Strange News from Another Star, No. 4: Other lands
An atlas of the other world
This is another long one, so I’ll keep the preamble brief. You’re reading the fourth instalment (1, 2, 2a, 3) of Strange News from Another Star, a slightly-less-than-monthly collective dream journal and investigation into the mechanics of dreaming. Basically, you send in your dreams, and I write about them.
Last time, in a desperate attempt to wring more money out of you people, I experimented with putting all the reader-contributed dreams behind a paywall. This was a success, in that it bumped up my paid subscriber count by quite a few notches. It was also a massive failure, in that it cut the number of dream submissions by about half. It turns out you’re less likely to contribute if you can’t read the finished result, which is fair enough. Obviously, feeding myself in this world is less important than surveying the depths of the other one, so this time I’ll be doing the opposite. All of this month’s dreams are free for everyone to read, but a few concluding thoughts (involving Cézanne, phenomenology, and medieval vision-poems) will be paywalled for paid subscribers. Asking strangers for money online is an ugly humiliating ritual and it should not be normalised, so all I’ll say is that if you enjoy what you read here, and you’re not yet a paid subscriber, you should click the button below just to see what it does.
This month’s SNAS is the first of a two-part poke around in the places and spaces that make up the dreamworld. Today, we’re looking at place; in April (or, possibly, May) it’ll be space. Dreams are made of caverns, tunnels, grottoes, holes of every kind—but also, sometimes, big emptinesses: oceans, mountaintops, and the sky. At the same time, another space that crops up in dreams is the home. Have you dreamed about any interesting spaces? When you’re at home in your dream, is it always exactly the same as your home in the waking world? Are there other doors? Hidden rooms? Does the topography fit together, or do ordinary rooms contain unfamiliar dimensions? Contribute to Strange News from Another Star by replying to this email, or by emailing me at samrkriss [at] gmail dot com, or by clicking the helpful button below:
(Usual notes: put the word ‘dream’ somewhere in your subject line, include a name if you want to be credited, and it’s samrkriss, not samkriss, which belongs to some poor stranger who probably gets about half my mail.)
In Damage I wrote about the Avatar sequel, which is simply a bad film, both aesthetically and politically, no matter how much you want to pretend it’s good. It’s basically a recapitulation of some points Mark Fisher made the first time round, but you didn’t listen!
Speaking of cinema, my editor at the Telegraph asked me to write a fun little feature about animals on drugs to mark the release of a film called Cocaine Bear that I’m probably not going to see, which I did, but it’s also about the gulf between human and nonhuman experience and free play as the golden thread connecting us to that sacred world.
In First Things, I wrote about dinosaurs. I am always writing about dinosaurs. This one’s a review of a new book about the expanding frontiers of dinosaur science, which I enjoyed—but what I admire most about dinosaurs is how they reveal the hard limits of what we, hairless apes newborn to this planet, can ever really know about the world.
Dream of the month
I’m breaking my own rule here, because this time our dream of the month actually has quite a lot to do with the general theme. Jack writes:
In the dream I am a visitor to a strange land. A desert landscape. In this land there are multiple groups of people living separately from each other on the edge of a large body of water, like the Dead Sea but not. The landscape is chalky white. Dry heat. They are ultra-Essenes or something. White robes, mumbling, praying all the time. Classic sectarian weirdos.
Every group shares the same taboo: do not, under any circumstances, step on the ground. Each interprets this in different ways. Some have built houses on stilts, with complex wooden walkways in between; others have dug deep under the ground and live in cave systems. Others live on the water in a floating boat village and won’t touch dry land at all. They all think of ‘the ground’ as a slightly different thing, but all agree that stepping on the natural rock and mud and dust that make up the top layer of the earth’s surface is very very bad. If you touch this ground, something terrible will happen. I am a visitor to these places, I don’t know how I am moving around but I suppose I am floating, not wishing to offend my hosts. I obviously think this whole not stepping on the ground thing is quaint and ridiculous.
However, one day someone accidentally steps onto the desert surface. I see it happen. When the person lifts up their foot they leave behind a footprint-shaped pile of fresh pomegranate seeds. They glisten in the sun. Beautiful. Everyone is horrified. I am totally amazed.
Now, however, within the dream logic of this world, it emerges that stepping on the ground causes this small pile of seeds to instantly double in size. Quite soon it's huge, still retaining its footprint shape. Suddenly I am swimming on the surface of a massive footprint-shaped pile of pomegranate seeds, desperate to reach the edge before it doubles in size again, which it duly does and, presumably about to drown or suffocate, I wake up.
