The price of pretty


No, it’s not what you think.

Until the Church removed her from the calendar in 1969, July 20 long had the distinction of being the feast day of Saint Wilgefortis the Liberator, the protector and patroness of women suffering in relationships with abusive husbands.

As with many medieval saints, the origins of Wilgefortis are vague and contradictory. The simplest backstory makes her the young daughter of a Portuguese nobleman, promised by her father in marriage to a pagan barbarian. In her desperation to evade this trap, Wilgefortis took a sacred vow of virginity; when this by itself was not sufficient to dampen the ardor of the proposed bridegroom she then prayed for some sort of disfigurement that would make her unfit for marriage.

Her prayers were answered: the young lady grew a full beard, and her husband-to-be took his interest elsewhere.

Wilgefortis’ father was not amused. Deprived of what had promised to be a profitable and useful political alliance, he turned his anger and disappointment on his recalcitrant offspring. He had her dressed in her finest clothes, as if for a wedding, and then crucified her and left her to die.

.   .   .

In the social environment that prevailed in Europe during the late Middle Ages women had not fared well. Salic Law, introduced by the Franks during the sixth and seventh centuries and adopted widely throughout Europe, did not allow women to inherit property or titles, and in many places local customs prohibited women from owning businesses or land without male oversight.  Marriage, especially among the nobility, was a matter of political expediency, and girls were used by their male kin as a form of currency to buy alliances with other factions and families.

The incomparable Lucrezia Borgia, daughter of Pope Alexander VI, was married off three times in schemes to benefit the political ambitions of her father and older brother.  Her first marriage was annulled when her husband came to be of no further use to the Borgia plans; her second husband was murdered, most likely at the instigation of her brother Cesare, having likewise outlived his usefulness; her third marriage, while loveless, was a material success, and Lucrezia’s own wealth and power survived the death of both her brother and her father.


The rights and interests of the young women involved were irrelevant. Peasants could marry for love, because there was nothing else at stake, but the nobility had obligations to dynasty, to tradition, and to political position that trumped any other concerns. Predictably, such marriages were often little more than business arrangements; apart from the need to produce heirs, there was rarely any emotional contact between the partners. The girl was simply a means to an end, and her feelings were of no importance as long as she played her part.

.  .  .

Depictions of Saint Wilgefortis traditionally show a young woman with a beard, often wearing only one shoe, crucified on a wooden cross. Frequently there is a fiddler or a beggar at her feet: according to legend, when a starving man once came to the feet of the saint’s statue to pray, a silver shoe dropped off into his hands (a story that I would find a bit suspicious under the best of circumstances, but I guess sometimes you just have to accept things on trust.)

In different traditions Saint Wilgefortis is referred to as “The Escaper”, “The Strong Virgin”, “Grief”, “The Liberated” — in England she was called “Uncumber”, as in “unencumbered”.  As is often the case with female saints in the Catholic hagiography, Wilgefortis represented defiance, personal integrity, freedom from oppression, but the message was a mixed one: a woman could exercise her freedom, yes, but she had to be prepared to pay the price.

Even now, in the second decade of the 21st century, women and girls frequently face terrible decisions and terrible consequences, decisions forced upon them by circumstances beyond their control: the victims of rape or incest dealing with the resulting pregnancy; five-year-olds dressed up like Vegas showgirls and trained to parade their bodies before adult audiences who judge their value as human beings on the basis of how effectively they mimic adult sexuality; victims of “honor killings”, genital mutilation, and acid attacks; abused wives and daughters urged by ministers or relatives to stay with their abusers — or simply unable to escape. The world today is a better place in many, many ways than that of five hundred years ago, but ancient evils persist.

I don’t know why the Church chose to remove Wilgefortis from the calendar. More than likely it was due to the confusion that surrounds her origins and the tendency to conflate her with another female saint whose feast day was also July 20. To add to the confusion, a representation of Jesus on the cross, the androgynous Volto Santo of Lucca, has sometimes been mistaken for a that of a woman due to the long dress-like tunic the figure wears.

In any event, in a church that has not always been known for its embrace of originality, the bearded lady on the cross exercises a certain side-show hilarity, while at the same time the tabloid story of her life and terrible death evokes modern echoes that are not nearly so amusing.



