And if he left off dreaming about you . . .
--Through the Looking Glass VI
No one saw him disembark in the unanimous night, no one bamboo canoe sinking into the sacred mud, but within a few days was unaware that the silent man came from the South and that was one of the infinite villages upstream, on the violent moue where the Zend tongue is not contaminated with Greek and w rosy is infrequent. The truth is that the obscure man kissed came up the bank without pushing aside (probably without f brambles which dilacerated his flesh, and dragged himself, nauseous and bloodstained, to the circular enclosure crowned by a stone tiger which once was the color of fire and now was that of ashes. was a temple, long ago devoured by fire, which the malarial jungle had profaned and whose god no longer received the homage of stranger stretched out beneath the pedestal. He was awakened by high above. He evidenced without astonishment that his wounds had closed; he shut his pale eyes and slept, not out of bodily weakness of determination of will. He knew that this temple was the place, by his invincible purpose; he knew that, downstream, the incessant trees had not managed to choke the ruins of another propitious temple gods were also burned and dead; he knew that his immediate obligation
"The Circular Ruins," translated by James E. Irby, from Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Others Writings, edited by Donald E. Yates and James E. Irby. Copyright © 1962 by New Publishing Corporation. Reprinted by permission of New Directions, New York.
Was to sleep• Towards midnight he was awakened by the disconsolate cry bird. Prints of bare feet, some figs and a jug told him that men of the region had respectfully spied upon his sleep and were solicitous of favor or feared his magic. He felt the chill of fear and sought out a al niche in the dilapidated wall and covered himself with some unknown leaves.
The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though it was supernatural. He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him with .1inute integrity and insert him into reality. This magical project had exhausted the entire content of his soul; if someone had asked him his own name or any trait of his previous life, he would not have been able to answer. The uninhabited and broken temple suited him, for it was a minimum of visible world; the nearness of the peasants also suited him, for they would see that his frugal necessities were supplied. The rice and fruit of their tribute were sufficient sustenance for his body, consecrated to the sole task of sleeping and dreaming.
At first, his dreams were chaotic; somewhat later, they were of a dialectical nature. The stranger dreamt that he was in the center of a circular amphitheater which in some way was the burned temple: clouds of silent students filled the gradins; the faces of the last ones hung many centuries away and at a cosmic height, but were entirely clear and precise. The man was lecturing to them on anatomy, cosmography, magic; the countenances listened with eagerness and strove to respond with understanding, as if they divined the importance of the examination which would redeem one of them from his state of vain appearance and interpolate him into the world of reality. The man, both in dreams and awake, considered his phantoms' replies, was not deceived by impostors, divined a growing intelligence in certain perplexities. He sought a soul which would merit participation in the universe.
After nine or ten nights, he comprehended with some bitterness that he could expect nothing of those students who passively accepted his doctrines, but that he could of those who, at times, would venture a reasonable contradiction. The former, though worthy of love and affection, could not rise to the state of individuals; the latter pre-existed somewhat more. One afternoon (now his afternoons too were tributaries of sleep, now he remained awake only for a couple of hours at dawn) he dismissed the vast illusory college forever and kept one single student. lie was a silent boy, sallow, sometimes obstinate, with sharp features which reproduced those of the dreamer. He was not long disconcerted by his companions' sudden elimination; his progress, after a few special lessons, astounded his teacher. Nevertheless, catastrophe ensued. The man emerged from sleep one day as if from a viscous desert, looked at
the vain light of afternoon, which at first he confused with and understood that he had not really dreamt. All that night the intolerable lucidity of insomnia weighed upon him. He plore the jungle, to exhaust himself, amidst the hemlocks, he was scarcely able to manage a few snatches of feeble sleep, fleetingly mottled with some rudimentary visions which were useless. He tried to convoke the college and had scarcely uttered a few brief words of exhortation when it became deformed and was extinguished. In his almost perpetual sleeplessness, his old eyes burned with tears of anger.
