The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 19-JAN 20

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DEC 19-JAN 20 Issue

Falling Asleep

I dropped out of high school to be a poet, so I needed to try to teach myself, by reading and writing, how to write. My first big insight was that poetry is metaphor (is that a metaphor?), in metaphor’s broadest sense—the evocation of something by invoking something else. Life is a dream, or death as sleep, and “even your shoulders are petty crimes” or “the hum-colored cabs.” Do those last two count as a metaphors? I don’t know. Maybe the shoulders were committed in innocence. But ignorance of the law excuses not. What if all metaphors are literal? Inside a dog it’s too dark to read.

Language is about something meaning something else, just as it’s about a thing only existing in relationship to other things. As Borges pointed out in his late talk “The Metaphor,” [This Craft of Verse, Harvard, 2000] it’s been said—in the instance by Lugones—that words themselves are metaphors, in the sense that they contain other, underlying, prior meanings that have come to have the overriding meaning of the present word. An example Borges gives is “king” which derives from “cyning,” an Old English word that originally meant “a man who stands for the kin—for the people.” So, maybe the king is no longer related to all his subjects, but metaphorically he is, because of his title. And, to get even more abstract, words are metaphors in that they themselves, a sequence of alphabet letters or of sounds, indicate the objects, acts and relationships, etc., they convey. Or is that wrong because the resemblance is arbitrary? (Yes it is.) There’s nothing about the sequence s, t, o, n, e, or the sound it signals, in themselves, that has anything in common with a stone. (Then again, humming hums.) Except that…? (And words start seeming similar to that to which they refer.) And to pull back from the word to entire poems, the poems of many recent writers—John Ashbery, for instance—while not much operating in the classical way of using metaphor to refresh our sensation or understanding of phenomena, seem to be themselves metaphors for the poet’s inner being,1 or the tenor of it at the time of composition. “Tenor” in the context of the concept of metaphor means the subject in the metaphor, while “vehicle” denotes how that subject is getting re-imaginatively evoked. For instance, Roy Orbison hummed like chauffered teal.

  1. That inner being is a dream. All is a dream. Life is a dream. Death’s dream. We are the dream of the dead, the inanimate. We arose from the dead universe: heat and light and water and rock. We are its dream, the dream of mud, and when we fall asleep we come nearest to what things are.

The longer I live, the more I can see patterns in my experiences and behavior and everyone else’s. That’s logical. A number of those accumulated, ever-provisional deductions seem to be converging now, drawn together by their density into an ultimate: that reality most resembles wherein combine wakefulness and sleep, the living and the inanimate. This is not unknown; another thing a person learns is that nothing’s original.

Existence takes place outside of life and non-life, but at their intersection or the space between them, or their combination, and one way or another art is about this situation and is rooted in it. Reality is the mixture of consciousness (self-aware life) and the unconscious/inanimate (I’m trying to include everything) and art is how humans investigate and express that territory.

Humans brainwash you. But humans and families and jobs aren’t the world. We’re just another feeling of the world. We’re just dirt that talks. Our job is to speak for the dirt. Stand up for the mud.

— from “Huck Hell & Legs Sawyer on the Mississippi” (with Legs McNeil, Spin magazine, 1986)

The stranger has a cigar and is observing geese
pass across the moon like an intricate model ship
or symphonic violins, and all I can do is dream
          of mud, oh mud, mud.

— Theresa Stern, from “You Stranger I’m Tight and Juicy” (with Tom Verlaine, Wanna Go Out, Dot Books, 1973)

I have this theory about mud, too. People say we’re made of stars. “Star stuff.” That’s alright, but who knows about the stars? I say we’re made of mud. Watery mud. If you could see it all at once you’d see mud getting up and talking. And then you’re right when we go to sleep we’re mud again. Maybe we’re the dream of mud...

— from The Theresa Stern Story (unpublished film script, 1988)

In terms of direct human experience, reality most resembles the area between wakefulness and sleep, and “Between Wakefullness and Sleep” was the name of an essay published by Edgar Allen Poe in 1846.