Journal: Friday, January 18

I’m currently working my way through a series of critical biographies of American painters of the mid-twentieth-century: I’ve finished Rothko and Arshile Gorky, and now I’ve begun Willem de Kooning. Two suicides and an Alzheimer’s victim — compared to the Abstract Expressionists, the Surrealists were a stroll in the park.

The one unifying characteristic that seemed to prevail in American painting mid-century was the prevalence of European immigrants struggling against very difficult personal legacies: Rothko was a Latvian Jew at a time when Jews were being blamed for the upheavals tearing the Russian Empire apart; Gorky was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey; the Dutch de Kooning survived a terrible childhood of poverty and emotional stress only to succumb to alcoholism and eventually dementia in his adult life. Jackson Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming, but his Western upbringing left him little better prepared for life as a New York artist: he was struggling with alcoholism before his career had even begun.

The European Surrealists, such as Max Ernst, Paul Eluard, Andre Breton, Yves Tanguy, and Andre Masson, were also uprooted by war and economic turmoil, and all seemed to share a profound emotional instability that left them incapable of lasting emotional attachments, but they seemed to be able to externalize their problems, making life difficult for those around them but leaving themselves relatively unscathed.

Was it the nature of each group’s work that had such deep, but different, effects on their emotional lives, or were they all drawn into their respective universes because of each individual’s personal charactistics? In other words, did Abstract Expressionism make artists self-destructive, or did only self-destructive artists become involved in Abstract Expressionism?


Journal: Thursday, September 12

My friend Sebastian, in better times

My friend Sebastian, in better times

My best friend Sebastian died this afternoon, snuggled up in my arms, whimpering and snuffling, trying to purr as I scratched the back of his neck. He had been suffering for several days from a very high fever that evolved into a rampaging anemia that turned his skin yellow and robbed his blood of the ability to transport enough oxygen to keep him alive, no matter how hard he struggled to breathe. He was frightened, and in pain, and he knew that, just like always, I was there to make it all better. Instead, I held him while the veterinarian injected him with a quick, silent poison that ended his life within seconds of my giving her my assent.

I know, intellectually, that death is a fact of life: I’ve outlived friends, said goodbye to family, and buried literally dozens of pets over the last fifty-five years. I know that we all die, and that a world in which we didn’t would be a grotesque and horrible place; I know that immortality could never by anything but a cancer, changing and deforming the very organisms it preserves.

Emotionally, however, every loss still hurts, burning with a different mix of denial, guilt, grief, anger, and loss. Emotionally, that elegant intellectual understanding of the proper sequence of birth and life and death and new birth smells like nothing more than a steaming bucket of excrement.

As human beings, we have always seen ourselves as perched atop the pinnacle of creation: second only to God; stewards of the Garden; the naked ape clinging to the very highest branches of the tree of life. For reasons too complex and too deeply-seated for me to ever articulate, it is important to me that the creatures in my care live without fear, without pain. I know perfectly well how artificial an environment that is: any living being in a natural state would not survive a day if he — or she, or it — did not know fear and pain, know them and understand them at a visceral level. Still, I feel the need to shelter my pets, to prove that I am greater than the arbitrary whims of nature. I defy entropy, thereby demonstrating that I am beyond it, above it, superior to it. If I were honest with myself, I would admit that what I’m doing is more about broadening and deepening my own sense of self-worth, my notion of my importance in the grand scheme of things, than about the animals, but if I were honest with myself, I wouldn’t be in this position in the first place, trying to drag the universe down these strange and difficult paths.

Sebastian depended on me, he depended on my omniscience and my super-natural authority to make his world a happy and secure one. He depended on me, and I failed him. The fact that success was not even remotely possible means nothing, at least for today: he knew that I would always make things right for him, he trusted me, and all I could do was end his life. I grieve for him, for the absence of him in my day to day life, but I’m also angry, outraged that the god-human image of myself that Sebastian and I created between us proved to be such a frail and useless fraud.

I did my best for Sebastian, or at least the best I believed I could do at the time. I know this. I really do. Eventually I will go beyond knowing and I will actually believe it, and the guilt and the anger will diminish, and the grief will mature, and only the loss will remain, the faint smell of smoke left after the fire burns itself out; and with time, even that will mellow, and I will remember Sebastian with pleasure and not with the gut-wrenching reminder that he is no longer in the next room, curled up in a chair, waiting for me.

