have felt singularly defrauded. All of them discuss the mechanisms of dreams or the subjects of dreams, but they do not mention, as I had hoped, that which is so astonishing, so strange – the fact of dreaming.

Thus, in a psychology book I admire greatly, The Mind of Man, Gustav Spiller states that dreams correspond to the lowest plane of mental activity – I would maintain that, at least for me, this is an error – and he speaks of the incoherence, the disconnectedness, of the fables of dreams. I would like to recall Paul Groussac and his fine essay, “Among Dreams,” in The Intellectual Voyage. Groussac writes that it is astonishing that each morning we wake up sane – that is, relatively sane – after having passed through that zone of shades, those labyrinths of dreams.

The study of dreams is particularly difficult, for we cannot examine dreams directly, we can only speak of the memory of dreams. And it is possible that the memory of dreams does not correspond exactly to the dreams themselves. A great writer of the eighteenth century, Sir Thomas Browne, believed that our memory of dreams is more impoverished than the splendour of reality. Others, in turn, believe that we improve our dreams. If we thin of the dream as a work of fiction – and I think it is – it may be that we continue to spin tales when we wake and later when we recount them.

  • Jorge Luis Borges, “Nightmares”, from Seven Nights

 

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“A culture is no better than its woods” – W H Auden, “Bucolics”

From Auden’s sequence “Bucolics”, part II, “Woods“, dedicated to Nicholas Nabokov

A well-kempt forest begs Our Lady’s grace;
Someone is not disgusted, or at least
Is laying bets upon the human race
Retaining enough decency to last;
The trees encountered on a country stroll
Reveal a lot about a country’s soul.

A small grove massacred to the last ash,
An oak with heart-rot, give away the show:
This great society is going to smash;
They cannot fool us with how fast they go,
How much they cost each other and the gods.
A culture is no better than its woods.

Elegy of Fortinbras, Zbigniew Herbert

Years ago, I read Zbigniew Herbert’s wonderful “Elegy of Fortinbras.” I studied “Hamlet” for the Leaving Cert. Brendan McWilliams somewhere wrote that he had a pet theory that the Shakespearean play one studied for the Leaving had a profound influence; one was immersed at a highly impressionable age in close study of one of the most psychologically and culturally influential dramas of all time.

I had always read “Elegy of Fortinbras” as an expression of fundamental kinship between Fortinbras and Hamlet, especially the closing line of the poem. For me, Fortinbras was the one who lived and now has to make a fist of the boringly pragmatic business of running Denmark. Hamlet was the idealist who has died in a suitably glamorous way, yet their positions could have been reversed.

I am linking to the text of the poem on the Crystal Notion blog. The blogger has her own analysis of the poem, one based on a much closer reading of the poem in many ways than mine. She also reflects on it in the context of her own political activism. It is an interesting analysis and one which makes me read the poem afresh. I have made some comments directly on her blog. Among other things, I reflect there on whether my reaction to the poem may have something to do with my own professional perspective

Sitting on the Fence

I’d like to share a poem by Zbigniew Herbert, a Polish poet who resisted both Nazi occupation and Soviet totalitarianism.  His poem Elegy of Fortinbras draws a contrast between the practical Fortinbras and the introspective Hamlet: the man of action and the man of inaction.

(TW: suicide)

Elegy of Fortinbras

Now that we’re alone we can talk prince man to man
though you lie on the stairs and see no more than a dead ant
nothing but black sun with broken rays
I could never think of your hands without smiling
and now that they lie on the stone like fallen nests
they are as defenceless as before The end is exactly this
The hands lie apart The sword lies apart The head apart
and the knight’s feet in soft slippers

You will have a soldier’s funeral without having been a soldier
the only ritual I am acquainted with a…

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Soviet Timelessness – from “Le Testament Francais”, Andrei Makhine.

From the novel also known as Dreams of My Russian Summers:

I almost leaped up from  my stool beside the television. For I understood so perfectly Charlotte’s reasons for being fond of her little provincial town. It would have been easy to explain her choice to the adults gathered in our kitchen. I should have talked of the dry air of the steppe, whose silent transparency distilled the past.  I should have spoken of the dusty streets that led nowhere, as they emerged, all of them, into the same endless plain. Of the town where history, by decapitating churches and tearing down ‘architectural excesses’ had banished all notions of time. A town where living meant endlessly reliving one’s past, while at the same time mechanically performing routine tasks

“become adept at letting things go” First Known When Lost: Milosz, Derek Mahon and Taigi on the passing time

From here at the wonderful blog First Known When Lost. As well as bringing to our attention much outstanding poetry that has the great merit of being unfashionable or forgotten, Stephen Pentz is a consistent source of a kind of reflective wisdom very much contrary to the spirit of our busy, proudly restless age. One may not agree with everything he writes to find him an refreshingly countercultural presence online.