Jack suggests that ‘it might just be a sex dream.’ I’m not so sure. We can get the obvious interpretation out of the way: this is, like maybe every dream, a death dream. This white, parched, desert ground where nothing grows: Hades, the lifeless earth. The ground, not as ge, but as chthon. But what about the pomegranate seeds? In the Homeric hymn, Hades abducts Persephone, the beautiful goddess of green and growing things, and brings her into this underworld. Eventually the gods intercede and he’s compelled to release her, but before she goes he forces something into her mouth. She will not be able to enjoy the upper world for long, because she has eaten the fruit of Hades. ‘The berry of the pomegranate, that honey-sweet food.’
But the part that really interests me today is the prohibition: do not step on the ground. When we dream, we usually imagine ourselves to be somewhere, in a particular place and a particular space, moving around. We spend two-thirds of our lives in this world, and one-third in the other one. The other world has cities, deserts, villages, streets and roads leading from Place A to Place B. It has no actual dimensions, but it feels like it does. What kind of a world is this? Where are we, really? Do our feet ever actually touch the ground?
Most dreams take place in very familiar scenes. Children dream about going to school. When they grow up, a lot of them continue to dream about going to school. In the Atlantic, Kelly Conaboy writes about the strange persistence of school-dreams among fully grown adults. At night, someone who hasn’t been in education for decades suddenly ‘has to rush to an exam after having overslept, or they can’t find their classroom, or they prepared for an exam by studying the wrong subject, or they sit down for an exam and the text is in hieroglyphics, or they show up to school nude.’ I’ve had a few of these myself. The other world, which is infinitely plastic, is mostly made up of very ordinary stuff. Schools, offices, supermarkets, occasionally public transport. But sometimes, you get to probe its more distant corners. Sometimes you can go on a trip.
Last time, I asked you to send in your dreams of distant or fantastic places. I also mentioned that I’d been having quite a few dreams set in China. If you’re trying to run some kind of scientific survey, this is exactly the kind of thing you must never do. Nearly half of the dreams you sent in were also set in China, and now I can’t be entirely sure whether this is because you’ve simply been dreaming about China, or because you’re all deeply suggestible and I can manipulate your most private dreams on a whim. One respondent mentioned that his girlfriend thinks he’s ‘started dreaming on request for SNAS.’ Still, I think it’s the former. China is big. And the China of the dreamworld also looms, big.
In his Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Thomas de Quincey writes about his opium dreams. First, he dreamed great fantastic cities and palaces. These dreams didn’t seem to have any particular narrative content; they just presented him with a vast and intricate space, domes and spires and endless secret staircases and passageways. Later, he started dreaming about bodies of water. First still, quiet lakes ‘shining like mirrors;’ then oceans. De Quincey started to worry when human faces started appearing in his dream-seas. ‘The sea appeared paved with innumerable faces upturned to the heavens—faces imploring, wrathful, despairing.’ But he knew he had to kick his opium habit for good when he started dreaming about Asia:
I have been every night transported into Asiatic scenes. I have often thought that if I were compelled to forego England, and to live in China, and among Chinese manners and modes of life and scenery, I should go mad. The mere antiquity of Asiatic things, of their institutions, histories, modes of faith, &c., is so impressive, that to me the vast age of the race and name overpowers the sense of youth in the individual. A young Chinese seems to me an antediluvian man renewed. In China, over and above what it has in common with the rest of southern Asia, I am terrified by the modes of life, by the manners, and the barrier of utter abhorrence and want of sympathy placed between us by feelings deeper than I can analyse. I could sooner live with lunatics or brute animals. All this, and much more than I can say or have time to say, the reader must enter into before he can comprehend the unimaginable horror which these dreams of Oriental imagery and mythological tortures impressed upon me. Under the connecting feeling of tropical heat and vertical sunlights I brought together all creatures, birds, beasts, reptiles, all trees and plants, usages and appearances, that are found in all tropical regions, and assembled them together in China or Indostan. From kindred feelings, I soon brought Egypt and all her gods under the same law. I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by parroquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas, and was fixed for centuries at the summit or in secret rooms: I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed. I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia: Vishnu hated me: Seeva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at. I was buried for a thousand years in stone coffins, with mummies and sphynxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.