But that’s tomorrow, or the day after. Not today; no, not today.

And you find yourself
In a great house with many windows open
Running from room to room, not knowing where to look out.
Because the pines will vanish, and the mirrored mountains
And the chirping of the birds.
The sea will empty, shattered glass, from North to South.
Your eyes will be emptied of the light of day
As suddenly, all at once, the cicadas will fall silent."

(Excerpted from “Thrush”, by George Seferis)


In a Sea Rendered Great

Toss them a rope, or just enjoy the solid ground under your feet?

Toss them a rope, or just enjoy the solid ground under your feet?

Here’s a scenario we may all recognize:  Little Johnny comes home from school with a black eye and a split lip and his parents discover that he’s been in an altercation with the notoriously arrogant and bullying Jim-Bob from the mobile home park across the tracks. Johnny’s wounds are salved with an outpouring of parental sympathy and dire mutterings that “something really has to be done about those people.”

Skip ahead six months: Johnny comes home with similar injuries, except this time they’ve been inflicted by Bubba, the notoriously arrogant and bullying youngest son of the president of the First National Bank. This time, instead of sympathy, Johnny gets a vigorous swabbing of isopropyl alcohol and a lecture. “What did you do to provoke him? You can’t be going around picking fights — you’ve got to learn to get along with people.”

Befuddled, little Johnny goes to his room without supper to contemplate the error of his ways. What happened? In both cases he was attacked by a bully, in both cases he was the wronged party, why the different responses, as if he were two different people?

Welcome to the concept of “worthy victim” and “unworthy victim”.

In Steubenville, Ohio, when a group of boys raped a sixteen-year old girl, much of the public outcry was focused not on the boys but on the victim — she was drunk, she deserved it, she ruined the lives of these promising young athletes by pursuing the charges. The girl became an “unworthy victim”, deserving not sympathy and justice for the appalling crime to which she had been subjected, but censure for the damage she had done to the perpetrators by having presented them with the irresistible opportunity to stray.

Victims like her, by virtue of being victims, are ready targets when assigning blame for the incidents that mar human interaction at almost every level: It’s easier to kick the man who’s down than to face off against the aggressor and risk suffering ignominy in our turn. We attack the victims because they are victims, we want to reassure ourselves that their victimhood is the result of something fundamental, some basic flaw that the rest of us do not share. We don’t think “There, but for the grace of God go I”, but rather, “Thank God I’m too moral, too careful, too savvy for something like that to ever happen to me.” We accept the criminal as something other, something so different from ourselves that to some degree we can forgive the crime, because it has nothing to do with us. We can’t forgive the victim, because he or she reminds us of our own vulnerability.

“It is pleasant to watch from the land the great struggle of someone else in a sea rendered great by turbulent winds”.

— Lucretius

This perception of the degree of difference or similarity between ourselves and the victim, coupled with our capacity for empathy, make a great deal of difference in our reaction to an incident: It seemed strange to many commentators that the most virulent abuse of the Steubenville victim came from other girls her age; in fact, the closer to the victim in age, economic position and social status the other girls were, the more antagonistic their responses seemed to be. The problem here was that when the differences were so slight it became very difficult for the other girls – all potential victims themselves – to find any comfortable degree of separation from the crime. They needed to believe that what happened to her could not happen to them, that there was something about her that made her a victim – more importantly, an “unworthy” victim – that could not be applied equally to them.

And what of the “worthy victim”? He or she is just as much a victim as the other, but here we identify, we sympathize; we perceive the worthy victim as courageous or morally elevated, and we rush to associate ourselves with his plight. The insurgent and the freedom fighter often operate from identical motivations, using identical tools, but we make a distinction, we identify with one but not the other based on our understanding of our own lives. The worthy victim is ourselves, placed in extremis, forced by circumstance to manifest an innate heroism that we want to believe we all share, even if, in our day to day lives, we fail to demonstrate anything of the kind. We “go along to get along”, while all the while clinging to the notion that we, too, could stand up and say “Give me liberty, or give me death”, if circumstances required.