He comprehended that the effort to mold the incoherent and vertiginous matter dreams are made of was the most arduous task a man could undertake, though he might penetrate all the enigmas of the upper and lower orders: much more arduous than weaving a rope of sand or coining the faceless wind. He comprehended that an initial failure was; inevitable. He swore he would forget the enormous hallucination which had misled him at first, and he sought another method. Before putting it in effect he dedicated a month to replenishing the powers his delirium had wasted. He abandoned any premeditation of dreaming and, almost at o able to sleep for a considerable part of the day. The few times he dreamt during this period, he did not take notice of the dreams. To take up his task again, he waited until the moon's disk was perfect. Then in the afternoon, he purified himself in the waters of the river, worshipped the planetary gods, uttered the lawful syllables of a powerful name a Almost immediately, he dreamt of a beating heart.
He dreamt it as active, warm, secret, the size of a closed fist, o color in the penumbra of a human body as yet without face or sex with minute love he dreamt it, for fourteen lucid nights. Each night he perceived it with greater clarity. He did not touch it, but limited himself to witnessing it, observing it, perhaps correcting it with his eyes perceived it, lived it, from many distances and many angles. On the fourteenth night he touched the pulmonary artery with his finger, and then the whole heart, inside and out. The examination satisfied him. Deliberately, he did not dream for a night; then he took the heart again, the name of a planet and set about to envision another of the principal organs. Within a year he reached the skeleton, the eyelids. The innumerable hair was perhaps the most difficult task. He dreamt a complete man, a youth, but this youth could not rise nor did he speak nor could his eyes. Night after night, the man dreamt him as asleep.
In the Gnostic cosmogonies, the demiurgi knead and mold a red Adam who cannot stand alone; as unskillful and crude and elementary as this Adam of dust was the Adam of dreams fabricated by the magician’s nights of effort. One afternoon, the man almost destroyed his work, but
then repented. (It (It would have been better for him had he destroyed it.) Once he had completed his supplications to the numina of the earth and the river, he threw himself down at the feet of the effigy which was perhaps a tiger and perhaps a horse, and implored its unknown succor. That twilight, he dreamt of the statue. He dreamt of it as a living, tremulous thing: it was not an atrocious mongrel of tiger and horse, but both these vehement creatures at once and also a bull, a rose, a tempest. This multiple god revealed to him that its earthly name was Fire, that in the circular temple (and in others of its kind) people had rendered it sacrifices and cult and that it would magically give life to the sleeping phantom, in such a way that all creatures except Fire itself and the dreamer would believe him to be a man of flesh and blood. The man was ordered by the divinity to instruct his creature in its rites, and send him to the other broken temple whose pyramids survived downstream, so that in this deserted edifice a voice might give glory to the god. In the dreamer's dream, the dreamed one awoke.
The magician carried out these orders. He devoted a period of time (which finally comprised two years) to revealing the arcana of the universe and of the fire cult to his dream child. Inwardly, it pained him to be separated from the boy. Under the pretext of pedagogical necessity, each day he prolonged the hours he dedicated to his dreams. He also redid the right shoulder, which was. perhaps deficient. At times, he was troubled by the impression that all this had happened before . . . In general, his days were happy; when he closed his eyes, he would think:
Now I shall be with my son. Or, less often: The child I have engendered awaits me and will not exist if I do not go to him.
Gradually, he accustomed the boy to reality. Once he ordered him to place a banner on a distant peak. The following day, the banner flickered from the mountain top. He tried other analogous experiments, each more daring than the last. He understood with certain bitterness that his son was ready-and perhaps impatient-to be born. That night he kissed him for the first time and sent him to the other temple whose debris showed white downstream, through many leagues of inextricable jungle and swamp. But first (so that he would never know he was a phantom, so that he would be thought a man like others) he instilled into him a complete oblivion of his years of apprenticeship.
