This text was part of an address delivered at the Creative Writing Program of the University of Philadelphia, September 2005.
Fiction and the Dream John Banville
A man wakes in the morning, feeling light-headed, even somewhat dazed. Standing in the curtained gloom in his pyjamas, blinking, he feels that somehow he is not his real, vital, fully conscious self. It is as if that other, alert version of him is still in bed, and that what has got up is a sort of shadow-self, tremulous, two-dimensional. What is the matter? Is he “coming down with something”? He does seem a little feverish. But no, he decides, what is afflicting him is no physical malady. There is, rather, something the matter with his mind. His brain feels heavy, and as if it were a size too large for his skull. Then, suddenly, in a rush, he remembers the dream.
It was one of those dreams that seem to take the entire night to be dreamt. All of him was involved in it, his unconscious, his subconscious, his memory, his imagination; even his physical self seemed thrown into the effort. The details of the dream flood back, uncanny, absurd, terrifying, and all freighted with a mysterious weight—such a weight, it seems, as is carried by only the most profound experiences of life, of waking life, that is. And indeed, all of his life, all of the essentials of his life, were somehow there, in the dream, folded tight, like the petals of a rosebud. Some great truth has been revealed to him, in a code he knows he will not be able to crack. But cracking the code is not important, is not necessary; in fact, as in a work of art, the code itself is the meaning.
He puts on his dressing gown and his slippers and goes downstairs. Everything around him looks strange. Has his wife’s eyes developed overnight that slight imbalance, the right one a fraction lower than the left, or is it something he has never noticed before? The cat in its corner watches him out of an eerie stillness. Sounds enter from the street, familiar and at the same time mysterious. The dream is infecting his waking world.
He begins to tell his wife about the dream, feeling a little bashful, for he knows how silly the dreamed events will sound. His wife listens, nodding distractedly. He tries to give his words something of the weight that there was in the dream. He is coming to the crux of the thing, the moment when his dreaming self woke in the midst of the dark wood, among the murmuring voices. Suddenly his wife opens her mouth wide—is she going to beg him to stop, is she going to cry out that she finds what he is telling her too terrifying?—is she going to scream? No: she yawns, mightily, with little inward gasps, the hinges of her jaws cracking, and finishes with a long, shivery sigh, and asks if he would like to finish what is left of the scrambled egg.
The dreamer droops, dejected. He has offered something precious and it has been spurned. How can she not feel the significance of the things he has been describing to her? How can she not see the bare trees and the darkened air, the memory of which is darkening the very air around them now—how can she not hear the murmurous voices, as he heard them? He trudges back upstairs to get himself ready for another, ordinary, day. The momentous revelations of the night begin to recede. It was just a dream, after all.
But what if, instead of accepting the simple fact that our most chaotic, our most exciting, our most significant dreams are nothing but boring to others, even our significant others—what if he said to his wife, All right, I’ll show you! I’ll sit down and write out the dream in such an intense and compelling formulation that when you read it you, too, will have the dream; you, too, will find yourself wandering in the wild wood at nightfall; you, too, will hear the dream voices telling you your own most secret secrets.
I can think of no better analogy than this for the process of writing a novel. The novelist’s aim is to make the reader have the dream—not just to read about it, but actually to experience it: to have the dream; to write the novel.
Now, these are dangerous assertions. In this post-religious age—and the fundamentalists, Christian, Muslim and other, only attest to the fact that ours is an age after religion—people are looking about in some desperation for a new priesthood. And there is something about the artist in general and the writer in particular which seems priest-like: the unceasing commitment to an etherial faith, the mixture of arrogance and humility, the daily devotions, the confessional readiness to attend the foibles and fears of the laity. The writer goes into a room, the inviolable domestic holy of holies—the study—and remains there alone for hour after hour in eerie silence. With what deities does he commune, in there, what rituals does he enact? Surely he knows something that others, the uninitiates, do not; surely he is privy to a wisdom far beyond theirs.
These are delusions, of course. The artist, the writer, knows no more about the great matters of life and the spirit than anyone else—indeed, he probably knows less. This is the paradox. As Henry James has it, we work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have, the rest is the madness of art. And Kafka, with a sad laugh, adds: The artist is the man who has nothing to say.
