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Friday, 17 May 2013

What dreams are made of: Memories, anxieties and aspirations

I chose one of Francisco Goya's etchings for this post because the series it belongs to, The Disasters of War, which was a series that the artist made between 1810 and 1820, and which he did not publish, has inspired so much praise over the years; many will remember Australian writer Robert Hughes' book on Goya, for example. Goya also made an allegory, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, in 1797, some 10 years before the Peninsula War, which inspired the later series, began. It's possible that what Goya referred to in this clumsy allegory - a man, slumped asleep at a table, has a flock of bats and owls hovering over him; it's pure classical kitsch - was the carnage that occurred in France and Europe as a result of the French Revolution's spiraling out of control and turning into both a domestic bloodbath and a series of wars in foreign countries led by Napoleon Bonaparte, that brought devastation and misery to the people of Europe. Goya's allegory looks at the downside of radical changes in the polis. But it's worthwhile remembering that in England in the same year of 1797 Coleridge and Wordsworth published their seminal poetry collection, Lyrical Ballads - many people in England at the time said the book was monstrous - which looks at the upside of the realignment of the political settlement, a change that would serve to reform corrupt and superannuated regimes throughout Europe and lead to the establishment of a preferable model in those countries, in democracy.

Dreams are full of anxieties and aspirations, and they are often based on memories. At least mine are. Like one in which I am applying for a job with an employer who had refused to employ me decades earlier. Or that dream I sometimes have that contains images and anxieties rooted in my high school matriculation examination. Sometimes a recurring dream will contain an image so piercing - like the one where I kiss a girl in a garden, and the kiss suffuses me with the most pure and unadulterated joy - that it even becomes a memory, as though it had really happened.

Last night I had another of those anxiety-filled employer dreams. I was aiming to reapply for a position as a diplomat - just after graduating with my undergrad degree, in 1985, I actually did attend the first level of interviews for the diplomatic service, and was turned down - and it turned out that there was someone working in IT with the department who I'd worked with previously in another job. In the dream, I see him walking towards me, going in the direction of a staircase, and I call out his name, hoping that he can inform my prospective employer that we had worked together before, but he either doesn't hear me or else he ignores me. In any case he walks past me, climbs the stairs, and disappears. Frustrations like this come to me often in dreams about places I have worked at in the real past. And for some reason I keep wanting to go back and work again with the same employers whose employ I had quit at different times. In another dream, there was a technology company where I had worked, and there was an executive I knew. For some reason there were huge photocopying machines and he was standing behind one of these monstrosities smiling and talking to me, but I did not get the job again.

And while some dreams - like my kissing the girl in the garden - are so strong that they become memories, at other times there are real memories that appear to be like dreams, like the time I fell in love with a man at a party in Bondi. At the time I was living in the inner-Sydney suburb of Newtown in a share-house. As happens when you are young and vigorous you give little thought to how you'll get home from these suburban bashes, and in this case I do not remember how this happened at all. But I do remember arriving home to find a flatmate and his girlfriend - who did not live in the house - sitting in the kitchen at the kitchen table. I sat down and we talked for hours and laughed; I was so happy. But I never contacted that man again, and the memory of the encounter is therefore like a dream.

Possibly women dream of leaning against the chest of a man, talking through the hours and feeling the vibrations of his utterances thrum through his chest and into yours. Like I did, they can feel the strength and the warmth, feel the laughter vibrate in their own bodies. Did I really stand with him, talking, as the stars edged their way through the darkness and the waves rolled incessantly over the shallows to break on the beach? Did we talk about school friends - though he went to a different school, we knew some of the same people - and what they had done? Did we kiss passionately and did I feel the rough stubble of his cheeks against my skin? I could swear that these things really happened. I could, if I wanted, get in touch tomorrow with my old flatmate and ask him, "Do you remember that night in Alice Street when I came home late and we stayed up talking for hours, and laughed so much?". 

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