John Banville’s “Fiction and the Dream” – a Comment
In ”Fiction and the Dream,” John Banville makes it clear that he does not presume to present a “grand psychological theory of creativity.” What he does instead, in depicting a light-headed man in the morning throes of a dream, is to think and feel his way through a liminal space between fiction, the dream, and the world. The dazed dreamer recalls that all of him was involved in dreaming this dream − “his subconscious, his memory, his imagination, even his physical self” − and reports that somehow the components of the dream are experiences of waking life, reshaped into uncanny, absurd, terrifying and compressed details, “folded tight like the petals of a rosebud.” If, as Banville’s text states, the writing of fiction is an ancient “urge which springs, like the dream, from a desperate imperative to encode and preserve things that are buried in us deep beyond words, then a need to share with others that which has been encoded and preserved is presumably embedded in that desperate imperative. Banville’s dreamer finds it difficult, though, to share the weightiness of his dream with his significant other – his wife proves a bored listener. There is a gap, then, between the dreamer’s experience and the world to which he wants to transfer the special reality of his dream.
In order to bridge the gap between the dream and the world, language is needed, but difficulties adhere to language. As Banville has stated earlier, in his introduction to Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s The Lord Chandos Letter, the gap that exists “between signified and signifier” opens a “vertiginous prospect.” The inescapable separateness of words from things is one thing, then, that widens the gap between dream and world.
The dreaming of a dream, John Banville suggests, is analogous to the writing of a novel and the dream is analogous to the novel. Both are strange places, if we believe Banville, here – as we do − “at once real and unreal” and both speak “truths through the medium of fabulous nonsense.” I should add, then, that my consideration of a gap between dream and world also pertains to the gap between fiction and the world. To my mind, Banville’s novel The Blue Guitar from 2015, speaks truths through fabulous nonsense about the gap between fiction and the world. Oliver Orme, the narrator of this novel, has a recurring dream of being a “giant snake trying to swallow the world and choking on it.” Orme is a painter who has lost his ability to paint, but he is also a thief. The dream of the snake, though, primarily masticates his painful experience of being unable to paint. Pondering the dream and his predicament, he thinks that, esthetically, his effort was never “to reproduce the world, or even to represent it.” What he tried to get at, in his art, was rather the essence of things, the thing itself. He has realized, though, that in trying to “strike through surfaces to get at the core,” he has overlooked the fact, as he sees it, that “it is in the surface that essence resides.” The world is resistant, however, and will not let him in. Despairing, he sees the problem of the gap between world and art as insurmountable – “the world without, the world within, and betwixt them the unbridgeable, the unleapable, chasm.”
What Oliver Orme finally thinks he must do, in order to try to bridge that unbridgeable gap and regain artistic energies, is to take the world in “in its entirety.” Swallow it like a boa constrictor, devour it, and reissue it, transformed. He wants to make it new, to make it over into something “vivid and vital, and essence be hanged.” Orme’s thinking takes a radical turn, here, as he regards his painting and his stealing as alike and somehow equal, in that, through processes of transformation and renewal, they transmute their materials. Thus, by stealing from a negligent or forgetful owner an object which has lost its patina, he restores it, makes it spring back to life. In painting, too, energies are restored and the tarnished silver of life is buffed up and returned to the world as a greater treasure.
Not only Orme, the narrator, addresses the gap between world and art in Banville’s The Blue Guitar, but so does the presence of Wallace Steven’s poem “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” which colors the novel’s title and provides Banville with an epitaph. The guitarist of the poem cannot “play things exactly as they are,” although his audience wants him to. He cannot convey, through his music, a picture of the world that is ‘real’ according to some criterion or other of realist representation. Played on the blue guitar of his artistic temperament, “Things as they are/ Are changed” in his music. Processed through his unique artist’s mode of registering the world, the external world is transformed. The ‘real’ slips away for the artist and will not let itself be pinned down − in music, in paint on canvas, or in words on paper. For Orme, that singular mode of perceiving the world is central. It is the only thing that is truly his own in his art and the thought that when he dies “there will be no one here to register the world in just the way that I do,” feels worse to him “even than the possible loss of self itself. So, Orme decides that what he needs to do is to take the world in – in swaths, as I see it – and transform and reissue it as art. Likewise the writer, who similarly and in a dream-like state perhaps – hallucinatory, Ricoeur might say − transmutes swaths of the world into fiction. Through fiction then, I think, the gap between world and art is partially bridged.
Finally, I want to say that I celebrate Banville’s point about the nature of fiction: the writer writes out his dream in such a way that the reader, too, “will have the dream.” Fiction is indeed something as rare as a means for one human being to dream another one’s dream. Not to be told that dream, nota bene, but to dream it.
Hedda-Friberg-Harnesk is Associate Professor (retired), Mid Sweden University, Sundsvall. She was the Coordinator of English Studies at the Department of Humanities. She holds a MAT from Brown University, Providence, RI, and a PhD from Uppsala University, Sweden. Her research interest is John Banville’s work and she has published extensively on that. She has co-edited the essay collections Recovering Memory: Irish Representations of Past and Present (2007) and Beyond Ireland: Encounters Across Cultures (2011). Her work has also been published in journals such as The Irish University Review and Nordic Irish Studies (NIS) and in the series Irish Studies in Europe. Her book, Reading John Banville through Jean Baudrillard, is forthcoming on Cambria Press.