Offcourse Literary Journal

Baroque Dreams, by Ricardo Nirenberg.


Lying on the bed of my childhood, when suddenly I must go pee. I get up and look for the bathroom, to find that the toilet is not where it used to be. This I register as an anomaly, perhaps because there is no trace in my memory of any remodeling of the bathroom in the house of my childhood. The feeling of anomaly awakens me from my peeing, and I reflect on this fact, which seems to me momentous and profound: feelings of anomaly wake us up. My reflecting takes place while walking along a street in Buenos Aires, the city where I grew up: I decide to begin a piece of writing with this phrase, "Contradictions awaken." I have just left my aunt Sarita's apartment, and carry a thermos bottle in my hand; suddenly I remember having left the maté gourd at my aunt's, and so of course I must turn back. But I get lost in a maze of streets which clearly do not belong to the city of Buenos Aires, and the jolt of this second anomaly wakes me up from the dream in which I dreamt I had been dreaming.

Now, writing this on my kitchen table, I am sharply conscious that many different paths are open before me. Perhaps the most traveled one would be to observe that this, now — the kitchen, the table, my writing, my multiple perceptions of those — is also a dream, from which another jolt will wake me up at any time. I rather doubt that, though; it seems to me that in dreams one never gets in situations where one must choose one among many different continuations. In Descartes' famous dream, it is true, he had to choose one possible path out of two. But many? Well, I really don't know, perhaps this is a dream after all, but in any case, to point that out doesn't strike me as original, or even interesting.

Another way to go about it is to bring into the account the fact that my aunt Sarita had died a few months before, and that she was the last surviving member of my parents' generation: now comes my turn to pass away, so to speak. It is not necessary to add that I loved her and that she loved me, or that she died in her mid-eighties of liver cancer, but it may be important to realize, right here, the symbolic aspects of the dream. I say this in full awareness of the abuses perpetrated for millennia by those who pretend to unlock symbolic meanings; the same measure of truth, in my opinion, should be credited to the Freudian mafia as to the Neapolitan smorfia, viz. the false art of predicting winning lottery numbers from dreams. However, there are some rare occasions, very rare (I emphasize), where the symbolic meaning of a dream is a hard fact, virtually interpretation-free. Here, for instance: the maze of unfamiliar streets where I was getting lost represents the nether-world, the land of the dead whose lay is so notoriously hard to figure out without a previous course of training.

There is too, come to think of it, the unmistakable parallelism between the two episodes of my dream. In the first one, there is no problem with my peeing, but there is an aporia with the pot; in the second, I hold the thermos bottle from which the water is poured, but the maté gourd, the recipient, is missing or lost. Here there is, perhaps, a hitherto unknown continent to be discovered, or else a new ocean of meaning to be plumbed: pouring and holding as a cosmic duality, like the Chinese yin and yang.

Still another promising path: our perception of aunts. And of uncles, needless to add. When we were very young, we viewed in each of them an aspect of human nature, a well-defined item in some unformulated finite catalogue of possible adulthoods; they were not like us, they were vastly more powerful, freer, mysterious. In short, they were mythical, and even now they conserve their mythical quality, since they color our presence in the world. An uncle or an aunt who happened to be a dentist, or a tycoon, or a Marxist, will modify to a large extent and for life the way you perceive dentists, tycoons, or Marxists. My aunt Sarita was an nonpolitical housewife of modest means, yet she was prominent in my own personal pantheon as the one who, on first seeing me upon delivery, broke out weeping because I looked so ugly. That was of course reported to me later, but I do remember being fascinated, as a boy, by the way she scratched the channel of her ear: she buried her little finger there and shook it vigorously, simultaneously producing, from deep within her sinuses and zygomatic fossa a noise the like of which I've never heard elsewhere. When I got to reading the History of Rome, I started associating my aunt's cavernous noises with another myth, the Capitoline geese, but that would take us too far afield, so let's leave my aunt Sarita now.

Those mythical figures, we realize much later, were not at all different from us: they only appeared so to our childish eyes. As we attain the age of reason, we discover that our aunts and uncles were, and are, just like us, more or less normal human beings. Says the title of one of Goya's Caprichos, "El sueño de la razón produce monstruos," which can be rendered, "The sleep of reason engenders monsters." And so we can say that while our reasoning faculties were still asleep, our relatives seemed monstrous in the original sense of that word, viz. divine portents. Bigger than life, different, unique. But reason has as one of its primary jobs to compare, relate and identify (that is to say, subsume under concepts) whenever possible, and in this particular case reason does its job by telling us that our relatives are nothing but human, all too human. Regular size, not something to write home about.

Goya's caption, however, can as plausibly be rendered, "The dream of reason engenders monsters." And reason's recurrent dream is that everything in the world fits into transparent plastic boxes, neatly stacked; reason often dreams of showing, with self-satisfied, theatrical gesture, those stacks to the soul and saying, like Leporello to Donna Elvira, "Madamina, il catalogo è questo". Thus when in our case reason says that our aunts and uncles were basically, or essentially, no different from us (haven't we become, in our turn, uncles and aunts?), reason may be creating a terrible monster, a plastic box labeled "Human Beings, a.k.a. Humanity," where all generations lie promiscuously, like chessmen.

I am not into the old Pyrrhonian business of berating reason: that kind of attitude, in my opinion, is like complaining that our arms are not fins, or wings, or TV antennas. No: a wholesome reason is a sensitive and self-correcting organ, and sooner or later, alerted by one or another anomaly, it discovers that our aunts and uncles were not really quite like us, that their generation was fundamentally different from ours and from all other previous generations. For us, then, those uncles and aunts were rightly mythical, as we ourselves are or will be for our nephews and nieces. Was reason wrong, earlier, in postulating sameness? No, reason was simply dreaming its old, recurrent dream of classifying into labeled, transparent boxes and demythologizing. At a certain point, though, reason wakes from that dream, just as I did from mine, that I was peeing into the bowl of my childhood. Yet, we should not celebrate the final victory of mythos over logos, for reason's awakening may be (and likely is) still a dream: the old, recurrent dream of awakening. From which reason may still awaken. And so on. There is no final victory.

