This text was part of an address delivered at the Creative Writing Program of the University of Philadelphia, September 2005.
Fiction and the Dream John Banville
A man wakes in the morning, feeling light-headed, even somewhat dazed. Standing in the curtained gloom in his pyjamas, blinking, he feels that somehow he is not his real, vital, fully conscious self. It is as if that other, alert version of him is still in bed, and that what has got up is a sort of shadow-self, tremulous, two-dimensional. What is the matter? Is he “coming down with something”? He does seem a little feverish. But no, he decides, what is afflicting him is no physical malady. There is, rather, something the matter with his mind. His brain feels heavy, and as if it were a size too large for his skull. Then, suddenly, in a rush, he remembers the dream.
It was one of those dreams that seem to take the entire night to be dreamt. All of him was involved in it, his unconscious, his subconscious, his memory, his imagination; even his physical self seemed thrown into the effort. The details of the dream flood back, uncanny, absurd, terrifying, and all freighted with a mysterious weight—such a weight, it seems, as is carried by only the most profound experiences of life, of waking life, that is. And indeed, all of his life, all of the essentials of his life, were somehow there, in the dream, folded tight, like the petals of a rosebud. Some great truth has been revealed to him, in a code he knows he will not be able to crack. But cracking the code is not important, is not necessary; in fact, as in a work of art, the code itself is the meaning.
He puts on his dressing gown and his slippers and goes downstairs. Everything around him looks strange. Has his wife’s eyes developed overnight that slight imbalance, the right one a fraction lower than the left, or is it something he has never noticed before? The cat in its corner watches him out of an eerie stillness. Sounds enter from the street, familiar and at the same time mysterious. The dream is infecting his waking world.
He begins to tell his wife about the dream, feeling a little bashful, for he knows how silly the dreamed events will sound. His wife listens, nodding distractedly. He tries to give his words something of the weight that there was in the dream. He is coming to the crux of the thing, the moment when his dreaming self woke in the midst of the dark wood, among the murmuring voices. Suddenly his wife opens her mouth wide—is she going to beg him to stop, is she going to cry out that she finds what he is telling her too terrifying?—is she going to scream? No: she yawns, mightily, with little inward gasps, the hinges of her jaws cracking, and finishes with a long, shivery sigh, and asks if he would like to finish what is left of the scrambled egg.
The dreamer droops, dejected. He has offered something precious and it has been spurned. How can she not feel the significance of the things he has been describing to her? How can she not see the bare trees and the darkened air, the memory of which is darkening the very air around them now—how can she not hear the murmurous voices, as he heard them? He trudges back upstairs to get himself ready for another, ordinary, day. The momentous revelations of the night begin to recede. It was just a dream, after all.
But what if, instead of accepting the simple fact that our most chaotic, our most exciting, our most significant dreams are nothing but boring to others, even our significant others—what if he said to his wife, All right, I’ll show you! I’ll sit down and write out the dream in such an intense and compelling formulation that when you read it you, too, will have the dream; you, too, will find yourself wandering in the wild wood at nightfall; you, too, will hear the dream voices telling you your own most secret secrets.
I can think of no better analogy than this for the process of writing a novel. The novelist’s aim is to make the reader have the dream—not just to read about it, but actually to experience it: to have the dream; to write the novel.
Now, these are dangerous assertions. In this post-religious age—and the fundamentalists, Christian, Muslim and other, only attest to the fact that ours is an age after religion—people are looking about in some desperation for a new priesthood. And there is something about the artist in general and the writer in particular which seems priest-like: the unceasing commitment to an etherial faith, the mixture of arrogance and humility, the daily devotions, the confessional readiness to attend the foibles and fears of the laity. The writer goes into a room, the inviolable domestic holy of holies—the study—and remains there alone for hour after hour in eerie silence. With what deities does he commune, in there, what rituals does he enact? Surely he knows something that others, the uninitiates, do not; surely he is privy to a wisdom far beyond theirs.
These are delusions, of course. The artist, the writer, knows no more about the great matters of life and the spirit than anyone else—indeed, he probably knows less. This is the paradox. As Henry James has it, we work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have, the rest is the madness of art. And Kafka, with a sad laugh, adds: The artist is the man who has nothing to say.
The writer is not a priest, not a shaman, not a holy dreamer. Yet his work is dragged up out of that darksome well where the essential self cowers, in fear of the light.
