Waukendremes, 1

An interesting blog post from Richard Gwyn about the not uncommon experience of falling asleep while reading reminds me I’ve been exploring a few angles of this phenomenon over the years.

That odd-to-and-fro relationship of reader to writer, and of writer-as-reader to the text struck me particularly when I dropped off before a reading in Galway, and woke up with the idea for Omnesia, a book partly about just this sort of doubling, about the books you have in your head, your own as much as other people’s.

The condition is, I think, well-described by the Scots word ‘waukendreme’: you don’t quite know where the reality, if you can call it that, begins.

I’d just been noting that I was doubling my library – buying copies of Don Quixote and that already-doubled book, Confessions of a Justified Sinner, for the flat I’m maintaining in Dundee while I’m Makar, and while I’m writing/trying to write my McGonagall novel.

And I’d been looking, of the purposes of writing a blog entry, for a note about the phenomenon of doubling or echoing previous houses, modes of life, habitudes, when I’d spotted a couple of instances of nap-related (or more generally slewed-) thinking which echo Richard’s point.

(The Slew is something else again which I’m trying to write about in terms of compositional strategies, so perhaps this’ll encourage me to shift my conceptual arse. Certainly it looks like there are two or three potential posts gathering around these ideas.)

Here’s the first note. It was written in July last year on our writing holiday in Crete, when we were in the habit of having a siesta:

I was dropping off to sleep this afternoon when Debbie woke me by closing a shutter, and I realised I’d been “watching” a programme in which three people dressed up as their favourite characters from a book and answered questions about that book or its author.

The format was a not unfamiliar cross between say Mastermind and cosplay, but the interesting element was that in the few seconds I’d actually been asleep, this quiz had become a long-running ‘classic’. 

(One of the contestants was Sancho Panza, in that sense that, somewhere in every dream, a part of Don Quixote continues to unfold.)

The readiness of the sleeper to accept the dream, as well as the rapidity of the invention, is what particularly  fascinates me. On the one hand, there is that first, purest suspension of disbelief, that one is not asleep, which includes suspending disbelief in the coherence or otherwise of the elements of the dream, and perceiving it as, somehow, narrative.

On the other, I’m always amazed by how limitless the capacities of the creative impulse are once our limiting sense of the self is set aside. As Nietzsche observed, there are vast spaces between what appear to be our most reasoned or reasonable ideas.

– I’ll dig out that Nietzsche quote and update this when in the office tomorrow. For the moment, here is the second instance, which is a sort of love prose-poem – (there’s half a temptation to call it ‘Visions of Deborah’):

Waking from a mid-afternoon nap, I’m looking down on the vegetable garden from our balcony in Emprosneros, and I see Debbie moving among the dreels of peppers and aubergines, and tomatoes, her red hair catching the early evening light. 

My attention must drift for a moment in the cooling breeze coming up the valley because the next thing I know she’s on the path just below me, some cucumbers in the red colander. 

For a further bizarre second it seems to me she is in both places at the same time, like those hagiographic paintings in which the same bright figure reappears at several points in a landscape, performing its sequence of miraculous duties. 

Thus the eye tricks the mind into learning something about what the heart must be feeling.

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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