The man's victory and peace were dimmed by weariness. At dawn and at twilight, he would prostrate himself before the stone figure, imagining perhaps that his unreal child was practicing the same rites, in other circular ruins, downstream; at night, he would not dream, or would dream only as all men do. He perceived the sounds and forms of the universe with a certain colorlessness: his absent son was being nurtured
with these diminutions of his soul. His life's purpose was complete; man persisted in a kind of ecstasy. After a time, which some narrators of his story prefer to compute in years and others in lustra, he was awakened one midnight by two boatmen; he could not see their faces, but they him of a magic man in a temple of the North who could walk upon and not be burned. The magician suddenly remembered the words o god. He recalled that, of all the creatures of the world, fire was the one that knew his son was a phantom. This recollection, at first soot finally tormented him. He feared his son might meditate on his abnormal privilege and discover in some way that his condition was that of a mere image. Not to be a man, to be the projection of another man's dream what a feeling of humiliation, of vertigo! All fathers are interested in children they have procreated (they have permitted to exist) in confusion or pleasure; it was natural that the magician should fear for future of that son, created in thought, limb by limb and feature by feature in a thousand and one secret nights.
The end of his meditations was sudden, though it was foretold to certain signs. First (after a long drought) a faraway cloud on a hill, light and rapid as a bird; then, toward the south, the sky which had the rose color of the leopard's mouth; then the smoke which corroded the metallic nights; finally, the panicky flight of the animals. For what was happening had happened many centuries ago. The ruins of the fire god's sanctuary were destroyed by fire. In a birdless dawn the magician saw the concentric blaze close round the walls. For a moment, he thought of taking refuge in the river, but then he knew that death was coming to crown his old-age; and absolve him of his labors. He walked into the shreds of flame. But they did not bite into his flesh, they caressed him and engulfed him without heat or combustion. With relief, with humiliation, with terror he understood that he too was a mere appearance, dreamt by another.
Jorge Luis Borges
Borges's epigraph is drawn from a passage in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass worth quoting in full.
Here she checked herself in some alarm, at hearing something that sounded to her like the puffing of a large steam-engine in the wood near them, though she
feared it was more likely to be a wild beast. "Are there any lions or tigers about
here?" she asked timidly.
"It's only the Red King snoring," said Tweedledee.
"Come and look at him!" the brothers cried, and they each took one of Alice's hands, and led her up to where the King was sleeping.
"Isn't he a lovely sight?" said Tweedledum.
Alice couldn't say honestly that he was. He had a tall red night-cap on, with a tassel, and he was lying crumpled up into a sort of untidy heap, and snoring loud-"fit to snore his head off!" as Tweedledum remarked.
"I'm afraid he'll catch cold with lying on the damp grass," said Alice, who
was a very thoughtful little girl.
"He's dreaming now," said Tweedledee: "and what do you think he's dreaming about?"
Alice said "Nobody can guess that."
"Why, about you!" Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly.
"And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you'd be?" "Where I am now, of course," said Alice.
"Not you!" Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. "You'd be nowhere. Why you're only a sort of thing in his dream!"
"If that there King was to wake," added Tweedledum, "you'd go out-bang!
just like a candle!"
"I shouldn't!" Alice exclaimed indignantly. "Besides, if I'm only a sort of
thing in his dream, what are you, I should like to know?"
"Ditto," said Tweedledum.
"Ditto, ditto!" cried Tweedledee.
He shouted this so loud that Alice couldn't help saying "Hush! You'll be
waking him, I'm afraid, if you make so much noise."
"Well, it's no use your talking about waking him," said Tweedledum, "when you're only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you're not real."
"I am real!" said Alice, and began to cry.
"You won't make yourself a bit realler by crying," Tweedledee remarked: there's nothing to cry about."
"If I wasn't real," Alice said-half-laughing through her tears, it all seem so ridiculous-"I shouldn't be able to cry."
"I hope you don't suppose those are real tears?" Tweedledum interrupt in a tone of great contempt.
Rene Descartes asked himself whether he could tell for certain he wasn't dreaming. "When I consider these matters carefully, I realize so clearly that there are no conclusive indications by which waking can be distinguished from sleep that I am quite astonished, and bewilderment is such that it is almost able to convince me that I sleeping."
