—Franz Kafka, diary entry, May 11, 1916
Here’s a dream from high school: knowing beyond doubt my strategy for running cross country races was all wrong, I hit upon a new plan—drop to my belly just as Coach fired the gun and scramble on all fours, alligator fashion, through the three point one mile race. And bang, it worked. I was instantly 500 meters in the lead, feeling remarkably smug and saurian. I’d never felt such exhilaration before.
Then doubt crept in. The pack gradually—agonizingly—caught up to me and, when I finally abandoned my hope and stood to run like a human, I found myself in my own race, no other competitors about, striding through a labyrinthine hotel remarkably similar to the Chateau Frontenac in Old Quebec. I stopped to study the carpet. The shade of red wasn’t right.
Needless to say, I never finished.
The particulars of that dream amused athletes I used to coach—it could be they just enjoyed my imitation of a running alligator—but I could never express how unfunny and compelling that dream originally was. When we tell dreams we recall the absurd and comic detail and forget that, at the time, the dream’s logic, doubts, and certainties were absolute. The stuff of dreams often moves us to retell them, but we can’t communicate their absurdity entirely.
When my wife tells her dreams, she sometimes “cleans-up” plot lines to put odd details in clearer contexts, but, to me, the true part of the dream is its bizarre form. I always ask for the dream exactly as it happened.
Early surrealists, led by André Breton in his Manifesto in 1924, tried to reproduce dream structure in poetry. They valued automatism (automatic writing) as a sort of dictation from the subconscious. “If thought is liberated from the dictates of reason and from moral and aesthetic strictures,” Breton wrote, “it may achieve a form of expression beyond the domains of hitherto recognized artistic expression.”
At the time his advice probably sounded dramatic, but it’s become familiar. Even homespun poets like William Stafford warned, “Intention endangers creation” and, “any time we adopt a stance that induces an analytical feeling, we may be subverting what art depends on.” Intentionally avoiding intention seems an impossible contradiction, but, every once in a while, even in a sonnet or haiku, the dream happens.
In Writing the American Crawl, Stafford said poetry is like a car trying to start on ice, where the ice is the interface between writer and reader. He said a writer can only gain “traction” by using “statements that do not demand much belief, easy claims, even undeniable progressions without need of authority. No solicitation of the reader’s faith.” Poems balance surprise and familiarity—Emily Dickinson called it “amazing sense”—with structure as well as imagery. Ordinary imagery can be quite surreal.
How many surrealists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? …Two, one to hold the giraffe and the other to fill the bathtub with brightly colored bicycles. So goes the joke, but surrealism doesn’t live at the opposite extreme from Stafford, groping for something pointedly alien, intentionally outlandish. The structure as well as the contents create dreams.
Beyond that brilliant oft-quoted first line of “The Metamorphosis” (“When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin”), it’s a fairly ordered tale. Its success rests with its structure as much as with that dramatic first choice.
Kafka wrote in his diary in 1921 that “All is imaginary—family, office, friends, the street, all imaginary, far away or close at hand,” and to me he writes best when he believes it. In his diary, reality is infinitely pliable. He says, “the truth that lies closest . . . is only this, that you are beating your head against the wall of a windowless and doorless cell.”
Mighty depressing. However, the broader sense of this statement, the feeling of inescapability, seems essential to art. Things are as they are because they have to be. Intentionally trying to invent that necessity pits your fabrication against the subconscious. Dreams suggest you’ll lose.
Once I dreamed the packages strewn about a room contained all the important statements of historical figures. No one else noticed them, but I spent the whole dream desperate to protect them and preserve what they held. But they had no bows or ribbons and weren’t easy to stack up in my arms. No one else seemed to care. They were invisible to everyone else. If I were awake, I would have asked, “Then are they real?” In the dream, nothing was weird about their existence. The only criterion for reality was belief.
“Whatever care the mind takes to isolate itself,” Marcel Raymond says in Baudelaire to Surrealism, “it cannot help being fed by elements originating in the external world.” In writing about the mind, we have no means of expression but words of this world and, hence, can’t entirely avoid intention. The secret surrealism tells, however, is that a mind ready to accept both the content and structure of the unconscious interferes as little as possible.
If the muse is a dreamer, let’s not wake her to explain herself. Let’s not trouble her by assessing the eccentricity of her night babble. Let her sleep. Record the movement of her closed and ever-shifting eyes.