The Book of Dreams

I‘ve visited the Gardens at Wisley, which, while rather more mannered and less curious than those at Kew, are certainly not without interest. This year the English autumn has been more of a New England fall, with vivid golds, reds and yellows everywhere. But these gardens were caught in that liminal moment between summer and autumn; a bonfire tree’s leaves turned flaming red, while lilac crocuses flower.

The most striking feature is a country house built in 1903 in imitation of a seventeenth century manner; a testament to the English ability to invent tradition (or to travels in hyperreality, depending on your point of view). Although the gardens have large areas dedicated to woodland and lakes, the two most striking areas for me (perhaps rather predictably) were the glasshouses (less striking than those at Kew, but with some interesting bromeliad displays) and Japanese garden (filled with slate stones amidst gravel, bamboo, Acers and bonsai juniper).

Another event was a second video evening, again showing two versions of Dracula; the first with Bela Lugosi, the second with Christopher Lee. The Lugsosi version benefits considerably from his presence and that of Dwight Frye or Edward Van Sloan, as well as some well designed sets. On the other hand, it is resolutely (brazenly, some might say) cast in the mould of melodrama and features some rather amusingly unconvincing bats and spiders (not to mention the somewhat bizarre presence of armadillos). The sequel, Dracula’s Daughter is a more staid affair, in which the eponymous heroine decides that Freudian psychoanalysis is the obvious means of curing her vampirism.

I’ve read The Athenian Murders by Jose Carlos Somoza. The novel reflects Pericles striking Phidias’ statue of Athena to force it to speak; "What does it mean? What do you mean? The paper, of course, yields, no answers;" there is, quite literally, nothing outside the text. Accordingly, the novel grafts an anachronistic postmodern view of language onto ancient Greece; "words simply lead to other words, thoughts to other thoughts and the truth remains unattainable… Someone else would, with utter confidence, produce a different version, evoking different images… to another reader they might be something quite different.. images change, they’re imperfect. " Within this context, a debate on Platonic ideas ensues; each chapter of the novel uses differing phrases to build up eidetic images corresponding to the Platonic notion of ideas. These ideas would not vary for differing readers; the discovery of such a consensus would point to a discovery of a world that is rational, beautiful and just. However, the novel characterises such attempts in the mode of tragedy, with the discovery of a Bacchic cult within Athens, and the more postmodern deus ex machina of exposing the translator and his footnotes as being as much a textual construct as the other characters.

Perhaps the problem is that this conclusion is an ineluctable as that of a Greek tragedy (with the possible exception of the fact that both Heracles’ rationalism and Diagoras’ idealism are thwarted by the text). As such, while the parallels this has provoked to Pale Fire and The Name of the Rose are well earned, I am not quite as persuaded by this curiosity, which seems perhaps a little too geometric; as John Bayley argued literature perhaps needs to be a little untidy; "The conventional novel depended on our "not knowing" in life, its function being to supply the omniscience that life denies. James has now found how to turn into art the fact that in life we never find anything out. " In essence, The Athenian Murders denies its characters the omniscience it comes close to claiming for its author by proxy Philotextus. The ethos behind conceiving an author as puppet master seems opposed to the emphasis on plurality of meaning.

I’ve also been reading My Education: A Book of Dreams by WS Burroughs. It’s been described as a book of the mythology that underpins the Burroughs cannon and certainly much of what we would expect in that regard is present and correct. However, the absence of the cut-up technique changes both context and meaning; the land of the dead or post-apocalyptic landscapes are peopled with figures from his own past, and disquisitions on the possibility of immortality. Given these intimations of mortality, the novel, like Queer to some extent, provides a curiously intentional aspect to the Burroughs oeuvre.

Finally, I’ve also read Sartre’s The Reprieve (read alongside Pullman’s The Subtle knife; a disturbingly appropriate combination), The structure of this book, flitting from the stream of consciousness of one character to another leaves me oddly reminded of a Victorian novel; in the sense that Dickens and Eliot showed the interrelation of otherwise unconnected characters through the plot devices of their respective novels. Sartre does this to some extent (as with the meeting of Philippe, Mathieu and Irene) but relies on stylistic techniques to achieve a similar effect; "each dimension was an autonomous consciousness…yes, each of those consciousness, by imperceptible contacts and insensible changes, realises its existence as a cell in a gigantic and invisible corral." Where The Age of Reason retained a much more conventional bourgeois form at odds with its themes, The Reprive is more experimental. However, this should be viewed in the context of the Sartrean tension between existentialism and humanism, which is why the structure of the novel largely sees its characters remaining separate from one another, unlike in Dickens or Eliot. Accordingly, at some points Sartre tends to agree with Merleau Ponty that "Our freedom does not destroy our situation, but gears itself to it: as long as we are alive, our situation is open" and elsewhere tends towards a Marxist critique of freedom.

For example, Mathieu considers that "If I had done what I wanted, if I had once, only once, succeeded in being free – well, that would in my case have been an ugly deception, since I should merely have exercise my freedom in this false piece.. I am free for nothing." Daniel faces the same predicament; "Why can’t I be what I am… a loathsome object that does not even manage to exist." The novel is certainly dialogic on this point; is this being-for-itself or the frustration of one’s freedom. In the similar case of Philippe, we decides that he is condemned to freedom and faces his own cowardice, but his predicament is couched in the same terms as those of Daniel. The absence of a defined structure allows for a polyphonc interplay between the characters; for example, being-for-others ("I am seen therefore I am" as Daniel puts it) being represented by the unthinking conformity of a bourgeois character receiving his call-up papers, some of the female pacifist’s showing for being-for-others for the opposite reason, while Gomez’s commitment to fighting is another aspect of being-for-itself.