I have no grand psychological theory of creativity. I do not pretend to know how the mind, consciously or otherwise, processes the base metal of quotidian life into the gold of art. Even if I could find out, I would not want to. Certain things should not be investigated.
The dream world is a strange place. Everything there is at once real and unreal. The most trivial or ridiculous things can seem to carry a tremendous significance, a significance which—and here I agree with Freud—the waking mind would never dare to suggest or acknowledge. In dreams the mind speaks its truths through the medium of a fabulous nonsense. So, I think, does the novel.
The writing of fiction is far more than the telling of stories. It is an ancient, an elemental, urge which springs, like the dream, from a desperate imperative to encode and preserve things that are buried in us deep beyond words. This is its significance, its danger and its glory.
Fiction and Dream
Muhtin almmái moriha iđđes, oaivi dego suova siste, beanta oaivejorgasis. Idjabivttasgerdiid čuččodettiin klássaliinniid suoivanis, viggamin čalmmiid rahpat, son dego dovdá ahte son ii leat dat albma, ealli, diđolaš ieš. Lea dego nubbi, vitmes bealli alddis ain veallá doppe seaŋggas, ja dat bealli mii lea lihkkan, lea dego suoivvan sus, doarggisteamen, guoktin juhkkojuvvon. Mii lea mii lea boastut? Lea go šaddamin illaveaje? Son orru gal veahá bahkas. Muhto gávnnaha, ii leat mihkkege boastut rupmašiin. Lea baicce miella, mii ii áibbas doaimma. Oaivi orru nu nu lossat, dego livččii menddo stuoris oaiveskálžui. De, fáhkka, suova siste, son muitá niegu.
Lei dakkár niehku, mii orru dárbbašeamen olles ija niegáduvvot. Visot sus lei šaddan das oassin; buot maid gamustis dovdá, su muitu, su govahallan. Lea dego olles su rumaš lei bálkestuvvon nihkui. Oasit niegus gurgásit ruovttuluotta rávdnjin, balddihahtti, jáhketmeahttun, ja buot osiid deaddá imašlas noađđi. Dakkár noađđi, man guddet duššefal eallima čiekŋaleamos vásáhusat, duohta eallin. Ja duohta fal, buot su eallima vuođđooasit ledje das, niegus, máhcastuvvon lastan ruvsuurbbi siste. Stuorra dohtavuohta lea sutnje ilbman, kodas man son ii dieđe jos son oba ge máhtášii čoavdit. Muhto kodačoavdin ii leat dehálaš, ii leat dárbu, danne go, juste nu mo dáidagis, de lea ieš koda mii lea guovddážis.
Son nahkeha iđitreadju ja loabáhiid, ja manná vuolás. Buot su birra orru nu ártet. Leat go eamida čalmmit ija mielde veahá botnjasan, olgeš lea gahččan binná gurut čalmmi vuolábeaiiái, vai lea go dušše juoga, maid son ii leat ovdal fuomášan? Bussá geahččá sutnje iežas čiegas, ilgadis jaskat. Jienat mat leat olggobealde, geainnus, bahkkejit sisa, oahppásat ja ipmašat. Niehku mirkkohahttá su duohta máilmmi.
Son muitališgoahtá niegus birra eamidii, veahá vel heahpana, go son ádde man ártegat dáhpáhusat niegus orrot. Eamit guldala, ja nivkkuha, ii oro guldaleamen su. Son geahččala addit sániide veahá ge dan deattus, mii niegus lei. Gelddoleamos oassi lahkona, dalle go son niegus moriha guovdo sevdnjes vuovddi siste, muljardeaddji jienaid gaskkas. Fáhkkestaga eamit veanzá, áigu go dáhttut su heaitit – áigu go huikit sutnje man vearrái dát muitalus lea? – gilljáda go? Ii, son gávasta, vuoimmalaččat, hahkká go rohtte áimmu sisa, ollolat gihčet, ja son loahpaha guhkes doarggisteaddji šuohkanasain ja jearrá jos son sihtá reastta manneseaguhusa.
Niegádeaddji gahččá čoahkkái, šlundu. Son lea fállan juoidá mas lea stuorra árvu, ja dan lea biehttalan váldimis vuostá. Mo lea ahte son ii dovdda man dehálaš lea, dat maid son lea sutnje muitalan? Mo lea ahte son ii oainne álas muoraid ja sevdnjes vuoiŋŋa, muittu mii dál sevnnjodahttá ieš áimmu mii lea sudno birra – mo lea go son ii gula muljardeaddji jienaid, nu mo son daid gulai? Son šloahtala fas bajás, ráhkkanan dihte vuot ođđa dábálaš beaivái. Lei dušše niehku.
