Chapter 8

on the interpretation of dreams

 

            One morning in Vienna of the early 1880s Sigmund, a young doctor doing research on the nervous system of fish in the laboratory of the renowned professor Brücke, was late for work. Apparently not for the first time. The old professor looked his underling sharply in the eyes, a glance more effective than a thousand words of reprimand. A decade or two later Herr Doktor Sigmund Freud, now world-famous for his insights into the human psyche, saw that same pair of piercing blue eyes again — in a dream. He saw them on the face of a dead man.

            “Non vixit” Freud whispered to warn an unsuspecting friend who was casually conversing with the dead man. “Non vivit” (he lives not) he had meant to say, and even as he spoke the words in his dream he became aware of the mistake. “Non vixit” (he lived not) was a problem, for if the man had not lived in the first place, how could he have died? Was Josef P., Freud’s brilliant erstwhile rival for promotion, non-living or non-dead? And what was the late professor Ernst Fleischl doing, arriving in the middle of the night in the subterranean laboratory to carry young Sigmund away with him? Fleischl was definitely a non vivit, for young Sigmund had seen (as the middle-aged Sigmund would later recall) a memorial dedicated to him at the University.

            Freud wins at the end of the dream. “Non vixit”, this most Freudian of all slips, rids him of the menace of the apparition. Josef P. slowly dissolves as if submerged in the laboratory's dark aquarium, the blue fluorescence of his eyes dimmed by the menacing darkness. Scholarly Latin as exorcism. Psychoanalysts are great believers in enlightenment.

 

 

            ". . .for if I am afraid of robbers in my dreams, the robbers, to be sure, are imaginary but the fear of them is real;" Lea read over my shoulder." Did I scare you? Sorry, I should have made more noise walking over. . . and the same thing is true if I rejoice in my dream. According to the testimony of our feelings, an effect experienced. . . oops, sorry, an affect experienced in a dream is in no way inferior. . . and blah, blah, blah. . . why are you reading this?" She had a hand on each of my shoulders as she bend over the left one to take a closer look at Freud's book.

            "I am preparing a speech I am supposed to give. . ."

            "On dreams? Wow, cool!" She rested her chin on the knuckles of her own left hand, engulfing me in whatever it is that a recent hot bath does to the clean smell of a fourteen-year old body.

            "The speech is not on dreams, not specifically. It's going to be about questions. And ways of answering them. Dreaming is only one of the many ways."

            "Sounds neat. Can I read what you are writing?" Through her hand, her jaw transmitted to my shoulder the vibrations of each syllable. I stayed motionless.

            "I am just taking notes as I am reading," I answered stiffly. Then, a little more relaxed: "when I have written anything that makes sense I'll let you have a look at it, I promise. But, I warn you, you may be bored to death."

            "Just because it's interesting to you it will be boring to me, right?"

            "How presumptuous of me!"

            "Pree-zump-shuss,” Lea mocked, singing the syllables a little too close to my ear. "Maybe I'll understand more than you think, mister Q & A; try me!"

            I'll try you, girl. But, in the meantime, I wish you would take your chin off my shoulder. Your hair is too rich, too robust for my defenseless neck; its cascades acquire a purpose of their own as they go down—they don't seem to care what happens to the things they touch. Please do something about it—where is that scrunchie you casually wore around your wrist at dinner time?

            "Can you interpret a dream for me?"

            "I’ll be an expert once I have finished reading this book. . . it’s late, aren't you supposed to be in bed?" How could I talk to her without turning my head to face her? But if I did, she might be forced to move her chin off my shoulder.

            "I just couldn't go to sleep. You want to hear my dream or not?"

            Friday night, ten minutes past midnight and the hum of traffic from Queen Mary Road showed no signs of slowing down. Down the hall, Erika must have been fast asleep for some time now. Oh, well, is there a better time to talk about dreams?

             "Now, let's see, which one do I remember best? Oh, yeah. . . it all starts. . . I am looking for Timmy, I must have lost him. They had let me baby-sit him or something, I guess, and I lost him. You can imagine I am, like, out of my mind. I find myself in front of these two doors, one is Tuesday the other one is Friday. I can tell the doors by their color: Tuesday is a light brown, almost beige, a little like chocolate milk. Friday is dirty-yellow with some orange at the edges. I have a color for each day of the week — I do. Anyway, I go into Tuesday, and I can see Timmy's legs sticking out from under a bed. But when I try to pick him up, it's just his pants and his shoes, empty pants and empty shoes. Then I go into Friday and I can hear Timmy laughing, but can't see him anywhere. I turn around and. . ."

            Whatever you say, dear. I am listening.  A mess of doors and corridors, Timmy's elusive laughter, an empty movie theatre, a biker gang who found Timmy's favourite teddy bear outside a closed gas station and were looking for him to give it back.

            Freud, where are you when we need you?

            We were whispering: the best part of any past-bedtime conspiracy. We watched the traffic from high up on the sixth floor, little red lights going away, bigger white ones coming on, the splash of tires on rain puddles. Lea went to the kitchen to get a glass of milk and found grapes in the fridge; she held the bunch up in the air for me to pluck with my mouth. There must be a sonnet (or, on second thought more appropriately, a haiku) out there, waiting to be written about the armpit under a raised arm holding grapes.

            "When Laura dies I'm going to go to Atlanta to live with my father," Lea said seriously. "Someone's got to take care of Timmy. He's so tiny and so funny. . . someone's gotta teach him stuff, you know."

            "And what about your mother?" I said. "Don't you think she's going to miss you?"

