Public Dreaming


Jahangir’s Dream, Abu’l Hasan, 1622

by Justin E. H. Smith

The Khazars are so resourceful that they have oysters breeding on trees. They take a tree by the sea, bend its branches into the water, and hold them down with a rock; within two years the branches become so heavy with oysters that by the third year they break loose from the rock and rise out of the water, bearing a splendid yield of tasty shellfish. The river that flows through the Khazar Empire has two names, because in the same riverbed half of its course runs from east to west, and the other half from west to east. The names of this river are the names of two Khazar calendar years, because the Khazars believe that passing through the four seasons are two years, not one, and that they move in opposite directions (like the Khazar’s river). Both years shuffle the days and seasons like cards, mixing winter days with spring, and summer days with autumn. Moreover, one of the two Khazar years flows from the future to the past, the other from the past to the future…

The Khazars believe that deep in the inky blackness of the Caspian Sea there is an eyeless fish that, like a clock, marks the only correct time of the universe. In the beginning, according to Khazar legend, all creation, the past and the future, all events and things, melted as they swam in the fiery river of time, former and subsequent beings mixing like soap and water. At the time, to the horror of others, every living thing could create any other living thing; it was not until the Khazar god of salt ruled that beings could give birth only to their own image that an end was put to their willfulness. He separated the past from the future, set up his throne in the present; he walks over the future and flies over the past to keep an eye on it. He creates the entire world out of himself, but he swallows and chews up whatever is old, spitting out a rejuvenated world (Milorad Pavić, Dictionary of the Khazars, 144-5).

The other night I had a dream. It was of a woman I know, whom I would like to keep anonymous. She is an academic, my-age-ish, and a prominent contributor to public debate in her home country. In the dream my mother, sister, and I had just moved into a house previously occupied by this woman’s family. I got her bedroom, and all the stuff in it. This is the sort of thing that would ordinarily make me very happy (both in reality and in dreams), but in the event it made me extremely anxious. I think I opened a metal box filled with cartridges of photographic slides. In a following scene I went to see this woman, who was not working as an academic, but instead in a Macy’s-like department store. “I inherited some of your stuff,” I said. “What do you mean?” she asked, seemingly frightened. And then I saw that she was dead, and she saw that I saw she was dead, and her face became like an x-ray, which terrified me enough to wake me up.

There is enough from my recent past to put together a typical causal history for this dream: I had just been visiting my sister’s family in the US, and during my visit they had moved into a big new house together, and I got my own ‘new’ bedroom for the week; on Facebook I had been reading my friend’s updates about her own Christmas visit to her own elderly parents in the countryside of the country from which she comes, and the reflections on their mortality, and on her own mortality, triggered by this visit. But this sort of explanation is generally offered, to friends or to oneself, as an explaining-away; the presumption here, as in Descartes’ Meditations and more or less everywhere else you look in our intellectual heritage, is that there could not possibly be anything truth-revealing about the dream itself. And I am not talking about oneiromancy or anything like that. I am suggesting that our understanding in our waking hours of what, say, death, or mortality, or the relationship between the living and the dead, in fact is, might have something to do with what we experience these to be while dreaming. Instead we have learned to hastily bracket what we’ve experienced as ‘weird’.

Realist novels have so defined the genre that anything that echoes of folklore is bracketed as ‘folkloric’, which is to say second-tier fiction, a brief distraction from what fiction is really for: to tell of our world, constituted by people more or less like us, without magical powers, who really die when we die, and stay neatly fixed within the human species for the duration of our lives. There is of course ‘magical realism’, but this compound phrase already reveals that movement’s fealty to reality, which is presumed in advance to be clear and well understood; the ‘magic’ only spices things up, but never compromises the order of priorities.) All forms of realism miss the fact that novels are in the end a variety of storytelling, and the bulk of storytelling throughout human history has been concerned not with describing the limits of the real, but rather the limits of the thinkable.

One function of literature might be to seize onto and develop this sort of bracketed experience, and to make it public and shareable. But in order to fulfill this function literature has to be willing to recognize the part of its ancestry that comes not from photography, journalism, and other ‘realist’ contrivances of the 19th century, but rather from storytelling, which in the final analysis is rooted in ritual, which is to say in turn in a sort of public dreaming.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website.