Online Edition: Fall 2009

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 Rapid Eye Movement

 Peter Jaeger

 Reality Street Editions (£9.50)

 by Chris Pusateri

To mention dreams in the age of postmodernism seems curiously anachronistic. As a means for creating poetry, dreams have more in common with older forms of creative practice than with anything contemporary. The word evokes modernist and early postwar experiments—everything from Freud’s psychoanalysis to Breton’s mining of the subconscious to Ginsberg’s neo-romantic daydreams of William Blake.

As its title indicates, Peter Jaeger’s Rapid Eye Movement concerns itself primarily with the act of dreaming. The text of the book is divided into two horizontal bands: one in the upper half of the page and another in the lower half. Each section of text is taken from different sources: the upper half derives, as the flap copy explains, from “dream narratives recorded by historical and contemporary dreamers.” The bottom half integrates found material, spanning a wide range of social discourses—everything from poetry to opinion pages to philosophical texts, composed by such disparate figures as Slavoj Zizek, John Wieners, and Sting—the only stipulation being that each appropriated sentence must incorporate the word “dream.” Taken as a whole, this book serves as “a record of our culture dreaming.”

If Rapid Eye Movement is a cultural document, then we should first consider the function of written records. In its simplest sense, a record is an aid to memory (whether personal, institutional, or societal) but it also discriminates: that is, it includes certain details at the expense of others, and as such, forwards a particular version of events. Like history itself, it acts not only as a record, but also as a filter.

Human physiology also serves this dual function of tableaux and siphon. Freud, Huxley, and others have written that human consciousness functions as a sieve that filters out the vast majority of physical stimuli. In a stimulus-rich environment, where one is bombarded by more information that one can possibly process, such filtering is vital.

At first glance, the two bands of text in Rapid Eye Movement perform an exegesis, with the upper, more ethereal band being captioned by the lower band. Given its origins, the reader might hope that the lower section of text could provide statements about how our culture conceptualizes this most irrational of subjects. But Jaeger’s parataxis—the placing one found piece of text next to another—renders impossible any overarching explanation.

On the one hand, we have first-hand accounts of the dreamers themselves. These statements retain the ethereal qualities of dreams, in which one fantastic episode dissolves into another.

Babies juggled limes inside me. There was a crayon drawing (on brown paper) of a figure on a seesaw—I think it was me? Gandhi and I ran barefoot across a burning racetrack, miles wide. My house, four columns and eight beams, was cracked like the ears of an old donkey. I fell from the roundabout into a pool of strawberries.

It is from this pool of strawberries that we descend to the lower strata: secondary materials whose uses explain, or in some way illustrate, how we conceptualize dreams and dreaming. There we might find a passage like this one:

What is dreamt in a dream after waking from the “dream within a dream” is what the dream-wish seeks to put in the place of an obliterated reality. In the following dream the older man is a ship’s captain who threatens the dreamer but as in a former dream the punishment is deflected onto his girl. Dreams, books, are each a world, and books we know.

What we know of the book, however, is called into question by Jaeger’s compositional procedures. His use of parataxis interrupts the unitary narrative voice, and in doing so, allows dreams to cannibalize the very discourses that seek to explain them. As a result of this narrative strategy, the texture of the entire book becomes dreamlike. After a while, the reader might be excused for occasionally confusing the upper band of text with the lower.

But beneath the dreamlike texture and shifting surfaces sounds a more sinister note. It relies upon that other definition of dream, the one in which a dream is an aspiration, a desire, a highly idealized notion of the future. Those who perform the strange and rare alchemy that turns the stuff of nighttime into a condition to be experienced are said to be living the dream. Defined thus, a dream is transformed from a subconscious event into a condition to be possessed, like “[c]ut off pictures without the dream.”

William Blake famously wrote that gratified desire is the death of passion. The object of desire loses its allure as soon as it is attained, and once possessed, can be idealized no longer. It takes its place among other items of the world and what remains is no longer dream: it is life itself, in all of its splendor and mundanity.

The myriad authors whose texts form Rapid Eye Movement each contribute a small particle to the narrative. The intonations blend together and are subsumed into a kind of lower-limit speech, a white noise which is everywhere and nowhere. Multitasking, media, and speed comprise the world we know. It’s been said that ours is a society estranged from the act of dreaming, but one whose waking hours curiously resemble that nether region between sleep and dream: subways, workadays, clockwatching, TV watching, readymade meals, bedtime: rinse and repeat. Most people, however, are quite familiar with aspirations (most of them tethered, in some way, to material security)—which, as the economy folds and takes with it hopes of capitalist plenty, seem, for most, an ever more remote possibility. In other words, an impossible dream.

For all our talk of dreams, psychologists tell us that we dream less now than ever, and they attribute this, in large part, to troubled sleep, itself the product of saturated days. If Jaeger’s book is a cautionary tale, it may well represent a nascent kind of superrealism: one that warns us to be careful of what we wish for.


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