There is, however, a class of fancies, of exquisite delicacy, which are not thoughts, and to which, as yet, I have found it absolutely impossible to adapt language. I use the word fancies at random, and merely because I must use some word; but the idea commonly attached to the term is not even remotely applicable to the shadows of shadows in question. They seem to me rather psychal than intellectual. They arise in the soul (alas, how rarely!) only at its epochs of most intense tranquility—when the bodily and mental health are in perfection—and at those mere points of time where the confines of the waking world blend with those of the world of dreams. I am aware of these “fancies” only when I am upon the very brink of sleep, with the consciousness that I am so. I have satisfied myself that this condition exists but for an inappreciable point of time yet it is crowded with these “shadows of shadows”; and for absolute thought there is demanded time’s endurance.
  These “fancies” have in them a pleasurable ecstasy, as far beyond the most pleasurable of the world of wakefulness, or of dreams, as the Heaven of the Northman theology is beyond its Hell. I regard the visions, even as they arise, with an awe which, in some measure moderates or tranquillises the ecstasy—I so regard them, through a conviction (which seems a portion of the ecstasy itself) that this ecstasy, in itself, is of a character supernal to the Human Nature—is a glimpse of the spirit’s outer world; and I arrive at this conclusion—if this term is at all applicable to instantaneous intuition—by a perception that the delight experienced has, as its element, but the absoluteness of novelty. I say the absoluteness—for in the fancies—let me now term them psychal impressions—there is really nothing even approximate in character to impressions ordinarily received. It is as if the five senses were supplanted by five myriad others alien to mortality.

— Edgar Allen Poe, from “Between Wakefulness and Sleep” (1846) in The Unknown Poe, ed. Raymond Foye (City Lights, 2001)


When all the yellow birds came flying
into my fingers, I thought they were
roses someone didn’t want, the kind
of gift an audience gives to its
favorite violinist. But I’m not
a violinist and they were not roses.
They were birds.

— Jamie MacInnis, from Practicing
(Tombouctou, 1974)

Which leads to another hypothesis: that in the last two hundred or so years, the half-asleep condition, wherein one dreams but has some consciousness of the experience—what’s been termed “hypnagogia”—has become the ground of much art and thought, Freud and surrealism being probably the most obvious examples, but also reaching back to Nerval and Poe and Redon and Rimbaud (“All known literature is written in the language of common sense—except Rimbaud’s.” —Paul Valéry, 1899) and forward to Pollock and Ashbery.

Our dreams are a second life. I have never been able to penetrate without a shudder those ivory or horned gates which separate us from the invisible world. The first moments of sleep are an image of death; a hazy torpor grips our thoughts and it becomes impossible for us to determine the exact instant when the “I,” under another form, continues the task of existence. Little by little a vague underground cavern grows lighter and the pale gravely immobile shapes that live in limbo detach themselves from the shadows and the night. Then the picture takes form, a new brightness illumines these strange apparitions and gives them movement. The spirit world opens before us.

— Gerard de Nerval, from Aurélia (1855), Aurélia & Other Writings (Exact Change, 2004), trans. Geoffrey Wagner


They dream only of America
To be lost among the thirteen million pillars of grass:
“This honey is delicious
Though it burns the throat.”

And hiding from darkness in barns
They can be grownups now
And the murderer’s ash tray is more easily—
The lake a lilac cube.

He holds a key in his right hand.
“Please,” he asked willingly.
He is thirty years old.
That was before

We could drive hundreds of miles
At night through dandelions.
When his headache grew worse we
Stopped at a wire filling station.

Now he cared only about signs.
Was the cigar a sign?
And what about the key?
He went slowly into the bedroom.

“I would not have broken my leg if I had not fallen
Against the living room table. What is it to be back
Beside the bed? There is nothing to do
For our liberation, except wait in the horror of it.”

And I am lost without you.

— John Ashbery, from The Tennis Court Oath (Wesleyan University Press, 1962) © 1962, 1997, 2008 by John Ashbery. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

[A]rt is human willpower deploying every means at its disposal to break through to a truer state than the present one.”

— John Ashbery, from “Writers and Issues: Frank O’Hara” (1966) in Selected Prose (University of Michigan Press, 2004)

A further, and recent, as well as probably the most speculative and tenuous of this convergence of intimations I’ve been experiencing, is that perhaps our long hallucinatory era’s preoccupation with this hynagogic state is a sign of the end times. As sleep is like death, our recent centuries’ incorporation of sleep into “rationality,” into wakefulness, is a further sign (along with such things as weapons of mass destruction and apocalyptic climate change) that humanity is reaching its end.

