Thursday, February 7, 2013

Dream Dictionaries Lie: On George Perec's La Boutique Obscure

I am skeptical of every dream sequence I encounter in an work of intentional creation. The problem with created dream sequences is that they have a different level of freedom of imagery than the rest of the work in which they appear. Essentially, when events normally permissible within the framework of the narrative cannot directly communicate whatever it is the creator wants to communicate, a dream sequence is inserted to bear overt symbols from one part of the narrative to the other and magically we know the protagonist is chosen for the quest, or uncomfortable with their title, or desperate for the affection of an otherwise distant other, or whatever other emotion or phenomenal fact of human existence that doesn't routinely come up in the course of every day existence.

Don't get me wrong. Dream sequences can sometimes do other things, shifting the narrative to a realm of fantastic and surreal imagery to present a kind of alternative reality to what makes up the bulk of the story, for example, but it's clear that dreams are sometimes narrative lean-tos for the creatively lazy, techniques that let them organize their supplies for the real storytelling ahead. And it is also clear that sometimes dream sequences can absolutely shatter whatever storytelling momentum the creator has mounted until that point. At worst, it's like somebody farted in a car. But I'd go so far as to question whether the very idea of the interpretation of dreams makes any sense at all. First of all, we never analyze the dreams themselves, but the memories of our dreams; we analyze the chaos of our dreams as preserved by the chaos of our memories. Second, I see no reason why we should assume systems of conscious meaning, like symbol and metaphor, work in our unconscious as well. Finally, we still don't know, biologically, why we sleep at all. Odds are, dreams are just neurological excretion produced by some neurological maintenance process. It seems like it would make sense to figure out what dreams are first, before assuming they tell us anything. Assuming we know what they tells us then, is right out.

Yep. A Look into this guy's brain.
Even with those doubts, even if you can't be sure what you are seeing, dreams offer a look into another person's brain and I wanted to look into George Perec's brain. A founding member of Oulipo, the literary group that experimented with form and constraint as a way to drive creative literature, Perec is one of those figures in contemporary literature, at the moment, always in the background. Whenever a writer tries some kind of formal experimentation, Perec's A Void, an entire novel written without the letter “e,” hangs over the writer. And his Life: A User's Manual is one of my favorite books, a brilliant, massive, novel of a moment in a building and all the life that goes into every moment in every building that should be considered along with Gravity's Rainbow, Underground, and Infinite Jest, as one of the great post-modern novels and could stand up favorably in comparison to any of the great novels of any time. Perec's imagination, his commitment to formal exploration, his belief in constraint and structures, make him uniquely suited to explore the mystery of dreams. Essentially, I trust him to actually share what he dreams to the best he can remember, without any yearning for stable symbolism.

It's French for "The Boutique Obscure."
The result, La Boutique Obscure, is a collection of dreams that actually feel like the dreams I have, not because I've got a mind like Perec's (at least, that's not what I assume) but because these dreams have all the chaos and nonsense of the dreams I have. I recognize the mechanisms of phenomena in Perec's dreams, that are almost always absent from dreams presented in narrative. The chaotic passage of time, change in location, and presence of character. Knowing you know something without knowing how you know it. Sudden change in event without explanation and without any disorientation from the unexplained change. Lack of conclusion. All of the things that make dreams totally useless purveyors of narrative meaning. For example here's how “The refusal to testify,” opens; “I think I've found a large room in my apartment, but it turns out it's not mine, and, in fact, it's the street.” And there's this from “Decorated with medals,” “L. does not look like himself. He has a beard. He looks more like Bernard P. would if Bernard P. grew a beard. His wife looks vaguely like Bernard P.'s wife.”

Which is not to say that Perec's dreams are totally devoid of images and events that make us think of symbolism and meaning, but that says more about the state of the mind than the state of dreams. As a writer, Perec thought a lot about symbolism and meaning, and so naturally, aspects of that would show up in his dream as surely as this does in “The hypothalamus;” “It starts with a few harmless comments, but soon there's not denying it: there are several Es in A Void./ First one, then two, then twenty, then thousands!/ I can't believe my eyes./ I discuss it with Claude...How did nobody every notice?”

(I don't know if other writers would feel the same way, but it's hard to describe just how comforting it is to me, to see George Perec have a nightmare about A Void. And that it's this specific nightmare, about the one mistake he cannot make; I don't know.)

Read in succession and with a containing conscious structure, it's clear that what occurs in Perec's dreams does not follow the rules and systems of symbol and metaphor. And when they appear to, as in Perec's dream “The puzzle,” in which he dreams “Close up, though, you realize the whole thing is a puzzle: the puzzle itself (the painting) is but a fragment of a larger puzzle, unfinished because it can't be finished,” you're not experiencing direct communication through the mechanisms of literary meaning, your brain is just processing what you spend your time thinking about. Perec actually thought about puzzles. A lot. Along with the puzzle nature of much of his work, he also wrote crossword puzzzles. Of course, at some point he would dream about puzzles, not because they had some deeper symbolic meaning in his life, but because he was constantly thinking about puzzles. If dreams tell us anything at all that is of any use at all in our waking lives, they tell us what is on our minds.

If we learn anything applicable to consciousness from Perec's or anyone's dreams it is that we are drawn to interpret, whether there is meaning to be found or not. We have dreams and so, just like with the arrangement of stars in the sky over time, the seasonal patterns of migratory birds, or the way tea leaves collect in the bottom of a cup, we interpret them. “Interpretation,” might be the mythical name of the double-edge sword held by human consciousness; everything that makes us beautiful and everything that makes us repulsive comes from our ability to see what is not there.

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