Behind Our Eyelids, Dreaming

Carefully remembered and recounted dreams interest me not at all. Accretions of detail are suspect and qualify the telling as pedestrian fiction; don’t tell me yours and I won’t bother you with mine. But the elusive, allusive space around them, the trails of confusion we feel on waking and best—the sensation of falling into dream, slipping, Alice-over-rabbit down or into anticipation, that’s a pursuit worthy of real effort.

The state of dreaming, the carrier for obscure content whose meaning and full description eludes us, the event of it, the gap we seek to close without ever intending to, that particular sensation is much desired. An indrawn breath away, a substance heavier and solider than air, an etheric suspension so endlessly sought after its label should caution, “opiate.” This space we can and can’t achieve is always individual; collective dreaming, and longing is something more akin to propaganda and is manufactured. What I’m meaning to describe is personal.

When I was almost approaching adolescence my parents built a house for us on the other side of the city. In the winter of that year I had to move to a new school and to a house I don’t remember having seen being built. The compensation: I would have a dressing table with a ruffled skirt and a mirrored top. The dressing table had been part of a bedroom suite my parents had purchased as newlyweds. “Suite” is rather grand when applied to the headboard, two thin-legged bedside tables, a wobbly four-drawer dresser, and the dressing table that became mine, all of it constructed from a soft wood and stained to resemble cherry or maple. But no one would know about the dressing table’s impoverished underpinnings. Only evident would be the snowy cloud of white-cotton eyelet, which I’d lift to find the two small cupboards with wooden doors set just inside the front legs of the table. Because the skirt covered them I’d tuck things into them that were meant to be kept but not used. The contents of the cupboard on the nearest side was the one I remember best: a small, white milk-glass dish in the shape of an open hand, for pins, earrings or maybe just a gesture implying vagueness or no answer; a cardboard box holding the last few monogrammed notecards imprinted with my initials and the envelopes that went with them; a bisque china figurine of a child, genderless, one leg missing; some handkerchiefs with nursery rhyme characters stamped on them and a small silver bracelet, an incomplete circle you slipped on your wrist, one side and then the other. It was deeply incised with geometric patterns—maybe iconography taken from the American Southwest, and in the centre was a round turquoise stone set in a tiny silver mount, the whole no bigger than a napkin ring. It fit the wrist of a child too small to remember wearing it, and I didn’t remember, but photos show it on my arm. And then it was gone.

I grew up, moved out and the pink room with the skirted dressing table became the guest bedroom. Many years passed and my parents lived happily on in their house; then they died, quickly, one after the other, my father leading, my mother following—cleaving to the pattern they’d practised so well on waxed dance floors all the years of their long marriage.

I emptied the house, every piece of furniture gone, and the house was sold. Still, I can go up to the door, excuse myself as I move past the new owners, go straight down the hall to my pink room and—the way it is in memory and was intermittently the case over the years, one day, one year—face the sweet dressing table, lift the skirt, crouch to slip under the tent I make with one hand while I pull the small door open with the other. And there, restored, will be the silver circlet. This is the space between dreams.

We’ve lost dreams’ blue horizon, Walter Benjamin claimed in his short essay, “Dream Kitsch: Gloss on Surrealism” (M Jennings, H Eiland and G Smith eds., Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927–1934, Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999) and what remains is their grey dust casings, their molds and carapaces. Their essence, what needs to be ungraspable, is brought too near by the technology he sees consuming the auratic spaces in which they reside. This is the distance I find ineluctable, desirable, necessary. It’s that space between dreams, that exact measure to be traversed in memory’s anticipation, between the opened front door of the house I once lived in and the silver bracelet under the skirt of my dressing table.

Though weary, Kublai Khan listened with sustained interest to the nightly stories of the Venetian traveller, Marco Polo, observing that while they sometimes strayed from the truth, he could discern in their telling, something of greater value—”the tracing of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites’ gnawing.” In this pattern, Italo Calvino wrote, “Kublai Khan had noticed that Marco Polo’s cities resembled one another, as if the passage from one to the other involved not a journey but a change of elements” (Italo Calvino, trans. William Weaver, Invisible Cities, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972). That, too, is the sense of the space between dreams, a sense of moving through air and water but as neither bird nor fish and no disquiet or interruption in the shift.