Nobody knows what sleep is.

In another story, the mind-haunting “Human Moments in World War III,” Vollmer, an astronaut in his twenties, gazes down on Earth as he and the narrator collect imagery data on troop deployment. Radio signals from decades earlier somehow infect their transmissions from mission control. “A quality of purest, sweetest sadness issued from remote space.” As they work to control the “lethal package” they are dealing with, they look at Earth and fall into reverie: “The cities are in light, the listening millions, fed, met comfortably in drowsy rooms, at war, as the night comes softly down.” The story feels like an elegy to the planet and takes its place in the growing literature of preapocalyptic writing, intensified in this particular case by the narrator’s distance (he’s in orbit) and his sense that he and Vollmer are observing a planetary body that is about to disappear altogether with their willing cooperation. The grief over the fate of Earth infuses into the story a tone of immense melancholy. […]
  One thinks of the lines from Beckett’s Molloy: “From things about to disappear I turn away in time. To watch them out of sight, no, I can’t do it.” However, Vollmer has not yet turned away, not quite. He’s still watching, still looking, still occupying that passing moment of contemplation before the object of his gaze—the thing about to disappear—is gone.
  And here we arrive at the necessary component of the trance experience, the implicit content at its core: the narcotic spectacle of an entity’s fragile existence prior to its violent death or destruction. The prospect of an imminent violent death renders everyone speechless and thoughtful. It is the pre-apocalyptic condition. In this fiction, violent death occupies a privileged position in the hierarchy of signifiers. The thing about to be destroyed takes on a terrible beauty, worthy of elegy.

— from Charles Baxter’s review of Don DeLillo’s The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories, in the New York Review of Books (February 9, 2012)

I’ve always had a hard time remaining in the particulars of experience. I more want to know the connections between them or the reasons behind them or their implications. This is part of the reason I didn’t turn out to be a poet. I want to think and reach conclusions about how things are on an abstract or divine level—“how things are” is my understanding of God—rather than remain in local experience. I want more. I want everything. I want to be God. I don’t regard this as being positive or negative, except when I do. It’s temperament. Another insight in trying to figure out how to write a good poem was that it’s the poet’s duty not to understand, because we don’t and can’t, and to pretend otherwise is to eliminate poetry. The part of the mind that understands excludes it. We don’t know anything. Poetry is revery, not understanding, because reality is revery.

[A]t once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason […]

— John Keats, letter to his brothers George and Thomas on 22 December 1817 [These days people use F. S. Fitzgerald’s variation more often. He said, in The Crack-Up (New Directions, 1945) that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”]

It’s as if consciousness itself is the entity, by definition our universe, and the consciousness of each particular human is only a portion of it, an aspect. “Understanding” takes place in individual consciousness, which is always vastly incomplete, and everything individual is reflexive. It’s as if consciousness were a sphere, the surface of which is made of points or tiny polygons each of which is one of all the existing humans—to restrict ourselves to the only conscious beings of which we’re aware—facing inward towards the universe, each having only the limited access to the whole available from that particular point, just as each can only be affected by its particular experience, while at the same time we are nearly identical as the composition of the sphere of consciousness itself, and are linked, like the neurons in the brain.

One’s inner being is a dream. All is a dream. Life is a dream. This is not to trivialize it: there is pain and “injustice” and matters of great human importance in dreams too; it’s just that we regard dreams as unreal: no, dreams are where we’re exposed most directly to reality, the bending of things through us, the junction of us and what is.

What we perceive via our eyes, nose, ears, touch, tongue for instance, is not “real.” It is created by our brains. What we deem light/color, odors and sounds are a few of the sorts of particles/waves permeating the universe, most of which we don’t perceive at all (less than 1% of the entire spectrum of light is visible to the unaided human eye), but some of which, locally useful, are turned into qualities by our brains, turned into signaling meta-correspondences called the likes of chartreuse and musk and a piano middle C (and wet and salty). But how we perceive the wave-lengths of photons, for instance, has nothing to do with what they “actually” are, except that the structure of the relationships between the various wavelengths corresponds to the structure of the relationships among the sensations we describe as “colors.” There is nothing otherwise meaningful about either the limited categories of data in the universe our senses have access to or about the particular forms that data is translated into for our purposes. They’re dreams, like mythemes through which we swim; they’re a forest of symbols, synesthetically blending too, in literal metaphors, as we dream them and are dreamt by them, as Baudelaire wrote.