 

Do we grow wiser with age? Well, let’s not get too carried away. Speaking for myself, the only piece of wisdom that I can provisionally claim in my seventh decade above ground (and within hailing distance of a return to the dust) is this: I realize, on a daily basis, that I am profoundly ignorant.

Yet, being aware of, and at peace with, one’s ignorance is a good thing. It is certainly not cause for self-recrimination or despair. It relieves us of the great weight of trying to “figure things out,” of trying to solve the mysteries of where we came from, why we are here, and where we are headed. It frees us up to do what we ought to have been doing from the start: loving, and being unceasingly grateful for, the World and all of its beautiful particulars.

Rather than imagining that we might acquire wisdom with age, perhaps a better approach is to become adept at letting things go. As the years and (alas!) decades speed by (populated by days), we are well-advised to disabuse ourselves of certain notions and to abandon certain conceits. If, by some point in our life (before it is too late), we have not begun to identify and jettison these notions and conceits, all hope is lost. Something along these lines is required:

Learning

To believe you are magnificent. And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent. Enough labor for one human life.

Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog (translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998).

While this lifelong project is underway, the days come and go. There’s no stopping them.

Dream Days

‘When you stop to consider
The days spent dreaming of a future
And say then, that was my life.’

For the days are long —
From the first milk van
To the last shout in the night,
An eternity. But the weeks go by
Like birds; and the years, the years
Fly past anti-clockwise
Like clock hands in a bar mirror.

Derek Mahon, Selected Poems (Penguin/The Gallery Press 1991).

As Mahon observes, the days are indeed long — “an eternity.” (Do you remember all of those never-ending afternoons in the schoolroom?) The Japanese haiku poets, whose art is aimed at presenting a vanishing instant of experience that embodies the whole of the World and the whole of a human life, are ever aware that our fate is played out each day, moment-by-moment.

Calm days,
The swift years
Forgotten.

Taigi (1709-1771) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring, page 42.

First Known When Lost on Spring and mortality, with Herrick, Wallace Stevens, and Epictetus

Original here

Spring beautifully — and gently — counsels us to be mindful of our mortality. This is sound advice. In fact, we are well-advised to consider our mortality on a daily basis, through all the seasons. I am not suggesting that we should brood over “the strumble/Of the hungry river of death” from morn to eventide. But an awareness of the shortness of our stay here provides a sense of perspective, and reminds us that we ought to be continually grateful for what the World bestows upon us, without our asking, each day.

Spring (like all the other seasons) teaches us gratitude, though the gratitude may at times have a wistful and bittersweet cast.

To Blossoms

Fair pledges of a fruitful tree,
Why do ye fall so fast?
Your date is not so past;
But you may stay yet here a while,
To blush and gently smile;
And go at last.

What, were ye born to be
An hour or half’s delight;
And so to bid goodnight?
‘Twas pity Nature brought ye forth
Merely to show your worth,
And lose you quite.

But you are lovely leaves, where we
May read how soon things have
Their end, though ne’r so brave:
And after they have shown their pride,
Like you a while: They glide
Into the grave.

Robert Herrick, Poem 467, Hesperides (1648).

“Death is the mother of beauty.” (Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning.”) What do blossoms do? They “stay yet here a while,/To blush and gently smile;/And go at last.” What do “lovely leaves” do? “They glide/Into the grave.” This is how the World works, and there is no reason to brood or to grieve. Our response should be gratitude. Gratitude and acceptance.

“Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene.”

Epictetus, The Enchiridion, Section VIII (translated by W. A. Oldfather, 1928).

The Granddaughter Paradox published in Sci Phi Journal

My story The Granddaughter Paradox has been published in Sci Phi Journal, an online journal of science fiction with a philosophical twist (or philosophical fiction with a science fiction twist?)

Reading the full story requires a subscription, or as the site says:

You need to be a Patron of the magazine to read all of this item. Jump over to our Patreon Page and sign up now. All pledges processed in 24 hours.

So obviously I will encourage anyone reading this to follow the above instructions… but here is a preview:

Brendan McConnell’s morning began at 4.45 a.m. on a spring day in 2010. Between sleep and wakefulness for the whole night, as he realised the appointed time was nearing he willed himself fully awake. Penelope slept on beside him. When planning his actions that day, he had thought of kissing her, but had decided the risk of waking her up was too great. She hadn’t slept much lately. And if all went well he would be back before anything could be noticed by anyone. He slid out of the bed, lifting the polka-dot duvet only very slightly and replacing it so it was as if no one had slept there. Lit only by sodium street lamps, their light edging through the gaps at the edge of the curtains, the room seemed to be bulging with clothes and books and papers in every possible space. Brendan thought of the crash courses in biochemistry and molecular pathology they had put themselves through, scouring textbooks and journal articles for some hint, any hint of some answer, any answer. A paper sea of modern biomedicine in their bedroom; the books with their definitive and authoritative titles: Comprehensive Biochemical Pathology, Advanced Immunology. And the journal articles, forming blobs of stapled paper around the room, discarded part-understood. He went into the bathroom to change, folding his pyjamas and leaving them on top of the laundry basket. He had left out fresh clothes; a purple woolly jumper Rose liked to stroke, a clean white suit, black slacks, underwear, navy socks.