The writer is not a priest, not a shaman, not a holy dreamer. Yet his work is dragged up out of that darksome well where the essential self cowers, in fear of the light.
I have no grand psychological theory of creativity. I do not pretend to know how the mind, consciously or otherwise, processes the base metal of quotidian life into the gold of art. Even if I could find out, I would not want to. Certain things should not be investigated.
The dream world is a strange place. Everything there is at once real and unreal. The most trivial or ridiculous things can seem to carry a tremendous significance, a significance which—and here I agree with Freud—the waking mind would never dare to suggest or acknowledge. In dreams the mind speaks its truths through the medium of a fabulous nonsense. So, I think, does the novel.
The writing of fiction is far more than the telling of stories. It is an ancient, an elemental, urge which springs, like the dream, from a desperate imperative to encode and preserve things that are buried in us deep beyond words. This is its significance, its danger and its glory.
Na‘e ‘ā hake ha tangata ‘i he pongipongi′, ‘oku ne ongo‘i fakaoli‘ia, ‘o hangē ‘oku meimei hēhētu‘u ‘a ‘ene fakakaukau′. Na‘e tu‘u talausese mohe pē, mo e lolo mai ‘a ‘ene ongo‘i fakaumiuminoa, petepete hono mata′, he ‘oku′ ne ongo‘i ‘oku ‘ikai ke ngali mo‘oni nai pē fu‘u mahu‘inga ‘ene mo‘ui′ pē ‘oku ‘ā lelei ko ā. ‘Oku hangē ko hono ‘īmisi ‘e taha′ ‘oku kei ‘i mohenga pē, pea ko ia ‘oku tu‘u ki ‘olunga′ ko hono ‘ata pē ia ‘o‘ona, tetetete, mo ‘ata ua. Ko e hā ē me‘a ‘oku hoko? Me‘a ni′ “‘oku ‘i ai ha fa‘ahinga me‘a ‘oku hoko”? Hangē pē ‘oku ki‘i mofimofi′. Ka na‘a′ ne pēhē ‘oku ‘ikai, ko e me‘a eni ‘oku hoko ki ai′ ‘oku ‘ikai ko ha mahaki fakasino ia. Kā, ko hā me‘a ‘oku hoko ki hono ‘atamai′. Ko hono ‘ulu′ ‘oku′ ne ongo‘i mamafa, ‘o hangehangē ‘oku fu‘ulahi hono ‘uto′ ‘i hono nge‘esi ‘ulu′. ‘Ohovale pē, kuo′ ne manatu‘i ‘a ‘ene misi′.
Ko e taha ‘o e ngaahi misi ko eni′ ‘oku hangē ko ē na‘e hoko pē ia ‘i he poo′ kotoa. Ko hono kotoa′ na‘e kau kotoa ‘i he‘ene misi′; hono konisenisi′, tangata-‘i-loto′, ‘e ne manatu′, ‘ene fakalaulau loto′, pea a‘u ki hono sino fakamatelie′ na‘e kau mo ia ki ai. Ko e ngaahi fakaikiiki kotoa ‘o ‘ene misi′ na‘e foki kotoa mai ki he‘ene manatu′, longolongo fa‘ahikehe, ngali vale, fakailifia, pea na‘a nau ‘omai ‘a e fo‘i mo‘oni‘ime‘a māfatukituki fakamisiteli ‘aupito – na‘e fu‘u mamafa, ‘o hangē ia ‘oku′ ne fua mai ‘e ia ‘a e ngaahi a‘usia tautakele ‘o e mo‘ui′, ‘o e mo‘ui totonu′. Pea ko e mo‘oni ‘aupito eni, ko ‘ene mo‘ui′ kotoa, ngaahi me‘a tefito kotoa ‘i he‘ene mo‘ui′, na‘e ‘i ai kotoa, ‘i he misi′, māmālie mo fakapatonu ‘a ‘ene hā mai′, hangē hā moto‘i lose ‘oku′ ne matala mai′. Na‘e fakahā mai ai ‘a e ngaahi mo‘oni‘i me‘a′ kiate ia, ‘i ha fa‘ahinga lao fakapulipuli he ‘ikai pē ke′ ne lava ‘e ia ‘o fakahā mai pē fakamatala‘i, ka ‘oku ‘ikai ko hono fakamatala‘i′ ‘oku mahu‘inga′ pē fiema‘u′; ko hono mo‘oni′, hangē ko e ngāue ‘i he mala‘e ‘o e aati′, ko e lao fakapulipuli′ ko hono ‘uhinga′ pē ia.