Nature is a temple whose columns are alive and sometimes issue disjointed messages. We thread our way through a forest of symbols that peer out, as if recognizing us.

  Like long echoes from far away, merging into a deep dark unity, vast as night, vast as the light, smells and colors and sounds concur.

 There are perfumes cool as children’s flesh, sweet as oboes, green like the prairie. And others corrupt, rich, overbearing,

 with the expansiveness of infinite things — like ambergris, musk, spikenard, frankincense, singing ecstasy to the mind and to the senses.

— Charles Baudelaire, from Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) as published in Flowers of Evil (Wesleyan University Press, 2006), trans. Keith Waldrop; it’s a sonnet rendered into prose quatrain/tercet “versets” in stanzaic divisions. Used by permission.

Then, within, we have no way of understanding anything except for how it operates in relation to other things. Not only words themselves, but the things that the words refer to are only known by their relationships to other such things. A stone is smaller than a boulder, bigger than a pebble, probably. Also hard and dense, not soft or liquid (though volcanic stone is like stiffened foam). And the thing called a stone is the way it behaves in relation to other behaviors. Without something to contrast it to, there is no stone. It only exists mentally, and as a relationship to other mental constructs.

Dreams were another of the facts of my life which had always most profoundly impressed me and had done most to convince me of the purely mental character of reality […]

— Marcel Proust, Time Regained (1927), (Modern Library Classics, 1999), trans. Andreas Mayor and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D.J. Enright and Joanna Kilmartin

The writer who most reminds me of Proust is the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. His account of his stay among tribes in the Amazonian jungle, Tristes Tropiques, is as perceptive, frank, intelligent, personal, and literarily sophisticated as In Search of Lost Time, and the prose styles of the two can resemble each other. Most of Lévi-Strauss’s other writings are anthropological treatises less accessible to laypeople. His thinking, as evidenced in Triste Tropiques, was affected by Saussure’s ideas about linguistics, referred to by Lévi-Strauss as structuralism. Lévi-Strauss believed that Saussure’s theory or insight that the underlying structure of human languages was universal also applied to other systems of cultural expression than linguistics, such as mythology or tribal mask-making. A finding of his studies was that the universal function of myths was to reconcile opposite or conflicting realities for the given culture: man and woman, war and peace, plant and animal—almost any significant duality—while the ultimate, the foundational opposition to be bridged, perhaps, was that of nature and culture (unconscious nature and conscious human beings).

We imagine infirmity and sickness to be deprivations of being and therefore evil. However, if death is as real as life, and if therefore everything is being, all states, even pathological ones, are positive in their own way. ‘Negativized being’ is entitled to occupy a whole place within the system, since it is the only conceivable means of a transition between two ‘full’ states.”

— Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked (1964) (Harper and Row, 1969)

Death is as real as life and therefore everything is being. A screwy thing about the whole discussion of the juncture of life and death, is that in another sense it’s the material cosmos which is immortal, while we, supposedly alive, die.

  “And so! Everything is alive!”
     — Pythagoras

Man, free thinker! Do you believe you alone can think
In this world where life bursts forth in everything?
Your freedom disposes what it may
But the universe is beyond you.

In animals honor the mind acting:
Each flower is a soul disclosed by Nature;
A mystery of love lies concealed in metal;
“Everything is alive!” and has power over you.

Beware in the blind wall a gaze that watches you:
The heart of matter holds a word …
Make it serve no impious use!

Often in the obscure being hides a God;
And like the eye born under the eyelid’s veil,
Pure spirit grows beneath the skin of stones.

— Gerard de Nerval, from Les Chimeres (1854), trans. Richard Hell

I was saying let me out of here before I was even born.
It’s such a gamble when you get a face.
It’s fascinating to observe what the mirror does
but when I dine it’s for the wall that I set a place.