When dressed, he went into his four-year-old daughter Rose’s room. Tubes and monitors were attached to her, keeping her breathing. He spoke to her, knowing that she too was on the borderland of sleeping and waking, but at this point in the disease’s progression, she would not become fully alert:

“Rose, I am just going for a little while. I will be back, I will be back, and when I am you will be better. I promise”

He went downstairs, opened his work briefcase, took out two envelopes—one addressed to Penelope, one to Rose—and left them on the hall table. He put on his brown slip-on shoes. He opened the front door, and stood a little back from the threshold for a minute or so. Perhaps he would need this time when he came back, perhaps he would come across himself waiting at the door with the door open, and this would allow him to slip in, do whatever needed to be done with Rose, and slip in beside Penelope. Then he left. He had parked round the corner when he had come home the evening before, knowing that Penelope would most likely be too preoccupied to notice and if she did, he would just say that he was trying to get a little bit more exercise. There had been far more erratic behaviour than that on both their parts recently. He drove to the university and parked in an asphalt car park near the back of the School of Experimental and Theoretical Physics, rather than near the School of Business where he lectured. He got out of his car, and shook hands with a bearded, burly, short man. They walked, in the gathering dawn, to the back of the Physics building.

Five hours later, in 2090, he was sitting with Rose and the grandson of the man who shook his hand that morning. Suddenly, Brendan heard his own voice cheerily announce “Rosie-Posie, time for your medicine”. He turned, and saw a contraption consisting of the top half of a teddy bear on wheels rolling towards him.

“It has your voice, Daddy.” Rosie said. “We had video files of your voice. All my robot companions had your voice, when I was a child, and then in my teens, and now here I am an old woman, with a companion robot with my daddy’s voice.”

“It looks like you’ve got a friend with you today, Rosie? What is your name?” Brendan heard his own voice, the voice—friendly, jolly in an understated, unforceful way—of the days before Rosie’s diagnosis. “I am daddy,” he blurted out.

“Really? Whose daddy?”

“Rosie’s. Rosie has had me for seventy-four years.”

“Really? Really?” Brendan wondered how the artificial intelligence routines that presumably lay behind the robot companion’s bonhomie were handling this.

It repeated in Brendan’s voice “Really?” in the exact same intonation. Suddenly a little red light flashed on the side of its head, and the thing stopped, frozen.

“You’ve ruined it!” Again she was a four–year-old, with the icy clarity to her voice that was the familiar build up to an explosive tantrum. “You’ve ruined it! I could talk to him, and it was like you never went away. Well, for a short time I could believe it, but I really could believe it for that time. And now you’ve ruined it, and I’ll never believe it again.”

“But I’m here now—is this thing broken?”

“That red light means that something stumped the nets. That hardly ever happens. The nets are as good if not better than a person at knowing what someone is talking about. It sent a file back to the manufacturers. They’ll come and take it away.”

“But how can you be angry. I’m here now, the real thing. You don’t need a robot to have my voice.”

“Don’t you tell me what I should feel. You left, out into nowhere, you left that stupid letter I got after Mum died. It didn’t help. At least the robot didn’t leave.”

“I’m sorry,” he began, with tears forming. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” This last “sorry” was said with a suddenly explosion of rage, and suddenly an angry torrent of words emerged: “I’m sorry for travelling through time and leaving everything behind to save your life, to save your life, and you would rather have a little bloody robot than me.”

She had calmed, and now looked at him with another familiar expression from her childhood, an expression of infinite patience and gravity. “Of course I would rather have you, but you have to remember you have been a dim memory for all these years. The first memory I have… holding your hand on a beach while eating ice cream, on a blindingly sunny day. I asked Mum about it before she died, and she said that we never went on a beach holiday. Yet I remember it, as clear as I remember opening that door and seeing you there an hour ago.”

“I see.” He sat, any anger gone. “At least with the companions you had something definite.”

“Yes. Yes. Daddy, daddy, I’m sorry.”

“No, I should be sorry. I’m the sorry one. You see… they said you were going to die. It wasn’t weeks, but days.”

“I felt such a hole in my soul all those years. As if part of me had been cut out.”

“Do you remember being sick?”

“I was in and out for years. Of course I remember but not really the specifics. I remember vividly enough some of the times they thought I was going to die, but as I got older it was just a sort of irritating backdrop.“

“What happened? How did you get better? They kept telling us not to hope. They kept telling us—”

“Mum always said that it just happened. I didn’t die. They thought I would die for years and years, until I was almost ten. But I didn’t die. I just got better. I think I was kind of famous. Granny used to say it was her novenas.