Strange News from Another Star, No. 3: Messages
An unclear communication from the other world
This is the third full instalment of Strange News From Another Star, a sort-of monthly collective investigation into dreaming. The last full edition was about dreams and death. It was also, at over seven thousand words, absurdly long—maybe too long, even for me. Free subscribers got what was essentially a full-length feature essay on dying in dreams, taking its cues from Freud and Kristeva, and featuring many examples sent in by readers. Paying subscribers got that, plus another full-length feature essay about dreams of the dead, with even more reader dreams, taking its cues from Homer, the Talmud, and the rogue Jungian James Hillman.
This month’s edition is about messages. It is slightly shorter. This time, all the user-submitted dreams are also on the other side of the paywall. Next month’s edition might be the same. It might not! For the best chance of receiving all the latest news and updates from the other world, consider upgrading to a paid subscription:
February’s SNAS will be about distant places, and in particular dreams about places you’ve never actually been before. There’s a slightly precious early-twentieth-century tradition of setting stories in fantastic dreamlands, those unreal geographies full of crystal cities with names like Ulthar and Thalarion. (Honourable mention to Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, though, who did it… differently.) Even now, when TV writers try to show us a dreamworld, what we end up with is usually depressingly twee: high spires with Gothic tracery; the inevitable dragon flying overhead. I am not sure anyone has ever actually had a dream that unfolded in that sort of place. (If you have, get in touch!) But I have had quite a few dreams set in China, despite never having actually been there, and more than a few of the readers’ dreams I’ve received have been set in China too. What does this mean? Is there someone in China dreaming a more deranged version of north London? Am I doing colonialism in my sleep? Is this what Xi Jinping meant with his ‘China Dream’ slogan? I’m excited to find out.
If you have an interesting dream of a faraway place you’d like to share—or if you’ve had any kind of interesting dream at all, or an interesting interpretation of any dreams submitted so far—you can 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:
A few more pieces of news:
I’ve been away in New York and Florida for a good chunk of the last month. Expect to hear more about both places before long, but while I was in New York I appeared on Our Struggle, a literary podcast that’s been profiled in the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, and whose previous guests include such luminaries as Will Self, Benjamin Moser, Sheila Heti, Geoff Dyer, and Gary Shteyngart. I’m told my episode is essentially unlistenable. It’s nearly two and a half hours long, and almost all of it is taken up by a rambling and pointless conversation about the snack platter the hosts provided, which consisted—for reasons that still aren’t clear—of some French cheese, a large salami, and an enormous block of white chocolate. Yes, I ate all three together. Yes, you can listen to me doing it. I also insisted that we not wear headphones during the recording, with the result that I’m almost inaudible, apart from when I’m crunching crisps directly into the mic. It’s basically an incredibly low-fi simulation of being forced to sit through someone else’s annoying conversation, which is apparently what you people want. Listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or wherever.
In the Spectator, I wrote about ASMR, that nice tingly feeling some people get when they listen to gentle rustling sounds, and the multi-million pound industry that’s developed to help people experience it. I have always found this entire thing to be deeply, deeply depressing, and hopefully the piece articulates why. I fully endorse the title.
And in First Things, I have a sort of potted biography of Bill Gates that’s also an essay about extremely rich people more generally, in which I question what it’s actually like to be a billionaire, and conclude that it’s probably a little like being a rock, or an earthworm, or some other dark insensate thing poor in world. There’s some of the obligatory leftist-writing-for-a-right-wing-publication Marx-quoting, but I think it’s a fun piece.
That’s all from the waking world. Into the night.
Dream of the month
My favourite reader dream since our last full edition is this one, from an anonymous reader:
A friend tells me her parents have just recently had a baby boy named Facloris and they are coming over to let us meet him. They arrive and the baby is perfect, better than perfect. Everyone agrees they’ve never seen such a beautiful child, but there’s something else I don’t say, and I have the sense that others are thinking it too: his laughter, his wails, even his crying have a musicality to them that seems at once terribly sophisticated and utterly alien. Just as they are leaving, Facloris’ mother picks him up to feed him and I notice something. Facloris is deformed. His entire body is made up only of his perfect head, two small unformed legs, and two unsightly bone spurs emerging from the lower back of his head, where anyone else’s neck might be.
Weeks later, I’m listening to a lecture on ancient Greek poetry. The lecturer is describing the greatest of the ancient Greek poets, none of whose works survive, but who, it is said, will return one day to usher in a great age of poetry. He clicks for the next slide and there he is: the head of a goat atop long, avian legs, and large wings coming from the point where the legs meet the head. His name is Efklaris. Could it be?
I want to ask my friend if she knows anything about this, but I decide that I’ll wait to see her and bring it up casually. We have a plan to go to the pub, but when I arrive she isn’t there. She can’t see people at the moment; she’s too upset. Facloris has died at just shy of six months.