Naba jos son, dan sadjái go dohkkehit dan ahte min eanemus moivves, virkkus ja mávssolaš niegut leat dušše váigadat earáid, ja maiddái min lagamuččaid mielas – muhto mo jos son dajašii eamidii: Gula maid, gal mun čájehan dutnje! Mun čohkkedan ja čálán dán niegu nu ealli ja hásttuheaddji láhkai, ahte logadettin dan, don maid vásihat seammá niegu; don maid leat vánddardeamen meahcis ihkku; don maid gulat niehkojienaid muitaleamen dutnje iežat siskkimus čiegusvuođaid.
Mun in dieđe buoret govahaddama go dát muitalus, go galgá muitalit románadáidaga birra. Čálli bargu lea oažžut lohkki vásihit niegu – ii dušše lohkat dan birra, muhto duođaid vásihit dan: vásihit niegu: čállit romána.
Dát leat liikká várálaš čuoččuhusat. Min maŋŋe-oskolaš áiggis – ja fundameantalisttat, kristtalaččat, muslimat ja earát, eambbo duođaštit ahte min áigodat boahtá maŋŋil oskolaš-áigodaga – de olbmot ohcalit ođđalágan báhppagotti. Dáiddárat, erenoamážit čállit, orrot ge báhppalágánat: sis lea dat mearihis jáhkku eteralaš oskui, sin čeavláivuohta ja vuollegašvuohta, beaivválaš buorádusdagut ja nu oskolaččat áiccadeamen dábálaš olbmuid heajos beliid ja baluid. Čálli loaiddasta iežas latnjii, ruovttu eanemus bassi latnja man ii oktage oaččo gudnehuhttit – moskkugámmirii – ja orru doppe siste tiimmu tiimmu maŋis balddonas jaskatvuođas. Guđemuš ipmiliiguin son doppe doadjala láibbi, guđemuš meanuid dahká? Dieđusge diehtá son dakkáriid maid earát, diehtemeahttumat, eai dieđe. Dieđusge lea sus viisodat, mii sis ii leat.
Dát leat dieđusge miellagovahallamat. Dáiddár, čálli, diehtá seammá unnán eallima mohkiid ja sielueallima birra go earát – árveideames diehtá vel unnit. Dát lea ge dat stuorra vuostálasvuohta. Nu mo Henry James čuoččuhii, mii bargat seavdnjadasas, mii bargat maid sáhttit, mii addit maid nagodit, reasta lea dáidaga jálluvuohta. Ja Kafka, morašgávdnasiin, vel lasihastá: Dáiddár lea almmái geas ii leat mihkkege maid dadjat.
Dáiddár ii leat báhppa, ii leat šámana, ii leat bassi niegadeaddji. Liikká lea su bargu rohttejuvvon buot seavdnjadeamos gáivos, gos min buot siskkimus bealli náđđu, čuovggas balahettiin.
Mus ii leat mihkkege dievaslaš psykologalaš teoriijaid hutkáivuođa birra. Mun in vikka diehtit mo miella, diđolaččat dahje man nu eará láhkai, árgabeaivvi čievrras dahká gollin. Vaikko vel gávnnahivččen ge mo dát doaibmá, in dan áiggoše. Muhtin áššiid ii berre dárkileappot suokkardallat.
Niehkomáilbmi lea imašlaš báiki. Buot doppe lea duohta ja jáhkemeahttun seammá áiggi. Eanemus joavdelas ja jallas tiŋga orošii hirbmat dehálaš, nu dehálaš – ja dás mun guorrasan Freudii – ahte diđolaš miella ii goassege dan árvvaše evttohit ii ge dohkkehit. Niehkomáilmmis miella hábme iežas duohtavuođaid govahaddama ja duhkoraddama bokte. Dan, mu mielas, dahká maiddái romána.
Čállit románaid mearkkaša ollu eanet go muitalit muitalusaid. Lea hui dološ dárbu mii iđista, justa dego niehku ge, čiekŋalis gohččumis, koden ja gáhtten dihte áššiid mat leat seilon ollu čiekŋaleabbot go sánit mat leat min siste. Dát lea čállindáidaga riggodat, dan váralaš bealli ja dan gudni.