— from “Blank Generation” (1974)

The poet Octavio Paz understood, in the context of his reading of Lévi-Strauss—specifically the anthropologist’s initial full-scale study of Amazonian native mythology, The Raw and the Cooked—that death was the reality that underlay all manifestations of culture. It is knowing that we must die that makes us human, is the definition of consciousness, thereby the source of culture.

The real theme of all these myths is the opposition between culture and nature as it is expressed in the human creation par excellence: the cooking of foods over a domestic fire. A Promethean theme with many echoes: the schism between the gods and men, the eternal life of the cosmos and the brief life of human beings, but likewise the mediation between life and death, sky and water, plants and animals. It would be useless to try to list all the ramifications of this opposition since it encompasses every aspect of human life. It is a theme which leads us to the center of Lévi-Strauss’s meditation: the place of man in nature. The position of cooking as an activity which at once separates and unites the natural world and the human world is […] prefigured by language which is what separates us from nature and what unites us to it and to our fellow men. Language signifies the distance between man and things as well as the will to erase it. Cooking […] is a mediation between the raw and decayed, the animal world and the vegetable […]. [Its] model […] is the word, the bridge between the shout and silence, between the nonsignificance of nature and the insignificance of men. […] [Both] are screens which filter the anonymous natural world and turn it into names, signs, and qualities. They change the shapeless torrent of life into a discrete quantity and into families of symbols. In […] [both], the texture of the screen is made up of an intangible substance: death. Lévi-Strauss hardly mentions it. Perhaps his proud materialism keeps him from mentioning it. In addition, from a certain point of view, death is only another manifestation of immortal living matter. But how can we fail to see in that need to distinguish between nature and culture, in order to introduce a mediating term between the two of them, the echo and the obsession of knowing ourselves to be mortal?
  Death is the real difference, the dividing line between man and the current of life. The ultimate meaning of all those metaphors is death. Cooking […] and language are operations of the spirit, but the spirit is an operation of death. Although the need to survive through nourishment […] is common to all living things, the wiles with which man confronts this inevitability make him a different being. To feel oneself and know oneself to be mortal is to be different: death condemns us to culture. Without it there would be no arts or trades: language, cooking, and kinship rules are mediations between the immortal life of nature and the brevity of human existence. Here Lévi-Strauss agrees with Freud and, at the other extreme, with Hegel and Marx. Closer to the latter two than the former, in a second movement his thought tries to dissolve the dichotomy between culture and nature—not by means of work, history, or revolution, but by knowledge of the laws of the human spirit. The mediator between brief life and natural immortality is the spirit: an unconscious and collective device, as immortal and anonymous as a cell. […] [I]t is by its origin on the side of nature, and by its function and its products on the side of culture. In the opposition between death and life, the discrete significance of man and the infinite nonsignificance of the cosmos is almost erased. Facing death the spirit is life, and facing the latter, death. From the beginning, human understanding has been completely unable—because it is logically impossible—to explain nothingness by being or being by nothingness. Perhaps the spirit is the mediator. In the area of physics, we reach similar conclusions: Professor John Wheeler, at a recent meeting of the Physical Society, asserted that it is impossible to locate an event in time or space: before and after, here and there, are abstracts without meaning. There is a point at which “something is nothing and nothing is something.”

— Octavio Paz, Claude Lévi-Strauss: An Introduction (Cornell, 1970)

One could have the viewpoint that, as dreams can reveal otherwise unconscious conflicts and thereby enable some resolutions for the individual dreamer, myths attempt to reconcile conflicts or mysteries for a culture. Myths feel like dreams that explain how things became as they are, and what one’s position is in this reality, thereby easing the anxiety, as this essay eases my trepidations about suffering death (now that I’m old). The only system of mythology, apart from monotheistic religions, that most of the industrialized west knows to any meaningful extent is the ancient Greek and Roman. I’ll stick to the Greek, since it was the original.

Hypnos was a primordial deity in Greek mythology, the personification of sleep. He lived in a cave next to his twin brother, Thanatos [death—though sometimes specified as peaceful death in contrast to the Keres, who embodied violent death] in the underworld, where no light was cast by the sun or the moon; the earth in front of the cave was full of poppies and other sleep-inducing plants. The river Lethe (the river of forgetfulness) flowed through the cave. Hypnos was the son of Nyx (night), in some acounts without a father, but in others fathered by Erebus (darkness) [both Nyx and Erebus being among the original five divine beings, offspring of primordial Chaos], while his wife, Pasithea [relaxation, meditation, and such hallucinatory states of consciousness at rest], was one of the youngest of the Graces and was given to him by Hera [in exchange for Hypnos causing Zeus to sleep, thereby permitting the Greeks to win the Trojan War]. Hypnos and Pasithea had a number of sons called the Oneiroi (the dreams).

—a pastiche of information from Wikipedia

That description is intended to be as accurate as possible, but not only do the available ancient chronicles of mythology vary—just as in tribal Brazil, different ancient Greek precincts believed local versions of their hugely complex living mythology—but it’s a primary characteristic of myths that they vary in their retelling, and the variations are valid. The myths are eternal but they are always morphing2 in the individuality of their manifestation in any person’s transmission. Lévi-Strauss called his book of structural myth analysis a myth.3 (It should be noted that Lévi-Strauss rarely analyzed myths from more layered and complex societies like the Greek/Roman or the Mayan, because of concern that the myths’ emphases could have been warped in their transmission to favor certain rulers or gods.)


‘Narcissus’ (nárkissos) was the ancient-Greek word for the flower, native to southern Europe, that we commonly call the daffodil. The word ‘narcissus’ is related to the Greek nárke, or torpor, numbness, a narcotic quality; it comes from the myth of Narcissus, the beautiful youth who became entranced by his own reflection.”

— Mary Norris, “Greek to Me” in the New Yorker, January 14, 2019

  1. Morpheus, which name derives from the Greek word for “form,” and who appears in the Roman Ovid’s account of mythological episodes, Metamorphoses, is a son of Somnus—the Roman equivalent of Hypnos—and is said to appear in dreams as their human inhabitants, thereby “mimicking many forms,” though he’s not mentioned in surviving ancient sources prior to Ovid, and may have been an addition of his to the pantheon, god bless him.
  2. “[I]t would not be wrong to consider this book itself as a myth: it is, as it were, the myth of mythology.”—The Raw and the Cooked, p. 12

I have been called narcissistic. No I haven’t—I’ve been called solipsistic. But I do like narcotics (though I’ve learned it’s best to avoid them) and they induce precisely the state between wakefulness and sleep that this essay proposes as the closest that consciousness can come to reality. When I was first exposed to a strong narcotic and I tried to analyze what the most seductive quality of it was, I figured it was the way it allowed you to dream while remaining in a conscious enough state (nod) that you could deliberately influence what would happen next in the dream.

I do not ask of God that he should change anything in events themselves, but that he should change me in regard to things, so that I might have the power to create my own universe about me, to govern my own dreams instead of enduring them.

— Gerard de Nerval as quoted by Arthur Symons in The Symbolist Movement in Literature (Dutton, 1919)

Now there is another, deeper meaning of dreamtime—which is of a time that is no time, just an enduring state of being. There is an important myth from Indonesia that tells of this mythological age and its termination. In the beginning, according to this story, the ancestors were not distinguished as to sex. There were no births, there were no deaths. Then a great public dance was celebrated, and in the course of the dance one of the participants was trampled to death and torn to pieces, and the pieces were buried. At the moment of that killing the sexes became separated, so that death was balanced by begetting, begetting by death, while from the buried parts of the dismembered body food plants grew. Time had come into being, death, birth, and the killing and eating of other living beings, for the preservation of life. The timeless time of the beginning had terminated by a communal crime, a deliberate murder or sacrifice. Now, one of the problems of mythology is reconciling the mind to this brutal precondition of all life, which lives by the killing and eating of lives. You don’t kid yourself by eating only vegetables, either, for they, too, are alive. So the essence of life is this eating of itself! Life lives on life, and the reconciliation of the human mind and sensibilities to that fundamental fact is one of the functions of some of those very brutal rites in which the ritual consists chiefly of killing— in imitation, as it were, of that first, primordial crime, out of which arose this temporal world, in which we all participate. The reconciliation of mind to the conditions of life is fundamental to all creation stories. They’re very like each other in this aspect.

— Joseph Campbell interviewed by Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth (Anchor, 1991)

“Now there is another, deeper meaning of dreamtime—which is of a time that is no time, just an enduring state of being.”