Na‘a′ ne tui hono kofu mohe′ mo hono silipa′ pea′ ne fononga hifo ki he fungavaka ‘i lalo′. Ko e ngaahi me‘a kotoa pē ‘i hono ‘atakai′ na‘e ngali kehe ‘aupito. Ko e mata ‘o hono uaifi′ na‘e fokifā pē ‘a ‘ene liliu ‘i he pō ko ia′ he ko eni ‘oku hangē ia ‘oku ki‘i ta‘e palanisi′, ko e mata to‘omata‘ū ‘oku hangē ‘oku ki‘i tō ia ki lalo mei hono mata to‘ohema′, pē na‘e pēhē pē ia ka na‘e ‘ikai ke′ ne fakatokanga‘i ‘e ia? Ko e pusi′ ‘i hono tuliki′ ‘oku′ ne sio fakalongomate mai ia hangē hā fa‘ahikehe′. Ko e ngaahi ongo mei′ he hala pule‘anga′ ‘oku anga maheni pē ia kā ‘i he taimi ko eni′ ‘oku hangē ia hā misiteli′. Ko e misi′ ‘oku′ ne ulufia ‘a hono māmani mo‘oni′.
Na‘e kamata ke talanoa ki hono uaifi′ ‘a ‘ene misi′, mo ‘ene ongo‘i papae pē, he ‘oku′ ne ‘ilo ‘a e ngali vale ‘a e ngaahi me‘a na‘e hoko he‘ene misi′. Na‘e fanongo pē hono uaifi′, mo kamokamo mātu‘aki tokanga ‘aupito. Na‘a′ ne feinga lahi ke fakahifo lelei ‘ene ngaahi lea′ ke mamafa tatau pē mo e ngaahi me‘a ‘i he‘ene misi′. Na‘e a‘u mai ki he tefito ‘o e me‘a′, ki he momeniti na‘e ofo ai ‘a hono ‘atamai ‘āvea′ ‘i he lotolotonga ‘o e fu‘u vaotā fakapo‘uli′, mo e ngaahi le‘o ‘oku mumuhu mai′. Fokifā pē kuo fakamanga lahi mai ‘a hono uaifi′ – ‘e kole mai nai ke tuku ā ‘a ‘eku talanoa′, ‘e kaila mai nai ko ‘eku talanoa′ ‘oku fu‘u fakamanavahē ‘aupito? – ‘e kaikaila nai? ‘Ikai: na‘e mamao lahi ‘aupito pē, mo ‘ene ki‘i manava tāmaki, na‘e ngai‘i hono kaungao′, pea faka‘osi ‘aki ‘a ‘ene fu‘u māpuhoi faka‘aulolongo, pea mo ‘ene ‘eke mai pē ‘e sai pē ke u faka‘osi ‘a e toenga fakapaku fua‘imoa′.
Ko e fu‘u tangata ‘avea′ na‘e mapelu hifo mo e loto mafasia mo‘oni. Na‘a′ ne tukumai hā fa‘ahinga me‘a mahu‘inga ka na‘e fakasīkaka‘i pē ia. Ko e hā nai ‘oku ‘ikai ai ongo‘i ‘e hono uaifi′ ‘a e mahu‘inga ‘o e ngaahi me‘a na‘a′ ne fakamatala ange ki ai′. Ko e hā nai ‘oku ‘ikai ai ke lava ‘o sio ki he ngaahi fu‘u ‘akau ‘ikai hano lau′ pea mo e fakapōpō‘uli ‘a e ‘ea′, pea mo fakakaukau ki he fakapo‘uli tu‘u ‘oku′ na lolotonga ‘i ai′ – ko e hā ‘oku ‘ikai ke fanongo ai ki he mumuhu ‘a e ngaahi le‘o′, tatau mo ‘ene fanongo ki ai? Na‘e nga‘atu atu leva ki he fungavaka ‘i ‘olunga′ ke teuteu ki ha to e ‘aho angamaheni pē. Ko e ngaahi fakahā mahu‘inga ‘o e poo′ kuo kamata ke mātangalo atu. Tā ko ā ko e misi pē ia.
