F. Scott Fitzgerald


Dreams do not readily lend themselves to theory, even though they are often theorised about: they are not a grand edifice on strong foundations. They are the house built on sand: ‘Þa com Þær regen and michel flod’–then came rain and a great flood. Always that line from Matthew vii, 24-27 in the Anglo-Saxon Bible arises when I think of dreams: it is a metaphor and an old rhythm that says what a dream is: a house where the walls wash away, and the floors and the roof.

Dreamthread is a series of miniature essays, dreambubbles on this inexhaustible topic. In future, you may find that I add other dreamthreads onto The Casket, or I may not (dreams are capricious in keeping promises) but here I at least make an idle start. Below are a few little reveries with their warped surfaces and dangerously alluring colours. And bring your lifejacket: there are sirens out on them there dreamseas.

i. Ted Hughes and the Manfox

Teachers aren’t allowed to teach dreams. We actively discourage dreaming in lessons, bullying the students to ‘concentrate’ and ‘get on with the work.’ But this teacher is a dreamer, and for dreamer read ‘anarchist of the imagination’;’ night pilgrim’; ‘disciple of Queen Mab’. My theories about pedagogy are few and simple, but one of my treasured ideas is that the closer a lesson is to seeming like a dream or beast of the mind, then the better that lesson is. To be a beast of the mind, the lesson has to be one where the imaginative boundary between teacher and pupils is blurred, and all share the dreamscape, all become the beast. Most of the lessons that happen this way (I do not teach this kind of lesson, incidentally; they occur without anyone’s conscious will) take poems as their starting point.

Only yesterday, I taught a lesson on Ted Hughes’s ‘The Thought Fox’ to my higher ability year 8 group. Before looking at the poem itself,  we chatted about Hughes’s ‘Manfox’ dream. I told them that, in the dream, Hughes describes how he is struggling with an undergraduate essay he is writing on Samuel Johnson. As he tries to write, in walks a fox on hind legs, looking like a small man. This fox, this Manfox, is on fire, his skin bloody, black and charred. Manfox walks to Hughes’s desk and places his bloody and blackened handprint on the paper of  the unfinished essay, and tells Hughes: ‘Stop this! you are destroying us.’

For my money, this has to be one of the most beautiful dreams I have ever heard described, and so seduced am I by it that a strange thing happens me when I tell its story. Hughes’s dream is such a powerful idea, of the poetic muse rising to the surface of the poet’s mind in order to save his poems and therefore the poet himself, that as I spoke to the students, I felt I was Hughes: Ted Hughes, now ten years dead, but, through the sorcery of his dream, fiery and alive. Thanks to his night-magic, even the most fidgety children in the group listened: they always sense when you are opening a door into a world they do not yet know.

ii. A Game of Cards

I had a great dream about Elizabeth Bishop once. We were playing cards on an old rickety blue-top card table I used as my first proper desk as a child. I gushed about how much I admired her work, and she said ‘Don’t imitate me. Change your hand.’ The conversation was so vivid, and the dark colours so sharp that I’m in the dream now and again now as I write this. Her face blended into the darkness but her voice was ashy, asthmatic and clear. This was years ago, but it felt like such a blessing at the time and still does: my Manfox dream.

iii. Charles Lamb Dreaming

‘Witches and Other Night Fears’ was on the syllabus of my Romantic Literature MA at Manchester, and I vividly remember the tutorial. My teacher Grevel Lindop read aloud Lamb’s description of the dream where Lamb starts off sporting with nereids and ends up being ‘wafted’ down the Thames to Lambeth Palace. Lamb tells us that ‘the poverty of my dreams mortifies me’ and Grevel commented: ‘well, if that’s poverty, I’d be quite happy to be as poor as Charles Lamb.’  Quite, especially when the essay closes with observations like these:

 an old gentleman, a friend of mine, and a humorist, used to carry this notion so far, that when he saw any stripling of his acquaintance ambitious of becoming a poet, his first question would be, —“Young man, what sort of dreams have you?”