I settled into run-of-the-mill hallucinations. I very clearly saw a mosque in place of a factory, a group of drummers consisting of angels, carriages on the heavenly highways, a sitting room at the bottom of a lake; monsters, mysteries, the title of a vaudeville could conjure anything.

— Arthur Rimbaud, “Delirium II: The Alchemy of Words” A Season in Hell (1873) (Modern Library, 2002), trans. Wyatt Mason

It seemed to me that everyone should have had several other lives as well. This gentleman doesn’t know what he’s doing; he’s an angel. That family is a litter of puppy dogs. With some men, I often talked out loud with a moment from one of their other lives—that’s how I happened to love a pig.

— Arthur Rimbaud, “Delirium II: The Alchemy of Words” A Season in Hell (1873) (HarperCollins, 1975), trans. Paul Schmidt

Dreamtime, when one is conscious enough on the outskirts of sleep to retain into consciousness some quantity of dream experience, is ahistorical, just as a given system of mythologies is. The same could be said of all daily life. You don’t have to go very deep to reach the network of experiences shared—with varying emphases—by practically all humans throughout time. Working for sustenance, sleeping, eating, having sex, dealing with social interactions, all the common aims and problems. There’s a universal structure there too apart from history.

All my life I’ve loved falling asleep. I suppose most people feel the same except that many don’t quite consider sleep to be part of life unless it’s forced on their attention somehow and even then it’s just a meaningless natural function, like peeing, that’s actually peripheral to the meaningful part of life. But what is falling asleep? At its most concentrated it’s the way one feels after an orgasm or after partaking of an opiate. It’s fleshly comfort and mild, carnivalesque delirium. Of course it can startle and threaten and frighten too, but what I’m referring to is hypnagogia at its essence, unhampered by pain or significant conscious turmoil, the components of insomnia…. As Poe pointed out, the experience we’re invoking occurs only “upon the very brink of sleep, with the consciousness that [one is] so,” and, “when the bodily and mental health are in perfection—and at those mere points of time where the confines of the waking world blend with those of the world of dreams.” It can go wrong.

—Franz Kafka, “The Metamorphosis” (1915), Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories (Schoken, 1976), trans. Willa and Edwin Muir [punctuation and upper case removed by Richard Hell]

I dream of falling asleep.

That’s my dream. How did “dream” as the word for the apparent experiences or visions we have when we’re asleep become the word also for a person’s hopes and aspirations (foolish or not)? I suppose it’s not very complicated, though I see in an etymological dictionary that that particular meaning of “dream” (“It’s my dream to be world champion.”) is recent, the 1930s. The hint or taint of that meaning of the word lamentably complicates its use though. Except I dream of falling asleep.

The sweetness of the dream of falling asleep is partly erotic.


Yesterday, late in the evening, I started feeling thick and heavy as if I were being pulled down, as if something deep underground had started to exert a new kind of gravity that was sucking my body and senses toward it, while my floating mind stayed above. I could hardly keep my eyelids raised and I had to lie down. Once I did that, my body hollowed and lightened, like a drawing of itself. My mind seemed to float loose while leaking into my body like molecules: sex, sax, six, socks, sucks… It was like my body liquified, then evaporated, then rained, the whole prehistoric breathing, and my mind was a rudderless little boat that drifted in it. I seeped and haltingly flowed according to the permeability and slant. In the puddles at the bottom of the boat was a tumbled messy litter of everything imaginable that had happened or could happen to me. How could it be so small? My senses seemed to have returned, but were caught in the contents of the boat, as if perception were engendered by those objects.1 It seemed that if I looked at one item—a tan-colored lifesize hobbyshop model of a robin, for instance—everything else in the strew became possible, so that when my attention left the glued-together plastic bird, the items around it had become something other than what they’d been before. Oh, it was too beautiful, this surrender. It is the secret standard of worthiness. All who do it are good! My mind2 opened and the boat, being one, the only, wasn’t a boat.3

  1. Later I heard “that to the sides of the dark shine the theories.”*
  2. If the brain-neurons are buzzing, are individual, can choose, aren’t they all of life and history? Each person is God and the brain’s neurons are all the people of the history of the world. We are the neurons in God’s brain. (Is God asleep? Will God awake? And then what happens to us? God’s wakefulness the laws, God’s sleep the activity…)
  3. Somewhere in the ocean I started getting an erection. Marilyn Monroe had a penis. The boat sprang a leak. I “woke up”** with come all over me.

