Most things are either good or bad, but dreams, with fearful symmetry, manage to be both good and bad. Just about everyone has had good and bad ones, and since about a third of our days is spent on dream-producing sleep, dreams are worth a bit of scrutiny.
I wonder whether many can claim, as my wife does, waking up with total oblivion of having dreamt anything. That would seem to reduce such a large part of life to something rather wasteful. Couldn’t we just lie in bed or in a hammock and harbor pleasant daydreams for a couple of hours? Couldn’t reverie replace dream?
To be sure, we dream at our risk. Seldom are we more jubilant than when we wake up from a truly nasty nightmare. This could be anything from being stuck in some unknown, threatening part of town with the way home lost, to a devilishly unpleasant situation incurred by having done or said something unpardonable.
On the other hand, how depressing to wake up from winning a coveted prize, having enjoyed perfect sex, or accomplishing some other resounding success, to mere indifferent reality. It’s almost as bad as losing one’s wallet.
I doubt whether many of us share Hamlet’s fear of bad dreams tormenting us after our demise; compared to global warming, hellfire seems like much less of a menace. A more serious problem may be what’s implied in the epigraph to Yeats’s 1914 collection of poems, “In Dreams Begins Responsibility.” Aside from anything else, this was responsible for an entire collection of Delmore Schwartz’s poems, with a slight variant of that for title.
Responsibility to what or to whom? Yeats attributes the saying to an “Old Play.” But as a note to the putatively definitive edition of Yeats’s works (Macmillan, 1989) has it, “The source . . . has not yet been traced: it may well have been written by Yeats, possibly with the assistance of Ezra Pound.” If no source could be found in 75 years, it stands to reason that there is none. I fully believe that it is the concoction of those young tricksters Willy and Ez, and that the chief responsibility for, if not to it, is the Freudian id, even if Freud himself has become suspect nowadays.
Artists, in a roundabout way, are responsible to dreams. None more so than the lusty Renaissance friar Francesco Colonna, the more than likely author of that wonderful incunabulum Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, published in 1499 by the great Venetian house of Aldus Manutius. An article in the Times of May 26, 2004, by Dinitia Smith, begins, “It has been called the most beautiful book in the world, and the most unreadable. Its hero has sex with buildings. It also has a nearly unpronounceable title . . . [which] can be translated as ‘the struggle for love in a dream.’” Or, alternatively, “the strife of love in a dream.” There are about 260 copies in existence, one of them in the Princeton library. Its very illustrations, 174 woodcuts, are an utter delight. But the text is a problem.
The entire long book is a dream, containing further dreams within dreams. It is the story of one Poliphilo, who dreams of his beloved, the nymph Polia, and journeys in constant search of the elusive one. Well, not entirely constant, for Poliphilo may be translated both as lover of Polia and lover of many. He adores fulsomely also architecture, sculptures, gardens, goldsmith’s works, inscriptions on tombstones, music, pageantry, ritual, and colorful fabrics (especially when worn by nymphs). As his modern English translator, the marvelously named Joscelyn Godwin, puts it, he is in love, above all, with Antiquity.
And what language! Greek, Latin, and Italian, with a sprinkling of Hebrew and Arabic. No wonder that the first complete English translation, by the valiant Godwin, did not appear until 1999. As exquisitely published (I own it) by Thames & Hudson in smaller format than the original, it comes to 476 pages with all the illustrations, helpful appendices, plus ten excellent pages of introduction. Erotic as all get-out, but, alas, a mere dream.
A Times article of July 24, 2012, by Jennifer Schuessler, reports on a session at the Rare Books School of the University of Virginia, where bibliophiles shouted out in triumph, “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, 1499!” As the article tells us, if the school had a football team, that might be its rallying cry. Spectacular if hard reading, it ends with Poliphilo finally snatching Polia, only to wake up from a dream.
Dreams, to be sure, have been a paramount staple of literature, at the very least since Moses in the bible. They figure prominently in the fictions of ancient Greece and Rome, and have gone on and on ever since. One of my favorites is Arthur Schnitzler’s 1931 Traumnovelle (Dream Novella), which begat Stanley Kubrick’s unfortunate Eyes Wide Shut.
In English fiction, early examples are Langland’s Piers Plowman (boring as hell) and several delightful works by Chaucer, who derived some of them from the 13th-century French Roman de la Rose, a part of which he translated. J. A. Cuddon, in his invaluable Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, cites among major specimens Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Keats’s revised Hyperion, the Alice in Wonderland books, and remarks that Finnegans Wake “has also been taken as a kind of cosmic dream.”
On screen, dreams do not register notably—they blend in almost imperceptibly—but on stage they have an illustrious history. They are memorable as the dream ballets in various musicals, notably Agnes De Mille’s for Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Albertina Rasch’s for Kurt Weill’s Lady in the Dark. But they also score heavily in plays by James Barrie (especially Dear Brutus) and Philip Barry (Hotel Universe).
However, I am not trying to write a history or catalogue raisonné of onstage dreams. And I don’t want to peddle mine, for nothing is more boring than one’s dreams to other people. But let me, against my better judgment, relate one of my own.
A friend and his date join me on a visit to the New York Times. I am trying to sell an article to my editor there, David Kelly. It is about the Sokols, the Slavic version of Boy Scouts. They have a spiffy uniform and (who wouldn’t want it?) a feather in their caps. Sokol means falcon, and one of Janáček’s most wonderful works, the Sinfonietta, was composed for the Czech Sokols.
I have my canny friend with me to help effectuate the sale of what I have titled “Czeducation,” and we approach the Times modestly through the basement. We there pick up as guide a very young editor or perhaps intern, unkempt and pimply. We ascend to a kind of antechamber whose steep, towering walls suggest an expressionist drama with scenery by Gordon Craig, where others too are waiting. There is a huge, Kafkaesque portal through which we glimpse only emptiness. No trace of Kelly or any other editor.
I take a few steps in, but return hastily, pointing out that I have not yet written a word of my article. I am not even sure that the Sokols still exist—perhaps the only one is our beloved comedienne Marilyn Sokol. Never mind; I can always try to sell the idea. But no; suddenly all of us are on a sort of fun-fair train, hurtling downward. We whoosh past another doorway to the Times, labeled quizzically—what?
I wake up trying vainly to recall that curious superscription. It puts me in mind of the frustrating last sentence of the Hypnerotomachia: “I awoke and emerged with a start from my dream, saying with a sigh: ‘Farewell, then, Polia.’”