The ‘notion’ to which Lamb refers is also lovely: ‘The degree of the soul’s creativeness in sleep might furnish no whimsical criterion of the quantum of poetical faculty resident in the same soul waking.’ The brain’s reservoir of making, a dream is colour and memory refashioned. Light like liquor.

iv. Dream-colours

Normally we know when a dream is important because of the type of colour it uses. If a dream looks like precious and semi-precious stones (but always including a very shiny jet colour somewhere to add weight and melancholy) then we should know of that dream that it is the mind is at its most wild, lovely and truthful. As for melancholy, I should perhaps have stolen from Byron and said ‘lemancholy’– his word for the sadness involved in love–as there is always an erotic element when those colours are present, even if the dream is not overtly sexual.

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Dreams are never finished. You never hit the ground. You open a door and nothing lies beyond it. Think of the half-built sets in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon: the head of Shiva drifting on the flood.

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‘You’ve made a blog…Clever boy! Next: flushing.’

Don Paterson

Blog. Such an unattractive word, along with its unlovely sister, blogroll, but perhaps appropriate enough for the secretions that make their way onto many websites. Blogs range from the quirky and literate to the downright loopy– why are so many religious fundamentalists dedicated bloggers? Perhaps the blog offers a kind of virtual pulpit for creationists and other types of religious eejit, a pulpit where crackpot ideas are more often affirmed than challenged.  As a ‘blogger’ (ugh, I wish those scare quotes were a pair of tweezers) I wish that the name for writing one’s thoughts down in the form of an electronic essay, available for the public to read on demand, had been better chosen. The French do it more elegantly, or they are trying to: the boys on the burning deck of  the Académie Française want the French to call blogs ‘jouebs’ whilst their French-Canadian camarades prefer ‘blogue.’ (1) The Canadian option is suave, the French is naughty and intellectual–it sounds as though it was invented by the shade of Roland Barthes, fascinated in the afterlife by le plaisir de la toile, the pleasure of the net–‘joueb’ being short for ‘un journal web.’ At least with with ‘joueb’ there are playful connotations (jouer) rather than scatalogical ones.

‘Joueb’ is a word I’m tempted to adopt here not least because it chimes with the serious play I wanted to be in evidence on The Casket. When I began, I did not imagine that this would be the kind of web log of events and feelings, the boring blogtease in evidence on so many sites. Instead, I wanted a more formal version of a writer’s notebook. The Casket is a room for improvised observations; for ‘working without really doing it,’ as Elizabeth Bishop once described letter-writing; or, for the bonsai or capsule essay. I wanted it to be the sort of place where William Hazlitt, Samuel Johnson and the other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century essayists might want to kick their shoes off and sit down, alongside– in conversation and play with–other modern idlers, punks and thinking wastrels. Guy Garvey has a chinwag with Samuel Taylor Coleridge; John Keats plays pingpong with Nick Cave; that sort of thing.

That’s the Dream bit. The reality of writing here is always tempered by that toile of readers, and the ways in which you suspect you are being read. WordPress provide the blogger with stats, raw data, which give an insight into possible clusters of interest: the fans of Dude Lebowski often stumble here because of my Clive James piece, which happens to mention him; college kids, I guess, writing about F Scott Fitzgerald, stop by to read my comments on Tender is the Night. Nick Cave fans, Leonard Cohen fans drop in for some duende. But most readers are text-tourists, looking for something else. Search terms tell me that what they are looking for is often information about ‘people in caskets’ or ‘dreams of dead people in caskets’ or ‘images of virile beautiful men’ (that will be the Rufus Sewell essay I wrote when I first started). Occasionally, I now get searches directed at ‘Casket of Dreams’ itself, which is flattering, but generally, most Casketeers arrive here in some kind of hurry; possibly bewildered, but always wanting the answer to a question.

On the whole, I’m glad they do show up. This despite the fact that the feedback they leave is seldom edifying. Comments by readers are usually pretty useless:  the flatterers  usually want you to visit their joueb in return; the nitpickers are equally self-important (‘How dare you assert that The Arctic Monkeys are talented self-publicists?’  with best wishes from their manager, etc). Yet how long do my visitors stay, and what do they flick through, what consider? My stats cannot, thankfully, tell me that. Still, whether you are looking for images of the dead in caskets, or whether you want to think about saudade or negative capability, you’re welcome. F. Scott Fitzgerald is sobering up next door in in time for the final of scriptwriters’ pingpong, where he meets William Faulkner in the Hollywood grudge match of the century. Mark Rothko is talking primitivism and abstraction with Elizabeth Bishop over a glass of grog by the fire. So stop awhile. Put your feet up. The weather is drawing in, and in any case, there is plenty we have to catch up on.