I am not conceding a single comma to the Pyrrhonic skeptics. They assert that reason is unable to tell us anything true about reality; what I am saying is that reason dreams severally, a very different proposition. Dreams tell us mostly interesting, true stories about reality, which of course does not mean that those truths are final: I suspect that there is no such thing as a final truth, but this is only a suspicion, mind you. Indeed, if there is a belief that may be considered utterly irrational, it is that reason is not dreaming, that, at a given juncture, from a given time on (most often from the proclamation of some philosophical system or religious creed), it is irrevocably awake. Such a belief in a reason that has got hold of the absolute or of a corner thereof, is a most virulent sort of dreaming: the dogmatic dream. Let's stay away from it.

The exhortation, "let's stay away from the dogmatic dream," is like a bumper marking the end of this particular road. What could possibly follow after counsel which everyone will readily, eagerly, precipitously embrace? I'll back up a bit. Guillaume de Lorris, the first author of the greatest medieval best-seller, Le Roman de la rose, prologues his story by stating that it was all a dream he dreamt when he was twenty, the age "when Love exacts its toll from youth." No modern best-selling author would willingly work under such a handicap: dreams seem to most but flimsy ghosts; readers demand solid reality: "real-life conflict in a real-life world," to borrow a phrase from the contemporary novelist J. M. Coetzee. Naturally the romancier Guillaume was aware of the problem, but he solved it by a literary procedure unavailable to us: he invoked a text from the venerated relics of the Latin corpus, Macrobius' Commentary on Cicero's Dream of Scipio, to persuade his readers that not all dreams are idle fables and lies. The closest we moderns are able to approach such textual tactics is in commercials for new gadgets, where often it is written, "As seen in TV," TV being among us, just as Macrobius or Cicero were for the 13th-century poet, vastly more authoritative and real than reality.

Not being a specialist, the earliest literary work I know of where reason appears not only personified but also within a dream, is Le Roman de la Rose. Thereafter the idea was taken up by William Langland and, it is my guess, by scores of other medieval poets. Here it is not reason that is dreaming, but conversely, the poet claims to be dreaming a dream where reason plays a role. Grammatically, a Romance or Latin Reason must be female, and so Guillaume introduces us to "la dame de la Haute Angarde," the lady of the high place or watchtower, whence she keeps the world under surveillance and looks down on us mortals. We are told, following, I suspect, Aristotelian strictures, that she is neither young nor old, neither big nor small, neither fat nor skinny: in short, although she is said to be divine, she is tethered to a very reasonable middle stake. Her role, here as in Chrétien de Troyes' Lancelot, is to try, albeit always in vain, to persuade the lover to forget his beloved.

It has to be always in vain, because a lover who once listened to reason would never be a true lover, to believe the poets of amour courtois. Now, whatever the ultimate sources of that article of faith (Plato? Ovid? Some Father of the Church? Never mind: I am not willing to back up that far), it has had a wondrous fortune, up to and including our own age: we — I mean even the most sophisticatedly contrary or deconstructionist among us — still believe that reason is cold as an aspic, and that it works like carbon tetrachloride if thrown on the flames of passion. That seems to be the case (I concede) if by reason we mean strictly calculating reason. I have experienced it in my own flesh: absorption into a moderately hard math problem has proved to be a wonderful break when on the sexual skidpan to which we owe our survival as a species. And I also remember that Pascal, after he had abandoned math to devote himself exclusively to Christ, was once in the grip of a toothache, which he becalmed by submerging himself again into the hard problems of the cycloid curve.

But there is no reason to reduce reason to math, and certainly Pascal did not commit that mistake. He was, I think, of my opinion: that reason can awake from its dogmatic dream, awake to a different, more capacious reason. It is this full, developed consciousness that characterizes the baroque sensibility — not only in Pascal, but in Guercino, in Bernini, in Calderón, in many others artists and thinkers; a sensibility which is often described as "theatrical." The theater, however, where one reason governs on the stage and another, more inclusive and far-reaching, in the public's mind, is only one instance (perhaps the most immediately dramatic) of what I have been saying.

But why, then, did Pascal write, "Jésus sera en agonie jusqu'à la fin du monde : il ne faut pas dormir pendant ce temps-là"? Did he, Pascal, truly believe that a perpetual vigil is possible for us? I think he did. He believed in the possibility of a state of maximal watchfulness, a supreme reason that is above all others, for all the others are but dreams from the point of view of that supreme awakening which he called Faith. In any case, the awakening from the awakening from the awakening... it had to stop somewhere; for if back then, in the Baroque Era, you had suggested otherwise, that anything concerning a human possibility could have an infinite number of levels or layers, you would have been considered an imbecile.

Today, of course, we know better. We have learned, if not quite digested, our Cantor, and know how to manipulate symbols standing for ever more powerful infinities. We have at least heard of Gödel, and the unending levels of ever more insightful logical systems. Our era has been called faithless, because, unlike Pascal et les autres, we admit no supreme level. Less pejoratively and more appropriately, our era should be called the Hyperbaroque, or Plusquam-baroque, or yet, Infinitely More Baroque Than The Baroque.

Now I have the distinct impression that I ought to go on, finding ever more appropriate, more baroque names for our era. And not only that, but I feel I am able and eager to go on forever, nonstop. The obvious anomaly wakes me up. I am not writing on the kitchen table, actually: I am lying on my bed, and right now I must go pee.

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