Here again, the way we distinguish between the two extremes is often dictated by our ability to separate ourselves from the critical situation. It’s easy for a middle-class white American to find the necessary distance from a genocide in Rwanda or a massacre in the streets of Cairo because we know that we would never find ourselves in such a position; the environment, the people, the issues are just too alien. We’re more sympathetic with the victims because we’re less empathetic. Similar episodes in Sarajevo or World War II Berlin evoke a more complex response, because the victims look so much like us — they could be us — which means we could, someday, be them, and we hate them for that; we hate them for making us feel our own potential for weakness, for suffering, for victimhood.

So is this morally wrong, this business of “worthy” and “unworthy”? It may not really be a question of morality: in the end, these distinctions have less to do with the victims of suffering than they do with our own insecurities, our ability to place ourselves in the role of victim. Perhaps the most most important moral component of the issue is that our responses, viewed honestly and carefully, can be an opportunity to learn and to grow, to create something positive from that suffering, and through growth, to end it.

Wouldn’t if be fine if, when we stand on the shore and watch our neighbors struggle in turbulent seas, we can learn not just to throw a lifeline when needed, but to calm the waves themselves?

Come Fly with Me

Icebergs? Bah! We’re not afraid of any silly icebergs!

I know Mr Jung and Mr Freud tell us that we can learn things from our dreams. Well, last night I learned that zeppelin crews on the Rio to Lisbon route steal shoes from the passengers’ staterooms when they get bored. (Brawls have broken out over a pair of Spongebob flip-flops.)

I learned further that if you lose your wallet during the trip you are handed over to my friend Judith Levine for safe keeping — although her response is usually just to throw up her hands, cry “Whatever!”, and sail out in a flurry of crêpe de Chine. The trip takes three days.

It was quite a dream, even for me.

For centuries, people blamed spicy food for exotic or unusual dreams: in 1904, Winsor McCay began a comic strip for the New Evening Telegram called “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend” in which the central characters’ bizarre dreams were caused by a late meal of “welsh rarebit“, a dish of toast with mustard-and-Worcestershire-seasoned cheese sauce. Giants romping through New York City, people experiencing their own funerals… It was a pretty kaleidoscopic experience, generally, and a lot to blame on a couple of pieces of cheese toast.

In 1905, Winsor McCay began the strip for which he is best known, “Little Nemo in Slumberland”, which, while certainly loopy, was a toned down considerably from its predecessor in order to appeal to a more general audience. He is also known for one of the earliest animated shorts, “Gertie the Dinosaur”, from 1914.

Little Nemo, romping through dreamland in his footie PJ’s.


My dinner last night centered around roasted brussels sprouts, a baked potato, and tuna steak, so I don’t think I can fall back on the welsh-rarebit defense.

Another highlight from last night’s extravaganza? I learned that my extensive study of Renaissance painting on biblical themes made me the only person on the zeppelin crew who could spell “Massacre of the Innocents” correctly for a sign we needed to create. (In their defence, many of the other crew members spoke primarily Portuguese, so perhaps there was a language issue.) I don’t recall that we were actually planning to massacre any innocents, but I have no memory as to the purpose for which the sign really was intended.

I’ve written about dreams in this blog before (last June, in “Dream a Little Dream“), but this morning I don’t think I’m quite up to a scholarly disquisition. I’m just giving you the particulars, and leaving you to draw your own conclusions.

The control room of this trans-Atlantic behemoth (it was an airborne cruise ship) looked a lot like a laundromat, as all of the zeppelin’s controls were housed in white boxes with knobs and dials, with the occasional large lever alongside — you know the kind, the one that sticks up three or four feet from the floor in spaceships from 1950’s science fiction movies, and never works when you need it to. Once over the ocean, there was little for the crew to do, so we spent much of our time devising ways to amuse ourselves, such as playing shuffleboard in the hallways and mixing up passengers’ laundry.

The “Infinite Monkey Theorem” of 1913-14 states that a monkey hammering away at a keyboard for an infinite length of time will, at some point, purely by accident, manage to place the right letters in the right sequence and recreate “Romeo and Juliet” in its entirety. I sometimes wonder if the human brain works in a similar way — if you tumble enough random bits and pieces around in there for long enough, perhaps it’s inevitable that you will one night produce a dream in which a zeppelin crewmember, while mopping the floor in an outside walkway, will stumble upon a Hello Kitty pocketbook filled with #8 finishing nails.