            Lea rolled her eyes up, in the manner of embarrassed parents being reminded of the latest exploit by an otherwise loved offspring. "What difference is it gonna make?" she said. "My mom knows how to make people feel sorry for her without my help."         The grapes had been eaten and we were now standing facing each other. Lea rested her cheek down on my chest.

            "I keep dreaming about it", she told my collarbone.

            "Dreaming about what?"

            "About Laura dying. I know it's dumb. But then, her sister died of breast cancer and this runs in families. . . doesn't it? It will be sad but, you know, forty-two year old women get breast cancer all the time. . . don't they? Forty-two, that's how old she is—I took a peek at her medical record when she was in the hospital to have Tim. Date of birth, the twenty-third of January, nineteen-fifty-four. Poor dad believes she's thirty-eight."

            "Thirty-eight!" she repeated, in a falsetto caricature of a voice I'd never heard.

            I had to give her a hug.

            "I gave up waiting for the divorce; that was dumb.  Dad will never divorce Laura. It's all (swooning voice) 'Laura, luv,' and 'Laura, honey,' and 'Laura said this,' 'Laura would just llluv that'. . . It's, like, I feel sorry for the man. . ."

            We sat side-by-side on the couch. "O.K., now tell me," I asked, "did you feel the same way about Erika, when she lived with your father?"

            She laughed, a shallow, nervous giggle. "I didn't mind Erika, I was the one who cried when dad told me Erika wouldn't be coming back. . . silly, huh?" Lea brought her feet up on the couch and sat resting her chin on her knees, the opaque nightgown pulled over them and down to her naked ankles. “I guess I was hoping Erika would stay, I wanted a brand-new mom; I was real little then. . . am I boring you?”

            "Not at all. . ."

            Lea took my arm and draped it around her own neck, then placed its hand on her knee and laid her cheek on it. "I don't want to go to sleep" she said, and she fell asleep.

 

 

            Let us contemplate the mystique of the night. Let us consider the frailty of human flesh and the presumption of innocence. This slender rib cage can tell you all about innocence—let it speak for itself in the language of body parts that quietly rise and fall in the night, the oblivious rhythm interrupted only by the occasional start and shallow sigh (if I could only imagine what quiver in your dreams, precious one!). Never mind me, I’ll just sit here and listen. Never mind time, time is nothing at all — light-emitting digits drifting in the darkness with drowsy visions of eternity.

            The middle-aged man resolves to stay motionless, not wanting to disturb that one wisp of hair toying with his chin. Eventually his arm will go to sleep, then he will fall asleep himself, not bothered by the thought of the entanglement being discovered the next morning as sunlight enters the study: This is the kind of innocence that constitutes its own proof. . . isn't it?

 

            Now, now, whose innocence are we talking about? Not yours, professor. No "ifs" and "buts" here, there is physical evidence. You can give me psycho-babble all you want — I see you have been reading the Master tonight — but it is going to be pathetically unconvincing I am afraid. I'll grant you the nuances but we cannot disregard hard physical evidence, can we? Very hard, and rising from somewhere to the south of where soul meets solar plexus. . .

 

            I am aware of that, it's my own body part damn it, no need to rub it in. I have no use for repressed, hypocritical inner voices. I single-handedly debunked Heaven-and-Hell at the age of eleven, as you may recall. Here is my exorcism for the arbitrariness of "sin": if it hurts no one it cannot be immoral, no matter how pleasurable. I am the suave, grey-templed academic and I ought to be able to handle this.  My biological reflexes, my pangs and my tingles, are nobody's business. As long as I keep them to myself, of course, which is precisely what I intend to do. Now, if you would be so kind as to butt off and leave me alone to contemplate the visual premises redefined by those ten little polished toenails sticking out from under the nightgown hem like perfect bright candy. . .

 

            Ah, aesthetics. Noble but treacherous. I like your self-assurance about exactly what you intend to do (or, rather, what you intend not to do) and I am altogether willing to expect that this child will walk out of here intact — it is you I am worried about my vulnerable, reflex-susceptible male! there are things erudition cannot protect you from, you know. I could give you a long lecture on the limits of "appropriate," but let us be practical here. Do yourself a favour and end this now, while you still can, before imagined premises start assuming a life of their own. Sleep is full of things that just happen, illusions seduce, cravings consume, longings are long and the night can lie to you about love. . .

            Oh, yes, love.

Decreed from above, written in stone, dumbed-down in pink paperbacks by the checkout counter. Everyone knows whether they are in Love, who they Love, who they are Loved by, and who they will be Loving thirty years from now. How do you call this then, when two creatures just get together because the night is too long, because the world is too drab, because it feels good to huddle, a tiny forever that will be happy to last the night? Let us see if we can come up with a word for it. Until then, this discussion is pointless, I am afraid.

 

            It is almost two A.M., dearest, and I need my arm back, I hate to tell you. I could spend the rest of the night keeping my fingers motionless as I catch on their back tatters of exhaled warmth but I don't know if I can stand it. There is such thing as too much tenderness. How do I wake thee up? Let me count the ways:

            -Brush hair away from that face, tuck it behind the ear if that's what it takes.

            -Chaste, paternal kiss on that cheek.

            -Gentle squeeze on that hand. . .

            -. . .or on that shoulder.

            -Whisper something inconsequential into that ear, the distance between it and my lips calculated to the fraction of a millimetre.

            -Slip  fingertip inside the cleft between those wide-splayed toes, precariously perched at the edge of the couch.

            I could come up with many, many more ways of waking you up, if I would let myself. But only one will probably suffice. The tragedy of it breaks my heart.

 

 

- Constantin Polychronakos