It did not occur to Descartes to wonder if he might be a character in someone else's dream, or, if it did, he dismissed the idea out of hand Why? Couldn't you dream a dream with a character in it who was not you but whose experiences were a part of your dream? It is not easy to know how to answer a question like that. What would be the difference between dreaming a dream in which you were quite unlike your waking self-much older or younger, or of the opposite sex-and dreaming a dream in which the main character (a girl named Renee, let's say), the character from whose "point of view" the dream was "narrated," was simply not you b merely a fictional dream character, no more real than the dream-drag chasing her? If that dream character were to ask Descartes's question, a wonder if she were dreaming or awake, it seems the answer would be the she was not dreaming, nor was she really awake; she was just dream When the dreamer, the real dreamer, wakes up, she will be annihilated But to whom would we address this answer, since she does not really ex! at all, but is just a dream character?
Is this philosophical play with the ideas of dreaming and reality just idle? Isn't there a no-nonsense "scientific" stance from which we objectively distinguish between the things that are really there and mere fictions? Perhaps there is, but then on which side of the divide we put ourselves? Not our physical bodies, but our selves?
Consider the sort of novel that is written from the point of view a fictional narrator-actor. Moby Dick begins with the words "Call Ishmael," and then we are told Ishmael's story by Ishmael. Call whom Ishmael? Ishmael does not exist. He is just a character in Melville's novel Melville is, or was, a perfectly real self, and he created a fictional self who calls himself Ishmael-but who is not to be numbered among the real things, the things that really are. But now imagine, if you can, a novel writing machine, a mere machine, without a shred of consciousness selfhood. Call it the JOHNNIAC. (The next selection will help you imagine me such a machine, if you cannot yet convince yourself you can do it)
Suppose the novel that clattered out of the JOHNNIAC on its high-speed printer started: "Call me Gilbert," and proceeded to tell Gilbert's story from Gilbert's point of view. Call whom Gilbert? Gilbert is just a fictional character, a nonentity with no real existence, though we can go along with the fiction and talk about, learn about, worry about "his" adventures, problems, hopes, fears, pains. In the case of Ishmael, we may have supposed his queer, fictional, quasi-existence depended on the real existence of Melville's self. No dream without a dreamer to dream it seems to be Descartes' discovery. But in this case we do seem to have a dream-a fiction, in any case-with no real dreamer or author, no real self with whom we might or might not identify Gilbert. So in such an extraordinary case as the novel-writing machine there might be created a merely fictional self with no real self behind the act of creation. (We can even suppose the JOHNNIAC's designers had no idea what novels it would eventually write.)
Now suppose our imagined novel-writing machine is not just a sedentary, boxy computer, but a robot. And suppose-why not?-that the text of the novel is not typed but "spoken" from a mechanical mouth. Call this robot the SPEECHIAC. And suppose, finally, the tale we learn from the SPEECHIAC about the adventures of Gilbert is a more or less true story of the "adventures" of the SPEECHIAC. When it is locked in a closet, it says: "I am locked in the closet! Help me!" Help whom? Help Gilbert. But Gilbert does not exist; he is just a fictional character in the SPEECHIAC's peculiar narration. Why, though, should we call this account fiction, since there is a quite obvious candidate in sight to be Gilbert: the person whose body is the SPEECHIAC? In "Where Am I?" Dennett called his body Hamlet. Is this a case of Gilbert having a body called the SPEECHIAC, or of the SPEECHIAC calling itself Gilbert?
Perhaps we are being tricked by the name. Naming the robot "Gilbert" may be just like naming a sailboat "Caroline" or a bell "Big Ben" or a program "ELIZA." We may feel like insisting that there is no person named Gilbert here. What, though, aside from bio-chauvinism, grounds our resistance to the conclusion that Gilbert is a person, a person created, in effect, by the SPEECHIAC's activity and self-presentation in the world?
"Is the suggestion then that I am my body's dream? Am 1 just a fictional character in a sort of novel composed by my body in action?" That would be one way of getting at it, but why call yourself fictional? Your brain, like the unconscious novel-writing machine, cranks along, doing its physical tasks, sorting the inputs and the outputs without a glimmer of what it is up to. Like the ants that compose Aunt Hillary in "Prelude, Ant Fugue,"
it doesn't "know" it is creating you in the process, but there you emerging from its frantic activity almost magically.
This process of creating a self at one level out of the relatively mindless and uncomprehending activities amalgamated at another 1evel is vividly illustrated in the next selection by John Searle, though he firmly resists that vision of what he is showing.
And if he left off dreaming about you . . .