I should mention that I am prone to somewhat cinematic dreams, and I rather enjoy them. Like stumbling across a box in your mother’s attic, filled with artifacts of your childhood that you had forgotten existed, sometimes wild dreams help to stir up memory, and bring old knowledge into new focus, or throw everyday events into bizarre and unexpected juxtapositions, like the “chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella” of the Comte de Lautréamont, in his Chants de Maldoror.

Did you know that the if no one pays any attention to the large molded-plastic warning signs that hang above the debarkation escalator, the lettering gradually melts back into the surface and fades away? Yep. It happens on the Rio to Lisbon zeppelin. I saw it.


The fine art of seeing.

As I do just about every week, I stopped off on the way home from work last Friday to check a couple of books out of the Fayetteville Public Library. I usually read quite a bit, and I try to keep the beast supplied with a plenitude of reasonably nutritious fare — otherwise I start browsing things like the back of my cereal box or the ingredients list on my Twinkies, and there are some things we really weren’t meant to know.

I don’t know what you’re going on about: I see Paul Krugman.

As I was settling in to dinner later that evening I picked up one of the books to enjoy during my meal — I know: a habit frowned upon in all the nicer homes, but an essential part of my digestive process. I fumbled the book briefly as I was sitting down, and a folded rectangle of paper fluttered out onto my chair.

Down one side of the paper was written, in a tiny handwriting like the footprints of bees, a list:

“Luxeuil; wandering Irish bishops & saints; Boniface of Grediton; Fulda; suburbicarian; the great anarchy; Chronicle of St. Gall by Elekchard IV; Lindisfarne.”

Upon opening the piece of paper, I found that it was a receipt of the kind that public libraries often provide these days, generated by their computerized inventory system. Oddly enough, the receipt was not from the library in whose book I found it, but from the University of Arkansas’ Mullin Library. There were three books listed on the receipt:

“Love in the Ruins: the Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World”, by Walker Percy; “Troilus and Criseyde” by Geoffrey Chaucer; “The Making of Europe: an Introduction to the History of European Unity”, by Christopher Dawson.

Of those three books, the only one I’ve read is the first, “Love in the Ruins”,  which I read about a month ago — taking it out of the Fayetteville library during the same week as this mysterious other person was borrowing a copy from the University.

No doubt you’re thinking: “What the hell is the point of all this?”  Guess what? There isn’t one! Yep, you’ve been had.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.


“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”


— From the Poem “Jabberwocky”, appearing in “Through the Looking Glass, and what Alice found there”, by Lewis Carroll

We are primates, underneath all the literature, and our history has left us blessed — or otherwise — with an amazing capacity to perceive patterns. We can look at a clump of shrubbery and spot the apple — or the snake — by the mere visual deviation of those objects from the general background of twigs and leaves. We see patterns, and we see things that interrupt those patterns. That perception kept our hungry ancestors from starving, and kept them out of the bellies of even hungrier predators.

For us, living in our modern world, these pattern recognition skills are still useful, but we’ve had to learn to analyze and interpret what our instinct picks out for us: we notice that one of the cars in the parking lot is moving relative to the others, so we don’t walk out in front of it; we see the fly in our soup, the typo in our term paper, the misplaced decimal in our income tax return, and we use our intelligence to decide how to interpret those things. At the same time, our animal awareness can cause us to force patterns that are not really there: faces in the clouds, writing on a seashell, the Virgin of Guadalupe on a grilled cheese sandwich. To be really useful all of this has to be filtered through the lifetimes of knowledge and insight that each of us has at his or her disposal, through education, through critical thinking, through personal experience.

There is an underlying logic to my mysterious list (“suburbicarian”? “the great anarchy”?) but I don’t know what it is. With a little study, I might come up with some reasonable guesses — I might be able to perceive a pattern — but I might just as likely end up trying to impose my own prejudices. Maybe it was a dyslexic’s grocery list. Maybe it was a secret communique from the Latverian Embassy to Doctor Doom’s covert agents in Northwest Arkansas.