Fēfē kapau na‘e, tukunoa‘i pē ‘a e ngaahi mo‘oni‘i me‘a ta‘emaau taha′, fiefia taupotutaha′, mahu‘inga taupotutaha ‘i he‘etau ngaahi misi′, mo ‘ene fakapiko ki he kakai kehe′, pē ko e kakai mahu‘inga kehe′– fēfē kapau na‘e lea ange ki hono uaifi′, Sai, Te u fakahā atu kiate koe! Te u nofo hifo ‘o tohi ‘a ‘eku misi′ ‘i ha founga mātu‘aki vivili pea mo faka‘ai‘ai pea ‘i ha‘o lau ia′ te′ ke to e ma‘u pē ‘a ‘eku misi′; te′ ke to e kau mo ko e ‘i he fononga holo ‘i he vaotaa′ ‘i he po‘uli′. Te′ ke kau mo koe ‘i he fanongo ki he ngaahi le‘o ‘oku nau talaatu ‘a ho‘o ngaahi fakapulipuli ‘o e fakapulipuli′. ‘Oku ‘ikai ke u to e fakakaukau au ki ha fa‘ahinga me‘a ke fakatātā ki ai ‘a e founga ‘a hono tohi ‘o ha tohi talanoa. Ko e taumu‘a ‘a e tangata fa‘u tohi′ ke′ ne ‘ai ‘a e tangata lau tohi′ ke′ ne ma‘u ‘a e misi′ – ‘o ‘ikai ko ‘ene lau pē ‘o kau ki he me‘a ‘oku tohi′, ka ke′ ne mātu‘aki fononga‘ia ‘a e me‘a ‘oku hoko′: Ke′ ne ma‘u e misi′; ‘o tohi e talanoa′.
He taimi ni′, ko e ngaahi fakamatala fakatu‘utāmaki eni. ‘I he kuonga lotu ko eni′ – ‘a e kau taukave ‘o e tui ‘Otua tefito′, Kalisitiane′, Mosilemi′ mo hono toee′, ‘oku nau fakamo‘oni‘i ko ha‘atautolu′ ‘a e kuonga kimui mai he lotu′ – ko e kakai ‘oku tau fekumi vivili holo ki ha fa‘ahinga kalasi faifekau fo‘ou. Pea ‘oku ‘i ai ‘a e me‘a fekau‘aki pea mo e tokotaha aati′ tautautefito ki he tokotaha fa‘u tohi′ ‘oku hangē ‘oku to‘onga fakafaifekau′. Ko e ngāue faka‘utumauku ta‘e to e holomui ki he tui fakahēvani ko eni′, ko e fefiohi ‘o e ta‘emangoi′ pea mo e fakatōkilalo′, ko e faka‘utumauku faka‘aho′, ko e mateuteu ke kōfesio ki he ngaahi vaivai ‘anga′ mo e ilifia ki he kakai ‘oku ‘ikai kenau faifekau′. Ko e tangata fa‘u tohi′ ‘oku hū ia ki ha loki, ‘oku ta‘e ala maumau‘i ‘e ha mā‘oni‘oni ‘o e ngaahi mā‘oni‘oni ‘i māmani′ – ko hono loki ako′ – ‘o nofo heni ‘o laulau houa ‘i he fakailifia ‘o e longonoa′. Ka ko e ‘Otua fē ‘oku′ na fepotalaoa ‘aki ai? ko e hā e ouau ‘oku fakahoko? ‘Oku pau pē ‘oku′ ne ‘ilo hā me‘a ‘oku ‘ikai ke ‘ilo ia ‘e kinautolu ‘oku nau ‘osi fakanofo ki he ngaahi lākanga ko eni′; ‘oku pau pē ‘oku mēmipa ia ‘i ha fakataha ‘anga ‘o e ‘ilo′ ‘oku to e mā‘olunga ange ia ‘iate kinautolu.