De Quincey was writing in 1819, at a time when the British East India Company was busy shipping tens of thousands of kilos of his favourite drug into Chinese ports. A few decades later, when China tried to ban the trade, the Royal Navy forced opium on the country with a fleet of gunships and thousands dead. Still, it would be too much to imagine that this was de Quincey’s terrible deed, the one that had roused the fury of Isis and Osiris: that he was punishing himself in his sleep for his country’s sins, or that his repugnance for Asia was really a buried repugnance of Britain. It runs deeper: China seems to have a busy embassy in the other world. Last time, I briefly mentioned de Quincey’s friend and contemporary Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose orientalist poem Kubla Khan was dictated to him in a dream. I also have China dreams. And so do you.
I’ve written about one of my China dreams before, in Justin EH Smith’s Substack. (By the way, my stats page informs me that I have a 7% audience overlap with Justin—which, if I’m reading things right, means that 93% of you are somehow not reading his stuff. What are you doing? Go over there and sign up at once.) Here’s how it went:
I am standing in an airport in China, trying to buy a plane ticket from an automated kiosk. In my dream, Chinese currency comes in small square coins, each stamped with a different character. Every transaction is also a message. When you pay for something, you’re supposed to hand over the coins in a particular order, to compose a nice poem with your money. It’s especially polite to pay with a few lines praising the object you’ve just bought. In my dream, I keep searching through my pockets, but all my coins mean things like war or strife, and anyway, I can’t read Chinese. When I feed my coins into the terminal, an error message pops up onscreen. Apparently I have threatened to assassinate a local official. Armed police are on their way.
In another dream, a friend and I are exploring a dusty old brickworks somewhere in a half-abandoned industrial zone in China, full of clay-caked machinery and rusting iron poles. My friend finds a locked door and insists that we try to open it, which in a dream is never a good idea. Behind the door there’s a small, clean room, with a wide desk and a severe bureaucrat sitting behind it. She immediately starts upbraiding us for having entered this off-limits area, but not in words. She barks numbers at us, and we have to repeat those numbers back to her. The numbers refer to passages from the Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, each of which lays out an important rule we’d just broken. Ashamed, we repeat our numbers and leave.
I remembered just one of Mao’s rules. Number 411: ‘A good Communist does not inhale loudly when he speaks.’
Another Sam had a dream in a Chinese prison. They write:
By some bureaucratic mishap, I am imprisoned in a forced labour camp. It’s an enormous warehouse, immaculately clean, and all prisoners wear orange jumpsuits and live inside separate but quite sizeable cages. The ‘labour’ isn’t what I’d expected at all: it’s a series of pointless tasks, some of which aren’t totally objectionable, and all commands are issued via a slightly treacly sounding robotic woman’s voice (think of the TikTok voice): ‘Smile into this camera!’ ‘Wave at one of the other prisoners!’ That sort of thing. All of the guards are women, and many of them are trying to have sex with me. One tells me that it won’t last long: prisoners don’t get to shave or shower regularly, they have poor diets, they don’t exercise. What she means is—they get ugly fairly quickly.
One from an anonymous reader:
Dreamed I was trying to make a journey in a Chinese metro system. I looked at the map, which had an English translation, but I couldn’t work out how to get where I was going because every single line in the system is named the ‘Warming Splash of Whisky Line’ and every station is called ‘Refreshing Gin.’ Apparently this was a publicity stunt by a Chinese dating app that didn’t quite work out, but they can’t change it back until all the people who use the metro are happily partnered up. Everyone else here is just as lost as I am, but we all just sit in silence scrolling on our phones.
And from another:
Wandering out of the desert I come upon a trailer park by the banks of a muddy creek. Nothing here seems particularly Chinese, but I know that I am in China. I have to stay here because the Chinese government has declared me to be a ‘Sudden and Serious Contaminant.’ Inside my trailer there’s a gleaming and fully-functional biolab, with doctors and scientists in full PPE rushing around, shouting orders. They take samples of my hair and swab under my toenails, which are coated in deadly bacteria. Finally I get to examine the bacteria under a microscope. They are tiny homunculi, all bearing my face.
Uniquely, Mia’s China dream takes place in a specific city, Lengxing:
I’m visiting my (real) sister who (in the dream) has moved to the Chinese city of Lengxing. In my dream the entire city is a huge shopping centre arranged around a single atrium, hundreds of storeys tall and so wide you can see clouds moving in its upper reaches. My sister is living in a bridal wear store; her bed and a couple of personal items are hidden away inside the skirts of a particularly lacy dress. Everyone here lives like this, all the homes are tucked away in the merchandise. This means that whenever you buy something it makes someone homeless. I really want to buy my sister’s dress-house for my wedding, but if I do she’ll have to camp out in the basement parking lot which is damp and full of rats.