And that, of course, is what art and poetry and almost any other human creative endeavor is all about. Read Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” and you’ll find yourself attaching images to the “borogoves” and the “slithy toves” even before Alice prevails upon Humpty Dumpty to explain what they are. Certainly every fortune teller since the days of Noah has understood that most human beings will create a narrative from the skimpiest fragments: A tall, dark stranger? What are the chances of running into one of those, purely by accident? Money changing hands? Rent’s due on Tuesday! How did she know?

‘It seems very pretty,’ she said when she had finished it, ‘but it’s rather hard to understand!’ (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are!’

– from Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There, by Lewis Carroll

I love patterns that emerge from chaos, like a painting — which is, after all, nothing but dabs of paint on a flat surface — coalescing to show me a princess, or a steak dinner, or a racehorse, each with its own story, its own message, its own meanings to impart.  At the same time, I recognize that perceived patterns aren’t always real patterns, or that there may be legitimate patterns in a body of information, but not those that are immediately apparent. Economic statistics, election-year polling, charts and graphs of all kinds, they are all clouds or trees or oil-on-water rainbows. They can mean something, or nothing, or many things at once, depending on how you parse it out. As with a Monet painting of a haystack at at dawn or a parable from the Book of Matthew, we have to use both our instincts and our intellect to read the message.

I believe in the human role in global climate change; not because someone told me to, but because there is a vast body of data available today in which I can see certain patterns, informed by what I know personally and by the insights of people whose experience and expertise I trust. Other people may look at that same data and see cow farts, or volcanoes, or Elvis, or nothing at all. Within a generation or so, we’ll probably know whose interpretation was correct. On the other hand, I don’t think the alignment of the Great Pyramid of Gizeh and the wording of the Declaration of Independence are related through a common link to visiting aliens from Canopus.

But I could be wrong about climate change, and the Declaration could contain hidden instructions for how to build a warp drive, written in Canopian karbooble ink. We shall see.

We all observe — or very assiduously ignore — the stirring in the bushes, that’s part of our evolutionary birthright: what makes us human is our ability to think about it, to reason and analyze and decide for ourselves whether what’s in front of us is the apple or the snake.

Dream a Little Dream.

Last night I dreamt that my family was being studied by a world-famous psychiatrist (the doctor’s first name was Hannah, but that’s all I remember of her identity) and dozens of my relatives had been gathered together for the purpose, almost none of whom I recognized. Even my father — who died some years ago — showed up in a cheap brown suit and took a stroll through the crowd and then wandered back out the way he came, without saying a word to anyone.

Dada artist Hannah Hoch might have provided a model for Doctor Hannah, although I don’t personally recognize anyone in this image.

(Personally, I would have thought the job would have required more than a single psychiatric professional — we were always a bit more like the Simpsons than the Cleavers — but I suppose my dream-insurance didn’t cover that.)

In the middle of a room full of people there was a table covered with documents: books, letters, pictures, and so on; all the odds and ends that a family accumulates over time. One large photo album had pictures of my immediate family in a variety of situations — around the table, in front of the Christmas Tree, at a barbeque — all quite normal, except that the faces were from different photos, sometimes from different ages, cut out in little squares and glued on over the existing versions: the correct faces on each body, simply taken from the other pictures. When I started flipping through the album, Doctor Hannah come over and took it from me, informing me that these materials were only for the family.

When I pointed out that I was, in fact, a member of the family, she backed off — but reluctantly, clearly suspicious, not entirely convinced.

As is often the case with dreams, other things happened that seemed significant in the context of the dream, but confusing.  There were conversations, interactions, such as meeting a little boy who was both a distant cousin and a friend from my own childhood (apparently un-aged), and being rudely snubbed by an angry dark woman who looked like Maria Callas.

Toward the end of the dream, I found myself in conversation with the doctor, and she asked me if I was afraid of ghosts. I told her that I was not afraid, that ghosts were my friends. She then observed that this was perhaps because I was, myself, “the family ghost”.

I woke up about this time, but, needless to say, the dream stayed with me.

.  .  .

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung — who, with Sigmund Freud, co-founded the subset of psychiatry they called psychoanalysis — believed that there were layers of images and ideas within us all that represent basic human principles, themes that we all hold in common, regardless of culture or experience, simply by virtue of our shared biology. He called these concepts “archetypes”.