Other people have met this Facloris before; Kafka wrote an entire short story about him. This is, in a way, the perfect dream, the dream about dreaming. Something is plopped in front of you: a mishmash, a sort of abomination, cobbled together from spare parts with all the important structures missing. It ought not to exist, but somehow it manages to be beautiful. (So many dreams seem to involve some kind of monstrosity, but in the dream it’s not remotely unpleasant and everything’s fine. See, for instance, the whale’s tail from last time.) This thing seems to reach to us from a very disant past. But only partway. Before long, the beautiful monster has to die, and it will not be understood.
We begin, as always, with the chemical structure of benzene. The benzene molecule is, as we all know, a ring of carbon atoms with alternating single and double bonds, each joined to a single hydrogen atom. This structure was discovered by the great theoretical chemist August Kekulé; what’s unusual is how he discovered it. After months of fruitless effort, he fell asleep in front of his work one night in 1865, and had a dream of the ouroboros: the Gnostic and alchemical symbol of a snake eating its own tail. He woke with a start. ‘It’s a ring!’ he exclaimed.
In The Kekulé Problem, his only published nonfiction essay, the novelist Cormac McCarthy asks a very old question:
Since the unconscious understands language perfectly well or it would not understand the problem in the first place, why doesn’t it simply answer Kekulé’s question with something like: ‘Kekulé, it’s a bloody ring’? To which our scientist might respond: ‘Okay. Got it. Thanks.’ Why the snake? That is, why is the unconscious so loath to speak to us? Why the images, metaphors, pictures? Why the dreams, for that matter?
Freud’s answer is that this dream-work takes place to smuggle repressed desires through our internal censor. But it’s hard to see what might be uncomfortably erotic about the molecular structue of benzene. McCarthy has a different view. The unconscious, he says, contra Lacan, simply doesn’t like or resemble human language very much. It is, after all, much older than language; the unconscious is ‘a machine for operating an animal,’ untold millions of years old. It managed fine without language for almost all of that time, and it still does now: as McCarthy points out, most of us don’t actually do our real thinking in language; we just use our conscious internal monologue to sum up what’s emerged from ‘this pool of we-know-not-what and give it a linguistic form so that it can be expressed.’ This thing you imagine yourself to be, this conscious mind, is really just a thin layer on the surface of the unconscious, whose sole function it is to robotically repeat whatever the deep pool inside you chooses to divulge.
(The implication, which we’ll probably end up returning to at some point, is that animals—who (mostly) do not speak, and who (possibly) lack the interface of consciousness—are in some sense always dreaming.)
This idea can lead to some strange places. Almost every human society that’s ever existed has assumed that dreams are, at least sometimes, a message delivered to and for us, from some mystical outside entity. For the most part, this is what we still believe; we’ve just replaced the gods and spirits with our own unconscious minds. The point is still to unpack and interpret its communications. But McCarthy suggests that the dream is not really for us at all. It’s the unconscious working by itself, and for its own ends. When we sleep, we get to directly experience the prelinguistic animal-mind churning away beneath the surface of ourselves—but here we are intruders. This might explain why we forget so many of our dreams so soon after waking up. To dream is to step on sacred ground, where we were never meant to walk.
This is a fascinating idea, but it’s not what we’ll be pursuing today. Today, I’m interested in the counter-examples. Because sometimes, the unconscious really does seem to be talking directly to you.
This can sometimes even take place in the waking world. In 1984, a woman living in the UK began to hear voices in her head. They told her not to be afraid, and that they wanted to help her. She was extremely afraid. She sought emergency psychiatric treatment, and was duly diagnosed with functional hallucinatory psychosis and prescribed thioridazine. The antipsychotics silenced her voices, until one day they suddenly returned, with more news. The voices informed her that she had a tumour in her brain, and gave her an address in London that turned out to belong to a CT department. They told her to walk in and demand a brain scan. She was refused, because this is not how hospitals work, but her psychiatrist eventually requested the brain scan anyway. The point was to reassure the patient and prove to her that these voices were not conveying any useful information. But the tumour was there. A meningioma six centimetres long, extending clear through one brain hemisphere and into the other. After the tumour was removed, the patient heard her voices one last time. ‘We are pleased to have helped you,’ they said. ‘Goodbye.’
I should point out here that this story did not first appear in one of those bright-pink magazines with headlines like ‘I KILLED my abusive dad—now he’s COME BACK as a CROW.’ You can find it in the British Medical Journal, volume 315, pp. 1685-6.
Sometimes a dream will conjure a specific piece of information and practically scream in your face that this is important, that you need to pay attention to this. There is an object you’re looking for, a piece of paper, an email, a message. Borges gives us an instance in The Secret Miracle: