Saturday, July 21, 2018

Weekend Challenge: A Little Night Music

Woodcut from Hypnerotomachia Poliphia, 1499 AD

For this challenge, let's write on dark water. Dream a little dream with me!

Dream and poem paired like winding code—one replicates the other's sense in a manner they both share but oddly, askant. Poetic truth is what we strain to recall inside a dream's mysterium, that glint and welcome of the deep drying fast upon our morning pillow.

How well do you know your dreams? An entire wing of the human library is thick with both exploration and explanation. At the far end of the Lascaux paleolithic cave, a bird-headed man swoons at the foot of a speared bison; shamans were chosen by their dreams and then painted the teeming underworld of them at the bottom of time.

The "bird-man" of Lascaux, ca. 20,000 BCE

An Egyptian book of dreams is recorded papyrus in the reign of Remeses II (around 1270 BC), with the dreams categorized as auspicious or not (those were writ in red). If a man saw himself in a dream burying an old man, it was good, meaning prosperity; but if a man saw himself in a dream making love to a woman, it was bad, meaning mourning. Temples open to all were established as dream incubators where votives purified themselves and then slept overnight, hoping for instruction from their god.

In 270 AD Artemidorous of Daldis authored the Oneirocritica, an interpretive theory of dreams with a compilation of dreams as evidence. He pointed to Apollo as the purifier and explicator of dreams. Understanding dreams meant holding them up to the light of day, the way the priests of the Apollonian temple at Delphi interpreted the night-songs of the Sibyl.

Christianity has been untrusting of the dream, its night world a-seethe with peril. The oily depth of soul was disdained for the airier, heaven-bound spirit.  The verb "to dream" is absent from the New Testament, and hermit saints kept vigils through the night to prevent dreams from leading them astray.

Descartes separated mind from world with the simple formula "I think, therefore I am," dividing off the world from its god and beauty. What is knowable and apprehensible is what is "real": To the ghost-world of the dream, superstition, fable, olden times.

In the modern era, psychology gave us amazing inroads into the dream, but the approach has remained scientific and rational. To Freud, dreams were both a defense against reality and an escape from it, their deeper meaning locked behind the dreamer's angst.

There is also, however, a darker way to approach dreams, one affiliated more with Hermes than Apollo. As the way of dreams is murky, so too the mind. There are plenty of night-deities, and dreams can be properly half-lit with the couplings of Aphrodite, the witchroads of Hekate, nightmare panics of Pan.

William Blake, "The Triple Hekate," 1795 AD

The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus (c. 535 - 475 BC) said there is a place in the mind akin to a sea's infinite abyss: "You could not find the ends of the soul though you travelled every way, so deep is its logos." (Fr. 49). But why go deep? In another fragment (54), Heraclitus writes: "Invisible connection is stronger than visible." The darkness of the dream is far more durable than anything we can say we know of them.

In 1499 AD the Hypnerotomachia Poliphia by Francesco Colonna was printed in Venice, an elaborate allegory of love pursued through a dreamlike landscape. (Some say the only poem is a love poem; perhaps before that it was a dream poem.) The Hypnerotomachia is writ in a very odd hybrid language with Greek and Latin roots but including many words from Italian as well as Arabic and Hebrew. Carl Jung was an admirer of the book, believing the dream images in it presaged his theory of the archetypes. It's also one of the most beautiful books ever printed, with fabulous typography and exquisite woodcuts—a classic dream book.  (Jung's own Red Book is another masterpiece of dreamsoak, blending paintings, conversations in monastic script and rumination.)

Page 154 from Jung's Red Book

Artists throughout history have taken constant inspiration from dreams—the list includes Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, Man Ray's photos, Salvidor Dali's surrealist landscapes, Paul McCartney's song "Yesterday" and David Lynch's Blue Velvet. James Joyce's Finnegans Wake is probably the closes approximation of dream states in waking language. (Many have called it unreadable; it certainly is defiant of the linear page-turner.)

Poetry is the closest thing in language we have to dreaming. It has the technical apparatus for seeing in the dark, for listening to the edges, for singing with the wind. Take Shakespeare, from Midsummer Night's Dream:

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Today's challenge is to offer just such a "local habitation and a name" to a dream, to dreaming, to dreams. Pull a page from your dream-book and view it with the lens of poetry. Bring poetry and dreaming close together (or show us paradoxically how far apart they still are). Gaston Bachelard, who knew a thing or two about poetic reverie, once wrote: "By listening to certain words as a child listens to the sea in a seashell, a word dreamer hears the murmur of a world of dreams." Write a poem in the manner of a dream, or dream in the manner of a poem. Walk in the footsteps of dream and tell us not only just where you went but how and when and what that was like.

Keep in mind that your dream is particular to your innerscape and will probably range from incoherent to uninteresting to others—unless there is something poetry that can unlock the door and enervate the ghost.

Say you don't remember your dreams? What is that landscape like? (I quote Nietzsche:  "We have no dreams at all or interesting ones. We should learn to be awake the same way--not at all or in an interesting manner.)

Here's to airy nothings!

Alien heptapod logogram from the 2016 movie "Arrival"

PS I am indebted to James Hillman's essay "Apollo, Dream, Reality" for pointing to the hidden rail of this prompt.


Fireblossom said...

Love this challenge!

Kerry O'Connor said...

As you know, I have trouble sleeping, and when I do, I dream myself awake, so I found this a very interesting read.
Thanks for your attention to detail.

Sanaa Rizvi said...

Fantastic prompt, B! I wrote about a recurring dream one which sends me deep into thought. 💞

Outlawyer said...

Very cool promot, brendan. I dont know what i can do but will think about it.

Outlawyer said...

I meant prompt! On ipad.

Kim M. Russell said...

Just the prompt for me at the moment. I can fall asleep but I can't stay asleep. I'm forever leaping out of dreams and nightmares.

Vivian Zems said...

A beautiful prompt and some quality content you've written here, Brendan. Love it!

Rosemary Nissen-Wade said...

Timely! Happened I had a little dream poem worrying at me just now.

Margaret said...

Mine isn't very creative or artsy - I tried. But it is a true, recurring dream I've had about 5 times so far from childhood...

Marian said...

Love, love this prompt, Brendan. I often write about my dreams, and sleep badly, and dream weirdly, and scream in my sleep. Ha! Will try to pen something this week.

grapeling said...

B, a thought-provoking prompt. I have nothing for you, as I rarely dream, but nonetheless will come by to read as time permits. ~

Linda Lee Lyberg said...

Thanks for a great prompt Brendan!

Margaret said...

Sherry - not sure you will see this but I did't seem able to comment on your blog today. Unless the comments are saved for your approval but that would be something new for you...