Early in his career Sigmund Freud was fortunate enough to meet the woman of his dreams: she was beautiful, she was intelligent, she was fascinated by his theories, she was clearly destined to be his soul mate. What did he do? He married her dumpy and intellectually-challenged sister, and then just made everyone’s lives miserable. He and Jung parted ways over Freud’s obsession with sex as the root of all human emotion — he felt so strongly about it that when Jung contradicted his theories he would burst into tears, and sometimes faint dead away. A carpenter might find the perfect opportunity to polish his skills by living in a really old house that is in constant need of repair: perhaps the same principle applies.

Whereas Freud traced everything back to some rather gruesome principles of childhood psycho-sexual development, Jung interpreted the behavior of human beings as the expression of our relationships to the internal archetypes. He was fascinated by frameworks such as alchemy and the Tarot, in which experience and interaction are formulated into a complex, but internally consistent, symbolic language, representing our innermost feelings and impulses through highly developed images. Both Freud and Jung saw great value in dreams as a means for the “unconscious” to express itself without being edited or suppressed by our conscious selves, and both organized elaborate systems of interpretation — Freud, typically, relating everything to sex, and Jung searching the dream imagery for evidence of the archetypes, hoping to use these symbols as guides to the underlying mind of the dreamer.

Today, many of those who study such things believe that there is, in fact, no structure to dreaming; that only upon waking do we attempt to drag the tattered bits and pieces of meaningless imagery that may have haunted our sleep into some kind of recognizable narrative. Others believe that dreaming is simply a way for our minds to sort and prioritize the vast accumulation of images and feelings that we experience during our waking hours, filing away important concepts in a sort of underground memory, a river of experience that bubbles up to provide our moments of déjà vu or inspiration, allowing our waking selves to reach beyond the daylight world for the ideas and connections that separate us from cats and cattle and coyotes.

Me, I’ll go with the middle ground: Like everyone else, I’ve found myself in the embarrassing position of telling some story about a past experience — completely sure of my facts — only to be contradicted by someone else who was also present at the time. Memory, clearly, is flawed, even when we’re wide awake: how much more unreliable might it be when we attempt to bridge the gap between waking and sleep?

On the other hand, if I had the conscious ability to assemble the sort of scenarios that I wake up from two or three times a week I’d be in Hollywood, and Johnny Depp would be camped out on my doorstep waiting for a chance at the next screenplay. Something is going on in my skull while I’m snoring into my pillows.

I like dreams: even nightmares can seem like a window into another world, a place where many of the same people live and work and play, but where the rules are different: a stairway can go up or down forever; a room can become larger or smaller from one moment to the next; a ventriloquist’s dummy can chase you down the hallway and out into the front yard, gibbering wildly from that creepy little hinged jaw and waving its disgusting little arms. (Those things should be outlawed. I mean, really.) In our dreams we have the opportunity to live in two different realities, and sometimes we get to take a little something from one to the other.

When I was a boy I dreamed about pirates and giant ants and the Blob. Now I’m thinking I ought to write a movie about the family ghost. Tonight I’m putting a notebook next to my bed: Tim Burton, get out of my way.


Household Gods.

Somewhere back in the mid 1970’s my mother decided to attend night classes at our local junior college. I encouraged this ambition in the hope (futile, as it turned out) that she would get it out of her system before I graduated high school, as I was not altogether thrilled at the idea of finally starting college only to find my mother already there. Since I had recently acquired (on the second try) a shiny new driver’s licence, it became my job to drive her the mile or so from our home to the campus a couple of nights a week. Continue reading

The Wild Hunt.

There have been geese flying over my cabin late at night for about a week; headed back to Canada, I suppose.

For most people who live in areas frequented by flocks of geese, the birds are about as exciting as chickens; in many cities they may even be viewed as serious pests, especially around airfields and parks, where they can be aggressive and very, very messy. For me, the romance hasn’t quite worn off yet. In the places I’ve spent most of my life — northern Alabama, South Florida, Dallas — geese are pretty rare, and here in northwest Arkansas I still slow down to gawk when I see a flock of them nibbling their way across a field, like strange, alien cattle. Continue reading