I remember falling into the atrium, though I’m not sure how. The first thing I did on waking was to google Lengxing to see what it’s really like. Turns out there’s no such place.
In George’s China dream, he’s working in a chicken factory:
All chickens are assembled in China. Chicken assembly is exactly what it sounds like: there’s a big plastic tub full of chicken bones that I have to arrange, and then I need to dip them in a big vat full of molten chicken flesh before a stamping machine puts on the skin. Once it’s done, you end up with a raw chicken. All the other workers at the factory are Chinese and they’re all smoking cigarettes, with flecks of ash continually getting mixed into the chickens as they’re being assembled. I try to raise this with my boss, who’s a huge fat guy with a big white beard; I say that it feels unsanitary and he gives me a weird look. ‘You people are eating these things?’ he says.
I think George’s dream gets at something important. We might be setting our dreams in China, but it’s those of us who spend our waking days in the barbarian hinterlands of the Central State who are eating these things.
The dream-China is made of baffling arbitrary systems, strange rules we have to follow without knowing why: a vast empire that does not make sense. But this is just how the other world is governed, in general. You could almost imagine that China functions as a kind of defence mechanism for the dream-work: if you’re dreaming, and you start to suspect that things seem a little too absurd, then the dream papers over the illusion by telling you that you’re in China, the land of obscure meanings and vast hidden bureaucracies where absurd things happen. And it’s true that China has been, and still is, governed by a vast, arbitrary, all-encompassing system of surveillance and control. Except—so is almost everywhere else. All the ‘Chinese’ features of these dreams are also perfectly ordinary facets of waking existence in the Western world. We perform banal actions for the approval of social media, anxious about our fading looks. We are lonely. Our lives are subsumed by retail experiences. These things would not show up in our dreams if they didn’t concern us. China is where we dream of ourselves.
There’s a long history here. Not all European writers had as dim a view of Chinese modes of life as Thomas de Quincey; the European Enlightenment was, in a sense, a project of Sinification. Thinkers like Voltaire and Leibniz deeply admired the rationalism of the Chinese imperial bureaucracy, with its open and universal exam system indifferent to feudal rank. So, by fits and starts, a similar system was built in Europe, mostly emerging out of the needs of a developing industrial bourgeoisie, but guided by the idealised China of the Western imagination. And when, a few generations later, this European system started to feel arbitrary and repressive, its arbitrariness assumed Chinese dimensions. You end up with Kafka’s Great Wall of China:
They set out from their houses earlier than necessary, and half the village accompanied them for a long way. On all the roads there were groups of people, pennants, banners—they had never seen how great and rich and beautiful and endearing their country was. Every countryman was a brother for whom they were building a protective wall and who would thank him with everything he had and was for all his life. Unity! Unity! Shoulder to shoulder, a coordinated movement of the people, their blood no longer confined in the limited circulation of the body but rolling sweetly and yet still returning through the infinite extent of China.
Kafka wrote this story in 1917, when his the bureaucracy of his own country—which was, at the time, the Dual Monarchy of Austria and Hungary—was busy throwing millions of lives at the barbed wire and machine-guns of the First World War. Blood rolling sweetly over the polluted mud and through rat-infested trenches. This was something very difficult to talk about. So you talk about somewhere else. You talk about Europe’s fantastic mirror-self, on the far edge of Eurasia. You talk about China.
This might work in the other direction too. I received one email from Wei, a reader in China who had dreams about the West:
I have a recurring dream in which I’ve decided to move to New York. (I went to college in the Bay Area about a decade ago but I’ve never actually visited the East Coast.) In my dream I have to carry all my furnitue and possessions on a train which will take me to America; most recently this included an enormous bed with a headboard made of solid wood covered in ornate American carvings. (Think pilgrims with muskets, that sort of thing.) I am cramped in my seat with this huge bed ocupying the whole row. When I get off at the station in New York the city is cold and filthy, frozen dead bodies piled up in all the doorways. I drag my furniture to my new American apartment, which looks exactly like where I live in Guangzhou. Even the huge bed is already there. Every time I’m totally surprised by this and utterly demoralised that I’ve brought all of these heavy things here for no reason.
