The Dream as Gift and the Gift of the Dream: Reading Banville’s Fiction and the Dream
My word I poured. But was it cognate, scored
Of that tribunal monarch of the air
Whose thigh embronzes earth, strikes crystal Word
In wounds pledged once to hope - cleft to despair?
Hart Crane, ‘The Broken Tower’
If artworks are answers to their own questions, they themselves thereby truly become questions … without what is heterogeneous to it, its autonomy eludes it.
Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory
In his famous exegesis on Sophocles’ Antigone found in his 1935 lecture course Introduction to Metaphysics, the philosopher Martin Heidegger defines the human being as the most uncanny being because he is not at home in its own essence. Thrust out of all conventional and comfortable relations with Being due to a compulsive orientation towards otherness and restless sojourning, the human being founds his essential dwelling through interpretive acts in which nothing is settled and everything is risked. To find (which is in this sense, to ground) ourselves in texts would thus be to break into them with force, a force which is linked both to tangible violence and a certain decision to read and upon which reading is founded. If Walter Benjamin probes how violence and the law are inextricably linked in an essential economy, Banville’s texts continually explore how the law of reading is inseparable from violent openings into the lives of others: Max Morden’s attempts to recover his past expose the irrecoverable trauma on which it is based, and Cass Cleave’s doomed project to understand Axel Vander precipitates interminable alienation and ultimately, death.
It seems thus that a certain form of necessary violence is associated with the eruption of the significance of the dream, and the text, into the fabric of reality. Banville’s vocabulary resonates with force which seems to spring from an unsettlingly obscure source – ‘dragged’, ‘flood back’, ‘wandering in the wild wood’. The writer is left truly unhomely by the dream, for everything arrives as if ‘freighted with a mysterious weight’, exchanging the shallow solidity of reality for the uncanny certainty of the imaginary. It is no coincidence that Banville cites Kafka, for Kafka’s protagonists suffer the unfolding of the atmosphere of inexorable illogicality which characterizes the dream in all its frightening potency.
But what if the violent manifestation of the dream signals the arrival of a gift, a gift from the absolute Other? Banville seems to allow this strange perspective to emerge when he calls for a ‘preservation’ of the dream which is at the heart of the creative endeavour. Here, I follow Derrida’s logic of the genuine gift which disrupts the economy of reciprocity and representation by arriving from an absolutely foreign source – the self made uncanny – and shattering all attempts to integrate it into a system of symbolic exchange. The novelist’s aim is to allow readers to ‘have the dream’, to present the dream by making it a present, a gift which is entrusted into the collective imaginations of all who have been called to preserve it in the best way possible.
The presentation of the gift then raises the question of responsibility: How can we be responsible for the gift? How does the arrival of the gift which is the text call us into responsibility? If the writer makes of the text a true gift, then he must entrust it into the minds of readers who ‘find’ themselves in it by making genuine interpretive decisions on how to read. As Derrida has written, if a responsible decision cannot be based on any pre-established political, cultural or hermeneutic code, then the reception of the gift of the dream/text necessitates an irresponsibility of response, one which stays true to the text only by betraying it. By a strange logic, to find oneself authentically in the dream, to have the dream, means doing violence upon it. This is the dream’s uncompromising demand with respect to the novelist, and the text’s incessant onus on the reader.
It is perhaps in this light that The Banville Project resounds with great import. By making of his text a gift, Banville entrusts his writing to the (ir)responsible response which every reader must involve himself in. Translation makes this paradoxical dynamic clearest, for every translation is always already an interpretation which claims its resemblance to the original only by recognizing its fundamental dissonance from the source, an affirmation by way of a disavowal. By this, translation uncovers what is fundamental to the experience of reading, which is the receiving of the gift. There is then perhaps no more fitting response to the gift by making the translations themselves gifts to be presented back to Banville himself, incarnating once again the uncanny logic of the unpresentable present, the gift which is best received in a spirit of ingratitude which nevertheless opens up the gift by making it readable and presentable, forming the conditions for any sort of (literary) reception and dissemination.