Friday, August 10, 2007

The Dream I'm In the Middle of

Asking whether one might be able to speak from within a dream after all, Derrida guesses that psychoanalysts would say “yes, perhaps sometimes”: “perhaps you can believe and admit that you are dreaming without waking yourself up; yes, it is not impossible . . . while you are asleep, your eyes tight shut or wide open, to utter something like a truth of the dream” (“Fichus: Frankfurt Address,” in Paper Machine, trans. Rachel Bowlby [Stanford UP, 2005], 166; the title comes from a dream of Benjamin's in which he declares, in French, "It was about changing a poem into a fichu [head scarf]"). The idea here is that speaking from the dream isn’t damaging; it expands the idea of enlightenment but doesn’t (as in Benjamin’s fantasy) threaten or destroy it. The possibility of speaking lucidly from within the dream would seem to be raised by the fact that its complement happens all the time—we know we commonly sleep while we’re awake, sometimes for a lifetime (which is why Socrates would go around waking people up). In supposed support, Derrida adduces a passage of Minima Moralia in which Adorno muses,

Waking in the middle of a dream, even the worst, one feels disappointed, cheated of the best in life . . . . Even the loveliest dream bears like a blemish its difference from reality, the awareness that what it grants is mere illusion. This is why precisely the loveliest dreams are as if blighted [Noch dem schönsten bleibt wie ein Makel seine Differenz von der Wirklichkeit gesellt, das Bewußtsein vom bloßen Schein dessen, was er gewährt. Daher sind gerade die schönsten Träume wie beschädigt]. (Minima Moralia §72)

Adorno shifts from emphasizing that the crushing recognition of the difference between dream and waking comes in waking, to a retrospection in which consciousness of the dream’s illusory quality is now associated with the dream—an illusory nature becomes, in memory, one of the dream’s qualities. The best dreams have the most to lose, and sustain the most damage from the flaw of illusion. Adorno doesn’t really lose his way in transferring the dream to memory, unlike Benjamin. Derrida may: he speculates that greater consciousness is what the dream may have had to offer in the first place, “as though dreaming were a more vigilant state than being awake” (167). Out of Adorno’s reference to the “worst” dreams, Derrida reads Joyce’s phrase for history: “the ‘worst’ nightmare (we can produce numerous historical examples from the start of the twentieth century up to last week): so we would be disappointed to be awoken from it” (167).

--A great text for the dream and waking chiasmuses of twentieth century wartime is Michel Leiris’s Nuits sans Nuit et quelques Jours sans Jour [Éditions Gallimard, 1961], Leiris’s diary from 1923 to 1960 combining dream notes with recollections of surreal waking experiences. During and around the war, the waking dreamlike experiences increase in number and intensity; and there are dreams about waking, and dreams about falling asleep. For example, this one, that projects a level below the dream, not anticipated by Adorno’s desires to stay asleep:

March 19-20, 1943

The dream I’m in the middle of begins to resemble a state of waking that is about to end: unable to resist falling asleep in the dream itself, I sense that this dream is about to conclude, not with a return to reality but with a plunge into the void of unconsciousness. I prepare myself to cry out in fright, but Z… intervenes and my uneasiness ceases.

A movement analogous to the one that often tends to elicit similar screams from me just as I am about to awake. But in this case the movement was considerably more frightening; instead of those interminable pangs one experiences when emerging with difficulty from a dream, I was in a sense being precipitated downward by my dream, plunged into a sleep from which I would never escape, and which would be my death.

Image: Los Altos Hotel, Hollywood

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