  • *If you want to be an artist, go to sleep.
  • **Falling, going to, then coming, up…

— from Hot And Cold (powerHouse, 2001)

Our intelligence is the capacity for recognizing patterns and sorting them into cause and effect. For instance I think that the universe is intelligent because it seems logical that intelligence—ours—could only be generated by intelligence. At the same time I know that saying a thing like that has no meaning. It’s just my fate to be driven to surmise. I also believe that reality starts where knowledge ends.

The older I get the less there seems to be a world. Things arrive and depart from the apparent. In my experience, the world kept shifting shape until the whole process broke down as did “the world.” There’s no scale. Everything is equally complex no matter its size. Nothing changes: it all simply modulates incomprehensibly.

Equally, one might say the world is a ridiculous reduction. Look at how things are, given the infinite that’s hidden.

It’s preoccupied sluggishness, a laziness, an indifference that’s excited, excitement that’s indifferent. A dreaminess. I wonder about what the connotations of “poet” are, what people mean when they call someone a poet when it’s not about writing poems. It’s a person who’s impractical, who cares about underlying realities more than worldly ambition and appearances, who’s absent minded. Drunken. Also good-willed, spiritually generous. Yes? Perhaps mildly provocative. A cloud in pants. It’s because it’s impractical to metaphor interminably, write poetry, it’s like forgetting how to walk: it will not pay the rent. That’s one of the beauties of poetry, it’s the place of fewest false values. A commitment to beauty as ridiculous as looking at the clouds all day, preferably a curious and therefore analytic commitment. Poets are fools.

Poets are fools but I don’t give a fuck anymore. Life’s only good when it’s well written.

— from “New Year’s Day 2001” (2001), Disgusting (38th St. Books, 2010)

The erosion that comes with age of certain mental faculties is like entering a more dreamlike state, as if you’re gradually increasing your resemblance to the inanimate, where chance and physics, rather than any illusory will, are clearly the only actors. One can catch one’s mind behaving the way dreams develop: when one has just been thinking of something and then momentarily gotten distracted and then can remember what had been on one’s mind but it’s a mistaken memory that can have been triggered by any quality of the thing or word(s) for the thing one had in mind; for instance, say one had been thinking of a briefcase, the misremembered item could be a briar case or a saddle or a court date or etc. It’s the same way dreams develop: a cat could be or become a car or a bat or a dog or a snarky person… One slowly subsides. One does again the same thing one has forgotten one already did. One uses the same word three times in four sentences because it’s been brought to the foreground but one somehow isn’t aware of that. One writes inhibit instead of inhabit. It’s all a dream. One becomes more consistent with non-conscious reality.

And then it came to me, that feeling, the feeling that death was the truth, that this state of being alive was a sour chord played in death, a kind of dead end, tainted mutation, a freak and temporary warp and wart on death’s resources, presently to be reabsorbed. That being alive was a lie, a kind of grotesque misuse of material—like a sculpture made of food—and that to be truthful I’d have to die.

— “Boy Meets Death, Boy Falls in Love” (1999), Hot and Cold (powerHouse, 2001)

I’ve more than once had this eerie, almost mathematical, but comforting experience, when falling asleep, of disintegrating, and I realize as it’s happening that it’s dying, the experience of dying, but also that that straightforward subjection to physical laws (rather than all the psychological phenomena—emotions, etc.—which trick us into thinking we have agency) is reality. The waking world, consciousness, ‘life,’ is the dream; the falling asleep world, death, is the reality.

— from Untitled (Merde : Press, 2018)

As this essay shows, the sense has recurred for me in inklings my whole life that being half asleep is the closest thing to reality, and now those inklings have coalesced. It’s like love or religion. I’m surprised to find that when I’m feeling fear, worthlessness, self-disgust, which has always happened and is possibly worse now that I am almost seventy, remembering that I’m dreaming and a dream, the reconciliation of consciousness and the inanimate, of human birth and death relieves me of despair. A good epitaph would be, “Out of Control.” Mmmm. The drowsy feeling the warm milk brings.

Falling Asleep © Richard Hell 2019.


Richard Hell

Richard Hell is a writer who lives in New York.


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