In his essay on the German-born, New York-based photographer Vera Lutter, in Ruins: Documents of Contemporary Art (ed. Brian Dillon, London: Whitechapel Gallery; Cambridge, MA: the MIT Press, 2011), American critic Jonathan Crary describes the response evoked by Lutter’s strangely inverted, camera obscura-produced negative prints. What the images present is a world not black and white—with all the certainty that implies—but a world that is white and black and therefore unknown. Crary describes it as “an uncanny aggregate of places in which we as spectators can never intuit any prospect of feeling at home.” He uses weighted words like estrangement, absence and uncanny, words no one can read without association, and he draws parallels in tone and evocation between the work of Lutter and WG Sebald, especially Sebald’s Austerlitz, (trans. Anthea Bell. New York: Random House, 2001), the book to which I’d returned in thinking about the threshold place of dreams. Thresholds—that perfect space of indeterminacy, the uncommitted entrance/exit, inside/outside, anticipatory and unrealized, always redolent with possibility, JM Barrie’s Neverland. But not angst-free either.

In an entry in Invisible Cities, Calvino described the special quick-silver quality of a city where a man arrives on an evening in September, at dusk, when lamps are being lighted outside food stalls and a woman on a nearby terrace is heard to cry “ooh!” What he says about the man in this idyllic moment, perhaps not real but only dreamt, is “that he feels envy toward those who now believe they have once before lived an evening identical to this and who think they were happy, that time.”

Calvino speaks of the impossible transit back to a retrospective awareness, the double-back to an over-the-shoulder glance at being inside and simultaneously outside a moment of pleasure or grief or profound significance, a pivotal turning point we can’t set twirling if we are intact. This is a threshold space, a hovering so delicate as to be atomically unmeasurable. In Austerlitz, Sebald works first to grasp and describe it and then to cross it so that he can move to reconcile, on its traversed side, his split and melancholy selves.

Like silk webs you feel on your face when you enter an unused room at a place even so benign as your cottage door, Austerlitz is aware of something in front of his eyes that separates one world from another. Evan is a cobbler who worked in a shop in the Welsh countryside where Austerlitz has spent his unhappy childhood and it was Evan who showed him a black veil hanging on a hook near his workbench. It had been snatched by Evan’s grandfather from a bier in a funeral procession of small dead walkers, not visible to everyone, and he’d hung it on the hook, as an illustration. Evan told young Austerlitz that “nothing but a piece of silk like that separates us from the next world.” As he grew older and was away at school, Austerlitz was befriended by another boarder and taken home for holidays to what, for Austerlitz, was a pastoral paradise. Inhabited by gentle eccentrics, it was a refuge for a young boy whose waking and sleeping life was haunted by an unknown sense not even so immaterial as a ghost. One of the house’s tender inhabitants was an uncle who painted watercolours out of doors. When he did this, Austerlitz recounted, he wore glasses where he’d replace the lenses with grey silk tissue, “so that the landscape appeared through a fine veil that muted its colors, and the weight of the world dissolved before your eyes.”

This is a threshold and every page in Austerlitz constructs them, invites their passage and builds necessary impediments to the achievement. Necessary to sustaining that numinous blue horizon. Modernity and its technology, Benjamin worried and warned, would tamper with the distance that is dream’s essential material. Time, too, is a dream component. We give over or are inhabited, and are complicit in offering up the means. Time is consumed by our dreaming, but gives itself back in oddly elastic measures. It is a space where an assumed narrative incident is as long as a lifetime, and we reside there with pleasure or are panic-driven to escape. The duration is given to us as a temporal gift whose generosity we are unable to decline since the continuum it occupies is a terrain over which we have little control and which we turn to no other purpose.

Austerlitz confesses to having never owned a wristwatch, and in this, and endless other ways, holds himself apart from time in order to resist it, stop it and, most longingly, so that he can “turn back and go behind it, and there find everything as it once was.” It is a material scrim, like a stage set, perhaps the deceit he knows it to be in his own life, and he can, if he dreams, locate himself on its other side. Another thin, almost transparent threshold.

I know with a certainty that is beyond testing that if everything is prepared and in order, I can seek and recover my silver bracelet. It’s there. At the base of my chest, in the cradle of my rib cage, in conjunction with memory’s replicating the exact colour of the little turquoise stone and mixed with an assembly of scents—dust and cotton and maybe a trace of the Roger&Gallet powder sachet which came in a glass bottle to be applied wherever you chose—is the anticipatory, essential dream distance to a threshold I covet as immanent. I want it in no other state.

“Perhaps,” says Marco Polo to Kublai Khan, “this garden exists only in the shadow of our lowered eyelids…But each time we half-close our eyes, in the midst of the din and the throng, we are allowed to withdraw here, dressed in silk kimonos, to ponder what we are seeing and living, to draw conclusions, to contemplate from the distance.”

It’s here, beyond the garden, behind our eyelids, that we achieve dreams and the spaces in between, and Benjamin’s necessary distance that allows them.