Britain's first book blogger (November 2000). This Space is now a major motion picture, or something.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Dreams we share

Without ever addressing it, I realise that, for a long time, the experience of dreams has preoccupied me. Not their events and narratives - which seem to be random variants of the same scenario - but the experience. The purity evoked in dreams unsettles me. One wakes reeling from the experience; an experience which soon drifts into insignificance yet also seems to contain the essence of all experience; the teleology of experience. What is the nature of this purity - truth or illusion? As dreams are, by definition, unreal, does this make the purity unreal?

In online searching for a means of forming these questions, I note that, among the new age guff and dry, disingenuous science, a translation of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams is available online. I suppose I ought to read it one day.

After I’d given up the search, I saw 43 Folder’s link to a long blog entry by Phillip J. Eby. In The Multiple Self, he uses a programming metaphor to discuss self and self-help. He offers "the ultimate answer, not to life, the universe, and everything, but the ultimate answer, I think, to the nature of the human condition: ‘You’ are not ‘yourself’ today. For that matter, you were not yourself yesterday, and you will not be tomorrow. You never have been, and never will be, because ‘you’ and ‘yourself’ are distinct neural subsystems which do not overlap."

Apart from unease with the programming jargon, which I don’t follow, and my suspicion that many cognitive science types don’t actually see it as a metaphor, the basic idea has the ring of truth. (Eby admits from the start that the ideas have been expressed before in many alternative forms.)

How this relates to dreams might be in that they are contained engagements with ‘you’ and ‘yourself’. They are pure because they are contained narratives dense with meaning; well, more than dense – they are made of meaning; everything is there for a reason. Meaning fills the dreamworld like sunlight, even when it is dark. Dreams are stories. And what Eby recommends in terms of self-help is, if I understand right, for a creative engagement between ‘you’ and ‘yourself’. As it happens, this is also my ideal in literature too. Stories are pure.

One writer who approaches the ideal is Aharon Appelfeld. His work is a raid on the inarticulate: “The palms of one’s hands, the soles of one’s feet, one’s back and one’s knees remember more than memory” he writes. This quotation comes from Theo Richmond’s perceptive review of Appelfeld new memoir The Story of a Life. Despite admiring the book, he worries about ‘curious gaps’. There is a lot of information missing from Appelfeld’s narrative. Perhaps this reveals that memoir isn’t his true form. He’s always resisted it before. Still, there are chapters that make up for frustrated nosiness. They are extremely moving. I’ve written about this book before, in the process suggesting a reason why they are so moving; more particularly why they are also unsettling. Like dreams, they are full not only of the past but of potential.

It’s a shame then that Appelfeld's novels have not received equal attention. For instance, why wasn’t the new Penguin Modern Classics edition of Badenheim 1939 reviewed too? It was published on the same day! It’s a negligence that tells us something about the British preoccupation with gossip. Take this feature on Vikram Seth. Always the nudge and wink about the private life of the writer. One senses they’d rather have a confessional book. Indeed each book is read as if in lieu of a confessional. Still, the occasional insight is allowed. Seth develops obsessions that drive him to write: “each of his books has come about because it could not not have been written. They announce themselves with an urgency to him that he cannot resist.”

This is how every book should be written. Any book not written with such urgency is worthless and contemptible. However, Seth’s novels haven’t attracted my interest because they merely discharge the obsession; they do not explore obsession (hence, perhaps, their prolix and conservative form). This is like telling the story of a dream by feigning sleep. Such denial frustrates me; just as genre fiction frustrates me; it is too intellectual. I shall have to come back to this.

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