This is a story about the places that we go, or that come to us, when we are asleep. This piece is about the coincidence between four sets of people, from four continents, that utilize the universal world of sleep in order to arrive at an understanding of their person. The photographs by Natasha de Betak and Katrina d’Autremont of sleeping people in India and Argentina respectively, transcend geography, evoking French author Georges Perec’s statement: Everyone has dreams. His books of dreams, La Boutique Obscure, is the inspiration for Angela Evancie, a writer from the United States, to document the people she becomes when she is asleep. Perhaps reading this story will spiral you into waking up in order to journal your own, other, anywhere, lives.
We’re not supposed to talk about our dreams. We’re told that only uninteresting people with uninteresting waking thoughts recount their nighttime visions – that no one will ever share the incredulity of the dreamer at whatever unexpected death or door it was that was so crazy.
Maybe this is true. The only dream I’ve ever cared about that was not my own belonged to my boyfriend, who suffered recurring prophecies that he would die when he turned 26 – which he did (turned 26) last month. When it comes to other dreamers, I feign interest.
So it was with some skepticism that I picked up Georges Perec’s La Boutique Obscure, a record of dreams that the writer kept between 1968 and 1972, translated by Daniel Levkin Becker. “Everyone has dreams,” Perec writes in the preface. “Some remember theirs, far fewer recount them, and very few write them down. Why write them down, anyway, knowing you will only sell them out (and no doubt sell yourself out in the process)?” Perec did sell his out; his collection was first published in 1973.
My suspicions were confirmed when, one night in bed, I couldn’t make it past page seven before nodding off. What is a reader supposed to do with No. 3, November 1968?
: known secret maze, doors of chests (round, armored), hallways, very long trek toward the
and then the same path now known to all.
I closed the book, turned off my light, and immediately fell asleep.
But at some point in the next six hours, something relatively novel happened: I had a dream of my own. I don’t remember what it was, but I do remember waking up and realizing that I hadn’t had – or at least recalled – a dream in months.
There could be a number of explanations for this. I’m in a period of extreme transience, and I sleep on the floor on a thin, inflatable pad with a slow leak – most nights I either wake up to blow more air into its little plastic nozzle or focus all my unconscious energy on staying still and comfortable. Days, I spend eight hours or more looking at a computer screen, which I’m sure is dulling important receptors in my consciousness. Because I’m often in a new place, developing a new routine, I’m preoccupied with the strictly mundane: bus routes, where to buy jam. If the mind’s recesses are made deeper and more fertile by immersion in what Virginia Woolf called, simply, moments of being, I’ve been trapped in non-being. And my dreams have suffered for it.
So the next night, I opened La Boutique Obscure with renewed interest. I would read more of Perec’s dreams, and perhaps I’d have more of my own. It felt illicit, doing this – like taking drugs, or tricking my own mind with mirrors. No. 6, January 1969:
One day, I will tell her I am leaving her. She will call her daughter nearly immediately to say
she is not going to Dampierre.
Over the course of the telephone conversation, her pretty face will fall apart.
Something about Perec’s prose primes my unconscious. It is essentially nonsense: Groups of words coalesce into phrases, but go further than that and the meaning starts to deteriorate. There is no narrative, no interpretation. The act of reading is essentially to absorb information: For your concentration, a reward. So what does it do to our brains when there is no such reward? Perec’s writing formed a winding staircase into my unconscious, each word a step deeper into myself and my mind. Once again, the dream journal sang me a silent lullaby.
I slept. I woke, and immediately reached out to catch the dream that was already rushing away from me:
important mounds (and holes?) in the ground. A group of men (friends?) threatening M. …
I had to tell him an important made-up story, possibly about an egg, to get him away from
the gang. We were at elevation.
This is progress, I thought as I recorded the dream. The next night, I half-woke to capture my midnight dream, barely opening my eyes when I wrote:
absolute guilt for taking a big plastic bag of cash from a couple. They were up to no good,
so I threaten them with my gun (?) and push the cash under the seat of my car, then drive
to take the ferry. (Have already had a scene in a low, low cavernous rock formation.) See M.
and C. at ferry line, rush to pack up all my stuff, feeling stressed and guilty about the cash.
But what can I do now? It has to stay hidden. Feeling like a fugitive.
In the morning, I deciphered my scribbles like code left for me by some conspirator. Was I communicating with a part of myself that was entirely unknown to me? I felt a thrill reading the words, like I had never seen them before. My waking self would never have cause to write “feeling like a fugitive.”
Women’s issues, especially black women and sex. I asked, what is this little bulge on my
stomach, and someone said the doctor probably did it too early or used needles too long.
So we organize a protest – women on stilts to represent needles and one or two friends
of mine driving tractors…
Like discovering in a dream that your house has a room that you didn’t know existed, I had thumbed a new fold in my unconscious, a place where I kneaded my waking life into strange shapes, watched plausible circumstances flicker into impossible, terrifying scenarios. Seen the uglier parts of myself, too – but felt, through this game with Perec, this drowsy communiqué with myself, more, and fuller, and deeper.
Perhaps the first dream had only been a coincidence, a timely collision of waking with non, that I had mistaken for causality, and everything that followed was gross manipulation. I was enlisting Perec’s most intimate confessions – the writer could not have turned his eye more further inward – to serve my own experimental ends. Perec the writer and Perec the subject swirled into a heady tonic that I gulped greedily each night, and before I knew it, I was my own writer and subject, dreaming my own book of dreams. But what for?
Was it that I wanted to put my daily mundane to bed, trade my body -- limp, supine, inert – for a moment of being, however smudged? Become a saver of lives, a thief of fortunes, a woman of action? In my dreams, was I really me?
It occurred to me, finally, that I had fallen into the same trap as the writer himself. “I thought I was recording the dreams I was having,” wrote Perec, “I have realized that it was not long before I began having dreams only in order to write them.”
Reading La Boutique Obscure had been a strange kind of reawakening, but more uncanny – and embarrassing, and satisfying – was what came next: its exploitation.
Angela Jane Evancie writes, photographs and makes radio in her ever-changing surroundings. She is currently based in Washington, D.C.
Katrina d'Autremont is a photographer living and working in Philadelphia.
Natasha de Betak is an artist who has lived everywhere and currently works from Paris.
We coincide with people and events all the time--wonder at its impossibility, marvel at its luck or blame it intelligent design--but it is when we bump into ourselves, some previous character or moment that wisps by us like a hand on a street or a fleck of dust, that we stop. We stop to remember, before it rolls away. We hold our breath because, not knowing what it is made of, we don't want it to set sail again, just yet. Human life is made up of a series of these encounters, what Rushdie calls, in A Ground Beneath Her Feet, a "bouncey-castle sequence of bumpings-into and tumbling apart".Read More