The name ancient Chinese sources gave to the Roman Empire was Daqin or Great Qin: they had named it after the first Emperor of a unified China, Qin Shi Huang—which is to say, after themselves.
There’s another possible explanation for the preponderance of China dreams: China is in the news a lot, and our dreams will recycle elements from waking life. As it happens, I didn’t always dream so much about China; for a good chunk of the 2010s, I had dozens of dreams set in Syria. Back then my journal was a bit sparser than it is now, but here are some samples:
dream: my brother is getting married to bashar al-assad's daughter. big party in latakia. i wander away from the lights and festivities to stare miserably at the sea
dream: i have to go for my weekly shop but the nearest supermarket is a costco in the recently abandoned ruins of al-tanf
dream: i take a fun holiday in beseiged deir ez-zor, where the sole remaining industry is processing cat shit into tiny handbags
dream: i get mixed up with a gang of ruthless saudi foot fetishists masquerading as a syria relief fund
dream: i’m taking part in an air hockey championship in the desert. the syrian government is supporting me. they have posters of me shaking hands with assad. human rights groups want me to deliberately lose
So maybe it’s not surprising that after China, the most frequent dream-location in your reports from the other world was Ukraine. Matthieu dreamed he was in Macron’s entourage during a visit to Kyiv. Macron was staying in a ‘luxury bunker’ beneath the city, drinking brandy and smoking cigars; above ground, Kyiv was a sterile landscape of ancient ruins with half-broken Corinthian columns scattered in the dust. In an anonymous reader’s dream, they were operating the last hot dog stand in Mariupol. ‘Desperate families kept coming up to me, asking to help get their children out the country. I said I couldn’t help them, I was just there to sell hot dogs.’ Łukasz dreamed he’d joined the Polish Army to fight against Russia. At an airfield, ‘we stand in a circle and try to mimic the moves of some army guy displayed on a relatively small screen. It's implied that this grotesque drill is the only training that we'll get before we go to war. Everything looks stupid and sad.’
But sometimes the setting of a dream is meaningful in ways that are harder to decipher, like in this one:
I’ve been accepted as a Masterchef contestant, which means I have to fly to South America with Greg Wallace. It’s only a small plane, a 12-seater maybe, and at a certain point in the flight we dip suddenly and veer around: evasive action. The plane descends into some woods, where a man with a rocket launcher lazily opens fire. Not far off, I can see that the ‘other’ plane (carrying John Torode?) has been hit; it explodes into flaming debris. Greg Wallace is muttering furiously to himself: ‘Stop firing rockets, stop firing rockets.’ Avoiding another missile, we fly low, barely pulling up in time to avoid hitting a dilapidated housing block with more assailants firing guns from the roof. In the distance, bombs are exploding. But this place looks like it used to be nice, there are lots of well-ordered towns and quiet fields. I ask where we are. Greg Wallace replies, with his lips peeled back in terror: ‘Eastern Denmark.’
Stuck in Vienna, in a slightly decaying hotel full of tropical plants. I’m flat broke and all the borders in Europe are closed; there’s some crisis. At the breakfast bar they serve me two slices of bread covered in patches of mould. I complain but they tell me this is Möldenbröd, it’s an Austrian staple, and I’m an idiot for not knowing that. ‘You eat blue cheese, don’t you?’ So I munch dejectedly on mouldy bread and wake up feeling deeply ashamed.
Cora has had multiple dreams set in Iceland, where she’s never been. In one, Iceland is just off the coast of Antarctica, ‘jutting out from the ocean like a monstrous stalagmite.’ At the core of the block of ice was a small room, ‘having no ceiling, but walled on all sides by towering seracs,’ and containing dozens of exotic birds in cages. ‘One’s eyesight rapidly deteriorated in the room, due to an inability to tell the relative sizes of different objects.’ The same effect meant that this place ‘had never been photographed before;’ in fact, it was impossible to photograph. After thirty seconds in the heart of Iceland, Cora’s vision started to go blurry. Just before it went black, she saw these birds grow, filling her field of vision, brighter and more lurid and with human expressions, shining with a kind of cosmic consciousness far vaster than humans’.
(More—much more—on the room that can’t be photographed in the next section.)
