Saturday, April 18, 2015

Why It's So Difficult to Write about Dreams

Many great works of literature have been inspired by dreams, or dream-like visions. Two of my favorites are Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan: or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment” and Gabriela Mistral’s “The Flower of Air,” (“La Flor de aire”) just to name a couple. There are great poems and works of prose that recount dreams, but in general, for me, most pieces of creative writing based closely on actual dreams fail to recreate the magic that the vision had for the writer. Why?
Self-portrait collage by André Breton
I’ll give you an example. A couple of nights ago I went to sleep with the thought on my mind that I wanted to write something about dreams. I had a long and often interrupted dream that I kept returning to, a dream that concerned writing. There was a phrase that I and the other characters in the dream kept repeating: “Kicking the wall so hard, the paint falls.” I remember someone, maybe me, actually kicking a door in the dream, and chips of red paint breaking off of it. This phrase and action were supposed to summarize in a nutshell all the great teachings of an important literary figure, someone who was my mentor in the dream.

Well, I don’t think you’ll be surprised that when I woke up, that phrase turned out not to be as profound or as earth shattering as it seemed in my dream. In fact, it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense. It has something to do with anger—the kicking—and anger as a force for change, or at least for damaging the status quo.

The difficulty in conveying the depth and urgency of a dream to a reader is that the dream seems to supply its own depth and saturated color. When the dreamer recounts the action and tries to depict that aura for a reader, it rarely has quite the same profundity or significance. It’s like having a conversation where one person has the light behind him, and sees the other person in all dimensions and in full color, while the other person is looking into the light, and sees only a vague outline of the person she is talking to. The dreamer sees the dream clearly, with all its perspective and vibrancy, while the reader only sees a silhouette and is irritated at having to try to make out all the obscure details.

There are times when dreams can be the basis of good literature, but this sometimes works best when the writer is aware that dreams are notoriously unreliable in their claims of depth. I’m thinking, for instance, of the surrealist André Breton’s prose poems entitled “Five Dreams” from his book Earthlight, which I co-translated with Bill Zavatsky. Even though Breton was one of the first writers to offer a blow-by-blow description of his dreams as literature, he seemed to know intuitively that dreams were by nature best recounted with a grain of salt. Here’s an excerpt from the fourth of his “Five Dreams”:

A part of my morning had been spent conjugating a new tense of the verb to be—because a new tense of the verb to be had just been invented. In the course of the afternoon I had written an article that, as far as I can remember, I found shallow but fairly brilliant. A little later I went back to work on a novel I was writing. This last enterprise had led me to do some research in my library. This soon led to the discovery of a work in octavo, composed of several volumes, that I didn’t know I owned. I opened one of them at random. The book claimed to be a philosophical treatise, but in one section, instead of Logic or Ethics, the heading read: Enigmatic. The text completely escapes me, I have only the memory of illustrations invariably rep­resenting an eccle­siastical or mythological character in the middle of an immense waxed room that looked like the Apollo Gallery [in the Versailles Palace].”

Breton is recounting a dream that almost has the quality of a revelation: he discovers a new tense of the verb to be and a mysterious lost treatise on philosophy. But he still is not willing to make any claim of profundity for his revelations—he finds his own article “shallow but fairly brilliant.” And the new volume of philosophy is called, fittingly, Enigmatic, and offers not universal pronouncements but only strange illustrations. The truths we come upon in dreams may be lightning bolts, Breton seems to be saying, but appreciate the irony and humor in the reality that the more they claim to be extremely profound, the more they give us mostly puzzles.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

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