(1)http://www.petiteanglaise.com/archives/2004/11/08/french-blogging-vocab/

F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

Today’s Lesson is taken from The Gospel of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night, Book I, Chapter XII. Fitzgerald’s work must properly be described as a Gospel, even if the news he brings is so melancholy it is difficult to describe as good. How can we describe the force of prose like this except in terms of revelation?

The semi-booth gave on the vestiaire and as Rosemary hung up the receiver she heard two low voices not five feet from her on the other side of a row of coats.

“—So you love me?”

“Oh do I!”

It was Nicole—Rosemary hesitated in the door of the booth—then she heard Dick say:

“I want you terribly—let’s go to the hotel now.” Nicole gave a little gasping sigh. For a moment the words conveyed nothing at all to Rosemary—but the tone did. The vast secretiveness of it vibrated to herself.

“I want you.”

“I’ll be at the hotel at four.”

Rosemary stood breathless as the voices moved away. She was at first even astonished—she had seen them in their relation to each other as people without personal exigencies—as something cooler. Now a strong current of emotion flowed through her, profound and unidentified. She did not know whether she was attracted or repelled, only that she was deeply moved.

Rosemary Hoyt, Fitzgerald’s eighteen-year-old starlet, isn’t the only one to be moved here. We move—a very long way down—with her. In this novel,  not one breath, not one heartbeat of Nicole or Dick Diver seems to escape us. Wherever they fall, we fall too. No other novelist I can recall gifts us their characters’ every move in this way, or so sensitises us to their pain. I can’t quite tell you how he does this, except that the technique has something to do with reversals. Here, Rosemary, in love with Dick (and also a little in love with Nicole) eavesdrops as if she were witnessing an extramarital affair. What she discovers is a marital desire so desperate (“Oh do I!”) the words used to utter it drop like discarded clothing to the ground and only the ‘tone’ is left (what a sleight of hand on Fitzgerald’s part: to strip from us words and leave us with only the breathing pitch and weight of two turned-on human voices). The satin surface Fitzgerald’s prose is torn and we plunge into a kind of terror. So this is what desire is, Rosemary discovers, and she, like us, hardly knows what to do with the revelation. Dick and Nicole’s desire moves away from her, in its rolling storm, and now she is ‘breathless,’ she is ‘moved.’ Whatever Dick and Nicole had has struck her, and because Fitzgerald is so precise with his imprecise abstractions (‘tone,’ ‘unidentified,’ ‘did not know’, ‘deeply moved’)  the lightning jumps straight from Rosemary to you.

Fitzgerald can do these fierce and airy things because he is primarily so earthy, sensual and fleshy. He spends most of the time giving you the sad joy of feeling a world blossoming under your outstretched fingertips:

Dorothy Perkins roses dragged patiently through each compartment slowly waggling with the motion of  the funicular, letting go at the last to swing back to their rosy cluster. Again and again these branches went through the car.  (Book II, Chapter VIII)

Feel that? If I raise my hand to my face right now I swear I almost get the scent of those old-fashioned pink roses, and I get Fitzgerald in a funicular somewhere, being brushed against by rose after rose, doused in pollen— caught, possessed by roses dancing. Sentences like that tell you how a man lived. If he perceived roses (with touch, scent, sound, sight, almost with taste) in this way, how could he even bear to breathe?  The overheard conversation near the vestiaire shows he could hardly stand it. The sensual world drops away, leaving him with longing, insatiable and vast.  In that scene, it’s as if we see him falling out of the frame of the dear world: and, grasping our hands, he takes us with him. He is Rosemary, Dick, Nicole, his astonished readers. No wonder Fitzgerald drank: he drank to blur a world that hurt him second by precious, agonizing second.