Jonas Ellerström (b. 1958) is a Swedish poet, essayist, translator and publisher. He has among other books translated T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and James Joyce’s Epiphanies, as well as individual poems by John F Deane, Seamus Heaney, Brendan Kennelly, Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon.
It seems almost taken for granted that a dream someone tells you should be a very boring thing indeed. Though as with so many other received wisdoms, it is never explained why this should be the case. It goes against the experience of every dreamer of vivid dreams—all of us know that a dream can be the most unsettling, revelatory and life-changing thing imaginable. How come our excitement does not carry over to the listeners, when we try and tell them what we have been through?
Unlike the protagonist in the first part of John Banville’s excellent short text “Fiction and the Dream”, I very rarely try to tell anyone my dreams. It is not because I have tried and failed, like the nameless man in the text, who has a recent experience that has temporarily turned his world upside down. I have not been disappointed by yawning family members and loved ones at the breakfast table. I have felt the contents and the strange significance of a dream slip from my consciousness, as everyone has, but that is another thing.
I have developed a special technique for preserving dreams, once again like so many others. Emanuel Swedenborg and Gérard de Nerval would have had pen, ink and paper ready beside their beds; William S Burroughs and David Bowie used tape-recorders. I might use my cell phone as a dictating machine, if I did not care so much about the person sleeping next to me. How could I risk waking her up to find that I am telling an LCD screen what I do not tell her?
Instead, I employ small memory tricks of my own. Very simple ones: repeat some key words, one for each scene of the dream, over and over. Try to get to the computer in the morning. Wait until the afternoon and all might be lost, or if not lost, then without its allure, without its horror or its pleasure.
Why then is it important to me to write my dreams down when I do not dare tell the one closest to me about them? (I do, sometimes, when I have slept really badly or moaned and cried in my sleep—then I cannot refuse her urgent pleas that I try to get rid of what is tormenting me by bringing it out in the morning light.) The answer is, simply, that my dreams obviously are a part of me, and even if they to a frighteningly large extent are nightmares I want to get to know them to know myself. At the same time, I have a vague feeling that the dream-space might be the part of me where I have most in common with my fellow humans.
Deep sleep, when the body is motionless, could seem to be an isolated state, the human being functioning like Leibniz’s philosophical concept of the monad: thoughts and feelings existing solely within an impregnable personal sphere. The idea of the monad came to frighten T.S. Eliot, who wrote his Oxford thesis on Leibniz disciple F.H. Bradley. “Speak to me. Why do you never speak?” one of the married couple’s voices complain in The Waste Land. I should be scared as well, but I will at least not keep my dreams a secret for much longer. They will form a book, which will be my attempt to tell my dreams in a way that will preserve their magic, their horror and their beauty.
Banville claims not to know “how the mind, consciously or otherwise, processes the base metal of quotidian life into the gold of art”. I do not think that a writer of his skill and experience would be coy about such a fundamental thing—but I do think that he knows what the means are, what tool to use. Language, of course. This is not as trivial as it sounds: to relate a story is one thing, to write fiction is quite another. Your way of telling a story has to match the qualities of the story, its shifting moods and half-hidden meanings as well as its string of incidents.
This is probably where the man wanting to relate his profound dream experience to his wife fails. He wants to tell the story, and it comes out as dull as a schoolboy’s “What I did on my holiday”. He should have told the story first to himself, and then he could have retold it not just to his wife but for an audience of strangers, many of whom would have been able to engage with the story, to make it their own, to have that dream themselves. What we call recognizing ourselves in a work of fiction is a lot more like re-creating that work: to live the text, to, as Banville puts it, write the novel.
Every reader a writer, then? Yes, in the best of cases. But there is one element that will be unique to each first writer, each originator of a story, a novel or a poem. That is the act of preservation, of rescuing the images of dreams or the imagination from their fleeting existence and, to use Banville’s term, encoding them in text.
The notebook and the pencil may still be as important to the author as the computer, and it is of no importance if they get replaced by the cell phone. But once again, the diligent and truthful preservation of dreams do not guarantee that they will work within fiction, that they will acquire a life of their own for the reader.
We may bore our audience stiff through the simple over-zealousness of trying to rescue every detail of the dream. Selecting episodes or incidents is probably more important. While James Joyce was still primarily a decidedly un-original young poet, he wrote down scenes from everyday life, conversations overheard and not least his own dreams under the heading ”Epiphanies”. The dream scenes never purport to be complete dreams, and Joyce, showing a lot more maturity here, does not attempt to explain them or to stress their symbolic significance.
Still, they are revelations, shafts of light illuminating the outer and inner world (the Greek epipháneia meaning to show forth, to manifest). Joyce used what he had salvaged from his dreams in his coming prose works, and Banville is certainly a writer to whom the epiphany concept has proved inspirational and fruitful. Here is a lesson and a path to follow: trust that what is as deeply personal as a dream can, through the force of language, become universal.