Monday, February 8, 2016

Mark Twain's Dream Artist

The dream is the greatest of all psychic phenomena. Like a god, the dreamer is a creator of worlds and spaces. But what are dreams? Shadows of the day, airy nothings?

Perhaps not, say some writers who don’t mind subverting conventional worldviews. The philosophers C.D. Broad and H.H. Price arrived at a strange conclusion. Our waking minds, they suggested, are immersed in an extended dream world. The dream world continues with its business, even as we carry on in waking reality.

Moreover, there’s a flimsy partition between waking and dream reality. Dozing off at your desk or on a train ride can plunge you into another world, incongruous and unexpected.
Ingest a mushroom or smoke a weed, and a pile of garbage may change into an enchanting landscape. Nearly die and you may find yourself whirling through strange worlds of light.

What if that other world and its many mansions were interfused with ordinary physical 3-D space? It would be easy to imagine all sorts of leakages of the big dream space into our tremulous waking life.
Some people might have a knack for crossing the enchanted boundary and thus gain a sense for what lies behind the veil of ordinary alertness. Mark Twain, for example, who wrote about his various psychic experiences, was a deep student of dream reality.

At age sixty-three, he wrote My Platonic Sweetheart, an account of a dream adventure lasting forty-four years. This consisted of having episodic encounters with an archetypal fifteen-year-old sweetheart, sometimes called Agnes. In the dream, Twain is always seventeen. They meet about once every two years in various exotic locales; her appearance may change but her instantly recognizable uniqueness of essence shines through.

The encounter is brief, a glimpse, but when their eyes meet there is mutual recognition. They gaze upon each other and melt into each other with perfect love.

A short narrative, in part good surrealism, nicely mimicking the way events unfold in dream logic: “In the first moment I was five steps behind her; in the next one I was at her side – without either stepping or gliding; it merely happened; the transfer ignored space.” As we say today, it was a quantum leap.

Speaking of two encounters with his dream sweetheart in 1864, he remembers “the eager approach, then the instant disappearance, leaving the world empty and of no worth”.   The feeling was intimate without passion, childlike but finer, more exquisite than in waking life.

Twain tells of a dream-meeting with Agnes in Athens, “not surprised to see her, but only glad”, and then he “climbed a grassy hill toward a palatial sort of mansion built of terra-cotta . . .” and goes on to describe in detail what he saw as “the richly tinted and veined onyx”, noting how it all remained so vivid for thirty years.

About the house in his dream, Twain wrote: “When I think of that house and its belongings, I recognize what a master in taste and drawing and color and arrangement is the dream artist who resides in us.”

He could scarcely reproduce a likeness of common objects, he said; by contrast his inner dream-artist never failed to create compelling visions of reality.

“But my dream-artist can draw anything, and do it perfectly; he can paint with all the colors and all the shades, and do it with delicacy and truth; he can place before me vivid images of palaces, cities, hamlets, hovels, mountains, valleys, lakes, skies . . . and he can set before me people who are intensely alive.”

Now in the last two pages of this strange reminiscence, Mark Twain is either pulling our leg or announcing a philosophy like that of the two philosophers I mentioned at the outset, C.D. Broad & H.H. Price. In their view, we are immersed in an extended dream world that periodically overflows the boundaries of rational sense life.

Again, Twain: “In our dreams – I know it! – we do make the journeys we seem to make; we do see the things we seem to see; the people, the horses, the cats, the dogs, the birds . . .”. Above all, the pain he felt when his dream love died was intensely real (“preternaturally vivid”). (Fortunately, she re-appeared revived in a later dream.)

All these are glimpses of what lay hidden. “For everything in a dream is more deep and strong and sharp and real than is ever its pale imitation in the unreal life that is ours when we go about awake and clothed with our artificial selves in this vague and dull-tinted artificial world.”

We should underscore this astonishing sentence. It’s a complete reversal of common sense and mainstream science. The world of waking reality is a shadow of a greater dream-reality. Ironically, if true, then our great hope is to wake up from waking reality.

Mark Twain’s path goes against the grain: “When we die we shall slough off this cheap intellect and go abroad into dreamland clothed in our real selves . . ..” The dream then brings us closer to the real and abiding self than our waking minds, constrained as they are by earth-warped logic and intellect.

So what is Mark Twain’s dream philosophy? By dream alone may we meet the “mysterious mental magician”, and thus learn something of her secrets.
Each of us then to our Platonic sweetheart.

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