Ko e ngaahi taki hala pē eni ia. Ko e tangata aati′, pē fa‘u tohi′ ‘oku ‘ikai ke to e lahi ange ‘ene ‘ilo′ ‘a‘ana ki he ngaahi me‘a fakaofo ‘o e mo‘ui′ pē laumālie′ – ‘Io, mahalo ‘e to e si‘i ange ‘e ne ‘ilo′ ‘a‘ana. Pea ko e lea eni ‘oku ngali vale kā ‘oku mo‘oni pē. Ko e lau ki ai ‘a Henelē Semisi, ‘oku tau ngāue ‘i he fakapo‘uli′, ‘oku tau fai pē ‘a e me‘a ‘oku tau lava′, ‘oku tau foaki ‘a e me‘a ‘oku tau ma‘u′, pea ko e toenga′ ko e to‘onga ta‘e to e ufi ia ‘a e aati′. Pea ko Kafka mo ‘ene katakata fakapetetangi′ mo tānaki mai: Ko e tokotaha aati′ ko e tokotaha ia ‘oku ‘ikai hā me‘a ia ke′ ne lea ‘aki.
Ko e tangata fa‘u tohi′ ‘oku ‘ikai ko hā faifekau, ‘ikai ko hā tangata fakangalingali, ‘ikai ko hā taha fakamisia mā‘oni‘oni. Ka e ‘osi′ ko ‘ene ngāue′ ‘oku fusi hake ia mei hā vaitupu fakapo‘uli ‘oku ‘i ai ‘a e ngaahi tefito‘i loto mālū‘ia, ‘oku nau ilifia ki he maama′.
‘Oku ‘ikai ha‘aku fa‘ahinga fakakaukau fakasaikolosia ‘a‘aku ki he lao ‘o e pōto‘i fa‘u′. He ‘ikai ke u fakangalingali au tokua ‘oku ou ‘ilo ki he anga ‘o e ‘atamai′, fakakonisenisi′ pe ko hā to e me‘a, ngaahi founga ‘o e tefito‘i metali koula ‘o e to‘onga mo‘ui angamaheni ki he aati′. Na‘a mo ha‘aku ‘ilo ia he ‘ikai pē ke u fie ‘ilo ia ‘e au. ‘Oku ‘i ai pē ngaahi me‘a ia ‘oku ‘ikai pē ke totonu ke fakatotolo‘i.
Ko e māmani ‘o e misi′ ko ha fa‘ahinga feitu‘u anga kehe ia. Ko e me‘a kotoa pē ai na‘e mo‘oni mo ta‘e mo‘oni. Ko ha kihi‘i me‘a, pē me‘a faifaikehe ‘oku hangē pē ia ‘oku ‘i ai hano fu‘u mafai mahu‘inga′, ‘o fu‘u mahu‘inga fē – pea ‘oku ou tui tatau au pea mo Freud – ko e ‘atamai ‘oku ‘āa′ he ‘ikai pē ke′ ne teitei fokotu‘u mai pē te′ ne fakamālō‘ia‘i ha me‘a. ‘I he misi′ ko e ‘atamai′ ‘oku′ ne lea‘aki e mo‘oni′ ‘i ha ngaahi founga launoa ‘oku ‘ikai ala tui ki ai ha taha. Pea ‘oku ou tui ‘oku pehē pē mo e tohi talanoa′.
Ko hono tohi ‘o e talanoa fa‘u′ ‘oku lakaange ia ‘i hono tala ‘o hā ngaahi talanoa. Ko e tau fatungamotu‘a ia ‘o e ‘elemeniti ‘oku mapuna hake hangē hā misi′ mei′ ha fa‘ahinga me‘a ‘oku fiema‘u vivili ke′ ne veteange ‘a e ngaahi me‘a ‘oku fakatolonga pē ‘oku tanu loloto ‘o ‘ikai ke fa‘a fakamatala ‘iate kitautolu′. Ko hono mahu‘inga′ ‘eni, mo hono fakatu‘utāmaki′ pea mo hono kolōlia′.