Clearly, dream-places are not entirely like their real-world equivalents. I received two separate emails from people who dreamed about taking their girlfriends to Paris, which neither of them had ever been to while awake. But they seem to have visited very different places: the Paris of dreams is a protean, twisting city. In Cole’s dream, it’s ornate and enormous:
It’s night in Paris, a rainy noirish neon-lit night. During our stay we’re posted in an apartment building of gargantuan proportions, a huge stone edifice dripping with Art Deco filigree. Inside, among the other wonders, there’s a full-size Romanesque cathedral spread over six floors; the ceiling of each floor is vaulted with great coffered rotundas. But our room is quite small and poky, and also windowless, even if it does have some nice ornate touches. A solitary oil lamp gleams from one corner. My girlfriend bursts into tears: this isn’t what she’d expected, and if I want this Paris trip to be perfect for her I need to find us somewhere else. Eventually it transpires that our place looks this way because it’s actually inside one of the cathedral’s organ pipes.
Brad’s dream-Paris is not quite the same:
Although I know this place is Paris, it doesn’t have any of the familiar landmarks. There’s no Eiffel Tower or Arc de Triomphe, and while we do see Sacré-Coeur, it’s lost its stone façade and been rebuilt in yellow industrial brick. Paris is a small town surrounded by grey densely wooded hills and the Siene is a brown trickle. It looks a bit like West Virginia. My girlfriend and I eat dinner at a Shoney’s near the Louvre, which is a big sawmill although I’m aware it still has the Mona Lisa. There’s only one other customer there, a fussy-looking Frenchman wearing a cheap suit. My girlfriend tells me that we need to slip some deadly poison into his food. Not for any particular reason, it’s just a fun game.
Finally, Nick writes:
Having moved three continents across my life, my dreams often take place in cities, some describable, identifiable, others not so much. More often than not, though, they are contorted in some way—the ocean is inevitably ink-black, the sky pink or bloodshot, the streets winding and darkly unfamiliar.
Funnily, the ones that seem sharpest, most true to life, are cities I haven't been to. I remember with immense clarity trying to flag down a taxi in the centre of what I thought in my head was Mombasa, which distinguished itself from many other cities which have appeared in my dreams by virtue of its total mundanity. Traffic flowed, the weather was suitably warm and overcast, and I couldn't help but think on awakening that I was hardly dreaming at all. One of the most 'beautiful' dream-cities I visited was Dakar, which was awash in the languid yellow light of late afternoon, the streets were florid with bougainvillea, and I bathed in a pool at the centre of a crystalline mosque. I woke up happy and refreshed. In another I was walking along the footpaths in a city I knew was in the Himalayas, Leh or Thimphu, but decades into some sort of gentrification. I ordered a flat white from a blonde woman at a curry house. It was a little like an icy Phnom Penh, the footpaths were studded with stupas, and there were gleaming new condos stood watch over the city.
Of all the dreams of foreign places I’ve received, Nicks’s are closest to a particular genre of dream-writing. The master of this genre is HP Lovecraft, who alongside his more famous Cthulhu mythos gave us the Dream Cycle, with its pale WASPy protagonists vanishing at night into unknown lands:
When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of the gate of dreams. Prior to that time he had made up for the prosiness of life by nightly excursions to strange and ancient cities beyond space, and lovely, unbelievable garden lands across ethereal seas; but as middle age hardened upon him he felt these liberties slipping away little by little, until at last he was cut off altogether. No more could his galleys sail up the river Oukranos past the gilded spires of Thran, or his elephant caravans tramp through perfumed jungles in Kled, where forgotten palaces with veined ivory columns sleep lovely and unbroken under the moon.
And so on. What’s strange about these dream-worlds, really, is how un-dreamlike they are. In The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath there’s ‘the splendid city of Celephaïs in Ooth-Nargai beyond the Tanarian Hills’ and ‘the horrible stone villages on the icy desert plateau of Leng, which no healthy folk visit and whose evil fires are seen at night from afar’—but all of these places are very clearly the product of a waking imagination. They resemble this world far more than they do the other one: Celephaïs and Leng are points in fixed space, arranged in a stable geography. They have dimensions. You could make a map of the Dreamlands; many people have. But in actual dreams, that kind of a map is impossible. You could not make a strictly geographical chart of Cole’s Paris or Cora’s space-warping Iceland, or the city where every metro station is called ‘Refreshing Gin.’ Once, I dreamed I was being followed by a gang of aggressive birwatchers around North London. I ducked around a corner onto the Kilburn High Road, but in this dream Kilburn precisely resembles Derech Jaffa in Tel Aviv. White concrete buildings with peeling plaster; worse drivers; a hotter sun. It’s both, at the same time, because place in dreams does not work the way it does in waking life.
But why not? And why do we keep assuming that it should?