Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why Should Life All Labor Be?

A. E. Housman, Last Poems, XI:
Yonder see the morning blink:
  The sun is up, and up must I,
To wash and dress and eat and drink
And look at things and talk and think
  And work, and God knows why.
Oh often have I washed and dressed
  And what's to show for all my pain?
Let me lie abed and rest:
Ten thousand times I've done my best
  And all's to do again.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

In Dreams

Who can say what happens at the gates of horn and ivory, somewhere beyond the wall of sleep?  Most people dream, and most people who dream attempt to remember their dreams.  Do we do this just to complete the puzzle of the night's events?  Is it simply the pursuit of a frisson whose end comes in remembrance, no more meaningful than checking the morning headlines to learn what happened while our eyes were closed?

Literature, at least,  assigns a special role to sleep.  Spectral visitors are common in the somnolent hours--I think first of Hector's bloody ghost and the phantom in the dreams of Xerxes.  Aeneas and Xerxes recount and analyze these dreams because they are warnings and admonitions about the waking world.  But nocturnal ghosts need not be all business, and the emotional effect of a dream is perhaps an even greater incentive to those who wish to recall it.

In one of my favorite passages in Euripides, Admetus voices the desire of many a widow and widower. 

Alcestis, 354-356 (tr. Richmond Lattimore): 

                                                     You could come
to see me in my dreams and comfort me.  For they
who love find a time's sweetness in the visions of the night.

                                                 ἐν δ᾽ ὀνείρασιν
φοιτῶσά μ᾽ εὐφραίνοις ἄν: ἡδὺ γὰρ φίλους
κἀν νυκτὶ λεύσσειν, ὅντιν᾽ ἂν παρῇ χρόνον.
Dreams are a setting where one can experience joys denied by life's cruel circumstances, but always with a catch.  Admetus realizes it is only a time's sweetness before his sense of loss is renewed.  Like all outstanding experiences in life, the best dreams are bittersweet.  The most vivid and enjoyable can be a nightly Pisgah sight, whose conclusion leaves us resentful of the necessity of waking.  Seeming so real, they tempt us to believe they are another reality, another existence outside of our own.  In the daylight we reconstruct this existence only from the fleeting impressions that remain.

Borges said it well in his lecture on nightmares (Seven Nights, tr. Eliot Weinberger):
We don't know exactly what happens in dreams.  It is not impossible that, during dreams we are in heaven, we are in hell.  Perhaps we are someone, the someone whom Shakespeare called "the thing I am"; perhaps we are ourselves, perhaps we are God.  All of this we forget at waking.  We can only examine the memory of a dream, the poor memory.          

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Another Post About the Rain

It's been rain--incessant rain, all day, all night in Maryland, and the house is leaky. 
So here's a well worn snippet of Verlaine:  
Il pleure dans mon cœur
Comme il pleut sur la ville ;
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui pénètre ma maison ?

Embryon Philosophers

Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial; or A brief Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk (London: 1669) p. 22:
The particulars of future Beings must needs be dark unto ancient Theories, which Christian Philosophy yet determines but in a Cloud of Opinions.  A Dialogue between two Infants in the womb concerning the state of this world might handsomly illustrate our ignorance of the next, whereof methinks we yet discourse in Plato's Den, and are but Embryon Philosophers.
Shakespeare, Hamlet, (Act III, Scene i, 70-82):
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of dispriz'd love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?